OFF THE RECORD: MEET THE NEW BOSS
It's been three weeks since we met up with Spider Stacy, the man with the task of filling Shane MacGowan's place at the helm of The Pogues. Because of other business that needed to be taken care of in this column, and also because of the time needed to digest everything offered by the eternally chatty Mr. Stacy, the results haven't been divulged till now...
Things started badly. Just hours after arriving from London, Stacy was fighting insomnia in his midtown Manhattan hotel. So he did what all us New Yorkers like to do -- he went for a walk around Times Square at 4 a.m. And like many of us New Yorkers have also been known to do, he went and got himself mugged.
"God I feel like such an eejit," said Stacy the next day, nursing his wounds (fortunately, they were only financial ones). "I wouldn't even have done that in London, I don't know what I was thinking. I just walked into it."
Spider's being doing a lot of walking into things lately. With the departure of MacGowan, and after a brief experiment with ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Spider was assumed into the leading role. It has not always been an easy ride.
For one thing, the black-haired, rail-thin singer has been eaten alive by some for having the audacity to step into a legend's shoes, as if it would have been preferable, and more honorable, if the band had committed mass hari-kari. But Spider's answer was to come back with a fine album, Waiting For Herb. He may well get the last laugh, as it appears that Herb, the band's sixth full-length record, might be the first Pogues album which American mainstream radio cosies up to. The possibility thrills -- and scares the life out of -- Spider.
"Oh please God," said Spider, raising his hands as if in prayer at the suggestion of U.S. commercial success. "It's a frightening thought. That'd be just too weird after eleven years with this band. Especially considering that when we parted with Shane people thought we were history."
The week it debuted, 'Tuesday Morning', the first single off of Herb, was Number One in "add-ons" in the "contemporary alternative" category. This is the industry's way of saying that it was added to the playlists of a certain kind of radio station (in New York it's the likes of WDRE, 92.7 FM; in Boston 91X-FM, etc.) more than any other that week. During his short publicity visit, Spider appeared and sang (without the rest of the band but with assorted other musicians) on an MTV radio show and David Letterman. While the Pogues always had a sizable following in this country, they were appreciated more for albums and live shows that they were for commercially successful pop singles. Even their most successful overseas singles were only rarely played here, and then only on the un-commercial college stations. And their albums always seemed to get lost through poor marketing and a lack of timely touring support. The long stretch since their last visit has had them nearly forgotten. Spider sees this as an advantage.
"The U.S. reaction has been especially nice because we're being treated as almost an entirely new band. In England and Ireland we occasionally get a hard time over Shane's absence. But here, people seem more open to listening to things on their own merit."
SPIDER is adamant about the "right" to continue without Shane. While many perceived The Pogues as nine parts MacGowan and one part the other guys, Spider refutes that.
"Most of what we did was done by committee," he said in his thick cockney accent while sitting in McGee's Bar in midtown. "With Herb, critics are saying how bloody wonderful it is that some of the other band can actually write songs. What's that about, eh? If you look back, many of the other guys wrote songs all the way through. But since Shane's the singer, and he's got such amazing charisma, he got the credit.
"After the split, one of the other blokes suggested we change our name. And I thought that was the biggest effin' insult ever. We're still the Pogues. Should we do like Joy Division did when Ian Curtis died, change the name to 'New Order'? All they did was trade one Nazi slogan for another."
On the Split
LET'S not even get into the accusations, as they differ greatly on all accounts. Was Shane fired? Did he quit? Was it mutual agreement? Who knows; who cares. Shane himself has made conflicting statements, telling this reporter he'd been sacked and telling others he'd quit, etc. Spider says that it was more or less mutual agreement, which I believe to the extent that (A) I'm sure Shane didn't object when it happened, i.e., they wouldn't have had to have kicked him out screaming, but (B) I'm also sure that Shane wouldn't have left on his own without the band's "suggestion."
"It was the most horrible day of my life," said Spider, one of Shane's oldest and closest friends. "It was for his own good," he added, referring to Shane's drink and drugs battles, "And we really couldn't work together anymore," referring to Shane's no-shows and, er, negligent work habits.
On Joe Strummer
"WE had several tour commitments after that night in Japan," he said, referring to the night of the split. "And I was scared out of my mind because it was sort of assumed that I'd take over. There was no way I could have done it right then, I don't think. So I was relieved when Joe volunteered.
"Terry Woods (the band's multi-instrumentalist and senior member) was against the idea. He wanted me to take it from the start. Still, it was good for us to have Joe -- it gave the band some emotional breathing room. Besides, it was an honor; I was always the world's biggest Clash fan.
"There was always the feeling Joe mightn't be around for too long. He wanted to do his own thing, which he couldn't do with identity submerged in The Pogues."
"WE'RE all still quite friendly with Shane, he'll always be my friend. We're not going to re-invent the band and Trotskyize him, like go back and black his face out of all the band's photographs. That'd be ridiculous."
Still, Spider admits to the need to put some distance between himself and the last guy. He speaks of the tremendous pressure, of taking voice lessons, of the endless comparisons, of getting grilled by the press while his bandmates can take it (comparatively) easy.
"I have to admit," he continued, "I hate playing London. Shane always comes to the shows and sits in the wings.
"You can imagine the pressure," he continues, getting Shakespearean about the whole thing, "what with him looking over us like Banquo's ghost come to dinner."
The question lingers: If Shane cleaned up (and Spider reports that he's doing just that), would he be allowed back? Spider, with a pained grimace in his face, finally answers: "I'd have to say no. We spent too many years putting up with the bull -- . We'd only end up sacking him again, and I wouldn't go through that again."
MANY thought right away that the "Herb" of the album's title referred to marijuana. Not so, clarified Spider, it's far more socially responsible. It's the name of a German cartoon pornography character.
Spider says he's happy with the album. Explaining the different 'world music' influences, he points to the talented and eclectic tastes of bandmate Jem Finer and the influence of the producer, Michael Brook, and he also points out how that is nothing more than another progression after like moves on the last album, Hell's Ditch.
On the Others
A REPLACEMENT hasn't been brought in for Stacy's tin whistle, and one probably won't. Philip Chevron is still battling medical problems, stomach conditions which keep his productivity down. Jem Finer has established himself as the premier songwriter, penning half the new songs. Woods the family man lives in the Irish countryside. Spider hasn't spoken to former bassist Cait O'Riordan in years, the result of bad blood since the time she left and married Elvis Costello. And the most emotionally wrought song on the new album is 'My Baby's Gone', penned by drummer Andy Ranken. Not long ago Andy lost his wife, who died giving birth to their first kid.
"We were rehearsing, and Andy walks in with a song. He gets up and yelled his head off, 'My baby's gone/She's never coming back to me', etc. We all just stared at him, stunned. It was like therapy.
"He sang it on the album, but I do it in concert. Which is difficult, me screaming those words and him behind, clobbering the drums."
Past, Present, Future
SPIDER is asked to sum up the band's legacy: "To hell with what the critics have said. You never see us being named in their silly 'Best of the 1980s' lists or 'Favorite Bands' lists, but that doesn't matter. I know, we know, that there was a time when we were definitely the best band in the world, especially live in concert. Personally I still believe that, but I wouldn't expect everybody else to." It's suggested to him that critics have ghetto-ized the band's music, i.e., when they speak of rock classics, The Pogues are set aside as 'Irish music' rather than rock. Spider agrees.
He says the band has enough material for another album already, but
the touring comes first. They're finishing off Europe, and then it's the
U.S. in January. Look for the album (on Chameleon Records) to really get
some attention then. "We'll be seeing you after Christmas then, right,"
says Spider, and he's off, confident that what had been considered impossible
is being pulled off well. It'd be hard to disagree.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.