Pogues plugging on, still getting their Irish up
Never trust a Anglo-Irish punk band over 30.
Except the Pogues, marking three decades of folk-rock anarchy next year. The eight-man band ("Fairytale of New York," "Streams of Whiskey," "Pair of Brown Eyes") still has a chip on its collective shoulder.
And time-honed nerves of steel, when it comes to hard-drinking frontman Shane MacGowan, 53. The gutter balladeer, fired in 1991, returned as lead singer-songwriter in 2004.
Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron phoned to chat about hero James Cagney, the mercurial MacGowan, and the band's spring "Parting Glass tour" (kicking off Thursday in Chicago). The Dubliner, 53, has been a band fixture since the release of the seminal "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash" (1985).
TIMES: Please explain the significance of ending the tour on "St. James Cagney Day" -- not St. Patrick's Day -- on March 17 in New York.
CHEVRON: It was something that started as flippant remark on the Pogues website. I started calling it James Cagney Day. I was so bored with people celebrating this wimpy bishop from Wales as the great patron and saint of Ireland. I thought, "It's not very Irish or diasporan Irish." James Cagney is much more representative of the nation and the nation's spirit.
TIMES: Cagney billed himself as a song-and-dance man, a line Bob Dylan lifted to describe himself.
CHEVRON: And Cagney stole it from George M. Cohan, whom he played in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." ... In my opinion, Cagney was the best dancer in Hollywood. He didn't do the stuff that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly did. It was more idiomatically American, or Irish-American.
TIMES: Are the Pogues song-and-dance men?
CHEVRON: That's precisely what we are. Shane supplies the song and I do the dance for the most part. I tried to dance in my younger days. I was a good dancer. I'm probably a little bit past it now. Shane's motion is a little slowed down, but he'd hate me for telling you that.
TIMES: Is it a joy, heartbreaking or nerve-wracking to be backing Shane again? The theory is, you can't save alcoholics, they have to save themselves.
CHEVRON: I've always loved the guy. That's never been a question. He's been infuriating as hell over the past 25 years. But ultimately, when it comes down to it, there's an unconditional love there. And it's frustrating. He tests us constantly. You just have to work around his foibles. In terms of performance, he's still very good.
TIMES: How has his voice changed?
CHEVRON: As he's gotten old, it's turned into something more fitting for a man his age. ... It's more gravelly and growling. ...It's a joy to listen to Shane's voice on the old records, but in the two hours we're on stage together, when he's in form, he's a delight.
TIMES: His voice gains strength as he goes on. How do you explain that?
CHEVRON: The first couple of numbers, he's definitely finding his way into the groove. At a certain point, he clicks in. That's the signal for us to relax. The first three or four numbers, we're testing the waters, seeing what kind of mood he's in, and he's testing to see what kind of mood he's in.
TIMES; You've had your own problems with substance abuse. How are you doing?
CHEVRON: I haven't had a drink in 15 years. I've been clean and sober. I'm a clean-living boy. There becomes a point when in order to keep doing what you are doing, you have to do it seriously or it will get you.
TIMES: Tell me about compiling the box set, "Just Look Them in the Eye and Say ... Poguemahone!" (Translation: "Kiss my a--" in Irish.)
CHEVRON:I did the box set while recovering from throat cancer treatment to keep me focused on something Pogues-related because I couldn't tour with the band at that time. It's not the treatment from cancer that gets you, it's the recovery that gets you. I was office-bound, house-bound, studio-bound. In that respect, it was a labor of love. I had time to get that sort of time.
TIMES: What's the set list for the tour?
CHEVRON: "Rainy Night in Soho," "Streams of Whiskey." I'll sing "Thousands are Sailing" each night. We like to keep it fresh. We have such a vast repertoire of songs; it's fun to do interesting ones, take one out and give it a fresh lick of paint. We'll do "And the Band Playing Waltzing Matilda." They'll just have to bring a lot of tissues or wipe their tears in their sleeve.
TIMES: Any chance of a new Pogues album?
CHEVRON: "We don't know" is the answer to that. It's a topic of conversation. ... Every time we talk about it, we get a little bit closer to it. ... You make a new album, you're back on the hamster wheel.
TIMES: The "Parting Glass Tour" -- it sounds like a farewell tour.
CHEVRON: There's as much chance of it happening as not happening. It's 50-50. ... We're hedging our bets. We're entitled to go around as having farewell tours as long as we feel like it.
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