I just checked the U.K. Top 40, and the song “Fairytale of New York,” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, is at number 18, having fallen three spots from last week. That might sound like a weak performance, but not when you consider that it was originally released for the Christmas of 1987 (when it reached number 2) and that this is the tenth year since then in which it has charted. This also happens to be the 25th anniversary of that original release. (Oh boy.)
“Fairytale of New York” is assuredly a unique Christmas classic. It fairly dripped with greatness and with resonance on the day it was released, and the years that have passed have only magnified the resonance, till I daresay there are many tender souls out there who waste no time and begin their crying as soon as they hear the opening piano notes. Yours truly wouldn’t be one of them, not at all. I’m made of much tougher stuff, although I have little trouble relating to some of the major touchstones of the song, such as Ireland (having grown up there from about age 7 to 20) and New York City, where so many people come with their dreams, it being my favorite city in the world (despite everything) and the one I’m currently blessed to be able to live in.
The record “Fairytale of New York” has been pondered at length and talked about and documentary’d-about, probably to excess, as I’ve recently discovered, but I feel the urge to pay it some tribute and I’ll therefore do so regardless, although briefly. I think that one of the key elements of its magic (aside from the beautiful tune and great performance) is the absence of too much narrative detail in the lyric. There are just enough words used and images dropped in to evoke this couple, arriving as immigrants to New York in a bygone decade, wide-eyed and floating on their dreams, dreams which have then crumbled and left them in the worst kind of decrepitude, snarling bitter insults at one another through their drug and/or alcohol haze. Yet, in the end, they seem to know that they have nothing to hold onto but one another, and some kind of strange hope that still hovers over them, and is incarnate in the sound of those bells that are “ringing out for Christmas Day.” As a piece of songwriting (with which Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer tinkered for two years before finalizing) it’s an exquisitely-balanced exercise in the bittersweet, bringing the profane and the transcendent right up against one another and forcing them to shake hands. Continue reading Fairytale of New York