The meaning of ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ by the Pogues

I’ve often wondered about the lyrics to A Pair of Brown Eyes by the Pogues. You probably know the words, but here they are just in case:

One summer evening drunk to hell
I stood there nearly lifeless
An old man in the corner sang
Where the water lilies grow
And on the jukebox Johnny sang
About a thing called love
And it’s how are you kid and what’s your name
And how would you bloody know?
In blood and death ‘neath a screaming sky
I lay down on the ground
And the arms and legs of other men
Were scattered all around
Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed
Then prayed and bled some more
And the only thing that I could see
Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me
But when we got back, labeled parts one to three
There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me
And a rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go
For a pair of brown eyes
I looked at him he looked at me
All I could do was hate him
While Ray and Philomena sang
Of my elusive dream
I saw the streams, the rolling hills
Where his brown eyes were waiting
And I thought about a pair of brown eyes
That waited once for me
So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talking
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing
And a rovin’ a rovin’ a rovin’ I’ll go
For a pair of brown eyes

A bit of digging unearthed this interview with the man himself, Shane MacGowan, from an interview with Folk Roots in August 1987, published at Poguetry.com:

“It’s just about a guy getting pissed at a bar round here,” says Shane nonchalantly. “He’s getting pissed because he’s broken up with this bird and… you know how it is when you just go into a pub on your own to drink and it’s really quiet and you get this old nutter who comes over and starts rambling on you. So this old guy starts on about how he came back from the war, the First World War. Or the Second. One of them anyway. And he tells him about the ship he had out there and how he got out and came back and this girl had fucked off with someone else, a girl with a pair of brown eyes. Which is the same situation as the young guy sitting there listening to all this rubbish and the juke box playing Johnny Cash and Ray Lyman and Philomena Begley, classic London juke box tracks. And in the end he gets to the stage where he says fuck it, and he goes stumbling out of the pub and he walks along the canal and starts feeling really bad, on the verge of tears, and he starts realising that the old guy has had a whole fucking lifetime of that feeling, going through the war and everything, but his original reaction is to hate him and despise him. I’m not saying he goes back and starts talking to him but you know…”
The meaning of ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ by the Pogues

Story songs and Shane MacGowan

About the only Christmas song I can stand to hear more than once when it isn’t the last two weeks of December is, of course, A Fairy Tale of New York (see this earlier post about that song, 25 years on). And so as December starts I dug out a particularly good interview in the Quietus with the genius that is Shane MacGowan from last year. Here’s how it starts:

So now he’s laid up in his sick bed like Cúchulainn, the mythical Irish warrior who, when his enemies finally came for him, was said to have tied himself to a standing stone so as to be able to die on his feet. When Shane wrote his song ‘The Sick Bed Of Cúchulainn’, he transposed one of the stories of the indefatigable hero onto a tale about a fighter with Frank Ryan’s anti-fascist Irish nationalists. The opening track of The Pogues’ flawless 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, it’s archetypal MacGowan songwriting: an exuberant celebration of boozing delivered with a punk snarl yet somehow timeless, as if the song had been passed down through the ages.

But it hadn’t. Shane had to write it. In his memoir of his life in The Pogues, Here Comes Everybody, accordion player James Fearnley says of another track from that album, ‘Sally MacLennane’: “the melodies were so seamlessly Irish I was surprised to find out that the song wasn’t traditional.”

Shane shrugs when I tell him this. “Well, there are similar Irish and Scottish folk songs. There’s only eight notes, or sixteen if you want to count it the proper way. I like story songs. Most really good songs, I’m not necessarily saying mine, but if you think of rock & roll, or blues, go as far back as you want, they all have a story. They’re all about a revolution, or a battle, or a love affair, or whatever. I came from a really musical family. Everybody played music and told stories and made up songs. All the neighbours did as well.”

Read it all here.

Story songs and Shane MacGowan

Fairytale of New York, 25 years on

Well, this is timely. I found it impossible to resist reading Fairytale of New York: the story behind the Pogues’ classic Christmas anthem. It’s been 25 years since the single was released (hard as it is to believe there was ever Christmas without it). Here’s a brief extract:

“Every night I used to have another bash at nailing the lyrics, but I knew they weren’t right,” says MacGowan. “It is by far the most complicated song that I have ever been involved in writing and performing. The beauty of it is that it sounds really simple.”

Costello prosaically suggested calling it Christmas Day in the Drunk Tank. MacGowan pointed out that this did not sound like a hit. At the time Finer was reading JP Donleavy’s 1973 novel A Fairy Tale of New York, the picaresque story of a bereaved Irish-American’s return home from Ireland to Manhattan. MacGowan later visited the novelist to ask his blessing to borrow the title. (Years later, Donleavy told the BBC that he loved the song but “realised straight away that it didn’t really have anything to do with my book”.)

A short time later, in February 1986, the Pogues finally made it to New York itself, to start their first ever US tour, and they weren’t disappointed. “It was a hundred times more exciting in real life than we ever dreamed it could be!” says MacGowan. “It was even more like New York than the movies!” After their debut at a club called the World, their backstage visitors included Peter Dougherty, who came to direct the video for Fairytale of New York, and actor Matt Dillon, who appeared in it. MacGowan remembers Dillon, the rising star of Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, kissing his hand and saying: “I dig your shit, man, I love your shit!”

Read it all here.

Fairytale of New York, 25 years on