Rogues with Brogues
"I'm not sure what the band's image is, other than that we're made out to be a bunch of drunks," says the Pogues' Shane MacGowan with a laugh. "The press seems to prefer to write about what wild people we are rather than write about our music, but that doesn't bother me. You can't write about music anyway, and they have to find something to write about."
And the Irish octet, which makes its L.A. debut Monday at the Palace, does offer plenty to write about on the extracurricular front. "Ill-kempt but fun loving," said Newsday of this rowdy band of pub-crawlers, whose former name, Pogue Mahone, is the Gaelic expression for the old standby "Kiss my derriere," and whose high-spirited irreverence has made them the reigning hellions of the British rock press.
Then there's the Elvis Costello connection: He produced the Pogues' two recent records and is engaged to bass player Cait O'Riordan. More colorful still is the Pogues' zealously devoted European following, which has made a ritual of converting their gigs into drunken rave-ups comparable to a World Cup soccer match celebration.
In light of all this beer-drinkin' and hell-raisin', the Pogues' music itself comes as a bit of a surprise. Indeed, the biggest and most frequently overlooked surprise about the Pogues is the songwriting of frontman MacGowan. He concocts salty tales, riddled with odd colloquialisms, that chronicle the high adventures of Homeric heroes, brawlers and bonnie lasses swept through life on a river of lager and tears.
MacGowan's writing is distinctly Irish in that it takes a perverse pleasure in the misery of humankind and is shot through with gallows humor, and, as in work by Tom Waits and Robbie Robertson, MacGowan's tunes have a timeless quality; it seems that, surely, besotted sad sacks have been howling these songs in dank pubs for decades.
What's more, MacGowan, 29, has the ravaged voice required to give his world-weary laments a convincing reading.
He cut his performing teeth as bass player and vocalist with a mid-'70s London punk outfit called the Nipple Erectors, but his musical frame of reference extends well beyond punk.
One need look no further than the instruments the group employs: Mixing MacGowan's originals with traditional Irish jigs and reels, their repertoire is performed on acoustic guitars, fiddle, banjo, accordion, tin whistle, dulcimer and Uileann pipes (the Irish equivalent of bagpipes).
This instrumental lineup might seem rather quaint to your average American, whose knowledge of traditional Irish music begins and ends with the TV commercial for Irish Spring soap. But the Pogues, one must remember, are former (unreformed) punk rockers and when they attack an Irish reel they go for the throat.
"A lot of the people into traditional Irish music hate the Pogues and think we're murdering their music," said MacGowan during a recent phone interview. "I suppose they feel we're perpetuating that age-old prejudice that all Irish people are drunkards or whatever. But the way I see it, no one has any more claim on a musical style than the next person.
"I listen to all kinds of music now and I've always loved blues, soul and jazz. The songs I write sound a lot like the music I heard when I was growing up. My family on my mother's side was musical but I never had music lessons -- you don't use schooling to learn that kind of traditional music. It's kind of done by ear.
"I think most people are naturally musical and it really comes down to a question of what priority they give it. I give it the highest priority because it's what I love and what I'm able to do."
The Pogues' debut album, "Red Roses for Me," is relatively unknown in America, but their two subsequent records, "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash" and an EP titled "Poguetry in Motion," are critical favorites and have sold respectably well.
The Costello connection no doubt played a considerable role in the Pogues' getting a foot in the door, yet there have been rumblings of discord between the band and the hand that fed it -- in fact, they appear prepared to bite that hand.
"As far as I know, Elvis won't be producing the next record," MacGowan said. "You do something once and unless there's some big reason, there's no point in doing it again -- not that we want the next record to be substantially different from the last one.
"At this point I don't know who'll have the job but after we finish this tour (on Monday) we'll probably begin working on the next album. There's also a good possibility we'll be making a film with Alex Cox, the guy who made 'Repo Man.' It'll be a spaghetti Western.
"But I'm in no hurry for the tour to end -- it's been great fun. I've discovered there are loonies in every town and every country who just want to go out and get pissed (drunk).
"At the start of the tour the American audiences were much tamer than the audience we get in Europe, but they're gradually beginning to, er, assert themselves more. But I have no preference as to how I like our audience to behave. I like any audience as long as they like us, and I love America. Particularly the women and the drink."
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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