Before my surgery, I would avoid standing-room-only concerts, since I'd spend the entire night trying to lean against various walls/gates/garbage cans/random strangers, then hobble out of the place the instant the last song was over and spend the next day in bed hopped up on painkillers. After the surgery...yeah, not much difference. I did, however, get through my first post-surgical concert and the only damage was getting my mind totally blown...and probably a mild contact high from breathing the same oxygen as lead singer Shane MacGowan. I can't think of a better band to welcome me back to the world of live music than The Pogues.
I was introduced to The Pogues when I was 17 by K.G., a guy I used to play basketball with. I had been listening to second-generation Celtic rock/punk music (Flogging Molly, Great Big Sea, etc) without having ever heard of Shane MacGowan, which is kind of like being a fan of Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen without having ever heard of Jesus. K.G. offered to show me the light and soon I was spending significant chunks of my undergraduate career in his apartment drinking green tea, eating veggie burgers and getting my worldview throughly rearranged by the weird-voice trifecta of Bob Dylan, Shane MacGowan and Neil Young; (I kind of missed the "spend your undergraduate career having sloppy drunken sex" memo). K.G. and I had some ridiculous falling-out five or six years ago (oh, my melodramatic teenage years!) and I haven't seen him since, but my love of The Pogues remains.
So, even though the concert would require me to stand for hours, I was determined to see The Pogues before Shane MacGowan drops dead from the various substances he's been injesting since the '70s; (I've listened to an interview where he claims to have eaten several Beatles records because he was high and believed he was making a statement to Russian diplomats about American Imperialism). My dad drove me to Seattle where the concert was being held (he wanted to go to a car swap meet there) and by 7:30 I was thoroughly hopped up on Extra-Strength Tylenol and Diet Coke and ready to rock; (I know. So punk rock). My plan was to go early and find a seat so that I would not spend the rest of the night getting bodyslammed by wankers flailing around to "Body of An American."
I used the cripple card to get me to the front of the line, but by the time I got indoors all of the seats had been taken by people who were smirking and sitting on their precious chairs as if on thrones and chatting with their equally smirky friends who could watch their chairs when they went to the bathroom so that no six-foot-tall limpy Canadians could steal them. I tried guilt-tripping the ones who were holding empty seats for their friends ("Is that seat taken?...Oh?....It is?....Well, *hobble hobble, pathetic look* I guess I'll just have to find...somewhere else to sit...I just had a hip replacement, you know...") but no one cracked. I did, however, use my ninja stealth powers to steal a folding chair when a bouncer wasn't looking--this bouncer must have either been half-blind or else let me have the chair, since I'm pretty sure that a six-foot-two chick dragging both a cane and a folding chair while limp-shuffling along was not exactly inconspicuous--and planted the chair right in the middle of the dance floor. Not too many people had arrived for the opening act and I could even still see the stage.
I was feeling mighty smug until the folly of my plan became clear. If you're in a room with hundreds of people who are guzzling beer (and, judging by the smell, subsisting on a diet of rancid meat and onions), the very last place you want to be is at ass level. The stench (and people tripping over me and spilling their beers) drove me from my chair and I spent the time between sets sitting on a bench outside the bathroom pretending I was waiting for a friend, feeling a little sorry for myself.
But when Shane MacGowan and the Pogues finally arrived on-stage, all of the waiting and chair-stealing and leaning against various objects was worth it. True, Shane MacGowan is moving a little slower these days (who isn't?) and he dropped the mic stand into the crowd roughly 15 times and forgot some of the words and was often several beats behind the music and whenever he spoke it sounded like a toothless bear growling into a walkie-talkie, but the man can still do the banshee scream during "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" like he fucking means it. Though his voice hasn't aged like fine wine, it has perhaps aged like leftover chili: more depth, if less spiciness. And the band, to their credit, did a fantastic job of keeping up with him. I was so happy that I didn't even mind when two hipsters dressed like European toddlers circa 1894 kept bashing into me in their attempts to dance. (Well, ok, I did mind, but I didn't elbow anyone in the forehead).
A couple of days before the concert, A. asked me what on earth I saw in The Pogues. I have tried for three years to turn A. into a Pogues fan, but still whenever I have them playing in the car he begins to writhe around in his seat and beg me to turn them off because the fiddles and '80s-production-values saxophones and mandolins are too much for him. Even the fact that the Pogues make up an important part of the soundtrack for "The Wire" couldn't convince him of their greatness. At the time, I gave some half-assed answer about how they were "fun" and I "just liked them."
Towards the end of the concert, however, I realized what my answer should have been. Throughout the night, the band dedicated many songs to Kristy MacColl, who collaborated with Shane on "Fairytale of New York" and who toured with them in the late '80s. Kristy MacColl was killed in a boating accident while saving her son and Oct. 10th would have been her 50th birthday. As one of the last songs, Shane dedicated "Rainy Night in Soho" to her ("we watched our friends grow up together/ and we watched them as they fell/ some of them fell into heaven/ some of them fell into hell"..."now the song is nearly over/ we may never find out what it means/ still there's a light I hold before me/ you're the measure of my dreams."). "Rainy Night in Soho" is one of my favorite Pogues songs because of its ambivalence: equal parts sadness and regret and fondness and nostalgia and resignation.
I think this ambivalence is what I love most about The Pogues' songs. Most of the lyrics are about lives that have not gone according to plan, loves that have not gone according to plan, and hopes and dreams and ambitions that have been waylaid. This is, of course, familiar territory for most musicians, but I think the reason that Shane MacGowan is a genius is because he doesn't just write a love song, or a breakup song, or a my-life's-fucked-up song or a drinking song: he writes all of them at once. Even the darkest songs have moments of humour or sweetness and even the love songs are a little bit sad. He is kind of like the Cormac McCarthy of songwriting: not afraid to show the shit and puke and blood of every-day life, not trying to glorify or vilify a lifestyle, but merely explore it.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love Destroyer and Pavement and Echo & The Bunnymen and all those bands who create layered sonic landscapes and write sly, biting, often-nonsensical lyrics with puns and little jokes, those songs that make you think, "Yeah, this could be a break-up song, but it could also be about heroin." But at this stage of my life (at the ripe old age of 26), what with the hip and the unemployment and the short-on-longterm-goal-ness of my life, I'm beginning to appreciate The Pogues less for their high-energy dance music (because, let's face it, I am officially at the age where being in the mosh pit might kill me) and more for the emotional tenor of their songs.
I suspect that this is a common Pogues response. Towards the end of the night, I was caught in the ambivalence of never wanting the show to end and wanting the show to end immediately so that I could sit down. I looked around and there were several old guys (I suspect I was not the only one with a fake hip since I was not the only one who pumped a fist in the air during the lyric "I will not be reconstructed!") leaning and shifting uncomfortably: one hand swaying in the air during "Rainy Night in Soho," one hand on their aching backs, probably wishing like I was that they could be up at the front sustaining hearing loss and rib-cage bruising from being crushed against the railing. (I was remembering being at the front of a Spirit of the West concert nearly 10 years ago, when I snuck into the club using my cousin's ID and ran into K.G. and during the show the drummer, who was celebrating his birthday, fed K.G. cake). Even Shane had to shuffle off the stage every once in awhile for a little rest and a cigarette. It was this "we're fucked up in the most mundane, least punk-rock ways but we're still on our feet with our firsts in the air" quality that resonates with me, and it's the reason why The Pogues are a great band.
So, yes, it's 2 p.m. the next day and I'm still in bed recovering from the night before and I haven't done my exercises, but it was totally worth it. (And, K.G., wherever you are, thanks).