It's the most unusual of Christmas songs, really... a sweeping, bawdy, maudlin ballad named after a hilariously raunchy, at times melancholy, novel about a young widower recently repatriated to New York City after a sojourn abroad and a brief marriage. The song, by Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer, begins with a sweet, though plaintive piano intro... and then the ragged vocals start:
It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank,
We're not in ordinary Christmas music territory now...
The melancholy vocal intro continues:
An old man said to me, "Won't see another one."
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
And I turned my face away
And dreamed about you.
While the music is slow and melancholy, the episode in the drunk tank would have sounded more chipper, as the moribund old man sings out a cheerful, uptempo number:
The narrator of the song however, dwells on a single bright point in his otherwise crappy night in jail:
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.
This little bit, the fact that his pony came in and he won a considerable sum of money, is probably the reason he's in the drunk tank to begin with... this is not an inhabitant of a sappy Christmas special, the closest thing to it is the end of the original "Simpsons" Christmas Special. This bit also reminds me of the brilliant, filthy Bottle of Smoke ("Twenty-fucking-five to one, my gambling days are done, I bet on a horse called 'A Bottle of Smoke' and my horse won!"). The fact that the song's narrator believes that a gambling win is a harbinger of better times to come just adds to the song's pathos.
After this melancholy intro, the song completely switches tempo, and a female vocal kicks in:
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.
This is a story told by an immigrant girl, dazzled by the overwhelming spectacle of New York City, with its promise of wealth (she could be the subject of the traditional song A Stór mo Chroí, forced to emigrate by privation at home). The female vocal was originally supposed to be sung by la suntuosa Cait O'Riordan, the original bass player of the Pogues. I have to say that I love Cait's voice, but it's a good thing that she didn't sing on the final recording, because the dear, departed Kristy MacColl's vocal is perhaps the finest match of voice and subject matter- it's not a sweet voice, and it perfectly captures the initial naivete and eventual frustration of the female lead. Kirsty inhabits the vocal.
The song then shifts to a duet, as the young couple falls in love, not only with each other, but with the city in which they've found themselves:
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 the corner
Then danced through the night.
The sweet chorus depicts the (non-existent, at least at that time) NYPD choir singing a nostalgic song of their homeland:
The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.
Ironically, the song referenced in the melancholy intro is a chipper ditty, while the song referenced in the chorus is more contemplative, more downtempo:
The song then describes the couple falling on bad times, and having a falling-out. They hurl abuse at each other (whether one interprets their epithets literally or not is up to the listener). Once again, this is most unusual vocabulary for a Christmas song:
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.
The sweet chorus follows this most acrimonious exchange... and then there's regret and reproach, followed by the possibility of redemption, or at least of a temporary reprieve from strife:
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.
This is the emotional climax of the song... the expression of lost opportunity, the biting but all-too-true reproof, and the eventual recognition of mutual need. We don't know how the couple's life together will turn out, but there's a momentary reprieve, a second wind. Will they rekindle their love for each other and get out of their rut, or will they spiral back down into antagonistic co-dependence? It isn't spelled out... are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Hey, enough of my yakking, how about the song itself, in all of its glorious perfection?
For extra credit, here's the first part of a documentary about the song:
I had no idea that the song was inspired in part by Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in America, but it makes sense... it's not the Pogues' first Morricone tribute. The documentary also features an interview with J.P. Donleavy, whose novel lent the song its title! It also has a snippet of Cait O'Riordan's original vocal on the demo, which is a lovely bonus. Watching the documentary is bittersweet, in light of Kirsty MacColl's untimely death. Who'd a thunk that Shane would ever outlive her?
Happy Christmas, you scallywags, and try to stay out of the drunk tank!