Injustices infest the world. There isn't the time to expose them one by one, but let’s start somewhere safe but still impossible, wrapped in the dead-lock air of popularity. Brilliance under-appreciated by the mediocrity of the masses. During Christmas, we all hear the greatest song ever written bastardised by drunken slurring and mispronunciation of the words. This song is of course, ‘A Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues. Those who sing it buy into a midnight patriotism that lies at the heart of everyone; a small suspicion that they are in fact Irish. It's an idea that's suitably Pogues-esque, considering they were all from London.
If we are to regulate this impropriety then we should at least know what we’re singing, and so secure our lineage to the homeland. To secure our bond to a history of rebel freedom and poetry with a shared angst and wild soul. To illustrate this primarily we all need to admit that we don’t have a clue what the great poet-wordsmith Shane MacGowan is mumbling about in the first verse. Well, here it is.
‘It was Christmas Eve, babe
in the drunk tank
an old man said to me
‘You won’t see another one’
and then he sang a song
‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’
I turned my face away
and dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
came in eighteen-to-one
I've got a feeling this year’s for me and you
so Happy Christmas
I love you, baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true’
The tragedy of these words is clear. Hope from within hopelessness. Hope being perhaps the last thing the song's characters own.
We’re here to talk about Shane MacGowan. That sad-eyed dream-drinker, worshipper of the humane and the forgotten, with a pint of gin and a vacuum cleaner laugh. We are here because we are in state of worship, a humble worship towards finding the right words that become poetry, sentiment that becomes scripture and the triumph of a work of art against the psychosis of commerce, fashion and the meagre tastes of the masses. An artistic battle - which is always one of good and evil. Poets are very fond of this sort of thing. Biblical proportions found in urinals, politics and wars, or love or at work desks, angels versus demons tip-toeing the street in an inexplicable matrix.
This was the achievement of the song. To break the Christmas wonder-dream and replace it with a piston-punch of reality. MacGowan takes the ancient framework of the fairytale and flips it on its head, wallops it over two, at best, down-and-out drug addicts, and at worst, homeless wretches. This is the song’s central genius. From here, in the wrong hands the rest is a disaster waiting to happen; all cheap sentiment, distance and Elvis’s ‘In The Ghetto’ single-toned postulations. Instead, MacGowan manages to go beyond songwriting and into the realm of authorship, conjuring a rich and complex internal and external, emotional and physical atmosphere for his characters to dwell in.
He engages with the characters on the telepathic level that is the mark of any good novelist. He also accomplishes another literary task - he can write the opposite sex. He accepts a voice has its own demanding mind. He terrorises the present with a will to sit in it and know it. Know it better than us and without judgement or pain.
We hear the cries of the city; what they see and hear, dream of, hope for in the muck. From rage to love to forgetfulness and then back again. The tumult of a drunkard’s night where all past demons and pain hinge off each action, movement, utterance. Love; a bountiful triumph. A miracle. Rage, a form of justice. Violence is the retribution against the inherent violence of the world. It reveals the tragedy of the delusion of self that drunks know all too well. Their suspicion that the self is not a concrete phenomenon. It's perhaps a marked example of the deconstruction of the self of the drunk. You become all things. From a therapeutic perspective, you lose yourself; your sense of concreteness breaks. Sadly, this is the thing that addicts seek out in childlike rationale; a feeling of wholeness in themselves and in the fragmented experience of life and the fragmented nature of the world we live in. It resolves the unresolvable in a way that only religion could offer. Religion that provides an ultimate meaning to the harsh facts of mortality, capitalism and cosmic mystery.
MacGowan knows this is because he has been there. He has the insomniac curiosity that is more important to him than self-preservation…
“I identified with the man because I was a hustler,” he admits about the song, “and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer. I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve.”
The four minute song is a potent and vivid world. Something that must be remembered outside of its catchiness and bawdy appeal. People have called it a pocket symphony, but it's more a novel in a pint glass. It’s got it all. Through the mouthpieces of these characters we recognise that which we cannot say. The unsayable, the unthinkable, the unlovable and the unlivable. The threat that says under the correct circumstances we are capable of anything and worse. That which we build around our lives that appear to make it the thing we pretend to be life; the work, the family, the clothes are just ephemera that hide a truer elemental self. The self, perhaps childlike, that screams for resolution from the facts. To be saved and whole. In these people we find a singular personhood and we find capitalism laid bare.
What we see is both ugly and revelatory. Purely from an aesthetic perspective, the changes of tone are masterful. The play-off between characters, the words taking on various forms with every listen. It is hopeless and funny. It is heartbreaking and life-affirming. It is sweet and it is dangerous.
It’s funny to think that this clairvoyant song, this song which is not a song, this art, is also a result of a life-long flawed romanticism in drunkenness and its nihilistic appeal. A sort of artistic branding that rock stars have used as a stamp of authenticity since Baudelaire.
The song turns the experience of the corporate ideal and the family sanctity into a much more resonant reality. It hastens to remind us that not all of us are tucked up in bed waiting for Santa on the 24th of December. Indeed, many aren’t, something which is forgotten in the hymnal lure of singing this song. We take the message for granted. On this night and all nights, they are out there - the great rejects of the world. Capitalism stripped to its bare and hideous necessities.
How can we ever fully appreciate anything if we have not suffered? How can we truly see if we have not been deprived of fortune? And to go into suffering and not return mad, jaded and bitter.
To face this crystal suffering is just too much to ask of most people. It’s just something that needs to be remembered when we inherit this song with our lips.
Which takes us to our main point. Art is about injustice. It is about revealing a deeply held suspicion we are too afraid or courteous to utter because to say it would threaten, often by fear or breaking formality, to make us rejects of the others. The others whose code is pure self-preservation at any delusional cost. And how the reinforcement of that self-preservation becomes, over much time, to have the ring of ethics. That survival becomes habitual self-interest, which in turn becomes the correct way to live as if sanctioned by God, the state and the clock.
Perhaps the best example of these contradictions that give great works of art the semblance of truthfulness is the sense of fun and playfulness in the insults slung at each other in the slagging-off-match between Drunk Prince and Junkie Princess. The prince’s lines are perhaps the most biting and cruel.
‘You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip on that bed’
And of course managing to get the word ‘faggot’ into a song without external complaint is testament to its necessity. Such powerful language can only be excused if the voice requires it, and yes, this drunk woman is hurling abuse at her partner on the street, calling him a faggot. Place yourself in her shoes, miserable and taking it out on a man that is probably too pissed to have sex.
If one thinks about the power of the emotion in the song for too long it almost becomes unbearable and you have to turn away from it. A man and a woman, without enough to eat or a place to live are saying to one another ‘you’ve ruined me - but we have each other - don’t worry - it’s going to be alright somehow - it’s Christmas after all - and anyway, look at the lights! - listen to the choir! - we have each other - its going to be alright.’ When we all know it’s not going to be alright.
There is also a mirror image in this song, one of the social history of the Irish diaspora whose agents came to America in hope of a better life. We know the American Dream was not wide enough to accommodate every last soul. The bitter reality of the American Dream is that for those to succeed, others must perish in many abominable ways. Yet people still go in search of it. These are the stories of the many, the dumb, the criminal. But these are just words to describe the shared inner sum we are allotted at birth. Born pure, we become the victims of wild circumstance and chaos.
‘some of them fell into heaven
some of them fell into hell’ Of course these words are filled with denial and delusion. The words ‘you took my dreams from me’ sung by a woman are sad. Stories of women who fall victims to their man’s whims and drunkeness, walking through the fire in an attempt to save him and then inevitably swallowed by the flames themselves.
The song’s true value is that it imbues the sad rejects of this world, those we step over, avoiding their gaze because it is too much to fathom without going mad, with the humanity they deserve and have always kept. This is one job of great art, to shine a light into the darkness and bring back the difficult truths found there. Truths that have tasted the air down there, staring at life without flinching away when things get too much. Remembering that everyone is the sum of circumstance, chance and chaos, with the dangling carrot of choice before us all; our somewhat illusory control over our own lives. And that even the desperate, the mad, the outcasts have dreams, hopes of another life, loves or at least used to before it all became too much.
So remember, when you're forgetting the words to this great work that you are bearing the fruits of a hard-won, hard-seen, hard-felt truth in your hands. The souls of the unfortunates out there tonight and every night, cold and alone and afraid. Do not take this lightly. Love your loves more, your bed, your breathing. Because we should all know that we can never be quite sure. It could all be taken from us in an instant. And oh yeah, Happy Christmas! Happy Christmas! Happy Christmas, one and all.
Words: James Carroll