Regaining Shane

The return of the MacGowan Pogues
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  March 7, 2006

BACK ON TRACK “People have cleaned up their acts,” says Jem Finer of his old Pogues mate Shane MacGowan and the band in general.It was 1985 and it was time for a new kind of kick. I did not expect to find it with guys playing tin whistle, banjo, and accordion, and a guy who used to sing for the B-level punk band, the Nips (nés Nipple Erectors) — that would be the dentally challenged Shane MacGowan. Oh, and there would be a diffident female bassist named Caitlin who would later marry (and get divorced from) Elvis Costello. But find it I did.

The first waves of punk rock had come and gone, and new wave had devolved into Culture Club and Duran Duran. I found myself in London early that year, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a gig in town. I said no to Frankie and headed to the outskirts, to a club called the Mean Fiddler, to hear a buzzed-about band of London-based Celtic punks, the Pogues. It was physical, but friendly. MacGowan sang lines like “Lend me 10 pounds and I’ll buy you a drink.” He meant it.

I first met MacGowan and the Pogues shortly thereafter at the band’s favorite haunt, Filthy McNasty’s, where I mentioned the contrast between their rich, acoustic instrumentation and Irish melodic lilt on the one hand and their punk fury on the other. “I don’t think there’s that much of a contradiction,” MacGowan said, a drink in each hand. “They’re both about complete, total emotion — blasting out.”

The following year, the band arrived in Boston to play a packed show at Spit (now Axis). It was London all over again, as Irish ex-pats banged up against homegrown punks to the sound of a band who seemed ready to conquer the world. And so it could have been. Unfortunately, MacGowan’s well-publicized problems with drugs and alcohol would take a steady toll on the Pogues’ momentum. He didn’t just sing about “Streams of Whiskey,” he lived them. By ’91, MacGowan, who’d developed a habit of missing gigs, had been given the boot, and except for one tour with Joe Strummer in his place, the Pogues had lost their punk. That is, until recently, when the two parties renewed their partnership and began playing the occasional reunion gig — a development that’s led up to a short US tour that’ll bring the band, with MacGowan up front, to the Orpheum this Tuesday and Wednesday for sold-out shows.

“There was never really any bad blood,” tin-whistle player Spider Stacy tells me over the phone from London. “There really wasn’t. We went our separate ways. It had to happen. And everyone realized that.” Indeed, Stacy and fellow Pogue Jem Finer played on MacGowan’s import-only 2000 solo disc The Snake.

“We’ve always been very close, like a family,” says Finer, who plays banjo, mandolin, and accordion. “But toward the end, things got a bit fractured and some issues came up.”

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A Pogues primer

Here are a few things anyone headed out to Avalon should prepare for before the Pogues hit the stage.

THE DRINKING SONG | This is a band who started the first song on their first album with “In the rosy parts of England/We’ll sit and have a drink,” and who have a history of opening shows with the self-explanatory “Streams of Whiskey.” And there’s plenty more where those came from.

THE DUET | It was a rock-and-roll moment for the ages: Shane MacGowan playing the lout in a duet with the late Kirsty MacColl called “Fairytale in New York.” And it’s practically a Celtic standard at this point. No way the band could get away without playing it. So the band have drafted Jem Finer’s daughter Ella, now 22, to come along for the ride whenever they reunite; according to her proud father, she handles MacColl’s half of the song just fine.

THE CELTIC CLASSIC | As the band’s drunken punk frontman, Shane MacGowan has often overshadowed another important aspect of the Pogues — the firm grounding in traditional Irish and Celtic folk songs. “Poor Paddy” is just one of a number of Irish laments they favor live. Paddy crosses the ocean to America only to labor on the railways in the early 1840s; by 1867, he “was thinking of going to Heaven,” where, of course, he works on the railway. A true Irish song of the damned.

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