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. 

1 comment:

  1. Very strong intro, Murph. More, please (sooner rather than later).