Faber and Faber; €15.99
Review: Des O’Driscoll
The problem with writing a book subtitled “the story of the Pogues” is that most people really only want to read about one man in that band. Presumably that’s why James Fearnley’s face doesn’t grace the cover of a publication he actually wrote as his own autobiography. Instead we are treated to Shane MacGowan’s gap-toothed grimace.
Perhaps public fascination with the London-born singer is also the reason why the most detailed paragraph in the entire 400 pages is an excruciating description of MacGowan having a wee. Y-fronts, “lolling” foreskin, and drips on trousers and shoes, in case you were wondering.
Fearnley should be in an ideal position to peel back the skin on his former bandmate and give us a more rounded picture of man most of us only know superficially as: a) an abuser of alcohol and other substances; b) a genius songwriter. A Mancunian with no ties to Ireland, Fearnley first encountered MacGowan in 1980, when they played in a band called the Nipple Erectors.
He followed him to The Pogues, where MacGowan became more punk than the punks themselves as he led a band that combined the fizzling energy of that revolutionary musical movement with a drink-sodden Irishness that drew inspiration from Brendan Behan and a long musical tradition.
Unfortunately, despite the slew of anecdotes this book provides, we don’t know a whole lot more about MacGowan by the end of it. Perhaps he really was such an impenetrable creature that the guts of 11 years on the road with him revealed so little. We do read he was a drunken genius whose addiction issues seem to have increased his unreliability as the years went on. There are hints at an unhappy childhood and obvious social anxieties, and glimpses of selfishness and violence, but little of real insight on the man who was at the centre of the band.
Amazingly, this memoir also seems to indicate that being in The Pogues wasn’t half the fun it should have been. They drank as much as you’d imagine, but it wasn’t the sort of happy-go-lucky fare the proud Gael is famous for. This is hit the self-destruct button on a tour you didn’t want to go on anyway, and hope the bus driver is accommodating enough to stop when you need to puke. “A cold, dreary and dismal three weeks”, isn’t exactly the stuff rock’n’roll dreams are made of. To make matters worse, money always seemed to be an issue, even at the height of the band’s fame.
For the musically-inclined, accordion player Fearnley does get into the nitty-gritty of chord progressions and harmonic structures, and there are tales of the colossal figures of Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer, both of whom spent quite a bit of time with the band.
As a piece of writing, the author’s creative flourishes can be over-ambitious and the anecdotes often don’t deliver enough to appeal beyond people with a particular interest in The Pogues or their era. But at the very least, Fearnley has managed to sear that image of Shane MacGowan’s penis on the brain of anyone who reads it. Thanks James.