With all that’s going on in the world, it might be argued that not too much notice needs to be taken of the long-anticipated death of a (formerly) alcoholic pop musician at the age of 65. Does it really matter? Well, yes, I think; to the civilized, or what remains of them, everything matters, by definition—at least everything that’s good, for which we rightly give thanks. And, rascal though he was, Shane MacGowan had the gift of a great talent, which he sometimes used very well indeed. In particular, he had the ability and willingness to turn his songwriting voice to subjects most prefer to avoid, or just couldn’t write about, and to characters generally despised, and in so doing to lift them up.
So here are three of what we at Cinch HQ consider to be his greatest songs.
“The Old Main Drag,” from 1985’s peerless Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, is, to me at least, the seminal Shane MacGowan song, delivering an unflinching series of vignettes of life on the street in London.
When I first came to London I was only sixteen
With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag
I went down to the dilly to check out the scene
But I soon ended up upon the old main drag
There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old men with the money would flash you a smile
In the dark of an alley you would work for a five
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag
It’s safe to say no-one had ever heard a traditional Irish-type tune with lyrics like this. It told you where Shane was coming from, and introduced his unique talent to those who were listening in a brutally brilliant fashion.
The song continues, bereft of redemptive relief, right down to the final verse.
And now I am lying here, I have had too much booze
I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag
And there you are left.
Not without an element of redemption is the best known and most widely loved song of Shane MacGowan’s, namely “Fairytale of New York,” from the great Pogues album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The song took a number of years to arrive at its rather miraculous finished state and was released as a Christmas single in 1987, with British songstress Kirsty MacColl singing the feminine half of the duet. It’s no small tribute to Shane’s canniness and taste that he held off on releasing the song until they were able to make exactly the right record of it. And what a record.
The song flashes back and forth in time, painting a picture of a couple who get off the boat from Ireland and are entranced by New York City, at once so large and confounding and yet strangely homey and familiar, and they are there with their big dreams and young love. But whatever gambles they make in life all seem to lose, leading to the middle part of the song in what we might assume is their middle age, if not later:
(She) You’re a bum
You’re a punk
(He) You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
(She) You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
“Fairytale of New York” has become a Yuletide perennial, and those lyrics have caused progressively more fits of conniption from the guardians of political correctness on the airwaves (especially in Britain). It can only be said that anyone who censors the original words is a philistine fit only to be despised to the grave. It is the very honest harshness of these lines that makes the soft sort of reconciliation that creeps in at the end so poignant. It’s not a Christmas song for the super-happy-fun-people: that is for sure. It’s a song for the rest of us losers who still end up believing in something, despite the rocky road we’ve journeyed and the fractured bones we’ve collected on the way.
The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day
It’s impossible to really define what the song is about—this four minute pop tune—and I think it can take you somewhere different every time you hear it. That’s why it doesn’t get old; that and the gorgeous marriage of rhythm and melody that adorn it. Arriving at the point in time that it did, with compact discs coming in, maybe it qualifies as the last truly great and genuine 45 rpm record. (It would get this writer’s vote.)
After his fellow Pogues could no longer handle his lifestyle, Shane succeeded in putting out two worthy albums under his own name, accompanied by a combo he called the Popes. The second of these records, The Crock of Gold, features a song titled “St. John of God,” which is the name of a well known mental hospital in the Dublin area. The opening lines are among Shane’s greatest.
See the man, the crushed up man
With a crushed up Carroll’s packet in his hand
Doesn’t seem to see or care or even understand
And all he says is eff yez all
Eff yez all, eff yez all
Carroll’s was (and I guess still is) the quintessential Irish brand of cigarettes. “Eff”, as an expression, might warrant a little explaining to the world in the 21st century. You’d be most likely to encounter it, again, in good Catholic Ireland (at least in my day when I lived there), along with its allied euphemism, “Feck.” It originated not only to spare proper ears from the genuine curse with the “uck” ending, but to avoid the venial sin (necessary to confess to the priest on a Saturday evening) of using an official swear word. So you could say “eff” or “feck” and people knew what you meant, but you hadn’t actually committed the sin. The priests themselves probably emitted more effs and fecks than anyone. It’s a nice racket. (Or was, while it lasted.)
We would assume that this mentally ill man of the street whose portrait Shane paints so pithily has been in fights and suffered unspeakable degradation, and yet something still holds him back from saying that full nasty F word, although he means it, as directed to his persecutors and to the whole world.
And then here he is again, drunk or drugged out of his mind, apparently hugging a statue or a crucifix in a church until the police come to enforce some law or another.
The coppers came
Dragged him away from his crucified Lord
Beat him up in a meat wagon
And they stood him up in court
And all he had to say was
Eff yez all, eff yez all
The defiance of this broken man means nothing, and it means everything. Shane memorializes it. No one else could.
Somewhat like the character in that last song, Shane MacGowan did not take very good care of himself, and had less and less to say in his later years. Just about one year ago, Bob Dylan played a concert in Dublin and gave a call out to Shane, invoking the song “Fairytale in New York” and wishing that Shane would make more records. No one who knew Shane’s condition would have thought that very realistic, but then, there’s no harm in asking.
For all that in a perfect world he might have done much more, Shane MacGowan’s greatest songs will not soon be forgotten. His life was a gift, and for it we here give thanks.