It is a sense of great sadness that I speak of the passing of Shane MacGowan of The Pogues. Clearly, the man was a tortured soul with serious alcohol and drug addictions. As somebody once said, all great artists are also piss artists. It seems that getting spaced out of your mind is all part and parcel of being a genius. Ultimately, it is a condition that inevitably leads to decline and self-destruction. All we are left with is a legacy of the art that such people created whilst they were alive and at their peak.
If there is one song that defines Shane MacGowan, it is Fairy Tale in New York, the greatest Christmas song ever, in my humble opinion. The vast majority of Yuletide songs are middle-of-the-road, sacharine-soaked celebratory, odious melodious earworms that seem to get into everybody's psyche. Those songs feed the hungry desire for something to feel good about, at least on a superficial, transitory, all too materialistic level. Such songs invariably end up as muzak in department stores and supermarkets, trying to entice us into spending more than we can afford on things we do not need nor want. They are the soundtrack to a capitalist heist of Christmas, encouraging people to spend their way into a level of debt it will take them all of the following year to cover.
Shane’s song stands out as a very real rendering of what in reality Christmas is all about. And although we know that uncomfortable reality only too well, we try to not think about it too much. In Shane’s edgy, gritty, ultimately uplifting depiction, we get a reminder of how many of us actually do pass the festive season.
It is a time when many of us get drunk and very near to the very real state of our close relationships, which as a matter of course, come under close scrutiny. In a sentimental way, we hark back to when we first met, the attraction and desire, the hopes and the dreams that we had and shared, the good times when we had everything to be happy about, and everything to live for.
Inevitably, we compare the past with our present and find it wanting, it has not lived up to what we expected at the beginning. A Blue Dog mood and melancholy make an unwelcome appearance and we become cynically dissatisfied with our lot, resorting to apportioning blame, all too often, in an unpleasant insulting manner. And yet…
In the end, we come back together, expressing our undying love and the intuitive, gut feeling that things are going to get better. It’s going to be a good Christmas after all.
Shane’s lyrics beautifully capture all of this in a song that starts as a look back at a past Christmas when he first met the love of his life in a positive way. It then moves into an upbeat row (if that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is) that leads into a celebratory chorus about how the NYPD Choir and the church (in other words the outside world) are celebrating Christmas. In the end, true love wins the day.
I have never once heard this song being played in any department store or supermarket (Lord forbid I ever do) to overzealous buyers of Yuletide capitalistic trash. Muzak it most certainly is not. And that is a mark of the sheer, over-arching, artistry of it. Yes, the best Christmas song ever, a song that sings the truth of what for many of us Christmas really means, a re-assessment of the past and a renewal of our hopes and dreams for the future. In that respect, it is not just a Christmas song, it is a wonderful Christmas story. Rest In Peace Shane MacGowan and the Kirsty MacColl. Happy Christmas everybody.