Tag Archives: The Pogues

A man you don’t meet everyday

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

“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?

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Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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Who’ll Stop The Rain? (and other songs)

rain

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

I’ve got rain on my mind. On my shoulders too, and my shoes, bag and trousers. But mainly on my mind.

It’s been pouring down for weeks in Dublin, or so it seems. If it’s not actually raining it simply feels like a moment of respite, a break in the clouds to emphasise the onset of a new downpour.

Everything is sodden. Thankfully, unlike the unfortunate citizens of Athlone and other areas along the River Shannon, Dublin has not been struck by floods. But it’s been wet – the rain’s been general all over Ireland, and generally all over our psyche.

The skyfall has kept me indoors more than I’d like, an upshot of which is more time spent listening to music. I use it to drown out the noise of the liquid falling outside.

Perhaps it’s cabin fever but this morning, as I woke to the 5am drip and pitter-patter, I thought it was time to combine the two – to play some rain songs.

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Rainslicker – Josh Ritter
“The last 40 days have been rain, the sun is a prodigal one that seems bent upon giving itself a bad name,” sings Ritter, in his song to a girl and her red raincoat.

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A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
Minnesotan Bob knew all about hard winters. He may have written his classic protest song about nuclear fallout but I still think of cumulonimbi, not mushroom clouds.

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Feels Like Rain – John Hiatt
“When the clouds roll in across the moon, the wind howls out your name, and it feels like rain..” A romance in need of an umbrella.

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A Rainy Night In Soho – The Pogues
Or Dublin, or Glasgow, or Portland, or Killarney. Anywhere precipitation meets a hangover.

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Who’ll Stop The Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Because someone will, right?

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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

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We tipped our hats to Mr Chevron

Phil Chevron

Phil Chevron, New York, 2011.
Pic: Marnie Joyce

In Manhattan’s desert twilight, in the death of afternoon,
We stepped hand-in-hand on Broadway,
Like the first men on the moon…

Then we said goodnight to Broadway, giving it our best regards,
Tipped our hats to Mr Cohen,
Dear old Time Square’s favourite bard.

Then we raised a glass to JFK, and a dozen more besides…

Fifteen years later I can’t remember if that was me or the emigrant in Thousands Are Sailing, Phil Chevron’s song about the 1980s’ Irish-American diaspora.

For a brief time in the sticky, smoky, all-night summer of 1998, we seemed interchangeable.

My stay in Manhattan in September of that year was a brief one; Chevon’s song was populated by those who went and remained and perhaps never returned.

I stumbled up Broadway to a pal’s apartment; his characters rode the 7 train home to a room in Woodside, tools under the bed, next to their suitcase.

Such was the ’80s immigrant experience Chevron drew from. But his thousands numbered others: those who left the hillsides of Galway and Mayo in the 1840s on coffin ships to work the railroads to California, police the Five Points on the Lower East Side, staff the five and dimes in Southie.

“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you? Or did they still make you cry?” Chevron’s immigrant asks these earlier generations.

Astor Place, NYC, 2000. Pic: Yinka Oyesiku

‘In Brendan Behan’s footsteps…’
Astor Place, NYC, 2000.
Pic: Yinka Oyesiku

By the time I reached New York such questions were, for many Irish immigrants, historical. The friend I was staying with left Ireland to work for a technology company in lower Manhattan, connected with the multinational flow of the city and never looked back.

‘Irish-America’ still existed – Clinton’s involvement in the nascent Peace Process of that year attested to its strength – but it was long removed from the Sweepstakes or the Clancy Brothers on Ed Sullivan.

Thousands Are Sailing, though released a decade earlier, captured much of this. The song chronicled an immigration born of opportunity, not solely desperation – though the two surely became mixed at times, during the dark hours in the “rooms that daylight never sees”.

It’s possibly the Pogues’ greatest song, no small boast given that this was a band that produced the most famous take on late-20th century Irish-America.

It’s certainly Phil Chevron’s.

This Saturday night in Dublin there’s a celebration of his work at the Olympia Theatre. Thousands Are Sailing is sure to be sung. The night’s a testimonial show because Phil Chevron has, in his own words, “lethal” cancer.

I won’t be there to see and hear it.

But I’ll tip my hat to Mr Chevron, and his finest song, the next time I find myself in the desert twilight of Times Square.

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We walked them to the station in the rain…

In the 12 months to April 2012 87,000 people left Ireland. Ten years earlier the corresponding  figure was 25,000.

The dark days of the 1950s and 80s are back, albeit with Skype this time.

Londonlovesbusiness.com covered the exodus today, with a contribution from yours truly.

A London-linked aside – wonder how many will end up as Kilburn barmen this time round?

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