I was part of a psychological experiment once, in which I was asked to think of a year filled with good events, and write those events down. The year I chose was a recent one, and it was fun to recount activities and emotions that had happened.
Then I was asked to write down bad things that happened the same year. Surprisingly, I could think of quite a few. I can not remember what the rest of the test questions were, and I can not think what the purpose or focus of the test might have been. I am sure, however, that I can play the same game with Christmases past. If I can remember great ones(and I can), I’m sure that bad things were going on then, too, on some level(I think I keep Christmas squeaky clean in my psyche and consider my birthday some of the most emotionally troubling times of my life, even though they are only a week apart).
That being said, I can’t remember a Christmas this bad…
The album this song is from, American Stars ‘n Bars, is famous for two reasons. One reason is that Dean Stockwell(a friend of Young, naturally) made the album cover. The other reason is that it’s so stylistically meandering that many people will advise,” just get Decade and you’ll be fine without it…” You are informed, or warned, on the album itself that the songs were written 1974 and 1977, somewhere between the lamentable(“Mellow My Mind”) and the, um, fed up and weird(“Op-er-a St-ar”).
As proof that it is better to be closer to On The Beach than Hawks & Doves, “Star of Bethlehem” was recorded the earliest, in late ’74, and is one of the better tracks of the album(next earliest is the standout overdriven skwonk of “Like A Hurricane”). Emmylou Harris sings backup, and among the shuffling snare, harmonica breaks, and understated steel guitar, Neil pretty much sings about my psychology experiment:
“Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone?/All you have is memories of happiness/Lingerin’ on.”
At least he gives a glimmer of hope at the end. Well, maybe,
The last verses of the song are, “Yet still a light is shining/From that lamp on down the hall./Maybe the star of Bethlehem/Wasn’t a star at all.” Does he mean that whatever is waiting for him in the room with the lamp will save him from his mood, like the Christ child saves the pious? Does he mean that the “superstar” of Bethlehem isn’t so super after all, or none of his emptiness would exist? Hard to tell with Neil. Here’s to this Christmas being the former, not the latter.