RIP Shane MacGowan: Watch the Celtic Punk Rocker Perform with Nick Cave, Kirsty MacColl & the Dubliners

Shane Mac­Gowan died yes­ter­day, less than a month shy of his 66th birth­day — and thus less than a month shy of Christ­mas, which hap­pened to be the same day. Though coin­ci­den­tal, that asso­ci­a­tion has made per­fect sense since 1987, when the Pogues, the Celtic punk band front­ed by Mac­Gowan, released “Fairy­tale of New York.” That duet between Mac­Gowan and Kirsty Mac­Coll (the sto­ry of whose pro­duc­tion we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) still reigns supreme as the Unit­ed King­dom’s Christ­mas song, and by now it tends also to make it onto more than a few hol­i­day-sea­son playlists in Amer­i­ca and across the world.

Giv­en the pop­u­lar­i­ty of “Fairy­tale of New York,” many lis­ten­ers know Mac­Gowan for noth­ing else. But he was, in fact, a fig­ure of con­sid­er­able impor­tance to the punk rock of the nine­teen-eight­ies and nineties, to which he brought not just a thor­ough­ly Irish sen­si­bil­i­ty but also a strong sense of lit­er­ary craft.

Few well-known punk rock­ers could inhab­it a place with a song in the way he could, or tap into the prop­er ver­nac­u­lar to inhab­it a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter. (Even the words he gave Mac­Coll to sing as a hard-bit­ten nine­teen-for­ties woman of the streets have caused no end of strug­gles with cen­sors.) For this rea­son, he had the respect of many anoth­er seri­ous song­writer: Nick Cave, for instance, with whom he record­ed a cov­er of “What a Won­der­ful World” in 1992.

Dur­ing much of Mac­Gowan’s life­time, his musi­cal achieve­ments were at risk of being over­shad­owed by the har­row­ing facts of his life, includ­ing his mas­sive, sus­tained con­sump­tion of drugs and alco­hol and the vari­ety of injuries and ail­ments it brought about. In 2015, British tele­vi­sion even aired a spe­cial about the replace­ment of his long-lost teeth — which, to judge by the Pogues’ per­for­mance of the folk song “The Irish Rover” with the Dublin­ers above, were bare­ly hang­ing on even in the late eight­ies. But in a way, this dis­solute appear­ance was an insep­a­ra­ble part of a dis­tinc­tive artis­tic spir­it. Shane Mac­Gowan was a rare thing in the world of punk rock (to say noth­ing of the world of hit Christ­mas songs): not just an Irish lit­er­ary voice, but an Irish lit­er­ary char­ac­ter.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

A Choir with 1,000 Singers Pays Trib­ute to Sinéad O’Connor & Per­forms “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U”

James Joyce Plays the Gui­tar (1915)

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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