Special Report

A Christmas Song for Tormented Souls

No one writes real Christmas songs anymore -- luckily there's "Fairytale of New York."

By 12.22.05

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Let me begin this column by informing the reader that I am a freak for Christmas songs. I'm the guy who whistles "Jingle Bells" in the grocery store; who starts the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving. And if you pull up next to me at a red light when "O Holy Night" happens to be playing on my car radio, you might very well hear me singing through two panes of crash-proof, side-windshield glass, my arms flailing un-rhythmically like the poor shlubs in the commercials announcing a new season of American Idol. To me, this is the hap-hap-happiest season of all.

So I pretty much achieved Christmas contentment when my mother (who is staying with my family through the entire month of December), my wife, and I sat in my living room reading and listening to Christmas songs and suddenly (though in fairness, predicted by the weatherman) ten glorious inches of angel white New Hampshire snow consumed my Friday. Clients? Put 'em on hold. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

But even the tranquilized Christmas music junky must lament the dearth of new Christmas songs. After the umpteenth Fa-la-la-la-la blaring from our living room stereo I asked my mother if all these songs were around when she was child. Her answer was yes.

How depressing.

No one writes Christmas songs anymore. If we're lucky, we might get a remix of old Christmas songs, wonderfully arranged and mellifluously sung, to be sure, but not new. The Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin released an unbelievable version of "God Rest Ye Marry Gentlemen" a few years ago, but radio stations desperate for something different quickly overplayed it and, anyway, the Ladies and McLaughlin just rearranged an old classic and dropped in a chorus from "We Three Kings." They didn't add anything new to the Christmas song canon.

And I'm not talking about those banal come-latelies either, like the maudlin "Christmas Shoes" or the irredeemable "Christmas Eve in Washington." I'm talking about genuine, timeless sing-alongs like the "Twelve Days of Christmas" or "Jingle Bell Rock" or "White Christmas" or "Blue Christmas." (And please, let us not speak of that Democrat Party platform speech set to music, "Do They Know It's Christmas?")

Okay, by now we both know I'm setting you up for something, so here it is. Let us now praise the last great Christmas song ever written, a song you can't get out of your head once you hear it, a song you'll only hear on the radio during "after hours," a song that while not exactly new is relatively so and seems to find new life every Christmas among those with ears to hear. I'm talking about the Pogues classic Irish ballad of love and loss at Christmastime: "Fairytale of New York."

No other Christmas song (and few other songs, period) mixes so many incongruous, even conflicting, sentiments in a few short verses and manages to pull it off: nostalgia, forlornness, loneliness, anger, love, happiness, hope. "Fairytale" is a duet featuring a down-and-out pair of Irish immigrants who've failed to capture the American Dream as it was promised to them; a recurring theme in Irish folk music. Kirsty MacColl (daughter of Scottish folk legend Ewan MacColl of Dirty Old Town fame) sings the female lead. MacColl was an inspired choice for the song; royal folk music blood flowed through her veins and she was known to enjoy the juice of the barley nearly as much as the band members of the Pogues.

Last week VH1 asked Brits to name their favorite Christmas song of all time. Fairytale of New York won for the second year in a row. On December 19, the Pogues re-released the song in a bid to raise money for a homeless charity. MacGowan is said to be on the lookout for someone to rerecord the song with (MacColl died in 2000). And the band, temporarily back together for a spring tour of Europe and North America, sold out New York City within moments of the tickets going on sale.

Shane MacGowan, the band's front man until his band mates invited him to leave in 1990 over "creative differences," wrote the lyrics and the orchestral arrangement of "Fairytale of New York." Those "creative differences" involved a series of alcohol-soaked embarrassments culminating in a blind drunk MacGowan falling out of a bus in Japan and knocking out a few of his already-rotting front teeth.

MacGowan is a sight. The jug-eared, toothless troubadour claims not to have drawn a sober breath since the age of twelve. He has done more to reinforce negative Irish stereotypes than the entire community of South Boston. He routinely blows off gigs to get drunk. He usually ends his rare press availabilities (which always take place in pubs) by calling reporters hateful names. If you're trying to get a mental picture of this guy, imagine a bloated and less articulate Keith Richards with a dash of Ozzy Osborne. Then remove the teeth and glue a cigarette to his fingers.

Nevertheless, many Irish music fans see MacGowan as the last of a dying breed. Despite his personal shortcomings, MacGowan is an unparalleled songwriter. His songs blend traditional Irish themes -- drinking, fighting, love, loss, a little faith, rebellion -- and traditional folk instruments with punk attitudes and arrangements. Certain of MacGowan's song seem divinely inspired and almost all of them, whether through their lyrics or their melody or their imagery, invoke that uniquely Irish lust for the past.

When the Pogues first emerged onto the scene in London during the early '80s, no one had ever heard anything like their amalgam of punk and folk. They immediately became a huge underground sensation. Irish music purists were aghast at the band's antics (especially their language and heavy drinking) but to a man they acknowledged MacGowan's gift with the pen. The band's first album Red Roses for Me turned them into superstars in London. Their second, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash made them superstars in all of Europe. Songs like "Boys from the County Hell," "Streams of Whiskey," "Dark Streets of London," "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn," and "The Old Main Drag" had begun to melt the old timers' animosities. Irish music living legend Christy Moore once said folk singers will be singing MacGowan's songs for hundreds of years in the pubs across Ireland. But no one could have predicted the brilliance of the band's 1987 masterpiece If I Should Fall From Grace With God, which featured "Fairytale of New York."

When we first meet the hero of "Fairytale of New York," it is Christmas Eve and he is in a bad way:

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 Ole' Mountain Dew"
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

But all is not lost. He hopes for a brighter new year than the turbulent ones that led him to the stone lonesome.

Got on the lucky one
Came in at 18-to-1
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

What is interesting and clever about Fairytale is that from this beginning, sung by MacGowan, MacColl chimes in to flashback to a happier time in the relationship. She is obviously not in the drunk tank with her lover, so theirs is perhaps a metaphysical conversation, taking place across time and space, like Danny and Sandy singing "Summer Nights" in Grease:

When you first took my hand
On that cold Christmas Eve
You promised me Broadway was waiting for me

Did they just meet? A one night stand gone to the dogs, perhaps?

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
The crowd howled for more

Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on the corner
Then danced through the night

It is never fully explained in the song. Christmas Eve could be their first date or the anniversary of their courtship. Regardless, he and she entered the relationship with open hearts and high hopes. But the romance degrades quickly in a sea of drugs and unemployment, presumably. They turn on each other in a fit of name calling:

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

Never fear. He and she reconcile in the end. Kind of.

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

Well, you at least get the feeling they will live together to fight another day, anyway.

The most celebrated part of the song, though is the melodic chorus backed by a simply gorgeous orchestral arrangement MacGowan claims to have written himself:

And the boys from the NYPD Choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
As the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day

We get an image of a very hung-over MacGowan-like character being let out of the drunk tank early Christmas morning, not at all pleased with the noise that greets him. And yet there is promise and hope in MacGowan's voice when he sings the lyric, as though the bells on Christmas Day mark a new beginning for this troubled soul. The song, like many Pogues songs, can be heard as a desperate cry for help from MacGowan, who seems utterly incapable of quitting his self-destructive lifestyle.

Maybe the re-release of "Fairytale of New York" and the new Pogues tour can provide MacGowan the new beginning he fairly screams for in this song.

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About the Author

Patrick Hynes is an account executive with the consulting firm Marsh Copsey + Scott and the proprietor of the websites www.passionforfairness.com and www.crushkerry.com.