When I rang Shane up to tell him that I was finally writing a book about us and that I would probably be on the unstinting side, he said: ‘I don’t give a f**k about that.
It would have been hard to believe at the time, but during their hard living, hard touring, hard drinking days someone within legendary Irish Band The Pogues was soberly making notes. The result is ‘Here Comes Everybody’ a book intriguingly described by it’s Author, the Bands Accordion Player James Fearnley, as‘Creative Non-fiction’. Fearnley’s book begins on 30 June 1980 in London when he arrived, Telecaster in hand, to audition for MacGowan’s band ‘The Nips’ and abruptly ends in Yokohama (30 August 1991) when MacGowan is called to a Band meeting and sacked. As you can well imagine, there is an intriguing story to be told in between.
In an exclusive interview, 3SongsBonn asked Fearnley for his thoughts on the New Book, on the Old Band and on their upcoming Concert in Cologne this August. His answers are honest and with a touch of humour that must have been a life-saver during the tempestuous early years of Pogue Mahone and the roller-coaster ride to success in a mini-van existence that Fearnley likens to the atmosphere of Germany’s epic Naval drama ‘Das Boot’.
Many readers will have seen the band at the now defunct Museumsplatz here last year James. I remember ‘shooting’ the plastic duck that sat on a background speaker 20 times from the photo-pit due to a delay in the band coming onstage. What do you remember of the Bonn visit?
I’m sad to hear that the Museumsplatz is now defunct. I’m sorry to have kept the audience waiting, though I don’t remember there being much of a delay in our coming on stage. I know from time to time it happens; Shane’s transitions from hotel room to passenger van, passenger van to dressing room, dressing room to stage can sometimes meet with the odd obstacle; and indeed, now and again, there is a technical difficulty which has nothing to do with anyone or anything other than bad luck. Once, at one of our Christmas gigs at London’s Brixton Academy, with 5,000 people rammed into the building waiting for us to come on, someone threw a whole pint glass of beer directly into the mixing desk at the back of the hall and set showtime back by half an hour as our technicians replaced modules in the desk by torchlight and with a few thousand angry fans demanding why we hadn’t come on stage yet. I hope your photographs of the duck are some compensation for the annoyance of having to wait.
A trained duck guards The Pogues gear onstage in Bonn…
My recollection of the Museumsplatz was of a very enthusiastic crowd of people – fans, for the most part, obviously, mixed in with maybe the curious – listening to what we have ended up doing, in an environment that was more or less gemütlich, acoustically lenient and all on a pleasant summer’s evening, which is more than you can hope for. We enjoy coming to Germany. It has been a rare opportunity to play in Germany, for weird tax reasons which I just don’t understand. We’ve been keen to play in Germany not just since the country’s reunification, but after our own in 2001 (though we were still playing live a few years after the Wall came down. We were actually in Hamburg the day after the Wall was broken through. The air was full of the distinctive smell of Trabant exhaust fumes).
I’ve very much enjoyed reading your book, but I needed a dictionary on the bedside table for it, which I suspect you’ve heard from a few people. Was this perhaps a deliberate reaction to Victoria Clarke’s very earthy descriptive style in her ‘A drink with Shane MacGowan’ biography?
My grandfather would never read a book without a dictionary within reach. I suppose I wrote the book for him, or people like him. In the book, I describe myself, up on the roof of my block of flats in Camden, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, with the two volumes of the Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary within reach – for words like ‘crannock’ and ‘omophorion’, at least. It’s true, I’ve heard this from a few people, not least from the man who reviewed Here Comes Everybody for The Irish Times last week, who singled out quite a few of them, including the word ‘moil’, which I wouldn’t have thought presented much of a problem, considering the context (a crowd at one of our gigs), and its combination of the words ‘mill’ and ‘roil’, which I would have thought would help the most committed dunce to figure out what it meant and at least to acknowledge that one way economical writing might be achieved by making one word out of two. Anyway. That’s enough of that.
I didn’t read ‘A Drink With Shane MacGowan’.
Your book is extremely accurate in descriptions of people, places and even furnishings from encounters that are 30-40 years old. It seems as if you were making notes with the aim of writing such a book even before the band was famous. When did you first think the events unfolding around you would make a great read?
I’ve been reading the Paris Review lately. In one of the interviews, Philip Larkin described how, in his poetry, he wanted to preserve the elements of particular events. I’m not Philip Larkin, but I understand the preservation thing. That’s what I was doing when I kept a diary back in those days. I didn’t know what I was preserving them for. It just seemed like a good idea at the time, to preserve what I was experiencing. A lot of what we were up to, back then, seemed worth preserving that way. Words are my formaldehyde.
Fellow Pogue Jem Finer recalls that finding you in the early days was largely a case of following the sound of tapping typewriter keys. What were your writing plans then, and will they ever see the light of day?
I’ve lost all that material, for the most part. One short story survives, and a short play I was writing for a class I was taking at the City Literary Institute in London, the adult education centre off Drury Lane. The play I’d like to do something with, eventually. It’s about my grandmother as she was losing her memory – ironically, in the context of what I was saying about preservation – to senile dementia.
You describe how your Manchester accent was a problem in the beginning and how you feared opening your mouth during early band visits to Ireland. Do you remember any incidents where your accent or Englishness led to real trouble as a Pogue?
The Manchester accent was never really a problem for me, until Shane’s paranoia persuaded me, temporarily, otherwise. Shane I think rather relished the idea that it might be a problem – for him. If there were any incidents where my accent led to trouble, they were entirely of Shane’s making or entirely in Shane’s head.
James ‘The Maestro’ Fearnley
Why isn’t your book written more in the form of Ian Hunters ‘Diary of a Rock n Roll Star’ given that you base ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ on your own diary notes? I’m guessing that what you describe as your “Creative non-fiction” style is something that grew out of your involvement with Writers Group ‘The Writers Way’
The creative non-fiction thing is indeed something that has grown out of my attendance at writers’ group. I’ve been going there for fifteen years and I am very indebted to my mentor Nancy Bacal. There’s some very good work that comes out of my *writers’ group. The Writers Way?
Glad to hear you mention Ian Hunter. He was one of my heroes – well, Mott the Hoople was a band I was a fan of in the 70s, and ended up not being able to avoid in the 80s. The status of ‘Diary of a Rock and Roll Star’ is something I hope ‘Here Comes Everybody’ might head towards.
The book deals with your career only up until Shane’s first departure from the band, which sounds very much like a deliberate ‘Part 1 with part 2 to come’?
The structure of ‘Here Comes Everybody’ was built around the load-bearing column of our firing Shane from his job as our singer. To write the sequel, I need an equally strong post, if you understand me. I haven’t found it yet.
Turning the pages made me feel claustrophobic: moving from crowded vans to crowded stages to crowded hotel rooms. Was that how you felt at the time?
As I say on page 157, ‘we were incapable of not drawing parallels between Das Boot and the confinement of our minivan’. That lasted our entire career. It was really ‘Eine Reise ans Ende des Verstandes’.
In comparison, what is touring like now?
Once we had embarked, back then – before mobile phones and the Internet, before we knew about tour managers or much about itineraries, before air travel left the preserve of the well-to-do, before the Eurozone – we were on our own and basically beyond reach. Now, everyone knows where you are and it’s much easier to get around. Back in the twentieth century, we might as well have been in the nineteenth century.
You describe the bands musical competence as making huge leaps through the relentless touring. Each of you developed in that time too, both as musicians and as personalities. How do you see the Pogues now? What is the atmosphere like when you do a gig together? Do you think the Band might do new material?
Our musical competence made steady progress through rehearsing in *Rick Trevan’s back bedroom, where we listened as hard as anyone can listen to what we were doing, which is the only way a musician, or any artist, really, can get any good – by listening hard, and looking, without wavering. That’s what we did, unstintingly sometimes. After a while, alcohol got in the way and stopped a lot of us being able to hear what we were doing. Now, I look around at us all on stage, and, after being overwhelmingly grateful that my friends are all still alive, I know that, with the exception of Shane, our sobriety has made us even better listeners to what we do. Without the distraction of alcohol, we’re just better at being musicians than we were. Sadly, we haven’t made a new record. The answer to your question is: I just don’t know. If we were going to make a new record, we should really have done it by now.
*Rick Trevan – Musician and flatmate of fellow Pogue Jem Finer in whose bedsitroom early rehearsals took place.
You’ve been very candid about your descriptions of people and events. Seeing as the band is still touring, how are they taking your candidness?
The response to my book has ranged from offers of help to proof-read it to, I suspect, not having read it at all. When I rang Shane up to tell him that I was finally writing a book about us and that I would probably be on the unstinting side, he said: ‘I don’t give a fuck about that.’
The quote that most sticks in my mind from ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is:
“More and more the question on peoples’ lips was whether Shane wrote so beautifully because of the amount he drank, or despite it”
What is your own answer to that question?
That question is unanswerable. I would refer you to William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas.
The Pogues now all have their own projects to balance Band outings. Tell me about your own current solo projects.
I have a band in Los Angeles called Cranky George. Dermot Mulroney (actor in ‘The Family Stone’, ‘About Schmidt’) plays cello, mandolin, guitar. Kieran Mulroney (co-writer of ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’) plays violin, ukuleles, guitar. Brad Wood plays bass, hat-box bass drum and is the producer of Ben Lee, Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Sebastian Visconti is our percussionist. He runs a studio in Los Angeles and is a sound editor and record producer. We all sing, full on. We’re in the middle of making our first record.
I’ve been working with John King who was one of the Dustbrothers (Beck’s Odelay and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique). I released a song we recorded together called Hey Ho (available on iTunes, Amazon, etc.) I’m very proud of this song and all the instrumentation on it.
Chevron, Fearnley & MacGowan – Museumsplatz 2011
How much longer can we hope to see The Pogues playing together do you think?
Until one of us dies, is my guess.
Given that The Pogues will forever be immortalised by Shane‘s ‘Sickbed of Cuchulainn’ lyric “Got syph down in Cologne” I hope you yourself have more positive thoughts regarding the show here in August?
I have nothing but positive thoughts about playing in any city anywhere. It’s true you can get sexually transmitted diseases from any city you care to mention. Just unfortunate, if you want to look at it that way, that Cologne happened to rhyme with ‘own’ and have the right number of syllables in it. I love playing in Germany. I always have. It’s always been one of my favourite places to visit. I’m looking forward to coming to Cologne. I’ve spent some happy days there, with the band, and with my fiancee, now my wife of twenty something years.
Thanks for your time and I‘m looking forward to Cologne.