Introduction to Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse: Story of the Pogues
“What fucking book?”
He looks up from the dinner he’s been picking at, drops his knife with an enormous clang, and stares an unblinking, pale-blue stare that’s accusing, terrifying.
Shane MacGowan has forgotten all about our appointment, the one we arranged in a phone call two days ago. He has forgotten everything he’s been told by various other Pogues who for weeks, helpfully, have been suggesting to him that he might co-operate with this biography. Certainly, he has forgotten the trail of false starts and aborted interviews that have littered the way to our meeting here this evening.
The instructions had been vague enough to be worrying: “I’ll be in The Boogaloo on Thursday night.”
“Somewhere between nine o’clock and midnight.”
The Boogaloo, described by GQ magazine as “the sweetest little juke-joint in all the world”, is a pub and a venue for live music and literary celebration, high up in north London on the Archway Road. A hearty, bustling little hideaway from the mainstream, it has nevertheless become the focus of intense scrutiny by the tabloid press.
It was in The Boogaloo that star-crossed lovers Kate Moss and Pete Doherty were recently discovered on a date, Kate standing on her seat to jiggle along to the rumpus of Doherty’s Babyshambles. And it was here, too, that the controversial couple were seen to clink a glass or two with Shane MacGowan.
Shane’s an old customer and friend of Gerry O’Boyle, the proprietor of The Boogaloo. Previously, Gerry ran the esteemed Filthy McNasty’s Whisky Cafe in Islington, and in both places, he has offered a home from home to the Pogue who likes to know that he’s welcome to sleep wherever and whenever he needs to drop.
Not so long ago, Shane moved into a flat only minutes away from The Boogaloo. Sometimes he makes it home, sometimes he doesn’t. It’s comforting to live close to what you know; to have a safety net. But there was never any guarantee that the most unpredictable man in music would turn up in the bar tonight.
I’m lucky. It’s only minutes after nine o’clock, and he’s here already. It’s just that he’s not expecting me.
“What fucking book?”
He’s at a table close to the bar, his back to the wall, surrounded by a coterie of friends including Gerry O’Boyle and one-time Pogues biographer Ann Scanlon. Shane sits upright, solid as anything, the charismatic centre of his company. He looks really, really well. He’s dressed for whatever occasion it is in a jacket made of darkly red, shiny material. His hair is newly washed, fluffy, and there’s a freshness about his face that belies the years of excess for which he’s fabled. His complexion is that of someone who appears to have been eating his greens.
Tonight, Shane is periodically stabbing at a piece of fish and assorted vegetables. The suggestion that he might agree to an interview when he’s finished his meal is met with an abrupt order: “Ask me a fucking interesting question.”
For the next hour, Shane will continue to poke at his food while we duck and dive our way through an exchange that, at first, feels extremely uncomfortable. He refuses a drink, asking only for a glass of ice, and pours his own from bottles of wine that appear on the table as if by magic, courtesy of his bar tab.
We’re face to face across the table, directly below a speaker which loudly cranks out selections from The Boogaloo’s excellent jukebox. In these circumstances, MacGowan’s tendency to mumble, his mangled, London-Irish slur and his absolute lack of teeth lead to the odd breakdown in communication.
Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that...
When this happens, he drops his knife again, slowly and deliberately, and stares the unblinking, pale-blue stare, his body motionless, as he repeats what he has just said at the top of his voice. It’s a bellow. It’s a great impatience. It’s a reprimand.
Friendly advice has it that Shane is fond of reminiscing about his days in Burton Street, the short-life-housing project and creative community near King’s Cross, London, where the idea of The Pogues began to take root. What were the sights, the sounds, the smells, the atmospheres, of Burton Street? Perhaps that might be a fucking interesting question, one which he might respond to. At the very least, it could be a starting point.
“It was a street with houses in it,” snorts MacGowan. “Have you talked to the other members of the band?”
Yes, at length.
“Well, what do you need to talk to me for?”
Because you’re the poet.
This doesn’t go down well. Historically, Shane has not always been gracious with compliments, although I am trying to tell him that people are interested in his writing, in view of his considerable reputation, rather than attempting to curry favour or to insult the talents of the other band members and contributors.
He shoots back immediately with a list of Pogues favourites that are not of his making: “People have credited me with writing ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Misty Morning, Albert Bridge’, which I didn’t. People have credited me with writing ‘Navigator’ on Rum Sodomy & the Lash, which I didn’t. That was written by Phil Gaston. ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ – I didn’t write that. Phil Chevron wrote it. And, like, some people think that I wrote ‘The Irish Rover’. Too much credit is given.”
Notwithstanding the riches of the songs he mentions, it’s obvious that this is a ridiculous statement, given the timelessness of the work that he has produced on his own and with co-writers, but it’s a line with which he has tried and failed to derail interviewers in the past.
There may be a real modesty, maybe even an insecurity, at play here, or a desire to give others their due. None of these things would be out of character for MacGowan, according to some of his bandmates. At the same time, there can be no doubt that Shane is well aware of the weight of his achievement, and there have been troubled occasions when he has had to fight hard for his musical visions, or has vigorously defended his unique contribution to The Pogues.
Relenting slightly under The Boogaloo’s blaring sound system, he admits: “I do feel I’ve contributed to Irish culture. Everybody in the group did.”
The hostilities have subsided: Shane begins to react to questions with answers rather than arguments, and he becomes more thoughtful, more voluble, as the evening progresses, although he remains prickly. I’m always aware that when the guitars burst especially loudly through the speaker and when he is talking just that little bit more softly, more unintelligibly, I will have to ask him to say it again, whatever it is, and I will see the stare and I will hear the sound of the clattering knife.
I still hear it in my nightmares.
The other members of The Pogues, in hours of interviews, have been open about the many problems that they faced both personally and professionally as their pioneering, punk-fuelled, emerald-hearted romps and ballads pitched past pitch of success to a Number One album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and beyond. Few would have predicted the spectacular popularity of their mission to pump some fresh new blood into traditional Irish folk music, a genre that was unfashionable and widely unloved, to revitalise it and to make it relevant and exciting even to people who had possibly never heard of a jig, a reel or an air, a cittern or a bodhran.
It all caught on very quickly, at a time when Eighties audiences were tiring of the electronic precision of the new romantics. There was something irresistibly wild about The Pogues’ reckless dash, something daring about their tales of drinking and brawling and sex, and something achingly romantic in their stories of love, loss, life and death. Importantly, though, the traditions that they rescued from the past, and the musical and literary influences of Ireland, the country across the sea, were counterbalanced by a realism set in the harsh streets of London. It wasn’t always pretty, but the young especially understood it; they related.
For each of The Pogues, there was a price to pay for their seemingly effortless rise to fame. Jem Finer and Terry Woods have described the struggle to hold on to some semblance of family life in the years of enforced, relentless touring. Woods, Philip Chevron and Spider Stacey, all now teetotallers, have been frank about their experiences of alcoholism. Chevron and Andrew Ranken have revealed the strain of travelling the world while suffering from painful illnesses and also trying to cope with devastating events in their private lives.
Finer, Woods, Chevron, Ranken, Stacy, James Fearnley and Darryl Hunt have been honest, too, about the passing storms in their inter-personal relationships, from the difficulties of working with original bassist Cait O’Riordan after she fell in love with Elvis Costello to the confusion and hopelessness surrounding their gradual estrangement from Shane MacGowan.
In the years following his split from the band, MacGowan had some scathing and often deeply hurtful things to say in print and on videos and DVDs about The Pogues, their organisation, and the music they made with and without him.
Tonight, however, Shane has no intention of upsetting anybody. It’s clear he has not changed his mind about Costello since an ancient run-in over ‘Rainy Night In Soho’, and he makes his usual complaints about The Pogues’ long-standing policy of democracy. But as far as the band members are concerned – “They’re all my friends.” He claims not to remember any details of the “fragmentation” that culminated in his departure, and he denies that other unhappy episodes recalled by his bandmates ever happened at all.
Once upon a time, MacGowan would describe the group’s Peace And Love as a “really dodgy album” and its successor, Hell’s Ditch, as “a real dog”. At best, he might concede that “half of Peace And Love is all right”. In The Boogaloo, he makes a dramatic U-turn: “I’ve always said Peace And Love would be recognised as the great album that it is one day.” He adds: “I think all five Pogues albums [the ones he was involved in] are fine.”
Clearly, there are reasons for Shane’s conciliatory attitude this evening. The Pogues have, after all, reunited on an occasional basis for live shows and tours. There’s every chance that at the time of his more poisonous comments, MacGowan had yet to work through his feelings about the split and why it happened and, anyway, he was usually always speaking from some altered state of consciousness.
Hopefully, there may be more than a grain of truth in Darryl Hunt’s view of things: “When you see Shane today, he’s so together. Now he really appreciates this group he’s got behind him. Then, he started to lose that connection with the people he was working with. Not anything personal against us – it was caused a lot by the pressure he was under. Not many of us are that tough...”
Fast forward five weeks to December 21, 2005. The Pogues are playing the second of three sold-out, headline shows at London’s Brixton Academy, and they’re performing more vividly, more rumbustiously, than I have seen them do in 20 years. The utter mayhem in the audience bears testament to a fine and enduring repertoire, from ‘Streams Of Whiskey’ to ‘Sayonara’, ‘Sally MacLennane’ to ‘The Sunnyside Of The Street’, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ to ‘Tuesday Morning’.
There’s a hugely emotional and passionate response: you can feel it swelling, all around the auditorium, and you can see it in the faces and the teary eyes of the fans, who come in all shapes, sizes – and ages. Sure, there are the faithful, those of the expanding waistlines and vanishing hairlines who saw it all in the old days. But there are younger people too, leaping madly and singing along with every word and pushing their way to the front in the T-shirts they’ve only just purchased from the merchandising stalls. They would’ve been learning to walk when The Pogues first did the rounds of London. Children of primary-school age bounce in their seats upstairs, thrilled, snapping pictures with the cameras on their parents’ mobile phones.
The Pogues are delivering a song-and-dance act that links generations, that defies time. A jumble of men in motion, they are doing it with an athleticism that also seems to defy time, at least as far as accordion player James Fearnley and guitarist Philip Chevron are concerned, and with a finely-tuned sense of dynamics that simultaneously manages to sound abandoned in all of the grand rush and sweep.
And Shane MacGowan is on top of the game. He may blunder around the stage, kicking his microphone stand to hell, like the portly uncle of his previous, upstart self, but his offhand rasp hits home, gruffly, in all the right places more often than it ever did; he sounds almost exactly like you want him to.
It’s the week that ‘Fairytale Of New York’ will once again ring bells all over Britain and Ireland, clinching the Number Three position in the prestigious UK Christmas chart and hitting the top spot in the Republic. The song begins to fill the room, unmistakeably, at Brixton, and its interwoven themes of tragedy, poignancy and humour are reflected in real life here tonight.
Kirsty MacColl’s mother Jean leans forward in her front-row balcony seat, watching intently and with heartbreaking dignity as Ella Finer, daughter of Jem, walks on to sing the female part of the duet.
The snow machine sends showers of fake flakes fluttering down over the musicians, carpeting the stage, and there’s a moment of comedic drama when Shane, conducting the traditional ‘Fairytale’ dance with Ella, keels over and brings her crashing down with him to the floor.
The whole hall feels for Ella, who recovers herself with grace. And as for MacGowan: he would have to be insane not to be enjoying and appreciating the power and the glory of The Pogues as they sound at this moment. No wonder he didn’t want to rock the boat.
“Is that it?”
Shane looks at me with a mixture of hope and resolve. The scraps that remain on his dinner plate are too cold and limp to consider eating, and his night is still young. He is, of course, terminating the interview, although I am tolerated, just about; not dismissed from the company.
It’s somewhere around midnight when Joey Cashman stalks into The Boogaloo. Cashman is Shane’s personal manager, and more: he’s a force of nature. In the next couple of hours, I learn more about Joey than I have discovered about my own friends over the course of years. He’s a motormouth Irishman. He’s witty, abrasive, confiding, cunning, ambitious, outrageous, critical, exhausting, unaccountably likeable, and quite unconcerned about what anyone else might think of him.
The clock shows 3am, and the other customers have long since left the venue. Shane and the companions with whom he started the evening have relocated to a table with sofas, and Gerry O’Boyle is making it plain that he would like to clear the premises.
“If you want to get anything more out of Shane,” advises Joey, conspiratorially, “just follow him home.”
I think about this, and the more I think about it, the less I want to shadow MacGowan and his entourage, paparazzo-like, to a private place where I’ve not been invited. Instead, I shake hands with Shane, bid my farewells and slip off into the night, to my hotel.
Cashman, the next day, is incredulous. He would be.
But the story already has an ending, a happy ending – or at least a positive one. Things have come pretty much full circle for The Pogues. Undeniably, the reunion of Shane MacGowan and the band must be financially beneficial to everyone involved, and they are certainly bigger at the box office together than they were apart, but it’s gratifying to witness the healing of old wounds. In their younger days as tearaways on the up, roving wildly from one triumph to the next, there was at the heart of The Pogues a true sense of family. Like any family, they would rally round a stricken member, close ranks against the outside world, bicker, fight, fall out and make up. Years later, they have overcome their troubles on their own terms and for their own good, and ours.
“I think we’ll stay together,” says Shane. And I think he means it.
Discussion is here.
Reproduced on www.pogues.com with permission of Omnibus Press.
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