Saturday, December 16, 2006

A New York Fairytale

Fairytale of New York is a complex emotional package, and arguably the best Christmas song ever written. It is best understood in relation to Irish emigration and the reality that, for many, lay behind the American Dream, writes Joe Cleary

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, "won't see another one"
And then he sang a song
'The Rare Old Mountain Dew'
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
The single of Fairytale of New York was first released in December 1987, reaching number one in the Irish and number two in the British charts that year. Now, nearly 20 years later, Shane MacGowan's and Jem Finer's masterpiece has established itself as the soundtrack to Christmas for a whole generation, and as one of the great secular carols of our times. With the exception of Joyce's The Dead or Patrick Kavanagh's Advent, no work of the 20th-century Irish imagination has managed to illuminate a particular sense of Christmas so well as that song has done.

Got on a lucky one
Came in 18 to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

Fairytale's success - artistic and commercial - owes much to its combining of several genres. It is at once a twisted love song, an emigrant ballad, and an anthem to the capital city of the 20th century. And it is perhaps for that reason that it is the only "Christmas classic" that one can hear without wincing in July.

Maybe Fairytale is also the best-known Pogues song because it sounds more like a mainstream pop song than most of their works do. Its lush melodies clearly make concessions to the schmaltziness of the Christmas-song genre, and the lyrics trade on the combined appeal of romantic love, New York and the American Dream to create a winning formula. It lacks the punk aggressiveness of some of their more rambunctious classics - The Sickbed of Cuchulainn, Sally MacLennane and If I Should Fall From Grace with God - and the republican politics and the macabre delirium tremens of many of their standards.

But even if sounds "soft", Fairytale is still a complex emotional package. The wonderfully slow, low-key piano lead-in is followed by the sudden surge of raw energy when the whole band comes in and the tempo speeds up and Kirsty MacColl's high-pitched voice edges aside Shane MacGowan's more wistful tones. Then the two leads spar magnificently, trading foul-mouthed insult ("You scumbag/ You maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot") for abusive put-down ("I could have been someone/ Well so could anyone"). The song manages a deft tightrope-walk between starry-eyed hope and world-weary disenchantment. The city evoked in Fairytale is neither a dazzling urban wonderland nor a spiritless wasteland. Instead, the song juggles both the utopian and the dystopian sides of the modern metropolis, weaving sinuously between a youthful sense of big-city excitement and promise ("You were handsome/ You were pretty/ Queen of New York city") and a jaded atmosphere of burnt-out wretchedness ("You're a bum/ You're a punk/ You're an old slut on junk/ Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed"). Very few pop songs, let alone Christmas songs, have nearly this edge or range.

LIKE MANY OF the best Pogues songs, Fairytale draws on an Irish tradition of the carnivalesque-violent knockabout or donnybrook - jousts of verbal wit, boasting, insult and repartee, and an outsized or grotesque indulgence of carnal appetite, whether for food, drink or sex. The tradition is of great antiquity, but in its modern form it has survived chiefly as a ballad tradition that records a peasant or plebeian sense of anarchy and excess that must be understood as a comic-serious riposte to the brutalities of colonial poverty and scarcity or to the travails of migrant communities swept by domestic economic underdevelopment into the great industrial maws of England, Scotland and the United States. In this tradition may be numbered masterpieces as various as Fled Bricend, Cúirt an Mhean Óiche, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, King Goshawk and At Swim-Two-Birds. The comic street songs that it inspired continued to be performed into recent times by the likes of the Dubliners or the late Frank Harte.

This tradition's spirit of gargantuan festive exaggeration features, in its most basic physical forms, in several Pogues favourites, such as The Irish Rover or Fiesta. In somewhat more politicised versions, such as Galway Races, the same sense of bibulous bonhomie is married to a demotic republicanism that celebrates the mingling of "the Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew, the Presbyterian" in the festive, non-working license of the race-meet.

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

The music of the Pogues was always connected to ideas of carnival and excess, and it is appropriate then that their single greatest hit should be a song about New York, the capital of capitals, on Christmas Eve, that late-20th century carnival of carnivals that has become a byword for demented 24-hour shop-till-you-drop extravaganzas of mass consumption. Fairytale of New York is a tribute to "the American Dream" that New York incarnates. The city's allure depends on the idea that the United States offers the abundance beyond appetite that was always central to carnival's appeal. Yet, though its affection for the US's most swinging city is sincere enough, Fairytale also shows the Pogues at their slyly subversive best, and the song's tribute to Christmas, New York, and the American Dream are all double-edged. Fairytale is, after all, a Christmas song that simultaneously manages to be an exceptionally foul-mouthed anti-Christmas song. It is a tender love song that is also a biting duet of mutually reciprocated disappointment. And it is an aria that invokes the city it hymns not as a place where emigrant dreams come true, but as a dream-busted landscape of the down-and-out - the lonely, the drug-addicted, the drunken, the homeless, the old, the incarcerated.

The wonder of New York is that it offers all of the extravagantly exaggerated carnal promise of the old mythical lands of Cockaigne. Yet, while acknowledging this, Fairytale is never so mesmerised as to forget the alienation behind all the hype. In sum, what we get is not a Sinatra-type eulogy to Manhattan's capacity to take one from "vagabond shoes" to being "king of the hill/ top of the heap", but rather a remarkable duet between an English socialist and an Irish republican hymning not so much the US itself as the dreams of abundance that emigrants have always attached to the country - dreams that the Empire State has always successfully exploited, and only rarely redeemed.

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing 'Galway Bay'
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

SONGS TAKE THEIR meaning, however, not just from their own words or music, but also from cultural contexts. When Fairytale was released in 1987, the Irish economy was in the doldrums and Northern Ireland was an unacknowledged war-zone. Ireland, North and South, was a production line for the low-skilled, turning out labourers and child-minders, barmen and waitresses, hotel-workers and janitors for London, New York, and Boston. Back then, whole sections of New York's north Bronx were populated by recently arrived "New Irish", living, often acrimoniously, between older, more assimilated Irish-American and Italian-American communities and African-Americans and other poor migrant peoples - Dominicans, Mexicans, Jamaicans, and Puerto Ricans. In the one-roomed Irish bars that studded the streets snaking from Bedford Park and Webster Avenue across Mosholu Parkway to Bainbridge Avenue, Gun Hill Road and northwards up to the more gentrified and "whiter" districts of Woodlawn and McLean Avenue, the Pogues were rarely off the jukeboxes. In the run-up to December 25th, the few with Green Cards (and savings) returned home for Christmas, while those without Green Card or savings or yen for home hunkered down for another makeshift festive debauch in Gotham.

Fairytale's combination of jaunty excitement, nostalgia, acrimony and washed-out despair is of that time and place. The young Irish who congregated over Christmas week in the Roaring Twenties, the Phoenix, the Black Thorn, the Village, Ireland's Thirty Two, Fiona's, Fibber Magees or Rumours, knew the economic and the emotional condition that the Pogues had captured.

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

Today, the "New Irish" are home. Ironically, many of them now employ people who are themselves labelled the New Irish and when Irish people travel to New York these days it is often on those demented overseas shopping extravaganzas that mark the time of the Tiger. And if Ireland has changed, so has New York. The al-Qaeda bombers of September 11th punctured as great a hole in the American Dream as they did in downtown Manhattan. New York may have been the capital of the 20th century, but it is unlikely to be the capital of the 21st.

But back in the 1980s, when the Irish were still a dirty job people, the celebration of lumpen excess that was the trademark of so many of the Pogues songs had a radical edge. They sang of the unrepentantly shiftless world of the "undeserving poor" - ne'er-do-well navvies, brawling republicans, and free-spending rakes. To many here it all smacked of a wretchedly stereotyped Ireland of Victorian caricature, but the songs played back then to Irish communities from Queens to Cricklewood that had some idea of what it was like to be one of the hod-carrier peoples of the world and, as such, to be associated with lawlessness, fecklessness, squalor, spongerism, the wrong side of emigration law, and terrorism.

THIS CHRISTMAS, MOST Irish-born people over 40 will have either experienced emigration themselves or had family members who went away; few under 30 know anything of it. To them, the notion of the Irish as migrant menials, spongers or terrorists seems distinctly "foreign". And so, when Fairytale plays in the shops of Temple Bar, Tullamore or Templemore, it may well be the "New Irish" who now most viscerally appreciate its curious mix of expectancy and despondency.

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

When the bubble bursts here, will the cycle of emigration begin again? One hopes not; it would be a remarkable achievement if that cycle of human export could be relegated to folk-memory and folk-song. But for now at least, Fairytale can be a reminder to the rest of us that capitalism - in New York, here, wherever - divides its spoils no less unevenly today than two decades ago. And when our home-grown neoliberals summon up the sorry ghost of the 1980s to remind us we have never had it so good, MacColl's and MacGowan's duet can be a reminder that not all back then was misery and despair; there was also resilience and resistance.

Joe Cleary, 'A fairytale steeped in truth', The Irish Times, 16 December 2006, Weekend Review 7,

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