By: Logan K. Young – March 8th at the 9:30 Club, Washington DC
I think it’s time to add Shane MacGowan to that vaunted roster of revered Irish writers—above Heaney and Ó Faoláin, tied with Synge and Kavanagh maybe, but out of reach of Beckett, Joyce, or Wilde. Alas, I have to qualify my lead because the last thing this brilliant sot from Tipperary has done of any real merit was a haunting guest vocal on the Townes Van Zandt classic “Waitin’ Round to Die,” nearly two years ago now. A man of many fine words and famously few teeth, it’s been heartbreaking to watch him become another Brendan Behan—a stale caricature of what the rest of the Western world expects from its Irish men of letters. In fact, it’s precisely because of MacGowan’s old habits living hard that the band has dubbed their present tour—their absolute final one here on American soil, they swear—”A Parting Glass with the Pogues.”
Taken at face value, that’s pretty much all a Pogues concert is anymore, especially one on Shrove Tuesday. Large, sweaty, and unbearably Anglo, it’s mostly a celebration of libations, thrown for those who don’t know their bodhrán from their penny whistle. Present-day Pogues shows can quickly degenerate into mass karaoke, where everyone is just Irish enough to bark along the refrain “I’m a free-born man of the USA” without irony. Which, it must be noted, this particular crowd did with surprising aplomb. And that’s great, really. It is. After all, it’s quite rousing, if not exactly welcome, to witness a sea of green (or orange, if you’re Protestant) slur and teeter together, in time, to “The Body of an American.” I doubt Big Jim Dwyer would have wanted it any other way.
But for every good drinking song MacGowan ever wrote, he’s penned at least two better love ones. And quite frankly, that’s how I hope he’ll be remembered, as a top-tier lyric poet. With enough Jameson (or Bushmills, if you’re a Protestant), any hack can get a drunk to hum a pub tune. But to compose a song like “London Girl”, well, you can’t really teach that—not in Belfast, nor in London. For those sober enough for the encore, MacGowan’s sobering reading of “Rainy Night in Soho” was surely lesson enough. True, the sentiment might be a smidge maudlin or downright inappropriate even, but great love songs they remain. Even after a record like Rum Sodomy & the Lash, perhaps MacGowan’s most sadistic moment, he shrugged it off and wrote a grand ballade like “Fairytale of New York.” Which, it too must be noted, the band gracefully avoided, given that Kirsty MacColl’s been dead for over a decade.
Intimate songs require an intimate evening though, and a sold-out 9:30 Club a week before St. Patrick’s Day offers little in the way of privacy. Lest I frame Shane MacGowan primarily as a lovesick dandy, I needn’t remind you that he’s still a rock star. And he knows it. Imposingly clad in all black , he’s only the third person I’ve seen allowed, nay encouraged, to smoke on stage at the new 9:30. (Some perspective: The other two were Bob Pollard and another notorious lush, Courtney Love.) But if MacGowan wasn’t singing one of his songs, as on the Pogues’ own top-of-the-pops single “Tuesday Morning,” he’d simply saunter off in his familiar, schnockered gait. Thus, I truly missed his rendition of “Thousands Are Sailing,” from perhaps his all-around best moment, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Next to drink and love, MacGowan also knows a great torch song when he’s heard it. And though he didn’t scribe this one himself, he does do a superb job with a difficult vocal. To wit, I’m sorry he no longer has the desire to sing it. ‘Tis a dirty shame indeed, as “Thousands Are Sailing” is probably the best song about the Irish plight that Shane MacGowan never wrote.