B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
SEVERAL YEARS BACK, singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, then leader of The Pogues, found himself in the awkward position of being kicked out of his own band. The Irishman himself was not the problem, it was the company he kept--all of which could be found in the Physician's Desk Reference and Complete Guide To Bartending. The Pogues rose to fame on the reputation of being a hard-drinking, unpredictable, fuck-you band--then dumped their leader for living up to the image.
From the band's beginnings in 1982, The Pogues dared to couple the folk music tradition of the Clancy Brothers with the irascibility of punk. The collision was a shock from either direction. While MacGowan's vulgar lyrics and slurred vocals defiled the tradition-based folk ballads for the purists, younger fans were left having to adjust to an accordion and banjo in a punk tune. A sort of Sex Pistols meets The Chieftains, some said in defining the unprecedented combination. Understandably, the Chieftain element was more irate. The conservative press accused them of sounding like "a pack of drunken louts let loose in a studio," and of being led by "a toothless moronic pisshead." The band, though, had responded to such criticism even before it surfaced: fittingly, the band's original name, prior to censorship by their label, was Pogue Mahone--Gaelic for "kiss my ass."
In spite of the criticism and the band's aggressive image, the group nonetheless produced unadulterated folk music. While folk songs have rarely been of interest to rock groups (The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" may be the only popular exceptions), the Pogues, thanks to MacGowan's writing, turned out album after album of sea chanteys, drinking songs and Irish rebel anthems. MacGowan reinvented folk music in his work with the Pogues, making the music of interest to fans of The Ramones and The Clash rather than those who gravitated toward Clannad and Peter, Paul and Mary. MacGowan's vitriolic political lyrics also revived folk music as protest music, basically dead since the '60s. Tales of Irish rebellion were spit out with a verbal punch that made other protest singers sound embarrassingly polite.
Polite was not a word one would associate with MacGowan. Temperate, either. Years before The Pogues he was in legal trouble for possession of LSD and a variety of pills (at the tender age of 14). He later spent six months in detox to shake addictions to alcohol, Valium and barbiturates (at age 18). Not long after forming the Pogues, his doctor pronounced his liver shot, temporarily scaring him into a white wine-only diet (late 20s). Speed and amyl nitrate followed opiates, cocaine, speedballs and Ecstasy. In 1988 he claimed to have regularly dropped 50 tabs of acid a day (31-years-old). "I've got the constitution for it," he explained.
The other Pogues did not.
Both MacGowan and the rest of the Pogues claim to have initiated the singer's exit from the band in 1991. MacGowan states he was tired of being responsible for the livelihood of 15 band members and crew staff. Not true, says the group: He was booted after having missed three out of four concert dates in Japan. The fourth was worse yet, with a blitzed MacGowan stumbling through his role as band frontsman. The group mutinied, met with MacGowan back at the hotel room and gave him his walking papers. He accepted the termination without a fight, ending a nine-year association.
Joe Strummer from The Clash, already a great fan of the band, was called in to take his place. During one of the first rehearsals MacGowan appeared and stood in the hall, guitar around his neck, typically loaded to the gills, and strumming the same chord over and over. Making matters worse was the presence of a reporter from England's New Musical Express, there to interview the new version of the group.
The MacGowan-free Pogues released Waiting For Herb in 1993. The Pogues-free MacGowan just recently gave us The Snake. The album titles alone show the content differences.
Both show that Shane MacGowan is The Pogues, no doubt about it.
On The Snake, as on earlier Pogues albums, electric guitars thrash against uillean pipes and banjos; and tin whistles establish memorable hooks even before the vocals surface. Tunes like "The Rising of the Moon" and "Roddy McCorly" relate the battle stories of militant pride found on "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" from the Pogues' If I Should Fall From Grace With God. "A Mexican Funeral In Paris" is the same William Burroughs-style horror reminiscence found in the Pogues' "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn" and "Hell's Ditch."
On Waiting For Herb, the Irish folk/punk band is trimmed of its extremes: The accordions and mandolins prefer sweetness over tradition, and the guitars are stripped of their punk nastiness. The vocals are no longer mean and raspy; and the writing lacks MacGowan's passionate anger, regret and colorful storytelling. The music of the once-notorious Pogues is now tame.
MacGowan remains as full-strength as his drinks, and his songwriting method has not changed: The secret, he says, is to settle in with a bottle of something, several packs of cigarettes and "maybe the odd vitamin pill."
"He'll probably outlive us all," said one Pogue, "just to annoy us."
A censored version of the present album cover shows MacGowan crucified, a rude joke regarding his banishment. But don't feel too sorry for him. One fucked-up MacGowan can still out-sing and out-write seven remaining Pogues. Interestingly, Spider Stacy and Jem Finer, the other two original Pogues, were brought in to guest on this first solo release. One wonders if he hopes to start the band all over again by persuading his longtime cronies to rejoin him. If so, they ought to grab at the offer before he sobers up and reconsiders.
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