The Pogues: Under The Influence

They became famous for their rowdy rock, inspired by traditional Celtic music, but the drinking habits of their leader leaves fans wonder if the band has any Shane

The Pogues in 1989. Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

The Pogues had been thrilled by the plum prospect of opening for Bob Dylan on the California leg of his tour this fall. "I'd really like to get him to sing a song with us," lead singer Shane MacGowan had told a British magazine. "Never mind Dylan and the Dead. Dylan and the Pogues–Dylan and the Nearly Dead!"

MacGowan's joke proved less charming, however, when the Irish and English roots band assembled at London's Heathrow Airport en route to the first Dylan gig, in San Francisco. MacGowan, a nonstop boozer who had also been dabbling with LSD during the making of the Pogues' latest album, Peace and Love, collapsed in the terminal and was not allowed on the plane. The band's manager, Frank Murray, booked MacGowan a hotel room and expected him out on the next flight.

The seven remaining Pogues assembled in San Francisco, only to learn that their equipment was locked in storage for the duration of the Labor Day weekend. So in order to play the first show, they had to scour the city to borrow instruments and amps; the accordion arrived onstage during the second song.

Even though the laid-back West Coast had previously been lukewarm to the Pogues' poetic raucousness, the crowd went wild. "We did this gig with Mickey Mouse equipment, without Shane," says Jem Finer, 34, the group's banjo and mandola player, "and got a standing ovation." The training served them well, since MacGowan's recovery took 10 days and he missed all the Dylan shows.

"By any standard, the Pogues have bollocks," says manager Murray with pride. "No other band in the world would do that, would have that character. I think they learned something about themselves."

After the Dylan dates, the band was to start a three-week tour headlining at theaters. These shows were to run a full two hours, not the 45-minute set of an opening act. And MacGowan didn't appear the day he was expected. "We thought the worst," says Philip Chevron, 32, the guitar and banjo player. "But he came the next day, and he was fine. We would have had to continue anyway, but we would have wanted to. We would've found some way of doing it. We've never missed a show."

Other bands in a situation like that would've either said, 'Let's get rid of the guy,' or 'Let's split up,'" Chevron continues. "We're not the sort to do that. We don't think of Shane as a problem. We're all part of each other's problems, whether we like it or not."

The scruffy-bearded MacGowan, 31, contends that the only reason he didn't make the Dylan dates was "they wouldn't let me on the plane." As for his mates carrying on without him, he says, "It made me feel good. I was glad, really proud. Because you never know what could happen, you know?"

***

Never knowing what might happen is an apt description of the Pogues' fun-loving performances, which zigzag between tender ballads and thrashing jigs. The Pogues, a collection of grammar-school dropouts and art-school graduates, are an unusual success story: a democratic group in which the members divvy up song-writing royalties and take turns concocting each night's set list; a nearly egoless band that candidly voices disappointment with its work; a constantly touring group that passed up important TV appearances to spend time with loved ones (many of the members are happily married). All in all, a rare island of humanity in the music business.

Their origins couldn't have been more dubious. In 1981, MacGowan, who had fronted a punk band called the Nipple Erectors ("the Nips"), Peter "Spider" Stacy, a car salesman on the dole, and Finer, who was teaching computers to adults, found themselves onstage in a London bar called Cabaret Futura, playing Sex Pistols-inspired versions of traditional folk songs.

Though pelted with patrons' chips, they were onto something. In a time when pop hits were slick and synthesized and underground music was all grinding guitars, the traditional instruments suddenly seemed pure; the old Brendan Behan and Dubliners songs, politically relevant.

Taking the name Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass"), the group added James Fearnley, the Nips' guitarist, who was persuaded to lug about and learn to play a 25-pound piano accordion; 17-year-old Cait O'Riordan, who owned a bass but had never played one; and pub-rocker Andrew Ranken, who was told to drum standing up with only a tom-tom and a snare.

The early performances were daredevil escapades bordering on slapstick, featuring speedy instrumental led by Stacy's tin whistle, Fearnley's runs across the stage and MacGowan's surly vocals. Stacy was best known for keeping time by banging his head with a beer tray; the band would openly fight onstage over which songs to play. A biography, The Pogues: The Lost Decade, is rife with tales of brawling, passing out, throwing up and falling down stairs.

Record companies steered clear, but by 1984, MacGowan had started writing stunning originals like "Streams of Whiskey" and "Dark Streets of London," and the Pogues attracted the attention of the Clash, which hired them as an opening act. Stiff Records recorded their debut, Red Roses for Me (and suggested they shorten their name), and Elvis Costello signed on to produce their second album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and eventually married O'Riordan. (She left the Pogues in 1986 and was replaced by Darryl Hunt, who had been their roadie.)

After the first album, the group added Chevron, a member of the early punk band Radiators From Space, who had subbed for Finer during a paternity leave; after the second album, Murray brought in Terry Woods–a multi-instrumentalist who had cofounded Steeleye Span in 1970–thinking he would firm up the group's musical muscle. The Pogues' message has always been implicitly, if not explicitly, political.

The video for "A Pair of Brown Eyes," directed by Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy), was reedited in England because of a shot of the group's spitting on a poster of Margaret Thatcher. And MacGowan's lyrics have given voice to the dreariness, anger and hedonism of the lives of England's disaffected working class.

"We represent the people who don't get the breaks," says Chevron. "Ne'er-do-wells with all sorts of quirks and foibles, the least likely pop stars. People can look at us and say, 'My God, if that bunch of tumbledown wrecks can do it, so can I.' That's one of the reasons Shane is such a hero."

The Pogues' music actually extends far beyond mere Celtic shanty revival, and its members are far more complex and sober than the British tabloids would have one believe. Last year's If I Should Fall From Grace With God, produced by U2 helmsman Steve Lillywhite, boasted songwriting contributions from Woods, Chevron and Finer as well as MacGowan's exploration of Spanish and Middle Eastern sounds. The album sold a respectable 200,000 copies stateside; "Fairytale of New York," a pretty duet with Kirsty MacColl, went to Number Two in England. And wherever the Pogues play, they're met with enthusiasm bordering on frenzy.

Peace and Love finds nearly every member writing and singing. Finer and Ranken's jazzy instrumental, "Gridlock," fits right in with the Bo Diddley beats of MacGowan's "Cotton Fields" and "USA"; Chevron's lightly pop "Lorelei" plays nicely off Woods's bitter anti-Cromwell romp, "Young Ned of the Hill." And in between the propulsive dance rhythms are Finer's wistful "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge," about long separations from his family, and MacGowan's "Down All the Days," about crippled writer Christy Brown. The playing, which encompasses such diverse instruments as the hurdy-gurdy, the cittern and the mandola, is faultless and stirring.

Yet some observers saw the new display of diversity as a sign of weakness, not strength. Tales were circulated that MacGowan had been spending nights in London's acid-house clubs–that he'd tried to get the band to record a new 20-minute acid-style composition he called "You've Got to Connect Yourself" and that his difficulties had delayed the album by a month. The band, these wags said, seemed to be testing life without Shane.

The Pogues hotly contest this. "The group from the start was conceived as a group," says Finer. "Shane has never been happy being in the role of frontman."

"The problem is, Shane's basically a very shy bloke," says Chevron. "I think it's good to try and broaden the view of what a Pogues song is. But Shane has been, is and hopefully always will be the focal point. However good the band is, it's just not the same without him."

"I'm really fucking sick of being singled out," says MacGowan. "We've got eight extremely talented people, and the latest album is a flowering of that, a blossoming. Not a funeral."

***

"Anybody want some garlic?" Day is dawning for the Pogues in Boston near the end of their American tour–meaning, it's about one in the afternoon. And Darryl Hunt, 39, has brought handfuls of raw garlic cloves to breakfast with his mates James Fearnley, 36, and Andrew Ranken, 35, to help them shake the cold virus that has threatened nearly every Pogue during this exhausting tour.

Yesterday the band drove to this Howard Johnson's by bus from Toronto, a 10-hour hajj. Hunt, who was the band's driver when it used to cram into a van, has come into his own since joining the group and is now one of its more visible members.

This afternoon he's drinking a tequila and grapefruit juice, which seems to be the band's preferred concoction; Fearnley and Ranken stick with coffee. Fearnley is the closest thing to a sex symbol the band has, but this is his last week on the market.

Last year at a gig in Los Angeles, he met actress Danielle Von Zerneck, who played Donna in the film La Bamba. The two struck up a correspondence ("James writes great letters," says Von Zerneck), and as soon as the tour is finished, they will be holding Pogue-infested nuptials at the Von Zerneck mansion the English countryside. Finer will serve as best man, and Chevron has been practicing crooning "The Summer Wind" for the occasion.

It was through a connection of Von Zerneck's that the band met Bruce Springsteen at the Los Angeles Dylan gig. Springsteen stuck his head in the Pogues' dressing room to ask if he could use the bathroom, and they were impressed with how low-key he was. "And he was drinking our tequila, the cheapskate," adds Fearnley.

This is a joke. If the Pogues have a pet peeve, it's that their sharp banter often comes out all wrong in the press. Indeed, Fearnley is one of the Pogues least likely to be monitoring the tequila these days. While the band still enjoys itself after gigs, the only ones sipping anything stronger than beer onstage are MacGowan and Stacy (whose technical requirements on tin whistle are fewer).

"On the Elvis Costello tour [in 1984]," says Fearnley in his thick Manchester brogue, "we only had to play for half an hour, and you could just go drink yourself stupid afterwards because we had no responsibilities. Now, with the show so long, personally, I sweat so much and work so hard, the only thing I can drink onstage is water. On the last tour, I tried drinking onstage once, just one tequila, and it dried me up just like a crisp. There's too much riding on it to go fiddling with stuff like that for me and for most of the people onstage as well."

"The only reason we're still together after all these years," says Hunt, popping a clove, "is garlic."

***

Backstage at Boston's cavernous, ghostly opera house, the Pogues look ready for the wedding, their lapels boasting red roses that a fan has given them. Andrew Ranken is whipping his hands around in the air, loosening up his wrists for the two hours of heavy walloping ahead. (He now plays a full drum kit.) Hunt grabs one and shakes it heartily, saying, "How d'ya do, How d'ya do?"

Looking on, MacGowan laughs his gravelly ch-ch-ch-ch. He's wearing sunglasses, a T-shirt, frighteningly baggy black jeans and an earring from which a safety pin dangles. In one hand he clasps a rose; in the other, a bottle of chardonnay. The house lights go down and the primed crowd roars. "Entertainment calls," says Fearnley, and the Pogues saunter onstage and launch into "Streams of Whiskey," from their debut.

"I am going, I am going, any which way the wind may be blowing," MacGowan sings, tossing the roses into the crowd. "I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing."

Actually, according to the band's biography, MacGowan gave up whiskey long ago to slow damage to his liver. On this tour, the band management is trying to limit his intake to wine, at least before shows. Onstage, he is carefully doled out drinks by a roadie.

"Shane is on the road to recovery," says manager Murray, who has worked with Elton John and Thin Lizzy. "You can only live that lifestyle so long and it hits you like a sledgehammer. Whatever you're seeing him drink, it's only one-sixteenth what he usually does. He's making a good attempt, and we've got to help him. We can't just shut it off, especially on the road. We're trying to make it gradual. You can't make someone join AA."

Onstage, Terry Woods is now leading the band through his song, "Gartloney Rats." With his sartorial primness, salt-and-pepper hair and sweet tenor, Woods, 41, seems MacGowan's polar opposite. (He has two daughters, ages eight and six, for whom he has been trying to find glow-in-the-dark and tan Ken dolls.) By the time his friend Frank Murray invited him to join the Pogues, he had quit the music business and was working in a plastic factory. Of all the Pogues, he seems the least integrated. "I tend to remain solitary," he says. "I try to go off on my own to keep my head together."

Yet, Woods says, one of the band's "saving factors" is that "people actually care for and look out for each other." He is more concerned with what he calls the "spread out" nature of Peace and Love. "I think it swamps the band," he says. "Not that I just want to play traditional music, but I find diversity occasionally overwhelming. But in an eight-piece band, you have to bite your tongue sometimes."

Woods's "Gartloney Rats," from Peace and Love, is a tradition-based breakneck rave-up about an impromptu band that Woods plays with on weekends at home in Ireland: "Well the Gartloney Rats would play away/They'd play for the pints and not for the pay/And the pints they'd go down in the usual way/And they'd never get drunk but stay sober."

One consequence of the band's newly found diversity is that MacGowan has less to do onstage. During "Gartloney Rats," he sits and has a smoke, then wanders offstage to have a drink. When it comes time to sing "The Gentleman Soldier," a traditional song from Run, Sodomy and the Lash, MacGowan reaches into his pocket and pulls out crumpled sheets of paper with the lyrics written on them.

Clinging to the mike like a sailor to the mast, he sings away, dropping each sheet as he's done. The papers blow all around the stage, and Hunt and Woods have to go stand on them until a roadie can pick them up. At least one member of the audience turns to a neighbor and is heard observing, "He's polluted."

Watching from backstage is percussionist Michael Blair, a friend who has worked with Pogues heroes and pals Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. "Tom and Elvis have both managed to remain pointedly philosophical but chosen to live," he says. "I hope Shane does the same."

***

Shane MacGowan finally sits for an interview two days later, in the final hours before the band leaves America. He's in the dark, smoky bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel, in New York City, alternately sipping a dark drink and dragging on Dunhills. His speech is slow and slurred but coherent. At times, his voice drops to a raspy whisper.

MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents, lived in Ireland until he was six, then moved to London. At 14, he was kicked out of the prestigious Westminster school and took a series of jobs, from stock boy to barman, until he joined the punk movement. He used the lyric sheet onstage for "Gentleman Soldier," he says, because "I'm getting older, my memory is going. I've been on the road a long time, and it fucking ages ya. One year we did like–how many fucking days are there in a year?–300 gigs."

This brutal pace has slackened MacGowan's approach to his work. "A band is like anything else," he says. "You start with a surge of energy, and you level off. You have your peak, then you go do-o-o-o-wn." His voice gets soft. "Your social life falls apart. The band gets really streamlined, really good. But the rest of your life is a piece of shit, because people don't unnerstan' how hard the work is. You go in, and there's no way back. It's like the end of a river–you just have to keep going. There's a lot of people you can't let down. I'm not talking about the band now, I'm talking about the audience. But it's not a problem, we can fucking do it. I don't need a lot of sympathy. Let's talk about something else."

Asked why he drinks, MacGowan spits back, "'Cause I've been fucking drinking since I was a kid. I had my first bottle of Guinness when I was six, my first bottle of whiskey when I was seven. It made the world go mad, it fucking opened my mind to paradise...I haven't been sober, dead-straight sober, since I was 14. I'm not interested in being sober. Drinking makes me see things clearly."

He drinks more these days, he says, "because I'm rich–and I haven't got enough money to buy a racehorse." The band's efforts to dry him out haven't gone unnoticed. "They're my friends," he says. "They've got good intentions. But I think human beings should be allowed to do what they want as long as they don't harm another human being."

MacGowan says he has no life outside the band to speak of. When asked what he feels about this, he replies, "Nothing."

"I have no ambitions," he says. "I used to have ambitions, but I have none anymore. I just want to enjoy life the way it is and do my best to stop it from becoming hell on earth."

The factors making it so are not personal, he says, but "ecological and nuclear." The title Peace and Love "is about the state the world is in. This fucking world, right, has got 10 years to sort itself out. Ten years. London's already completely fucked. I used to love it. Now I'm scared to walk out on the street. And crack hasn't even got there yet. When crack hits London, that's it. Forget it, the place is gone. And the only thing that can be done about crack is to stop talking about it." So he does.

Asked to name his heroes, MacGowan says, "Hendrix. He came in, did what he had to do, went out. Not a mess, not a fuss. And Jesus. And Carolin." Carolin, it seems, was an 18th-century Irish harp player who went blind in his twenties and wrote many traditional melodies that MacGowan has adapted for songs such as "London, You're a Lady" and "The Broad, Majestic Shannon."

"He's like the Irish Mozart," says MacGowan, "but he's never been recognized." As MacGowan tells it, Carolin lived to the ripe old age–for those days–of 58. "When he expired, he was in the place where he had first played the harp, before he started traveling," he says. "He went back to where he was from. And the last thing, he had a drink of whiskey, and the last thing he said, I can't remember it exactly, was along the lines of 'The best glass of whiskey I ever had was given to me by this family.' This family that had raised him, that wasn't his family. Then he died. Peaceful. Drunk. Ch-ch-ch-ch."