Why Even Jon Bon Jovi Can’t Kill “Fairytale Of New York”

Taking back a holiday classic for Shane MacGowan, turns 63 on December 25th

Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan (Art: Ron Hart)

It’s that time of year again. When the rock ‘n’ roll world turns its collective attention to the Pogues and their bittersweet song released back in the fall of 1987, a song that’s become a Christmas favorite – a ritual playing – for millions of us. It ain’t no “Silent Night.”

“Fairytale of New York,” written by the band’s main singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan and multi-instrumentalist Jem Finer, was termed “the most popular Christmas song of the 21st century’ in Julien Temple’s excellent new documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.

It’s also certainly the seasonal song with the most curses. (I think the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” is right up there, too, but I won’t argue.)  “Fairytale” packs a gut-punch and brings a tear, no easy feat. Christmas is also MacGowan’s birthday; this year he’s 63.

The story of how it came together is well told by the Guardian. Put most simply: It’s gorgeous and elegiac, but harsh – the protagonist (MacGowan) and his girlfriend (guest singer, the late Kirsty MacColl) angrily break up and hurl vile accusations at each other, their life a debris field of broken dreams. 

But they both had their dreams of stardom. Sings MacGowan sadly: “I could have been someone.” MacColl answers with sweet defiance: “Well, so could anyone.” 

In Temple’s film, an interviewer compliments MacGowan on that exchange and he says, “Yeah, I was quite impressed with that as well.”

 

VIDEO: Crock Of Gold film trailer 

“It was a happy time for the group. It was our ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” he later tells Gerry Adams, the IRA leader and former Sinn Fein president. (Adams is one of three main “current” interviewers in the film, the others being Shane’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke and his pal, drinking buddy and co-producer Johnny Depp.)

“Truly great songs that are as emotionally powerful as ‘Fairytale of New York’ are very rare indeed,” said MacGowan’s pal Nick Cave on his website. “’Fairytale’ is a lyrical high wire act of dizzying scope and potency, and it rightly takes its place as the greatest Christmas song ever written. It stands shoulder to shoulder with any great song, from any time, not just for its sheer audacity, or its deep empathy, but for its astonishing technical brilliance.”

MacGowan, though, is nothing if not contradictory and mercurial. Later in the doc, he tells Clarke, “I don’t want to write anything like ‘Fairytale of New York’ [again].” She asks why not, he answers, “Because I hate it,” and Temple cuts to scene of Shane autographing a fan’s copy with an expletive. 

Let me take you back in time for a bit, pre-“Fairytale,” in fact, to pre-Pogues. The MacGowans had emigrated from Ireland to London when Shane was 6. He did not have much fun in London ‘til he discovered sex and drugs and punk. He formed a middling punk band called The Nipple Erectors, but found his true calling with the Pogues — a sextet featuring banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, accordion, tin whistle, bass and drums. 

The Pogues “Fairytale of New York ,” Island 1987

MacGowan sussed the increasing popularity of world music and thought Celtic music had a place on the scene. “We’ve got our own indigenous music on our doorstep, the Irish diaspora in London,” he says in the doc.  (By the way, everything he says is subtitled: Between his thick accent, his missing teeth and his frequent interruptive hiss-laugh, he’s pretty difficult to comprehend.) 

“The original Pogues lineup was very good and we were pissed [drunk] every night when we were on stage,” reflects MacGowan at one point. “Actually, we’re better when we’re sober but it’s not as much fun so we get drunk.” 

The first song Shane MacGowan wrote in 1984 for the Pogues, was “Streams of Whiskey.” At its onset, MacGowan dreams of hanging with the late alcoholic Irish novelist-poet Brendan Behan. When the chorus kicks in, MacGowan barks, “I am going, I am going, any which way the wind may be blowing/I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing!” It’s an acoustic-powered adrenaline rush, a “happy” song about the drinking and carousing life – a song of curses and camaraderie, of bloodshed and jail.

It was a rowdy entrée to the world of the London-based Pogues, whose music would prove to be a an oft-rough and wild, but strangely sinuous, mashup of Irish traditional music and punk rock. 

 

VIDEO: The Pogues “Streams Of Whiskey”

The first time I met MacGowan was in 1985 in London. We were to do an interview. He was walking down the steps of the band’s de facto clubhouse, Filthy McNasty’s Whiskey Café. He was grasping a tall beverage in each hand, a big smile on his face, his Jack-o-Lantern teeth in evidence.  

Shane and I had a chinwag. “There’s a certain anger in the Pogues, a certain desperation that we’re getting rid of and they’re getting rid of,” he said. “The people that come to see us, they like to have a good time, but they’ve got enough brains to realize there’s a load of shit about and that’s part of it.

“These kids, they’re absolutely devoted to the Pogues, the way I was to the Sex Pistols. I think they’re mad but I understand what it’s like to be that age. If we ever make it, we’ll probably let ‘em down like the Sex Pistols did. I hope we don’t. Who can say?”

As to the nature of the benefit show – it was an anti-heroin with money going to a drug crisis center – MacGowan said, “Half the people I know are junkies. It’s cheap, you can get it anymore.  Smack is a fucking killer. You see your friends and they just turn into completely boring berks who’ll do anything for a hit.”

Warning: Bittersweet irony ahead.

A few nights later, I’d see the Pogues at the packed-to-the-gills Mean Fiddler club. It was one of the best, most boisterous and crowd-bonding gigs of my life, the music rip-sawing through the room, bodies banging against each other with aggressive affection as helter-skelter tales of hilarity, debauchery, and redemption spun from the stage. Oh, and there were sad, poignant songs, too.

The songs often coursed along an embittered, defiant, spirited track. MacGowan expressed the tangled-up impulses of futility and hope as well as anyone He lived; he loved; he fought; he drank. He screwed up. He rose the next day to do it all again. Or his characters did. The lines were blurry.

I’ve interviewed and reviewed the Pogues – and Shane’s post-Pogues band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes – numerous times over the years. I once did a phone interview with him, listened to the playback and had to go tell my editor: I got nothing. Another time, at an Irish music festival outside Boston at a horse racing track, I spent the better part of an hour in the backstage tent, pre-show, talking about Pogues stuff and political stuff and everything else; we had a grand time (but it wasn’t an interview, it was a hang. I took no notes, had no recorder.) I came out of the tent, smiling and rejoined the friends I’d gone to the show with and one of them marveled, “Jesus, you’re drunker than Shane!” I disagreed but I suppose it’s a matter of opinion.

There were many ups, downs and turnarounds vis-à-vis the Pogues trajectory, with Shane famously fired in 1991 for chronic misbehavior and disappearances. (Remember that 1985 quote about letting people down?)

They carried on for a while with tin whistle player Spider Stacy, Shane’s best mate in the band, taking over lead vocals. Spider told me this in 1994: “The split was, in a way, as much for his good as for ours. God knows what could have happened. We might have been talking body bags, and that’s the last thing anybody would have wanted.”

In the film, MacGowan says he felt relief when he was sacked. He was angry that others had taken over a big chunk of the songwriting and had veered the band away from its Celtic roots. “I only started fucking up when I starred hating what we were doing,” he says. “The drugs and the drink mattered far more to me than the music because we weren’t playing the music I wanted to play anymore … I added heroin. Heroin is the drug you fucking turn to when life is so unbearable that you have to block it out completely and that’s why I became addicted to heroin.”

After some time away, MacGowan formed Shane MacGowan and the Popes – a damn good group, mind you – and it was a group where the ground rules stated MacGowan wrote the tunes and they were his backing band. They made two strong studio albums, The Snake in 1994 and The Crock of Gold in 1997, They, like the Pogues, kicked up a helluva Celtic punk storm in concert.

 

VIDEO: Shane MacGowan and the Popes Live

Twelve years ago, I saw MacGowan in Boston with the temporarily re-united Pogues. MacGowan’s stage presence was pretty much just holding on the mic stand and smoking. Which was fine – showmanship was never his forte. And the band was kicking it – all those now-classics once frozen in time, unleashed again.

After the gig, we were backstage, upstairs at the (now defunct) Avalon Ballroom. We were sitting on a banquette, his manager Joey Cashman, to my right, Shane to my left. Joey was enthusing how both he and Shane had gone through a detox program together and had kicked heroin. He was proud of his hard-fought, newfound sobriety.

I turned to Shane and asked how kicking heroin had gone for him. With a desultory look, he said, “If you had some, I’d do it.” Shortly, when they were clearing the backstage area, he pointed to the half-drunk liquor bottles that had been on the band’s rider, and told a helper to put them in a plastic garbage bag. A to-go bag. The bottles clanging, they walked down the stairs on their way back to the hotel or wherever the “party,” as it were, might continue.

Consumer footnote: There have been a myriad of covers of “Fairytale,” by KT Tunstall, Stars, the Dollyrots and Ed Sheeran and Anne-Marie, among others. Christy Moore’s is, no surprise, great. One of the worst – no, the worst – just came out. It’s by Jon Bon Jovi. As a service to Rock and Roll Globe readers, we will not be posting it.

 

VIDEO: The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl “Fairytale of New York “

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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