The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Reading Carol Clerk’s foreword to her engrossing and revealing biography of The Pogues, in which she documents the difficulties of conducting an interview with Shane MacGowan in Gerry O’Boyle’s Boogaloo bar in north London, I am reminded of an encounter I had with the legendary liver, I mean living legend, in O’Boyle’s previous outpost, Filthy McNasty’s.
Because MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, I had the idea of getting him to dress up as Father Christmas for the front cover of the Irish Post’s Christmas supplement. I was pleasantly surprised when he arrived just a few minutes late, only to discover that he was actually several hours late for two other interviews, which had to be got out of the way before we could do our photo shoot.
Halfway through his second interview, conducted on the phone at the bar with some unfortunate in Japan, he disappeared upstairs for 20 minutes, returning with a suspicious-looking nosebleed to nonchalantly pick up the phone and carry on as if nothing had happened.
In the end, it was his banjo player, the late, lamented Tommy McManamon, who dressed up as Santa, presenting Shane with a litre bottle of Martini adorned with a red rosette unearthed from the pub cellar.
The image was slightly spoiled, though, because MacGowan was holding a pint of Martini in his other hand. I suggested that I hold it while the photo was taken. “I can hold my own fuggen drink,” MacGowan snarled.
No one could argue with that.
That Clerk managed to penetrate the cussed, contrary side to MacGowan’s personality, made more awkward by having to constantly ask him to repeat himself over the din of the jukebox as he picked at a meal, and get him to open up is evidence of her journalistic skill and dogged determination.
Of course, the Pogues were more than just Shane MacGowan and his backing band. Just as the Irish football team proved after Roy Keane’s short summer in Saipan that they could prosper without him, so did the Pogues prove for a time at least that there was life after Shane following his own Oriental exit. While Keane occupied himself walking the dog in Cheshire, however, MacGowan was chasing the dragon in Thailand.
The problem with establishing a definitive account of the Pogues is that pinning down MacGowan is like picking up mercury with a fork. For him the truth seems to be a moveable feast, changing depending on his audience and his mood. Clerk can only faithfully record what she is told, though she does highlight its inconsistency with what he has said and written before.
The book’s principal strength, then, is her exhaustive interviews with every other member of the band, bar an ever stroppy Cait O’Riordan, as well as friends, managers, record company executives and producers. Not only does she build up a convincing picture but she unearths a lot of surprising, possibly shocking, detail.
She traces the band’s roots in the squat culture of central London in the late Seventies, MacGowan’s brainwave of earthing the energy of punk in Irish traditional music, the band’s rapid rise to the heights of brilliance and genius, then the bullying and burnout that tore them apart, culminating in the happy ending of their reunion tours and the hint, no more than that, that the best might yet be to come in the form of a return to the recording studio.
Clerk was born in Belfast, moving to London in 1974 at the age of 19, where she worked her way up to become news editor of Melody Maker. Today she writes books on such disparate subjects as Madonna, Hawkwind and Ozzy Osbourne.
Asked if there is a common thread to these and the Pogues, she says: “I think it’s just a fascination with characters, the bigger, more colourful and larger than life the better. That’s probably the only thing they have in common.”
Clerk admits to being a fan with a typewriter, but she is not alone. It used to be a point of principle that if the NME liked a band, Melody Maker would stick its fingers in its ears and hum loudly, but everybody loved the Pogues, the devil-may-care attitude, the lust for life, the earthy but eloquent lyrics, the dementedly danceable tunes, and the drinking, always the drinking.
“The main thing was they were so wild and unruly and uproarious,” Clerk says. “If you went to see the Pogues you were going to have a really brilliant night, the songs were just great, fantastic entertainment, and I knew where the music came from in the first place so there was that extra level of understanding.”
Although Ann Scanlon had written an earlier history of the band, it ended just after the release of If I Should Fall From Grace With God, in many eyes their finest hour, but Clerk wanted to cover their whole career and do it in more depth, “huge long interviews with everybody. They had such a complicated history. There was such a lot going on in the background that I don’t think anyone realised.”
What did she learn that surprised her?
“Everybody was aware of Shane MacGowan’s drinking, which at the beginning was overemphasised, but I hadn’t been aware that Spider, Terry Woods and Philip Chevron had become so ill with alcohol, and that three members of the band had gone on the wagon. There were a lot of problems in the group as well as the obvious problem of Shane. He kind of overshadowed everything else.
“I was never aware of all the tensions leading up to when Shane left the group or that Shane was into rave culture and wanted to introduce that to the Pogues.”
For a band that produced at least three alcoholics, it might seem a bit rich for the Pogues to protest about their beer-soaked portrayal, but Clerk makes the valid points that they were not that unusual.
“Every band was doing it. What the Pogues objected to was people picking up on it because they were Irish and they didn’t want to be lumped in with the drunken Paddy thing even though they were drinking for Ireland. The second thing is there were two or three in the band who didn’t drink at all, and they were outraged to be tarred with the same brush. Jem didn’t drink, Darryl wasn’t a drinker, they were more likely to have a joint.”
In fact, drink was only the half of it. Clerk reveals that drug abuse was also rife. Several members blamed the overwrought production of Peace and Love, the disappointing follow-up to If I Should Fall, on cocaine.
“You would never have the Pogues down as a drugs band,” says Clerk, “but it seems around Peace and Love a lot of the problems were connected with drugs. There were two or three heavily into cocaine, they were the ones wanting to build up layers and layers of stuff, making everything more and more extravagant. At the same time Shane was constantly on acid, which went hand in hand with his appreciation of rave culture and dance music. The real problems kicked in when he got involved in really heavy stuff - heroin, taking opiates in Thailand.”
Clerk lists several of Shane’s circle of friends and followers who died of overdoses, which make his own survival all the more remarkable.
“He just seems indestructible. There is some strange everlasting fortitude about him.”
After an accident on a recent tour he ended up singing in wheelchair, she says, and apparently singing better than ever.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new Val Doonican, Shane O’Hooligan.
“Shane has got some sort of survival instinct because he’s still here,” says the author. “I don’t think he’s self destructive, his drinking is much more to do with what he refers to as heightened levels of awareness, wanting to feel or experience more. But if you go too far down that road you obviously see nothing and feel nothing.”
The Pogues biographer is reluctant to indulge in what ifs, preferring to focus on what they did achieve rather than a legacy of talent squandered.
“No matter what happened it was a tough job to follow up If I Should Fall. Possibly that may have led to Shane going off on acid trips. People tend to forget that there are some great songs on Peace and Love and Hell’s Ditch too which the Pogues still play to this day.”
There is a lovely image in Jem Finer and James Fearnley’s description of the Pogues creative process. Shane comes into the studio with some fragments of an idea for a song, then they set to work like archaeologists piecing together a broken vase, constructing a song out of shards. Sometimes it works, sometimes Shane says the handle’s in the wrong place.
“Shane had fabulous ideas,” says Clerk, but he needed the other two to make them sound like what he had in his head. The whole collaborative thing has been overlooked. It took these kindred spirits - James with his immense musical talent, Jem with his way of finding out what Shane is thinking - to make the music that became the Pogues. It wasn’t an easy job to try and interpret. The Pogues are really lucky to have got it right as often as they did. The first three albums will go down in history.”
Clerk acknowledges MacGowan is an unreliable witness. “With Shane, his version of events is dictated by not wanting to upset everyone now the band is back together again. He did upset some members when he did A Drink with Shane MacGowan and wanted to avoid that situation again.”
She swears by the testimony of the others, though. “The rest of the Pogues I trusted beyond doubt. I don’t think they would have agreed to take part and then not tell the truth. There was so much revelation, particularly of things they didn’t have to tell me.”
Philip Chevron confesses to having fallen in love with James Fearnley. Others admit to feelings of guilt about how they picked on James Fearnley and Darryl Hunt, who was the band’s roadie before he became their bass player. Elvis Costello was another butt of their cruel jokes, when he started going out with Cait.
Perhaps the most bizarre twist in the book is the story of how veteran Irish traditional musician Terry Woods joined the group, purely on the whim of their manager Frank Murray, without consulting the existing members of the band.
“The Terry Woods thing was just extraordinary, one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard a manager do. Frank’s view is he felt they needed a really strong musician to give them depth. He thought that otherwise, sooner or later, it would be like the King’s New Clothes - "It’s all very well but they can’t play." It was very lucky for all concerned that it all worked out. Terry was an Irish musician that no one had ever met.”
On the likelihood of the band recording again, she says: “They’re not saying anything about that but it wouldn’t surprise me. They’re sounding better than ever, the confidence and the enjoyment. The big problem they had was they always had to be on the road touring, it was like a vicious circle and a hamster wheel and that broke down their spirit enormously. It was a contributing factor to Shane leaving and the band breaking up. They’re doing it on their own terms now.”
Of course, to make it work would require MacGowan to re-engage with his much-abused muse. While his first solo album was a fine effort, the follow-up was a crock all right, but not of gold.
“The funny thing is,” says Clerk, “he thought the follow-up was better than the first one. He was really upset by the reaction.”
And if there is a new album, will it be back to their roots, does she think?
“Without having talked to anyone about that, I think it would be more in line with the early Pogues sound than Peace and Love or Waiting for Herb. I think they would rediscover that great Celtic swagger, and probably ballads. I’d like to think that’s what it would be.”
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