Playing Sunday in KC, the Pogues now older, wiser, better
James Fearnley remembers the philosophy that founded the Pogues, and he distills it into two traits. The first: music that is timeless.
“I’ve seen a couple of videos of what we were like in 1984 and ’85,” he told The Star. “And it’s like, ‘Where the (bleep) are these guys from?’ It could be from the early 1900s to, well, any decade in the last couple hundred years. There’s a general timelessness to what we were up to.”
The second: lyrics that connect to the working class.
“I met a guy backstage in Northern Ireland who was going on about Shane and how Shane is really ‘him’ and how Shane speaks for all these guys who can’t get jobs or who work jobs that are (dead-end) or have lives where drink on the weekend is important because they’re with their mates and they’re just regular people. It’s a bit of a hackneyed sort of image, I suppose, but it seems to be what people respond to.”
“Shane” is Shane MacGowan, who is to the Pogues what Mick Jagger is to the Rolling Stones or what Robbie Robertson was to the Band. The Pogues are a collective of accomplished musicians, like Fearnley, the band’s accordionist, but the band has always revolved around MacGowan, whose hard-drinking lifestyle eventually led to his dismissal, and that eventually ended the Pogues, for a while anyway.
And that leads to the current philosophy that binds the band, which reunited in 2001 after a long and seemingly irreparable divorce: Enjoy the present, with clarity.
The Pogues are back on the road, and except for one of them — “I think you know who I’m referring to,” Fearnley said — they are sober and relishing the rewards of what has become an eight-year reunion tour, which stops in Kansas City on Sunday.
The tour started meagerly, with one show in 2001. Sunday’s show will be the third of a 19-concert leg that started in San Diego on Monday and ends Dec. 19 with three shows in two nights in London. The pace hasn’t been grueling, but even the prospect of one reunion show made Fearnley and other band members feel dubious at first.
“My distinct impression is we were all nervous,” he said. “I had completely two minds about whether to do it or not. It wasn’t about liking someone or not; I just didn’t know if it was a good idea or not. Once we started, it became obvious it was a good idea.
“But I figured there was a reason why we were finished, and if so, there was a good reason to stay finished.”
That reason had a lot to do with MacGowan, who became as infamous for not being in condition to perform or record as he was revered for his singing and songwriting.
“They can be the best live act in the world and also the worst,” said Ronan Collins, a native of Ireland who now is on the board of the Kansas City Irish Festival. “I saw them play a charity concert in a small Dublin venue in the late ’80s with the likes of Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. It was magical. I also saw them play to 30,000 people at an Irish Festival in London in 1991 when Shane MacGowan couldn’t stand up. It was a disaster. He really sets the tone for the gig.”
He set the tone for the band, too, which let the air out of its own balloon by firing him that very year. Five years and several variations on the lineup later (including Joe Strummer of the Clash), the band was done, seemingly for good.
The Pogues formed in London in the post-punk era, several years after bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols had cracked the mainstream by writing songs that appealed to the working class and by presenting an aesthetic that was anti-fashion and anti-establishment.
So by the time MacGowan and some of his mates had evolved from the Nipple Erectors and then the Nips to the Pogues in 1982, the environment was open and receptive to the band’s volatile mix of punk and old-time Irish music. Some of it was a refashioning of traditional music; some of it was original material, much of it written by MacGowan. Either way, it struck a chord in both England and Ireland, then the United States.
“The Pogues shook the dust off some of the old ballads and gave them a kick in the arse,” said Ian Byrne, a native of County Wicklow in Ireland and the lead singer for the Elders, Kansas City’s biggest Celtic-rock band. “A lot of their original songs will be forever classics.”
“Their sound was so unique at the time,” Collins said. “They took some familiar old Irish songs, modernized them and made them sound very, very cool. They also exposed Irish musicians, like Ronnie Drew from the Dubliners, to a much younger audience.”
The band released its first three albums from 1984 to 1988, and each generated more acclaim than the one before it (see discography at right). When the band first hit the road to promote its records, however, the results were manic but often messy, Fearnley said
“At first a lot of our gigs were characterized by chaos and misunderstanding and a complete unfamiliarity with one another and with what we were doing and with how gigs were supposed to work,” he said. “For the first couple years, we didn’t have a (bleeping) clue.”
They resolved that through trial, error and experience, Fearnley said. But gradually, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle started taking its toll. And MacGowan wasn’t the only one in the band who overindulged. Fearnley said it’s something of a wonder that none of them “died from alcoholism.”
That lifestyle was revealed in the 2001 documentary, “If I Should Fall From Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story,” which revisited the history of the Pogues and captured MacGowan as a celebrated and unrepentant alcoholic — a stigma that aroused some resentment.
“My only dislike (about the Pogues) is the stereotyping and celebrating of the drunken Irish guy,” Byrne said. “We come across so many Pogue cover bands on our travels, and they think it’s all about drinking and fighting.”
Drinking and quarreling would bring the band to its knees slowly. When the band broke up in 1996, only three original members remained.
These days, the men in the Pogues are appreciating the chance to perform together again. The time off has been beneficial, Fearnley said. So has the sobriety, which has made everyone better musicians.
“The listening that went on during the first reunion tour was amazing,” he said. “I finally got to understand what a great musician Spider (Stacy) is, our whistle player. The experiences we had when we weren’t playing together seem to have enabled us to now play even better.”
For Fearnley, those experiences included time in the Low and Sweet Orchestra and doing studio work for, among several bands and artists, the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Melissa Etheridge. The time away from the Pogues has added some polish to everyone’s increased capabilities, he said, and that requires a little more order and preparation.
“We may have to sacrifice some of the rabble-rousing, seat-of-the-pants stuff to be able to play as well as we do now,” he said, “but when Shane throws us a curveball at some point, it feels like we’re some kind of organism that absorbs all of it.”
MacGowan isn’t throwing too many wild curves these days, and even when he does, the band and staff are prepared to keep track of its leader.
“What makes it all workable is a crew worth its weight in gold and a road manager who knows his salt and technology we never had before, like cell phones,” Fearnley said. “We know where ‘people’ are now, which is always helpful.”
And MacGowan, he said, has “warmed up” to the idea of touring. “He’s really enjoying it and the company. Nobody (bleeps) him around or tells lies to him. He knows what’s going on. Back before 1991, when everything went wrong, we suffered from not really knowing what’s going on. That’s the reason it went to (pot) and we had to let him go. Now we all know what’s going on, and if he doesn’t want to do something, he’s able to tell us, where he wasn’t able to back then.”
MacGowan has missed only one show since the band reunited, Fearnley said, and it had nothing to do with drinking.
“We won’t let him do that.” Rather, it followed a show in Boston where he tripped over a cable to a bass amplifier and tore tendons in his knee.
“He did the rest of the gig,” Fearnley said, “which I’ve seen him do before — perform under equally horrific conditions. There’s a certain nobility to that. But we had to cancel the next gig.”
The rest of the Pogues are even warmer to the idea of being together again, none more than Fearnley, who calls the band his “second family.” He’s also aware that he and the rest of the band are taking advantage of a rare second chance — one reason no one wants to take it for granted or mess it up with bad behavior.
“I turn 55 on Friday,” he said. “When my dad was 40, he had no teeth left in his mouth. When he was 55, he couldn’t make it around an 18-hole golf course.
“For me, it’s a thrill to jump off a drum riser with knee pads on and 20 pounds of accordion on my chest and slide across the stage on my knees or hoist the accordion above my head. And I want to relish that for as long as possible before I hit the wheel chair and gin and tonics and the tartan rug on the back deck.
“It’s a big thrill, that, and it’s a big thrill to play music again with people I’ve known for pretty much my entire life.”
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