The lights were down, the floor was prematurely sticky with beer, and a man with earplugs who would pass out in 30 minutes was trying to tell me something I couldn’t hear about Nick Cave. Then one by one the band members filed onto the stage like the surviving members of a platoon, reenacting something that happened long ago and far away.
It was Halloween at the Wiltern and they were all in mariachi costumes. The question of the night, and every night The Pogues have played since reuniting, was whether Shane MacGowan would show up. Maybe he was out on the town, you know, inventing whimsical new milestones in drunkenness. People like thinking that about him even though he doesn’t miss shows anymore. Makes you feel like you spent your sixty bucks on something dangerous.
Finally, a beat behind the band, he shuffled to the microphone in a bathrobe, a sombrero, and an eyepatch, with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette to round things out. The London-Irish cartoon character was now a real singer with real smells coming off him and real band members watching him to anticipate his next move. He had cleaned up somewhat since his 1990s low with his enablers The Popes, he almost looked insurable, but he still didn’t seem like the type to do soundcheck. The show was great. A barroom orchestra with a growl in the middle of it. This was 2007.
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, The Pogues’ masterpiece (unless it’s If I Should Fall From Grace with God), came out thirty years ago. It was famously and adroitly produced by Elvis Costello, who wanted to capture them raw (and marry their bass player), before a real producer (Steve Lillywhite) tried to get hits out of them (successfully). It was one of those albums that seemed hugely important to me during that phase where I felt obligated to internalize the entire punk and alternative rock canon to the exclusion of knowing what a job was.
Looking back with the benefit of time and some experience and a lot of emotional leveling out, it’s tough to remember what exactly made it resonate. What I do know is that my musical education was done in a total cultural vacuum. I didn’t know any punks. I didn’t even know any indie kids. I had no frame of reference for Dinosaur Jr. or Pavement. I didn’t even know what a slacker was. Where I came from, people got yelled at for being slackers. Goths didn’t exist. Skateboards existed but I didn’t know the hobby involved music. Flannel didn’t exist either. I had never seen an English person.
But The Pogues I understood. Talented people whose intelligence is devoid of any outlet in polite society destroying themselves, I understood. I knew all about that. The Pogues made rowdy barroom music, but really they made self-destruction music. And I liked the words on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. Shane MacGowan was masterful at articulating self-destruction. He eventually made a modern standard out of it.
The album is half original songs and half covers, and what unifies them is that they are all, on some level, drinking songs. The rest are songs that lean on drunk emotions. “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” is a good bunch of words and a good bunch of notes for drinking an irresponsible amount of liquor and disregarding the whole idea of getting up not just tomorrow morning, but any morning ever. “Sally MacLennane,” with its joyous melody and sorrowful lyrics about going far away and people leaving for heaven without warning, is a song for having a bottle of something and putting your fists in the air in triumph when there’s nothing to be triumphant about except that you’re alive right now.
The sad songs are for drinking too even if they don’t mention it. “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” an Eric Bogle song, is emotionally effective because MacGowan narrates like someone who was drinking with others but is now drinking alone.
I don’t drink anymore, so drinking songs have no practical utility, but I’ve come to accept them the same way I accept murder ballads: as a song structure, as a fantasy. But can this album be separated from booze? Can the band be separated from booze? Is it still listenable after the dust settles on youthful waywardness?
It sounds reductive to engage this sole question so much, but they dug their own grave on the subject. You sober up and you notice how prevalent it is. It becomes a struggle to even see where apologizing for drunkenness ends and real merit begins. It’s tough to even engage, because this is a band that, more than lots of mainstays in the rock canon, inspires simple and exacting “fuck them” reactions from people who seem to know what they’re talking about.
And I didn’t make any friends by liking this band. I think the highest compliment they got when I was caught listening to them was that they sounded like fucked up carnival music. I got tired of apologizing for them eventually, and stopped admitting I’d heard a damn thing by them, even though I’d heard every damn thing by them. It just wasn’t worth the effort.
But I’m too old to pretend I don’t like them or throw them away as juvenalia. I believe you’re allowed to stack an album with drinking songs if you want to create a certain tone or keep people in a certain place. There’s no shame in it. If you want to set a song in a bar, then go ahead and set it there.
It’s easy to forget after all these years, after all the caricatures of Shane MacGowan as a bottle of whiskey and a tragic set of teeth, what they actually did. They took folk music and stripped it of its squareness by playing it like punk. The Clash was doing it, Springsteen was doing it, but The Pogues banked a career on it. And they did it without falling into a single trap of 1980s production. For a little while, they made folk music fun and raucous by adding equal parts swagger and conviction.
And MacGowan, for all his crutches as a songwriter, could always surprise you with that one beautifully phrased line, underlined by being wrapped up in ugliness. When you can’t apologize for how much he romanticizes booze, his writing usually adds up to a bunch of great lines held up by a band energetic enough to bury his weaknesses.
“I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg.”
“The ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair.”
“I gave the walls a talking.”
“I heard the sounds of long ago from the old canal.”
His skill hadn’t fully matured with Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. He hadn’t written his greatest songs yet. But he wrote some great barroom anthems of surprising depth and tenderness.
2011. The Club Nokia. Part of the L.A. Live complex. Monolithic advertisements everywhere. Overpriced restaurants for people on business trips or whoever it is that can pay $19 for a cheeseburger. You had to go up an escalator and through a metal detector to get in, all of which is detrimental to the Pogues’ mystique. It was all wrong. A Pogues show is celebratory. No one has ever celebrated anything at the Club Nokia.
The show started. No costumes. The pit was mostly empty – fire codes. Most of the audience was crowded behind a fence and some security guards. Shane MacGowan was singing fine but he looked like he was on another planet. Then he fell over backwards, but he caught the microphone and sang lying down. People cheered. Here was the trainwreck everybody wanted.
Then he fell over again. This time a stagehand sat him down on a crate. Then he fell off that, too. Here was the Shane MacGowan of all the jokes. The drunk poet with five minutes to live. Then he was gone and tin whistle player Spider Stacy finished the show for him. The audience filed out muttering fatalistic declaratives. “Oh, that’s it for them. Oh, he’s not gonna last long. I wonder if he’ll die backstage.”
That was four years ago. Then they put out a gorgeous and definitive concert film. Then their guitar player Philip Chevron died. They have their own line of whiskey now. They court their own myth. MacGowan’s whiskey and cigarette is part of his costume. Their legacy is what it is. It won’t change. And now they barely play anymore, but that sad night at the sad cell phone theater proved they don’t need to. Thirty years after Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, they’ve succeeded at what they set out to do. They’ve become more lifestyle than band.