Back on track
When the Pogues asked Cáit O’Riordan if she would join them for last Christmas’s reunion concerts, she agreed. Then she rang Off The Rails.
Donal O’Donoghue meets a woman transformed
Late last year, Cait O’Riordan, former bassist with the Pogues, contacted Off The Rails. She wanted a new stage look ahead of a string of reunion concerts with her old band. The team went the full nine yards — hair, make-up, wardrobe and the results exceeded all expectations. But a fashion makeover doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a step back into the media spotlight.
Before meeting Cáit O’Riordan there were certain restrictions. Off The Rails insisted that we could not reveal any elements of the makeover (during the Guide shoot O’Riordan was fearful of even removing her cap). The musician herself was wary of the press. She wasn’t offering much interview time — this was to be a brief stopover between the gym and home. And there was to be no mention of her former marriage to Elvis Costello. Time was tight, questions were limited and it was raining. This could be a very long — or very short — day.
We meet in the foyer of the Shelbourne Hotel: a place with a particular resonance for O’Riordan. At Christmas 2003 she met Shane MacGowan here. It was just past closing time when she spotted the Pogues frontman sitting in the foyer. “Remember me?” she asked her old friend. It had been nearly 16 years since they last spoke.
One year later they were back on stage, waltzing to Faiiytale of New York. “But I didn’t want to walk on stage in just jeans and a tee-shirt,” she says. “1 wanted to make an effort. Someone suggested that I wear a fancy dress Santa outfit. Someone else dared me to ring Off The Rails. So I did.”
And it worked. She learned some tricks of the make-up trade and shopped with a newfound sense of fashion sense. Oxford Street. Shiny things. No crop tops. Bargain clothes. Then she found her shoes — for the Faiyrtale waltz — in a shop just off Oxford Street that evoked a kicking past. “There’s a pub on South Molton Street where in 1982 Shane first offered me a gig with the Pogues. Right next to this pub was a shop that had a pair of motorbike shoes on sale. This is like destiny I thought. The circle closing right there.”
Cáit O’Riordan was born in Nigeria in January, 1965. Her father, Martin (from Lahinch in County Clare) worked for an oil company stationed in Lagos. In the summer of 1966 — just before the Biafran War — the family resettled in Hounslow in West London and Cáit grew up in a London-Irish community. “It was the Seventies and there was very much a -sense of ‘you’re not wanted here’,” she says. “We were the weirdos with the funny names and the dodgy accents. It was horrible. Our London-Irish identity was very strong. We knew we weren’t these dogs or crazed animals that the Brits wanted us to think we were. But there was no focus for it, apart from Irish dancing and the St Patrick’s Day parade. Until Shane came along.”
Being with the Pogues, she says, was like being in a football team with their own “gang of supporters”. They were an Irish punk band in a ‘foreign’ city .They partied hard, rebelled against everything and thrashed out intoxicating songs. Cáit played bass guitar but left in 1985, before Fairytale of New York was released and the band hit the big time. It was like an Iron Curtain coming down, she says of her leave-taking. That part of her life was now over and she didn’t look back (in fact she didn’t even buy any of their albums). In 1986 she married Elvis Costello (who had produced the Pogues’ album, Rum Sodomy and the Lash) and for the next 17 years she never met or spoke with any of the band. Now and again she would catch a glimpse of Shane MacGowan. “I saw him across a field at a couple of gigs,” she says. “One time, I think it was when Neil Young played Slane, I was backstage chatting with Steve Cropper. Then I heard this voice going: ‘is there any beer in there?’ There was Shane’s face pressed up against this chicken wire fence. And the look on Steve Cropper’s face was like: ‘what is that?” The next time their paths crossed was that meeting in the Shelbourne Hotel the Christmas before last.
Six months later Phil Chevron asked if she would play with the Pogues on their reunion tour. Cáit O’Riordan was back at bass. Last summer there was also a couple of gigs with Chevron’s old band, The Radiators, and this month the band released an EP with O’Riordan as lead vocalist on the track Kitty Ricketts. Of the Pogues’ reunion experience she seems particularly happy. “I only just heard If I Should Fall From Grace and it’s a great album. So it was my loss. I should have checked in with the band and enjoyed the music. Sometimes when you leave though you just can’t look back. It’s too much of a head wreck. Now twenty years later to be given this second chance was amazing. I felt very grateful for that.”
Cáit O’Riordan turned forty in 2003. It was a landmark birthday for her, but not in the conventional sense. ‘It was really a relief. My big brother (Martin Jnr) dropped dead of a heart attack when he was 39. So I’m the first of my generation to make forty. It was not a big wahoo champagne thing because my brother is gone and he didn’t see it. But it’s a relief to get that far and I’m glad for my younger brother (Moray) and sister (dare) that I made it. If I hadn’t made forty it would have been awful for them. So I feel a big obligation to stay healthy I gave up hammering the booze and the fags and started working out. (Martin) died five years ago and it was after that I felt the obligation. Up to then I felt very rock ‘n’ roll — live fast and die young.”
Her brother’s death jolted her into a new perspective: the brevity of life and the lottery of death. She started to look after her health: regularly going to the gym and monitoring her diet. She is a regular hill-walker and since meeting mountaineer Pat Falvey has graduated from conquering Corrán Tuathail to trekking to Everest base camp. Early in January she hoped to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, but cried off through illness. “It was a really extreme thing to do and I wonder why I was doing it,” she says. “Why do I want to keep going up mountains?”
Is O’Riordan happy now? Since the break-up of her marriage was officially announced in November 2002, O’Riordan seems older, wiser and more settled. She is also making music with her own band (with exRadiator Pete Holidai and Jonnie Bonnie) “It’s so great to be in band, jamming every week,” she says. “There’s a lot to look forward to.”
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