The Pogues soften up at the edges
Only 7 years old, the Pogues have earned quite a, well, reputation. Full of Gaelic gall and punk punch, the Anglo-Irish rock-folk musicians have become known for both playing hard and living hard.
That image might be softening a bit, however. After putting out outstanding albums with such unforgiving titles as "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash" and "If I Should Fall from Grace with God," the Pogues have released the blissfully named "Peace and Love," easily their most varied and pleasant recording.
And just as Pogues are venturing out musically, their accordionist, James Fearnley, is journeying physically from the band's base in London. Fearnley and his fiancee, film actress and script analyst Danielle Von Zerneck, have just had their offer to buy a Los Angeles-area house accepted -- a move he wasn't quite ready to explain to his band mates.
"I suppose I'll be living here, which is ridiculous. It is!" an incredulous Fearnley said in a phone interview conducted before the current tour that brings the Pogues and headliner Bob Dylan to the Starlight Bowl tomorrow night.
"I'll never live this down. When they read this and find out I've been jogging 3 miles a day and I've bought a house in Hollywood ...."
To be sure, the handsome, health-conscious Fearnley (he jokingly refers to himself as the Pogues' "love object") is a sharp contrast to the band's founder and leader, singer-guitarist Shane MacGowan.
That fact was made graphically clear in a recent set of publicity photos; while Fearnley posed bright-eyed with Von Zerneck (she was Richie Valens' screen sweetheart in "La Bamba") and teen actress Winona Ryder, the teeth-deficient MacGowan shared the frame with Mojo Nixon, both of them looking (in Fearnley's words) "like they've just been washed up on a beach."
But it's MacGowan, always uncompromising and at times rude, who sets the standard for the Pogues -- on stage and at the bar.
"OK, I suppose we drink a lot," Fearnley admitted after a minimum of prodding. "Jem (banjo player Jem Finer) has given up drinking because -- I don't know, because he didn't like it anymore.
"I just have a drink after a show; I suppose anyone would. Shane drinks all the time because that's the way he lives."
MacGowan's sharp, if slurred, style is featured on the new album's swaggering "Boat Train," after being perhaps best showcased awhile back on "Fairytale of New York." On "Fairytale" he cheerfully traded invectives with singer Kirsty MacColl, the wife of Pogues' producer Steve Lillywhite and daughter of Ewan MacColl, who wrote "Dirty Old Town," which has become a band standard.
All in all, the Pogues' hard-edged approach to traditional Irish music recalls Tom Waits' twists on more American forms. When a biographer of Waits asked the group about the similarities, Fearnley related, banjoist Finer "answered it by saying, we both behave as a sort of orphanage for music and instruments that people don't want to play anymore."
That was certainly true of the Pogues' early days, after MacGowan formed the band, then known as Pogue Mahone, with tin whistle player Spider Stacy in 1982. In fact, Fearnley, once a bandmate of MacGowan but then "pretending to write a novel," had no idea he would ever play the accordion.
"I had seen neither Jem nor Shane for 18 months," he said, "and Jem came around with a laundry bag with an accordion in the bottom of it and said, We want you to learn how to play this.'
"So I've only been an accordion player as long as the band has been Pogue Mahone and then the Pogues -- as indeed is the case with pretty much the rest of the band. Spider (Stacy) has been a whistle player as long as he's been in the Pogues. And Jem has been a banjo player for only slightly longer."
An exception was made for Philip Chevron who, after an uncomfortable initial stint as a substitute banjoist, has been allowed to show his skills as a guitarist and composer.
An even more special case is 1986 recruit Terry Woods, a 42-year-old multi-instrumentalist who is a veteran of such tradition-minded groups as Steeleye Span and Sweeney's Men and, like Chevron and MacGowan, a real Irishman.
But the rest of the Pogues also have gone on to impress their peers. Elvis Costello was taken enough to produce "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash," and he later took off with Cait O'Riordan, then the Pogues' bass player and now Mrs. Costello.
Fearnley played on the last Talking Heads album, and he will soon be heard on the latest project by head Head David Byrne, "Rei Momo."
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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