So here we are, not particularly shocked that Shane MacGowan is gone — the man gargled whiskey for decades, and recent hospital photos were not encouraging — and now we have to put up with another aspect of the modern-day mourning process.
“Fairytale of New York.” There you are, quoting it on social media. Posting a YouTube of the video. (Yes, guilty as charged, Rolling Stone.) Reminding everyone it’s the greatest holiday song ever written. And I can’t help but feel annoyed.
Is this the right moment, when this grand poetic master leaves our green Earth, to trot out what was essentially a novelty hit co-written with a bandmate? Do we need to declare, as Sky News did, that MacGowan, who died Thursday at 65, was “best known for Christmas hit ‘Fairytale of New York.’”
(Not to mention the off-key clickbait that trailed in the wake of this sad news, various media outlets rehashing the untimely death 23 years ago of Kirsty MacColl, whose tough-girl nobility was just as important to “Fairytale’s” success.)
I’m sorry. It’s a bad day.
Shane MacGowan was a deeply literate and sensitive songwriter who often presented himself as a damaged, brash Everyman. But his astonishing catalogue with the Pogues — five albums between 1984 and 1990 that ranged from biting protest songs to deeply personal ballads — betrayed him.
You could pin his lyric sheets to the side of a barn, blindfold yourself and throw a dart, and always land on couplets like these:
One summer evening drunk to hell I stood there nearly lifeless
An old man in the corner sang ‘Where the Waterlilies Grow.’
A curse on the judges, the coppers and screws, who tortured the innocent, wrongly accused
For the price of promotion and justice to sell, may the judged be their judges when they rot down in hell
And that voice. I saw the Pogues once. They were on a one-off tour in 2006, long after they had stopped recording, and came to Boston around St. Patrick’s Day. Were they good? Were they bad? I don’t actually remember a lot about the performance other than that it was thrilling. Shambolic can’t begin to describe MacGowan’s stage behavior — a good part of why, in 1991, he got fired from his own band. But if you knew the songs, and Pogues fans did, you filled in the words as Shane barked and swallowed.
You knew the way that “The Old Main Drag” tore everything inside of you apart, from the opening accordion drone to the moment MacGowan name-checked the barbiturate Tuinal in a lilt that could have been quoting Yeats. Gus Van Sant slipped the song into the end of “My Own Private Idaho,” just as River Phoenix’s narcoleptic drifter is carried away from the side of a deserted highway, and it made perfect sense.
You can even understand the MacGowan style, ironically, by listening to one of his covers. In the original 1949 version of “Dirty Old Town,” singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl makes you almost fall in love with the industrial surroundings, the factory, the old canal. MacGowan’s reading slips the sulfurous odor of those smokestacks into your nostrils until you’re desperate to get out. This isn’t a romantic stroll. It’s a cry for escape.
Or you listen to “Rain Street,” late-innings Pogues, when they were about to kick their drunkard laureate out of the band, and it’s as cheery sounding as anything in their catalogue. Yet the verses seem to flow almost as a subversive exercise, Shane sneaking his nasty vignettes behind Spider Stacy’s chipper tin whistle. Kids sniffing glue. Wedding rings hocked. Missing the toilet seat. Was the band chuckling in the back of the studio, fingers crossed that the dummies at the record company wouldn’t understand those words through that mangled delivery, and they’ll keep pitching Top 40 radio programmers?
I don’t want to glorify or dishonor MacGowan for drinking too much or taking his gift for granted. I’m just grateful that he was here and produced those records, and that they are here for us all to listen to.
And I get why you want to quote “Fairytale.” The majestic Broadway arrangement set against two characters slipping down to the bottom. The unexpected profanity. It is dark with a distinct, Irish tint, as a friend wrote me today. And I get that it’s the Pogues song everybody knows, and undeniably better than every other holiday tune except, well, maybe “Father Christmas.” But would we reduce the Kinks to that single over “Sunny Afternoon,” “Victoria” and “Lola”?
So if you really need to quote “Fairytale” once more, okay, have at it. But what are you going to flippin’ quote when it’s Christmastime?