“The Cadillac stood by the house and the yanks they were within,” begins the Pogues’ 1986 classic The Body of an American, a transatlantic ballad on the life and death of a man called Big Jim Dwyer.
But in a question I can now never ask the song’s writer, I’ve often wondered in which country the wake described is taking place.
The mention of there being “yanks” in the house suggests Ireland. After all, if it was in America, they’d all be yanks in Irish eyes, including people who had emigrated there as recently as last year.
But if it was Ireland, how did they get a Cadillac over in time? And why would they bother?
On the other hand, if the wake was in America (pending transfer of the body back home), how do we explain the rest of the opening verse: “And the tinker boys they hissed advice/’Hot-wire her with a pin.”
Leaving aside the allegation that members of the Irish travelling community were engaged in attempted Cadillac theft, they would hardly have crossed the Atlantic to do it, or have been there in the first place, way back whenever the song was set.
I realise readers will think I have little to be worrying about here. But still, I like to know these things.
Big Jim Dwyer was a “man of wire”, according to the chorus: possibly a nickname from his time as boxer “in Pittsburgh” and elsewhere.
The description became doubly apt when, in the Pogues’ second finest hour (after Fairytale of New York), The Body of an American became a running feature of the great US TV crime series set in Baltimore, The Wire.
In a scene after a policeman dies suddenly, for example, his colleagues wake him on a pool table in the local bar and then sing along raucously with the Pogues’ ballad.
Even the officers of African-American heritage know all the lyrics, including: “And 15 minutes later, we had our first taste of whiskey/There was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history.”
But this and the song’s later use in a mock wake, given to a retiring detective, introduced the Pogues to a whole new audience, not all of which was au fait with such technical Irish terminology as “tinker”, or with the poetic licence involved in rhyming “Erin go” with “Sláinte Joe”.
On one website devoted to the discussion of song meanings, I have seen an earnest Pogues fan (surely a Yank) arguing that the phrase “man of wire” is really “man of war”, as pronounced with a London-Irish accent.
His logic was that Big Jim’s boxing career was interrupted when “they sent him to the war”. But the theory is of course nonsense. If Shane MacGowan had wanted his hero to rhyme with “man of war”, he would have probably called him “Big Jim Corr” .
Then the song might never have been used in The Wire, although it could instead have led to the Pogues’ collaborating with a certain light pop group from Dundalk, which would have been interesting in its own right.
By a poignant coincidence, I note that last weekend’s deaths also included a Joe Mullins – born in England but surely of Celtic heritage – whose extraordinary life ended in Australia on Saturday at the grand age of 103.
Mullins was a man of war – he fought in the second world one, winning a Military Cross – and also of peace: he spent the rest of his life as a clergyman. Hence the unusual full title given to him in the London Times obituary: “Major The Rev Joe Mullins.”
His greatest moment as an army officer happened in Thailand in July 1945. But any comparisons with another MacGowan classic, the dreamy Summer in Siam, end there.
Mullins and his colleagues found themselves in a desperate struggle amid monsoon-flooded paddy fields against the occupying Japanese.
During the gunfight for which he won his MC, he was hit twice on the helmet: both bullets penetrating the steel but being deflected around its interior and somehow exiting again without killing him.
Of the second bullet, he recalled years later, “it actually came in near one ear and out near the other”.
Unlike Big Jim, I think, Joe Mullins was never a boxer. But he was named for one, indirectly, via an older relative who had first been so christened.
The most likely prize-fighter to have inspired this was a Joe Mullins born in 1875 on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, a place now twinned with Co Monaghan because so many of its settlers came from there.
Did that Joe Mullins “never throw a fight when they fight was right”, like Big Jim? I don’t know. But listing his many bouts, most often in Boston during the years on either side of 1900, one boxing history website notes that he “often violated the rules and fought dirty”.
The fights were not always right to begin with, either. Many climaxed with a knock-out or a towel thrown in. Others ended with the footnote “police intervened”.