PopSmarts: Damned By Dawn!
It’s coming on St. Patrick’s Day now. That’s when all the amateur Irishmen come out for a night on the piss and an annual flirtation with Celtic folk music. In particular, the Pogues will come out for their yearly spin in the CD player, and it is to them that we turn our attention this time — and to an odd bit of trivia to both enhance your listening pleasure, and to give you an air of sophistication as you spend the evening getting schnockered with your cronies.
One of the first pieces I wrote for Popdose was this guide to the Pogues, and what I strove to emphasize — what still strikes me now — is the band’s vast, omnivorous musical reach. It’s an injustice to think of them as “only” an Irish folk group. Oh, they had a greater command of (and reverence for) the Irish folk tradition than their detractors — or even some of their fans — would care to admit. But the Pogues were always chameleons at heart. At the peak of their powers, roughly from 1987 – 1991, the group synthesized a slew of musical influences — ‘60s pop, New Orleans R&B, big-band jazz, Spanish carnival music — and filtered them through a pub-sésiun sensibility.
The first album of this period was 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God. With bass player Darryl Hunt and multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods aboard as full-time members and super-producer Steve Lillywhite behind the desk, Fall From Grace found the Pogues exploring new sounds with a new muscle.
“Turkish Song of the Damned” is a case in point. The most blatantly psychedelic track the Pogues had recorded to date, it works a hook based on an Eastern mode, with the thumping rhythm giving the whole a vaguely North African feel. Lillywhite, best known at the time for his work with U2 and Big Country, gives the production a stadium-ready roar, with distant wails underpinning the eerie lyrics.
Written by banjo-man Jem Finer with words by singer Shane MacGowan, “Turkish Song” is a ghost story, an Ancient Mariner-type tale about a shipwreck survivor who is visited by the phantasmal forms of his dead crewmates. The narrator — the leader of this ghostly crew — drops dark intimations that the survivor escaped with his skin intact by negligence or treachery, and swears a vow of vengeance: “Not the nails of the Cross nor the blood of Christ can bring you hope this eve,” he hisses. “The dead have come to claim a debt from thee.” And it is clear that the debt they seek to collect is naught but their former shipmate’s immortal soul.
This amusing fan-made video tells the story in comic-strip form…
But notice that the story breaks off before it’s over. The piece climaxes with an instrumental coda, a breakneck jig that slams the song to a close but apparently leaves the traumatized survivor to his fate. Does the crew of zombie sea-dogs drag the poor fellow off to Hell after all? MacGowan doesn’t say.
Or does he?
The thing to remember is that “Turkish Song” is actually not one song, but two. The verses and choruses are the MacGowan/Finer composition, but the instrumental bit at the end — that’s a traditional tune. And all of those tunes, all of those jigs and reels, have names — sometimes several names, depending on which collection of tunes you consult. And those names are often oddly evocative. The Tailor’s Thimble. The Red-Haired Man’s Wife. The Blackthorn Stick. Crabs in the Skillet. There’s a curious poetry at work here.
I didn’t know the name of the jig that closes out “Turkish Song of the Damned” — in fact, I assumed that it too was a MacGowan original. But some years later, in the mid-1990s, when I was making a serious effort to educate myself in the history and practice of folk-rock, I heard that tune again, again as part of a medley, on a Fairport Convention record:
So now we’ve got a title: “The Lark in the Morning.”
And suddenly the scenario of “Turkish Song” changes utterly, and the fairy-tale ending falls into place.
Dig it: The poor doomed sailor has been talking to the ghastly revenants of his crewmates all night long, pleading, cajoling, trying every trick he can think of to forestall his awful fate. But at last he can stall no longer. There is no more avoiding the inevitable. He sees the captain’s ghost take on a terrifying reality, free now to wreak unholy vengeance. He feels the hot breath of Hell as the gates wing wide. There is no escape.
But as the shades of doom surround him, the horrified mariner hears, from outside the window, the faint call of the lark signaling daybreak. He has succeeded in delaying the specters until the dawn! The first rays of the new-risen sun creep through the window, and the specters shrink back — for ghosts and demonic spirits cannot stand the touch of daylight. As the pale light of dawn fills the room, the spirits flee and dissolve into smoke and vapor, leaving the sailor terrified but unharmed.
So that sour old misanthropist Shane MacGowan sneaks a happy ending past us all, by letting the music do the talking. Because most of us listening might not have known that jig was called “The Lark in the Morning,” but you can bet your boots that MacGowan did. And as sure as whiskey rots your teeth, you can bet he chose that particular tune for a reason.
If “Turkish Song of the Damned” were a traditional folk tale, having been spared the fires of Hell the sailor would then run directly to the nearest church, fall to his knees, and make a full confession and repentance of his sins, thus saving his soul from eternal damnation. Now, your St. Patrick’s Day misadventures may end with you on your knees, too, praying for mercy — and if you’re very lucky, you may be on your knees in church, rather than over your toilet. Either way, friends, I’ll say a prayer for your souls; that even such poor sinners as me and thee might get a shot at salvation.