The Fine Art of Falling Apart: James Fearnley's Literary Take on Life with the Pogues
Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues By James Fearnley Faber & Faber
In case you hadn't noticed, there's been a veritable Tsunami of rock bios recently. I blame Dylan myself. Previously the province of lazily ghostwritten quick cash in hagiographies, the huge critical (and commercial) success of Chronicles seemed to propel every other pop star on the planet to unleash their inner Tolstoy, often unwisely, upon a hitherto unsuspecting public. These have included the good (Richard Hell's I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp), the bad (Justin Bieber's First Step 2 Forever), and the frankly ridiculous (Ronnie Wood's unintentionally hysterical Ronnie: The Biography). One book in particular, however, has recently stood out like a shining beacon amidst a cesspool of festering crapulence, and that's James Fearnley's Here Comes Everybody: the Story of the Pogues.
Fearnley, the band's accordionist and all-round multi-instrumentalist has created an account both lyrical, moving, hysterical and darkly downbeat of the rise and fall of the Pogues, the heroically ramshackle gang of miscreants who fused the splenetic fervor of Punk with age-old Celtic Folk, a band whom Tom Waits compared to a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life, whose music was like "the brandy of the damned." It's a rock biography with the structure of a good novel, vividly conjuring up images of London in the '80s. Not, it should be pointed out, the avaricious cess pit of the in your face Thatcherite era, rather the shambling world of post-punk squats and squalid bed-sits and the down at heel boozers of the resolutely unfashionable Kings Cross and Kentish Town. It's the London of the Irish Diaspora, a world of guttersnipe romantics, the dissolute, and the dispossessed. The Pogues were their chroniclers and in the figure of the increasingly volatile Shane MacGowan, they had their own Gin-soaked and speed-fuelled Poet Laureate. All of which is captured brilliantly by Fearnley. Indeed, being a fan of the Pogues is no prerequisite to enjoying Here Comes Everybody -- if you enjoy tales of the music world by someone who can actually write, then look no further. That said, while the book came out last spring in the UK (and is about to get republished in paperback), it's yet to get a physical US release. It's available as an E-book, however, and is easily (and cheaply) ordered on import.
We talked to James Fearnley, by phone, from his home in Los Angeles.
There's been a glut of rock bios recently. Did any in particular stand out for you? I think the Keith Richards one stood out -- if I could get people to talk about my book the way they did about his, I'd be doing all right.
What were you aiming for with the book? I wanted it to be a good rock n'roll -- or folk punk really -- memoir, but I wanted to write it like a novel, so that somebody reading it could actually see what was going on as opposed to simply regaling them with tales of life on the road and recording and what we did next. I wanted to take the reader into those hotel rooms and recording studios and fill them with people and make it read like a novel. I tried really hard to do that.
How did the book come about? I'd written a tour diary for the Pogues website, which provided a kind of impetus, they were good practice but they weren't to a particular point...when it comes to the scope of a memoir, you have to have a point and a goal to which you're heading towards, and that was obviously letting Shane go in 1991, and for Shane to say, "What took you so long?" And that question allowed me to go through the whole trajectory of it and try to figure out myself just why it did take us so long to let him go.
You were an aspiring novelist in the early days weren't you? Yeah, I'd always wanted to write, but I was never any good at finishing things, I had reams of shit but I could never really wrap it up into a complete form. I think in the early days I wanted to play a little hard to get with Jem (Finer) and Shane, I told them if anything got in the way of my writing, I'd have to jack the Pogues in! (Laughs)
Did you get much input from the rest of the band? Yeah, in the stages of proofreading I did. I'd email people in the band about hard facts, like dates and what not. I gave everybody a copy of the transcript in the summer of 2011. Philip (Chevron) read his, apparently, on a train between Kings Cross and Chichester, which I thought was far too short a time to read something as long as this (laughs).
Shane came out with a great quote, "It's just how I'd imagine I'd remember it!" Yeah (laughs), that was very kind of him, 'cos I'd read him elsewhere saying he was mystified that it was such a guilt trip! But I think Shane wanted something I could use, and I asked him if I could, and of course he said yes. He's good that way, he's always been very talented with words, as we all know.
Did writing it make you reassess anything? Oh God yeah, for me it was largely trying to figure Shane out in relation to myself, 'cos it didn't seem enough to just sum it up like my brother once did. He said, "You're like a couple of flints," and that wasn't enough for me, y'know? I can't just write that down in a book. I wanted to know...how we were like that. I wanted to know how someone who could write these beautiful poetic lyrics couldn't sit down and tell us how touring and making records was hurting him. He could write about hurt and pain in his songs but he couldn't express his own pain to us. And I found that interesting.
Looking back the band must have been aware that Shane was coming apart...(Pauses) We knew. But it's a hard one. I mean my take on it at the time very much came as a result of my parenting, which was very much the phlegmatic, opinionated Manchester culture, y'know, an attitude of, "What's the fucking matter with you? Just fucking buck up!" But I'm also a sensitive person, so Shane's behavior put those two sides of me into conflict. And add to that a load of denial. And the momentum of making records and being in a band and touring...it was a cycle, and touring's hard...but still, the show's gotta go on, and I'm sorry that you can't handle it, but the wheel has to keep on turning and we've just got to find a way to get you onstage and get on with the gigs, and then you can go back to your hotel room, but we're going to do it all over again tomorrow.
You seem, throughout the book, both fascinated, perplexed, awestruck and driven to distraction by Shane. Indeed. You do get confronted by uncomfortable stuff when you're in his company! (laughs)
How's your relationship with Shane these days? Pretty non-existent really, if only 'cos I live over here in LA...and when we're on the road these days, Shane tends to keep himself to himself. That said, as I say at the end of the book, there's only one person that I dream about as much as my father and that's Shane MacGowan. And that's still the case, there's just something about Shane that I can't dislodge, and to be honest, I'd be disappointed if I were able to dislodge him.
You point out in the book that you, as a group, were always torn between whether Shane was, in fact, a genius or "a fucking idiot"... (Sighs). Yeah, there always was that dichotomy.
So. Which is it? Genius? Or idiot? What??! (laughing uproariously) You want me to come down on one side or the other? I can't! I'll have to paraphrase myself. As an evolved poet, Shane is second to none - well, not second to none, he's up there with all those Byronic people who are able to tell us what it's like to stare into the void, basically, and I love him for that. I love him for that because I'm too scared to look. It's like he's on the prow of the ship taking all the waves in his face and I'm just loitering at the back in the cabin, wanting him to tell me just how stormy it is outside. At the same time, some of the things that come out of his mouth, you just think, "What the fuck is that all about?" But that, in the end, is the ride I went on with Shane. One minute it's hysterical, the next it's abject misery! (Explodes with laughter)
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