THE POGUES, The Fillmore, San Francisco
To get to the West Coast entails flying over the Rockies--about one third of America. You see plateaux mottled with salt lakes and varicose with dried-up delta, mountains fibrillated with canyons etched by glaciers aeons ago. It’s like seeing your favourite metaphors writ large.
An hour before the show, my American hosts drive to the highest point in San Francisco. The city lights stretch as far as the eye can see, a Milky Way recumbent, winking and shimmying like a pictorialisation of AR Kane’s “Up”. Then, down, down, the winding slope we descend, down to earth with an ignominious bump, to witness the bumptious ignominy that is The Pogues, the Pogues who are in the gutter, looking at the… gutter.
The Pogues are playing The Fillmore, the temple of folkadelia and hippie rock, as one leg of a successful US tour. The Fillmore was where Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, cryogenized folk, turned it to crystal on the breeze. Twenty years on, The Pogues look to folk music, not as a chance to ascend into the mystic, but as a way of connecting themselves more firmly with this sullied world. Folk, for the Pogues and their followers, represents a lost conviviality, an honest vulgarity, a transfusion of which rock sorely needs in this Age of Plastic. And so the Fillmore is magically transformed into a shabby Kentish Town watering hole.
This kind of approach to the Pogues--as a more or less static institution--has been criticized for not attending to the microscopic details of which songs are better than other songs, the band’s “growth”, etc. But for the indifferent or hostile, these internal differences are both imperceptible and irrelevant: the experience is necessarily somewhat level. For me, when the Pogues are at their “best”, when they are at their Pogues-iest, is when they are least tolerable. Any traces of inauthenticity, any betrayals of the folk body, would have been welcome respite. A Pogues song played well is just more effectively abhorrent.
They seem to have two modes, two songs even: a restive, roisterous skitter; or a maudlin sway. Shane doesn’t sing so much as expectorate, a slovenly slurry of bleary vowels. He seems to hurry through the songs, anxious to get to the end of each verse, to the bit where the band do their thing, so that he can stoop over and retrieve his bottle for a quick swig, or take another drag on his cigarette. His stage presence is shifty, vaguely desperate, his head projecting at the mike like an embittered terrier.
There’s little that’s expansive or raucously involving about the shindig stirred up by this band, a fidgety clutter that’s too hasty and knocked-out to ever really swing. It doesn’t go to the head. Yet the Pogues have a constituency, who cheer loyally, in the US just as they do in the UK -- a lot of college kids, Camper Van fans, some expatriate Irish, lots of unaligned people who’d lost interest in music, grown nostalgic for rowdy communion, the singalong, a lost, organic feel in rock. The fantasy the Pogues provided for these disconnected people (and for themselves) is of a sodden solidarity in loserdom, of a history of beleagured resilience, drowned miseries and looking out for your own kith and kin. For people who don’t know where they’re going (all of us, as the Nineties loom), it becomes important to remember where you came from. What the Pogues sell is a spurious, surrogate sense of roots, ties, sentimental attachment and boozy fellowship. Oh, the bland degeneration of the musician’s soul induced by beer.
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