It must be said, Shane MacGowan didn’t think much of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. In the harrowing but always mesmerizing film portrait, If I Should Fall From Grace, MacGowan pouts grumpily that Elvis Costello, who produced the landmark recording, softened their punk edge, tarted up the Celtic folk element for effect, and essentially made the whole band look like performing circus animals. What’s worse, Costello even left the band in the lurch by marrying (and thus retiring) their bass player, the charming Cait O’Riordan. To be sure, from MacGowan’s perspective (indelibly captured by director Sarah Share), and the perspectives of all who revere the piss-drunk beauty of his songwriting (including Irish poet Seamus Heaney), he has a fair point. But to fully appreciate MacGowan’s place in the immortal parade of grand Irish poets, one must scan the whole body of the Pogues' work and Shane’s solo output beyond. But that is not what most casual St. Patrick’s Day observers have in mind.
As a record in itself, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, you couldn’t do much better than spin Rum, Sodomy… from start to finish. It remains not just a testament to 80s punk (when the Pogues recorded their best material), but a flashpoint of the romantic Irish revival that preceded the economic high point endearingly named the Celtic Tiger. It stands as the moment when Celtic-infused rock became cool again, and the old romantic notion of Ireland—heartfelt, lyrical, boozy, frenetic and violent—renewed itself for a whole new generation: a chaotic, creative urge swirled in a brew of gods, devils, and their excrement on the black earth in between. In the twenty-five odd years since, that heady mix has eroded into a commercial caricature of itself. The Celtic Tiger got defanged, the Irish Film Industry lost its nerve (too little of The Snapper, The Field or Butcher Boy; too much Waking Ned Devine) and the music reduced to either infomercials of Lord of the Dance and Celtic Women or an argument between The Frames and The Thrills (yawn…).
The beauty of Rum Sodomy & the Lash lies in the gulf between what you think the album is and what it actually says. If you haven’t listened in awhile, you’ll approach it with the mistaken memory of a bunch of wild Celtic fiddles and MacGowan's slurry odes to Eire. In actuality, many of MacGowan’s songs address the Irish ex-pat experience in England and elsewhere around the globe. The real theme is the suppression of a race not just by a country but throughout history, from the unlucky naïf who travels to London in “The Old Main Drag” to the anonymous men who died building railroads in “Navigator” to the feckless soldier of fortune fighting abroad in “Billy’s Bones,” who makes his mother proud giving his life in the Holy Land, juxtaposed by the updated traditional “The Gentleman’s Soldier,” which manages to sound both comic and rebellious at the same time. This theme culminates in the Australian classic, “And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda,” an epic with such rueful colorings by MacGowan, it transcends its Australian setting and becomes a universal condemnation of war.
Throughout, the hallmark Celtic instrumentation effects two ends. It gives a timeless sense of dignity, nostalgia, and pride of place to a race of people flung far in their lonely corners. It also provides a triumphant spirit of joy that is unconquerable and infectious in spite of the frequently dark storylines of the songs. The connection that we who make a celebration out of St. Paddy’s here in the States seek so desperately is the same one MacGowan, watching his mother OD on pills in a London slum, full of sanguine childhood memories of Tipperary, rekindled artfully into a bonfire.
There are those who say St. Patrick’s is for punters. For amateurs. There are those who distort it into a yearly ruinous excuse. There are even those who say the Irish themselves don’t celebrate it. Fuck ‘em all. We hide eggs at Easter, drink Manischewitz at Passover, respectfully articulate the virtues of Kwanzaa, Ramadan and the Chinese New Year. Drink Guinness and Jameson’s if you want. Myself, I prefer Murphy’s and Powers. What’s important is taking one day to remember and rejoice in a culture that gave us the tree-calendar, the Book of Kells, Cuchuliann, Tristan, Finn McCool, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Christy Brown, Frank O’Connor, J.P. Donleavy, Martin McDonough and this damn music.
As always, Jonny Elkes, I am thinking of you and your glittering eyes.
THE POGUES RUM SODOMY & THE LASH, 1985, Stiff Records (WEA International)