[This post originally ran on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, but since life is conspiring to prevent me from writing new stuff, I present…a rerun!]
On St. Patrick’s Day, my block is a riot of counterfeit green. My neighbors, the locals, and crowds of outsiders embarrass and degrade themselves, and the sidewalks are rampant with bellowing drunks: “I’m not Irish, but I’m Irish today! Wooooo!” As the Irish economy continues to shrink, an international day of blarney may be unseemly, but there’s no better time to fall back on the Pogues.
With their drinking songs, tin-whistle ditties, and rousing odes to old-school Irishness, the Pogues are the sons of a more squalid age. Shane MacGowan, their lead singer and most prolific lyricist, has long exemplified the beer-blasted Irishman: profane, incoherent, staggering, sad, by turns violent and wistful, poetic and crass. By mumbling through lines like “Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born,” MacGowan reinforced the image of a culture of cackling, chaotic brawlers whose sole goal in drinking themselves to death was to get in on the first round in Hell.
So yes, the Pogues have cultivated a cartoonish image, but they deserve credit for a more profound accomplishment: they were the unlikely vanguard of Irish internationalism before all that “Celtic Tiger” hype took hold. You can see it in their lyrics, which include references not only to Cuchullain and Cromwell but also to Rhineland mythology, the works of Jean Genet, and, in a funny folk cover, Jesse James. Sure, the Pogues eulogize Irish novelist Christy Brown as “a man of renown from Dingle to Down,” but they also sing about Gallipoli, they invoke Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” and they even flirt with Coleridge. They croon about being lost in Louisiana, they bemoan being down and out in Nepal, and they dabble in Spanish history, offering the only ode to Federico Garcia Lorca in which a crass reference to “the faggot poet” could possibly be seen as sympathetic.
Often, the Pogues depart from folk ditties to dabble in tunes that evoke Guinness-flecked spaghetti Westerns or Celticized Bernstein soundtracks, and they throw themselves into the Cole Porter songbook without explanation or apology. Listen to “House of the Gods” and you’ll get a sense of how much thought goes into making such clangy, boisterous, intoxicating music. MacGowan’s goofy song about meeting a transvestite hooker on a Thai beach includes an opening and closing flourish that’s wonderfully wry: it’s a high-strung, ironic rendition of the melody from “You Still Believe in Me,” a sincere love song by—who else?—the Beach Boys.
Of course, the Pogues can be plainly sincere, especially when singing about squandered dreams. “Fairytale of New York,” MacGowan’s duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, has become a lachrymose Christmas favorite, but its popularity overshadows the superior “Thousands are Sailing,” guitarist Phillip Chevron’s bittersweet tale of Irish immigration:
In Manhattan’s desert twilight,
In the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon,
Chevron’s characterization of the Irish as both celebrating and fleeing their “fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies” combines regret, wistfulness, superstition, and self-loathing; that’s the sort of artistry that makes the Pogues more than a novelty band with a repertoire of drinking songs. Only a lyricist who’s seen the rest of the world could think so clearly and write so eloquently about Ireland’s place within it.
Granted, the Pogues are improbable spokesmen for Irish internationalism—and not only because half the band is actually English. Watch the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace and marvel at footage of Shane MacGowan—drunken, petulant, rotten-toothed, and suicidal. Could this incoherent bum really be the literate soul who wrote the Pogues’ most poignant songs? Did he really go to Thailand, Nepal, New York, and Mississippi? Is there really a Rain Street where he observed Ireland in all its Chaucerian glory, or was the whole business born of drugs and booze?
Who knows? Today, raise a few pints to the Pogues. When a world full of expats looked back with nostalgia, the Pogues looked beyond Irish shores. If you just need to drink and be raucous and weepy, they gave you a suitable soundtrack. If you aspire to be worldly and wise, they gave you good songs for that, too.