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.