Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Pogues, "Thousands are Sailing"

For a few years after their US reunion tour in 2006, the Pogues would get together every St. Patrick's Week to play a few New York City shows. It was always at Roseland Ballroom, tickets were always a fortune and it would always sell out. People who went every year would tell you that it was always the same show, right down to identical setlists, encores, props and even entrance music (The Clash's "Straight to Hell.")

I'd talk about going with friends, but we were hesitant. Would it be worth it to see what was left of Shane MacGowan, if he showed up at all? How well could these old men still play, three decades and countless rehab visits later? Eventually, two of my closest drinking buddies and I decided to find out, scoring tickets from Craigslist and picking a Friday night show.

What a night it turned out to be. We struck up conversations at the bar with folks from all over the country, who'd flown or driven to New York just for a chance to get a glimpse of the Pogues. The lights dimmed and the band opened with "Streams of Whiskey," kicking off a night of impassioned chants and bad dancing (the jig dancers couldn't mosh, and the moshers couldn't jig, so we all sort of met each other halfway.) Shane, the most unhealthy-looking performer that I've ever seen, was helped on and off stage for nearly every other song, clasping a drink and a cigarette while barking and crooning out of that toothless gap on his face. There was no way to romanticize his condition, but he gave it his best shot, and every note that he missed somehow landed on your heartstrings. For one night, in one room, St. Patrick's Day felt special again and not disgusting. It was as distant from the outside world's St. Fratrick's Day antics as William Butler Yeats is from Troy Duffy.

Guitarist Phil Chevron, the longtime first mate stepping up for the drunken captain, held down the fort like a dapper old pro, getting rowdy with the boys for "If I Should Fall From Grace with God" and "Body of an American" while somehow never losing his bowler. He took the spotlight to sing "Thousands are Sailing," his own beautiful Ellis Island story that offered a hand to the huddled masses while issuing a challenge Reagan's Immigration Reform Act. There may be no better representation of the Pogues' blend of celtic music's poetry and punk rock's spunk, or the brashness and community that makes both of them special. Thousands of us sang along, raising a glass to JFK and a dozen more besides. Pretty sure that some of us were crying, too.

For Phil Chevron, 1957-2013.

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