The Importance of Being a Pogue
THE telephone rings at Boston’s swank Ritz Carlton and Philip Chevron picks up right away. Moments after saying hello he’s recounting the sprawling rock history of his storied band, the Pogues, in a distinctly cultivated south Dublin accent that is thoroughly steeped in the history of punk rock.
Yes, the Pogues are back in town with the slightly mellower but even more legendary 50-year-old superstar Shane MacGowan in tow, and so the focus now is back where it really belongs, on their soaring and unforgettable music. The band has spent the month of March performing sold-out shows in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, where they’ll wrap their tour on St. Patrick’s night with a gig at the Roseland Ballroom.
Chevron knows all about punk. He was one of the first back in Dublin in the 1970s when there was no punk rock scene to speak of. Undaunted by circumstances, he formed his own band, the Radiators from Space (later they became simply the Radiators). They were young and talented and they weren’t going to let the punk moment pass Ireland by.
But when you talk about the Pogues, Chevron discovered long ago, people usually just want to talk about Shane. That legendary, incendiary broken toothed songwriter and carouser, the man who is often immobilized (sometimes terrifyingly) by his own drink and drugs excesses.
“But there’s far more to the story of the Pogues than ever gets printed,” says Chevron, a Dublin native who plays guitar, banjo and mandolin.
He should know. He’s lived through most of it. This October the band will have been together 25 years.
Still a punk, but also an insightful and brilliant cultural commentator, he is as versed in esoteric German philosophical theory as he is in the bands of the rock era.
“A lot of the most interesting artists in Ireland in all genres came out of that mid-1970s punk period,” he says. “People like Jim and Peter Sheridan, Gabriel Byrne, Neil Jordan. A lot of these people started off at Dublin’s Project Arts Center theater. The scene was much more diverse than just the clubs.”
The issue that set these artists off, the thing that unified them all, was the sense that Ireland was in a very deep rut. Says Chevron, “We had a kind of Christian Taliban operating in Ireland at the time. It was a very unholy alliance between church and state that had a complete stranglehold on Irish culture. I would go so far as to call it fascism.
“And as the details continue to emerge decades later we’ve learned that it was hateful in every aspect, but opposition to it was not something that was expressed widely at the time. The previous generation of Irish artists had dealt with the issue of emigration in the 1950s and ‘60s. We were the first generation that actually stayed in the country at least for a while and started tackling the place head on.”
The best efforts of his generation did change things, but he’s lukewarm about the results. “Unfortunately we didn’t always get the right results because now we have the Celtic Tiger, which is a dubious legacy, at best. To me the Tiger is smug, self-satisfied. It’s greed that will screw the country up in the end, greed always does,” he feels.
Eventually moving away to England where gigs were much more plentiful, Chevron ended up staying. His friends, his record contract, a more dynamic music scene was based in London where he moved.
As it turned out, MacGowan was on the same trajectory and they became great drinking buddies.
“We just had an awful lot to say to each other about Irish literature and movies, music, politics, the whole thing,” Chevron says. “I used to always look forward to him coming to Camden town and having a jar. Then one day I had a meeting with Shane’s manager who mentioned the Pogues were looking for a temporary banjo player and I immediately said I can play the banjo.
“It wasn’t true in fact, but I figured the moment I said it that I could learn to play the banjo and I did.”
Very quickly Chevron became ensconced in the band. They were reluctant to see him leave, and the rest is history.
This year’s gigs in the U.S. are one of the undisputed highlights of the St. Patrick’s season. But getting Shane to the stage can be a complicated business – just getting him into the country can be hard enough.
“Shane has his own way of getting through the world,” Chevron says. “Sometimes it’s at the same pace as everyone else and sometimes it’s at his own pace. He hates air travel because customs agents never give him the benefit of the doubt. Even when he’s not drunk he looks drunk.
“I believe he decided long ago that if you’re going to live a life where people are always going to assume the worst about you, you might as well be the worst. But in fact, he’s not the worst. He’s a lot more self-controlled than people ever give him credit for. A lot of the perception of Shane is very much just that.”
As for the Pogues’ music, Chevron knows that the magic of what happens in the band is elusive and inexpressible.
“What’s important about the Pogues will never be written in a book,” he says. “Shane’s genius was that he was able to see that punk rock and Irish traditional music shared a sense of spiritual rebellion. He thought of that. He saw they shared the same roots.”
Whatever it is that makes them so unique, one new development is that nowadays the band members are finally getting to enjoy themselves more for one obvious reason they’re sober when they’re onstage.
“On stage now it’s better than ever because I really wasn’t there for so much of it in the past I mean I used to drink all the beer in the shop,” Chevron recalls.
“When I got sober years ago I had always slightly regretted that. I had missed a substantial period of my life that looks like it must have been f***ing amazing. Here’s the perfect way to makes amends now and to remember every single moment. That’s a great thing.”
Touring, the business of getting from city to city, is still the one thing all the band members hate.
“But I remind myself that I’m with my friends, these are people I actually really like, and it’s not a bus trip to Lourdes with a bunch of old ladies,” Chevron says. “Shane can have his bad days and we’ve learned to stay out of his way, I’ve learned that when I’m having a bad day myself I should just stay home and pull up the duvet. I’ll sit there watching Fox News and start to laugh.”
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