Shane MacGowan once said ´I learned about life from stories, words told through music from my mother. A history of the world heard from a kitchen table, records and the whirring motor of a KitchenAid stand mixer working in concert. Stories about songs, about artists, about albums and people and places. About love and loss, heartache and grieving. There are worlds in the light of all the people who I knew only as voices emerging from worn tape and spinning discs given life by a stereo, hidden away in a cabinet in the corner of a room. This is where stories revealed themselves to me as secrets-we-trade about what it means to be alive´.
There’s a story, contested—as all good stories are—about Elvis Costello (right), who had produced The Pogues’ 1985 record Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, betting Shane MacGowan that he couldn’t write a Christmas song—one that could also function as a duet with Cait O’Riordan, Pogues bassist and Costello’s future wife; a bet as a challenge, urging MacGowan to see what he might be capable of. At a swift glance, The Pogues do not conjure an easy image of holiday cheer or Christmas; as a dazzling and ostentatious display of lights where color stands in contrast to the world map drawn within their work. Haunting, beautiful and stark songs about lives loved, lives lost. They are bards telling tales tall and short of people, community and place—songs within which you can taste the dirt, hear the roar of a desperate fire, hear the lilting laughter of a community bound together by home and desire; traditional Irish folk songs re-envisioned and dirges for dirty old towns and the denizens of their streets; life-rafts for hearts and souls textured by hard times and perseverance.
MacGowan took that challenge and emerged with the most popular Christmas song that isn’t a traditional carol of the modern era—“Fairytale of New York,” an immensely beautiful and emotionally devastating journey through a Christmas that opens in a drunk tank threatening to claim the lives held within it. It’s told through the memory of a couple that left home in search of grandeur that found themselves embittered by bad luck and worse decisions, each aiming arrows at one another as bitter winds fuel cold cruelties.
Costello explains there’s something in the breath of a cold wind on delicate skin that feels like home. I lived for many years in the Yukon, the upper lefthand corner of nowhere at all. Winters there are long, cold, dark and heavy. There is danger lurking in the shadowed corners of a Yukon winter, and the desire to drink and destroy what life still clings to the walls of the soul is high. People band together, create life together, find others possessed of the same spirit to join in union. “Fairytale of New York” is perfect snow that fell long ago, made gritty with dirt and sand, spun up by tires and swift feet in a rush to make it through last minute shopping and eager to escape the cold. There’s a memory in it that feels all too familiar, a darkness recalled by the heart. Christmas is not a perfect Hallmark memory no matter how much we want it to be—a disaster season within which we seek to find light and joy, a season for reveling in making due with whatever heat you can find in a bitter cold.
I can tell you a thousand stories of life in the Yukon—parties held in the blackened night that follow into the dark of day; friends that organized 12 Days of Christmas parties, which tasks individual households to plan gatherings for each day and night, the challenge to attend each and survive every journey. Most, if not all, of my stories orbit around liquor, but there’s more than that. They are stories of people, lovers and enemies and temporary alliances amongst disparate groups of people. They are stories of communion, of coming together to burn away the darkness with booze and music, dancing and finding what light you can in a land blanketed with far too much darkness.
The couple at the center of “Fairytale of New York” come alive in Shane MacGowan’s signature voice; sweet like sherry, rough like sandpaper and English singer Kristy MacColl (above) arriving with a voice of honey dipped in a roaring flame. MacGowan’s narrator finds regret in the memory of a life he once held so close, as he lies in the drunk tank, listening to a fellow traveler sing a traditional Irish ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew.” He lets his mind wander to days past, lives lost, an old lover, a world that is no longer real once alive with endless possibility.
The last Christmas I spent in the Yukon I hadn’t yet quit drinking, even though I knew my relationship to booze had become untenable. I knew I was leaving home. I had booked my plane ticket, packed my apartment into boxes, prepared all my final goodbyes. I have a coffee mug sitting here now on my desk at my found home in Toronto that says I Don’t Work Here in black block letters—a gift, given to me by my friend Katya McQueen (who runs the last truly great coffee shop on this earth: Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters in Whitehorse). The mug was a gift because I spent so much time haunting her shop you would be surprised to find I held no actual job behind the counter. I have never felt as alive or at peace as I have in all my days spent hiding within the sanctuary of the Midnight Sun—trading playful barbs or requesting the music to be changed, or better still turned up. Familiar faces that move in and out, casual hellos and tender reunions. Communities live through spaces like this, memories that will live long after the lights in the eyes of many go dark.
Over the 4 minutes and 32 seconds of “Fairytale of New York,” (right) the couple revels in their hopes and dreams together. They have tethered their lives as one, and they will rise or they will sink together. They desired so much, came in search of the impossible—fame and fortune, names in lights. They kiss, they dance, the boys of the NYPD choir sing “Galway Bay.” The bells ring out on Christmas Day. Time shifts. The last Christmas I spent at home, I offered to DJ at the Midnight Sun. “DJ” in the loosest possible sense of the word—a body standing behind a counter, putting records on a turntable and then needing to rest. I played favorites I knew people would question, like the 1968 record Christmas Album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band; Katya, her sister Casey and I worn through and threadbare from the weight of the season.
Together we found light. We laughed, we sang, we spun records again and again, laughed louder still, played songs we hated louder than the ones we loved. We poured Baileys in our coffee, poured shots of liquor into glasses of juice made from beets and wheatgrass meant to heal us. We ordered KFC; I slept on the floor, just for a little nap. We must have looked disastrous to judgmental eyes, but I have never remembered the wreckage.
Shane MacGowan passed away on the last day of November 2023. MacGowan was legendary for a great many things: a storyteller of a life lived down the crumbling streets of dirty old towns, lived in the forgotten corners of pubs and houses, lived in the spotlight, lived in the words he found for the world around him. MacGowan lived through the stories he wrote. It’s no secret that he suffered through a life of addictions. The story we hear, contested as all good stories are, is that he had his first drink at five years old when his father gave him Guinness to help him sleep.
In the memorializing of MacGowan’s life, there have been many who’ve spoken to the stories he created in his work, the world we viewed through his eyes. Nick Cave paid a loving tribute to their lost friend, saying at the outset that “his reputation precedes him” but goes on to talk more about his generosity and his spirit. Cave mentions MacGowan’s genuine compassion towards people, the roughness of his edge tempered by his kindness. This lives in MacGowan’s work, he saw people for who they were and weighed little judgment. He was only here to tell their story.
I see this in the work of a lot of great artists plagued by lifetimes of drinking and addiction. When they’re gone, people talk at length about the great sadness of their work—the pity and scorn we visit upon them because we see first their drinking, their addictions. They are peered through a lens filtered by piety and are deemed to be something else. With MacGowan gone, I see people writing about how sad it was that he was an addict. More than once, I read a passing ode to him dripping in judgment. A single word haunts me still, people referring to how we need to discuss the “problematic” part of his life.
It is “problematic” that MacGowan was an addict, that he openly struggled through the flames of his addiction from age five until his soul found rest six decades later. “Problematic” that he made what he could of his time on this earth, that he struggled to find the light in all the dark corners of pubs and dirty houses down dirty streets in dirty towns. We lost Sinead O’Connor last year too, a friend of MacGowan’s who once reported him to the police in an effort to save him from his heroin addiction—an action not made out of malice but love and kindness, seeing him for who he was and wanting the fire flickering in his eyes to stay lit for just a little longer. It was an action not made in judgment, but a movement born of love and kindness.
People write about MacGowan and how he was too old to drink and carry on as he did—shameful for a man of his age to be so drunk, to struggle so much, to act and to move through the world tinged in amber. How sad he appears to the eyes of people now looking at him from some high vantage. I wonder about the stories told about me when I was in all my lowest corners, how will people talk about me when I am dead and gone, too. I think about the stories we are allowed to keep. If you are not an addict—if drinking does not come tethered to you with some difficulty—then your stories are told with easy laughter. They are shared triumphs of times you came alive. Addicts are not afforded the same generosity by many, save for other addicts or troubled hearts. MacGowan had his rough edges, and there are many who will only see the blade. Hearing Nick Cave talk of his friend in passing, we are reminded that there are more who see the softness of the hilt. Some blades are only wielded in defense of tender hearts.
MacGowan felt like a man in love with the world that he was blessed to bear witness to throughout his life. A life marked by difficulties and sadness, loss and addiction and all of these things. But these are just the measures of a man, and they delivered him to his final days. He was a bard of a great many stories, words that touched the hearts of many—and he is owed more than bitter words and the simple memory of behavior many want to write off as something other than themselves. Addicts, drinkers and users often live a world away from those that see us as these simple words. We deserve better than being written off so easily.
The funeral for Shane MacGowan, at St. Mary of the Rosary Church in Nenagh, County Tipperary, saw Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill perform “Fairytale of New York” with the remaining members of The Pogues. Bodies filled the room with tears, laughter and dancing. Light reached all of the dark corners. This is the measure of a man whose life touched the hearts of so many, his soul leaving this earth surrounded by loving memories—touched by the words of the lives he touched with his own, dancing to the stories he leaves behind.
At the closing of “Fairytale of New York,” hearts cling together with desperate love. Can’t make it on my own, I built my dreams around you. Even in this, a story of Christmas lost in a drunk tank thinking of the end, there is light found in the shadows. There is something here to hold onto still. What might make this the greatest Christmas song is the generosity of spirit, the lives that many might look upon with scorn or derision that are wistfully remembering love that has long faded. Remembering how it felt to be alive, marking the days with the stories of their time here on this earth and recalling them with mournful and tender care.
Someday we will all leave this place. We will be bodies at rest, our souls and our spirits waiting to depart for whatever we believe to be beyond all this. Someday, we will all only leave behind our stories. We can only hope that the lives who remain behind choose to remember our words with generosity of spirit and mark us not by the scars on our lives deemed by many to be hardened by failure, but by how we lived as best we could with the time we had. There are members of the church who hated MacGowan’s funeral. A priest in Northern Ireland called it a scandal, that the grandiose display should never have happened. There is decorum for a Catholic mass, the priest draws specific attention to “Fairytale of New York” being played in a Catholic church—calling someone an old slut on junk and another a cheap lousy faggot is not meant for these hallowed halls, this piety that looks to make judgment out of revelry and cherished memories as they conjured in joyous communion one last time. MacGowan was a catholic after all, and deserved this final place same as any.
Priests argue the church is not to entertain, that it’s a place in which to worship. But what is worship if not holding onto and sharing memories, trading even the sharpest words between lives gathered together? This is communion. There is life in this church, adorned by wreaths of the season. This is the spirit of Christmas, huddled together with loved ones and strangers—gathered with song, with stories, with laughter and light. This is the spirit of the season that feels real, dirt and grit and laughter even in the darkest days. MacGowan was born on Christmas day in 1957, and so it is fitting that the song he will be forever remembered by is a Christmas song as well. I only hope that we continue to remember him, remember so many who lived and loved and lost like him. I hope we remember the stories he left behind more than the scars that preceded them.
Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Autostraddle, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.
Acknowledgements: The prime source for this article was a piece first published in Paste on line magazine, featuring a conversation between Niko Stratis and Elvis Costello remembering Shane MacGowan and perpetuating his legacy of poetry and song. All other contributors have been acknowledged where possible and photographs used were taken from online sites, advertising these images as “free to use”. You can find further details of our attribution policies in our easy to navigate archives.