Fairytale of New York - the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
In the final (and sixtieth) episode of the tv serial "The Wire", off duty policemen gather in their regular pub to give lead character Jimmy McNulty who has just been sacked, a "Detective's Wake", their traditional send-off for retiring police. As per tradition, they sing the Pogues "Freeborn Man of the USA". The ordinary Irish American, according to David Simon, the man behind "The Wire", can relate to the music of the Pogues.
In 2017, in the American Community Census conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.1% of the population of the US identified themselves as being Irish, that is of having Irish heritage. This adds up to around 33 million Americans, more than four times the population of the Republic of Ireland itself. That's over 10 million more than those who identified themselves as English in origin in the same survey. There could be many reasons for this, but one may be that the Irish Americans have a stronger sense of pride in their "homeland", especially in a country which famously had to fight the British (aka the English) for their independence.
Many Irish music traditionalists, however, felt that the Pogues were an insult to their musical heritage. These included top Irish concertina player Noel Hill who, in a radio debate, described their music as "a terrible abortion". But they missed the point. Most of the Pogues were Anglo Irish, or even English, or Irishmen living in England. They weren't singing Irish songs so much as singing songs of exile. Listening to them reminds me of the time I saw a bunch of young Afro-Caribbean teenagers from Hackney singing "Wimoweh".
Regular followers of this blog will know that in my opinion the best Christmas song of them all is Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" but "Fairytale of New York" runs it close. Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer merged their own "The Broad Majestic Shannon" with the love theme from Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for the film "Once Upon a Time in America" - itself a story of second generation New Yorkers - to fashion their meditation on failed dreams and a yearning for the "old country". For many Irish immigrants to America, and indeed England, the rosy future they envisaged never materialised and ended in poverty, alcoholism and squalor. Instead of romanticising Christmas, this is a hard-eyed look at a common reality: the failure of dreams and what it does to you. Here we have the sprawling drunkenness, the family rows and temporary truces of the yuletide season, and the hope that comes with the turning of the year.
The brilliant mix of Christmas cheer, nostalgia, hope and the ongoing tragedy of life combined with the explosive energy of the Pogues music and MacGowan and Kirsty MacColls' tough, but wistful vocals is a tour de force, resulting in a track you never get tired of hearing, and singing along to. A song of little moments that amounts to an epic.
Kirsty's response to McGowan's
"I could have been someone"
- "Well so could anyone
you took my dreams from me
when I first found you" -
followed by his plaintiff
"I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you...."
resonate the world over, as was shown by the massed spontaneous joining in of the audience with Kirsty in performances by the band.
A song of exile, ever more appropriate in a Christmas where many families can't be together as they had planned. and where, in one way or another, we are all exiles.