It’s alive

 

From GuitarParty.com

 

Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ.  It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday.  Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.

 

Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful.  A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.

 

In the summer of 1995, I was in New York when I learned that MacGowan and his post-Pogues band the Popes were performing at a local venue.  So I bought a ticket.  The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs.  He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals.  Then he disappeared.  The band did a few more instrumentals and then followed their leader’s example and exited too.  The crowd nearly rioted.  Poor Shane did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him.  Or indeed, much of a future.

 

Yet the old bugger was still on the go three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh music festival at London’s Finsbury Park.  This time he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens.  And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o!  Shane-o!  Shane-o!” until, finally, an appreciative grin spread across MacGowan’s bleary features.

 

© WEA

 

He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.

 

The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact.  Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?

 

In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great.  It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious.  I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts.  (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)

 

© Pan Books

 

Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono).  Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.

 

Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he’s written and / or ones he’s sung.

 

The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.

 

Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away…  FAR AWAY!

 

If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.

 

Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Obviously.

 

Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.

 

Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love).  A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”

 

© Mute Records

 

What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities).  MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.

 

God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned).  Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.

 

That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake).  This features one of the best choruses ever: “That Woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!

 

Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake).  Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner.  I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle changes made to his lyrics at the very end of the song.  The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.”  The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.

 

Thank God for The Pogues

 

(c) Pogue Mahone

 

Christmas, which involves forced bonhomie in the workplace, family politics at home, and raw naked commercialism just about everywhere else, is for many people an endurance test.  It becomes even more of an endurance test as, from the radio, from PA systems in department stores and from the soundtracks of countless TV advertisements, you’re bombarded by Christmas music – or by the drivel that mostly passes for music at Christmas-time.  Wham’s Last Christmas, Wizzard’s I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is you, the overrated Bruce Springsteen croaking and wheezing his way through Santa Claus is Coming to Town…  I almost had a psychotic episode in my local Sainsbury the other evening while I was combing the shelves, trying to find a maddeningly elusive bottle of lemon juice, and Cliff Richard started to seriously get to me with Mistletoe and Wine.

 

So for yet another Christmas I find myself filling a glass with Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey and raising it in honour of the mighty Celtic punk / folk band The Pogues.  Their anthem Fairy Tale of New York, which first made the Christmas charts back in 1987, is possibly the only good popular song to have ever cashed in on the festive season.  When you’re struggling with your yuletide shopping and being subjected to an endless loop of Christmas-music torture by Shakin’ Stevens, Slade and all the other usual suspects, those opening chords of Fairy Tale of New York come like a gentle, soothing massage to your frazzled synapses.  I just hope that the Irish author J.P. Donleavy, from whose novel Fairy Tale of New York the song’s writers Jem Finer and Shane McGowan nicked the title, was so charmed by the tune that he never bothered to sue.

 

Yes, Fairy Tale of New York evokes such familiarity and affection from me these days that, hearing it, I almost feel I’ve bumped into an old friend at Christmas-time and am exchanging season’s greetings with him or her.  Like a proper friend, you know the person’s idiosyncrasies and character nuances – their negative traits as well as their positive ones.

 

You’re aware of a charming, expectant innocence – “They’ve cars big as bars / They’ve rivers of gold” – that at times bursts into a joyous euphoria – “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.”  (Actually, the New York Police Department doesn’t have a choir at all, just a pipes-and-drums band, which you catch a glimpse of during the song’s video.  But we’ll let that pass.)

 

At the same time, you sense a stubborn streak of melancholia – “An old man said to me, ‘Won’t see another one…’”  And you know there’s even a worrying potential for violence, as is demonstrated when singers McGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl start tearing into each other with lines like, “Ye’re an old slut on junk!” and “Ye scumbag, ye maggot, ye cheap lousy faggot!” – lyrics that have always caused discomfort amongst the politically-correct watchdogs of the Radio One playlist and amongst lily-livered light-entertainment singers who, over the years, have attempted to do cover versions of the song.  (Ronan Keating from the Irish boy-band Boyzone, when doing his own take on Fairy Tale of New York, changed the “ye cheap lousy faggot” line to “ye’re cheap and ye’re haggard”.  That was brave of you, Ronan.)

 

Kirsty MacColl’s death on the Mexican island of Cozumel 13 years ago – whilst swimming with her two sons she was struck by a speedboat belonging to Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, a supermarket magnate and one of Mexico’s richest men, in an dodgy accident that’s never been investigated to her family’s satisfaction – only makes the song sound more poignant now.  McGowan, thankfully and against all odds, is still with us.  I saw him discussing the song the other night on a TV survey of the nation’s 50 favourite Christmas songs, in which Fairy Tale of New York got to number ten – ten! – and he looked like a man who’d done some serious living in his time.  He was wearing an eye-patch, which I hope doesn’t indicate he’s reached a point in his dissolution where parts of him have started to drop off.

 

The Guardian saw fit to interview McGowan about his ‘family values’ the other day.  Here’s a link to the article, although none of the information will come as a surprise to anybody who’s read his entertaining book of memoirs, A Drink with Shane McGowan.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/20/shane-macgowan-musician-my-family-values

 

Incidentally, in the same issue of the Guardian, I see there’s an article about this Christmas’s appeal by music fans (proper music fans) to the Ancient Rock Gods to deliver them from Simon-Cowell-orchestrated / X-Factor-winner / Christmas-number-one evil.  This time they have launched a campaign to get Highway to Hell by the venerable Australian heavy-metal outfit AC/DC to the top of the Christmas charts, thus thwarting the single released by this year’s X-Factor victor, Sam Bailey.

 

There…  I’ve just written her name and already I’ve forgotten what it is.  Can anybody out there remember the names of anyone who’s won The X-Factor in previous years and gone on to enjoy a musical career of mayfly-like longevity?  Maybe apart from, you know, what’s-her-name?  Lennox Lewis.  Or Jerry Lewis.  Or whatever.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2013/dec/21/acdc-highway-to-hell-christmas

 

I always thought it said volumes about the cultural differences between Australia and Britain that in Australia Highway to Hell is the song that is most requested by people to be played at their funerals.  Whereas in Britain the number-one funeral song is the vomit-inducing Angels by Robbie Williams.

 

(c) Atlantic

 

The AC/DC campaign, of course, is inspired by the success in Christmas 2009 of a similar campaign to frustrate the Christmas-single ambitions of the then-latest wimp-bot to roll off the Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  This involved getting Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name of to the number-one slot instead.  (How gratifying it must have been for the nation’s parents on the morning of December 25th, 2009, to discover their young offspring jumping up and down on their beds and shouting out a new Christmas anthem: “F**k you, I won’t do what you tell me!”)

 

However, for me, the Christmas musical moment that rekindled my faith in humanity actually came long before Simon Cowell, The X-Factor and Internet campaigns.  In Christmas 1990, Cliff Richard released Saviour’s Day – following the success of Mistletoe and Wine in 1988, Cliff had obviously decided that his best bet for a pension plan was to corner the ‘old grannies’ market by releasing a heart-warming Christmas single every couple of years.  But after one week, Cliff was knocked off the number-one position by Iron Maiden singing Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter, a song that Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson had originally written for the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  This was despite the BBC refusing to play the song on Radio One and giving it almost zero coverage on Top of the Pops.

 

At the time, this unexpected yuletide turn-of-events prompted the As We See It editorial column in Scotland’s old-granny-loving newspaper the Sunday Post to lament that we were living in a sad, sick world.  Nonsense.  In my book, any world where Iron Maiden can usurp Cliff Richard from the Christmas number-one slot is a wonderful world indeed.

 

From thedrum.com

From last.fm