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.

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