Shane MacGowan was a uniquely talented songwriter and nothing about what he did was obvious. Delving into Irish traditional folk music was not an inevitable choice for a second-generation Irish punk in London in the early 1980s. This turn was just as surprising to his bandmates. In his book about the band, Here Comes Everybody, punk guitarist turned Pogues accordion player James Fearnley remembers being given a battered accordion and instructed by MacGowan to learn how to play it. He seemed just as perplexed by MacGowan’s plans as The Pogues’ critics were a few years later.
Once The Pogues were up and running, it made sense. Traditional Irish music at its sharper edges is as raw, irreverent and accessible to amateurs as punk. Maybe it took a London Irishman to see that. In Ireland itself at that time, Irish traditional music was part of the official culture. It often had its edges sanded down by sentimentality and sombre politeness. The notion that Irish traditional music could refer to anything other than the past or that it could be played with anything short of virtuosic finesse, was not commonplace then. The Pogues moved Irish music, like most Irish people, from the countryside to the dirty city.
And there weren’t many other bands following in The Pogues’ footsteps into Irish folk music at the time. In recent years, a whole wave of trad musicians has emerged who have a Pogues-like irreverence and love for the tradition. Newcomers such as Lankum, the Mary Wallopers and Lisa O’Neill have none of the previous generations’ hang-ups about Irishness or using the folk music tropes of the past to create something new in the present. But when The Pogues emerged first, they were out on a limb.
They could have remained just an invigorating stylistic novelty, except that in this unlikely context MacGowan proved to be the best songwriter of his generation. He did this with a relatively small collection of near-perfect songs. Like many folk bands, The Pogues albums were filled with strong songs from the tradition or written by other folk legends, songs such as Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda or Ewan McColl’s Dirty Old Town. What was remarkable from the start was that not only could MacGowan deliver those songs credibly but that his own songs managed to stand out alongside them.
MacGowan adopted the folk music trick of writing through characters rather than sticking with rock music’s romantic, often dishonest solipsism
The Pogues always had a healthy collection of raucous, learned, darkly comic romps like Transmetropolitan or the Sickbed of Cuchulainn or Sally MacLennane or If I Should Fall from Grace with God, that all felt in some sort of a continuum with punk. But there was something else, too. MacGowan adopted the folk music trick of writing through characters rather than sticking with rock music’s romantic, often dishonest solipsism. In his best songs, some cowritten with his bandmate Jem Finer, MacGowan told the stories of people on the edges of society – alcoholics, drifters, braggarts, bruised lovers, war veterans, sex workers, pub bores. He somehow never shirked from their degradation, pain and humanity while also elevating their lives into something rich, beautiful and mythic. His seeming loose but in reality very controlled melodies made those lives brutal but transcendent.
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash is my favourite Pogues record. It’s their second album, and The Old Main Drag, the second song on that record, is my favourite Pogues song. It’s written entirely by MacGowan. With a strange and circular three chord structure and a beautiful propulsive melody, it tells the story of a homeless Irish teenager on the streets of London. The point of view character moves from exhilaration and excitement to stoical prostitution, matter-of-fact addiction, a brutal police beating and, finally, a ruined, hopeless old age, dying on the streets. He makes this journey in six verses. My favourite verse to sing goes: “In the cold winter nights, the old town it was chill, But there were boys in the cafes who would give you cheap pills, If you didn’t have the money, you’d cajole and you’d beg, There was always lots of tuinal on the old main drag.” I think it’s the use of the words “cajole” and “tuinal” that make me like it so much. It’s archaic and modern all at once. The Old Main Drag is dark and tragic but in MacGowan’s ability to viscerally embody the tragedy, it somehow becomes beautiful.
In A Pair of Brown Eyes, my second favourite Pogues song, the narrator ends up talking to a drunk who tells him, against his will, about his horrifying experiences in the first World War, while the pub jukebox plays Philomena Begley and Ray Lynam. It’s a gorgeous fever dream of a song, pastoral and grisly and conceptually bizarre. The “pair of brown eyes” of the title are first introduced as part of a dismembered soldier, in the aftermath of a bombing, but then they turn into the brown eyes of the old man’s love who refuses to wait for him. Finally, the narrator thinks about “a pair of brown eyes that waited once for me”.
His best songs somehow feel like they’ve existed forever and it’s remarkable to me now that he was still in his 20s when he wrote many of them
MacGowan had a knack for embedding sensory information into imagery. Take the collision of images towards the end of the song, where the narrator is making his way home. “A hungry sound came across the breeze, so I gave the walls a talking.” If you have ever been drunk and alone on a city street at night, you can feel this on your skin and in your bones.
His best songs somehow feel like they’ve existed forever and it’s remarkable to me now that he was still in his 20s when he wrote many of them. That he had the capacity for such imaginative empathy for wretched, lost, older people at such a young age feels supernatural to me.
There are other musical documentarians who like to transmute black and grimy human tragedy into stately, mythic, glittering beauty. Nick Cave and Tom Waits, two artists I also love, have written far more songs than MacGowan and have strayed into his lane frequently. But neither of them has written anything quite as good, unaffected and deeply human as The Old Main Drag or A Pair of Brown Eyes or Fairytale of New York or A Rainy Night in Soho.
Why was he able to do that? Maybe the most direct way for him to express his own pain was to imagine and feel the tattered lives of others. Maybe he processed things in narrative and music. But that just feels like cod psychology. I genuinely have no idea how he did it. I’m just glad he did. And I’m glad he left us these songs. There are whole worlds in there.
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