Rock's Pogues Rise Even Further After Their Fall from Grace
Even in the wild and raunchy world of rock, Shane MacGowan, lead singer of the Celtic punk group the Pogues, turns heads. Chief among the reasons are his "gaps," as one band member delicately calls them—the black holes in MacGowan's mouth filled only by piteous dental stumps. To the degree that his teeth aren't present, his ears unfortunately are, protruding like mainsails at right angles from his close-cropped red hair. Then there's the nose, broken three times, which seems to tilt his whole face off-kilter. Already a hero in England and Ireland, he looks alarmingly like a consumptive version of an American icon: Alfred E. Neuman.
What, him worry? Luckily for MacGowan, 30, and his mates—banjo player Jem Finer, 30, mandolinist Terry Woods, 42, accordionist James Fearnley, 30, drummer Andrew Ranken, 30, bassist Darryl Hunt, 35, guitarist Philip Chevron, 30, and tin-whistle player Spider Stacy, 30—the Irish-born singer possesses some more valuable aesthetic virtues. He can compose lilting melodies and rollicking jigs and write lyrics that Woods calls "timeless. They have an imagery and magic that could have been from the '20s, '30s or the last century." That and the octet's ability to infuse traditional Irish music with punk fervor have helped make the Pogues' third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, a favorite with critics and an odd assortment of fans, who run the gamut from yuppies to slam dancers.
Despite the Celtic flourishes, only four band members—MacGowan, Ranken, Woods and Chevron—are Irish or of Irish descent, and only Woods lives on the Emerald Isle. The other Pogues are British. An even bigger myth, band members claim, is the widely held belief that they are most at home in their cups. "We get people who come along and shove whiskey into our hands and think we're idiots because we don't knock it back," scoffs Woods. "They think we live in a lake full of Guinness," dismisses Stacy. "Plenty of other bands drink more than we do," says Finer. "That's the Irish stereotype being put on this band because of the type of music we play. We're just quiet, normal people who couldn't do what we do night after night if we were completely blotto."
Okay, not blotto. But certainly relaxed. Typically, the Pogues clamber onstage, beers and butts in hand, kicking their way through irreverent, mostly acoustic reinterpretations of the Gaelic strains of yore. MacGowan, slouched center stage and often brandishing a bottle of port, barks tales of rebels and reprobates in a voice lined with sandpaper. You won't find "Danny Boy" anywhere near. "A riotous, whirling, reeling brawl of tavern ribaldry, pockmarked love songs, boozy prayers, gutter balladry, Thatcher bashing and above all, Joycean romanticism," declared Stereo Review, in a typical bit of critical trilling.
MacGowan, a veteran of "four or five" treks through the pages of Ulysses, wishes the critics would just shut up. "I'm not a romantic, or fatalistic," he says with evident disgust. "I'm a total realist. There's lots of good in this world and lots of ugliness. Can't have one without the other." Still, it's hard to imagine Olivia Newton-John singing his love songs, one of which contains the lyrics "It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank" and "You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk."
Popular lore has MacGowan's life imitating his art, with the songwriter staggering through his days vainly defiant, slurring bits of bleakly poetic truth, while searching for the love of a good woman to wrench him from self-destruction. "Ha!" snorts Finer. "Shane is not a miserable sort at all." "I am bad tempered," the suspect cheerfully admits. "But the rest of the band are as well."
Back in 1982 MacGowan and the rest were fed up with what Finer calls London's "two-man bands, a wimpy bloke singing and another playing synthesizer." MacGowan went for inspiration to his roots, the traditional Irish ballads and jigs he grew up hearing from his family, who moved from Dublin to London when he was 6. He attended a posh school on scholarship until he was thrown out at age 14, then went to work as a record-store clerk, bartender and a handyman at the Indian Embassy before it occurred to him to form a band. "I was just drifting," he says, "like every other person under 30."
A set of Irish rebel songs he performed with Stacy one night convinced MacGowan to merge the old with the new, and he combed his address book for bandmates. Called "Pogue Ma-hone"—and shortened after a newspaper reported, correctly, that the phrase was Gaelic for "kiss my—-"—the band played both folk and rock clubs and left each type of audience equally enthused, impressing rockers like the Clash's Joe Strummer. "We'd pick up instruments we couldn't play," says Stacy, "and do Irish folk songs at 140 miles an hour, playing them badly, but with spirit."
The band signed with Stiff Records and released their first album, Red Roses for Me, in 1984. They toured with venerable Englishman Elvis Costello, then came to America and played their first gig at 11 a.m. at a Long Island community college "for five people, for free," Ranken remembers. Back home, Costello produced the Pogues' 1985 LP Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and a 1986 EP Poguetry in Motion (copies of which were released by their American label with MacGowan's teeth whit-ed in). As his parting shot, in 1987, Costello ran off with, and later married, the group's bassist, Cait O'Riordan. She was replaced by former Pogue roadie Darryl Hunt. "Having a woman around was good to soften the male egos," MacGowan says matter-of-factly. "Also, she was better looking."
Although much of their music speaks unambiguously of Ireland's political troubles—and plays well to crowds in such heavily Irish cities as Boston and New York—the Pogues strive to be more than a one-note band. "Many bands spend half their time preaching," says Finer. "There's enough politics in our music." There's also enough bite in it for director Alex Cox to have recruited the Pogues for the sound track of his punk-rock love story, Sid and Nancy. Various Pogues have appeared as actors in a number of British fringe films, including Straight to Hell and Eat the Rich, but music remains their first priority. "I think we come across well onscreen," says Finer. "But none of us are after becoming big stars. We just want to do our jobs, have a few laughs and get on with our lives."
For both Finer and Woods, that means families. "Our kids see so little of us, they've gotten to the point where they want to join the band," says Woods, who "hides" in Ireland during breaks. Stacy, the only other married Pogue, and the rest live in London, frugally: Each of the eight members of this band, which is just beginning to enjoy commercial success, receives a weekly allowance of $250. That situation may improve with the release of their next album, due early next year. If MacGowan's mood can be used as a barometer, the LP may take a lighter look at the world. After all, "I found out whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing, right?" he says with a stump-toothed grin. "I'm a lucky guy."
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