In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
No matter how much longer than anyone’s expectations Shane MacGowan may have lived, the news that this polymath contradiction has died still manages to come as a body blow and a shock. Only last week there were sighs of relief, with his being discharged from his Dublin hospital bed, his home for most of the last year, with his wife Victoria citing he was being discharged for Christmas. Clearly it was to die, which he did, in his own bed.
Our job at Cover Me is not to replay all the tales of MacGowan’s excesses and exploits yet again; Lord knows, there will be plenty of that elsewhere. Here we come to celebrate his supreme gift of songwriting, through a prism of cover versions. MacGowan crafted songs that seemed drawn from the deepest well of Irish tradition, full of arcane and archaic imagery. He used a lexicon drawn from mythology, poetry and the gutter, yet imbued with a recognition of all the current ways and woes of the world. He thus confounded listeners, baffled by how all of this could emanate from his shambling and battered frame. How could someone who seemed barely able to speak manage to produce work of such beauty?
I caught the Pogues but once, early on in their career, mayhap 1986, in a dodgy venue in Birmingham, UK. It was, in turns, exhilarating and terrifying, the latter courtesy the howling, drunken mob of a pre-Christmas audience. Keeping a low profile, I was entranced, as the band rollicked through song after song after song. It was impossible to see the join between the traditional and the new, all soaked in a melee of whistle, accordion, banjo and guitars, the permaslurring frontman both totally out of it and totally in the moment. And this was well before they became TV favorites, on Top Of The Pops, first for their duet with the Dubliners, a version of “The Irish Rover,” and later with perennial Xmas favorite “Fairytale Of New York.” I was instantly hooked.
The first few albums have rightly become iconic–if anything, more so with the passage of time–as the quality of MacGowan’s lyricism has taken focus over the tunes. But, before losing sight of the tunes themselves, riddle me this: how many individuals and how many bands can lay claim to inventing a whole genre? That’s what MacGowan and the Pogues did, founding a genre that continues to have worldwide traction. In the same way as few places in the world fail now to have Irish pubs, so too there are Celtic punk bands from all four corners of the globe. But, returning to his lyrics, Bob Dylan apart, few writers have provoked such academic attention and praise as MacGowan, and there will be a whole lot more now.
So let’s have a look at some of those songs…