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Regrets? They've Had a Few...

They've Survived Booze, Breakdowns, and Bedlam But The Pogues Are Still Standing

Alex Fine

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 3/12/2008

"There was real freedom within our band and the music," Pogues multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods reflects. "A real sense of genuine freedom." Through the mid-'80s, the dissolute gang of romantic Anglo-Irish hooligans roared and stumbled across the moribund British music scene. Led by the battered but unbowed Shane MacGowan, arguably the finest lyricist of his generation, the Pogues wrote songs for and about the Irish Diaspora, melding the lyricism of Behan and O'Brien with the unhinged amphetamine assault of the early Clash. They were, in effect, the missing link between the Sex Pistols and the Dubliners.

They gave the world of traditional Irish music a well-deserved kick up the arse, much to the horror and consternation of its more conservative practitioners. Indeed, Irish purist Noel Hill was so incensed by their bastardized take on the music of his forefathers that he famously dismissed them as "an abortion of Irish music." (He did, to his credit, later apologize.)

Woods--a veteran of the Irish folk scene long before he joined the Pogues--looks back on the band's work in a decidedly, and unsurprisingly, different light. "They opened up Irish music to people who had very, very narrow views of it," he says by phone. "The Pogues opened up the parameters of the music, which was wonderful and necessary, 'cos Irish music--traditional Irish music--can be very insular and inward looking. That in itself, given our history, is not necessarily a bad thing.

"While I love my Granny's music, I don't necessarily want to play it the way she did. Given the fact we'd gone well into the 20th century, we really needed Irish music to reflect the modern era, and the Pogues did that. They really, really opened things up."

Despite increasing critical reverence, adoring fans, and, more importantly, a growing body of MacGowan-penned masterworks ("A Pair of Brown Eyes,' "The Old Main Drag," "Fairytale of New York"), the band imploded, thanks largely to inhuman touring commitments and life-threatening levels of alcohol consumption. An especially fraught, booze-soaked tour of Japan, in 1991, saw an increasingly unhinged, unhappy, and self-destructive MacGowan kicked out of the band, leaving the rest to stumble on to increasing critical and commercial indifference, before collapsing completely in the mid-'90s.

They returned, however, complete with MacGowan in tow, to perform some U.K. dates back in 2001--a chance, guitarist Philip Chevron told me last year, "to finally be well paid and well treated and tour the way we want to." They've remained an active touring unit ever since. The band has a comfortable pattern established now, playing annual British Christmas dates and a yearly round of American gigs revolving around St. Patrick's Day. There's less pressure, less stress, and, really, who can blame them?

Woods for one likes it that way. "There was a period of time when we were really working against the grain," he says. "It was very dark for a while. . . . There was a lot of touring that was really not our decision. We were forced against our will--we were told that we had to do it. So, what's good now is that we have good management and we're doing it simply because we want to, not because we have to. Plus, we're all older, and you can't treat men in their 40s and 50s, and then some, like children. You just can't do it. It's impossible, they just won't do it."

What's more, on any given night, the Pogues remain a marvelous, riotous, king-hell live band--although there still remains a degree of concern about MacGowan, an erratic performer at the best of times, and one who still has the reputation for a dedication to excess that makes the likes of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty look like Rod and Todd Flanders.

"Do I worry about him?" Woods asks. "It seems like I've been worrying about him for the last 20-25 odd years to be honest with you. He does what he does, and that's that. He's not, I might add, nearly as bad as people think he is. He's Shane, he has his own way of being, and you kind of have to accept that and all of his little oddities."

This current tour also marks the first time the band has played locally in nearly forever. "We played in Baltimore years and years and years ago," Woods says. "I do remember it, 'cos it the crowd were brilliant and we were crammed into this tiny, tiny little club. It's all a little hazy now, but it was a tiny place. I don't know how we managed to fit onto the stage. I mean, there were guys up there with instruments sticking up their noses, y'know?"

Conversation inevitably turns to perhaps Maryland's most famous Pogues fan, Gov. Martin O'Malley (who was unavailable for comment). "Yeah, he's come to a few shows and he comes backstage. And it's funny to have someone like him around, 'cos when he does, he's very Pogue-like, y'know? He doesn't really behave like a politician-like politician. It seems he's a bit of a Pogues aficionado. He has a few beers and chats with Shane. I must say, it's quite amusing."

With the interview almost over, it comes up that, a while back, fellow Pogue Philip Chevron mentioned that O'Malley had supposedly once given MacGowan the keys to the city. Woods erupts into gales of laughter.

"He did what?" he asks. "Hmm, I don't know about that. Really? God, I hope Shane gave them back."

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