Years ago, I read a book called “A Drink With Shane MacGowan”, a collaboration between Shane himself and his then beau Victoria Clarke (a lady whose fling with Van Morrison inspired Shane to write the immortal lines “Victoria, you left me for a fat monk singing Gloria”)
But that book was quite unsatisfying and it felt like the full story of one of my favourite bands had yet to be told. There was plenty of vitriol in MacGowan / Clarke’s book but, perhaps inevitably given the main subject, details were vague and timelines were unclear.
Accordion player and multi-instrumentalist James Fearnley was there right at the start of the band. In fact his working relationship with Shane goes back even further to the days of The Nips / Nipple Erectors. Early on in the book after a night of heavy drinking at Dingwalls, a vomiting MacGowan shouts abuse at Fearnley when he tries to offer help, a scene that the author is reminded of a few more times over the next decade. With MacGowan seemingly intent on the romantic ideal of self-destruction (live fast, die young, not sure about the good-looking corpse bit) the band’s patience with him is pushed to the limit.
Other bandmembers are almost as wayward and unpredictable with their excessive drinking, sudden disappearances, illnesses, tantrums, excessive drinking, suicide attempts and of course excessive drinking. If you like reading about people puking up blood then this is the book for you!
Fearnley doesn’t hold back with his opinions and it’s quite a shock at times to read his words on some of his fellow Pogues. He still gigs with them, so they must be very forgiving or maybe they just haven’t read the book yet! As well as the band, three of my biggest idols crop up quite a bit, Elvis Costello, Kirsty MacColl and Joe Strummer. Kirsty comes across as a thoroughly good egg, but you definitely can’t say the same for Elvis or Joe!
Fearnley had ambitions as a writer before he got sidetracked by music and it really shows. He’s clearly an erudite and well-read bloke and his writing is well-constructed, passionate and has got some of them fancy long words in it. It’s not one of those music biographies that reads like some bloke down the pub telling funny stories. (like the book I’m reading now, review to come soon)
Overall, I don’t think I have EVER read a music biography that makes being in a band sound so awful! There is some genuine affection between some bandmembers, for example Fearnley and banjo player Jem Finer. But overall it does make you question why on earth anyone would want to be in such an unhappy band with a dysfunctional lunatic like MacGowan who’s so off his head he can’t even get onstage and do his job.
Why would anyone put up with this shit? But in his heart, Fearnley knows exactly why. Pogues fans like me know why as well. Those fucking lyrics man. The lyrics on those first 3 albums have got everything in them: horror, joy, violence, wild abandon, adventure, death, sex, filth and of course excessive drinking.
Here’s a bit from the book on the song “Streams of Whiskey”…
The book is a great read, essential for any fan of the band.
As for MacGowan, “no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” The words of another great drinker Aristotle who was a bugger for the bottle.
Remind yourself of those fucking amazing MacGowan lyrics with our playlist:
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