Shane MacGowan’s death has hit me hard, which has been a bit of a surprise. I love his music, but I can’t say the Pogues were one of my top bands. Based on his legendary hard living it’s a miracle he even made it to 65.
After thinking about it, I realized I was reeling because it’s especially hard when people who are truly bursting with life leave us. Even their bright flame must eventually be snuffed because all of us mortals live under death’s dominion. We try to avoid that hard fact but a death like his makes it impossible to forget.
While accomplished songwriters like Bruce Springsteen have been praising MacGowan’s abilities as a songsmith, I’d like to highlight his capacity for interpretation. Making a song your own doesn’t just mean writing it.
“Dirty Old Town” was the signature song of folkie Ewan MacColl. He sings of his industrial hometown of Salford, spinning a tale of love and longing. There are kisses, but also old canals, a gasworks, and factory wall. Anyone who is from an obscure place and who has left it behind with fond attachments will understand the feeling of this song.
MacGowan’s bedraggled growl gives it a fitting grit for a song about a grimy industrial town. The Pogues give it some country flavor, keying into that genre’s own long history of songs longing for home. I heard it today and the radio and felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was partly sadness over death, but mostly my complicated feelings about my own hometown.
A lot of the sadness over his passing that I’ve heard online and in person is rooted in the longing baked into diasporas. MacGowan grew up in the London area, but spent summers back in Ireland with relatives (his parents were immigrants.) Being in a diaspora means never being totally rooted where you are because an important part of your soul lies across the sea. It is a sadness a lot of people experience but so few could articulate like Shane MacGowan. Pour one out for a real one.