For the past few Decembers, I’ve had a very silly but fun (for me at least) tradition on Twitter: Each and every day, I tweet a different lyric from “A Long December” by Counting Crows. I do this because (1) I love the song, obviously. Also, obviously, (2) it’s December! While it’s possible that (3) I just enjoy amiably torturing my followers, I like to think that (4) I’m actually providing a form of mass therapy.
This process of literally breaking down “A Long December” over and over has had at least one collateral effect: I’m pretty sure I have analyzed this song more than anyone on Earth, including the songwriter, Adam Duritz. As a result of my intense scholarship, I’ve concluded that “A Long December” is the greatest holiday song. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s — it applies to all of them and more.
To fully understand why this is so, it’s helpful to think of “A Long December” has four different songs — there is the literal “A Long December,” the figurative “A Long December,” the personal “A Long December,” and, finally, the holiday “A Long December.” I can’t remember how many times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass. Which is why I typed them out and am now sharing them with you.
Follow me into the canyons.
I. The Literal “A Long December”
“A Long December” is the penultimate track on the second Counting Crows LP, Recovering The Satellites. Released on October 15, 1996, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, on the way to eventually going double platinum. “A Long December” was the album’s second single, released (appropriately) on December 2. It proved to be the most popular track from the record, rising to No. 5 on the Modern Rock chart. A piano ballad with a “na na na” hook that evokes “Hey Jude” as well as Counting Crows’ own signature hit “Mr. Jones,” “A Long December” was kept from the top spot on the Modern Rock chart the following spring by songs such as U2’s “Discotheque,” Live’s “Lakini’s Juice,” and The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.”
As Duritz later explained to Rolling Stone, the lyrics were inspired by a personal story: His friend was involved in a serious car accident in 1995, and was forced to convalesce in a hospital for an extended stay. Duritz often visited him during this period. One night, after hanging out with some pals on the eve of another hospital visit, he wrote “A Long December.”
“It’s a song about looking back on your life and seeing changes happening,” he said, “and for once me, looking forward and thinking, ‘Ya know, things are gonna change for the better — maybe this year will be better than the last.’”
There are lines in the song that plainly spell out the source material — the one about “the smell of hospitals in winter” and the other one about driving “up to Hillside Manor sometime after 2 a.m.” and talking “a little while about the year.” There’s also stuff in “A Long December” that seems to have little to do with friends waylaid in hospitals after bad car accidents. But there is definitely nothing about holidays here. Let’s dig deeper.
II. The Figurative “A Long December”
Because it was a stand-alone hit, surely many more people have heard “A Long December” at a bodega, a gas station, or a Walgreens than on Recovering The Satellites. But if you have heard the album, “A Long December” likely has a slightly different meaning as a song about rock stardom.
Recovering The Satellites has a lot of songs about rock stardom, because — as you may or may not remember — Counting Crows was a very popular band in 1996. Their previous album, August & Everything After, was released in the fall of 1993 and took off the following year, moving 3.8 million units in 1994 alone. For comparison’s sake, that’s 500,000 more copies than Dookie sold that year.
As was the case with nearly every other alt-rock bard of the era, Duritz was deeply conflicted about his fame, and he put those feelings into the songs on Recovering The Satellites. “Daylight Fading” describes the loneliness of non-stop touring. The self-explanatory “Have You Seen Me Lately?” is about the weirdness of constantly hearing yourself on the radio. At the end of “Children In Bloom,” Duritz sings that he “can’t find my way home.” On the title track, he surmises that “all anybody really wants to know is / when you gonna come down.”
“The only way fame affected me was my songs, because I wrote about my life and my life was affected by becoming famous,” Duritz explained to me in 2012. “And I know everybody hates when people write about being famous, but you know, fuck you, I’m not supposed to impress you with how just like each other we all are.”
All of those songs I just mentioned precede “A Long December” on the album, and they color how the song is interpreted in that context. The references to “one more day in the canyons” and “one more night in Hollywood” instantly place it in the milieu of L.A. “rock noir” songs like Warren Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” or the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” in which the city is less a setting than an idea about feeling ugly and dark when everything around you is beautiful and sun-dappled.
In this interpretation, “A Long December” is about making it through the confusion and alienation of rock stardom and (maybe) learning to appreciate your newfound status. But what does this have to do with holidays? If you think you might continue reading, I think you should.
III. The Personal “A Long December”
As Duritz conceded in our interview, people love to complain about rock stars who complain about rock stardom in their songs. And by people I mostly mean “music critics.” But in reality, the magic of great songwriting is that the listener will likely relate to a song more if the lyricist writes from a hyper-specific point of view that might, superficially, seem only relatable to him.
“They find all kinds of things about themselves in those songs,” Duritz explained. “I don’t understand it. I do know that it’s true. People were talking at the beginning to stop using proper names, stop using particular places and details in your songwriting because people aren’t going to relate to that. But they’re wrong. Those details give those things truth, some sort of real weight.”
I was not a rock star when I first heard Recovering The Satellites. I was a college freshman who lived exactly 2,008 miles from Los Angeles, a city I had never visited at that time. And yet I found this album eerily relevant to my circumstances. The way Duritz described his lonely life on a tour bus matched my feelings about my lonely life in a dorm room, a square box that put me (metaphorically) “on the road” away from my home. I was in a long-distance relationship with my high school girlfriend, so the line in “Daylight Fading” about “waiting for the telephone to tell me I’m alive” resonated. I could tell our union was going south, so the part in “Goodnight Elisabeth” where Duritz sings “til I’m all alone, you ain’t coming home” also felt like someone writing my biography. (Technically, I was the one who wasn’t home, but still — I felt that.)
Finally, she dumped me in — you guessed it — December. Which perhaps explains why “A Long December” has always played like a breakup song to me. Duritz claims he was writing about his friend in the hospital, but the song actually includes more references to a girl who might just be a memory. My favorite lyric is about this specifically: “I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower / Makes you talk a little lower / about the things you could not show her.”
Winter in the midwest is significantly less beautiful and sun-dappled than winter in California. But all those Christmas lights hanging from trees and strip malls can shine brighter than the sun. The constant good cheer during this season isolates the desolate, and sends a deeper chill to those already out in the cold. You feel wrong in December if you are being screwed over (temporarily or not) by life. It makes you laugh a little slower and talk a little lower.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Just one more day up in the canyons, I promise.
IV. The Holiday “A Long December”
I wonder what Taylor Swift thinks of “A Long December.” On her 2020 album Evermore, there’s a track called “Tis The Damn Season” that’s about going to the town where you grew up during the holidays and realizing that you no longer belong there.
Here’s the part of “Tis The Damn Season” that reminds me a little of “A Long December”:
I parkеd my car right between the Methodist
And thе school that used to be ours
The holidays linger like bad perfume
You can run, but only so far
I escaped it too, remember how you watched me leave
But if it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me
This is such a common scenario — the time in your early 20s when you still hang out with childhood friends in your hometown during the holidays — that it’s odd to me that there aren’t more songs about it. But I think “A Long December” is (perhaps inadvertently) one of those songs. Only Duritz is less exact than Swift. I’ve heard “A Long December” countless times and I’m not quite clear on whether the person in the song is staying in Los Angeles in December or if he’s visiting L.A. (It depends on whether you hear “if you think you might come to California” as spoken by the narrator or a different character.)
As we’ve established, this tune is a series of not-quite-connected scenes that allude to the real-life story about the friend in the hospital, Duritz’s feelings about fame, and a mystery woman who might in fact be a metaphor for unrequited longing. But when you add up all those elements, it somehow transforms into a song about how the holidays send us down the wormhole of our own pasts in search of a version of ourselves — or our parents, or high school friends, or our hometowns — that no longer exists. The “festive” mood always has loss and melancholy baked in.
But if “A Long December” is about how the constant churn of the holidays can make you sad, it’s also about how surviving the holidays can make you hopeful about what lies beyond them. It’s both an acknowledgement that, yes, it’s right that you feel depressed right now and also a pat on the back that, [heavy sigh], you have survived it for yet another year. A simultaneous wallow and pep talk — that’s “A Long December,” and that’s why it’s the best holiday song. Hold on to these moments as they pass. You deserve it.