Shane MacGowan, the living miracle
The Pogues have reformed for a series of concerts to mark their 20th anniversary and the re-release of their back-catalogue. Paul McNamee revisits their early recordings and finds they stand the test of time
That The Pogues, including mercurial frontman Shane MacGowan and bassist Cait O'Riordan, are playing around the UK and Ireland (sadly no Ulster dates) over this Christmas will give an extra, bawdy edge to celebrations, but the fact that it is happening at all is little short of a miracle.
For a start, the sheer fact that MacGowan is still alive is a marvel that makes Keith Richards' wrestling match with the grim reaper look like a trifle.
It's been 20 years since MacGowan emerged as the spitting and hissing visionary poet at the helm of The Pogues, capable of spinning grand, whiskey and amphetamine-soaked tales of broken dreams and alcoholic psychosis.
In that time, he has been hailed as a genius, a rotten drunk, been thrown out of The Pogues, been given days to live on more than a few occasions, been shopped for heroin use by Sinead O'Connor - and still he's standing.
Admittedly, he's much wider around the girth now than in his salad days and he sometimes has an uncontrollable shaking of the hand, but in a recent interview, MacGowan had a clear message to those offering him the last rites.
"They've been saying that I'm self-destructive and ready to drop for the last 25 years and here I am," he said. "I've p***ed on those b******s' graves. I mean, if I've been self-destructive for 25 years, as they've let on, how come I haven't destroyed myself yet?"
Fighting talk - but listening through the re-issues of the early Pogues albums (especially the first three) it's hard not to feel pangs of regret that he is a shadow of the wide-eyed plastic Paddy mongrel who set the music industry alight two decades ago.
Red Roses For Me announced The Pogues' arrival in 1984, the band sneering menacingly from the cover, looking like fallen Jesuit seminarians (even Cait) in front of a painting of JFK.
With a gloriously coarse take on standards like The Auld Triangle and originals like Streams Of Whiskey, it signalled a new sort of Irish folk - visceral and feral and, of course, (half the fun) totally irritating to the purists.
But it was Rum Sodomy & Lash, released the following year and produced with careering punk abandon by Elvis Costello, that still stands as The Pogues' soaraway classic.
It found them at their most musically potent and saw MacGowan take flight as songwriter. Relying less on traditional standards, it was loaded with brilliant, brilliant songs.
The Old Main Drag - the first time male prostitution was so publicly addressed as part of the Irish emigrants' story - still sounds as shocking, fresh and bleak as it did on release.
A Pair Of Brown Eyes, a simple lament to lost love, is as good as anything the band subsequently recorded.
Of the additional tracks on the re-release, all taken from the Poguetry In Motion EP, A Rainy Night In Soho stands out - a hair on the back of the neck moment.
It's an album that will never flag.
If I Should Fall From Grace With God followed in 1988 and delivered The Pogues their biggest sales - shifting 200,000 in America alone and tossing out great songs like Thousands Are Sailing, the politically charged Birmingham Six and the all-time classic Christmas single, Fairytale of New York.
It should have been their passport to the big time, but instead it marked the start of a slide in MacGowan's creative drive. The booze that had proved such a catalyst for the early songs started to choke his mighty talent.
He failed to make the flight for a lucrative tour of the US with Bob Dylan in late 1989, admitting that he had not been "dead straight sober" since he was 14 - almost 20 years before.
He left the band in 1991. The Pogues - a collection of great musicians - carried on for a few years, but without their talismanic frontman, they would never have the same cachet.
The intervening years have seen many ups and downs for MacGowan - including a moderately successful second career with his band The Popes. Recently his father Maurice contacted several Irish journalists asking them to look into his son's business transactions as he was afraid some unscrupulous parties were taking advantage of him.
MacGowan firmly told his father to mind his own affairs. He may be drunk but he's nobody's fool. Anyone who has met him talks about a razor-sharp mind that sees all and notes all, even if there is a problem sometimes verbalising it.
"I reckon I'm gonna go for over 100," he said in a recent interview on his website.
"I have no intentions on checking out any time in the near future."
Buy the CDs anyway, just to be on the safe side.
Copyright © 2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd
All Rights Reserved.