Like most people, of any age, who follow pop music, I wasn’t surprised last Thursday to learn of Shane MacGowan’s death at 65—although I dismiss the comments saying, “Who’d have thought he’d live so long,” since rock ‘n’ roll is littered with stars whose actuarial tables have long surpassed premature obituaries—and while not especially sad (I didn’t know the man) since he’d long stopped produced music, it was a marker for the holiday season.
The Pogues’ most famous song, “Fairytale of New York” was released in 1987, and along with the unlikely 1977 duet of David Bowie (remarkable vocal) and Bing Crosby of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” it can be paired with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as a Christmas carol staple. Unlike John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” from 1971, which aggravates my boyhood pinched nerve every time I hear it this time of year (though none of his songs have aged worse than “Imagine”).
I saw the Pogues three times. The first, in 1985, just after their best album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash came out, was in a small Federal Hill bar/music venue in Baltimore by the name of 8X10. (The owner, Dickie Gammerman, rubbed some the wrong way, but I liked him, perhaps because he always paid his City Paper advertising bills on time.) It wasn’t, in the charity of the season, a stellar performance. My friend Granville Greene and I looked forward to it, and were up close, but in the middle of the second number, MacGowan, blasted on booze and God knows what else, fell off his stool, puked, and didn’t reappear. The band continued, but without Shane it wasn’t the same. It might be apocryphal, but it’s said that MacGowan, provided a limo by the club, spectacularly soiled the car after the show with his stream of regurgitation.
Three years later, in June of 1988, Michael Gentile and I saw the Pogues at New York City’s Roseland, and that was a Top-5 show for me. MacGowan, inebriation somehow kept in check, snarled and spit out the lyrics to the familiar songs like the great “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “If I Shall Fall From Grace of God,” to a rapt and raucous audience. And though the late Kirsty MacColl wasn’t present to sing her part on “Fairytale,” the song, not surprisingly, got the biggest roar of the night. A few years later, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, my wife Melissa and a bunch of friends saw the band at the Palladium on 14th St., and while the concert was pretty good—MacGowan was fired from the band the following year, and honestly, that’s when I lost interest in him and his several “comebacks”; Shane wasn’t exactly a shooting star or Icarus, but pretty damn close—it didn’t compare to the Roseland show.
My family wasn’t big on Christmas carols—although for two years in high school a group of my friends and I pretended it was 1925 and (in my case, badly) serenaded a dozen or so families in the Huntington neighborhood of Halesite. In truth, it was just an excuse for romantic adventures, or the lack thereof, and though I had no taste for the hot chocolate offered by some parents—a flask of stronger drink was passed around with my “guy” friends—it’s a very happy memory.
The picture above is of my mom and brother Jeff (for some reason with a crabby look, which was never in his nature) in mid-December at the family home in New Jersey—I’d venture Scotch Plains, but they had a number of Jersey addresses—and it’s a slender but handsome tree, and I especially like the strands of tinsel that dominate, as well as some familiar ornaments, a few of which I have and will be placed, with care, on our 2023 Christmas tree here in north Baltimore on Dec. 17th.
Look at the clues to see what year it is: Alger Hiss convicted of perjury; Walt Disney’s Cinderella is released; Mort Walker’s comic strip “Beetle Bailey” is created; TV game show Truth or Consequences debuts; Shirley Temple announces her retirement; David Johansen is born and Al Jolson dies; Beverly Cleary’s first novel, Henry Huggins, is published; A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West wins the fiction Pulitzer; George Orwell dies and Chantal Akerman is born; India becomes a republic; Teresa Brewer’s “Music, Music, Music” is #6 on Billboards’ year-end chart; Jacqueline Bouvier attends the Dublin Horse Show; and Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney star in Night and the City.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023