E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime
is one of my favorite books. Not only does it posses a lyric that's equally bounding and poignant, but its assimilation of disparate turn-of-the-century figures like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Robert E. Peary, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan (Freud, Jung, Zapata) into its narrative has always been fascinating to me. As these characters interact with a fictional, well-intentioned, dysfunctional family in New Rochelle, New York, a tale develops that, while fantastic, is as genuine a record of the American experience as there has ever been. That it succeeds so thoroughly in this is not a testament to any sort of accurate portrayal of history but rather to its infusion of fantasy with the historical. It superbly captures the innate human desire to converge, to compose, to form relationships between the disparate; to imagine.
In Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, my contribution to Continuum's 33 1/3 book series, the fictional narrative that I use to celebrate the Pogues' 1985 album of the same name was the culmination of my many years spent imagining it. Truly, on bus rides to school with my walkman's volume dial budged full-tilt, I conjured images of a bleary-eyed, whiskey-stinking Cuchulainn in back alleys knocking out the teeth of anti-Semites, of the Pogues rollicking with their rowdy jigs aboard frigate ships of the damned, of a rendition of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" setting calm to the violent masses as they drift lonesome out to sea. But when I finally embarked on writing my book in mid-2007, Ragtime was never far from my mind. It encouraged me to assemble fictional renditions of characters like Frank Ryan (the World War II-era Irish freedom fighter), Eric Bogle (the Scottish-born Australian folk singer), Jesse James (the post American Civil War bandit), Uncle Brian (Elvis Costello), as well as the Pogues themselves. My hope was to capture the spirit of the resounding, anthemic, seedy, absurd notions found in the songs, artwork, and title of the album without dissecting them into references and phrases (something which a different writer may have done to great effect). (This approach is not at all novel for the 33 1/3 series, as Kate Schatz's Rid of Me, John Niven's Music From Big Pink, John Darnielle's Master of Reality, Hayden Childs's Shoot Out the Lights, and David Smay's Swordfishtrombones volumes each incorporate varying degrees of fiction in the discussion of their subjects).
Leone and Morricone
Mid-way through writing my book, I revisited Sergio Leone's 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America, mainly for its noted importance to the Pogues as both a tour-van staple and whose overture (by Ennio Morricone) was an inspiration point for a then-fledgling tune that would become the equally cinematic "Fairytale of New York." What surprised me in the viewing, however, was the film's similarity to Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. While the creative forces that produced both works happened in most cases concurrently, and one without knowledge of the other, the two share a common sense of solemn, violent, raunchy, poetic beauty so revealed in the telling that deconstructing them into plots, subplots, motives, and themes, to me, seemed a disservice to both. Through my research, conversations, and correspondence with the band, there came a resounding insistence that there were no prevailing themes or erudition that governed the creation of the album. Rather it was, as Shane MacGowan told Carol Clerk, author of the wonderfully comprehensive Pogue Mahone Kiss My Arse: the Story of the "Pogues", "just songs."
Also of interest to me was Once Upon a Time in America's revelation as intertwined, lucid dreamscapes that allow it to ford the disjointed episodes of its narrative with stroke-like ease (Morricone's score is paramount in enabling this). With that in mind, I developed my narrative as a murky, subconscious memoir of sorts, as if the narrator, in a haze of publicity and drink, had assimilated the music, imagery, and words of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. My aim was to capture the same absurd, tragic states that affect us when we dream. Therefore, aside from a few short, non-fiction entries which interrupt my book's main narrative, I decided to allow the album to remain an intact creature — both in its mystical and familiar beauty.
Rum and Whiskey
I supplemented my Pogues listening with the Mekons' Fear and Whiskey quite a bit as I wrote. Also released in 1985 (and certainly worthy of a 33 1/3 volume — how about it, Continuum?), it was a glimmer of light in a music scene consumed in fashion and hijinx. Though to my knowledge there was very little, if any, interaction between the two bands in the mid-1980s the voices of each album bore great resemblance. It was that of the common person, the striking miner, the pub-dweller, the struggling immigrant — speaking, shrieking, resounding — both lyrically and musically with great ode to the past. Though more explicitly political than the Pogues, the Mekons also used folk music as a vehicle to connect the ages, and mated it with a punk abandon that ignited and united contemporary listeners.
Sinatra at the Sands, Martin at the Tropicana, The Pogues at the Palms
On November 1, 2007, I travelled alone to see the Pogues play at the Palms Ballroom in Las Vegas. I'd wanted to catch them a week earlier for their show at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore Auditorium, but timing and a next-to-nothing gambler's rate airfare dictated that if I wanted to see the Pogues, it had to be in Vegas. As my plane circled the spiraling spotlights and overwrought glitz of the strip, I asked myself what I was doing there. I'd completed my manuscript two weeks earlier, my interviews were concluded, my books returned to the library, my mind resolved to regard the Pogues as they were in 1985. So what was I hoping to gain by travelling across America to see this band that I'd spent the prior eight months (and 20 years to some extent) regarding as soul bards, the "Boys from the County Hell," the trodden voices of the commoner, the anti-Vegas? Looking southward down the strip on the day of the show, I shrugged my shoulders, not entirely convinced that the Pogues were really going to show in such a place (wax renditions of the Pogues perhaps, a sequin-suited Shane MacGowan impersonator, more likely). Then, from my hotel, I walked through the backstreets to the Palms and there I found the songs of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash still in motion — panhandling teenagers, beaten-down strip clubs surviving in spite of themselves, wounded veterans coasting about in wheel chairs, poverty, brutality, the "Old Main Drag" as vital as ever, droning its sad, beautiful melody. A few hours later, when the Pogues took the stage (unfortunately without guitarist Philip Chevron), it became clear why I'd come. The songs, particularly the ones from Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, were alive and thriving, re-contextualizing themselves 22 years later — "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn," "The Old Main Drag," "A Pair of Brown Eyes," "Sally MacLennane," "Dirty Old Town" — delivered by this band, 22 years older, with the same passion, reverence, and vitriol as ever. The audience that night, as with most Pogues gigs, became a community, unified in experience, booze, and song. It was, as ever, and as tin-whistle player Spider Stacy described to me months earlier, a combination between a punk gig and a football match. And in times like that the only thing left to do is raise a glass and sing along, "and we sang a song of times long gone, but we knew that we'd be seeing him again..."