A Rainy Night in Moscow

Publication: Travelpogue on www.pogues.com

It was August eve, babe, in the Milk Club...

When the Pogues announce their long-awaited tour of the European continent, reasonable central Europeans get into a car or board a train and in a few hours they can enjoy the band playing in Germany. Adventurers drag their asses to the Russian embassy instead, sweat over visa application and then set out to a faraway land whose language they do not speak. And lunatics follow the adventurous ways but reject a direct flight to Moscow and pepper the trip with an overnight train journey from yet another eastern European city for good measure...

I’m glad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away...

Saturday August 28, 2010

I arrived to Moscow railway station in a zombie-like state from a flight the previous day and a night on train spent by falling asleep and repeatedly being woken up by the officers studying my passport, visa and immigration cards. (Luckily, replying to their: "Do you speak Russian?" with "No, only English." effectively discouraged them from any further attempts at cross-examination.) Moscow greeted me with bitter cold and pouring rain. Therefore sightseeing was reduced to a quick walk down the historical Arbat Street, which was almost peopleless bar the promoters of tattoo saloons tirelessly trying to gladden passers-by huddling under umbrellas with colourful leaflets. The street, lined with low old houses with balconies, somehow reminded me of New Orleans – of course, except for the weather.

As the downpour was only getting stronger and stronger, turning streets into rivers and pools, my next destination was Molly Malone’s Irish pub, where the heavily-promoted Pogues afterparty was supposed to take place the following day. The ride by Moscow metro offered a chance to explore some of the stations with their dizzying stalinist decorations – a hardy proletarian with a hammer, a fearless border guard with his dog and gun (the dog’s snout being worn down shiny by passers-by touching it for good luck), an emancipated lady with a pneumatic drill, an old man with a beard and straw shoes, looking like a misplaced Socrates, wielding a powerful rifle.

Molly Malone’s welcomed me and my companions with a framed poster advertising the Pogues gig nailed to its entrance. What followed was a long night over cider, Guinness and tea, at first made pleasant by the combination of Irish trad and Irish folk-punk drifting from the loudspeakers, later made hardly bearable by the same great music turned hellishly up in volume. Obviously even Irish pubs are great places to go deaf. Just when we were in the middle of a fourth game of dice (no money and bets involved), the Pogues (minus Philip, but plus managers and roadies) walked into the pub and made their way into a lounge where a complimentary dinner was awaiting them.

The night went on, with the music being mercifully turned down a bit again and with the Pogues trying out local culinary specialties, and I enjoyed chatting to the band’s crew. Ian, the lighting engineer, once again explained his hardships with a frontman who insists on staying in semi-darkness on stage, therefore forcing the light board operator face comments such as "What’s with Shane’s spotlight? Was there a chimp on the lighting panel?" and strong hatred of all gig photographers. Joey, Shane’s personal assistant, shared some brilliant life stories about the benefits of pottery, the start of his music career ("I rented that fabulous chalet... And my pals thought, oh, let’s invite him to join our band, so we’ll have a great place to rehearse."), about becoming a guitar technician without ever been able to play a guitar and about hundred other things sure to bring a smile to your face. A born storyteller.

When leaving the pub, well after 2 AM, I happened to be introduced to Shane on the stairs leading up on the street. "I’m from the Czech Republic," I added. "You’ve played there twice." --- "More times," Shane said firmly. --- "No, only twice, believe me." --- But he didn’t believe me and insisted on his version. Somebody suggested that Shane maybe counted gigs in Slovakia as well, after which I thought I heard somebody mention Czechoslovakia, so I rushed to explain: "There is no Czechoslovakia any longer, it is two separate countries now." However, Shane didn’t seem to be happy with such claim, trying to fiercely oppose it. I held my ground: "Czechs and Slovaks are two different nations." --- "No way." --- "Yes! They are. Two nations, two countries. Look, it is as if I claimed that Britain and Ireland were one country." --- "Don’t speak about Ireland!!!" Bolts of lightning sparkling from his eyes, furious expression on his face. From there, the talk turned into an utter mess. Somebody offered that Czechoslovakia peacefully split, Shane started something about tanks, I tried to tell him that he mixes it up with the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia long way back in the 60s, Paul (the Pogues sound engineer) threw in something about the Velvet Revolution which non-violently ended the communist regime in our lands, and Shane insisted that no velvet, no peace, but violence and tanks. So there we were, my first meeting with Shane ended with an argument about Czech politics. Later that night I couldn’t get rid of the images of tanks covered in red velvet unyieldingly tearing my country into two halves like a piece of cloth...

Just wanna stay right here
On the sunnyside of the street...

Sunday August 29, 2010

Sunday, the D-Day, came with a drizzle instead of pouring rain, so wrapped in a waterproof jacket I set out to explore at least the must-sees of the Red Square and Kremlin. Instead of the vast expense of the far-famed square, I was treated to a space totally messed up with bleachers and fences, which made it impossible to see from one end to the other. The reason? An upcoming international festival of military bands. The only thing sweetening it up was a photo of a Scottish piper on one of the promo posters – a tartan-clad lad piping Scotland the Brave on the background of Lenin’s mausoleum is not a sight you see every day.

Milk Club, the venue where the Pogues were supposed to play, was just a short way from the centre of the city. (Gigs in Amsterdam Melkweg and in Moscow Milk Club during one summer? How can the media label the Pogues as a bunch of drunkards when they express such affinity for milk?) Situated in an industrial corner of the city, in a former factory or a warehouse, and marked with grey and black signs it did not feel exactly welcoming. The only touch of humanity were the pictures of milk bottles sprayed on the pavement, showing the way to the club.

I made my way to the entrance, got my pass and photo pass, but was stripped of my backpack and almost patted down by the watchful security. (Although I think I would still be able to smuggle in a hand grenade in my small lens bag.) Inside, the club kept its industrial look with a mess of metallic constructions under the ceiling, glistening in eerie blue light. I got to the wings and enjoyed the sight of the roadies milling about on stage and Joey carefully mixing drinks in a black tent on the edge of stage, looking like an alchemist in his laboratory.

The audience was getting properly excited, cheering the band to lure it from backstage. Finally Straight to Hell boomed from the loudspeakers, the band ascended on stage and as soon as they plunged into the first notes of Streams of Whiskey, I flung myself into the photo pit and my memories of the following nine minutes are shrouded in a fog. The photo pit is a mad adrenaline rush, a little battlefield where guys armed with lenses the size of small cannons mercilessly fight for good positions and do not hesitate to bump into a colleague who was doing his best to keep his hands steady or get in front of his camera just when he found a great composition. The minutes tick away at the speed of light, and it only adds to the cruelty that the three songs chosen for the short time slot when photographers are allowed to perform their job are Streams of Whiskey, If I Should Fall From Grace With God and Broad Majestic Shannon, none of which is over three minutes long. Why cannot it be And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, offering the blissful time of over eight minutes?

One person obviously enjoying the swarm of photo-hunters was Shane. Holding a glass with clear liquid, he kept cheerfully splashing the liquid in the direction of the nearest cameras. Was anybody hit? I was too occupied with my own camera to notice. Was it water or vodka in the glass? Hard to say, but does it matter? I suppose the effect is the same, only your camera may get tastier in case of the latter.

As soon as the last note of Broad Majestic Shannon faded away, the security started pushing the photographers out of the pit, hunky guards using their own bodies like bulldozers to quickly get rid of the obnoxious bunch. Resuming my place in the wings, I leaned on an abandoned piece of venue equipment next to the left side of the stage, forgot about photo art and went on to just cherish the show. One can hardly expect surprises after having seen the setlists for the previous gigs of the tour and after reading gig reviews for the last several years. But one can still have great fun and take in all the little details.

Reviewers love to speculate that drunken Shane unexpectedly leaves stage from time to time and other band members have to bravely step in to fill his shoes till he recovers. Well, it is surely a more sensational theory than the plain fact that the band simply peppers the set with instrumentals and songs performed by other vocalists to spice the show up. Anyway, Shane does leave the stage in those moments – at least the part of stage visible to public. Instead of retreating backstage, he retreats into a high black tent-like structure set up on the edge of stage. Whenever the time comes for Shane to take a break from his vocal duties, Joey appears in the doorway of the tent wielding a small but strong torch and lighting the way for Shane like a helpful firefly. The same firefly then safely leads Shane back to the microphone when his time comes again.

There were no breaks, no delays, no confusions, the show steadily and quickly moved forward like a well-oiled machine (Shane announcing A Rainy Night in Soho and immediately plunging into a Bottle of Smoke is certainly not a confusion but something of the Pogues trademark trick). The firefly reliably fulfilled his duties and didn’t even protest against Shane taking lit cigarettes right from his mouth and stuffing them into his own. On the other hand, James was pretty quick to protest when Shane spotted his discarded accordion sitting on stage, walked to it with a mic in his hand, and with a mischievous grin on his face started to run the mic over the top of the accordion, enjoying the cacofony it made. After two such virtuoso attempts, James chased him away like a naughty kid. (It must be remarked, though, that James himself indulged in a naughty-kid-like moment when he spotted Joey leaning into the tent – his upper torso inside, his bum jutting out – and indicated a well-aimed kick in the direction of Joey’s bottom.)

The security was vigilant; I spotted at least six people (girls included) being led away by the stony-faced, big-muscled guys. What crimes did they commit? I happened to see just one – a boy was lifted up by his mates and they started to pass him overhead from person to person. In a matter of seconds he ended up in the strong arms of the security who put a cruel end to his crowd surfing.

The moshpit was moshing, VIPs were sipping drinks on white leather sofas above the swarm of the humankind, outstretched arms holding mobile phones were recording shaky blurred video souvenirs. James was jumping and sliding around with his accordion, trying to break his bones by leaping from the drum stand and landing on his knees. Shane was swinging the microphone in the air (but for once not trying to strangle anybody with it), Philip was cheering up the already cheerful audience by dancing and clapping his hands, and Spider was doing his best to satisfy the crowd with his trademark percussion instrument consisting of his own head and a tray (while Shane was more interested in bending and deforming his own tray – trying to create an unique work of art? – than in properly bruising his brow). Paul, the sound engineer, was greeted with Happy Birthday ditty performed by the band solely in his honour. And then the last notes of Fiesta died away and that was that. The show must go on but still there are moments when it is – at least temporarily – over.

Backstage, the band enjoyed local hospitality with the finest Ukrainian port wine and Joey shared some more of his grand anecdotes, this time involving the secrets of songwriting process, Toulouse Lautrec’s belles and Irish-American millionaires with mafia connections. Hostesses brought heaps of takeaway pizzas, but before the musicians and crew could finish their well-deserved snack, Zoe, the tour manager (who looks like a fragile girl but rules with the iron fist of Napoleon), herded them out to the vans, explaining they must get up early the following morning. The afterparty organizer had to face the disappointment that neither the Pogues nor anybody from their entourage would embellish his event, but such is life. I said my good-byes, headed back to my hostel and enjoyed my own afterparty in two in the hostel’s kitchen, over three bottles of cider.

Before retreating to bed, my travelling companion went to pop in the hostel’s shared bathroom. Within a few seconds he was back. "Will you believe me if I tell you there is a guy sleeping with his head in the sink?" he asked me. "Just go and take a look!" So I went. On a table next to the sink, a young guy was lying lifelessly, naked except for black briefs, his head inside the sink. But he didn’t seem like a victim of a violent crime – he seemed to be quite peacefully resting. Our messing around obviously did not disturb him at all. I closed the door and returned back to our room while my companion went to another bathroom. Again, he was back in a matter of seconds. "I’m not brushing my teeth in a shower!" he stated, hinting at the fact that the second bathroom on our floor included only a toilet and shower but not a sink. He flung open the door of the bathroom where the guy was having a nap and politely asked him: "Is it comfortable, lying in the sink like this?" The guy woke up and blinked at us with empty eyes. Then he slowly, with great effort lifted up his body and staggered into the corridor like a zombie. He leaned on the wall of the room next to ours and pressed his palms and brow to the glass (for some reason, that particular room had a glass wall, thus looking like a giant aquarium). Immediately, one of the room’s occupants was out, slamming the glass door and drawing the curtain in the guy’s face. The guy groggily pushed himself away from the glass and wobbled to our open doorway. "This is not your room," I kindly told him. "Really not." And then I performed a kindly slamming of the door as well. When I peeped out a short while later, I saw the unfortunate wretch staggering away through the corridor, disappearing behind a corner.

Was it a proper ending to a night with the Pogues? I went to see a band who once had the reputation of the heaviest drinkers in the whole wide world only to encounter the only drunk on the threshold of my hostel room. Well, another piece in the unforgettable eastern Poguetry mosaic.

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