The Fighting Irish

Publication: The Toronto Star
Date Printed: March 17, 1994, Thursday, FINAL EDITION
By: Lenny Stoute special to The Star

The Pogues. Aye, those be fighting words, seeing as how pogue mahone is an ancient and ungentlemanly Gaelic invitation to "kiss my arse."

These Pogue fellows have a lot to answer for, so let's get to scrapping with one Peter "Spider" Stacy, the singer/tin whistler who leads his ensemble of Irish roisterers into RPM's Warehouse for tonight's St. Paddy's Day hoedown.

Mind you, it would be most unseemly to commence grappling with the Spiderman without the good grace to down a dram or three. Loosen the muscles, it will, especially in the tongue.

'Course, having a wee drop before a good bust-up goes way back before the Pogues.

Take your Druids, the priest types of the Celts, who were well known to favor an imbibe before settling matters of honor. 'Tis said the hardcore drinkers among them even fancied a hemlock infusion for its own peculiar heart-stopping kick. In 1897, an unknown Irish pugilist named Bob Fitzsimmons stunned Gentleman Jim Corbett and the world by winning the planetary championship of fisticuffs. The tabloids of the day were full of references to "the Fighting Irish" and the phrase took hold.

They say the rats in the hoariest bars of Dublin and Manhattan still chitter of Fitzsimmons' prowess in facing off with a bottle of the good malt and never taking the count.

Fitzy might have been the first to popularize the Fighting Irish concept on this side of the big water, but allow us a brief swallow and we'll surprise you with the miserable fact of the term's long existence back in the ould sod.

Well, not so much the ould sod as England, where army officers once used it with contempt, as a synonym for cannon fodder.

Yes, from just about the time they sent Bonnie Prince Charlie packing and put the boot on Ireland's neck, it was the British military's fashion to have Irish regiments lead whatever charge the generals dreamed up.

What few survivors there were developed a reputation for cunning and the type of ferocity only possible from men facing certain death with a mighty hatred at their backs.

After much blood spillage, Fighting Irish turned into a term of respect.

Ah, we'll be butting heads with Spider Stacy soon enough, but have another foaming pint and hear what happened in the New World, where (Fitzsimmons' fists or no) 19th-century Irish immigrants (fighting or otherwise) were so far out of favor that it was common for New York rooming houses to post signs advising: "No Negroes, Actors Or Irish."

The dismay of the local Afro-Irish theatre community can only be imagined.

It took Knute Rockne and the rise to national prominence of his Notre Dame Fighting Irish footballers in the Roaring Twenties to restore lustre to the term and - to this day - Notre Damers wear their nickname proudly.

A short sip now and we'll have at the Spider - for indeed there was a time when he and his bandsmen made tongues run like scalded snakes with their version of the Fighting Irish.

Shane MacGowan and Stacy were a fine pair of falling-down youth when they fell in with each other in a rathole of a London pub. Discovering a mutual interest in strong drink, hell raising, punk rock and Irish rebel songs, they formed a band in which all these interests could be indulged to the hilt.

Their first gig set the tone for what was to come: The audience pelted the lads with stale chips and they responded by offering free black eyes to all comers.

What followed were five albums, a pair of North American hit singles and a colorful career built on live shows - which could be either exhilarating evocations of the Irish rebel spirit or shambolic affairs of strong drink and brawling.

Democrats that they were, the Pogues brawled both on and off stage. In a 1991 story, the British music paper New Musical Express tabulated the public in-concert bouts at 17, some involving battling bassist Caitlin (Mrs. Elvis Costello) O'Riordan, who was known to swing her instrument at combatants with singular abandon.

So potent was the Pogues' legend that it far outraced the reach of the band's actual music. Pop journalists in remote Uzbekistan would gather 'round their caravans, warming themselves with lurid tales of the mythical boozing 'n' brawling ensemble.

MacGowan's last appearance in these parts, at Kingswood Music Theatre in summer 1989, was vintage Pogues, with the entire frontline in a state of advanced inebriation.

The dentally challenged singer was blowing lyrics with cheerful abandon as he and Stacy struggled to keep their feet, or improvised Irish jigs, depending on which side of a full pint a person stood.

"Yes," offers Stacy, "I think I remember that one. There were many of those." Grappling with the Spider we are, and it promises to be thirsty work.

"The Pogues were always two things - fun and volatile - but I would like to clarify this story that came out in the NME about Shane and Joe."

Now, that Joe would be Joe Strummer, ex of the Clash, who replaced MacGowan for about a year when the latter left the band in the fall of '91 (a Sept. 30 tent show at the CNE grounds was Strummer's first as Pogues' frontman).

"That story - about Shane and Joe getting onstage uninvited and me being pissed off at them - was your journalistic poetic licence," Stacy continues.

"I'd talked to Shane a couple of days before the show and the whole thing was arranged beforehand, down to what songs he would sing.

"Actually, relations between Shane and the Pogues are better than they've been for some time."

It's somewhat difficult to imagine a serious power struggle among these boozehounds, but that is what it had come to.

The subject is still a sore one for the Spider and it's with reluctance that he'll talk about it at all. And not before extracting a promise that it won't come out sounding like a slagging of MacGowan.

"None of it is as simple as it's going to come out here," he says. "To say Shane couldn't control the drinking is only half right. By the time we made Hell's Ditch (1990), he'd become unhappy with the direction he saw the band going. He felt his influence declining and that led to the heavy drinking.

"The split within the ranks was a matter of, well, Shane has the charm. He can make you believe anything and he can be stubborn. He was the source of the second guessing among others in the band."

MacGowan a bad influence on the Pogues? The very man identified in print as the embodiment of the Pogues' spirit?

"I suppose you could put it that way, at that time," Stacy reflects. "To say Shane was the spirit of the band is to miss the point entirely and listening to people saying that was part of the problem.

"It sounds puffed up, but the Pogues as a living thing had become bigger than any of its members. Maybe not bigger, but with a life of its own and its own spirit, independent of anyone.

"Consequently, when it came time to record, there wasn't even a discussion about making anything other than a Pogues' album. It never occurred to me to do anything other than collect the best songs from the members of the group and get them down with the feel of the Pogues in the grooves."

Waiting For Herb more than satisfies that modest agenda.

It's a model of continuity, with Stacy singing all the lead vocals and a recurrent Middle Eastern motif the only significant changes.

If anything, Stacy's retooling of the Pogues has been more successful than the group's history would lead one to expect. The secret may be in his low-key approach and a firm sense of investment in the project.

"We don't all go home and have tea and biscuits," he says.

"We still like a drink and a lark but, come on, no one can carry on like we did for 12 years and expect to keep on doing it.

"There's a lot of energy goes into keeping this band together, as a viable thing. I don't feel we've anything to live down, but there are still a few promoters out there with not the most pleasant memories of dealing with the Pogues. That sort of thing we have to set right.

"I'll tell you one I'll never forget because it's my most memorable St. Paddy's Day gig. The location was Glasgow and the (Irish) Celtic soccer team had beaten the home side earlier that day. The bar was stuffed with fans of both teams and it was mayhem from the first chord.

"I played the entire gig in a sort of crouch because I never knew if the people coming at me were going to hug or punch me, plus I was keeping an eye out for flying objects.

"I don't know whatever became of that bar, but we never sounded better."

Copyright 1994 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd. The Toronto Star
All rights reserved

Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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