Pogue and tell, warts and all
MEMOIR:James Fearnley’s memoir of life in The Pogues is a lively, humorous account of rock’n’roll success, excess and survival
Here Comes Everybody: The Story of The Pogues By James Fearnley Faber and Faber, 406pp. £14.99
THE TIME WAS the summer of 1991, the place was the Pan Pacific Hotel in the Japanese city of Yokohama. After a decade in which they had allowed themselves to be brought to the brink of commercial no-man’s-land by their frontman, Shane MacGowan, James Fearnley and the rest of The Pogues had called a meeting. There was only one item on the agenda: the sacking of MacGowan.
At that point, writes Fearnley in his refreshingly honest memoir, MacGowan, who has been responsible for many literate punk-influenced folk songs over the past 30 years, symbolised “the human condition of disassociation, irreducible loneliness, the separation of person from person. What I imagined him doing up in his room, condemned to wakefulness and watchfulness and a horror of sleep – the wall scrawling, the painting of his face silver, the incessant video-watching – made me fear for us all, for humanity somehow, that all we were heir to was eternally unfulfillable desires and the inevitability of death.”
If you think all rock-music memoirs are a mixture of PR fluff, second-hand observations and strategically selected memories, then Here Comes Everybody: The Story of The Pogues is the book to make you change your mind. Fearnley tells us – at the end of the book rather than the start, unfortunately – that this is a work of “creative non-fiction”, in which, because of the demands of the narrative, he has “recreated episodes, conversations and environments” and “conflated a number of similar recurring situations and exchanges”.
With this in mind, we can forgive Fearnley’s regular bursts of flowery (if neatly structured) narrative, such as: “Round a circular stucco fountain stood a Mexican-style pueblo of blindingly white, crumbling, mostly adobe buildings . . . Beyond the plaza lay the otherwise biscuit-coloured expanse of the desert. The clarity of the light rendered the weathered wood of the window frames and the water tower luminous.”
What is difficult to ignore, though, is his use of arcane words, such as “flocculent”, “scutiform”, “falciform”, “pyknic”, “moil” and “diastemic”.
Linguistic showboating aside, Fearnley has a novelist’s powers of observation – “A terrain more complicated than a pavement or pub floor tended to baffle Shane” – and he tells his own story and that of the first decade of The Pogues with insight, insider knowledge and an invective that spares no one, least of all himself.
And the story is terrific. It is the tale of how, in the early 1980s, a group of young men and one young woman, mostly second-generation Irish living in Britain, formed a band that rode roughshod over Irish folk and trad and not only created a genre but introduced the music of Planxty, The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers to an audience weaned on The Clash and the Sex Pistols.
Fearnley traces the development of the band, and his place within it, linearly. In the early days they lived in squalor but, as is the way with fledgling bands, in good humour, the music learned from a variety of sources (including cassette tapes of Dermot O’Brien and Brendan Shine) gradually fusing into a singular sound that, initially at least, owed much to MacGowan’s Irish background and his love of Irish culture. The swift addition of the recognised first-generation Irish musicians Philip Chevron and Terry Woods added authenticity to the band’s adaptation of Irish music.
As success came their way, so, too, did problems. MacGowan’s lifestyle quickly became a cross too difficult for most of the band to bear, and, despite mainstream acceptance and sell-out tours, the fact that there were eight people in the band meant money was never plentiful.
It is in the waspish telling of the downside of The Pogues’ story that Fearnley’s narrative excels. While informing you of his inadequacies through the years (self-doubt, resentment, envy), he nips at all and sundry, including MacGowan (“a stable perception was never reachable as to whether Shane was a genius or a f**king idiot”), U2 (“Bono’s singing was the grand incantation of phrases resembling advertising copy”), the Pogues’ original bass player, Cait O’Riordan (“I could see that Cait’s contentment to see me was that of a monarch for a public appearance at the crowd-control barrier”) and his fellow band member Spider Stacey (“He aided and abetted us by sloping off to the pub when the process of extracting the songs from Shane became too boring for him”).
Despite the on-target arrows there is admiration for the work (“Shane had a maddening talent for metabolising artlessness into beauty”). But Fearnley derides MacGowan’s latter-period songs as scant of melody, formulaic and pedestrian, and describes his behaviour as “irascible, unpredictable, rudderless and unmanageable”, the band and its career “held ransom to his dementia”.
The narrative ends, unusually for books of this kind, on a viscerally honest note.
The Pogues split up several years after the events of the finale here, then reconvened, more than 10 years ago, and are still sporadically touring with the “classic” line-up (bar O’Riordan). That Fearnley hasn’t been quarantined for writing such a warts-and-all tale says much about the band and the bond formed across 30 fractious years. A band of brothers to the very end, then, and with a fine, salty memoir to raise a glass to.
Tony Clayton-Lea writes about pop culture for The Irish Times. His most recent book is 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die (Liberties Press)