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.
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.