A New Front Man Leads the Pogues
EVEN FAITHFUL supporters of the Pogues doubted the group could survive the traumatic departure of front man Shane MacGowan in 1991. Yet, with backing vocalist and tin-whistle player Spider Stacy installed as lead singer, the Anglo-Irish septet managed to play a series of shows in Europe this past summer. "People came maybe expecting a wake or funeral," Stacy recalls, "and then the corpse wakes up!"
Dropped by its long-time record label, and without the services of MacGowan or his temporary substitute, Joe Strummer, the Pogues had negligible life signs a year ago. But the remaining members gathered themselves up for a newly released album, "Waiting for Herb" (Chameleon) and, having proven their continued vitality back home, are looking forward to reconnecting with their large American cult audience through a series of performances here early next year.
It was always clear the Pogues owed much of their success to the songwriting brilliance of MacGowan, a songwriter able to place the sensitive, lyrical side of the Irish temperament alongside the most scabrous, bleak outlook imaginable, delivering his poetry in the guttural croak of a burned-out barroom prophet.
Unfortunately, MacGowan also lived out the cliched lifestyle of an Irish artist by abusing alcohol and blowing gigs and recording sessions. He never seemed more than one pint away from the possibility of oblivion. Two years ago, although MacGowan denied drinking was the problem, the band saw no choice but to sack him. Stacy's sorrowful commentary refers to both MacGowan's and the Pogues' very survival: "If we hadn't kicked him out, nature would have taken its course."
Despite MacGowan's exit, Stacy blames the Pogues' image of alcoholic excess on media exaggeration. "We didn't go around portraying [the group] as drunks: We were simply ourselves.
"Draw your own conclusions from that," he drily adds.
In stepped Joe Strummer, former singer of the Clash and a big Pogues fan who had produced 1990's "Hell's Ditch" for the group. "On two counts, he saved the Pogues," insists Stacy. First, by helping the band honor extensive live commitments at a time when its confidence - not to mention reputation with promoters - was shaky. And second by quitting. As a grateful Spider suggests, "There is a very real risk we would have been submerged by him."
The lean Englishman grants that "Waiting for Herb" is a subdued, more traditional-sounding record than the usual raucous Pogues offering - clearly a transitional album, and one he's not entirely pleased by. "It sounds like I'm slagging off the album, but it is quite slick. The first time I heard it played back, I was wondering: Is that us?"
Stacy mentions bassist Darryl Hunt's "Big City" as one tune he didn't want on the record, but maintains that, in concert, "It hammers away . . . it's brilliant." Stacy mentions the disparity between the austere album and the band's rowdy live show repeatedly throughout the conversation, perhaps to reassure himself as well as fans who may be slow to warm to the new studio sound.
Judging by a hastily scheduled appearance on the David Letterman show last month, Stacy is poised to take on the role of front man. Appearing with obligatory rock star shades, he belted out a stirring rendition of the new single, "Tuesday Morning."
There are almost no cases on record of a band losing its primary songwriter and most visible member and continuing to make compelling music. Still, Stacy is convinced the Pogues are remaining true to their original spirit.
"It was Shane who was wandering away from the concept of the group. I'm not sure I can articulate what the Pogues are about, but we knew we had to close ranks and retain our identity. How well we've achieved that is for other people to judge. If you think [the album] sounds like the Pogues, that answers the question."
All rights reserved
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.