An energetic and spirited set of hits from the troubled legends
I was probably 10 or so when I first heard the Pogues. I was going through a U.K. magazine phase, highlighted with such classy mags as Smash Hits, wherein I could be informed of Robert Smith’s favorite lipstick or perhaps the most recent late-night shenanigans of Simon Le Bon. Every one of the new wave stars seemed to live such a glamorous and fashionable life. That is, except for Shane MacGowan. If his or his band’s name was featured on the cover, I dreaded every turn of the page expecting to come face to face with the pale, hideous mess that sent every kid skyrocketing to the medicine cabinet for toothpaste and floss. I didn’t understand the Pogues’ music. It had no discernible dance groove to my naive ears. It had no dizzying video accompaniment on MTV, and the only thing remotely close to traditional Irish folk music I enjoyed was good ol' Dexy’s “Come On Eileen,” which, while brilliant, had all the edge of a dull butter knife. But kids just wouldn’t understand.
It was at least nine years later when I decided to give Shane and the gang another chance. And this time, none of the soul, beauty and rich storytelling was lost on me. The gloss of those magazines had long since been worn and scuffed by the shocking realities of the rock world in which I had plunged. Whereas I once shrank away from the unfamiliar tones and brutal photos, my friends and I now shed tears in our beers listening to the tales of star-crossed lovers on Christmas, sea shanties and historical laments about working on the railway. I shit you not, we danced around my apartment to “Turkish Song of the Damned,” causing much commotion in the dwelling below. Much like the Pixies, we were resigned to the fact that we would never see them play in person, long since broken up and their fearless songwriter sinking into an ever-growing abyss of alcoholic malaise. We may have joked about doctors having to beat Shane MacGowan’s liver with a bat once his body had given up, but the stark reality was we needed to see him before he died.
Even more tragic was the shocking If I Should Fall from Grace documentary, where Nick Cave recalls MacGowan living in utter squalor. He asks Shane if he’s written any new songs lately. Shane mumbles that he has hundreds of fucking songs and points to a pile of garbage in a corner. Of course, what was there was brilliant songwriting, but his body had deteriorated to the point where we could barely even sing or play them.
What’s this? A Pogues reunion? Tours? U.S. tours?!
I was fortunate enough to finally have one of my dreams come true last night, the first of a two-night stand at the Riviera, and the crowd was pumped at 8 p.m., once Ike Reilly wrapped up his set. The crowd was really going nuts at 8:30, when the set change music got good (the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven”). When 9 came and went, a fear ran through my head. Everyone who has seen the Pogues seems to have a Shane MacGowan story. Buckets for vomit, various levels of nudity, someone having to physically hammer nails into the base of the mic stand to keep him upright. Here it was. My story. “He’s not coming out,” I said to myself. At 9:30 p.m., finally, the house lights went down, a backdrop of a twisted metropolis descended, the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” started to blare as an intro -- this was it. But as Joe Strummer, already into the third verse, started to sing about the bamboo kid’s blood, I thought this was just another stall tactic. Thankfully, not long after, there they were, the Pogues, with a quick, “Sorry, we’re late,” and from the opposite side of the stage, low and behold, it was him.
Looking very Chaplin-esque in a top hat and blazer and shuffling in with a gait that reminded me of the way newly upright children walk, as if always going downhill, he was escorted right up to the mic, and they were off into “Streams of Whiskey.” The sheer volume of lyrics in MacGowan’s playbook have always astonished me, and tongue-twisting passages like “when questioned on his views on the crux of life’s philosophies” flying by at breakneck speed would be tough even for a fully lucid performer. Looking more like a ghost than a performer, especially in that outfit, he performed admirably, admittedly slurring a great portion of the lyrics in the process. But what pushed his performance from heartbreaking to heartwarming was how expressive he was. For what he couldn’t vocally express, he used hand motions. The captain’s spyglass in “Greenland Whale Fisheries.” God in his heaven in “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn.” The doll’s head of “Fiesta.”
In stark contrast to MacGowan’s zombie-like pathos, the band played ferociously well for a bunch of old men, especially James Fearnley, whose high-flying accordion antics helped keep the energy at a peak level. Whistle player Spider Stacy took vocals for the Shaneless “Tuesday Morning” and “Love You Till the End,” but whereas the punk/traditional ’80s Pogues tunes are absolutely timeless, these sounded uncomfortably dated. It was no surprise that the crowd lit up when MacGowan would stumble back on stage for his turn at the mic. I couldn’t help but feel as if the band, especially Stacy, found MacGowan to be a kind of “necessary evil” in the grand scheme of things. As he lumbered back and forth offstage, there were always borderline sarcastic comments to be heard from the rest of the band. “What light through yonder window breaks,” Stacy sighed once. Guitarist Philip Chevron took it a step further, proclaiming Shane a “national treasure… of many nations” with a wink as he left the stage. Still, the most poignant moment during the set was Chevron’s singing of the MacGowan-penned “Thousands are Sailing,” in an apparent effort to reclaim the poetic retelling of Irish immigrants coming to America from its actual author.
Throughout the show, it was evident that MacGowan was having a great time. Before “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” he joked that the Shannon was not as big as the Mississippi but that they were working on it. He faux-conducted the band during “Turkish Song of the Damned” and helped out with some cymbal crashes on “Body of an American.” He even did a little dancing, holding out his top hat like a street performer. They endured trough three encores, plowing through “Sally MacLennane,” “The Irish Rover,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” and ending with the Mexican romp “Fiesta,” featuring the percussive effect of Stacy slamming a metal baking sheet against his head many times. They endured just as Shane MacGowan endures -- and surely as the music of the Pogues will endure. I’m glad I was there to actually see it in person.
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