Pogues Admit It -- MacGowan's Been Turfed
James Fearnley knows what's coming.
"What about Shane? I've been thinking all morning about the answer to that one," he says over the phone from New York.
He takes a deep breath and confirms that, yes, the Pogues have parted company with Shane MacGowan, their brilliant but erratic singer-songwriter frontman.
"He told us he was prepared to do things with the band until March," the accordionist says in his deep, semi-northern British accent, a product of being raised in Manchester and educated in Yorkshire.
But when it came down to the crunch, on tour in Japan, "we had to compensate for his unreliability, his lack of commitment.
"We asked him to leave."
When the Pogues take the stage in the Cirque Archaos tent in Exhibition Stadium Monday, it won't be the first time they've gone on without MacGowan; it will be the first time they've done so by choice.
Ex-Clash rhythm guitarist Joe Strummer, who filled in for guitarist Philip Chevron during the 1987 tour and produced the Pogues' last album, Hell's Ditch, will complete the eight-man lineup for this tour of North America, Europe and Australia.
"I think Joe was thankful for a job," Fearnley says. "I met up with him in L.A. - out of the blue, he rang me up - just after Shane left. I think that's kind of poetic."
The parting of the ways marks the end of a long road for Fearnley. He and MacGowan played together with the punk band the Nipple Erectors (or Nips) - Fearnley on guitar, MacGowan on vocals - at the end of the '70s. And Fearnley was the first musician MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer recruited when they were forming the group that became Pogue Mo Chone (Kiss My Arse in Gaelic) in London back in 1981.
It was MacGowan and Finer who turned Fearnley into an accordionist. "I was a guitarist. Then one day Jem and Shane knocked on my door and dangled this . . . thing in front of me."
Now Fearnley calls the accordion "a brilliant machine" - and in his hands it is. More than one reviewer of Pogues' concerts has referred to Fearnley as the motor that powers the music.
And, on stage, he's about as far from a Shmenge brother as you'll find on this planet. He heaves the thing about like a heavy metal polka king, creating a visual presence that matches his musical impact.
"I'll play anything that makes noise. I love playing the accordion; I get very physical with it."
Fearnley isn't at all reticent about recounting the frustrations of life with MacGowan.
"When we were touring with Bob Dylan last year, Shane never made it out on to the stage the first week. It was his loss, though, you know. He could have met Bob Dylan, maybe learned something . . . ."
Fearnley says the nadir was when "we were in the epicentre of Bob Dylan-ness, Berkeley, and our instruments hadn't arrived. So there we were, with no lead singer and no instruments."
The band managed to go on with equipment scrounged from all over the Bay Area . . . but no MacGowan.
"I can't think of another group that's as resilient as we are." And, if you need any proof that the Pogues can survive the split with MacGowan, Fearnley points to that resilience.
"Because this happened at such short notice, people have been iffy about whether we can do (the current tour) and still draw people without Shane," he says.
"The people who say the Pogues aren't the Pogues without Shane MacGowan . . . I disagree with that."
Indeed, the Pogues have always been known for flying by the seat of their pants. And, in a music world dominated (thanks to video) by the slick, streamlined and sexy, the band is loved for its unpredictability and lack of pretensions. The Pogues are something organic in a world full of synthetic fibre, an acoustic group that can deliver, with mandolin, banjo, accordion, guitar, tin whistle, bass and drums, more punch per pound than the average freight train.
A Pogues concert is a party - one writer compared it to a football match, complete with hooligans - in which the audience celebrates the band's sheer existence. The Pogues can be in top form, or the show can be a shambles, yet a good time is guaranteed to all.
And if you want to listen to the bleedin' words, mate . . . well, that's why God gave us stereos.
Strummer once said that the attraction of the Pogues was seeing "humans struggling with their instruments." He also said that when he hears "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," he almost can't stop himself from jumping on stage and singing along.
"Well, Joe Strummer will get his chance," Fearnley says.
"It's a great pleasure to watch a man who loves hard work. The rest of us are very hard working and Joe fits right in with that."
A sly shot at MacGowan? The ex-frontman is, of course, a legendary binge artist, who, when told to clean up or lose his liver a few years back, switched from whisky to white wine.
The tales of bar-hunts to find the errant MacGowan are legion and his legless appearances on stage are as numerous as his references to the demon drink in song.
He's also an extraordinary songwriter and storyteller. And his urban dread, Irish mysticism, occasional romanticism, sheer cussedness and straight-from-the-gut vocals are unique, and central to the Pogues.
But "he's the kind of bloke who's never going to be satisfied with what he does," says Fearnley.
"In the last couple of years he did kind of grow distant from us. I've heard him complain about stadium rock and . . . I wonder to what extent he was connected to the band.
"I don't consider what I do stadium rock, but maybe Shane does."
While Fearnley admits some numbers will have to be retired - "we won't be doing 'Rainy Night In Soho' " - others will be reassigned.
Strummer will contribute "London Calling" and "I Fought The Law" from his Clash days, as he did in 1987. And "we'll probably try to get Joe to write some songs on the road."
Fearnley says this may allow Chevron - who wrote the haunting "Lorelei," from the Peace And Love album, and the powerful anthem of the Irish diaspora "Thousands Are Sailing," with its brilliant lines about "fear of priests with empty plates and ghosts and weeping effigies" - to move to the front.
"Philip's a really good songwriter and he hasn't really had a chance to show how good he is, because he's been in a band with this great songwriter."
Also, Fearnley points out, Jem Finer co-wrote much of the Pogues' material, including the crowd-pleasing duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, "Fairy Tale Of New York."
"And Terry (Woods, who plays cittern, concertina, mandola, dulcimer and guitar) is not short of a lyric or two.
"It's not a question of making do. These things were happening anyway. Jem would give Shane an idea for a song and Shane would work out the lyrics. Now Jem might have a go at stuff on his own.
"We've always kind of rattled the biscuit tin."
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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