The Pogues: Booze, cheers and an irresistible racket
No other form of public entertainment could make a popular hero out of a man like this. Nobody would call for an encore from an opera singer who slurred. Nobody would cheer an actor who had to clutch laminated cheat-sheets to remind him of his lines. The booziest stand-up has to stay straight on stage. We celebrate sport's drunks, but only after they retire.
This, though, is rock and roll, and tonight, the seemingly immortal alcoholic Shane MacGowan is the toast of Brixton Academy. During the gig he frequently shambles off stage. Each time he reappears, it's to roaring approval. It's hard to be certain whether the crowd is applauding him for his performance, or simply for managing to perform at all.
In fact, MacGowan and his band of Celtic folk-punks the Pogues are a reliable booking: they've played more gigs in 2007 than in any other year since their 2001 reunion. (MacGowan had quit the band 10 years previously because of his drink problem.)
But the popularity of their gigs isn't the reason they've been in the news this week. On Tuesday, Radio 1 censored the word "faggot" in the Pogues' raggedly beautiful Christmas ballad Fairytale of New York; after a public outcry, they reinstated it. Naturally, the word isn't censored at this gig; indeed it's met with a small cheer. (Which is a bit pathetic: what sort of triumph for free speech was "Faggot-gate"? Just how highly should we prize the right to broadcast rude words on a station listened to largely by children?) Actually, MacGowan has written many songs containing words just as bad.
Not that you'd know it from this gig - he sounds as if he's singing exclusively consonants. He's one of the most vivid lyricists in pop (see Rain Street and A Pair of Brown Eyes as well as Fairytale), but tonight, his words couldn't be any less intelligible if he had a dentist's drill pressed against his vocal cords.
And yet, charm just wafts from him. No matter that he looks like a scarecrow with a beergut, or that the way he clings to his microphone stand suggests it's holding him upright, rather than the other way round. MacGowan's awesome powers of endurance have given him an immutable air of dignity, even when, during the jubilant last song Fiesta, he's bashing himself in the face with a tin tray, not quite in time to the music.
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