On Their Own

Publication: The Boston Globe
Date Printed: Friday, April 5, 1996
Section: ?
Page: 51-52
By: Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

Here's the situation: The band's co-founding singer and main songwriter - often brilliant but frequently unsteady - is asked to exit the group because of his increasing inability to not incapacitate himself with alcohol. He slinks of into the dark, cursing and muttering. The band fills his position on a US tour with with a famous punk-rock star. Then, then punk-rock star goes back to his own life and the band is left with...

A new life?

Not to get all starry-eyes, but it's worked something like that for the Pogues, the London-based Celtic-punk band that Shane MacGowan once led, that ex-Clash singer and longtime Pogues pal Joe Strummer helmed in the interim and that co-founder and tin whistle player Spider Stacey now fronts. The band comes to Avalon next Friday.

Make no mistake, Stacey does no claim MacGowan's songwriting gifts. But he has ably stepped in as the primary singer and frontman. The songwriting, which began to expand in the late '80s as MacGowan contributed less, is now spread among the seven band members. The Pogues of today, who just released their second post-MacGowan album, "Pogue Mahone," may not have quite the bark and bite, but they've risen to the challenge and have penned a lilting, lovely, melonchonic album. With MacGowan having staged an astounding comeback on his own last year, perhaps, it's a case of twin peaks.

"Well, I think so," says Stacey, on the pay phone from the Union Tavern, a London pub. "He made a brilliant album. I mean when all is said and done, if you want a songwriter, you couldn't find a better one than him."

If this seems unbecomingly gracious - keep in mind, MacGowan has run roughshod over the Pogues and virtually everything else in interviews - it also sounds sincere. Stacey says there's no competition between the two entities, the Pogues and MacGowan and his band.

"I know people would like that to be the case," says Stacey, of a heated rivalry. "But we're adults. I mean, maybe if we were 17 years old, or 7 years old, or something we might act like that. But there is no need for it because we've proved we can stand on our own two feet and don't need to compete with him. All I want to see is for him to do as well for himself as possible. I think we actually complement each other. I mean, I'd like to do a tour with him, in fact. Let the two of us go out with two bands, headlining on alternate nights. That would wipe the smirks off people's faces!"

What about the way MacGowan tends to deal with the Pogues in a very dismissive or derisive manor? This, MacGowan did last year in a slurry chat with us. "Tell me about it," says Stacey, with a laugh. "I've known the man for years, and if he chooses to be a bitch he can be a real bitch. It's just that you caught him in a bad humor. He's like that. He has mood swings." As to MacGowan's claim that he left the Pogues voluntarily because of the band's swing toward wold music and away from the Celtic base, Stacey says "the truth of the matter is that Shane was pushed rather than jumped, but he appreciated the reasons for why we did what we had to do. ... You can't completely trust him, because he says one thing one day and completely changes his story the next. I'm not calling him a liar. He says what he believes to be the truth at that particular moment."

Actually, the Pogues have lost not just MacGowan, but three others over the past few years. Mandolinist Terry Woods and accordianist James Fernley left in 1994, replaced by David Coulter (on mandolin, violin and, says Stacey, "anything he can lay his hands on:) and James McNally (on accordion, low whistle and piano). Guitarist Philip Chevron was the latest to go, both because of ill health - the touring was becoming too grueling for his fragile constitution - and his desire to get back to more traditional Irish music. (He is currently living in Los Angeles, writing songs, and well.) Jamie Clarke has stepped in on guitar. All the players left of their own accord, on amicable terms. And the Pogues soldier on. Co-founders Jem Finer (banjo, hurdy-gurdy, guitar) and Andrew Ranken (drums) with longtime bassist Darryl Hunt round out the crew.

Stacey has the role that's changed the most. With MacGowan in the band, Stacey played something of a sidekick or foil. He's has to learn the front-singer role while he's been on the job. "It's just really a question of becoming more confident in the role with the passage of time," he says. On their first post-MacGowan records, "Waiting for Herb," "I sat there most of the time we were making it, rigid with nerves. I was stepping into not only Shane MacGowan's shoes but Joe Strummer's as well. But I've become accustomed to it, more confident." Songs, Stacey says, are chosen without thought to who the composer was, simply, "making the best of the available material." They also cover Bob Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In" on "Pogue Mahone."

Without MacGowan the Pogues are free, perhaps, to be a less cynical outlet. MacGowan was a rocking Brendan Behan with a microphone, writing songs from the gutter looking up. It's hard to imagine MacGowan getting through Hunt's winsome "Love You 'Till the End" without a caustic cackle. On "Pogue Mahone" - the band's original moniker - there is less roughness, more romance, still an edge. "It's more cohesive," offers Stacey. "I think there's a lot more yet to come out of this whole situation. At least, I hope so. Fingers crossed, you know?"

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