SHARPENED POGUES BAND TO OPEN FOR BOB DYLAN IN O.C.
It was a bitter New England night early in 1986 and the Pogues, on their first visit to the United States, were just trying to keep things toasty in their own way. For those in the audience, the immediate issue wasn't whether this band and its innovative fusion of punk and Irish folk music could stand the test of time. The question at hand was whether the Pogues could last the night.
They did -- just barely. The show ended with the Pogues singing an old Irish tune, leaning on each other for support. Not musical support, physical support. But for those mutual shoulders, this unsurpassably inebriated performance surely would have ended with most of the band falling down drunk on the stage.
Nowadays, the Pogues -- who open tonight for Bob Dylan at the Pacific Amphitheatre -- are standing quite well on their musical merits. Their current album, "Peace and Love," is the varied, accomplished work of a band that has steadily broadened its range and sharpened its ability without losing its penchant for going off on a rowdy, wild-eyed jag.
The one Pogue not standing, as of early this week, was Shane MacGowan, the band's primary singer and songwriter. Spider Stacy, the tin whistle player who helped MacGowan start the Pogues, said that MacGowan fell ill as he was about to fly from London to California for the band's tour with Dylan.
"He got sick at the airport. It became apparent there was no way he was going to be able to make it at this time," MacGowan said Wednesday in a phone interview from San Diego. "We'll just press on and hope he gets better and makes it out here. What we've heard from England is that he's resting for a couple of days. He's had tests done, and he should be out here in two or three days."
The Pogues can't help but miss MacGowan, whose singing and songwriting wed affecting poetry with comically boozy bluster in a distinctively Irish way. But with "Peace and Love," the Pogues show that they have other creative resources as well. Of the 14 songs on the album, MacGowan wrote only six.
"He just hadn't written as many songs for this one as he had done for the others," Stacy explained. "Partly, I expect, because there was less need for him to do so because they were coming from other people in the band."
In spreading the songwriting around, the Pogues haven't sacrificed quality. MacGowan's contributions include such strong numbers as "Cotton Fields," a driving tune based upon American chain-gang work songs; the humorous "Boat Train," one of many Pogues songs about drinking bouts, and "London You're a Lady," a gruffly sentimental portrait of the band's hometown.
But songs such as "Lorelei," a sweeping folk-rock epic by guitarist Philip Chevron, and "Tombstone," multi-instrumentalist Jem Finer's darkly atmospheric portrayal of the aftermath of nuclear or environmental disaster, hold up nicely and expand the Pogues' possibilities.
Until now, Stacy said, the Pogues had performed only once without MacGowan. The gap-toothed singer came down with pneumonia two hours before a show in Sweden a few years ago and the rest of the band carried on after girding itself at the bar.
"It was a complete mess because our attitude was 'what the hell.' We were quite a shambles that night," Stacy recalled. "We got totally looped before we went on stage. It was one of those nights. It all seemed to have its own logic. And the audience didn't mind."
With or without MacGowan, Stacy said, the Pogues' early image as lovable on-stage inebriates no longer applies and hasn't in some time.
"That image, we're not entirely blameless for that," he acknowledged. "But it's something we weren't trying to project. We were just being ourselves. When we started, the gig tended to be a part of the night out for us as much as everybody else. Spilling our drinks all over ourselves, playing a few songs very ineptly and then staggering back to the bar again -- that was true on some nights.
"But the image of us as drunken musicians was something created by the press. They picked up on one aspect of the band. But I think it became apparent to anyone with sense that there was a lot more to us than that. We were a band that was literally learning as we went along -- from scratch in a lot of cases. People could see us tightening up and getting stronger."
Stacy, 30, was not a musician when the Pogues started out in 1982. But, even though he is not of Irish extraction (in fact, only half the Pogues have Irish backgrounds), he was taken with the idea of combining the punk rock spirit with the spirit of Irish folk music.
"It was a whole area of music that had been neglected and ridiculed more often than not. It was an opportunity to do something really different. Irish music can be, at its best, something heartbreakingly beautiful and it can really get your blood boiling."
Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.