The Jig Ain’t Up
Back From Hell’s Ditch, Amidst a Field of Disciples, The Pogues are Still the Genuine Article
“I type with me toes, suck stout through me nose, and where it’s gonna end, God only knows.” – Shane MacGowan, “Down All the Days”
On the phone from his place in Finsbury Park, in North London, Spider Stacy sums himself up in a spurt of self-deprecating piss-taking.
“People know who I am, because I’m the sort of mouthy one up at the front,” Stacy says. “My name is kind of easy to remember. Plus, not many bands have a tin whistle player.”
Off-and-on, for the past 27-odd years, Stacy has stood beside (and sometimes stood-in for) his friend and nemesis, the wasted poet genius, Shane MacGowan, as they fronted the Pogues – the seminal Irish folk-punk band the two formed with guitarist James Fearnley in London in 1982.
The story of the Pogues is the stuff of cult rock legend. The blurry images of the band’s boozed-up beginnings, wild-banging mid-’80s glory days, and whimpering early ’90s demise (marked by the sudden sacking of MacGowan in 1991), are like strung-out inkblot tests of decadent hipsterism. Stare at them and conjure the scattered spirits of Rimbaud, Genet and Bukowski, mashed up against the Clancey Brothers, the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Certainly, one of the main reasons crowds will be coming to Pogues shows this month in Atlanta, Washington, DC, New York City, and Boston is to bear witness to the spectacle of MacGowan – a sneering-hissing-drunk, spitting impossibly beautiful lyrics through rotted teeth, wobbling about the stage like a weeble, the unlikely survivor of long-term self-abuse, who surely should have fallen down by now.
But he’s still here. Asked the inescapable question – How’s Shane doing these days? – Stacy first answers with a laugh. “I wondered when that one was coming,” he says, laughing louder. “What should I say here? Should I just tell you an outright lie? Last time I saw him, which was about a month ago, he was fine.”
The Pogues have been reuniting for sporadic tours since 2001, highlighted by an annual series of Christmas gigs in the U.K. In 2006, the band played its first U.S. dates with MacGowan in some 15 years. There were return trips in 2007 and 2008. But the Pogues haven’t been back to Atlanta with Shane since 1989.
Stacy, now part of the Pogues’ clean and sober contingent, says these short stints have brought the band closer, made them tighter, and fostered an atmosphere that’s been downright enjoyable.
“You’ve got to bear in mind, no one in the band is under 50 anymore. And when we’re coming out on the road, we’re not trying to sell an album or anything like that. There’s no need for us to do some massive tour. It would be extremely counterproductive, actually. We’d probably have to call it off after about four weeks.”
In addition to MacGowan, Stacy and Fearnley, who’s turned into an accomplished accordionist, the current lineup includes, guitarist Philip Chevron, drummer Andrew Ranken, bassist Darryl Hunt, and multi-instrumentalists, Jem Finer and Terry Wood. All are veterans of the sessions that produced 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God, arguably the best album the Pogues ever made, as well as, “Fairytale of New York,” Shane’s bawdy, bittersweet duet with Kirsty MacColl that turned into an oddball Christmastime classic.
Nowadays, the eight-man band has settled into performing a solid set of Pogues standards, calculated to please longtime fans, and keep MacGowan from going off the deep end.
“We do about a two hour show,” says Stacy. “And we always work with a set list – anything else would be inviting chaos. Really, it would, because Shane would just want to do something that none of us had ever played live before or had never been played since it was recorded, and that he wouldn’t be able to remember anyway. This would happen in the middle of the fucking set, and we’d spend like an hour trying to explain to him why it was a bad idea to do it, by which point people would have already become bored and left.”
Going back to their earliest days, the relationship between Stacy and MacGowan has weathered some drastic changes and required numerous accommodations. In fact, in the first incarnation of the Pogues, Stacy was meant to be the frontman.
“Shane was simply a better singer than me,” Stacy says. “He clearly was then, I don’t know if he is now. Really, I wasn’t at all a good singer then. Because I actually wanted to do something that would justify my presence in the band, I figured that the whistle looked easy, but it’s not quite as easy as I thought it was going to be.
“Our roles have always been that sort of twin-headed thing, you know. I’ve been described as Shane’s foil, which I don’t think is quite accurate. Or straight man, which also is not entirely accurate. I’ve seen him described as the straight man, as well, which is way off the mark. Of course, I have to act as occasional interpreter.”
As for the rest of the band, Stacy calls them the unsung heroes of the Pogues music, and his good friends.
“They’re all fucking brilliant. The band is like a family. Really. It is everyone’s extended family. But if there’s one person who really deserves to be mentioned, it’s Jim Fearnley. There are lot of songs that have been co-written between Shane and James – many people who look at album credits know that. But Jim’s contribution to the band, in terms of arrangements and so forth, has been overlooked. He really has over the years shaped the sound of the Pogues. A lot of time it was him and Jem who would extract the songs from Shane, and then they would get knocked into shape.”
MacGowan and the Pogues’ marriage of folk and rock certainly was nothing new – musicians like Terry Woods of Sweeny’s Men and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention did it back in the ’60s. But the way the Pogues’ albums put literate lyrics that echoed classic Irish balladry together with a brash attitude and raucous intensity that was pure punk pushed the limits of the genre to a place that somehow came off as both timeless and dangerous.
The band’s first three ’80s albums – Red Roses for Me, Rum Sodomy & the Lash, If I Should Fall From Grace With God – form the holy trinity its best stuff. Two more albums recorded as MacGowan sunk deeper into the drink and drugs – Peace and Love in 1989 and Hell’s Ditch in 1990 – suffer by comparison, but still contain plenty of underrated gems. The final two albums – Waiting for Herb and Pogue Mahone – with Stacy taking over for MacGowan on vocals and the rest of the band writing the songs, really aren’t that bad, they just aren’t the Pogues anymore.
Asked if the band might make another record with Shane, now that they’re all playing together on a semi-regular basis, Stacy is less than hopeful.
“I don’t actually see it happening, mainly because too much time has gone by since the last one. Though, ostensibly, it would be a Pogues record, it really wouldn’t be a Pogues record, because time has moved on. It wouldn’t be informed by the same thing that gave our albums a coherence – certainly the albums that featured Shane. I think it would have to be at least as good as Hell’s Ditch, and it would have to make sense as a Pogues record. The stuff Shane was writing about, and what was in his head then, isn’t necessarily what’s in his head now.”
But you have to wonder, if there’s no new material, are the Pogues in danger of becoming something sadly akin to an oldies group?
“I don’t see that danger,” Stacy says, “simply because we’re really unpredictable. A lot of this is down to Shane. A Pogues show is largely determined by how Shane is, right? The band are going to be there doing it. But Shane being Shane, you can’t go on the road and expect him to be some kind of super fucking rock hard professional. Every now and again he’ll stay up too late or something, and it won’t quite work. The band is particularly adept at sort of hauling it all back into line, though it occasionally happens that we can’t.
“One of the real big differences nowadays – and I’m kind of offering hostages to fortune by saying this – is that Shane’s attitude has been so positive. And his desire to do it right has been so strong that on those occasions when he has fucked up, and there’s been a couple of them, he’s come back the next night really barnstorming. Whereas when he was just getting sick to death of touring, he just wouldn’t give a fuck. It wouldn’t bother him and he might be even worse the next night.”
Stacy has clearly spent a lot of time reflecting on his erstwhile bandmate and, as it turns out, he’s come to adopt a surprisingly benevolent view of MacGowan’s legendary foibles.
“I think this gets overlooked sometimes,” Stacy says. “But Shane is a pretty shy guy and a pretty sensitive guy. And he was the lead singer, singing songs that he had written that were actually quite personal a lot of the time, and sort of soul-baring. Having to stand up there and do that night after night can prey on you when you’re someone like Shane.
“The low points came when Shane got disillusioned. The whole thing around him actually getting sacked – the most sensible thing to have done at that point would have been to say, ‘Right. OK. This is obviously getting too much for you. Let’s take a year off.’ In an ideal world, that’s what we should have done. But we just didn’t see that we could do that. We had people on the payroll who were depending on us, and we had a year’s worth of gigs lined up, so we never even considered it as a possibility.”
When it comes to some of the bands that have traded on the Pogues’ sound, especially in Shane’s absence, Stacy isn’t so charitable.
“I was about to say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he says, snickering. “But that’s sort of a mean-spirited thing to say. I think there are some people like Dropkick Murphys, who could have easily existed if the Pogues had never been, though they would vehemently deny that. I know that Ken Casey would say that’s simply, absolutely not the case. But being a Boston Irish band, I think they could have sprung into being of their own accord, so to speak.
“I have to confess to being slightly irked, not with Flogging Molly, but with Dave King from Flogging Molly. I actually knew him years and and years ago, when he used to drink in the Cat and Fiddle in Los Angeles, and he’d been in Fastway, with ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke. From what I can remember of the conversations I had with him, he never expressed any interest in getting any sort of Pogues type band together. But after going around and saying that I had said that he was carrying the torch that we had lit, and stuff like that, now he’s saying that Flogging Molly’s main influences are Stiff Little Fingers and Johnny Cash.
“I don’t want this to sound like a rant, but if you listen to Flogging Molly, it’s totally obvious who his influences are. I’m sure he listens to Stiff Little Fingers and Johnny Cash, but quite honestly I don’t hear either of those in what Flogging Molly do. I do hear an awful lot of the Pogues – to the point that there are a couple of Flogging Molly songs where some people might say we could think about suing them. But let me get this straight, I have absolutely no problem with Flogging Molly or the rest of the band. I just think Dave King could be a little more honest, and give credit where credit’s due. And, let it be said: he is no Shane MacGowan."
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