As with Frank Sinatra, when it comes to the Pogues, you need a fast one and a slow one.
“Sally MacLennane” is the fast one, all accordian and tin whistle and shouts in the background. It tells an old story: someone goes away, someone stays home. The person who stays home envies the one who went away. The one who went away returns and doesn’t recognize the place he left. Shane MacGowan’s version of the story is death-haunted: the train the restless one takes to escape his hometown becomes by the end of the song a train taking away bodies for funerals. And that restless one, upon returning to an unrecognizable place, drinks himself to death, which the song’s narrator seems to regard with misguided admiration. An accurate rendering of character or display of the writer’s limitations? And on the subject, the Internet tells us that “Sally MacLennane” is a type of beer but I prefer if she’s a woman, whom the restless one loved and left and the one who stayed at home learned to love and formed a life with. Better song that way.
“A Rainy Night in Soho” has always felt like a perfect New Year’s song to me. Or wedding song, or funeral song, it’s got that kind of depth. It’s another old story, a different, perhaps common one: two people meet and neither one goes away, but instead they piece together a life of dependence and independence and realizing they must be getting older only because they notice it happening to their friends, as Greg Brown says in a song with a similar sentiment. Do old friends, old lovers, mitigate the passage of time, or just make you feel it more acutely? Both, of course. It’s the rare MacGowan song with no mention of alcoholic beverages. “The measure of my dreams” gets all the love but I love this personally:
I’m not singing for the future
I’m not dreaming of the past
I’m not talking of the first times
I never think about the last
I saw the Pogues once: I didn’t know their music that well and went with a friend who ended up with a black eye from the moshpit he was maybe a little too proud of. This was Boston and everyone in the audience knew the words to every one of the songs; by the end of the show I was making believe I did too because I wanted to be part of the wonderful communal feeling. I also saw Shane once solo: he inevitably seemed inebriated, and if it was a Dean Martin-like act it was a very good one. He didn’t speak a word to the audience outside the songs, as though he didn’t trust himself to speak off the top of his head, or wasn’t capable of it. But he did know his lyrics by heart and sang them fast but with conviction. I remember an endless dubstep-y thing toward the end of the show.
Hey, happy St. Patrick’s Day!