What does it mean to be Irish?
Red hair? The gift of gab? A drinking problem? The itch to fight?
Of course not. All you need to be Irish is a deep and abiding affection for the Pogues.
When I was probably 15, a freshman in high school, I started staying up late enough to watch Saturday Night Live. My first exposure to the band was the St. Patrick's Day 1990 episode hosted by Rob Lowe, featuring the Pogues as musical guests and a great "Sprockets" sketch with Lowe and Mike Myers as Dieter, if memory serves.
I had never even heard of the Pogues, but they have been one of my Top 5 favorite bands ever since. There has never been a period where I have gone for more than a few weeks without listening to a Pogues album, or at least a few songs. The past week or two, I have been listening to them nonstop. In some small way, the Pogues made me Irish.
To this day, remembering that SNL episode, the first thing I remember thinking was that I had never seen anyone with such horrible teeth as singer Shane MacGowan had. A couple of them were black, a couple more jutted out at odd angles, and more than a few appeared to be missing entirely.
He was wearing sunglasses and holding a cigarette that had almost burned down to the filter in one hand, and a styrofoam cup in the other. He looked rough, and regarded the camera with a look of such utter disdain and contempt I couldn't help but be impressed.
Some switch deep down in my developing suburban brain flipped on: This dude is cool.
But MacGowan wasn't the only thing I took away from watching the Pogues that night. The band played "White City" and "Body of an American" on SNL, songs that contain enough of their signature balls-to-the-wall picking and tear-jerking pastoral beauty that I was sold on both punk rock and Celtic music for life. Since then I have always preferred punk bands that contain a healthy dose of roots music, like Social Distortion, X and (obviously) Flogging Molly.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Pogues' crowning achievement, 1988's If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Soon after that SNL episode, I picked up that album on cassette at a music store in Baybrook Mall. Of course the hormonal 15-year-old in me responded to breakneck songs like the title track, horse-racing tale "Bottle of Smoke" -- I still love it when Shane screams, "Run, you bastard!!!" -- "Turkish Song of the Damned" and "Sit Down By the Fire."
But even then I appreciated the rich storytelling within the haunting melodies of ballads such as "Fairytale of New York" and "Thousands are Sailing." When I got to college, as we were learning to tell our own stories, one of my best friends at The Daily Texan -- and to this day -- and I bonded over our mutual love of the Pogues. He even led a band in Austin called Bottle of Smoke before going on to become a journalist for The New York Times and now an author. By this time, alcohol had been introduced into the equation, and I came to the firm conclusion that the band has written some of the best drinking songs that have ever existed. Even sober, that hasn't changed.
More recently, I have been wearing out a relatively recent Pogues compilation, Shout! Factory's The Very Best of the Pogues from earlier this year. While I'll never tire of dust-kickers like "Young Ned of the Hill," these days I find myself gravitating more towards ballads like "Dirty Old Town," "Rainy Night in Soho" and "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge." I'm older now, a little sadder, and can relate to the lovelorn sentiments of those songs more than "Sally MacLennane" and the band's more adventuresome material. I have no plans to stop listening to the CD anytime soon.
Getting to know the Pogues, I couldn't help falling in love with Irish culture. And looking back now, I think their music gave me a taste of what having a distinct ethnic identity meant, of belonging to a larger culture beyond your own neighborhood. Friendswood in the late '80s and early '90s was lovely, still is, but culturally it's about as unremarkable as it gets. It's still the kind of place you leave when you're young and settle in when you're not so young.
The Irish are a proud people, blessed by otherworldly musical gifts and beset through the years with about every hardship imaginable, yet they keep right on singing such beautiful songs. By the same token, they are also an angry people who have come to understand that a simple song can be as inflammatory as any other weapon.
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The Pogues have reconciled these two halves of the Irish character better than any band I can think of -- but more important for me, they gave a kid from suburban Texas a glimpse of what it must be like to spend an evening in the rough-and-tumble taverns of Dublin, or a misty afternoon by the shores of Galway Bay.