“Will MacGowan make 40?”
That was the question buzzing around among my music-listening peers in December 1997. Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan had cancelled a pre-Christmas show with his then-band The Popes at the Olympia.
Days shy of his 40th birthday, it was rumored that the songwriter had collapsed, or was gravely ill, or on bender of some sort. Whatever the reason for the no-show, the consensus was that the Tipperary man had been lucky to make it this far, given his voluminous consumption of drugs and alcohol.
Twenty years later MacGowan is still around. What’s more, he’s still performing – albeit in a short bursts. He took to the stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last Sunday night, closing out a show staged in his honor.
MacGowan sang ‘Summer In Siam’ with Nick Cave and then performed a version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, rounding out a night which saw performances from the great, the good, and the ‘well, maybes’ of Irish and international music.
It sounded like a good evening, albeit one far removed from the merry, beer-stained chaos of any Pogues show I’ve attended – then again, it’s a long way from the Pindar of Wakefield to Earlsfort Terrace.
Plenty of classic Pogues’ songs got an airing, of course, including that Christmas one. But one composition that didn’t – as far as I know – was a song MacGowan wrote but never himself recorded.
‘The Dunes’ is a song of horror, a Famine survivor’s account of the burial of bodies in the sand dunes of a Co Mayo beach. Children play among the grave mounds, the bones of the dead are revealed, and grieving relatives pray.
Forms of the dead rise and dance on the sand. The singer, enraged by the deaths, shoots a bailiff and a landlord. He blames them for stealing food from the dying.
As verse, it has a simple, arresting cadence. To hear it performed – or declaimed – by Ronnie Drew is a whole different experience.
Shane MacGowan wrote a number of songs that will go down in the canon, but none of them are tragic, as angry and as chilling, as ‘The Dunes’. I can think of few others who could have written it – which is probably what makes MacGowan unique. Now, is it too late for him to record it?