from the Poguetry in motion EP, Stiff, 1986
For television that dwells on minutiae, on small details as subtle indicators of character, and on the conversations about nothing which while away the time on surveillance detail, The Wire does an excellent set piece. Think in series one alone of Omar’s court scene, where he makes a monkey out of a prosecutor; of the episode in which Bunk and McNulty assess a murder scene communicating only in variously toned ‘fuck’s and ‘motherfucker’s; or the scene in which Bodie and Poot, two young players in the game, murder Wallace, the friend they’ve grown up with as he wishes himself away from the vicissitudes of life on the corner. In series three there are the two-hander scenes which become set pieces through long anticipation of their occurring, of characters meeting, like the Sergio Leone-style stand-off between Brother Mouzone and Omar, resolved without blood being spilt. And in episode three of the third series, ‘Dead soldiers’, The Wire’s writing team invent a tradition for the Baltimore Police Department of seeing off a fallen comrade with a wake at Kavanaugh’s, the bar on West Madison Street that the cops had commandeered as their own.
The Wire is undoubtedly great television, but a little too much has been made of the demands it makes on the viewer, how it forces concentration because it works on series long arcs. The Sopranos and Six feet under had already travelled a considerable distance in the same direction, and love them or loathe them, that’s also what an ongoing and eternal soap opera does. You could argue that this is what The Wire is – a soap, but an intricately woven one with high production values and – this is what really sets it apart, even from The Sopranos – a complex view and understanding of right and wrong which matches the politics at its heart. And it does this with very little fat on its bones (except on certain of The Wire’s larger than life characters) and such as there is only serves to illustrate the lull between one case dying and the next starting up, or how the monomaniacal workers of the BDP let off steam (largely through alcohol and sex, in that order). Without wishing to make it sound worthy – which it absolutely isn’t – The Wire is campaigning television at its finest. Each series has pursued a grand theme underpinned by a subset of minor ones and tried to get to the heart of the dilemmas and tragedy of life in the urban American environment, with the ‘war on drugs’ as the overarching story and the corners as the frontier of a reinvented and no less bloody Wild West. In both his dramatisation and his considered commentary about it, David Simon’s civic pride for Baltimore and the welfare of its maligned and ill-treated underclass is evident. No wonder then that he should see George P. Pelecanos as a kindred spirit and bring him aboard, since Pelecanos has long done the same for DC and its people, where the political contrast is greater still.
The Wire’s attention to detail and pursuit of realism is also evident from their policy of only using music which would naturally arise from the scene they are shooting, so from the window of a passing car, or, as in the case of ‘Dead soldiers’, playing in a bar. (It’s not a rule they’ve religiously stuck to since the first series, but having worked so hard to create something distinct, they’ve earned their right to take liberties with their own rules.) Ray ‘Old King’ Cole is laid out in his Sunday best on the pool table, a bottle of Jameson in one hand and a cigar in the other. Many of his colleagues in the Baltimore Police Department are there, including a scattering of the faces which have become familiar to us. One of these is oversize homicide detective Landsman, who rises to give the eulogy.
‘We are Po-leece… so no lies between us. He wasn’t the greatest detective and he wasn’t the worst. He put down some good cases and he dogged a few bad ones, but the motherfucker had his moments, yes he fucking did…’ Not much further into his speech, Landsman loses it, and in the embarrassing hiatus Freamon of the wiretap unit says, ‘For Christsake, Hugh, play the fucking song already.’ The barman presses play on the cassette deck and a banjo and tin whistle intro strikes up. Fans of the Pogues will recognise the first notes of ‘The body of an American’. The intro is craftily looped to allow Landsman to rally with a joke and finish off his speech. ‘Was he as full of shit as every other sad sack motherfucker wearing the badge of Baltimore City po-leece? Absa-fuckin-lutely. His shit was as weak as ours, no question…’ But ‘he was called. He served. He is counted – Old King Cole.’ Landsman stands down and all join with the unmistakeable voice of Shane MacGowan to sing the first verse of the song. Landsman sticks the notes for his speech in the wallet pocket of Cole’s suit; the editing also picks out characters singing particular lines. McNulty gives us ‘fifteen minutes later we had our first taste of whiskey’, while the studious Freamon delivers the second half of ‘there was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history’ recognising the line with a smile. And appropriately it’s Bunk who roars ‘every bastard there was piskey’. Swaying from side to side, knocking the whiskey back, all know the song because they’ve been to enough wakes; the chorus when it comes – ‘I’m a freeborn man of the USA’ – is rousing. In his commentary on the episode The Wire’s creator David Simon quotes Tom Wolfe: ‘all cops become Irish no matter who they are.’ The police forces of the great American cities of the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest gave employment to large numbers of Irish, and this obviously exerted a fascination for MacGowan, as borne out by ‘the boys of the NYPD choir… singing ‘Galway Bay’’ in ‘Fairytale of New York’.
It’s hard not to agree with Simon when he concludes that Baltimore police ‘don’t have this tradition but they should’. Yet the scene is doing more than inventing a tradition. The clue is the photo of Old King Cole early in the scene, the same photo which also appears in the series’ opening credits, for the man who played Cole in earlier episodes was in fact Wire producer Robert F. Colesberry, who had recently died. The scene was ‘the show saying goodbye to Bob Colesberry’ and Landsman’s eulogy alluded to the best of the films he worked on, like Mississippi burning and After hours. ‘We worked hard on this, we argued over every frame.’ But the music fairly swiftly chose itself. For David Simon, ‘The body of an American’ ‘seems to tell its own story, its own way about life and about loss’ and becomes ‘this thematically perfect thing.’ There is layer upon layer of fiction here, from Simon’s development of the stories he encountered as a Baltimore Sun reporter and those of real life former homicide detective Ed Burns to the imaginative leaps made by MacGowan in his own tale of an Irish-American wake for a boxer torn between two cultures, between his roots and the promise of a better life. And in between there is Bostonian novelist Dennis Lehane’s teleplay for this episode and The Wire team’s commemoration of a dead friend.
Once it is in full flow, it’s clear ‘The body of an American’ comes from the same root as ‘Sally MacLennane’, unsurprisingly featured in the background of a subsequent scene, in which Bunk and McNulty discuss the meaningless of life outside the bar as a colleague brings them more drink and takes his turn to puke his guts up on the corner. The tin whistle high above picks out the tune, a trick the Pogues pulled many a time to give a greater sense of melody to the raw emotion of Sean’s imperfect singing. In its original form as a quarter of the Poguetry in motion EP, it has a very clean sound for a group so readily associated with grot, grime, vomit and sweat but the Kavanaugh’s scene puts the music into its natural context.
Each song on the Poguetry EP displays a different side of a group with a mutli-faceted musical sensibility. ‘London girl’ is Cajun-Irish rockabilly as might well have been perfect for eighties dance floors off Leicester Square, the ones populated by folk with fifties hairstyles and clothes. A middle of the road orchestrated paean to the capital’s dirty heart (or diseased liver), ‘Rainy night in Soho’ simultaneously recalls the Randy Crawford ‘Georgia’ number and subverts it, because its amorous melancholy is of an alcoholic order, destined always to disappoint. On ‘Planxty Noel Hill’ the craic is reaching its height mid-session in an Irish boozer, elbows flying and not a foot in the house that isn’t tapping out the rhythm. In their own right, no song stands out as a cast-iron lead, which is perhaps why they were brought together as EP tracks of equal stature. For me it sees the Pogues just past the crest at which they peaked, with the long-pursued realisation of ‘Fairytale of New York’ an exceptional moment of magic that came on the way down. For having felt his way from the wild exuberant rebel cries of Red roses for me past the story-telling folk craft and the unsparing portraiture of Rum, sodomy and the lash, Shane’s gifts began their slow dissipation as his violently imaginative mind started to pickle into rigidity. An accessibly bright Steve Lillywhite production cannot disguise the fact that If I should fall from grace with God contains for the most part lesser songs than its predecessors; neither can the now over-the-top plundering from the world’s musical traditions.
Before its use in The Wire, ‘The body of an American’ might make up the numbers on a ‘Best of the Pogues’ compilation, or more charitably be next in line after the classics had claimed their place. But the scene it soundtracks transforms the song into something mythical, an elemental piece of writing worthy of the tall order of giving the hard-hearted bastards of the BPD a communal experience, one that could live in their fictional minds right to the moment of their own deaths, their own turns to be laid out on the pool table in Kavanaugh’s. ‘We shot the hell out of that scene… it felt like we had to. If ever there was one scene we were going to do right ever again it had to be the sending away of Bob Colesberry…’ says Simon. And had the Pogues had the scene to extract as a video at the time – with the blessing of The Wire to do so – they might easily have pre-empted the huge success of ‘Fairytale of New York’.