It’s Christmas eve, and, besides being Christmas, tomorrow is the birthday of Shane MacGowan, famed lead singer of The Pogues and co-author with Jem Finer, The Pogues’ banjo player, of today’s song (and the video isn't half bad either). “Fairytale of New York,” its title taken from a novel by Irish author J. P. Donleavy, was originally released in 1987 and has become one of the most popular Christmas songs of our time, particularly in the UK. Perhaps it simply captures some essential sentimentality associated with the holiday, and does so in a way that is equal parts nostalgic and brash.
The song first came to my notice on the soundtrack of Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat (1996), but only the segment of MacGowan singing solo was used, the part that might more fittingly be called “Christmas Eve in the Drunk Tank.” That segment is full of a down-and-out bravado that, in MacGowan’s wavering tenor, proclaims a drunkard’s hopes for a new year, even as an elder inmate of the drunk tank avers he “won’t see another” Christmas eve, and sings “The Rare Owld Mountain Dew.”
The idea of “the last one” is picked up in the dueling duet between MacGowan and Kristy MacColl as lovers who have hit hard times in New York rather than the rise in fortunes they’d hoped for. “They’ve got cars / Big as bars,” was the fond dream. She reminds him, “you promised me / Broadway was waiting for me.” The song also recalls a bygone New York when “Sinatra was swinging” and “the boys of the NYPD choir / Were singing ‘Galway Bay,’” a time when New York’s Finest were predominantly Irish.
That sense of both a welcome sense of home and a disheartening sense of estrangement rides through the song, and finds its pithiest expression in the name-calling between our sparring couple: “You’re a bum / You’re a punk” she says; “You’re an old slut on junk” he replies, and she really ups the invective with “You scum bag / You maggot / You cheap, lousy faggot / Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last.” And here the instrumentation — the tin whistle especially — helps to create an upbeat feel even in the midst of the mud-slinging. It may be the end of it, but the NYPD singing, and the bells ringing out for Christmas Day come into present tense and that little jolt makes us take stock, seasonally speaking.
In fact, that verbal jousting becomes part of what makes the song better than the usual Christmas song. Since Christmas comes at the end of the year, and returns each year, any long-term relationship lives through many Christmases and finds its “state of the union” at times as the big clock rolls around again. Tied-up with all that, of course, are the prospective dreams and hopes—many of which are dashed as such things go. And that’s the element of the song that MacGowan’s wonderfully romantic vocal keeps alive—“I could have been someone,” “Well, so could anyone,” she replies, and accuses him of taking her dreams “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.” It’s a touch pathetic, but for that very reason feels heartfelt and brave. Whereas she’s just doing the usual whining—like not getting what you wanted in your stocking—that spoils many a Christmas.
Certainly, MacGowan’s part could all just be a compensatory dream in a drunk tank, but it feels real. And that’s about all you can hope for, for Christmas: a bearable reality. Getting dumped on by one’s best thing is par for the course, all-too-often, and The Pogues’ song puts it out there. But it also gives us a wish for the season that sounds hopeful and hard-bitten, chastened and cheering:
Got on a lucky one / Came in eighteen 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
Amen, I’ll drink to that.