How Close Is Too Close to Shane MacGowan and the Pogues?
The other evening I was doing a very grown-up thing, ironing an oxford cloth shirt for work, when my youth reared up and punched me in the mouth. On the television, a Cadillac commercial about a stylish family’s morning rituals was accompanied by the jaunty melody to the song “Sunnyside of the Street,” by the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues.
This has to be an instrumental, I thought, just as the lead singer Shane MacGowan’s sandpaper voice sang the garbled words I knew so clearly from repeated listening, “So I saw that train and I got on it, with a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit,” while the perfect parents in the ad drove their children to school in their shiny Cadillac.
I can report no urge to buy a car, but I did rouse myself from years of largely dormant fandom to see the Pogues (best known for their Christmas hit “Fairytale of New York”) play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York as part of a tour scheduled around St. Patrick’s Day.
As is often the case for a band with a self-destructive front man, their first attempt on Wednesday night was canceled, due this time to a knee injury for Mr. MacGowan. But true to the promise posted on the band’s Web site, the musicians made it onstage on Thursday — with Mr. MacGowan sitting in a wheelchair, an old Keith Richards joke come to life.
For better and quite often for worse, this man was my role model from junior high through college. His powerful songs — the more grotesque are the lyrical equivalent of Francis Bacon paintings — were my soundtrack.
Not coincidentally, the band I played in covered the Pogues’ songs and mimicked their instrumentation, right down to the penny whistle. When we recorded our own music on a four-track cassette in the basement, we chain-smoked cigarettes in the boiler room in a vain effort to gravel up our choirboy vocal chords to sound more like Our Shane.
This kind of dedication may be familiar even if you’ve never heard of the Pogues but spent your teenage years memorizing the canon of Bob Dylan or poring over the Martin Scorsese oeuvre on VHS tapes. For me, the Pogues’ manic mix of mournful dirges and hard-edged thrashers seemed to map the chaos of my suburban teenage mind.
The fact that there was substance in there, a long Irish musical tradition coupled with references to literature and legend, was what allowed my relationship with the Pogues to blossom from passing fancy into obsession. To steep yourself in the Pogues requires you to read James Joyce and Brendan Behan, to listen to both the Clash and the Dubliners, and to take up some, but, I hope, not all, of the legendary bad habits of our latter-day Baudelaire, Shane.
The ultimate experience, then, would be a face-to-face meeting, a wide-ranging, soul-searching discussion of music and the written word. That was not quite how it unfolded for me when it finally happened, during the summer I turned 20.
Hanging out after a show in Washington in 1995, I found Shane MacGowan alone, confused and locked out of both the club and his tour bus. Pale and unsteady, his words unintelligible, he clawed feebly at the door of the bus. There would be no discussion of “Ulysses.” I pounded on the bus door until the driver woke and let him in. Though this audience lasted several minutes, the only words of my hero’s that I could make out were “Cheers” and “Thanks.”
Until this week, I hadn’t seen him play live again. At first I felt removed, as if I were having coffee with an ex. For the better part of the concert, I stood where no hard-core fan belongs, near the back, feeling a little uncomfortable about singing along. Though I listen to the records infrequently, every last word to every last song was still branded deep in my brain. The band was on top of its game. Although Shane was either inert or muttering incomprehensibly between songs, he roused himself for each number, nailing the heartbreakers and glass-smashers alike, through a long set and two encores.
By the time the band launched into the rousing “Sally MacLennane” from its second album, I was right up front, colliding with the youngest and most boisterous members of the audience, who were happily moshing as the man in the wheelchair shouted, “And we sang him a song of times long gone, though we knew that we’d be seeing him again.” No more than a dozen feet apart, Shane and I were separated by a railing, a bouncer and the height of the stage. And that, I realized, was just about right.
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