Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Old Main Drag

The song starts with the sustained drone of an accordian note, sounding like a horn ringing out across the docks signalling that it's time to get to work. A winding, driving banjo figure begins an almost reel which leads into light, fairy-winged acoustic guitar strumming. Then comes Shane's voice, matter of fact, mobile, and comparatively young sounding.

When I first came to London I was only sixteen
With a fiver in my pocket and my old dancing bag
I went down to the Dilly to check out the scene
And I soon ended up on the old main drag

"The Dilly" is Picadilly Circus, a main thoroughfare in Central London and the heart of the tube network. At the time of the song's writing, it was the British equivalent to Times Square in New York, dangerous, dirty, and filled with rats. Today, with gentrification, it's the equivalent to 21st century Times Square. It's clean, Disneyfied, and a great place to buy Royal Wedding merchandise.

The song details a nihilistic descent into homelessness, drug addiction, and sex work. From the 1970s onwards, the London that MacGowan called home saw homelessness rise exponentially as neoliberal policies (at the time called monetarist) were implemented first, with sad eyes and apologetic shrugs by a dying Labour government at the behest of the International Monetary Fund as security on a multi-billion pound loan, and then with gleeful abandon by Margaret Thatcher's government, stripping the needy of the services that the public had funded through taxation. The people at the bottom, on the ground, suffered.

When fame and riches came his way, Shane MacGowan, skinny and underdressed for the bitter winter nights, could be found on the streets of London, desperately pulling bundles of twenty pound notes from his pockets and pushing them into the hands of those on the streets. His attitude was, considering his alcoholism and drug abuse, "there but for the Grace of God go I." Through imagination and observation, he sends the listener this missive from the bottom rung. Unlike the joyless sanctimony of Ralph McTell's Streets of London, which rings with paternalistic pity, Shane knows enough to be able to hint at the escape that the early days of a dead end lifestyle can offer and even some of the pleasure that can be found at the bottom of the heap before forces out of your control overwhelm you. Shane has described himself, in an effort to contextualise his songwriting, as a journalist and this song is one of his best claims on that title.

 There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old man with the money would flash you a smile

Reportedly, The Old Main Drag was one of the first songs written for the band, so this is one of Shane's earliest references to the LGBT experience. True to form, he uses politically incorrect language mixed with a prurient interest in what he perceives to be the interestingly subversive sexual activities of gay men topped off with compassion with their shared humanity. MacGowan can err too far away from that compassion and, despite the bulk of his work being nearly forty years old at this point, the tendency to occasional unthinking bigotry will not be easily forgiven as being from another less tolerant era.

In the dark of an alley you'd work for a five
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag 

Rod Stewart was gearing up to do a cover of this song but he, or possibly one of his people, baulked at croaking the above lines about wanking men off in an alley for a five pound note. It's possible he considered that work to be worth more renumeration. Stewart did a respectable version of Ewan MacColl's song Dirty Old Town on his 1969 album An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down album, though the Pogues' D.O.T. is widely considered to be definitive. The Pogues would later cover his signature song Maggie May live with the opening line changed to "Fuck off, Maggie..."

  In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
But there were boys in the cafes who'd give you cheap pills
If you didn't have the money you'd cajole or you'd beg
There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag 

The song blearily relates time spent knocked out on tuinol, the barbituate derivative that Sid Vicious took thirty of at the Chelsea Hotel the night that Nancy Spungen was murdered. The bridge comes in, with the band holding the same chord five times like a stuck record. In cinema, we would see  calendar pages falling away before our eyes to wordlessly signify time passing, but Jem Finer's conceptual idea of staying on the same note to do the same is a neat way of expressing that musically. It's the kind of playful musical ingenuity that traditional folk music would sniff at. Then, with a skip and a surge, a new, higher musical figure begins.

 One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag 

In 1895, Oscar Wilde charged the Marquess of Queensbury with libel on the dead end of Vine St, where the police station sat until 1997. The street was named after a very old public house called the Vine, which itself possibly took its name from a vineyard which existed on that site since the Roman days. An apt place for the narrator to take a beating from thug policeman who can brutalise the dispossessed with impunity. The police appear again in the next verse to push around the "old ones who were on their way out."

  And now I'm lying here I've had too much booze
I've been spat on and shat on and raped and abused 

That second line is Spider Stacy's, who laughingly uses it as evidence for his being the secret genius behind the Pogues. It's telling to learn that the words, so often credited solely to Shane MacGowan, were also open to the genuine collaborative process of the band.

 I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag

Shane stops singing and simply says the last three words, as the music grinds to a dead halt and hopelessness overcomes, pulling the listener away from this world with as much quickness as they had been gently brought in. This last section reminds me of the feeling you get as you refuse to stop and talk to a figure who sits on the street and hear their story because you've got to be somewhere and don't want to spare any change. Time has not made this song less relevent. In 2018, the reported numbers - no doubt a fraction of the true figure - of those sleeping rough rose for the seventh year in a row.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Body of An American

The Body of an American by the Pogues is the sound of a great band at its peak. A masterpiece. In best Joycean fashion, it's a character study of a dead man, seen through the eyes of his mourning relatives. It isn't just a superb, cinematic lyric, but an entire serving of musical perfection. The lyric begins with cadillacs, American cars, in Ireland, being coveted by local tinkers - Irish travellers. When playing live, The Clancy Brothers used to introduce the song Red Haired Mary, about a man falling in love with a traveller girl, with the words “I’m sure you all know what tinkers are. You’re looking at four of them. They’re travelling people, with no home to go to ever.” That symbol of the wealth of the United States being threatened with hotwiring is an immediate undercutting of Irish-America's blarney romanticisation of “the home country”, subverting expectations from media like The Quiet Man, the John Ford romantic comedy film from 1952 about an American boxer coming home Ireland and finding it a virtual green heaven. Here, an old boxer by the name of Big Jim Dwyer, has died and his coffin is brought back to “...the shores where his Fathers lay…” The music here is soft and plaintive, leaving the potential for when it starts to pump out aggressively to feel all the more of a kick.

An unnamed narrator has taken the journey over the Atlantic and finds themselves in the midst of an Irish wake. Conversations wander back over his life, as whiskey gets the blood and music both pumping. They talk about the poor treatment meted out by the nativists to him, how he had to reaffirm that he was just as much an American as the rest of them "I'm a freeborn man of the USA" before hitting them out with a well earned clout. Jim Dwyer became heavyweight champ in Pittsburgh but in a bar fight with a little Italian guy "Tiny Tartanella" he doesn’t go the distance. Dwyer tried to avoid conscription, being champ and all, but the corruption of the 1930s American boxing world meant he went away to fight the fascists.

Dwyer’s time in the war is covered in the soaring middle eight, with a musical quote, ska inflection and all, from The Skatalites’ version of the theme from Guns of Navarone. The Guns of Navarone is a film made in 1961 starring Gregory Peck, scored by the Russian born Dimitri Tiomkin, perhaps best known for the music present through High Noon for which he won the Oscar. The Skatalites, the best known proponents of first wave that Jamaican music called ska which would evolve into reggae, recorded a cover with genius producer Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1965. It eventually got to number 36 in the British charts, helped along by the mod movement and the large numbers of West Indian immigrants in the country. The Specials - who did with the rocksteady sound of ska what the Pogues did to Irish music, put a beat to it, speeded it up, and made it relevant once again - recorded a cover in 1980 for their EP The Special AKA Live! which would have made the song fresh in the memories of the band. When the Body of An American was played live, the band played up the ska beat in this section all the more, to MacGowan’s reported chagrin.

After the war, Big Jim Dwyer is once again the triumphant champion in America. "I'm a freeborn man of the USA" wasn't an angry proclamation to racists by then, but the pride of a man who has found his place."This morning on the harbour/When I said goodbye to you" the narrator is leaving the home country once again, filled with whiskey and sentiment.

"Fare thee well gone away/There's nothing left to say/'cept to say adieu/To your eyes as blue/As the water in the bay" is a lyric that might be misunderstood as being from Dwyer’s point of view, but it is not, it is the narrator bidding his farewell to the departed on the boat back to Amerikay.
"I'm a freeborn man of the USA" isn't said in anger or even pride at this point but as a eulogy, the words, the motto, of the dead echoing in the ears of the narrator as they boat back to Pittsburgh. Whatever the bigots may have claimed, the final answer is in the song’s title. What was buried on Ireland’s shores was the body of an American. The instrumental outro is the keening air, the lament of the loss of a friend and the celebration of a full life.

For a song that deals with place, and history, nationalism, life and loss, MacGowan claims that his ambitions when starting to write it were far lower than the finished piece. “I just wanted to use the word “pisskey” in a song” he said, “as in pissed on whiskey.” It was recorded in London in 1986 with Elvis Costello producing. It's worth noting that Costello also produced the Specials, collaborating with the Coventry band on their acclaimed debut. Shane and Costello’s rivalry, heavy with voodoo, suspicion and superstition will be covered elsewhere. As in their other collaborations, Costello draws out, by whatever method, a flawless vocal from the singer rich with emotion and energy.

It was used by David Simon in the Wire, his critically adored series about the war on drugs, where its greatest fame may currently lie. The verses and the chorus follow a similar chord structure, with a CFCCFG progression being swung on its head for the hook. The band juggle the time structures tied to the narrative of the song with masterful aplomb. They’re at the height of their abilities and confidence. Even a year earlier, the Pogues couldn’t have arranged and played it as well as they did on the Poguetry In Motion EP. Fearnley and Finer’s contribution to the song cannot be understated. It’s an inspiring, gritty, beautiful song deep with understanding and longing and joy.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Church of the Holy Spook

In 1993, after some years of artistic and commercial decline, Shane returned to live performance. It had been two years since he had been sacked by the band which had made his name. The gig was, with amusing cruelty, described by an audience member as "...the first time Shane has been better than the band.” He was backed by a group of no-marks and Yes-Men that had been named the Popes. MacGowan had been on a years long hedonistic holiday prior to appearing Finsbury Park's Fleadh, the festival for the sizable London Irish diaspora. The band were dressed all in black suits as they played two new songs, a traditional rebel number, and a set of hardy Pogues standards. In the midst of the set, they debuted Church of the Holy Spook. It wasn't quite finished.

The studio version begins "My Daddy was a sinner / but my mother was a saintly person / I ruined my life / by drinking, bad wives / taking pills and cursing" The lyrics and some of the melody are inspired by Old-Time Religion, an ancient gospel song first written down 1873. It's notable for its extended use in the 1960 Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind, a fictionalised retelling of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial was perhaps the first time modern science clashed publically with the growing fundamentalist Christian movement.

 Give me that old-time religion,
Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
It's good enough for me 

MacGowan twists this to be irreverently about Catholicism and his systems of faith system in general and roars in the banging chorus:

Give me that Church of the Holy Spook,   
Church of the Holy Spook
Church of the Holy Spook it's good
Enough for me

It was good for my dear old Daddy
And my dear old Mammy too
Give me that Church of the Holy Spook, 

I don't need nothing new 

The concept of the Holy Spirit appears throughout the New Testament. Scholars agree that it was most likely added to the texts a few centuries after Christ, as priests both pre- and post-Nicene attempted to turn the story of the Palestinian preacher Jesus of Nazarus into the literal son of God (see the work of Bart D. Ehrman). Notably, according to an enduring apocryphal tale, the concept of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the overly complicated idea of three-of-something-in-one making a singular being, was explained by St. Patrick to the pagans of 4th century Ireland with a three leafed clover.

Shane is not limited to Catholic theology in the lyrics. He reaches again, as he did in Sunnyside of the Street, to Buddhist ideas. "My tao is like a river, so float along with me" he sings. The "tao" is a Chinese word meaning way, or route. In Buddhism it is the unnameable, it is everything and the connection to everything. Shane welds this to his enduring themes of painful Blakean excess and the Roman Catholic chuch. The suffering of the artist ("rock 'n' roll you crucified me") is borne in the name of a cocktail of expressive reasoning and gut feelings leading to absolution. The writer's work connects them to the spiritual world. "Music is everywhere," said Shane. "It's in the trees and the wind and the rivers. It's in the fucking stones."

Musically, it sounds like much of the rest of the Popes' Snake album. Heavy handed punky/hard rock guitar welded to inelegant banjo and a backbeat that won't quit. It opens with a catchy, syncopated revved up run through of the G-C-D chords, a structure that MacGowan is well familiar with. It's a piece that, while flawed, has a claim to still being a great song. .

Your author has a personal connection to the song. In 2014, Paul McGuinness, the man who started out as a roadie to the Pogues and became the guitarist for the Popes, suffered a serious brain injury sustained in a car accident and was confined to hospital for some time. Despite not being well himself, Shane agreed to head a benefit concert in July of that year at the Underworld in Camden, just days after a lackluster gig with the reunited Pogues in Hyde Park. Shane never made it to the stage, but I did.

Earlier in the evening, I'd watched one of the Dubliners play with a callow band of unworthies with terrible, ancient, pandering patter. I caught him, 73 year old Sean Cannon, on his way to backstage with a handshake and told him that I'd seen the Dubliners at Fairfield Halls in Croydon in 2006. "Ah, I remember that one, right enough." He lied, wistfully.

An older guy with a silly moustache and a love for the limelight was master of ceremonies. Tom Creagh, a mate of MacGowan's from Nenagh. He went up, clearly confident in his ability to control the crowd when, at the last minute, he told everyone that Shane - the man's whose name was on the marquee outside alone - wasn't coming. This was after tolerating about six mediocre Irish bands for hours and, at least, watching one of the Dubliners again, which was an unexpected bonus. Benefit or not, though, I was pissed off and went to try and sort a refund out of the box office. It was closed. I asked the security who I should talk to about getting and they said;

"You need to talk to the promoter."
"Where can I find him?"
"I don't know. Oh! He was just talking onstage a minute ago."
"Right, cheers."

I went back downstairs into the venue. There was Creagh up onstage, having a whale of a time, singing songs with the band, doing the setlist that was for MacGowan. No fucking chance of me getting my twenty quid back. I wheedled my way backstage past a distracted bounder, and stood stage right watching the workaday mediocre opening musicians fill in for the mild enjoyment of a tired audience. I could hear the guys whisper to eachother about who was going to take the lead on the next song. And then the next.

"Church of the Holy Spook? Anyone know that one?"
I stepped forward, quickly and confidently.
"I'll take it."

Before anyone really knew what was going on, there I was, centre stage, singing my little heart out. I did a fine MacGowan impersonation and moved with the spirit of the music. What a great time, I got my twenty quid's worth there.

Afterwards, the musicians gently, but definitely firmly, nudged me away from the mic and to the very back of the stage. A security guard motioned me off, in a not unfriendly fashion. I assumed I would be thrown out, which was fine, the night had definitely peaked for me. I got offstage, went toilet and was surprised that no one made me leave. I left anyway.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Streams of Whiskey

"[...I]ts blatant adulation of drunkenness. Its blatant adulation of an IRA man who became a writer, who made a lot of money, and who then drank himself to death." - A Drink With Shane MacGowan by Victoria Clarke, 2001.

At 16, Brendan Behan left his working class Dublin home for a boat to Liverpool. In his suitcase was potassium chloride, sulphuric acid, gelignite, detonators, and the rest of what he termed his "Sinn Fein conjuror's outfit." For his failed attempt to bomb the city's docks, Behan served, at His Majesty's pleasure, in a series of young offenders institutes all over England.

Later, in Mountjoy, Ireland's largest prison, he began to write. On his release, Behan became a professional playwright and author. He would diligently write at his desk in long hand from nine in the morning until midday. Then it was time to head off down the pub and spend the rest of his day drinking & talking & drinking with the finest generation of writers his beloved country had yet sired. Behan was a sociable alcoholic, adventurous, talkative, given to singing old rebel songs at the drop of a hat. He simultaneously wrote like a wild night out with a great friend in fine form and like a soulful poet capable of bringing the greatest humanist beauty out in any situation. The prison autobiography of his youth in English jails, Borstal Boy, made him an international figure and gave him the platform and status which allowed him to spend time with famed luminaries from the mythical United States.

Fame caricatured him. He allowed his creativity to atrophy as he appeared on talk shows and lived out the ignoble fate of the theatrical stage Irishman. His sophistication and rollicking genius was rounded off, worn down. The public wanted a fun drunk and that's what he strove hard to give them. He had become caught in the mousetrap of his own image and was dying slowly and painfully in its jaws. They buried him in 1964 at 41. His last few books had been composed in New York hotel rooms, with Behan slurring haltingly into tape recorders. The genius was gone. 

Shane MacGowan was born in 1957 on December the 25th.  He sprang from a large family similar to Behan's in its pro-Irish Republican views, in its literary tastes, and in the traditional music that surrounded them both from birth. His mother and father sent him back and forth across the Irish sea. He was an intelligent child, winning a scholarship to a prestigious Westminster school which would go on to expel him for using drugs. As his father, Maurice MacGowan, would say to an interviewer many years later, "...he had a brilliant brain. He still does, a few billion brain cells later."

Shane struggled with mental health issues from a young age and had to spend time in the barbarous halls of an NHS ward which was still prepared to make use of Electroshock therapy on society's most vulnerable. Shortly on leaving the caring hands of the state's mental health butcher shop, Shane discovered the punk rock explosion, which he leapt into with complete commitment, earning the fame and notoriety that he had been yearning for as a "face" in the old mod sense, someone who gets photographed and seen in clubs dressed to the nines. He started his own punk rock band, called the Nipple Erectors, who we'll talk about much more later.

In the context of early 1970s Britain, it makes complete sense for Shane to identify so strongly with such a joyfully, belligerently Irish figure as Brendan Behan and especially one with such a fine facility for mocking the oppressors and bullies that both men would have encountered on the English mainland. Like the young muslims of 2015, a young Irish person of the seventies would have had to contend daily with the bigotry and self righteousness disguised as patriotism from thuggish, ill-informed idiots of all classes. With an IRA bombing campaign ongoing, and Union Jack waving hooligans on the march, armed with their belief in collective guilt, Shane, like so many in his situation, was forced to decide whether to disown the culture and history he'd been brought up to revere or to double down on it.   He chose the latter, walking around central London with the initials of the Irish Republican Army written on his thin forehead in biro.

In 1983, he founded the Pogues, which grew from an attempt to weld the Irish music of his youth with the punk rock which had made his name and the hard beat music of the Animals and Van Morrison. The first song he wrote with that brief was Streams of Whiskey, a song about his idol, Brendan Behan.

 The song details MacGowan enjoying a dream meeting with Behan. It's notable that the conversation he imagines steers strictly along the lines of lifestyle rather than politics. By the time of his death, Behan had grown more understanding towards the hated British. With the empathy of any great writer, he repudiated his youthful treatment of civilians as legitimate targets. In Streams of Whiskey, the two speak only of "...the crux of life's philosophies..." which Behan-written-by-MacGowan says is to have the best time possible whilst leaving sorrows and sadness in the rear view mirror. In the song's least euphonic but most emotionally representative line, we're told that "...there was nothing ever gained by a wet thing called a tear..."

The lyrics are understatedly eloquent and without pretension or artifice. On the album version, the words are sang with a piercing, aggressive joie de vivre. Shane's voice on Red Roses For Me, the Pogues' 1984 debut, is less developed than it would become, straining for high notes when it would later swoop up with grace. Streams of Whiskey is a three-chord song, composed on an acoustic guitar by someone with less than professional facility on that instrument, but it is far from simple. The rhythm and melody are both complicated. It's very hard to nail down the timing of the song. 

This is not a song about Behan's alcohol addiction or self destruction. It's about escape, about a life led outside the narrow confines of suffering, work and toil. It's about exhilarating possibilities that surround all of us when we go looking for them. Streams of Whiskey encourages resilience, individuality, and a bullheaded refusal to compromise with a busted world. 

It isn't the greatest song that MacGowan would write. But it does contain the bones of what he'd spend his best work investigating. As a first step, as a foundation for what was going to come after, he couldn't have done better.