The Pogues Roll Triumphantly On
Still going after all these years, inspiring plenty of drinking but no violence
No one expected the Pogues to ever get back together with Shane MacGowan after the volatile frontman's bandmates finally booted him in 1991; a reconciliation looked even less likely after the remaining crew hung it up, seemingly for good, in '96. Given MacGowan's notorious lifestyle choices (booze, drugs, more booze, more drugs), most fans somberly figured an Irish wake for Old Brown Teeth was far more likely than a reunion. But the Pogues beat those odds and quietly (at least in the music press) returned to work in 2001, typically doing a run of U.K. Christmas shows and a set of East Coast shows in March—a fine way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
Yet despite a pair of Roseland dates this week, the re-energized Pogues still fly largely under the radar: Even with MacGowan, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, back together with his classic band, few fans and critics outside the already devout have paid attention—perhaps because no one's died and there's no new material involved. MacGowan and his fellow Pogues haven't cut a record together since 1990's Joe Strummer–produced Hell's Ditch, yet if you show up at Roseland, no one will care—and that includes the band.
"I think it might create more problems than it is worth," says Spider Stacy, the band's tin whistle player. "One simple question among everything else is: What songs would we drop to add the new ones? The idea is a nice one, but I think everyone is quite happy with the way things are at the moment."
To be fair, the impetus for getting back together had little to do with recognition in the media. It's about the money—must be nice to eat off just a couple of short tours a year. But it's about the fans, too, who still shower this band with the kind of adoration usually reserved for Radiohead or Tom Waits. "I've never seen an audience react to a band the way audiences react to the Pogues," Stacy says. "Amidst all the mayhem, there is something—and I don't want to romanticize it too much—very uplifting about it. I can count on two fingers the number of serious fistfights at a Pogues show since 1982. And, given the fact that our crowd is largely male and revved up with a fair amount of drinking, I think that says a lot about us."
The band gives the fans exactly what they want: a set of two dozen familiar songs, including all the classics. The current arrangements aren't radically different from the recordings, but the band eschews the subtlety of the albums and pushes the songs hard, with a forceful sense of dynamics that fills such big rooms. Ever the band's barometer and flashpoint, MacGowan generally looks wrecked beyond repair, his body bloated up significantly compared to the rail-thin frame of his '80s heyday. Even his bandmates acknowledge that no one can decipher a word he says between songs (understandable, given his lack of dental work), but, like some sort of poster boy for subconscious recall, MacGowan does right by the songs, getting the lyrics correct for the most part, even when it's the epic "Waltzing Matilda" or poetic originals like "A Pair of Brown Eyes" and "Fairytale of New York."
So while fans may take MacGowan's onstage drunkenness as a challenge to up their own blood-alcohol levels, there's still good, clean fun to be had, even by the man himself: During one inspired moment at the Beacon several years back, a fan jumped onstage and literally gave MacGowan the sweaty shirt off his back—without missing a beat, the frontman reciprocated, and each donned the other's shirt. (In a less heartening image, MacGowan has also occasionally been forced to perform in a wheelchair, as he did here in 2007.) The crowd is in fine form, too, populated with crowd surfers, drunken cops (those debaucherous Irish-wake scenes in The Wire feature the band's "The Body of an American" for a reason), and jovial louts doing Irish jigs that their aunts taught them.
The band, incidentally, is in fine form, too. "Because of the time off and the things we went through during the time off—at least three of us became sober—when we got back to playing, we became an organism that was more in tune with one another," notes accordion player James Fearnley. "There is a lot more listening going on. The band knows what it is doing. So, as a band, I think we're better than even when we started."
Both Stacy and Fearnley use the word "family" a lot in talking about the band, a familiarity that's taken a great deal of time, but has clearly paid off in the end. "I've been with the Pogues longer than I've been with my own family," says Fearnley. "So this is really bigger than a bunch of guys who play out-of-date instruments."
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