Off the Record: Boos for the Boss
SHANE MacGowan must have heard the boos.
It was Thursday night last week at Tramps in New York City, and there they were - the crowd was doing the unthinkable - some of them were booing. Booing! Shane MacGowan?
Surely this couldn't have been happening. Many of the hundreds, more than a thousand, surely, who had packed into Tramps had grown up with MacGowan as a hero. Out of the rubble of north London he came in the late 1970s with a couple of fledgling punk acts and eventually he led the Pogues, which of course was the greatest rock and roll band ever, at least in the minds of many of the kind of people who came out to see MacGowan play last week. The man could write songs the likes of which had never been heard before. Songs like 'Fairytale of New York,' 'Dark Streets of London' and 'Pair of Brown Eyes' made him the voice of emigrant and first-generation Irish culture, and more. Perhaps he wasn't as talented or musically able as, say, U2, but to millions, he was more relevant.
After maybe eight years with the Pogues he was kicked out for boozing, after a disastrous show in Japan. No doubt, many of those assembled last week in Tramps remember where they were that early autumn of 1991, when they first heard MacGowan had been kicked out of the band (this writer does).
But all that doesn't change the fact that last Thursday night in New York City, MacGowan, the hero, was booed, by at least some of the sold-out crowd.
The sad part is, they were probably right to boo. Tickets had been sold for $20 each. For that money, MacGowan and his band, The Popes, had performed no more than nine songs, for a total of maybe 30 minutes.
To make things worse, MacGowan & Co. had not played anything off the recently-released debut, The Snake, a masterful album for which MacGowan has been praised highly by critics. For some unknown reason, Shane opted to ramble through a back catalogue of old Pogues numbers rather than play the new ones. It was like going to see a cabaret by an Elvis impersonator, only the impersonator was Elvis himself.
In the basement of Tramps, Shane was locked away in a side room while dozens of local musicians, journalists and others looking to hang out with their hero (or at least get a free beer) were kept waiting. Victoria Clarke and Joey Cashman, Shane's girl-friend and manager, respectively speaking, were there, saying that Shane was not feeling well. So just about everyone walked home on Thursday night disappointed.
Shane did not go home but rather to a hotel that night, but presumably he shared in the disappointment. Presumably because, the very next night, Friday night, he took the stage at Tramps and gave one of the best shows he has given in years.
He still declined to give us all but a small taste of The Snake, but he delivered in a big way on the rest of his closetful of songs. A friend who has seen MacGowan perform on numerous occasions since the early 1980s (since the pre-Pogues days when MacGowan was fronting a punkabilly band called The Nips) described Shane's gloriously tattered singing voice on Friday night thusly: "never been better."
MacGowan was a little tipsy (natch) but was fully coherent, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. The band, a motley group of London-Irish castoffs, performed numbers from each one of the Pogues' albums, with an emphasis on barn-stormers like 'Sick Bed of Cuchulainn,' 'Boys from the County Hell,' 'Body of an American' and 'Greenland Whale Fisheries.' The crowd screamed "come back Shane, come back," and that's exactly what he did, closing the encores with a blistering rendition of the Pogues classic 'Bottle of Smoke.'
Still, it is very odd how the band chose not to perform much from the post-Pogues MacGowan catalogue, with the exception of 'Donegal Express' and MacGowan's covers of 'Hippy Shake' and 'Nancy Whiskey.' Why MacGowan chose to ignore the rest of his brilliant solo album is a mystery. MacGowan revealed little to the crowd above and beyond the set-list, which seemed to suit the crowd fine. The floor at Tramps was shaking from the frenzy of the audience. There were mad, happy faces, young slam-dancing ones, all types - but most importantly this night, there were no boos. Unfortunately, those who shelled out to see the Thursday night show could not have shared in the Friday celebration, but no doubt, at least in MacGowan's mind, some redemption had been won.
Copyright 1995 Irish Voice
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.