Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan was the kind of lush who puts all lushes to shame. It's hard to read a review of any of the English's band's early performances without encountering a reference to the toothless singer's affinity for alcohol. MacGowan reportedly also experimented with Valium, acid, and even speed, and was frequently missing when the group played live. Even when he did show up, he'd stumble around the stage like a madman, forgetting lyrics and muttering incomprehensibly between songs.
But despite being led by such a notoriously unstable frontman, the Pogues made a lasting impact with albums such as 1984's Red Roses for Me and 1985's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. Their ability to inflect traditional Irish folk harmonies with punk attitude continues to influence young punk bands such as the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Yet by the early '90s, the Pogues were struggling to record and perform because MacGowan had become so unpredictable, and the band broke up in 1996. Those are days that former Pogues singer-tin whistle player Peter "Spider" Stacy doesn't want to relive.
Sitting in the upstairs loft of an Ohio City cottage where he has come to rehearse for a series of shows with the Boys From County Hell -- a Cleveland group that plays Pogues covers and will be doing a short tour with Stacy as its frontman -- he hardly looks the part of MacGowan's partner in crime. Stacy, who's had his own troubles with drinking, sips calmly from a bottled water and hesitates when asked to go over the band's rocky past.
"Things just got a bit haywire, you know, on a general level," he says. "[Shane] wasn't the only person who was doing stuff that he shouldn't have been doing, so it's unfair to point the finger at him, and there's nothing really served by doing that. We've all done things we'd rather not have done under the influence of one thing or another. To start telling tales about Shane is a bit unfair. He could turn around and do the same to me."
While Stacy was often the guy the Pogues looked to when they needed someone to fill in for a missing MacGowan, he, too, struggled to perform according to expectations. In 1989, MacGowan missed the plane from London as the band went to California to open several dates for Bob Dylan, and Stacy was thrust into the role of singing. At the time, the band was on the verge of breaking big, but the poor showings didn't help the group's cause.
"I didn't appreciate that, because I wasn't ready," Stacy says of those shows. "I kind of froze a bit. I got used to it afterward. I think I had an easier time than [Clash singer] Joe Strummer [who replaced MacGowan for six months]. A lot of people in the audience thought, 'What the fuck is he doing there?' But it's Joe Strummer, for fuck's sake."
Stacy, who went on to front the Pogues for five years after MacGowan officially left in 1991, says he's still on good terms with him and played at two of his annual Christmas shows in Dublin. "The last couple of years prior to his departure, the situation wasn't developing to his liking, and correspondingly, his attitude reflected that," Stacy explains. "I can kind of understand why that happened, from his point of view. I think he was put under a lot of pressure as the main songwriter and responsible for everyone else. It's not necessarily a position that a lot of people like to find themselves in. I think he wanted to let us know that, not by telling us, but by showing it. That's ancient history."
Stacy himself has given up drinking and found alternative ways of approaching his problems.
"It's too early in the day for O'Doul's," he says, the blood vessels in his face suggesting a lifelong battle with the bottle. "I have stopped drinking, and I just do the things that I need to do. You have to find ways of dealing with stuff without drinking. What you really have to remember is that, if you have a drink, everything is going to go wrong. So it's best just to not drink."
After the Pogues disbanded, Stacy formed the Wisemen and has now rechristened that band the Vendettas, which he says is "more electric than the Pogues." But for now, he's concentrating on the shows with the Boys From County Hell, which includes singer-guitarist Doug McKean, singer-mandolin player Chris Allen, banjo player Joe Kilroy, guitarist Aaron Pacitti, bassist Bill Watterson, drummer Dave McKean, and accordionist Nick the Clobberer. Fiddle player Kate Plymesser and uilleann pipe player Steve Kilroy also sit in with the group on occasion.
Stacy first heard of the Boys when Christian Ahern, a Pogues collector from Virginia, sent him a tape of the group, which made its debut last year on St. Patrick's Day. Stacy was so impressed by the recording, he took the band up on its offer to perform together this year on St. Patrick's Day at the Euclid Tavern. It will be the first time that Stacy has played in Cleveland; he says in retrospect that it was "an oversight" that the Pogues never included Cleveland as a tour stop.
"All I can say is that we're sorry," he says, half-jokingly. "It won't happen again. This is a kind of atonement. I hope people don't hear this and say, 'I'm glad they never did play here, because that was shit.' I'm sure they won't, and if they do, it will be because of me and not because of this group."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.