The Pogues (featuring Katie Melua), "Fairytale Of New York"

>> Friday, December 23, 2011

She's no Kirsty MacColl, but nobody is; MacColl not only had a swell set of pipes, but she had this amazing cadence and sense of harmony. That woman could sing and the world lost a rare treasure when we lost her. But it's to Melua's credit that she doesn't really try to fill those shoes, and she's a swell singer. I don't mean to disparage her when I go and state the obvious, it's just that it's inevitably the first thing you have to say.

And then, poor Shane.

Is it somehow parasitic to observe that the way everything has caught up with Shane MacGowan, and finally collapsed on top of him gives performances like this one a kind of painful power? He sways, puffed and dissipated, little left to his voice beyond a dry husk that sounds like a desert wind blowing sand over the paper skin of a dessicated insect (all shell and no bone). But isn't that a perfect voice and manner for a song from the point of view of a man who has had his ship come in after many dissolute years, only to find himself on the verge of losing the only thing that ever mattered to him in the first place? He could have been someone; well, so could anyone.

MacGowan came to Chapel Hill with The Popes (his post-Pogues band) when I was in law school there. I had never seen anybody that publicly drunk and still conscious before, I don't think; I think that's probably still true. It was tragic and comic at the same time, a horrifying spectacle you couldn't help laughing at and pitying all at once. He unsuccessfully tried to pick a fight with the audience (he seemed to think a bunch of college students in North Carolina's most liberal town, in attendance to see a a songwriter known for celebrating causes generally associated with the American left--immigration, labor, opposition to war, sticking it to the religious and political orthodoxy, etc.--would take offense at being reminded of the region's embarrassing history of racial violence because we were all in The South). And then he picked up his mic stand, presumably to perform some kind of Daltreyesque maneuver, instead to clumsily and narrowly miss knocking out at least one of his bassist's eyes with it. I remember the show more than I remember anything he might have played. The Popes, anyway, were troupers to put up with it.

He deserves better, of course. That might not mean anything: so could anyone. And the drugs and cigarettes and alcohol were part of the persona behind those songs of hope, despair and anger. I don't know if those songs could have existed without a Shane MacGowan who was slowly murdering himself. And was that worth it? We--the world--got great music; he got himself all-but-killed. It might be that wasn't worth the trade. I hope he's better now, I hope he's doing reasonably well; I hope the organs he destroyed are recovering as well as they might.

I inevitably choke up towards the end of "Fairytale". I imagine there are some people who think it might be strange that so many of us nominate a song about two Irish addicts squabbling on Christmas as the best song of the season. I don't think it's cynicism or contrariness (nor do I think it's merely the power of that lilting melody). I think it's that last bit of it, the one that always breaks my heart; the part where he regrets how he's wasted his life and she throws it back in his face along with her own mourned-for past--and he replies that her hopes aren't lost, they're the foundation of all he has left. Frankly, I'm getting a little verklempt typing this. The point I wanted to get to, though, is that all of this is sort of what the season is about (aside from the whole birth-of-Jesus-thing if you're a Christian, that is): i.e. that this is a time when the year is drawing itself up into a closing knot and we look back at ourselves and remind ourselves that it's those we love who actually sustain us and give us the reasons we need to stagger through the next day and the day after that. If there's any point to exchanging gifts beyond crass consumerism (and that, to be perfectly honest, is also part of what this season has come to be all about, an all-but-inevitable accident or side-effect of living in a consumer capitalist society), it's the expression of thanks to others for providing us with frames to hang our own hopes and dreams on.


Phiala Friday, December 23, 2011 at 11:11:00 AM EST  

MacGowan came to Chapel Hill with The Popes (his post-Pogues band) when I was in law school there.

I was at that show. Nick chatted with the guys Shane was crashing with, and has some second-hand stories about the quantity of alcohol involved. The whole Judge Lynch thing? Painful, really.

He does look awful in that video. Wow. But then, I'd have expected him to be dead by now.

Eric Friday, December 23, 2011 at 11:21:00 AM EST  

Phiala, that is absolutely insane that we were both at that show--small world, and all that.

We might need to suggest to Michelle a UCF category for meat-ups where nobody actually met.

As you say: MacGowan looks awful, but you'd expect him to be dead by now. I'm glad he's still around, and like I said, I really do hope he's doing better these days.

Thorvaldr Friday, December 23, 2011 at 2:39:00 PM EST  

Hell, when I heard the first single from the album he was supporting on that tour - the duet with Sinead O'Antipope - I said wait, Shane MacGowan, isn't he dead?

I have a couple of good stories from that show. Man, do I miss living within stumbling home distance of the Cradle.

Last I heard, Shane was going to be doing some sort 'Lookit our organic farm, ain' it great?' reality TV thing based on the premise that his new woman (wife?) has him vaguely straightening his life out. Well, stranger things have happened.

(Phiala's) Nick

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