Streisand's Christmas offering

December 12, 2001

By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY

When Barbra Streisand finished recording Christmas Memories on Sept. 7, she was satisfied that the album echoed depth and drama that went beyond a cozy celebration of the holiday season.

Four days later, those sentiments of love, friendship and selflessness took on an even broader reach. Like U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, Enya's A Day Without Rain and other uplifting music released before Sept. 11, Christmas Memories attained profound, and even prophetic, shadings in the wake of the terror attacks.

Streisand is no psychic, but she long sensed a coming catastrophe, and that apprehension may have cultivated the album's spiritual tone and quest for harmony.

"I can't explain it, but I had a feeling something was coming," Streisand, 59, says by phone from her home in Malibu, Calif. "And then, oh, my God, it's here, this nightmare, this horror. I was overwhelmed. But that tragedy brought out the best in people. I was so touched by the outpouring of human kindness and compassion, the basis of every great religion. There it was: sacrifice. You realize you have to live every day, every moment with the understanding of how fragile life is."

Christmas Memories, released Oct. 30, expresses that notion most dramatically in Closer, a song by Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow that Streisand dedicates to Stephan Weiss, late husband of designer Donna Karan. Streisand and hubby James Brolin spent last Christmas with the couple. After Weiss died of lung cancer on June 10, Streisand asked Pitchford to tailor the lyrics to reflect the loss of a loved one rather than a yearning to rekindle romance at Christmas.

"Stephan was a dear friend, an incredibly gifted sculptor, a great businessman and a wonderful human being who knew how to laugh," Streisand recalls. "I'm singing Closer about Stephan, but I was hoping it could relate to anyone who's lost someone."

In a sad postscript, Pitchford lost his sister in the World Trade Center atrocities. Jay Landers, who produced the album with Streisand, says the lyricist called him with the dreadful news on Sept. 11 and said, "For the first time in my life, no words come to me. The last words I wrote were for Closer, and they in a way became my sister's epitaph."

As Streisand groped for equilibrium after Sept. 11, her shock turned to uncertainty in matters both grave and trivial. She relates, "One day I tell myself, 'Screw everything, I'm getting a Carl's Jr. hamburger and eating fried chicken three nights in a row. I don't care about my weight.' The next day, my optimistic side takes over and I think, 'Wait a minute, life goes on, people will get wiser, justice will prevail. Maybe I should watch my diet.' I'm still in that state of confusion."

Christmas Memories, recorded primarily with a 90-piece orchestra, offers an unorthodox selection, including Stephen Sondheim's retooled I Remember, originally a non-holiday tune penned for TV musical Evening Primrose, and the obscure One God, which Streisand first heard at 16 on a Johnny Mathis album, 1958's Good Night, Dear Lord. She bought it for $1.95 in a supermarket.

"We debated about the direction of this album," says David Foster, who produced her version of Grown-Up Christmas List, which he co-wrote with wife Linda Thompson. "I said she should be doing familiar songs that people want to hear. She said, quite rightly, 'Everybody does that. I want songs that are meaningful to me.' As always, she had a definite vision and stuck with it. Consequently, it's a breathtakingly gorgeous album from beginning to end. She still hits the notes she was hitting 40 years ago."

Landers, her collaborator for 15 years, says they scoured their record collections and tapped select songwriters for input.

"Barbra's not interested in repeating what has been done by so many artists before her," he says. "But there are only so many ways to say 'Merry Christmas' in song, so it took quite a while to find music that resonated for her. A lot of people, including myself, suggested things like Winter Wonderland, but it became clear quickly that she wanted a lot more substance.

"Very few singers can invest the lyrics with an understanding of the writer's intention and then go beyond the writer's intention," Landers adds. "She envisions the whole record the way a director sees a movie. She performs the songs with the understanding of a great actress."

Streisand listened to roughly 100 Christmas songs, mostly while driving. She gravitated toward romantic ballads rather than uptempo recommendations like Let It Snow. "I can't sing it," she says. "It's not me. Other singers do that beautifully. I'm more comfortable singing ballads."

Christmas Memories, only her second holiday album, was recorded 35 years after A Christmas Album, a seasonal classic that has sold more than 5 million copies.

"I was actually a bit dissatisfied with my original Christmas album, which I made when I was pregnant with Jason," she says. "I was sick and had laryngitis, but we had an orchestra booked in London and I had to sing for three days. I never felt it was good enough, and I always thought I must do another one when I'm not hoarse."

Her perfectionism doesn't preclude multi-tasking. Though she has only a handful of songwriting credits, she'd like to compose a symphony. She's combing scripts in hopes of finding "a movie I can feel passionate about." She hasn't given up on raising finances for a film version of Larry Kramer's AIDS play, The Normal Heart.

Nor has she abandoned politics. In the patriotic aftermath of Sept. 11, she removed some anti-Bush tracts from her Web site and expressed support for the war effort. But she continues to speak out on the importance of speaking out.

"First and foremost, I am an American citizen," she declares. "And every American citizen has the right to voice opinions. It's dangerous when someone says, 'Watch what you say.' We're fighting a war in order to preserve our right to express ourselves freely. That's why the presidential election was so horrific. Every vote is supposed to count."

Though stung by last year's Republican victory, Streisand has faith in the Democratic Party "and its ideals to support working people over big business. It's hard to read about an economic stimulus package that gives billions in tax rebates to corporations that don't need them. We bail out the airlines, but the workers they fired got nothing."

She's determined to fight the myth that "government is bad" by reminding voters that the system "fights our battles, provides safety on airlines, buys smallpox vaccines, builds highways and parks, and ensures clean air and water."

The 2004 election looms as a thorny challenge. For now, Streisand's most beloved project is domestic bliss.

"You never see Barbra at Hollywood parties," Foster says. "She'd rather prune her roses.

"She's in love. She's got the man of her dreams. They both lucked out."

After adhering to a brutal work schedule for decades, Streisand is learning to draw boundaries.

"I'm enjoying having my own space," she says. "I can say, 'No, I have a life, a husband. I need private time.' I still find myself obsessed with things like designing the right cabinet for the new TV. It could take me several days to figure out how to frame this turn-of-the-century embroidered flag my son found on eBay."

Streisand may relish puttering in the garden and snuggling before a fire with Brolin, but she's not ready to retire, despite her permanent retreat from touring.

"I love music," she says. "Music celebrates life. It heals. It stirs the soul and eases the heart. It's such an incredible form of expression. I think I will always sing as long as my voice holds up."


Related Pages: Christmas Memories album page >>