The passing of Shane MacGowan on Nov. 30 prompted me, like many, to revisit the vital recordings he made as the lead singer and primary songwriter for The Pogues, an exercise that I assumed would give me some fresh insight into his work. Instead, it reminded me that, in a strange sense, I never felt worthy of being a fan of The Pogues.
For starters, my family’s roots aren’t Irish. I come from a place in Ontario predominantly settled by Germans where, even into my teens, it was common to hear the language spoken on the street, and where German newspapers were stocked daily in the tobacco shop downtown. What I knew of Irish culture was derived from mass media stereotypes, although that began to change as I became aware of what was happening in Belfast during the early ‘80s, both from the shocking news reports, and from hearing U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” regularly on the radio. Being Irish seemed very complicated, especially for those who identified as exiles, as most members of The Pogues did, MacGowan included.
But when The Pogues released their 1985 breakthrough album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, things started to come into focus for me. Here was a group playing traditional Irish songs with traditional instruments, fronted by a singer who looked and sounded like the complete antithesis of what was occurring at that time in popular music. Almost everything then was clean, shiny, and ready-made for MTV. Former punks sported the latest fashions as New Romantics, while rockers who survived the ‘70s now embraced new healthy lifestyles (along with the latest technology) in order to win over young audiences. Even a group like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose “Come On Eileen” appeared to pay homage to traditional Irish music, came off as utterly contrived in their matching ragged overalls.
Nothing about The Pogues was contrived, leaving them true heirs to punk’s legacy, a notion reinforced through their rise coinciding with The Clash’s long, slow decline, ultimately resulting in Joe Strummer becoming The Pogues’ most ardent supporter, and later, an auxiliary member. Of course, those in the know were fully aware that Shane MacGowan was a player in the original punk scene—not as a musician, but as (literally) the poster-boy of British youth rebellion in 1977. But when he eventually connected the dots between punk’s underlying philosophy and the traditional Irish music that was part of his family’s DNA, it resulted in something no one had ever attempted before with such passion and fury.
Of course, MacGowan’s excesses were impossible to ignore, and for impressionable fans who were often still too young to legally drink, he became something like a new Jim Morrison, shining a questionable path toward the Palace of Wisdom. From a more cogent perspective, MacGowan was also a voice for the working class, with the evidence all over Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, from MacGowan’s “Sally MacLennane,” inspired by a bar owned by his uncle that primarily served auto workers, to the unvarnished cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town.” But what made MacGowan so compelling was a romanticism forged in songs like “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” and “The Old Main Drag,” which caught the ear of academics who heard echoes of Joyce, Behan and Yeats. There was no doubt from this point on that he possessed some kind of genius.
The Pogues thus became a lot of different things to different people; some embraced their own Irish heritage for the first time through the music, while others went to see the band simply to experience a bacchanal. I didn’t fit neatly into either category, mainly because a few of the hard core Pogues fans I knew could take their love of the band to aggressive extremes. Looking back, it’s funny that I could see the Ramones at that time and feel a sense of joy being in the mosh pit, and by contrast never get over an inherent sense of danger, whether warranted or not, when seeing The Pogues.
MacGowan was somehow always in the eye of the hurricane, with his ever-present drink and cigarette. This was an entirely different level of cool—someone completely unafraid to leave his heart bleeding on the stage, while simultaneously feeding off the chaos that, on a good night, fuelled the entire band’s performance. It all came together on The Pogues’ 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, with its calling card being the instant seasonal classic “Fairytale Of New York.” The song’s utter vulnerability, heightened by the crucial decision to have it sung as a duet between MacGowan and the angelic Kirsty MacColl, is its lasting power, as well as its necessary role in providing an impenetrable levee against the unceasing tide of schmaltz we must endure each Christmas. Shane’s death only means there will be more tears shed whenever it’s played this year.
I’ll be one of those likely getting choked up, but it won’t be the same as how I felt when Gord Downie died. Having gone through that experience, though, I finally have a better grasp of what Shane MacGowan means to Ireland and its diaspora. The power of music gives us all the opportunity to forge a connection with an artist who expresses so many deeply profound truths about humanity that it can set you on a quest to find out how such a level of empathy is even possible. The simple answer, in the end, is an undying faith in how love can indeed conquer all. For me, that will be Shane MacGowan’s legacy.