• RIP Shane MacGowan: 7 Pogues Songs That Would Make Great Short Stories

    Farewell to a True Legend

    Shane MacGowan, the legendary frontman of The Pogues, died yesterday at the age of 65. It’s hard to write about MacGowan’s death without alluding to the hard-drinking lifestyle he embodied, both in reality and song, but whatever talent he had for excess was nothing compared to his mastery of the song-as-story.

    MacGowan was that rare storyteller who could switch registers with ease between the gothic, the mythic, the farcical, and the romantic. Taking his subject matter wherever he could find it—in history, legend, last night’s bender—MacGowan used the rough grace of his poetic gifts to create short stories in miniature, distilling entire lives into a verse or two.

    As for that hard-living label, MacGowan did own to it. Here he is in a 1993 interview with Q Magazine. (As surfaced by Hanif Abdurraqib on Twitter yesterday.)

    “I believe in pleasure. I love seeking pleasure. I like finding it even more. But if you’re a hedonist, you also have to have a social conscience because you can’t enjoy eating a beautiful meal and drinking beautiful drinks and taking drugs that make you feel great if right outside where you’re doing it, people are starving to death on the pavements.”

    MacGowan filled his songs with the beautiful losers of the world, wrote with tenderness and anger about the damned and the forgotten, and seemed constitutionally unable to root against the underdog. His own story was their story, and he told them all brilliantly. With that in mind, here are seven of my favorite Pogues’ songs that would also make great short stories.


    “A Pair of Brown Eyes”

    This is probably my favorite Pogues song (I will sing it in full if you buy me a drink). It is quintessential MacGowan: a man drinks and remembers, searches for grace amid the ruins of his life and almost, but not quite, finds it. I’ve always read the story as an encounter with a very old man in a bar sunk deep into whiskey-tinged memories of WWI and the girl he left behind (the soundtrack to his recollections dates the scene to the late 1970s). The grim details in the first verse, of war’s intimate brutalities, demand of the listener forgiveness for the drunkard’s sentimentality; as he so often did, MacGowan seems to be asking us all: “Who among you hasn’t succumbed to self-pity’s bittersweet reveries?”

    “In blood and death ’neath a screaming sky
    I lay down on the ground
    And the arms and legs of other men
    Were scattered all around.

    Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed
    Then prayed and bled some more.

    And the only thing that I could see
    Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me
    But when we got back, labeled parts one to three
    There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me.”


    “Fairytale of New York” (written with Jem Finer)

    The Pogues best-known song, “Fairytale of New York” has become a barroom holiday classic, a diasporic anthem that showcases MacGowan’s talent for scuffing the shiny varnish of sentimentality with the right amount of grit. A duet with the late, great Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale” is the story of young lovers who wash up in New York City with little more than their faith in the so-called American dream; and though things inevitably go badly, the final verse aches with the perfect tenderness for what could have been. (MacGowan’s lines in bold.)

    “I could have been someone
    Well so could anyone
    You took my dreams from me
    When I first found you
    I kept them with me babe
    I put them with my own
    Can’t make it all alone
    I built my dreams around you.”


    “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”

    In which MacGowan inhabits a sentimental antifascist drunkard fighting and drinking his way around the chaos of 1930s Europe, ending up in civil war Madrid battling fascist Blackshirts in the streets. Though the chorus invokes the mythic Irish warrior, Cuchulainn, MacGowan ends the song in customary fashion, kicked out of a tavern, bereft in the streets.

    “When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne
    And you heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone
    Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid
    And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids

    At the sick bed of Cuchulainn, we’ll kneel and say a prayer
    And the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair.”


    “Rainy Night in Soho”

    This is perhaps MacGowan’s most purely romantic song. The simple verse structure and swooning shifts in temporal perspective conjure early Anna Akhmatova, as MacGowan evokes what it means for love to endure over time while at the same instant revealing one perfect, soft-focus night in London, madly in love.

    “I’ve been loving you a long time
    Down all the years, down all the days
    And I’ve cried for all your troubles
    Smiled at your funny little ways

    We watched our friends grow up together
    And we saw them as they fell
    Some of them fell into Heaven
    Some of them fell into Hell

    I took shelter from a shower
    And I stepped into your arms
    On a rainy night in Soho
    The wind was whistling all its charms.”


    “Lorca’s Novena”

    MacGowan often populated his songs with men he admired: Frank Ryan, Brendan Behan, and in this case, Federico García Lorca. A fairly simple song, “Lorca’s Novena” tells the terrible story of the poet’s death at the hands of Spanish fascists in 1936. The rank brutality MacGowan despises in the specific here—thoughtless, bigoted fascists cruelly murdering a great poet, murdering beauty, in effect—is what he rages against in many of his songs. The world may be irredeemably ugly, MacGowan so often tells us, but what small grace it grants is more precious than gold.

    “The killers came to mutilate the dead
    But ran away in terror to search the town instead
    But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away
    And the only sound was the women in the chapel praying

    Mother of all our joys
    Mother of all our sorrows
    Intercede with him tonight
    For all of our tomorrows.”


    “The Old Main Drag”

    This song, about a young man who quickly falls between the cracks after arriving in big city London, lives somewhere between the two Den(n)is’ (Johnson and Cooper) as a down-and-out parable stripped of redemption. Aside from giving voice to the otherwise reviled and marginalized, “The Old Main Drag” is MacGowan at his technical best, approaching Cole Porter levels of perfection in meter and rhyme, through all six verses.

    “One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
    I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
    Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
    And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag

    In the tube station the old ones who were on the way out
    Would dribble and vomit and grovel and shout
    And the coppers would come along and push them about
    And I wished I could escape from the old main drag.”


    “The Body of an American”

    As a son of the diaspora (MacGowan was born in Kent), the scattering of the Irish across the world was often a topic of Pogues’ songs. Not surprisingly, “The Body of an American” is particularly popular on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston (and New York, and Philadelphia) as it describes the wake of a mythic (and fictional) Irish American boxer, Big Jim Dwyer, and his posthumous repatriation to the old country. Best played loud, this song is a rollicking delight (if you’re not careful someone will order you an Irish Car Bomb).

    “But 15 minutes later we had our first taste of whiskey
    There was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history
    The men all started telling jokes and the women, they got frisky
    By five o’clock in the evening every bastard there was pissed

    Fare thee well, going away, there’s nothing left to say
    Farewell to New York City, boys, to Boston and PA
    He took them out with a well-aimed clout, we often heard him say
    ‘I’m a free born man of the USA’.”



    The other Pogues song I can, and will, sing in its entirety if drunk, is “Kitty.” Though the writing credits include the whole band, I’m putting it here anyway as it features all the hallmarks of a MacGowan ballad: doomed romanticism, defiance of authority, outlaw heroism… I’ve always interpreted “Kitty”* as a romantic rebel song—a man bidding farewell to the woman he loves before going into hiding from the British—but the narrator could very well be a criminal on the lam. It doesn’t really matter, it’s a classic.

    “Oh Kitty, my darling, rememberThat the doom will be mine if I stayTis far better to part, though it’s hard toThan to rot in their prison away.”

    *Not least for its passing invocation of Kitty O’Shea.

    Jonny Diamond
    Jonny Diamond
    Jonny Diamond is the Editor in Chief of Literary Hub. He lives in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains with his wife and two sons, and is currently writing a cultural history of the axe for W.W. Norton. @JonnyDiamondJonnyDiamond.me

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