Other Peoples' Songs: "Lullaby of London"
RIP Shane MacGowan
Carson woke me this morning with the news that Shane MacGowan had died. I was still in half-sleep when she told me. The news certainly didn’t come out of the blue; I imagine obit departments around the world have had a final write up of Shane loaded in the barrel for over thirty years, ready to go. It’s some surprise that he survived as long as he did. I’d been privy to his wife Victoria’s occasional photo posting on Instagram — Shane had been in the hospital for quite a while now with encephalitis. He looked like a dying man. And yet still there was a shock. Shane MacGowan was dead. Shane MacGowan is longer among the living.
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I think he’ll be in good company among the dead, though. Seems like he had an intimate relationship, a fascination with the dead. He wrote some of the best songs about the dead and the dying. Cuchulainn in his death bed; the wake for an Irish-American boxer; the murder of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. I suppose a lot of my songwriting about the dead and dying can be attributed to Shane’s influence on me.
I first heard The Pogues in 1988; I was thirteen. I saw an ad in Rolling Stone magazine proclaiming them to be “the best punk band since the Sex Pistols.” In the photo, they didn’t look like a punk band, or at least not what I expected a punk band to be. There were eight people in the shot, for one thing (weren’t all punk bands tidy three and four-pieces?), and they were not wearing the de rigueur punk uniform of ripped shirts and jean — they were all in black suit jackets and slacks. How could this be? I had to find out; I struck out for Pegasus Music at the Capitol Hill Mall and picked up a copy of If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
I distinctly remember — it is clear as day — pressing play on the tape deck in our living room and hearing the first notes of the title track. This, I was not prepared for. What the fuck is this? This is punk? There was accordion, there was penny whistle, there was a banjo for Christ’s sake. But then I heard Shane’s voice singing “If I should fall from grace with God / Where no doctor can relieve me / If I’m buried ‘neath the sod / But the angels won’t receive me” and I was floored. Who was this creature, this gravel-voiced demon, spitting out these words? It all clicked. Took me a second, but it clicked. A friend of mine was there with me; we were both bowled over by the sound. I remember being speechless, agog. This is my memory: we were silent, but then burst into laughter and started maniacally dancing around the room, part slam dance, part square dance. The living room walls couldn’t contain us. We ran out into the snowy Montana evening, found a can of spray paint, and scrawled “PUNK ROCK” on an old plastic sled in the back yard.1
The Pogues’ melding of traditional Irish music, American country, and punk rock was a revelation, an improbable collage. I can’t think of another genre-mixing music exercise that is so tied to a single creator. There are many imitators; none can do it with the authenticity and power of the Pogues. They became a genre unto themselves. And that is so much due to Shane, to his voice, to his writing, to his life. He was not a person donning a disguise to sing these songs of debauchery and disease; he lived it.
I’d spent yesterday putting together a cover of The Shins’ “Those To Come” and I was going to share it today. It was honoring a request from my last post. But then this news came and I knew I had to get this out of me first. So here’s my cover of “Lullaby of London,” one of the songs from If I Should Fall From Grace With God, which is forever etched in me, as only a song imprinted on you at thirteen can be. Thank you, Shane. May the angels bright watch you tonight and keep you while you sleep.
I think I recounted this episode in my book about the Replacements’ “Let It Be.” I misremembered the record on the stereo in that book: it was the Pogues, not the Replacements. Call it autofiction.