Pogues' Shane MacGowan still a rock star


DUBLIN, Ireland -- When Shane MacGowan lurches into the Morrison hotel on a recent Thursday afternoon, clutching a cocktail, half the people in the lobby begin to breathe again. The famously damaged frontman for the Irish folk-punk band the Pogues is usually late by several hours, but MacGowan was delayed overnight by emergency surgery on an abscess under one of his few remaining, rotted teeth. In four hours he and the band are scheduled to arrive on the red carpet at the Meteor Ireland Music Awards, the country's equivalent of the Grammys, where the Pogues will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fame is the great enabler. It allows middle-age men to behave badly and still get paid. It arranges for rudeness to be greeted with an indulgent smile. Lucidity is entirely optional. The alternative, after all, builds a better myth. MacGowan was the quintessential drunken poet: vicious and gifted, belligerent and tender, a shambolic talent hell-bent on destroying itself.

"Egos exploded, so I started to implode mine by shattering it with drugs and drink," MacGowan says, in a barely comprehensible slur, later that evening at the Point Theatre.

That MacGowan is still standing, albeit not for long periods and not without help, is part of the reason the public is still fascinated with the group, which has reconvened for a brief U.S. tour - the Pogues' first stateside shows since 1989. But the sheer unlikelihood of the band's existence 24 years into its pocked career isn't why the Pogues were honored at the Ireland Music Awards last month, nor does it account for the speed with which their coming shows, including two at the 9:30 Club this week, sold out.

For that, one has to return to the Pogues' music: a riotous union of traditional Irish instrumentation and punk-rock intensity that blew in like a raucous pub party in the middle of the synth-saturated '80s. To this day the members regret that their image as boozehounds belied, and continues to distract from, the complex emotions and artistic rigor of the Pogues' literate balladry and howling, fife-fueled assaults.

But the fact remains that MacGowan's and the rest of the band's exuberantly wasted lifestyle was as integral to their spirit and their success as it was to their downfall - which is why the sight of guitarist Philip Chevron's gray suit and argyle tie, and the sound of his erudite analysis delivered in a sleek conference room on the afternoon of the awards show, inspires a certain awe. Five other polite and put-together Pogues are gathered around the table as well: tin whistle player Spider Stacy, drummer Andrew Ranken, bassist Darryl Hunt, guitarist-accordionist James Fearnley and banjo player Terry Woods.

Absent are multi-instrumentalist Jem Finer, now a highly regarded conceptual artist who is in London attending to a previous commitment, and MacGowan. The frontman will give the rambling, testy interview his manager has promised just prior to the awards show.

"There was a time when we had been shunted into the sightings of history," says Stacy, the band diplomat, who functions as a sort of anti-Shane. "Since we started doing these reunion tours [the Pogues have played Christmas shows in the United Kingdom for the past several seasons], it seems we're getting wider recognition, a place in rock 'n' roll history, which I think we're entitled to."

MacGowan missed plenty of dates during the years-long binge that preceded his dismissal from the band in 1991 - nearly a decade after meeting Stacy in a London tube station and forming (with Fearnley) the Pogue Mahone, Gaelic for "kiss my arse." The trio soon shortened its name to the Pogues and developed into a full band, with the addition of Finer, Ranken, Chevron and bassist Cait O'Riordan - who left the band after three years to marry Costello. (The couple divorced in 2002.) Hunt replaced her, and Woods was soon added to the lineup.

"We had to develop strategies for when he didn't show up or didn't show up in a fit state to sing the songs," says Fearnley, who lives in Los Angeles and recently became a U.S. citizen.

In 1996 the Pogues called it quits. When the Pogues' longtime accountant Anthony Addis, now the band's manager, floated the idea of a reunion in 2001, the reaction was a bit of trepidation mixed with a heap of curiosity.

"Personally, I was disappointed that the Pogues fizzled out like a damp squib," says Woods. "The band was bigger and better than that."

The reunion "was meant to be a one-off," notes Chevron.

"From my point of view it was going to be the finale we deserved," says Stacy.

"Also, I have to say they did offer us a very fine fee," adds Hunt.

"But," Chevron says, `'we didn't know if it would be a new beginning or a last hurrah until we actually did it."

Half a decade later, they still don't know exactly what the future holds.

The Pogues perform tonight at 10 and tomorrow night at 8 at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington. Both shows are sold out. See 930.com for more information.

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