On Friday night, as part of the Dublin Writers Festival, James Fearnley took to the stage in Liberty Hall to discuss the writing of, and the experiences which inspired his book ‘Here Comes Everybody’. Fearnley and his accordion have been a mainstay of The Pogues since the very early eighties, though the beginning of his book starts with an end of sorts. Fearnley had wanted to emulate Harold Pinter, who had said of his play Betrayal that he wished to show a vase, shattered on the floor, and through something like reverse time-lapse, piece the shards together again. For The Pogues, the vase shattered in August of 1991, after a series of tough gigs. Something needed to be done about Shane, whose willful abandonment had come to a climax. When Shane was summoned into the room, he had a face the colour of grout, says Fearnley. They’d been dreading it, but Shane responded quite simply “What took you so long?”
That which emerged at the heart of the evening was largely a heartfelt discussion of Shane MacGowan. ‘This…..sheer mind, a force of nature really” is what, after all lies at the very core of The Pogues. And as part of not just a band, but a brotherhood, Fearnley says that he and his companions were held ransom to MacGowan’s dementure. The constant inconsistency between Shane being able to express himself so beautifully and eloquently in songs, and yet not being able to tell his bandmates that his life with The Pogues “was doing him in” plagued the band dynamic. There is a sense, as Fearnley speaks, that he and the rest of the band were – and to an extent still are – in complete awe of MacGowan. There were some great impressions of his wayward bandmate, over the course of the evening, Fearnley’s endearing Yorkshire accent vanishing in favour of Shane’s London drawl, and accompanying list of obscenities.
Fearnley hadn’t liked Shane when he first met him at an audition. He was, at that time, known as Shane O’Hooligan, frontman of The Nips. Fearnley had disapproved of Shane at the very first – likewise, so had his father, who never really seemed to get a handle on Shane, though he, like everyone else, recognised the authenticity of his voice and lyrics. Fearnley, now appreciates his father’s fears. He has the same anxieties for his own children, who luckily he states, are yet to meet their own Shane MacGowan. Over his dead body, laughs Fearnley.
The guitar that Fearnley bought as his ticket out of Yorkshire, turned out to be little use; Jem Finer rolled up at his house with an accordion in a laundry bag, and instructions from Shane that Fearnley had two weeks to learn to play it. The buttons were hard work, and Fearnley abandoned them eventually when he realised he couldn’t hear what he was doing over the racket made by his bandmates. All the Pogues taught themselves the instruments which they would eventually wind up playing, though Fearnley considered himself the only musician in the band (“Yeah, that’s pretty pompous!”) because it was his job to tune up the instruments.
Songwriting was often a tough process. Though Shane would prepare a hotchpotch of lyrics and sometimes a tune, the band had to positively drag the chords out from him. However, ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ proved the exception to the rule; Shane knew what the song was going to do down to each precise detail, and had turned up to rehearsals in a suit to match the solemnity of the occasion. Fearnley couldn’t always tell whether they were playing old Irish songs or Shane’s own – he didn’t know, for example that Shane wrote the rip-roaring ‘Sally Maclennane’, until a long time after the song became successful.
Fearnley’s anecdotes were endless; Elvis Costello giving Shane one of his vintage guitars, and Shane transporting it everywhere in a plastic bag; Daryl Hunt, bassist, relishing hurling the van round icy hairpin bends while on tour in Scandinavia, with Shane screaming from the backseat: “I’M READY TO DIE!!! I’VE BEEN TO NORWAY AND I’M READY TO DIE!!!” When the group survived unscathed, Fearnley joyfully discovered that he was of Viking blood, via the six pages of Fearnleys he located in the Oslo phonebook. Certainly the story of The Pogues has its grave edges, but the surreal humour of events certainly seems to give ‘Here Comes Everybody’ its driving force.
When asked which song he felt the most proud of, or which he felt he’d made the biggest contribution to, it was ‘Fairytale of New York’, not just the band’s most famous song, but the one that Fearnley thinks was easily the most difficult to get right. Recording it with just he and Shane in each others earpieces, both terrified that either one of them would mess up at any moment, Fearnley says he sensed a certain kind of magic, which he still feels every time they perform the opening bars. When it came to shooting the video, Fearnley had walked up to the piano to sit down, before being informed that actually, the director would prefer Shane to play piano. Shane plays the piano, sure, but with two fingers. The bigger insult to his sensibilities, Fearnley says, was having to put all of Shane’s grubby rings on for the close ups of his hands. Shane had handed them over begrudgingly, as if it was Fearnley who had caused the disturbance, plonking them unceremoniously into his palm, one at a time.
The book is brutally honest, though not, Fearnley claims, a mere kiss and tell. He felt that he, like Philip Larkin, had set about his literary endeavour with the aim of preserving something – and that the story of The Pogues demanded preservation. He hoped the band wouldn’t view the book as an act of unkindness, and gave them the typescript. Reactions ranged from members offering an invaluable hand with proof reading to, he suspects, in some cases not reading the book at all.
Fearnley showed the audience his notebook, from which he read excerpts of the book. The writing is absolutely miniscule “so no one on tour could be bothered reading it”. He started keeping a journal in earnest in 1981, just before the band really began to take off. He wanted to mirror the minute detail of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the sense of surroundings à la Joyce. What comes across throughout the evening, is that Fearnley is a man well read, and an Englishman well-rehearsed in Irish music, though little did he know that The Pogues would go on to create their own genre, not just revolutionising Irish music, but also its perception in the music industry.
It was natural that the discussion would have to cover the pervasive role that alcohol played in the band’s heritage. Fearnley, not entirely tongue in cheek, says that The Pogues definitely suffered at the hands of racial profiling. Shane couldn’t, and still can’t walk down the street without being bought a drink by a fan. Since 2001, The Pogues have been back – and have now been reformed for longer than they were originally together. In the summer, they will play at the Strummer of Love Festival, in support of The Joe Strummer Foundation For New Music, commemorating ten years since Strummer’s death. It was Strummer who took over from Shane after his departure from the band in 1991. Though Strummer’s death was unexpected, Fearnley says that when playing with The Pogues, he looks around quite honestly astounded that they are all still alive. To him it seems that some, if not all of them could/should be dead. The Pogues he thinks, are doomed to one another, and Fearnley’s pretty grateful.
As are the fans. The stage presence which The Pogues continue to command, as the eight of them stroll on stage, in Fearnley’s words “walking on like police closing off a street” is definitely worth witnessing. The mix of ages at the talk certainly proved that The Pogues continue to attract new fans, as well as retaining old ones. Fearnley is now in the process of writing a novel, but unlike his retelling of the story of The Pogues, the characters can do anything, which has left him feeling, he admits, “absolutely scared shitless”. They are not suspended by their circumstances in the way that The Pogues had been. It remains to be seen as to whether their story will be as interesting.
Certainly the evening showcased the genius of Shane MacGowan, but also bore witness to Fearnley’s own creative merit. It is in telling the story of Shane Macgowan, it seems, that Fearnley has finally moved out of his shadow.