Perfect Sound Forever

Irish Soul Stew: The Pogues

Shane MacGowen

by Alan K. Crandall
(October 1999)

I. Irish Soul Stew (Part One)

About eight or nine years ago, there was a fairly popular movie around called THE COMMITTMENTS, about a bunch of Irish kids who form a band playing '60's soul music. It wasn't a bad movie, actually -- it painted a pleasant picture of small-town Irish life, and a pretty accurate picture of in a struggling band (blown gigs, equipment failures, getting ripped off by promoters, inane personal conflicts). What I didn't like was the soundtrack -- classic soul covers performed by contemporary studio goons. Not that it was all that bad; I suppose the performances were about as good as those you might get from a good cover band at any local bar, but nothing worth a moment of your time when the far superior originals are available. Unfortunately, the soundtrack went on to become a substantial hit (even generating a follow-up), which grated on me then and still does -- I hate the image of all those Gen X'ers and yuppies shelling out for an album of watered-down soul covers when they wouldn't be caught dead buying Otis Redding. Sigh. The music critic for the local newspaper agreed, and suggested in his review of the Commitments album, that if people really wanted to hear Irish soul music, they should pick up the latest album by The Pogues.

II. Golden Hits of the '80's

They say nostalgia runs in ten-to-twenty year patterns- that is, what was popular in one era will always enjoy a revival ten-to-twenty years later. Some truth there; the seventies were swamped in '50's nostalgia ("Happy Days," "Grease"), the late eighties brought in a wave of '60's flashbacks ("Big Chill," "The Wonder Years"), and the '90's have treated the '70's as the decade to look back on. That can only mean that a yearning for the Reagan era isn't far behind (shudder!). It's starting already- "Golden Hits of the 80's" collections turning up on late-night TV. God help us.

I think I'll make my own "Golden Hits of the 80's" album. The stuff I was listening to. The last vestiges of '70's punk, the first glimmerings and full flowerings of the American indie scene: The Gun Club, Green On Red, Black Flag, Husker Du, The Replacements, The Pontiac Brothers(!), Social Distortion.   Aah, those were the days. It won't have a lot of British rock from that era, though. The '80's were the end of the UK as far as rock'n'roll went, as far as I'm concerned. None of this is meant as any kind of chest-thumping "America-first"-ness...  I just hated all that mopey Smiths/Echo and the Bunnymen/U2/Cure stuff; all burbling synths and treated guitars and strained attempts at soulfulness, all fashion and stance and not a shred of real feeling. But there was ONE band to come out of the UK in the 80's who did understand what rock'n'roll music was supposed to be, what real "soulfulness" sounded like. And that was The Pogues.

III. Irish Soul Stew (Part Two)

The Pogues as Irish soul music. I like that. It sounds right. It fits, in the same way that Gram Parsons' description of country as "white soul music" fits. The Pogues music could be called soul; not in sound, but in feel, in sensibility, in emotional commitment. Or you could call it rock'n'roll music, or rock music. None of these would necessarily be inaccurate (or necessarily accurate either, if you want to split hairs). Of course, at the time, people often referred to them as "folk music."

Superficially, I guess they were. Their music basically a sped-up, amplified and attituted-up take on Irish folk music of the Clancy Brothers/Dubliners sort. Superficialities only go so far. They were never really a folk band in the purest sense. There was always too much Bo Diddley in their backbeat, too much Clash in their attack. Neither were they simply a parody of Irish music, a high-speed punk rock joke band with accordions. They used Irish music as a well to draw from, much as The Stones used Chicago blues; they took its form, its depth of feeling, its melodicism, its romance and longing and every other quality you want to hang on it, and wed it to their own roots in punk and high-powered pub rock, and came up with something uniquely their own. John Lennon once referred to the blues as "a chair," in respect to its relationship to rock'n'roll music. Irish music was The Pogues' chair.

Of course, the first ones to deny them a seat in the Folk Club would be the members themselves. Folkies reviled them. Folkies revile anyone who doesn't play by their rules. It's the most insular, tradition-bound faction of popular music, on both sides of the pond, as near as I can tell. There's still grizzled old veterans' wandering around Greenwich Village, anxious to tell anyone who'll listen what a no-talent-asshole Bob Dylan was/is. Dylan was reviled for mimicking Woody Guthrie, then for not mimicking Woody Guthrie; for playing protest songs; for turning away from protest songs; for playing the electric guitar- for not playing by the damn rules! Of course, it's the ones who break the rules who achieve greatness, and there's no greater crime or surer ticket to condemnation by your peers than being the most talented and ambitious one around. Anyway, Dylan was never really a folkie anymore than The Pogues were.

So the folkies reviled them. Somewhere in the archives there's a radio broadcast wherein a heated altercation between Noel Hill of the venerable folk band Planxty and several Pogues ensues. It apparently began with Hill's assertion that The Pogues were "a terrible abortion of Irish music" and quickly slid downhill:

Noel Hill, however, laboured his case and it was at this stage that Andrew went for an unexpected Grundy, and said: "I think it just comes down to I sex. I mean, are you a better fucker than me!" The session continued in similar style for another half-hour, and eventually ended with the contemptuous Cait being branded "a pig". She replied with five seconds of suitable snorts. Man, I wish I could get my hands on a tape of that! Meanwhile, others condemned them as being a kind of racist joke, perpetuating the stereotypical image of the Drunken Irishman. And Richard Thompson, ever the contrarian, dismissed them for being too reverent in their take on traditional music! None of this seems to have phased The Pogues any; in the UK, they became stars.

IV. Zen and the Art of Rock`n'Roll Fandom

The Pogues as Irish soul band. How do you justify that one? Maybe this way:

They regenerated into an all-time stupor at Hull Tiffany's, on March 25, after being subject to the unlimited generosity of Nick Stewart - a Glaswegian whom they had first encountered at Manchester Hacienda just three weeks before. Being a terminal fan of John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, The Velvet Underground and Tom Waits, Nick felt an immediate affinity for The Pogues. Does that last sentence make sense to you? It does to me. In fact, it makes so much sense to me that I was actually thrilled when I came across it. It articulates the inarticulate-able. What do The Pogues have in common with two of the most primitive, toughest of blues legends, the most celebrated avant-garde/rock`n'roll band ever, and the poet-laureate of down-and-out street lunatics (okay, the Waits connection's a bit easier to see)? For that matter, what do Hooker and Wolf have in common with The Velvets? Or The Velvets with Waits? Nothing and everything, I guess. It's just that someone who likes Hooker and Wolf AND The Velvets probably like Waits and The Pogues, too.

I could, I suppose, sit up all night (and probably many other nights, too) trying to put my finger on what it is that links these things. Hell, I might even pull it off. Robert Pirsig asked what "quality" was while teaching college English in Montana in the '60's. He managed to pin it down to something that people recognized when they encountered it (his students almost unanimously concurred on when ranking papers in terms of which ones were "better") but could not define. Well, Pirsig's search for a definition of "quality" led to mental breakdown, electroshock therapy, cross-country motorcycle trips and eventually the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig is a lot more educated than myself, and much more equipped for dealing with such questions, so you'll forgive me if I don't try to equal his achievement. But I will take a little stab at making sense of a statement like the quote above.

There is something I hear in traditional or tradition-rooted music; that is, specifically, blues, a lot of jazz, folk music (of any nationality but especially American or British, which I happen to be far, far more familiar with than that of any other cultures), country, gospel, reggae, rockabilly, '60's soul music, roots-rock or what the charts now refer to as "Americana," traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex border music (which I've recently gotten heavily into) and other things. To be honest, I don't know if it's something that's actually there or just something I put there in my mind, a validation because the music is (or is based on music that is) old and celebrated and "legendary" (and I've been accused of exactly that kind of psychological projection, especially for my penchant for preferring Lightnin' Hopkins to hip-hop music), but I hear it all the same. Something like a deep well of feeling and emotional commitment ("emotional commitment," now there's some pretentious critic-speak if I ever heard it) that an artist can dip into and draw from. And when I hear it, especially in the context of something that I deem as "good," it turns my head and makes me listen.

It's a quality I don't hear in a lot of avant-garde or "punk" or what I think of as "white pop" music (which in my mind would be things like NRBQ or The Hoodoo Gurus, just to name two), but the lack of it does not necessarily diminish those kinds of music (hey, I'm a big fan of NRBQ, and The Hoodoo Gurus, and lots of "punk" and avant-garde-type music as well), but it's a good quality to have. For me, it's a kind of anchor to the music; it gives it staying power. For me, it means that while I am always up for hearing Richard Thompson, Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, The Stones, Otis Redding, Tom Waits, Southern Culture on The Skids or John Coltrane (all of whom have this something) I have to be in the right mood to want to listen to The Sex Pistols (who were great, but lack this aforementioned something).

In any case, if this something, this quality exists (and since I perceive it I guess it does- and others perceive it too, I think), it is something that can be found in Hooker and Wolf and The Velvets and Waits, and in The Pogues, too. And that makes sense out of the quote. At least, as much sense as I'm able to articulate about it.

V. Golden Hits of the '80's (Part Two)

The Pogues were definitely a part of the '80's for me. Even if the '80's were a terrible decade for Top 40 music, underground music was a rich, fertile haul back then, and for me, The Pogues were superstars. The first I ever heard of them was a review of the "Pair of Brown Eyes" single in Spin. Actually, it wasn't the review that got my attention, but the photo of Shane MacGowan, dressed in Napoleonic "pirate" gear and showing off his infamous ghastly grin (later immortalized by Mojo Nixon in "Shane's Dentist."). The caption read "Shane MacGowan comes from an ugly place, has an ugly face, and has recorded a great single with The Pogues," which makes it the finest piece of writing I ever encountered in the mostly execrable Spin.

Back then, the general line on The Pogues was that they played punked-up, sped-up versions of Irish traditional music. Actually, on their first album (Red Roses For Me), I suppose that's not too inaccurate. I never got especially hot and bothered about Red Roses, which was hard to find and I never heard until its 1988 re-release. Despite their boundless energy and good humor (especially "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go," which worked excellently for clearing out parties), it now sounds like demos for what would come later. By Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and the Poguetry in Motion EP, they'd found their true voice. The band had gelled into an endlessly inventive ensemble that could find each songs unique qualities and then make the most of them. MacGowan had turned into a brilliant, plainspoken songwriter and possibly even more brilliant singer, using his ragged voice and slurred phrasing as an instrument to express himself, much as any great blues or, yes, soul singer would. By If I Should Fall From Grace With God, they were even better; MacGowan's writing became almost mythic, the band's delivery almost cinematic in its sweep, building each number into a work of great drama and power; the sort of rare album without a single forgettable track.

But then things began to slip. I anxiously awaited the release of Peace and Love the following year, but when it arrived, I was disappointed. Something was missing. Part of it was that the other Pogues were contributing more in the way of material. Yet the songs by Terry Woods and Phil Chevron were largely consistent with MacGowan's both lyrically and musically, and Woods' "Streets of Sorrow" and Chevron's "Thousands Are Sailing" had been highlights of Grace. Meanwhile, MacGowan was still at full strength, delivering several fine songs, especially the overpowering "USA." But somehow, the album failed to hang together... as good as most of it was, it never really added up to the sum of its parts.

Things went from bad to worse, as MacGowan simply went AWOL from the band's US tour with Bob Dylan that fall. A Rolling Stone piece described MacGowan as a down-and-out drunk whose legendary habits had caught up with him. The Pogues seemed to fade from the scene.

Hell's Ditch finally appeared the following year, with little fanfare (at least in the States). Conventional wisdom has it that Hell's Ditch is a failure, but I myself thought of it as a fine return to form. Understated compared to their peak period of 1985-1988, but MacGowan seemed back on top again, contributing some of his best songs yet, from the grand drama of "Lorca's Novena" to the (here we go again) "Irish soul" of "Ghost Of A Smile." Me, I was looking forward to more great music from The Pogues.

It didn't happen. When The Pogues finally toured the States, close to a year after HD's release, MacGowan was again not with them ("Shane MacGowan will not appear" read the newspaper ad for the show). Joe Strummer ostensibly stood in for the absent Shane, though in fact the entire band took turns at the mike. Strummer is one of my old heroes, but he couldn't quite fill MacGowan's shoes (amusingly enough, Strummer had also appeared with them at their SF debut in 1987, filling in for an injured Phil Chevron. Of the three times I saw The Pogues headline, only once did they have the full band). This time, Shane was gone for good. The Pogues soldiered on for a few more years, releasing two well-intentioned but less-than-classic albums. MacGowan duetted with Nick Cave on a hilarious version of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World" and plotted a solo career.

Finally, 1995 brought The Snake, MacGowan's first solo album with his new band, the vengefully named Popes. While there was much to like about The Snake, it lacked the greatness of his old band. The Popes could imitate The Pogues, but not duplicate them. Great bands depend on gestalt. The Popes simply lacked the kind of imagination and ambition to turn simple songs into full-blown epics (and The Pogues needed MacGowan's inspiration to produce great work). Also the switching from straight rock rocked-up Pogues imitations was jarring and gave the album an inconsistent feel. Still, MacGowan remained a popular figure in the UK. As the Pogues quietly folded, he released Crock Of Gold in 1998.

VI. Rock`n'Roll Paddy

Late last summer, I attended the Guinness Fleadh Festival; a full day of music, almost all of it excellent, chock full of artists I liked. The evening ended (for me, anyway) with a performance by Shane MacGowan and the Popes. It had been ten years since I'd seen MacGowan, and I was excited but trepidatious. I'd been less than enthralled by his solo work and, by all accounts, his legendary abuses hadn't abated (like their forbears, The Popes have taken to playing sans MacGowan when necessary).

MacGowan came on close to an hour late (Typical. It was close to 90 minutes the first time The Pogues played SF). He was led on by a roadie or assistant who stayed by his side throughout the show, passing him lit cigarettes. He clung to the mike stand just to stay vertical. He garbled out his songs and made his usual unintelligible introductions (which sound something like "thizzongscauldwarrgleemaffftaweebagrrf"). When he mysteriously vanished in mid-set, many of us wondered if he'd keeled over (he returned after a brief Popes instrumental, fresh drink in hand). The Popes, true to my expectations, played with enthusiasm but suffered from not being The Pogues (not an unfair criticism, I don' think, when they're clearly intended to stand in for the originals). Given how good The Pogues had been even when bad, it added up to a disappointment. MacGowan's voice was ragged (even by MacGowan standards). None of this phased the mostly Irish (and mostly loaded) crowd, who tipped over a bleacher in honor of their hero.

Then, shortly after returning with his fresh drink and struggling through "Lost Highway" (not the Hank Williams song), MacGowan and the Popes jumped into a Pogues set with "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," and as Shane slurred and snarled his way through the lyric, you could hear just a little bit of the old magic there, a hint of redemption, a sign of what drew you to him in the first place.

If I sound overly critical, it's because I think MacGowan is a rare talent, a brilliant songwriter and outstanding singer, and it saddens me to see him lionized for his sad personal state. And he is. Drop by the Pogues Usenet group and make some comment about his unfortunate physical state and see how fast the flames fly. There appears to be a not inconsiderable faction of fans for whom MacGowan's long out-of-control alcoholism is some kind of badge of honor, an inherent part of his "cool." Just a few nights ago, I was killing time in a used bookstore. The young Deadhead-type behind the counter was blasting The Pogues. I heard him say to his girlfriend: "It's so cool to know this guy was really shitfaced drunk when he recorded this. Listen! You can totally hear him slurring his words!"

I used to think so too, I guess. I didn't think it was "cool," but I did think it was funny. Part of the pleasure of seeing The Pogues perform was watching MacGowan stumble around and slur his words. Just like I used to find Roky Erickson's mental instability funny (when introducing a friend to his music, I always had to mention that Roky was "really insane" and not just pulling an Alice Cooper act), and Johnny Thunders' junkie-cool "I don't give a fuck attitude." Actually, I don't think that kind of attitude is unusual for a guy in his 20's, especially one who enjoyed his indulging in his own vices whenever possible.

So maybe it's just a maturity thing. No, I didn't become a teetotaler or enter a 12-step program; just settled down. At 33, getting loaded now seems like an inconvenience rather than anything to be happy or amused about. And Roky's just a sad ghost of a man. And Thunders is dead. And MacGowan's descent doesn't strike me funny at all. Maybe someday we'll be seeing his obituary. Or maybe not; he's stuck around this long (well, Thunders lasted a lot longer than most of us expected, too). Or maybe he'll pull himself out of it. All I know is, he's a great talent and the price of living up to his shambling image has been a ton of brilliant music that he could have been making, and me, I think that's too high a price to pay. Way too high.

Some Pogues-related links:
The Pogues - a fine jumping-off point to all things Pogue-related.
The Pogues: The Lost Decade - an online copy of the long-out-of-print book by Ann Scanlon, from which the quotes above are taken.
A Rusty Tin Can and An Old Hurley Ball - who can argue with a title like that?

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