The Pogues continue to defy punk-rocker odds
Musicians and early death often intersect with predictability. But some deaths are still surprises, especially as one grows older and watches the totems of his youth do the same. So the news of Joe Strummer's death in 2002 at age 50, the result of a congenital heart defect, was chilling. That the Pogues, a band he produced and played with, are playing House of Blues on Thursday, on the other hand, seems nothing short of a miracle.
The band formed in 1982 and set about creating breakneck traditional Irish music. The songs were part history and part punk, sometimes about martyrs, sometimes about drunks. The styles and themes threaded together thrillingly. Along the way the band's affinity for alcohol — particularly frontman Shane MacGowan's affinity for alcohol — earned it a reputation that too often preceded the music.
But guitarist Phil Chevron hopes the fact the band kicked against the pitchfork's pricks will recast perceptions of it. “I think it's important we're here to tell the tale,” he says. “Some say that mode of auto-destruction is part of being Irish. I'd argue that it isn't.”
He laughs. “Survival is more complex than that. It's more nuanced than that. I'd like to think it's more like old Irish playwrights or poets. Survival becomes the point. So you can keep doing something you love.”
Though MacGowan had a reputation as an unreliable performer, Chevron says the band members have all made adjustments to their lives to facilitate the shows. “Like everybody else, he's figured out a way to do it,” he says. “It's not the way I figured it out, but we all have our ways of making work the focus. At some point you mature and have to take responsibility for your own (expletive).”
While the band consumes less fuel these days, it hasn't changed its approach to performing. The shows tend to be based on a core songbook from the band's five albums with MacGowan. Rehearsals, tours and doing press derailed its attempts to create new music. “We're the architects of our own folly,” Chevron says.
“But something strange happens when we get together. It's almost always like the first time. There's a spontaneity about the way we play and there's always been. A sense that a song is happening in the moment. The moment becomes the point, which is great. It helps that the songs were always timeless.”
That's a point worth making, because the best Pogues songs — perhaps because of the parts rooted in tradition — still sound grand today.
Some of the troubles in Ireland that MacGowan addressed have been resolved, but his eye often drifted to other conflict-riddled parts of the world. While his vulgar lyrics tend to draw the most attention, they're commonly dialogue or written from a third-person perspective. When MacGowan is the narrator, there's a knuckled elegance and flow, with tips to Samuel Taylor Coleridge or traditional songs and chanteys.
Chevron's Thousands Are Sailing — which compares two waves of Irish emigrants to America separated by 140 years — is a fine example, a song that sounds at once vintage and new. He suggests the traditional elements were a natural extension of the band's interests. But the group needed to distinguish itself from purely traditional players. So they married those sounds to punk, a scene that had grown long in the tooth and needed a fresher approach.
“If you work with a tradition of writing that is hundreds of years older than you, you don't want to be slavishly writing in that tradition as prestige. You have to take into account things that happened since the 18th century, and that includes rock and punk rock,” he said.
“But music has always turned in on itself. One of the great roots of American rock is country music, which is an adaptation of Appalachian tradition, which is an adaptation of Scots Irish music. We played music that had in common rock and Irish and country and blues, but a punk attitude simplified everything.”
But punk hasn't been a forgiving field. Three of the four Ramones are dead, along with Strummer, a Sex Pistol and numerous other punk figureheads. And the snobbery remains that practitioners of punk — or more generally rock — should have an expiration date.
Chevron uses Strummer as an example of why they keep going; the Clash singer maintained a youthful enthusiasm for writing, recording and performing until his death.
“It becomes more than what you did with your life,” Chevron says. “It becomes what you do with it.” He mentions performing at a festival years ago with Chuck Berry. “People think he's a cynical old (expletive), but he isn't. It's clear the man loves what he does. Rock 'n' roll appeared to be a youthful phenomenon, but it's not. Maturation is an interesting part of it. Neil Young, Bowie, Lou Reed, they've become a fascinating part of what we know to be rock 'n' roll, how they deal with advancing age. Some deal well, some deal in embarrassing ways. I won't name names, but we know who I'm talking about.
“I just hope we can keep doing it so that people know we love doing it.”
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