The Pogues were one of the great bands of that most repugnant of decades: the 1980s. Actually, that does them a considerable disservice—they were one of the great bands of that, this or any decade. They were a Breughel painting made real, the antithesis to the hollow façade of Thatcherite Britain. While their contemporaries warbled on about new gold dreams and compared shoulder-pad sizes, the Pogues combined age-old Irish folk with the amphetamine assault of punk.
They emerged from the bedsits and smoke-choked pubs of north London, pied pipers to the city’s Irish diaspora and those who’d become disillusioned by Soho style fascists. They sang of broken-down rent boys, broken-hearted drunks, the damned and the downtrodden. They were heartfelt, belligerent and brilliantly poetic, lead by the incomparable Shane MacGowan, a stranger to both dental hygiene and sobriety, a dipsomaniacal degenerate who came on like an unholy mix of Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and Mutley from The Wacky Races.
In his 2012 book Here Comes Everybody (Chicago Review Press, out in paperback May 6), the Pogues’ frustrated novelist-accordionist James Fearnley wonderfully captured all of the band’s rise and fall with suitably lyrical prose. MacGowan emerges as both a figure of awe and awfulness, a gin-soaked enigma whose dark self-destructive streak leads the band into frequent debates over whether he is, indeed, a genius, or, quite simply, “a fucking idiot.” It’s both a picaresque road epic and an unintentionally-cautionary tale about the perils of endless touring and the machinations of the music biz. Above all, it’s as poetic, profane and profound as the band themselves. And that’s no mean feat.
We spoke with Fearnley from his L.A. home ahead of next week’s conversation with English singer-songwriter/author Wesley Stace at the Free Library.
PW: The book’s about to come out in paperback. It seems to have been really well received so far.
JAMES FEARNLEY: Yeah, absolutely. It has done well. I made back my advance, which is great. I went to this literary party in L.A. … and there’s a few other authors there, and when they were told I’d made my advance back, they were all, “Ooooooh!!!” (Laughs) So that was impressive, I think.
You feel like a “proper” writer.
Yeah, well, that’s true. But as Alan Bennet says, “You’re not really a proper writer unless you’re putting pen to paper.” He’s not a writer when he’s not writing, and I kind of get that. But it’s cool to have written a book ... and people seem to like it.
There’s a considerable degree of irony involved in that when the band started, you wanted to be a writer, and you were forever telling Shane (MacGowan) and Jem (Finer) that you hoped the band wouldn’t get in the way.
(Laughs) It did get in the way! Nearly 25 years later, I finally finished the book. And the irony is that the book I was originally going to do was all about the things that kept me from writing in the first place. So there’s a nice turn around there.
Has the band read it?
I was reading an interview with Shane recently, and he was asked what he thought about it, and he said he didn’t realize it was going to be such a big guilt trip! (Laughs)
And yet he still provided you with a great quote for the book’s cover: “It’s just how I imagine I’d remember it.”
(Laughs) That was cool. I got the quote from him on the phone. I was asking him about the book, trying to get hold of an old demo. I wasn’t looking for a quote; he just came up with it. But he did say it twice, and he repeated it … I don’t know if he’d consciously thought of it, but as soon as he said it, he must have realized what a great quote it was.
Were there any other rock biographies out there that inspired you? Or other writers?
Nah, not really. I’ve never really been a big fan of rock bios, to be honest. If anything influenced me, it might have been an old interview with Philip Larkin, where he talked about the art of preserving the moment … and I kind of tried to do that: preserve moments in time without letting the present creep in, without giving it any spin from what I know now.
The book captures the insanity and utter tedium of constant touring especially well, comparing it to Das Boot and fights which erupt over whether…
Yeah, whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable! Or, can dogs think? As Andrew (Rankin) points out, “It’s obvious we’ve become incapable of conversation.” I did want to try and get that across. You have this relentless moving; you’re cooped up with each other for hours on end; you run out of things to say. It becomes a kind of Samuel Beckett arena.
There are times when the book comes across like a warped family saga.
Well, yes, over the course of time, the band have become these indelible figures in my life, the way that parents are … Mind you, I don’t really like the connotations of family, ‘cause that makes it sound cozy.
True. But it could be the Mafia.
(Laughs) It could indeed. Or it could be the Borgias.
Shane remains a central figure of awe, humor and tragedy throughout. How much truth is there in his image as the dissolute poet?
I think it’s genuine. I might have said this before, but I imagine if your life is like a ship, Shane’s the one who is always at the bow taking every wave first, not leaving his post because he’s incapable of it. And he’s the one who has to report back on just how terrible things are. There’s a lot of artists or writers, I think, or even guys on the street who take it on the chin for guys like me who can’t even go there. He’s staring the void in the face every day.
He wrote in what now seems like a relatively short, but incredibly fertile creative streak.
Absolutely. Even when I first met him with the Nips, it took me a while to realize just how funny and scatological and in-your-face and impertinent his songs were.
Do you think he’ll ever reach those heights again, or do you think it was a one-off?
I don’t know. It’s a hard one, because I don’t want to say that someone will never do anything again. People are unpredictable, so who knows? All I do know is that he wrote a lot of truly great songs, and he doesn’t appear to be doing it anymore.
Where do you see the Pogues, in the grand scheme of things?
Well, I happened to be reading Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly, and they seemed to think that we basically created our own genre, so that’s very flattering. It’s like you mentioned London in the ‘80s and Yuppies and New Romantics and Thatcher, and we seemed to be the opposite of that. It was just that we were doing our own thing; we were a dark spot amongst it all. All right, so we did borrow from all over the place, but we kind of had a dead center that no one else was visiting. So yeah, creating your own genre does sound nice. Not that I thought that at the time ‘though, I was just trying to learn how to play the fucking accordion! (Laughs)
Mon., May 5, 7:30pm. Free. Central Library, 1901 Vine St. freelibrary.org
PW's Music Issue 2014