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The Sotted, Sentimental Swagger of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues

The list of cultural seats for the Irish-American diaspora usually starts and ends with New York or Boston. Chicago maybe. But Tulsa? Not so much.

 

Yet here is where you’ll find the only scheduled U.S. showing - fresh from its debut in Dublin - of a critically acclaimed exhibit on Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, the Irish hooligans who somehow channeled the fury of late-70s British punk rock through a mesh of Celtic lyricism and the slightly violent joy of communal Irish pub singing.

 




It turns out Tulsa is the perfect home for They Gave the Walls a Talking: The Extraordinary Story of the Pogues and Shane MacGowan,” according to exhibit curator Niall Stokes, also the founder of the Irish popular music journal Hot Press. The reason is simple, Stokes told me in a brief interview at the exhibit: Tulsa is home to the Bob Dylan Center.

 

“Dylan had a lot of influence on a guy who was influenced by punk rock, but was also looking for a way to connect it to his Irish roots and his Irish identity,” Stokes said. “There is no better home for an exhibit about the work of the Pogues and Shane MacGowan than the Bob Dylan Center.”

 

Dylan and MacGowan, who died late last year, were unapologetic outsiders who followed “The Muse” where she led them – Dylan through his whole career, but especially when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965; MacGowan and the Pogues when they layered do-it-yourself punk rock swagger over traditional Irish music.

 

One of the more interesting Dylan-MacGowan connections is the late Irish folk balladeer Tommy Makem. He and the Clancy Brothers were close friends and mentors to a young Bob Dylan in the early 1960s in Greenwich Village, where they often shared the stage together in places like Gerde’s Folk City. And it was Makem, only 20 years later, who famously declared the Pogues to be “the greatest disaster ever to hit Irish music.”

 

Not that they cared. The original name of the band, Pogue Mahone, comes from an anglicization by James Joyce of the Irish phrase “pog mo thoin,” which means “kiss my ass.”

 

Stokes’ exhibit, augmented in Oklahoma by items donated by Victoria Mary Clark, MacGowan’s wife, does an excellent job of exploring both MacGowan’s early aspirations at literature and poetry, as well as the band’s brawling appeal. One display case shows MacGowan’s precocious childhood composition books. Another contains the battered drinks tray that Pogues’ tin whistler and ‘percussionist’ Spider Stacy used to bang on his head in time with the music.

 

The DIY ethos embodied by Stacy may have set the Pogues apart from traditional Irish groups. But they fit right in among their heroes, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Indeed, just as Clash bassist Paul Simonon famously learned his instrument to join the band, the Pogues’ James Fearnley was handed an accordion – either in a box or a laundry bag, depending on who’s telling the story - and told to learn it if he wanted to join.

 

Jem Finer told Stokes that the “great liberation” of being in the Pogues was that “you were given permission to play and learn as you went along. You didn’t have to be a musician to get involved and make the noise,” Stokes said.

 

Despite the early criticism from some corners of this “noise,” the Pogues wound up taking well-deserved credit for reviving interest in traditional Irish music, and paving the way for bands like Flogging Molly, the Young Dubliners, and the Dropkick Murphys. And they were eventually embraced enough by the establishment that a joint performance of the “The Irish Rover” with the Dubliners became a hit on the British charts in 1987.

 

Certainly the band’s biggest hit and most memorable song is “Fairytale of New York,” in which MacGowan was joined on vocals by Kristy MacColl. The song was co-written by MacGowan and Finer, and the exhibit contains several loose-leaf pages of hand-written lyrics with chord changes. Just as in the Dylan museum one floor below, artifacts like these are a great reminder that songs like this did not exist in the world until someone thought them up and wrote them down.

 

The exhibit also features an excellent playlist of Pogues performances on video, including of this song. MacColl’s performance is lovely. MacGowan’s, with its gentle slur and almost-on-key swoon – “It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank” - is perfect.

 




The exhibit also illuminates one of the most important aspects of MacGowan’s background – that he was an Irishman who grew up in London. His happiest childhood memories were of his grandparents farm in Tipperary, but he was an urban punk. The place where he was raised was not his home. One of my favorite moments in Martin Scorcese’s excellent Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” is Dylan himself talking about this same feeling.

 

“I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be,” Dylan said. “So I’m on my way there.”

 

Irish-born actor Liam Neeson also captured MacGowan’s Dylanesque artistic fearlessness, observing that he “took aspects of the Irish culture and Irish music, kicked it up the arse with a great sense of pride and joy and rebelliousness, and sent it out into the world. And it was feckin’ great.”

 

Unlike the staggeringly prolific Dylan, MacGowan and the Pogues gave us just a handful of albums. But they were great albums, with a singular style. It was worth a trip to Tulsa to remember them.

 

Pro tip: A short walk from the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa is McNellie’s, a fine Irish pub and the perfect spot to raise a glass to Shane and the Pogues.

 

 

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