Clinical Sentiments, Part 2: Shane MacGowan

This post is the second installment of guest blogger Eoin Cannon’s musings on popular songs that rely on “established therapeutic expectations not only about recovery but also about the link between heavy drinking and creativity in the narrators’ own public personae.”

Yesterday I talked about the ways that Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” combines light words with dark music, but now I want to look at the way Shane MacGowan and The Popes reverse the juxtaposition.

The Reputation of Shane MacGowan

“St. John of Gods” provides a remarkable degree of complexity with a few simple components. McGowan’s lyric is in the British and Irish folk-revival tradition of sentimental odes to tragic street figures. Here, because of MacGowan’s voice and reputation, the distance between the speaker and the figure is less certain. The verses trace three bare scenes in the life of a far-gone drunk, whose only words are the song’s refrain:

See the man
The crushed up man
With the crushed up Carrolls packet in his hand
Doesn’t seem to see or care
Or even understand
And all he says is:
“F yez all, F yez all
F yez all, F yez all.”

This chorus ultimately gives way to “St. John of Gods” as an alternative mantra.  St. John of God is a psychiatric clinic in a southern suburb of Dublin, run since 1882 by the religious order of that name. Though it offers a range of services, it is best known for alcoholism treatment. The legend of the original St. John of God, a 16th-century Portuguese monk, holds that following a dramatic conversion experience, he was locked up in an asylum for the insane and mistreated.  This inspired him to spend the rest of his life caring for street people who were ignored as being beyond help and abused for being troublesome. “St. John” is evoked here as a kind of patron saint of alcoholics: the recurring name could suggest simply a memory of treatment at the hospital, or an appeal by a man who has written off the rest of the human race as hostile, but retains a sense that there is an ideal of humanity. It could be the speaker’s voice identifying the despised man with the venerated saint, or invoking the institutional consequence to these scenes, in which the man is arrested at a barfight, beaten up by the police, and paraded before a judge to repeat his only words.

The Last Pogues Album to Feature  Shane MacGowan, “Hells Ditch,” 1990

Backing this maudlin subject matter is incongruously bouncy and pleasant music, a light version of the Popes’ cajun-ceiligh sound, which refuses to endorse any overly sentimental interpretation of the lyrics. This is in line with MacGowan’s career-long expressions of broad Irish sentimentality and simultaneous hostility to therapeutic culture. (“I will not be reconstructed,” he declares in 1990’s similarly upbeat “The Sunny Side of the Street,” his last album with The Pogues before they fired him for alcoholic unreliability.)

But to my ears a subtler complication comes from a third element, a series of background electronic sounds that alternate between a prolonged “ping” like the long trajectory of a video-game weapon, and a louder, echoing metallic shudder like the sound of a huge piece of aluminum being struck like a gong. Each punctuates the heavily accented ends of various lines, helpfully undermining any perception of folk “authenticity” and, more chillingly than any other aspect of the song, evoking destruction.  The “ping” evokes small chips of something falling away, the shudder a sense of concussive trauma doing permanent injury. Together they suggest a brain being steadily damaged. These electronic effects accentuate the sense of tragedy, then, but without traditional sentimental devices, and with an added note of self-awareness about the nostalgic monotony of the neo-folk weepy. The gruff barroom noise that eventually replaces the music includes casual jokes about “the old tramp,” further undermining the genre’s impulse to wallow in pity, but not offering anything easy by way of substitution.

An Irishman Walks Out of a Bar…

In my work on heavy and compulsive drinking in literature, I argue that this kind of formal conversation with the sentimental structure of recovery begins much earlier than has been recognized, and is in fact a relevant feature of modernist fiction that has traditionally been read as resolutely pre- or anti-therapeutic. When I turn to the era of recovery memoir, I consider how writers handle its structural rigidity, and the very strong claims therapeutic culture makes on the meaning of such narratives– claims that some find inherently hostile to artistic purposes. As my work has developed, I have become less interested in the angry rejection of the therapeutic frame (whether by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Charlie Sheen), and more fascinated by the ways writers make art by engaging it. I think I’ll have more to say about that feature of addiction literature in a later post, but for now it’s the background to my thinking about these songs. For my money, they crystallize some of the best of what artists can do with this subject matter: not scorning the very real felt experiences that addicts report, but instead making meaning from the tense interpenetrations of artistic and therapeutic purposes.

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