Lacquered with sweat in an unbuttoned white shirt that looks to have been Chernobyled into a Victorian state from a sustained dousing of bodily fluid and booze, Nick Cave grumbles distractedly, “I’m going to invite one of my favourite singers ever up on stage.” Completely unfettered by this sensational compliment as though his number has just been called at the deli line, Shane MacGowan strolls out into the beam of the spotlight, a little too glaring for his usually shrouded style.
After briefly familiarising himself with his surroundings, MacGowan cracks a smile revealing a mouth that looks not unlike the back alley of a terraced street on bin day and humbly barks “Thank you very much, Happy Christmas.” The performance occurred on September 1st… In fairness, the song itself, however, was released as a Christmas single by the duo later that year, it’s just that its live debut came a little prematurely at an NME charity gig that also involved Rowland S. Howard joining Cave and Mick Harvey on stage for a brief Birthday Party reunion performing the classic tracks ‘Wild World’, ‘Dead Joe’ and ‘Nick The Stripper’ making it a truly Through the Looking Glass journey into the realms of the weirdly wonderful.
Louis Armstrong’s original ode to the bright side of life has a glossy score that is dishevelled by his own unique weather-beaten tones; whereas Cave and MacGowan start with a dishevelled score provided by the Bad Seeds and slur a further tousling timbre over the top, ensuring, as they say in the states, that there ain’t no glamorising gloss and it is the true warts and all beauty of this ruinous world worth celebrating. Thusly, the song delivers on the message that MacGowan’s new artbook almost declares: This place is a crock of gold.
Or, as MacGowan once declared in exact words: “Cram as much pleasure as you can into life, and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result.” In this sense, their performance is perfect. Throughout the wayfaring four minutes, it threatens to collapse, words linger on the brink of being forgotten and queues very nearly pass right by, but that keeps it fresh and the whole thing is held together with triumphant joy. After all, the world is far from note-perfect – how boring it would be if it was – and the blips in this performance are braced like the potholes on memory lane, tying the whole thing together with the sort of exuberant jubilation that makes you almost pleased life is tragic.
Ultimately, as the two old friends embrace and MacGowan wanders towards the wings once more, even the most cynical viewer can’t help but concede: ‘What a wonderful f—king world!’ This is the sort of message, no matter how obfuscated, that the duo have always tried to cling to in their tunes. As Nick Cave once said: “What performance and song is to me is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface, to create a space where the creature can break through what is real and what is known to us. This shimmering space, where imagination and reality intersect – this is where all love and tears and joy exist. This is the place. This is where we live.”
While some folks might find it staggering and slurring, there is a definite beauty in that too. As MacGowan and Cave joked when they were joined by Mark E. Smith three years earlier, “So the NME thinks we’re the last three heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, do they?” Nick Cave began, at the gothic pub The Montague Arms in central London. “Smarmy fuckers,” Shane McGowan countered, “What they actually mean is that we’re the three biggest brain-damaged cases in rock ‘n’ roll.” To which Mark E. Smith explains, “Apart from Nick. Nick’s cleaned up”. Thankfully, Cave remarks: “Yeah, my brain’s restored itself”.