A Spiritual Manifesto for the Dispossessed

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Written By Pinang Driod

It starts where it finishes, in a dead-end drone: a single accordion note that seems to refine itself, thin itself out, even as it goes nowhere and lasts forever. That the song was recorded in 1985 is a mere accident of history: It could have been written at any point in the past 200 years. It could have been written by nobody at all—by Anonymous or by some mystery of collective authorship. Acid like a ballad by Brecht and Weill, blunter than all but the most sawn-off punk rock, the late Shane MacGowan’s “The Old Main Drag” is as undeceived a statement of human despair as anything in the canon of folk music.

MacGowan, who died last Thursday, recorded it with his band the Pogues, and if you ever saw the Pogues play live, you know that their fans were wild. They stomped and roared and fought and sang along and spilled their Guinness, turning every show, anywhere, into a punctually berserk rite of the Irish diaspora. And how they adored Shane, the out-of-his-head front man leering brokenly and steadying himself with the mic stand. His very name, to them, was a rallying cry.

His true constituency, however, was never at the shows. Its members were always somewhere outside the venue, in the dark streets, in doorways or behind dumpsters. They were under striplights in emergency rooms, or in a cell.

The song that precedes it on Rum Sodomy & the Lash, the Pogues’ second studio album, is “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn”: a dying man’s delirium, world-famous Irish tenors warbling at his bedside as he flashes back through a life of glory and squalor, of punching fascists in Madrid and catching STDs in Cologne. The song’s mood swings, alternating between dolorously shimmering verse and thrashy rave-up chorus, and its hero is mythically ubiquitous and unkillable. Ejected from a London pub and beaten up outside, he “walked back in through a bolted door”; dead and buried in Cloughprior, he bulbs up headfirst from the earth, yelling for another round.

This is not the story with “The Old Main Drag.” No comebacks or revivals here, no slapstick regenerations. The narrator arrives alone at 16 in London’s West End and falls into drugs, sex work, and life on the street. He gets brutalized by the police—“they ruined my good looks”—and, having started with nothing, ends up with less: “I’ve been spat on and shat on and raped and abused / I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg / For some money to take me from the old main drag.” The last four words, devastatingly, are not sung but lifelessly muttered: The music disappears, gives up, as if the very possibility of music has been exhausted, and the song flatlines into that single accordion note, now an octave lower.

“The Old Main Drag” is a song, not a spiritual manifesto. Its impact depends on certain technical effects: the way the gently clucking banjo line seems to nurse the on-his-last-legs singer through the turns of the melody; the ragged climb of MacGowan’s voice; the sparsity of rhythm, only the fatal ticking of a drumstick against the rim of the snare; the foreshadowing, in a wordless mid-section of that final death-drone. (I’ve been trying to think of other street-level songs that pack a comparable musical punch. The only one I can come up with is Grant Hart’s addiction hymn “The Main”: “Well, it sinks to the bottom or floats to the top / I avoided policemen when I went to cop …”)

But it also kind of is a spiritual manifesto. In 1989, a chaotic interview-slash-summit organized by New Musical Express found MacGowan sitting in a London pub, arguing with Mark E. Smith, hobgoblin singer of the Fall, about Nietzsche. Smith approved of Nietzsche; MacGowan didn’t. “He wasn’t a Nazi,” scoffs Smith, “you’re only saying that ’cos some polytechnic fuckin’ lecturer told you he was.” “I’m saying it,” replies MacGowan, “because I read two of his books where he dismissed the weak, the ugly, the radically impure, Christianity, Socrates, Plato. He was anti anyone who hadn’t a strong body, perfect features.”

MacGowan, self-evidently, was no fan of the Nietzschean Superman. He was for the weak, the ugly, the radically impure, the spat-on and shat-on, the beloved of Christ. The compassion in “The Old Main Drag” is not empathy. To empathize with is to objectify. This is closer to real spiritual poverty: obliteration of self—by art or drugs or both—and a heart opened to the breaking point. MacGowan is the rent boy in Piccadilly Circus, the victim behind the “metal doors” of the police station, the down-and-out descending into death. At every station of the old main drag, he’s there.

Irish traditional or post-traditional music is in great shape right now: Lankum, John Francis Flynn, Lisa O’Neill, the Mary Wallopers. This, too, is part of MacGowan’s legacy. But what’s going to get him past St. Peter, and prolong his name here on Earth, is his fidelity to the dispossessed. To those outside, to the people he’d meet—and who would meet him—drinking in the park. His voice in pop music, his bawling, shattered voice, was like the cry of the owl in the Edward Thomas poem: “a most melancholy cry … Speaking for all who lay under the stars, / Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”

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