A Ramble Through the Mind of the Pogues’ Poet
BOSTON, March 10 — “He knew he was totally mediocre, he was a measly old poet, Wordsworth, and never made it at anything like Coleridge,” Shane MacGowan said, adding, “He had really bad teeth.” Mr. MacGowan, the principal singer of the Celtic rock band the Pogues and a man fabled for his thirst, affinity for illicit substances and terrible dentition, has sympathy for Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge, who alienated Wordsworth with his opium use. Like Coleridge, Mr. MacGowan has his appetites and he too is known for his way with a verse.
The Pogues are in the United States for their annual St. Patrick’s tour, hitting cities where their fan base and Irish enclaves are strong: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Next the group goes to the Roseland Ballroom in New York, with gigs on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, St. Patrick’s Day. (The band plays in Philadelphia on Friday too.)
A reporter had waited close to an hour in the bar at the Ritz-Carlton here before Mr. MacGowan — resplendent in an untucked black-and-white-printed tropical shirt, primitive neck jewelry and a gaudy red and black cowboy hat — shuffled in with Joey Cashman, his longtime assistant. Mr. MacGowan, 49, asked the waiter for Irish breakfast tea, and drank with a trembling hand.
It might be said that Mr. MacGowan speaks in a Joycean stream of consciousness, but a conversation with him is closer to a pinwheeling ramble with a very well-seasoned regular at the corner pub. He speaks in a flurry of digressions, uttered in a semi-slurred Irish-London accent that is tough to decipher at times. When, during one tangent, the term “British Isles” arose, Mr. Cashman was quick to correct it.
“Don’t use the phrase British Isles,” he said. “It’s England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.” He added, “If you say it any other way, he’d probably throw his glass at you.”
Mr. MacGowan still possesses the morbid streak he has had since his days as a punk rocker in his first band, the Nipple Erectors. In another tangent, speaking about “The Butcher Boy,” Neil Jordan’s film version of Patrick McCabe’s darkly satirical novel about a boy’s murder spree in County Monaghan, he said with a rasping chortle, “It’s great if you don’t actually know everything that happens in every Irish town every day of the week.” He said he loved Mr. Jordan’s adaptation of Mr. McCabe’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” about a London drag queen in trouble with the I.R.A. in the 1970s. He said it brought “back nostalgia for mass killings and bombings, you know what I mean?”
Hours later the Pogues were onstage at the Avalon, playing to a sold-out house. Fans were carried aloft over the mosh pit, as the eight-man band pounded out frenzied jigs and reels with a controlled fury. Workouts like “Fiesta” and “Sally MacLennan” prompted stomping and fist pumping; “Dirty Old Town,” a tune by the folk singer Ewan MacColl and a longtime Pogues signature, became a deafening singalong. More than once Mr. MacGowan, staggering, knocked the microphone off its stand or knocked the stand over altogether, to good-natured laughter. But his voice was sure, and his bond with the audience unmistakable.
After the show the band retired to an anteroom upstairs. The Pogues’ accordionist, James Fearnley, sat next to Mr. MacGowan on a couch, protective of him, as is everyone in Mr. MacGowan’s orbit, it seems.
The group, whose first album, “Red Roses for Me,” appeared in 1984, is five years into a comeback after a 10-year separation during which Mr. MacGowan sang with another group, the Popes, and the other band members put out middling albums as the Pogues. Mr. MacGowan reunited with the group in 2001 for a few Christmas concerts in Britain. Since then the band has been playing live with increasing frequency in Europe and the United States.
Mortality has dealt harsh blows to the Pogues in recent years, specifically the deaths of Kirsty MacColl, a singer-songwriter and an occasional collaborator, and Joe Strummer, who produced their album “Hell’s Ditch.” A stabilizing force in Mr. MacGowan’s life is Victoria Mary Clarke, a writer and his longtime companion.
“We’ve been engaged for 20 years,” he said. Despite “two or three breakups,” he said, Ms. Clarke can be “very serene.” The couple have moved to Ireland after years in London.
Ms. Clarke’s book “A Drink With Shane MacGowan,” an as-told-to written with him, offers, if one-sidedly, clues to the breakup of the band, a topic Mr. MacGowan tactfully skirts in conversation. Mr. MacGowan said an album of new material was “almost certainly” going to be produced.
While age and old habits have taken their toll on Mr. MacGowan, his feistiness remains undiminished. Asked about the prospect of Irish reunification, he cited Ian Paisley, the Unionist leader in Northern Ireland and a staunch opponent of the republican cause: “Ian Paisley is one of the best agents the I.R.A. ever had. He’s done more for returning the six counties than anyone else.”
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