I’m not a fan of Christmas music. I started hearing them on the radio at the end of November this year (far too early), and I’m now sick of them. A bit of variety would be good—but no, it’s the same handful of songs, over twenty years old, and I know every word and musical note of them.
But there’s one that always stands out to me, one Christmas song that I actually like—Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. It works so well musically, especially how their voices work together (and Shane MacGowan is excellent proof that you don’t have to be a good singer to be a great vocalist), but it’s the lyrics that really make this song. There’s poetry in the words, but there’s also a wonderfully told story. As it came on the radio again a few weeks ago, I found myself analysing this story in detail.
It begins with a flash-forward—the main character spending Christmas Eve in the drunk-tank. This instantly sets us up for a sad tale, and when another drunk says he won’t see another Christmas, the mood is well and truly set. This character sings (The Rare Old Mountain Dew), and our protagonist is reminded of a girl.
But although he loves her, the melancholy feel tells us all is not well. The man’s a gambler (‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one’), drinking his winnings. And when he sees ‘a better time when all our dreams come true’, we’re not sure if that’s just the drink talking. He’s down on his luck, despite his win on the horses, and we wonder how he’s ended up in this situation. It’s a great opening, because it makes us care about him, and it makes us want to find out more.
The music changes, and this signals a change in time for the next scene. Now, we’re in New York, again at Christmas, but the main character and the girl (we assume it’s the one on his thoughts earlier) have just arrived in the city. They seem as much in love with their new home (with it’s ‘rivers of gold’ and ‘cars big as bars’) as they are with each other. There’s wonderful promise in the air (‘When you first took my hand on that cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me’), and the guy is enraptured with his ‘queen of New York City’.
But there are subtle nods to the approaching darkness. The line ‘But the wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old’ hints that this youthful love might not last. And ‘the drunks they were singing’—happy in their alcoholic haze at the moment, but we know from the opening scene that the murky side of drink will raise its head before too long.
The next scene jumps forward. The relationship’s fallen into bitterness and anger. He might drink, but she’s ‘an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’, so it appears that they both have their battles with substances. She’s far from enraptured with him now—he’s a ‘scumbag’ and ‘maggot’, and a ‘cheap lousy faggot’, and she wants rid of him (‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last’).
As a brief aside, there have been various censored versions of this song over the years (on one live TV broadcast, the band changed ‘You cheap lousy faggot’ to ‘You’re cheap and you’re haggard’), and the language used in this scene is pretty nasty. But it’s all in character, and the vitriol highlights just how far these two have fallen. These words are the right ones to use, however offensive they may be to some.
I also like the line ‘Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed’. Read straight, it feels poorly constructed—wouldn’t something like ‘lying there almost dead, in that bed, on that drip’ feel better grammatically? And while some of the structure might be down to the need to rhyme ‘dead’ with ‘bed’, it also gives us more insight into the character—he’s so consumed by anger and hatred that he’s stumbling over his words.
The next scene happens later in time, when the anger has dissipated (at least, enough for the couple to view things with more detachment). There’s an emotional exchange, and now we see possible reasons (behind the obvious drink and drugs) for the breakdown of the relationship.
She came to America seeking a new future, yearning to realise her dreams (of Broadway?), but they never materialised. She believes he’s held her back and kept her from fulfilling her potential (‘You took my dreams from me when I first found you’). We can’t know if this is true, but initially he appears to agree with her—he did take her dreams, but ‘I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own’. Their bright future in this land of opportunity was, in his eyes, as a couple—‘Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.’
Their relationship is doomed. She wants nothing to do with him, but he still dreams of ‘a better time’, desperately trying to believe that ‘this year’s for me and you’. But we know that’s not going to happen. She’s chasing her own dream, and he’s destined to drink his life away like the old man from the drunk-tank scene. Maybe this will be the last Christmas he sees too.
It’s a very sad song, and the setting only highlights this. Christmas is a time for family and friends, and we’re constantly reminded of the bells ‘ringing out for New Year’s Day’ as others look to a bright future. Then we have ‘the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay’, a song that talks of a yearning for Ireland—and a reminder that, maybe, this doomed couple might have been better off remaining at home. Sometimes, dreams cannot become reality, and fairytales don’t come true.