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“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues (Advent Calendar day 26)

Album Art

Fairytale of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best of The Pogues

Genre: Pop

What’s your favorite Christmas-ish song?

Note the decisive use of the hyphenated suffix. If the lyrics include references to either the Batman or the Superman of this season (Santa and Jesus) then you can clearly file it under “Holiday.” Others, even some of the standards, are merely “seasonal.” I remind you, for example, that “Frosty The Snowman” is merely a winter-themed song. It only received its religious affiliations later in its life, when the last line “…I’ll return again someday” suspiciously became “I’ll return on Christmas Day.”

(Which was right about the same time when the Pledge of Allegiance became “One nation, Under God,” I think. Coincidence? Oh, absolutely. But I’ll change my tune if I’m ever booked to appear on a popular syndicated politically-themed radio show. Four hours is a lot airtime to fill and outrage, like methane gas, expands to fill the container into which it’s been introduced.)

Let’s also tip the hat to songs that simply use Christmas as a setting. There’s no real attempt to evoke the mood or the memory of the holiday. It’s just the day when These Things Happened.

I have two favorite Christmas songs. One secular, one very doubleplus not. The first tells a story of an event on Christmas Eve; the second talks about something that happened on Christmas Day. Both have the kind of lyrics that demand to be printed out and read as poetry.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrAwK9juhhY

Today is Christmas Eve. This is the day in the annual Musical Advent Calendar when I say “Screw it,” — maybe “sod it” would be more appropriate? — “I don’t care if this one’s a repeat from last year. It’s time for ‘Fairytale of New York’ again.”

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better piece of music than this. I’m not saying that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos weren’t as good; I’m simply saying that when you compare it to this epic song about regret, loss, and longing you must ultimately conclude that these are two very different pieces of music.

I don’t think the thought “I’m someplace where I really don’t want to be” ever penetrates so strongly as when it hits you on Christmas Eve. And the root cause isn’t always something as harmless as “Uncle Gob has cornered me and he insists that it’s my duty as a concerned parent to buy one of his $1200 water filters,” either. You can always stop payment on the check as soon as you can get outside and find a signal on your iPhone. But when it appears to you that your life has been a flawless sequence of self-destructive choices and that your remaining decisions have collapsed down to “live” or “die”…well, not even the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or a tube of raw Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough can break you free.

That’s the spot that the narrator of “Fairytale of New York” is in. It’s hard not to take pity on someone who’s in jail on a night like this but still, it’s hard to actually root for him, either. But you’re keenly interested. After I hear this song I almost always visit the lyrics. I want to sift them for more clues to what’s happening with this guy.

He’s a drunk and a gambler and probably an addict. Is he learning anything tonight? Or is he distracting himself from his situation with delusions about a past relationship? Is he giving up? Does he have any hope for himself and the future? He spends part of the song reflecting on a time when he seemed to have the world at his feet. Do those memories encourage him, or do they only drive him deeper into depression?

And whatever happened to the woman? Clearly, she’s out of his life. That must have been a good thing for both of them. Is she spending that same day in her own version of the drunk tank? Or has she found some answers that continue to elude her former partner?

Would she be flattered to know that here, at his lowest point, he consoled himself with thoughts of her? Would she pity him?

Hmm.

It’s a very malleable story. You could just as easily interpret the lyrics to mean that he’d made it out, found a new source of hope, and from the safety of a better life he’s thinking back to the day when he hit rock-bottom and the only cheer he could find was in a ruined relationship.

That’s the hallmark of a truly great song. It was one specific thing when it was written and recorded but its final character and flavor is only assembled and defined by the palate of the person who hears it.

There’ve been a bunch of viral Internet creations where someone takes a self-portrait with identical composition and lighting every day of his or her life for years. That suddenly seems boring. The only thing the series will teach you about yourself is “You got progressively older and you tried out only two or three new hairstyles.” But what if you were to write about the same song — particularly one as potent as “Fairytale of New York” — on the same day every year? What would the next ten to twenty annual essays reveal about the path you’ve taken through life?

Changes in weight, beards and hairstyles are easy to spot. Your assessment of yourself, the world, and how the first thing relates to the second thing can only be tracked through close examination. I would dare say that the results could be far more revealing and mortifying than a temporary distraction into the world of mullets.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

For the record, I’m headed out to the first of about four or five different parties and gatherings over the next 48 hours. At the moment, I suspect that I’ll look back on this blog post and the only source of embarrassment will be the fact that back in 2010, I was using Amazon Associates links to get little kickbacks from my readers’ Amazon purchases.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

I might tsk-tsk and think “How cheap and exploitative!” early on. But then I’d remember the gorilla costume I ordered with the resulting Gift credits in 2011. And then every last lingering regret will be instantly dismissed.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 22: “Fairytale Of New York”

Fairytale Of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best Of The Pogues

Genre: Alternative

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

There’s just a narrow window during which I can sling “Fairytale Of New York” into the Advent Calendar and I keep missing it, year after year.

To those of you who have asked: no, I don’t start putting a list together weeks in advance. I don’t have a list at all; I write it daily, “live” as it were, as a play in three acts:

Act I: Superawesome songs in general. I head straight for an iTunes Smart Playlist that automatically maintains my personal Billboard Hot 100 of high-rated, high-playcount tracks and look for likely candidates. I keep a particular eye peeled for tracks that I bought this year and which folks aren’t terribly likely to have heard before.

Act 2: (Let’s return to this in a moment.)

Act 3: Actual holiday-themed songs. As Christmas draws nearer, the tracks have to start passing an important test. If I were playing this on the Apple TV while trimming the tree, and neighbors stopped by unexpectedly with a festive bundt cake, would I immediately think “Oh, ****…how long have they been at the door hearing this song?” If I’d suddenly dive for the remote and desperately click forward to another song, dear God, any other song…then I prolly don’t want to include it in the Advent calendar. Not so close to the actual holiday, anyway.

The Advent Calendar always officially ends with my favorite Christmas song, presented without irony or smirk.

Act 2 is that brief period when I’m in the mood for real holiday-themed tunes, and there’s still enough air between today and December 25 that I don’t mind talking about a drunk in jail on Christmas Eve musing about how, hell, his alcoholism will probably kill him before New Year’s, let alone the next Christmas Eve.

But a Twitterer reminded me about this classic Pogues tune and I was instantly filled with regret. Yes, for failing to use this song year after year. And at least because at the time of that important Tweet, the next song was going to be one from the soundtrack to “The Christmas Shoes,” which is utterly the sappiest Christmas movie ever made. I’m not wrong in thinking the reason why the protagonist in “”Fairytale” got so violently drunk was because he saw parts of this Hallmark special.

No, wait: I must be wrong. Because if he’d just seen that show, he would quite simply have drunk himself straight into the grave and wouldn’t have survived to sing the song.

Check that. Sorry, wrong again: there isn’t enough alcohol to scrub away the stain left behind by “The Christmas Shoes.”

(Later, my sweeties…later.)

I’m not sure that most fans of “Fairytale” really get this song, due to the peculiar romanticism associated with a literate inebriate. Like the old man at the pub who’s wrapped in wool and sitting by the fire, making his stately way through a whiskey bottle, and telling you about lost loves, pages not yet written, opportunities lost, making it through to live another day and drink another night, et cetera.

Ah, but you see, the next morning, you’ll be at work, or with your family and friends, thinking about what a pleasant time you had listening to the man’s lyrical wisdom. At that same moment, the old man is still drunk somewhere, or he’s setting into motion the chain of events necessary for him to get drunk again. Maybe he’s even even planning a setlist of the stories he’ll tell at the tonight’s bar, to charm someone else into buying him a grade of alcohol that he hasn’t been able to afford since the days when he had a job and a family and friends.

“Fairytale Of New York” is a charming song. It becomes a powerful song when you really focus on the lyrics. Which isn’t easy, I admit. Shane McGowan has selfishly chosen to sing them in his natural voice. That’s fine for the Irish and the English, but isn’t it about time the needs of Americans were met, just once?

I urge you to head on over to the Pogues’ site and read the words. There is no joy in Poguesville; Mighty Casey has passed out. This isn’t a case of a man who spends a Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, thinking about failed relationships and missed opportunities, convinced that this is the last one he’ll spend aboveground.

No, clearly, this is a man who spends every Christmas Eve this way. Maybe even every day. He’s locked in a cycle and will never break out of it. His life is a series of wounds that have scarred over themselves so thickly that he’s barely even aware of that he keeps cutting himself in the exact same places day after day.

But that’s not us.

I hope that’s not us.

If it’s us, I hope we get some help.

When you don’t focus on the lyrics, you wind up dismissing “Fairytale Of New York” as merely a charming Irish song that serves as an edgy counterpoint to the vacuous jingle bells being rung at every mall. That denies the Pogues their due. “Fairytale” is a satisfying essay which presents a series of basic observations, while having enough respect for the listener to leave the final lessons unsaid.

And just like the drunken old man in the pub, the lyrics are…well, lyrical. I call your attention to the ending:

He: I could have been someone

She: Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

He: 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

I wonder what became of that girlfriend. Is she spending that same Christmas Eve in another drunk tank somewhere? Is she dead? Or did she have a transformative moment of shocking self-awareness that set her free?

Hmm. See, the trouble goes beyond a simple lack of self-awareness. It’s important to be able to observe yourself and your choices dispassionately but I’m certain that most drunks are perfectly aware of what their drinking has cost them. The missing factor is usually Hope…an utterly irrational but critically-important belief that things can get better.

Which is why I rather enjoy Act Three of the Advent Calendar.

Hope is generally a bear market, both in its practice and its promotion. It’s quite a relief to be able to spend a few weeks talking about peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind without having to follow it up with a YouTube of some skateboarder getting hit in the nuts by a parking meter, just to make sure people don’t think you’re all sappy.

Even in the Holiday season, I’m not such a sap that I won’t encourage you to buy this track via Amazon MP3, which will put a few pennies in my pocket:

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

And yet I still offer you the iTunes Store link as an alternative. I guess I really am just an old softie at heart.