Do you know what music you want played at your funeral? I do. Not because I’m obsessed with death or anything, far from it. But if you don’t plan for these things some well-meaning relative will play “Goodbye My Lover” by James Frickin’ Blunt or Robbie Williams’ “Angels” or “The Wind Beneath My Wings” for the love of god. Do you really want Bette Midler singing you into the afterlife?
My choice of funeral music: The Pogues‘ “Body of an American”. I’m going to ask you all to remember this in case Dr. O’C slips into dementia and forgets. And if any of you happen to be at my funeral and anyone tries to play James Blunt, please beat them senseless for me.
I came to love The Pogues a bit late. I had certainly heard some of their music along the way – “I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day” was on a mix CD with which I successfully wooed Dr. O’C – but I didn’t really come to love it until we moved to Britain. Dr. O’C and I were in a small pub in Oxford one night playing pool. I was scanning the jukebox and came across “Body of an American”. I don’t know if I had ever heard it before, but I heard it that night and I got it. It was early on in our time in Oxford and I was feeling displaced and a little bit homesick. Shane MacGowan’s raspy tale of the funeral of an Irish-American man’s last trip struck me to the quick that night and when I got home, I hit the iTunes store for all The Pogues I could find.
The B-side of “Body of an American” is the epic and dirge-like “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. Because I had enjoyed the A-side so much, I played the B. We nearly got kicked out of the pub as the bartender shouted “Bloody-fucking-hell! I get the “Body of an American” part, but did you have to play this shite?!” I guess we should have explained that Dr. O’C was Australian.
Since that immersion into the music of these Irish folk-punk troubadours, I’ve become a proper devotee of the music of MacGowan and Co. They came out of London in the late 1970’s, heavily influenced by The Ramones and The Clash. They put out three great records in the mid to late 80’s before MacGowan’s substance abuse started to tear the group apart. They’re still around and pop up for a reunion tour every now and again, but have never hit the creative peak that they were on in the 80’s. MacGowan himself is quite the character. If you want a cautionary tale about the perils of the rock and roll lifestyle, do a Google Image search. Never a handsome man, after thirty plus years of heavy drug and booze use, MacGowan is a walking anti-drug advertisement. It’s a shame, really, because the creative genius of the 80’s has been reduced to a parody of an Irish drunk in the 21st century.
But at their prime, The Pogues seamlessly recombined traditional Irish folk music with the nascent punk rock coming out of London and New York. You may not know it when you consider all the Pogues rip-off bands that followed – The Drop-Kick Murphys, Flogging Molly and the Real (?) McKenzies – but at the time this was a truly original musical style and a lot of people had trouble putting The Pogues in a musical box. What this means is that in their prime, The Pogues didn’t have a ton of commercial success. Most people, your underwhelming correspondent included, learned to love The Pogues after their time.
The thing that makes a band great for me is that they pop up frequently in the soundtrack of my life. And since my late discovery of The Pogues in 2004, they’ve featured more than nearly any other band. There’s “Fairytale of New York” to remind me that Christmas need not be about angels, mangers and Wal-Mart. The faintly ironic “Sunnyside of the Street” kept me sane through the gloomy British winters for a few years and “South Australia” was one of the tunes on repeat for the long trip Down Under. “Whiskey You’re The Devil” – well that’s a story for another day.
But it’s “Body of an American” that really makes The Pogues great for me.
This morning on the harbour
When I said goodbye to you
I remember how I swore
That I’d come back to you one day
And as the sunset came to meet
The evening on the hill
I told you I’d always love
I always did and I always will
Fare thee well gone away
There’s nothing left to say
‘cept to say adieu
To your eyes as blue
As the water in the bay
And to big Jim Dwyer
The man of wire
Who was often heard to say
I’m a free born man of the USA…
By no means is it a perfect song for me – I’m neither big nor blue-eyed, I have – in my time – had time for drink, and I certainly am not a fighter. But it’s that penultimate verse and the last few lines that get right to me and make this the song that I want played when I leave for my last trip.
If you’re not already a fan, a good place to start with The Pogues is the 2001 greatest hits compilation “The Very Best of The Pogues”, which you can pick up at . There isn’t a bad track on the album.