The Pogues you will see at the Showbox Sodo are not the Pogues you ought to know. That's not a discouragement—for God's sake, catch the band play with singer Shane MacGowan while you have the chance. But know that MacGowan is a toothless, doddering shade of the garrulous poet-philosopher he once was. During a concert last fall in San Francisco, he had to be helped onstage, where he draped himself over the microphone stand like it was the only thing holding him up. (The show was still a beer-swinging, line-kicking, shout-along throwdown.)
The Pogues you ought to know are the Irish-folk-punk trailblazers who recorded Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. Their second album, originally released in 1985 and rereleased in an expanded version in 2005, is a picture of a band at their creative peak and proof of MacGowan's brilliance. The very existence of "lit rock"—bands like the Decemberists, Two Gallants, and Okkervil River who flaunt the knowledge and vocabulary of a comparative literature professor—begins with MacGowan. In the opening song, "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn," MacGowan references a hero of Celtic mythology, the IRA, Italian fascists, and a 1940s Irish opera singer; the story he tells is abstract but bristling with detail:
McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed
Theres a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head
There's devils on each side of you with bottles in their hands
You need one more drop of poison and you'll dream of foreign lands
That one's followed by "The Old Main Drag," about a beating MacGowan got at the hands of police after landing in the drug-fueled tranny scene of London's Piccadilly Circus. A few songs later is the heartbreaking "A Pair of Brown Eyes," about a distraught young lover seeking to drown his sorrows at the pub (while listening to Johnny Cash), only to be out-distraughted by a crippled military veteran with a sadder tale to tell. And the Pogues' eight-minute version of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a ballad about the Battle of Gallipoli, is tragic and haunting—much like MacGowan himself.
There's so much lyrical loam to dig into that going song by song would take pages. (There's a terrific website dedicated to that: www.poguetry.com.) And MacGowan's voice—snarling with punkish grit, or bellowing like a drunken hobo under a full moon, or a clear and sober croon—is always rich with pathos, wit, and weariness. It gave a dignified drama to his words and hit like a kick to the gut.
The Pogues play Wed–Thurs Oct 17–18 at the Showbox Sodo.