Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

A Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues (with Kirsty MacColl)

A Fairy Tale of New York

By Shane MacGowan & Jem Finer

Performed by the Pogues with help from Kirsty MacColl. You can hear the recorded version here. You can hear live versions here, here and here. Here’s a live version with Sinead O’Connor singing the female part (not a great recording).  

A sad tale saved from pure sentimentality by some gritty lines and gutty singing, the song opens on a snowy Christmas Eve in the New York City drunk tank. A mournful piano plays in the background. An old man declares it will be his last (“won’t see another one”), then breaks into a version of “The Rare Old Mountain Dew,” an old time Irish ballad (click here for a version by the Dubliners). Here’s our Irish boy stuck in jail on Christmas Eve a long way from home. The combination of the drink, the old man’s singing and the Christmas holiday send the singer into reverie thinking about his love.

Sitting in that jail wearing off his latest bender, he has a drunkard’s hopes built on the money he’s won (and clearly drank away) on a long shot:

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

Who can begrudge the man that sliver of warmth, the thought that maybe he and his love can make it?  The song moves out of the jail cell into a dreamlike state as we hear from his love in the voice of Kirsty MacColl. The band kicks in and the song and the world come to life. She’s singing about New York and all the promise their new love offered in the big City. The references to Broadway may border on the cliché, but she so captures that first love joy and the Oz-like promises made by New York:

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

Memories of that long ago Christmas Eve evoke the tenderness of their love as the sing a call and response verse worthy of the great duets (Marvin Gaye & Tami Terrell, George Jones & Tammy Wynette). She tells him, “You were handsome,” and he assures here, “you were pretty/Queen of New York City.” Doesn’t every couple have those whispers of when it all seemed so grand?

When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The chorus comes with the right combination of longing for the past and Christmas joy:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

Yet here the wonders of the past come crashing down for the singer – our hero? – cannot escape his preset. We hear his love’s voice again, only now she hurls scathing bitterness: “you’re a bum/you’re a punk” and he returns in kind, “you’re an old slut on junk/Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.” What was wonderful in the past has succumbed to the dreadful reality, him a drunk and she a junkie. No more swinging, no more loving, only the bitterness of failed dreams and failed promises:

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

When the chorus comes around, it is now bittersweet and damning. By the end of the song, we’re back n the drunk tank, the singer coming back to his sad reality. “I could have been someone,” he sings Brando-like. She comes back at him:

Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me

The anger gives way to something deeper, something sadder. He represents all her failed hopes. In this gloom, he offers the final lines about their dreams and their doomed relationship:

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

Their fate is intertwined and the hope of the opening verse seems so far away. He was going to save her with the money from his long shot, now he’s calling for her, “can’t make it all alone.” What tenderness and longing. This ending makes me think of the Galway Kinnell lines from the Book of Nightmares:

The self is the least of it.
Let our scars fall in love.

Here are a couple of random facts about the song:

  • Cait O’Riorden was to sing the female part, but she left the group before they went into the studio. Producer Steve Lilywhite had his wife – Kirsty MacColl – stand in for a demo and the boys in the band liked her so much, they had her sing the part on the recording.
  • The title comes from J. P. Dunleavy’s novel of the same title.
  • The New York Police Department (NYPD) does not have a choir, but the Emerald Society of the NYPD does have a legendary Pipe and Drum Band that plays in parades and sends members to perform at police officer funerals. The band does not play “Galway Bay.”

You can learn more about the Pogues here. Shane MacGowan has wandered in and out of the band and you can learn more about him here. Kirsty MacColl died in a boating accident in Mexico in 2000 and left behind some wonderful recordings. You can learn more about her here. I love her song “In these Shoes,” which you can listen to here.


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