MacGowan reels from life on the rock road
IT'S HIGH NOON in Toronto and Spider Stacy, the Pogues' 32-year-old whistle player, has just been awakened by his hotel-room telephone.
After a couple of rings, he hacks up a phlegmy hello, coughs a few times and excuses himself to fetch a glass of water and use the bathroom.
Could these be the telltale signs of a long night at the taps?
"Actually, I just stayed in and watched television," Stacy says upon returning. "I've been having trouble sleeping lately."
In light of the Pogues' well- publicized affection for drink, this almost comes as a surprise. During the past decade, the English-Irish octet, which will be at the Commodore on Friday and the PNE Garden Auditorium on Saturday, have become almost as well known for melding punk spirit with Celtic folk styles as for getting drunk, falling down and passing out.
And while band members have gone out of their way to play down the boozy reputation, the fact remains that Shane MacGowan, the band's prinicipal singer and songwriter and most notorious imbiber, has bowed out of the tour to be replaced by ex-Clash member Joe Strummer.
"Essentially, he's lost interest in playing live," says Stacy of MacGowan. "Over the last couple years, it's become more and more apparent that his heart's not in it on stage.
"There were shows on the last tour when he shouldn't have been on stage. He wasn't all there, if you know what I mean."
This isn't the first time MacGowan has failed to perform with the band. There was a stretch of dates backing up Bob Dylan in 1989 when "Shane didn't turn up at all," says Stacy.
It is, however, the first time MacGowan has booked off an entire tour amid reports of leaving the band for health reasons, and Stacy insists it's far too early to tell what MacGowan's future will be with the Pogues.
"Hopefully he'll still be writing songs," says Stacy, as indeed MacGowan tunes such as Streams of Whiskey, Pair of Brown Eyes, Fairytale of New York, Old Main Drag, Rain Street and House of the Gods are among the Pogues' best work.
"But he is just generally run down from being on the road where he spends a lot of time sitting around brooding. He doesn't eat, he doesn't sleep and obviously his body sustained a certain amount of damage when he was drinking heavily.
"It's a question of taking a good long rest and not having anybody putting any pressures on him."
The pressures and the vocal chores, therefore, have been relegated to the remaining Pogues: guitarist Philip Chevron, banjoist Jem Finer, mandolinist Terry Woods, accordionist James Fearnley, bassist Darryl Hunt, drummer Andrew Ranken and, of course, Strummer, a part-time Pogue who produced last year's glorious Hell's Ditch album for the band.
"I think even though people may be initially disappointed because they want to see Shane, Joe Strummer's presence is a bonus," Stacy says. "He's been really, really good, actually being the front man which is something Shane never did so much.
"Shane was more of a focal point."
MacGowan, meanwhile, is back in London while the band completes a series of tours in support of a greatest hits compilation due for late-October release. The package will feature material from five albums dating back to their 1984 debut, Red Roses For Me.
As for a new album, will MacGowan write and Strummer sing? Will MacGowan record and Strummer tour? Will MacGowan hit a second wind and Strummer take a backseat?
"Who knows," sighs Stacy. "Who knows."
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Great wadges of thanks to Adrian Leach for help with this article.
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