By Michael Corcoran
The Drunken Irish Bastard is back. He smiles through rotten teeth, dressed to swill in a baggy black suit. He’s standing there where the dreams end, trying to put his soul into words that match the tempo of his heart. He’s the man who knows too much about something he can’t name and it drives him crazy until the liquor finally rescues him and the ghosts take him home and put him to bed.
– Spin magazine, May 1988
It’s the rock critic’s fantasy — go on tour with your favorite band — and mine came true in June 1988, when Spin magazine called me and said get your shit packed yer going on the road with the Pogues! This was my seat on Led Zeppelin’s private jet, my booty call from Madonna. I think you’d have to go back to 1970 and the Jackson 5 to find me as crazy about a group as I was with the Pogues in 1988.
Growing up in an Irish-Catholic household, where the Clancy Brothers, “The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers and “Danny Boy” by everyone topped the airplay chart, I had an aversion to Irish music. Like a hip hop kid whose parents played the blues. That was the shit I was rebelling against when I went all in on soul music and rock n’ roll. But then, when I was in my late twenties I started hearing about this band of former punk rockers, produced by my hero Elvis Costello, who lit a fire under traditional Irish music. Originally called Pogue Mahone (“Kiss my arse” in Gaelic), the Pogues were led by Shane MacGowan, a songwriting genius who suggested that Tom Waits grew up in Kilkenny, where there were neither gruff, black winos nor dentists.
Their second album was my first. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash didn’t do all that much for me, really, until deep into side two and its tale of Gallipolli, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” MacGowan didn’t write it — Australian Eric Bogle did — but Shane’s telling was like Richard Burton’s Hamlet. The song was his! “And the Band Played…” hit the switch for me on the Pogues. Suddenly, all their songs were better. I went and bought the first LP Red Roses For Me and then the EP that had “The Body of an American” (later used in The Wire Irish burial scene). If you came into China Sea Tattoo on the Drag in ’86, you heard the Pogues blaring from the t-shirt shop in the back. A whole new old world opened up for me. My people!
That was around the time I started freelancing for Spin magazine, which was trying to be Rolling Stone’s hip rival. I mainly did the humor pieces on the back page at first, but then the editors started giving me album assignments and a couple front-of-the-book profiles. I let it be known that I was highly available to review the next Pogues LP and one day I got a copy of If I Should Fall From Grace With God in the mail, with a quick deadline. They wanted it as the lead review of the May 1988 issue, so I had some space. Now I just needed some “talent,” which was the code word for methamphetamine in my circle.
Okay, the usual album review takes two or three hours to write. I started writing my Pogues review as soon as I got off work- 6 p.m.- and didn’t stop for 15 hours. Two lines of speed to start, one more at about midnight and the last one at 4 a.m. Always for work, never in excess- that was my rule with the white stuff that was sometimes brown.
I used to worry that I drank too much, that my gambling was out of hand, that my language was offensive, that I spent too much time daydreaming, that my outlook on life was fatalistic, that I was incapable of sustaining a long relationship, that I would never understand money and that eventually I would go to prison for a crime I did not commit. Then I listened to the Pogues and stopped worrying. Today I stand before you and proudly declare, “Hey, world, I’m a Drunken Irish Bastard and if you don’t like it, well, here, I got something your wife might like.”
That lead graf took about an hour, though it would be retyped at least a dozen times through the night. I went on:
Drunken Irish Bastards used to be hot tuna, man, with guys like Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Damon Runyon, John Huston, Ring Lardner, John McGraw, Stephen Foster and all the rest of them fightin’ and fuckin’ and fallin’ down all the way to the top. Then, I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it was no longer cool to stagger around, slurring epithets and peeing into the potted palms at the El Morocco while horrified autograph seekers looked on. Christ, look what happened to Declan MacManus (slave name: Elvis Costello) when he tried to revive Drunken Irish Bastardry in the late Seventies. Poor guy got his glasses knocked off by Bonnie Bramlett just for mouthing off. You should’ve heard what Fitzgerald used to say about Ray Charles.
That night was the most fun I’ve ever had with my fingers. As my girlfriend, a British actress, slept on the other side of the room, I banged that Smith-Corona til the sun came up.
Shane MacGowan is the new savior of Drunken Irish Bastards. Unstable, boozed-up visionaries of Irish descent are turning up on more and more “What’s Hot” lists, thanks to the songs and brave vocals of MacGowan and the play of his Pogues. I expect this album to do for the proliferation of the DIB what Farrah Fawcett did for the curling iron… The Pogues realize that the key to being Drunken Irish Bastards is to be absolutely white. Their music is virtually devoid of Negroid influence. This is white boy funk music, the stuff of our ancestors created when they were as oppressed as blacks are now. It’s got guts and soul, and will make poor people dance until 4 a.m., even if they have to be at work at 7.
I didn’t even stop for bathroom breaks, draining into an empty coffee can. I think I used up a year’s supply of dopamine that night!
The dream dies every day and, as at an Irish wake, the mourners toast their dead and sit around the coffin getting drunk until the pain is acceptable. Drunken Irish Bastards go through that ritual every night as penance for the sin of not finding the answer to the big question. If you can swing it, like the Pogues, you put your Hail Marys and Our Fathers on albums and release your Act of Contrition as a 12-inch single.
After Spin published the review, I was pretty much the hot new critic in the country, no shit, with editors tracking me down at the t-shirt shop and offering gigs. I had been writing for Texas Monthly, too, and even had an agent at ICM wanting to talk to me about representation. At age 32, I was finally becoming the writer I always knew I was going to be. I played myself as having overblown self esteem, when actually the opposite was true. But with some success I started thinking quite highly of myself.
“Get ready to win another award,” I said to my editor at Texas Monthly when I plopped 28 typewritten pages about Vidor, “the home of the Texas Ku Klux Klan,” on his desk in the spring of ’88. Corky, the self-important one, wasn’t an act anymore.
And then I got the dream assignment to write a feature about the Pogues’ Summer ‘88 tour of the American South. The plan was to meet the band in Austin, before the show at Liberty Lunch, then fly to New Orleans, where they had a gig at Tipitina’s. Then I would board the tour bus with the Pogues to shows in Birmingham, AL and Memphis, and somehow get back to New Orleans for my return flight to Austin. I’d stay in the hotels where the band stayed and have total access for three days. All expenses paid by the label. There was no doubt in my mind that this finished piece would be my first cover story for Spin. I was reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor for inspiration.
But I forgot about the personal side of the work. Talking to the band, gaining their trust, being the nail in the wall, recording everything. I saw this being my Hunter S. Thompson moment- lessons on human nature while trying to drink the drunkest band in existence under the table. I wouldn’t say I was delusional, because all this shit was suddenly happening in my life after a 10-year struggle, but inflated self-appraisal? Oh, yeah.
When I came backstage before the Liberty Lunch show, I saw one of the band members throwing up outside the window, which was so tall someone had to hold up his ankles. I had, quite literally, gotten in over my head. The show was sloppy, uninspired, with MacGowan so drunk his singing was a constant slur, but the crowd was going nuts. The after-show party was at a suite at the Omni, but it wasn’t fun because every Irish drunk in town was in the hallway, trying to get in, and the band seemed a bit out of sorts. I didn’t help the mood by chiding them about the disappointing Liberty Lunch show. “I know five Mexicans, Los Lobos, who could outplay the seven Irish guys I heard tonight!” I said. Is there a malady called Groupie Tourette’s?
This is the thing I could never figure out about myself. Why am I so compulsively argumentative? It’s almost like I have a verbal masochistic fetish. You would think that, when I meet my heroes, I would tone down the adversarial attitude, but sometimes it even gets worse. It’s like I’m overcompensating for being starstruck. Here are some actual things I’ve said to people I admire:
To Rosanne Cash: “Your father’s voice isn’t really anything special.”
To Elvis Costello: “When you stole some of those riffs from Donovan and Booker T. and the MGs, that was done as an homage, right?”
To Bruce Springsteen: “I’m so glad you didn’t do ‘Highway Patrolman’ tonight. That’s my song. I couldn’t stand having to listen to it with 2,000 other people.”
But that was all small stuff compared to my time with the Pogues, in the band’s classic lineup, except Cait O’Riordan had just left to be Mrs. Elvis Costello and was replaced by a young, good-looking guy.
Let me describe my 24 hours in New Orleans, where I met the fellas and crew at the hotel, and chatted for a bit on the bus with Phillip Chevron, whose “Thousands Are Sailing” was one of the band’s best new songs. Off to a good start. Then I rode with them to the soundcheck and got some good MacGowan color. Shane was the last one on the bus, already shitfaced and carrying a bottle of port. He sat at the back booth and let the bottle slide off the table on the bus’ first turn. He picked it up and slapped it down and the same thing happened on the next turn. Nobody in the band seemed to notice. Port wine drenched the carpet.
Shane was the gravy train and he was a mess. “We know we’ve got a problem,” the accordion player James Fearnley said to me, not caring who heard. “It’s a fucking drag. But at this point there’s nothing we can do.”
A couple of the crew members took me aside at sound check and gave me some mushrooms, which I took about an hour before the show. I was drinking on the record label tab, high on psychedelics, and, guess what, the Tip’s show was much better than the Austin one. The band was in a really good mood afterwards and we all went to a bar called the Dungeon, which served eight-ounce beers and played shitty hair metal music. In his own world, Shane was taken away by the two most beautiful women on the planet.
Somewhere between the end of the show and leaving the Dungeon, there was some cocaine, but I don’t really remember the details. I only know that coke “turns me into” an abrasive motormouth know-it-all. We’re all lucky I could never afford the shit, but when it was offered…
The guys I ended up drinking with until the sun came up were tinwhistle player Spider Stacy and drummer Andrew Ranken. Spider was as nice as could be, but Ranken and I butted heads early and often. He was kinda like me. And high as fuck. I was trying to tell them about Vidor, Texas, how it had remained an all-white town, even though it was six miles from Beaumont, which had a large black population. And I guess in my fucked-up state I trampled the nuances and came off like a supporter of the Klan. That’s what I found out, horrified, about 25 years later, when I had coffee with the Pogues manager Frank Murray and asked him why I got thrown off the tour before it really started.
I had actually come by the next day to tell the tour manager that I didn’t think I could ride on the bus with the guys, my heroes, who had told me “you’re a loudmouthed cunt and we want you to leave!” at the bar at 7 a.m. My plan was to meet the band in Memphis for one more round of interviews, then catch the bus back to New Orleans. But the roadie said, “the band decided they don’t want you around.”
It wasn’t unexpected- I was a contrarian asshole- but still crushing. Besides hurt feelings, what was I going to tell Spin? And what was I going to do in New Orleans- on my own dime- for three days until my plane left with me on it? This was before ATMs, I think, and I didn’t have a credit card. Luck had my back, though, and I ended up going on the road with Dash Rip Rock, a rock trio from New Orleans who I’d met at the first SXSW a year earlier. By the end of their jaunt to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, we had decided that I would move to New Orleans and manage the band. They were fucking fantastic and lots of fun.
The whole Pogues fiasco was the alarm going off on my idyllic existence in Austin. After four years writing for the Austin Chronicle, I’d become so full of myself that even I didn’t want to read what I had to say.
I was working out the details with the Dash guys, thinking I’d need a month to get out of Austin, when a couple of my friends came by my hovel on the Drag behind a shoe repair shop. “Why don’t you move to San Francisco with us?” they said. Both Brent and Scott had managed or worked closely with bands and they said I wasn’t cut out for management. The exhausting daily scenario they described boiled down to “none of the credit, all of the blame” and so I called the Dash guys (who seemed relieved) and headed in the opposite direction.
I could afford the move only because a couple days earlier I had unexpectedly received a check for $2,000 from Texas Monthly, the full fee for my Vidor piece. The story never ran and it didn’t win any awards. But it got me out of Austin, where I was becoming the Corky caricature in real life. The Pogues were still my favorite band, but I couldn’t listen to their music for a few months after New Orleans. I blew that one, or maybe it was doomed from the start.
From the upcoming memoir The Worst Thing To Happen To Austin Music.
Pogues setlist at Tipitina’s 6/9/88: 1. The Broad Majestic Shannon 2. Medley / The Rocky Road to Dublin / The Galway Races 3. Repeal 4. Kitty 5. If I Should Fall From Grace With God 6. Boat Train 7. Metropolis 8. Rainy Night in Soho 9. Thousands Are Sailing 10. N.W.3 11. Bottle Of Smoke 12. Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six 13. Lullaby Of London 14. Johnny Come Lately 15. Dirty Old Town 16. Turkish Song Of The Damned 17. Sketches of Spain 18. Fiesta 19. Sickbed 20. Sally MacLennane 21. A Pair Of Brown Eyes 22. Dog
I have a son; his name is Jack. Growing up, he didn’t really go for my music much and I didn’t force anything on him. He loved the Beatles and the Sex Pistols and whatever was on “Guitar Hero.” But he didn’t go much for Springsteen or Dylan or the Staple Singers.
One day I was playing Rum, Sodomy and during “Waltzing Matilda,” he came from the other room and asked “who’s this?” That was a first. And that was all it took. During his sophomore year of high school all he played was the Pogues, as well as their Green Days — Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, etc. He had found his identity. He was the Celtic kid with red hair.
I heard that Milwaukee had one of the best Irish music festivals in the country and during the summer before his junior year I took Jack. I had met the band Gaelic Storm, whose guitarist lives in Austin, and they set me up with all the best credentials, so when the skies opened up and the torrential downpour scattered Paddys, I made a beeline for backstage. I looked back and Jack stayed in the middle of the storm, listening to an Irish folksinger onstage.
The old man was Francis McPeake and the song Jack couldn’t leave was “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” also known as “Wild Mountain Thyme” or “Purple Heather.” It’s a classic Irish folk tune which McPeake first recorded in 1957. We ended up in a tight room with the Belfast singer, who told a great story about teaching John Lennon how to play the bagpipes. “Do you have a cigarette, lad?” he asked Jack, who said he didn’t smoke. Jack told me later that when I turned away, McPeake eyed him and whispered, knowingly, “ya smoke.” That cracked us up.
OK, it’s three years later and Jack has started playing the ukulele. We’re at a big family reunion in Oregon and my father, a Mick from the South Bronx, is hitting the sauce and he wants to hear some Irish songs. All the other cousins are ignoring him, but Jack gets his uke and sits at the table with the old man. He plays “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?” and he’s really belting it. I’m wondering where did this confidence come from? He’s singing it just like Mr. McPeake did in the rain in Milwaukee. My dad is just beside himself: the kid stays in the will! Then Jack sings a couple of Pogues songs- “The Leaving of Liverpool” and “Dirty Old Town.” He even does “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and I see him as a young man.
And what became of my deal with ICM? In March 1987, just five months after he sent me the letter, Mr. Sanjurjo succumbed to cancer. A native of Puerto Rico, Luis Sanjurjo graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a Civil Rights attorney before he became a literary agent. His clients included Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Of course I kept this letter.