The Boys (& a Girl) from the County Hell: The Pogues

Robert Polito

the pogues—metro boston, july 2, 1986
Earlier that evening, in one of those flukes that promise more than the moment can deliver, we ran into the Pogues, at least some of them, across the street at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were playing the Toronto Blue Jays. With nothing to do until the show started, we purchased cheap bleacher seats and climbed the stairs behind center field. Suddenly up ahead loomed a quartet attired like us, despite the season, in dark wool duds: Spider, Cait, and (I’m almost certain) James, alongside a dour manager/driver/minder type. 
    We clattered into the row back of them, and as Kevin and Maureen, Kristine and I introduced ourselves, the Pogues visibly tensed, wary at their detection. But this turned out to be their first baseball game, and they had lots of questions.
    Nineteen eighty-six was the year the Red Sox would capture the American League East, and then, one out away from winning the World Series against the Mets—their only World Series since 1918—witness history vaporize as Bill Buckner flubbed a Mookie Wilson ground ball. I saw that World Series game on TV over the telephone with Kristine, she in her apartment in New York while I was back in Cambridge, and I could hear the exultation across Manhattan, even down the phone line from Riverside Drive.
    That lay months ahead, but this too was an important game. Roger Clemens was undefeated in his first fourteen outings and going after the American League record for consecutive wins at the start of a season.
    I wish I could disclose that the Pogues acted scandalously. But particularly after Clemens gave up the tying run in the eighth inning, and reliever Bob Stanley then yielded two more runs, the Sox fans around us held a monopoly on drunk and vile, slopping beers, roaring curses at the Blue Jays bullpen, and ultimately pissing against the concrete pillars under the stands. Throughout, the Pogues drank Cokes.
    What I mostly remember is realizing how difficult baseball is to explain. As we sat behind the Pogues, fielding their confusions, baseball didn’t appear so much the harmonious, disciplined contest you might observe in, say, John Updike’s iconic recap of a Red Sox game, as it did a lawless inventory of exceptions and irregularities. Three strikes and you’re out, of course, unless that third strike is really a foul ball, and thus doesn’t count, because only the first two foul balls count as strikes, so a batter can hit as many fouls after that as he wants, unless, of course, someone catches the foul ball, because that’s an out, and . . . 
    The Pogues appeared more fascinated by the Wave that periodically surged through Fenway, as from one section to the next in a circle around the park fans stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, everyone cheering for themselves once they were done. 
    Kevin and I assumed it cooler if we didn’t ask Cait about Elvis Costello, not even when Spider joked about her being on long distance all night again. But in our Elvis iridescent suits, and my geeky glasses, she must have believed we were lunatics.

Except for Elvis I might never have taken in the Pogues. By the time the band landed at Metro—a music and dance club on Lansdowne Street, opposite Fenway Park—they’d released two albums, Red Roses for Me (1984) and Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash (1985), along with a crucial EP, Poguetry in Motion (1986). Their name was a bowdlerization of Pogue Mahone or póg mo thóin, Gaelic for “kiss my arse.” The Pogues had performed down the street at Spit the previous March, an early St. Patrick’s donnybrook conspicuously attended by JFK Jr. and Joe Kennedy, Robert’s son, then running for Congress.
    Much of this hoopla, specifically the band’s vaunted Irishness among Irish-American Bostonians, proved a distraction to my listening, and I resisted when Kevin and Maureen played Red Roses for Me. But in 1986 I was still obsessed with Elvis Costello—though, granted, not as obsessed as I was in 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1980, when I’d stay up all night drinking and playing My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!!, confident I would glimpse my own past and future autobiography. Elvis, of course, produced Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and moreover recently he had fallen in love with the Pogues bassist, Cait O’Riordan. To this day I believe that Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, maybe even more than Tom Waits’s inexhaustible Rain Dogs, offers the most transportative—fierce, melancholy, beautiful, and enduring—music from 1985. So, by the night the Pogues climbed on stage at Metro, July 2, 1986, a Wednesday, and for many the blastoff of a long Independence Day holiday weekend, I knew their recordings, as well as their various prior and sideline incarnations—singer Shane MacGowan’s Nipple Erectors; guitarist Philip Chevron’s Radiators from Space and his cabaret tracks with Agnes Bernelle; O’Riordan’s Pride of the Cross.

The Pogues were only three or four songs into their set when Kevin reeled back to where we said we’d all hook up, behind the soundboard. Our friend positioned himself at the edge of every club stage, even for hardcore shows. He luxuriated in the small defensive actions necessary to sustain his patch of concrete amid the shoving and tumbling fans. Slam dancing—at least in Boston during the mid-1980s—manifested a gymnastic decorum, a tough, improvised tenderness of silent directives and solicitudes. The slamming looked wilder the farther outside of the fracas you stood, and I rarely saw anyone get hurt.
    Not tonight. Out of Southie via Harvard, Kevin was what my grandmother tagged “Black Irish,” smart, ornery, and as homely as a scare poster for Father Damien’s Hawaiian Islands leper colony, his face pimpled, scarred, and swollen. This summer evening, with the Pogues just a few songs along, playing “Transmetropolitan,” as I recall, or maybe “Billy’s Boys,” Kevin’s face now also was spilling blood. Around us, couples performed frisky jigs and shouted lyrics. But right in front of the Pogues, a mostly male assembly—hundreds of Boston boys, their raised arms rippling to the beat—hurled themselves at the stage again and again until the crush closest to the band toppled over and the rest of the crowd rebounded backward toward the center of the room.
    The sway of the Pogues throng at Metro that night was more furious—and intricate—than any slam dancing I’ve experienced since. Dylan once remarked that he brought rock ’n’ roll attitude to folk music. A shorthand account of the Pogues might observe that they played traditional music with punk attitude. The slamming boys managed to refract both strains in the sound at once, the spasm of a body swilling poison and its antidote simultaneously. There was a traditional lilt, a silvery cadence pulsing through the upcast arms and bobbing heads, and something like the snap of a whip. Kevin felt that whip across his cheek when he fell, and the audience ground his face against a band monitor.
    “I’ll meet you here when it’s over,” Kevin said, after Maureen, his girlfriend, swabbed the blood with a drink napkin, and Kristine and I tried to talk him into staying with us. The Pogues started another song, “The Old Main Drag,” their first slow tune so far. Our friend lunged back into the mob.

Kevin’s family home overlooked the route of the annual South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade, but I grew up the child of what was locally judged a “mixed marriage,” Irish and Italian. Still, my Irish side dominated. We occupied the first floor of a classic brown three-decker in Dorchester purchased by my late grandfather James Lonergan (originally of the County Waterford), and that endured in my grandmother’s name, Brigid Lonergan née Connelly (originally of the County Cork), although my father now handled the maintenance and supervised the tenants. Our neighbors bore Irish names, as did my parents’ friends. Inside our Dorchester flat, Irish tended to mean Catholic (my aunt Mary was a nun), Friday and Saturday night booze-ups (my uncle John and his card-playing cronies), and a solemn, sing-along pining after a forsaken auld sod that invariably wound up with someone screaming or crying. Outside our house, Irish was the Kennedys (the nuns at my school predicted sainthood for the “martyred” president), mothers taunting “Mayor Black” at Kevin White, and their children tossing rocks at school buses. There was a sinister undertow to Irish: early on my mother signaled that she thought many priests were “damaged,” as she put it, even as she inadvertently sent my brother to a school run by Father Paul Shanley, Boston’s notorious “Street Priest.” But I fell into zanier confusions, too. One St. Patrick’s Day in Park Street Station on the way to the parade with my grandmother, I saw a subway florist spraying white carnations green, and surmised for years flowers got their colors that way.
    For me, Irish-American around Boston radiated a delusive sentimentality always about to tumble into havoc. When I really heard Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, I was struck by the stylish way the Pogues flipped that sentimentality/havoc continuum inside out, the way someone in a schoolyard fight would flip an opponent’s jacket over his head, the better to confuse and divert him. Those early Pogues albums divided between traditional covers and Shane MacGowan originals. For their reworking (sometimes rewriting) of Irish, Scottish, even American folk tunes and in MacGowan’s own scruffly, elegant songs, fury, injury, menace, and anguish are the passions that seize you instantly; only later can you catch the romantic undertone. “Transmetropolitan,” for instance, the opening cut on Red Roses for Me, transacts a sort of jaunty Paddy A Clockwork Orange:

            From Brixton’s lovely boulevards
            To Hammersmith’s sightly shores
            And worry all the whores
            There’s lechers up in Whitehall
            And queers in the GLC
            And when we’ve done those bastards in
            We’ll storm the BBC

    In “The Old Main Drag,” from Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, an aging hustler recounts his trade around Piccadilly Circus:

            In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
            But there were boys in the cafés who’d give you cheap pills
            If you didn’t have the money you’d cajole or you’d beg
            There was always lots of tuinol on the old main drag

            One evening as I was lying down around Leicester Square
            I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
            Between the metal doors at Vine Street I was beaten and mauled
            And they ruined my looks for the old main drag

    “A Pair of Brown Eyes” tracks the wanderings of an Irish infantryman decades after the First World War:

            One summer evening drunk to hell
            I stood there nearly lifeless
            An old man in the corner sang
            Where the water lilies grow
            And on the jukebox Johnny sang
            About a thing called love
            And it’s how are you kid, and what’s your name
            And how would you bloody know?
            In blood and death ’neath a screaming sky
            I lay down on the ground
            And the arms and legs of other men
            Were scattered all around

    The mayhem so insistently at the gist of MacGowan’s lyrics might only measure the distance between Irish and the phenomenon Maureen Dezell in her book >Irish America: Coming into Clover dubs “Eiresatz.” But other  particulars figure in the distance the Pogues insinuated into the music itself. One obviously is punk—before they ever performed traditional Irish music in public, many of the Pogues served time in London and Dublin punk outfits.
    “Seeing the Sex Pistols changed my life—it changed loads of people’s lives,” MacGowan once said. “There was a band that just got up there and made a really horrible noise and didn’t give a shit. They were all our age and had dyed hair and wore brothel creepers, and it was just a question of, ‘Yeah, fuck it. I hate everything and they’re actually doing it.’ I thought they were brilliant, the best group I’ve ever seen.”
    Another possibly less obvious detail is that the Pogues aren’t entirely Irish, or are Irish in a complex, conscious fashion. Of the eight Pogues who took the stage at Metro, only two—Chevron and Terry Woods—were born in Ireland. O’Riordan was born in Nigeria and raised in London, but all the rest, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, James Fearnley, and Andrew Ranken, come from England. Indeed, MacGowan was born in Kent, although reared on a farm in Tipperary until he was six, when his family moved to central London. “Even at that age, it was a sharp contrast from the country in Ireland,” he said. “I used to know bits of Gaelic because my mother speaks it fluently, but once I hit the city I forgot it. I became immersed in the society of London. On the other hand, because there’s an Irish scene in London you never forget the fact that you originally came from Ireland. There are lots of Irish pubs, so there was always Irish music in bars and on jukeboxes. I had an uncle who ran a pub in Dagenham, and I stayed there a lot ofthe time. Then every summer I would spend my school holidays back in Tipp.” 
    By way of Irishness, then, the Pogues locate themselves along a slippery, paradoxical slope. Other than O’Riordan’s electric bass and, I suppose, Chevron’s rockabilly hollow-body electric guitar, all their instrumentation that night at Metro could be tagged traditional—banjo, mandolin, cittern, concertina, and the lead players were, astonishingly, Fearnley on accordion, and Stacy on tin whistle. (Another shorthand account of the Pogues is that they played punk music with traditional instruments.) Their songs invoke Irish writers and traditional Irish and Scottish musicians, the Dubliners, John McCormack, Richard Tauber, Philomena Begley, Ray Lynam and the Hillbillies, Sean O’Casey, Joyce, Yeats, and especially Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan. But all the angles felt askew. It was O’Riordan, for instance, who sang—gorgeously—the Scottish air, “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday,” and revised the lyric so that instead of going hunting with a dog she shoots him. Their jigs, reels, and sea shanties divulge a cracked, amphetamine edge. For “Streams of Whiskey,” MacGowan name-checks Behan, and tilted his death wish into dipso overdrive.
    Recasting Irish history as punk—or punk as Irish history—there was nothing smirking, nothing routinely ironic about the Pogues. They sounded contemporary as well as ancestral, of London as much as of Dublin. Like most punks their songs link them to outlaws, outcasts, renegades, felons, and marauders, yet often execute jolting twists. Besides reliable associations like the Great Hunger, the IRA, or Jesse James, MacGowan’s lyrics conjure Australian convicts, fixate on World War I, notably the Irish recruits who fought at Gallipoli, and the Spanish Civil War, alert to betrayals and venality, by turns realistic and phantasmagoric, mythic and personal. His barbed sociopath anthem, “Boys from the County Hell,” sports a jaunty couplet that skids from Irish fascists to Lieutenant Calley: “My daddy was a blue shirt and my mother a madam / And my brother earned his medals at My Lai in Vietnam.” His “Sick Bed of Cuchuliann” glances at the IRA Republicans who resisted Franco: “Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid / And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids”; and unlike, I’m guessing, at least some among their Boston audience, the song also identifies with blacks and immigrants—“Now you’ll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks / And they’ll take you from this dump you’re in and stick you in a box.” MacGowan sang out of an Irish diaspora, his strongest work shadowing exiles adrift in London, and later New York. 
    Skeptical and rollicking, a carnival of Irishness and sardonic about Ireland, the Pogues at Metro that July night in 1986 mounted a fearsome, majestic racket that disputed, even denied every sentiment they celebrated. The only event I ever thought matched it was a St. Patrick’s Day program at the Boston Public Library when Seamus Heaney disdained to act the professional Irishman, defiantly reading only his darkest poems from North, and refusing to soften the cruxes of Irish politics.
    With their thrift-store Sunday suits and yeasty cotton shirts, MacGowan and Co. resembled impatient undertakers. On slow numbers—“The Old Main Drag,” “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” Behan’s “The Auld Triangle,” Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” and Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”—the Pogues lurched like the capsizing of a boat, mournful and grand. On fast songs—“Sally MacLennane,” “Transmetropolitan,” and “The Sick Bed of Cuchuliann”—Stacy, Fearnley, and Chevron threw themselves around the stage, while MacGowan sauntered as though oblivious to the frenzy, a bottle of beer or a glass of whiskey in his hand, nearly toothless, yet intoning each convulsive phrase. Whether the boys who stormed the band hooked into all the snags, the counterblasts inside the blast, that didn’t—couldn’t—matter. For two mighty hours that summer night on Lansdowne Street, the Pogues were Boston. And as MacGowan sang, “We’ll go where spirits take us / To heaven or to hell / And kick up bloody murder in the town we love so well.”

I thought of the Wave as I watched the surging arms and bouncing heads at Metro. The same gesture, if revved up, likely many of the same fans . . .
    As the Pogues finished their set, Kevin returned to our safe house by the club soundboard. Now his other cheek was cut open, and he wanted to go. But the Boston audience called the band back for four encores. You could style those last four songs a frolic—or a riot.
    When the Pogues finally quit the stage, Cait O’Riordan lingered at a microphone. The only words I could make out were “love you” and “Red Sox.”

Robert Polito is a poet, biographer, and critic. His books include the poetry collection Doubles (Chicago), A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (Michigan), and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (Knopf/Vintage), for which he received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has edited Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, The Selected Poems of Kenneth Fearing for the Library of America, and editions of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain for the Everyman Library. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.

“The Boys (& a Girl) from the County Hell: The Pogues” appears in our Summer 2007 issue.