Shane MacGowan died on November 30, and the Pogues were such a huge part of my twenties that I feel like I have to mark the occasion somehow.1It’s overdue, since I probably should’ve written something when Philip Chevron passed in 2013.
I discovered the band from Peace & Love when I was in school in Athens, GA. I don’t think I’d been looking for any particular song; I just thought the cover was intriguing, and it took me a minute to realize how it’d been edited. It’s probably the most accessible of their albums, even though it feels a little tame. There’s a lot of the spirit of the band (or at least how I think of it) in “Young Ned of the Hill,” beautifully cursing Oliver Cromwell to rot in hell; and especially “Boat Train,” a barely intelligible account of getting shitfaced drunk.
Which would’ve fit in fine with Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, my favorite in college. It still seems like as close to a mission statement for the Pogues as you’re ever going to see. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was about as far from punk as you could get, but still appreciated getting the opportunity to scream along and howl at the world with a rage I hadn’t earned yet. The remastered and expanded version is especially nice, because it includes an EP2That was weirdly difficult to find back in Athens in the early 1990s, incidentally that has “Rainy Night in Soho,” one of the loveliest songs MacGowan ever wrote.3The only version that’s easily available now is so over-produced it kind of ruins it, though. It’s worth looking up the original if you’re a fan of the song.
One night at a house party when I was young and much stupider, I got obscenely drunk on some obscenely cheap alcohol. (It’s the reason I still can’t drink tequila 30+ years later, incidentally). I can remember my roommates coming into my room as I was lying miserable on the floor, discussing amongst themselves whether it had gone too far in my case and trying to decide the lowest-effort way to ensure I made it through the night. They decided it would be best to put on some music by “that band he likes so much,” so they started playing Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, which starts out with a song about a guy who drank himself into oblivion.
The Pogues’s masterpiece, though, is If I Should Fall From Grace With God, which is the album that made me a superfan. It’s balanced right between the premise of “Irish folk punk” from Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash; and slickly-produced pop rock from a brilliant lyricist and seven accomplished musicians that was Peace and Love. The first four tracks are uninterrupted brilliance that I’d put right up there with the first side of Led Zeppelin IV.
After the title track, which is basically the platonic ideal of a Pogues song, it jumps into “Turkish Song of the Damned,” a catchy ghost story with some fantastic imagery that I’m still not entirely sure they didn’t entirely make up. If I weren’t already bound to be a fan of the band, this part would’ve sealed it:
Remember when the ship went down?
You left me on the deck
The captain’s corpse jumped up and threw his arms around my neck
For all these years I’ve had him on my back
None of the music I’d been listening to had lyrics that evocative, or arrangements that complex. I remember seeing an interview with Peter Buck of REM around the height of my Pogues fixation, where he was talking about “Losing My Religion” and bragged that it was the only song in the top 10 that had a mandolin as its main instrument. I rolled my eyes and went back to listening to the Pogues.
After that ghost story at sea, they launch into “Bottle of Smoke,” a song about a horse race that sounds like a horse race. If you don’t think that I spent much of the early 1990s driving around Athens GA as fast as I could, screaming like a maniac along to this song on repeat, then you’ve learned nothing from this post and I wonder why you’re still reading it.
I’m not even a little bit punk, and I’m only just barely Irish, but the Pogues made me feel like there was an entire culture I could adopt as my own. It was one that was a lot more acceptable than the South that I was supposed to be ashamed of, and a lot more exciting than the leprechauns-and-shamrocks version of Ireland that lined the shelves of my grandparents’ house.4When I visited Dublin, I spent the night talking to a couple of locals who seemed bored by the Temple Bar and aspired to go to New York City and see NASCAR races. So I guess the grass is always greener somewhere else, even in Dublin. It was filled with ghosts and rage over historical injustices, and the ghosts themselves were also filled with rage or whiskey, and MacGowan’s lyrics (along with Philip Chevron’s, and Terry Woods’s) made it all sound romantic and dangerous and reckless but proud and indefatigable.
They got me interested in other Irish musicians — The Waterboys, The Chieftains, Van Morrison via The Chieftains, Hothouse Flowers, and even a renewed appreciation for Sinéad O’Connor. No other band got the mix exactly right, though: the traditional instrumentation, the evocative storytelling in the lyrics, and the punk mindset skipping over the whole thing.
One of the things that continues to impress me about the Pogues, and MacGowan in particular, is how they subsumed traditional music so completely that I have a hard time remembering which of their “traditional” songs were actually folk songs, or original compositions. Their first album Red Roses for Me goes from “Waxie’s Dargle,” which is a folk song, to “Boys from the County Hell,” which was written by MacGowan, and for months I’d assumed the opposite.
I’ve got a book called Poguetry that presents MacGowan’s lyrics along with some artwork, and it was nice to see him being recognized in his lifetime as an often brilliant lyricist, instead of just an increasingly unintelligible and unreliable front man.
I never got to see the Pogues live, but I did see Shane MacGowan and the Popes in Atlanta one time. I’d been a fan for so long by that point that it would’ve been impossible for the show to live up to my expectations, even if it had been the Pogues up there on stage. So I heard some of my favorites, and I got repeatedly irritated when MacGowan would mix up lyrics or leave out verses, and I went away indignant, thinking “I know this man’s music better than he does!” Now, of course, I can appreciate that as a perfect example of knowing all the words but still not understanding them.
- 1It’s overdue, since I probably should’ve written something when Philip Chevron passed in 2013.
- 2That was weirdly difficult to find back in Athens in the early 1990s, incidentally
- 3The only version that’s easily available now is so over-produced it kind of ruins it, though. It’s worth looking up the original if you’re a fan of the song.
- 4When I visited Dublin, I spent the night talking to a couple of locals who seemed bored by the Temple Bar and aspired to go to New York City and see NASCAR races. So I guess the grass is always greener somewhere else, even in Dublin.