It happened again earlier this year as it has in years past: Andy Cirzan woke up one morning, stared at the ceiling and thought, “Oh, s—, I’d better start.”
A longtime employee of and the vice president of concerts for Chicago-based promotion company Jam Productions, Cirzan is a self-described “obsessive” record collector who travels the country and world searching for rare vinyl — jazz, blues, rock, soul. His collection has grown so large that he must house it (alphabetically, by genre) in temperature-controlled storage units.
During his digging he often uncovers Christmas-themed gems, the vast majority of them — such as “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus” and “Christmas 2001: A Space Age Adventure” — written and performed by little-known or unknown artists. From the best of those finds, he creates annual CD compilations for hundreds of family members, friends and colleagues. Prior to the invention of CDs, he used cassette tapes. As ever, if nowadays more slickly and expensively, he pens the liner notes, designs and prints the covers and makes sure to keep his burgeoning mailing list current.
Next year, the 57-year-old Cirzan half-jokes, he might include a postcard on which recipients can indicate their desire to stop receiving his labor of love. And it is, he admits, a laborious undertaking — much more so now than when he first hand-delivered a mere 10 cassettes to close friends 27 years ago.
“Sometimes I delude myself into thinking, ‘I have to do this because people want this,’ ” he says from behind the uncluttered desk of his Old Town office. “But it’s probably more like I really want to do it and I’m deluding myself into thinking it’s really important,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s probably somewhere in the middle. And I have to be honest: Part of it was the whole idea that these songs exist in the bottom of a record bin somewhere … and this one 45’s been sitting there for 20 years and I find it. And I go, ‘I really love this.’ And I put it on my mix and then it goes into the interweb and gets to live a life again.”
Cirzan is referring to his popular yearly Holiday Spectacular segment on the public radio show “Sound Opinions,” which emanates from the studios of WBEZ-FM (91.5) in Chicago. For more than a decade, alongside the nationally syndicated program’s co-hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, he has shared his rarities via airwaves and interweb with countless thousands of listeners. On Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 9 p.m., he’ll share them live at Logan Hardware Records (2410 W. Fullerton) with co-host and fellow Jam staffer John Soss.
Now he’s also part of a documentary called “Jingle Bell Rocks!” Directed by a man named Mitchell Kezin, who also plays a central role on camera and whose Christmas record obsession rivals Cirzan’s, it screens at the Jam-operated Vic Theatre in Chicago Dec. 19-25. Famous co-stars include the film director John Waters, radio host Dr. Demento, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons from Run-D.M.C.
The Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
As DeRogatis notes, “There has been a Christmas underground for a long time — people looking for that sort of stuff and trumpeting that sort of stuff. Serious musical collectors have been doing this now for 30 years, and they’re hard-core about it.”
DeRogatis, who briefly appears in the documentary, says Cirzan “might buy 100 records, hoping to find one or two things each batch.”
Horrible holiday songs are legion, and many (particularly of the modern era) are blatant money grabs by artists hoping for a recurring income stream. So what qualities make a Christmas tune good?
Cirzan and DeRogatis agree that genuineness, a certain purity of intent, tops the list. Musicality, presumably, comes in second — though judging by some of Cirzan’s 2014 selections, not always a close second.
“I think that it has to be a certain seasonal spirit, but it can’t be all the cheesy clichéd things,” DeRogatis says. “Anything with sleigh bells — forget it. It’s too easy, and been done by better than you. Give it up. So you’ve really got to work and be creative to come up with something that has a seasonal mood but is not a seasonal cliché.”
His personal preferences include “anything having to do with Santa dodging UFOs or ballistic missiles.” Also: “Anything having to do with Dad dressing up like Santa but being stinking drunk and ruining the holiday is pretty classic. They say you can only write a great country song about losing your wife, losing your truck or losing your dog. But I think right up there is getting drunk and ruining Christmas.”
To hear Cirzan tell it, no one ever got drunk and ruined his Christmas; quite the contrary.
“No problems in my world other than ones I made for myself,” he says. “Nobody scarred me. But I remembered how much fun I had when I was a little kid — the whole Christmas thing. When I was 10, my brothers and I would be eyes like this [he holds eyes wide open] at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, waiting for the sun to come up. Because we were told, ‘If you get out of bed before the sun comes up your father may have to hit you with the belt.’ ”
Which may well be the title of a little-known Christmas song he has yet to find.