Graded on a Curve:
The Pogues,
Peace & Love

Before I get to my review, a bit of stereotype slinging. About the Irish, who are oft said (you can ask anybody) to have produced the greatest drunken poets the world has ever seen. Here in the States, a drunk is a drunk is a drunk. In Ireland, if you believe the hype, every drunk is a poet and every poet is a drunk, and when the pubs close every last inebriated man, woman, and child who spills into the dimly lit street to stagger home or fall fecklessly into the filthy gutter is conjuring brilliant quatrains in their brain.

It’s obviously shite, and to the part of my lineage that is Irish (or is it Scottish, who knows?) offensive even, but I do believe the Irish harbor a romantic soul and love their whiskey as much as they love a gift for high-blown (Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, anybody?) speech. So just for argument’s sake, who is the greatest drunken Irish poet of them all? My vote goes to The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, hands down.

He may be a spent force now; it’s been years since he wrote any new songs (that we’ve heard, anyway); his voice is every bit as much a ruin as the Acropolis; and the last time I saw him perform he hung precariously onto the microphone stand like a sailor clinging to the ratlines for dear life in the face of 90 mph typhoon winds. But the fact that he continues to draw breath at all is in itself a miracle.

I have done the math, and more whiskey has passed MacGowan’s lips over the course of his lifetime than was imbibed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Jones, Malcolm Lowry, and Dylan Thomas put together. Despite this dubious achievement, he has written some of the best poetry ever set to music, and has brought more happiness to mankind than a regimen of teetotalers.

It’s pretty much accepted wisdom that The Pogues’ fourth studio LP, 1989’s Peace and Love, was a disappointment that marked the beginning of the end for the band, at least with MacGowan as front man. And I believe it. It was the first Pogues LP that included songs I actually disliked, and the reason was obvious. MacGowan’s intake of alcohol (not to mention as many illicit substances as he could get his hands on) had finally begun to pickle his brain and impact his songwriting, leaving his band mates to write enough tunes to fill out the album.

But I will add this; when I want to hear the Pogues, it’s usually Peace and Love I find myself going back to. Why? Because despite the fact that I don’t think of myself as a romantic, but a cynic, Peace and Love moves me. And it makes sense, for what is a cynic but a romantic disillusioned by the way life has of tarnishing your eyelids? And the test, for me anyway, of a good song is whether it causes the dampened wick of the candle of romanticism in my black heart me to spark, and burst, no matter how briefly, to flame.

And when I need to warm my ailing spirit at that flame, it’s Peace and Love I find myself turning to, and not the superior pair of LPs that preceded it, 1985’s Rum Sodomy & the Lash and 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The trick with Peace and Love, which always works for me anyway, is to know which songs to skip, beginning with opening cut “Gridlock,” a snazzy and oh so jazzy instrumental—like “Metropolis” off If I Should Fall from Grace With God, sans the Irish folk flourishes—of the type designed to evoke images of film noir private dicks and sexy dames and lots of chases down fire escapes and through dark alleys in the nighttime New York City rain. I also skip “Young Ned of the Hill,” a mid-tempo Irish protest song (and as close as the band comes on Peace and Love to its Celtic folk roots) which I consider one of the low points of the Pogues’ canon, although when I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I’d probably like it (but still not love it, goddamn it!) had MacGowan—ruin of a voice or no—been doing the singing.

I also skip the annoying perky fusion of the Celtic and Calypso that is (oh, how I hate the title) “Blue Heaven,” which is too bright (producer Steve Lillywhite should have mucked it up a bit, because it’s simply too glossy for my tastes), although I do love the trumpet solo. Once again I lament that it’s not MacGowan behind the microphone—I love his disastrous shambles of a voice, that souvenir of his descent into the Land of the Damned—just as I miss it on “Lorelei,” a pretty song with sensitive guy vocals that make it too precious for words. As for “Gartloney Rats,” which was written by guitarist Philip Chevron, I have no idea why MacGowan isn’t singing it, as it’s a full-speed-ahead and lilting Celtic punk tune of the sort MacGowan was born to sing. But he doesn’t, and what you’re left with is a Pogues song that rollicks and rolls but is lacking something, and I’ll give you one guess what that something is.

Finally, I bypass “Tombstone,” an atmospheric song about the American West that proceeds at a crawling pace and is so uncharacteristic a Pogues tune I can’t even imagine MacGowan singing it.

Peace and Love even includes a tune sung by MacGowan, Jem Finer’s “Night Train to Lorca,” that I could do without. It follows the Pogues’ recipe for success, and includes some great trumpet, but it pales in comparison to the band’s other Lorca-related tune, the great “Lorca’s Novena” off that final (and also desperately uneven; “Summer in Siam” makes my skin crawl) MacGowan-era Pogues’ LP, 1990’s Hell’s Ditch. For once MacGowan’s vocals do nothing for me, and the pace is a bit sluggish; like the night train MacGowan sings about, it seems to be straining on an upward grade, and barely making it.

Ah, but the songs I do like! First comes “White City,” an elegy to a disappeared section of London famed for its dog-racing track. This one is as fast as one of White City’s long-dead greyhounds, with Spider Stacy’s great tin whistle and Jem Finer’s wonderful banjo making a lovely din while the rhythm section (Andrew Ranken on drums and Darryl Hunt on bass) keeps things moving briskly along as MacGowan sings his heart out, ending with a vision of the past recaptured: “Oh sweet city of my dreams/Of speed and skill and schemes/Like Atlantis you just disappeared from view/And the hare upon the wire/Has been burnt upon your pyre/Like the black dog that once raced/Out from trap two.” MacGowan sings it like a man who knows we’re all destined for that pyre, and that such wanton destruction isn’t exceptional, but just part of “another bloody rainy day.”

I was astounded to discover that the lovely and impossibly moving “Misty Morning, Albert Bridge” was written by Finer and not MacGowan, because its romantic evocation of loneliness is just as good as anything MacGowan has written. The song moves at a stately pace, with MacGowan singing about dreaming about a faraway lover, then waking “so cold and lonely/ In a faraway place/The sun fell cold upon my face/ The cracks in the ceiling spelt hell.” After two lovely stanzas MacGowan and band fall into a majestic chorus that ends with MacGowan singing, “I’ll see you then/As the dawn birds sing/On a cold and misty morning/by the Albert Bridge,” after which the band launches into as beautiful a passage of music as I’ve ever heard, with its sweeping momentum and evocative trumpet, and this song and “White City” prove, to me anyway, that despite MacGowan’s physical and mental deterioration the Pogues’ unique brand of greatness remained intact.

“Cotton Fields” marked MacGowan’s continuing fascination with the United States, and while it’s far from the best Pogues’ song, its big propulsive rock beat and rough-hewn unison vocals—I love the way somebody finishes each line with a guttural “Uh huh, uh huh”—will win you over, as will the truly odd lyrics, in which MacGowan first filches Lou Reed’s famous line in “Heroin” about feeling like Jesus’ son, then goes on to sing, “Too late to joke or crack a smile/You gotta carry/That shit up that drunken mile” before name-checking the LP’s producer in the couplet, “First Lord Nelson’s sunken ships/Now Steve Lillywhite’s drunken mix.” Finally there’s the dark chorus, which the band barks out: “They’re gonna crucify you/Crucify you/Crucify you/Crucify you/In those old cotton fields back home.” What it’s all about I haven’t a clue, but I like it.

“Down All the Days” is one of my favorite Pogues’ songs because it’s simple, poignant, and lovely, and that’s a hard combo to beat. An homage to Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy and basically performed miracles with his left foot, over which he retained a degree of motor control, the song begins with the click-clack of a typewriter (that’s right, he wrote entire books with his toes) then launches into an irresistible melody over which MacGowan sings two scant verses, one of which includes the wonderful lines, “I can type with me toes/Suck stout through me nose/And where it’s going to end/God only knows.” As for the chorus, it’s pure poetry: “Down all the days/The tap tap tapping of the typewriter pays/The gentle rattling of the drays/Down all the days.” The song ends with a long instrumental on which the mandolin, banjo, guitar, and who knows what else play in unison, and I don’t know what else to say about it other than it’s one of those rare tunes that I will never tire of hearing.

The great “USA” is a far darker and harder rocking tune, and includes a couple of long and droning instrumentals that build to great climaxes that remind me of The Velvet Underground. MacGowan’s vocals are at their hoarsest and most ravaged on this pounding song about disillusionment (“I found the thing/For which I prayed/And came back home/To the USA/With a heart of stone/And now I know/That it’s the same………….wherever you go”). And speaking of VU, the chorus includes the most poetic lines about shooting up since “Heroin”: “I took the cold bright needle/I used it as a sword/My eyes have seen the glory of/The coming of the Lord.” Special kudos go out to Finer’s banjo playing, Chevron’s cool guitar tone, and Ranken’s drumming, especially when he comes out of nowhere and basically knocks away, like a desperate man pounding on a door. If this isn’t The Pogues’ most atypical song this side of the wonderful “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” my name is Christy Brown, and I’m typing this review with me bleeding toes.

“Boat Train” is another frantic Celtic hoedown, and a comedic salute to one very pie-eyed Channel crossing; imagine Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” only performed as farce. The narrator winds up losing his every last penny, to say nothing of his watch and coat, during the impossibly wasted voyage, and the song’s ending is prefigured in its first stanza: I met with Napper Tandy/And I shook him by the hand/He said “Hold me up for Chrissake/For I can hardly stand”/The most disgraceful journey/On which I’ve ever been/The last time that I travelled on/The Boat Train.” I especially love the way MacGowan croaks out, “The Boattttt….. Terrrrain!” like John Lydon on the first go round, then repeats it at the ending while another member of the band throws in a simply incredible rolling of the “b” in boat, and ends up sounding even more like Lydon than MacGowan does.

“London You’re a Lady” is okay, but not nearly as good as MacGowan’s other salutes to that city, such as “Lullaby of London,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” or “Dark Streets of London.” For once MacGowan’s lyrical gifts fail him, and “London You’re a Lady” is largely a melodramatic assortment of tired clichés, set against a big backdrop of strings and drums, which grow more lovely as the song winds its way—like a drunken MacGowan down one of London’s rainy streets—towards its final destination.

And so it goes. To paraphrase that master chronicler of the London streets, Charles Dickens, Peace and Love was the best of the Pogues, it was the worst of The Pogues, it was an album of wisdom, it was an album of foolishness, and I for one continue to love it despite its faults, because it includes songs that move me like only the songs by a couple of other musicians—Van Morrison, The Band, and Mountain Goats—have ever moved me. There is something in MacGowan—and that beautiful ruin of a voice of his—that moves me, and I suspect it has to do with his ruination, and the price he paid to write his songs.

Like his Welsh compatriot in self-destruction, the poet Dylan Thomas, MacGowan burned himself down for a lark and a lyric, and I suspect he’ll manage to even outlive his own death, like the character in “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn,” of whom MacGowan sings, “Then they’ll take you to Cloughprior and shove you in the ground/But you’ll stick your head back out and shout ‘We’ll have another round!’” Which is romantic bullshit, I know, but Shane MacGowan, God bless him, is blessed with the uncanny—and life-affirming—ability to bring out the seemingly moribund romantic in me.


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