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Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

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Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
Jeffrey T. Roesgen
The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc
80 Maiden Lane, New York, NY 10038
The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX
Copyright 2008 by Jeffrey T. Roesgen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by
any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording,
or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers
or their agents.
Printed in Canada on 100% postconsumer waste recycled
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Roesgen, Jeffrey T.
Rum, sodomy, and the lash / by Jeffrey T. Roesgen.
p. cm. -- (33 1/3)
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN-13: 978-1-4411-0570-7
1. Pogues (Musical group).
Rum, sodomy & the lash. I. Tide. II. Title: Rum, sodomy &
the lash.
ML421.P645R67 2008
To the ones left holding the rope
The Bank of the Thames, 1985
A life at sea had transformed the man who stood on the dark
riverbank. It had withered his face, thickened his hands; it had
offered him both freedom and tragedy. It had delivered him to
places so far and beautiful that he wept at the sound of the
waves. In the scent of the ocean he recalled old friends, just
whispers now, with whom hed drunk, fought, and held under
every imaginable circumstance. Now, this man was old; his
legs unsteady, his fingers nubs, no longer suited for ropes.
At night, he wandered the riverbanks, looking to the great
moored vessels that floated, impotent now, on crests of water
illuminated by the city lights. He recited their histories as he
watched them; he whispered the names of their crews, long
committed to memory. Communing with the ships this way
soothed him, like a family, an experience embraced.
One particular night, he watched commotion about one of the
ships. There was musicfamiliar to the old man yet in some
other way, damaged. There were drunken hollers from the
deck that resounded over the water. At the railing of the ship
he saw a man writhing with laughter, waving a bottle,
spewing silver facets of rum into the air. Another group of
men hoisted him onto their shoulders and cast him into the
When the music ended, the old man watched as the ships
passengers descended onto feeder boats that ferried them to
the banks where he stood. In tight clusters they stumbled out
over the docks and dissolved beyond into the dark streets. The
last boat to depart the ship approached slowly. Its inhabitants,
engaged in full-throated song, came out of the darkness like
specters of Admiral Nelsons Navy, clad in blue and gold.
There was a notion of wear in their faces, that they were
merry though in some other way betrayed. As they rose from
the boat, they lugged laundry bags and cases filled with
accordions, guitars, drums, and rum. Passing the old man, one
of them turned. He offered a grin that was both menacing and
solemn. He reached into the pocket of his coat and tossed a
volume of papers out onto the bank. Then he continued on
with the rest of the group toward the ramshackle buildings
that stood across the road.
The band heaped their cases and bags into the corner of a
small tavern and came to rest around a table. Some of them
continued to sing, while others put their brows to the table
and slept. After some time Cait, the sole woman in the band,
rose and nodded to her group. She collected a bag and a bass
and left with a man in glasses and a black hat whod been
standing along the wall. Voice by voice, the bands songs
diluted into the commotion of the tavern room. Soon, thered
be more songs to sing, but for now thered be rest; the kind
that all trodden men must indulge.
Outside, the old man wandered over to the volume of papers.
He lifted and shifted them under the moonlight. He fingered
at pages that were damp and eaten and held the slightest trace
of rum. To himself, he read out the title of the volume that
was still legible in curling, black ink: Rum, Sodomy & the
Rochefort, France, June 15, 1816
The sea lapped at the edge of the ferry and Philips hand fell
from under his chin, slapping against the harbor. It woke him
with a shiver that sent his metal cup out of his coat pocket and
into the water. Both of us watched it hover, its cavity filling
and then fading beneath the surface. I looked around to the
rest of our group, Cait, Shane, James, Andrew, and Spider
arrayed about, unconscious. Philip twisted his head at the sky,
squinted, and then returned to sleep. I licked a sour film of
brandy from my lips. Id been awake for two days playing to
a festival crowd, then to a squad of soldiers, and was now
joining a convoy in Rochefort where we were to board a ship
for Senegal.
Why we decided to make a voyage to Africa was unclear then
and still eludes me even now. It was a faint consensus, one
that arrived without any particular deliberation or thought,
just a simple shrug of shoulders, a spit on the ground, and a
collection of indifferent, though resolute, nods. A French
officer had invited us to join the convoy the prior week. Hed
mumbled to us over the rim of his cup that France, now
united after an inconvenient bout with Napoleon, was ready
to extend herself back into Senegal where, for a century, her
ships had havens at the Port of St. Louis. This officer fingered
at his mouth and then hedged that a group of English and Irish
would be welcome to go, especially after the aid that our
countrymen gave against Napoleon. In the intervening week
wed forgotten the invitation, played five gigs, lost Shane for
two days in the countryside, and each night slept outdoors:
time and place became a gentle continuum, where there came
no distinction between the morning and darkness or Paris or
Rochefort or Africa. A sea voyage became another course in
our groups fraying sense of reality: the kind that comes when
youve been away from home for too long.
It was late in the morning and already the day was hot,
without any breeze to stir the water. Each of our ferrys
oarsmen had removed their tunics and their callused brands
shone white in the sun. I stared at the them: raised
fluer-de-lis, pointed and curved like claws. An oarsman
watched me as he ladled at the water.
Frances rejects, he called and the others laughed along.
I watched as our ferry took us to the four ships anchored at
the far side of the harbor. There were streams of activity
about them. Crews ran the decks while hoists pulled up slabs
of cargo from flat barges. The creaking was deafening: crates,
planks, ropes.
The Medusa sat clean on the water, its precise hull cutting
lines that crested up to the mass of the ship that was sailed
and battled. When we came below it, I looked up to her guns,
watching out to the open ocean. Our ferry shuddered and the
oarsmen began to shout up to the crew of the Medusa. A pair
of ropes were cast down and a ladder extended. The ferry
shuddered again and I watched Shanes eyelids break. With
his hand he collected a phase of spittle on his cheek and then
pounded the arm of Spider whod rolled onto his thigh. Spider
covered his eyes and turned onto Caits lap. James woke,
rose, and lifted a bag onto his shoulders. Andrew reached into
the harbor and rinsed his face. Bastard, said Cait a moment
before Spiders head made a dull crack against the floor.
There was such banter as we ascended the nimble ladder to
the ship that it twisted and sent Spider crashing back into the
ferry. Shane looked down from the deck of the Medusa and
jibbed at him as he tucked a whistle back into his pocket and
climbed again. When he reached the deck, Spider smoothed
his hand along his hair and then tackled his old friend, musing
that they were reunited brothers.
An officer rushed over to our group. He stood before Spider,
rigid and ornate, and nodded to the bags and cases at our feet.
Musicians, said Spider, releasing Shane.
The officer winced and brought up a collection of papers hed
rolled behind his back. He squinted at it. Your name?
Pogue Mahone.
The officer made his eyes slender. Pogue Mahone? He
fiddled with the sparse whiskers on his chin.
A Gaelic expression.
Kiss my arse. Spider shot back.
The officer widened his eyes and poised his head above the
We were quiet, looking to our feet. The officer shifted himself
rigid. He looked to Spider. Aboard this ship you will be
Pogues. He peered up to the quarterdeck, swallowing hard.
Then he hollered to a sailor whod been loading barrels
into the hold. These are gundeck passengers.
The sailor limped to us: short footsteps for his body, giving
the effect of flotation. He led us to a staircase that went into
the belly of the ship. He turned every few steps as if to say
something, but each time turned away. Above the staircase,
on the quarterdeck, stood a collection of officers speaking low
to one another and nodding to two men, one in a glamorous
Captains uniform and the other in a suit decorated in gold
chains and buttons. The sailor released a heap of air and
whispered, The Captain and the Governor.
Of Senegal. An officer came up the stairs and the sailor
quieted. He motioned downward, Youll stay on the first
Musk and hollers channeled up the stairs. Angling with our
bags, we came down into the gundeck. The wooden beams of
the deck curved low and each of us craned to enter. There
were crowds already inside, crouched against the guns and
arrayed along barrels of wine and brandy in the far corner.
There were songs and shouts trapped in the long room. Men
sat in tight circles with the fragile rattle of dice between them.
Soldiers and sailors raced into the deck, taking long slurps
from the barrels and then running back to their posts. Thered
been no bunks constructed on the gundeck, rather, there were
perimeters of luggage that marked sleeping spaces. Andrew
and Shane set two drum cases in the corner of the room and
sat against them and slept. James heaped off a laundry bag
from his back. I shrugged off my bag and case next to him
and extracted my cup. With my head bowed I forded the
crowds, some dressed in fine clothes, others in filthy tunics.
At the wine barrels there was a line. Two officers scurried
past, both cursing the Captain of the ship. I watched as they
broke line to take a drink.
The revolution continues, a voice, thick with rhythm, said
from the next line. I looked over at the man, who twisted his
eyes at the officers. It wont be pleasant.
It will be a two week journey, nothing more, a Frenchman
next to him said.
Listen to who curses, said the man.
How could you know the minds of Bonapartists?
The Isles know the issues of the French. The mans eyes
turned to me, Do we not?
We filled our cups and crouched in the center of the deck. The
man wore a gaming jacket from which hed purposely flashed
a pocket watch. At his hip was an empty holster. When he
sipped from his cup, he moved his eyes around the deck. His
name was Jock Stewart and he spoke at length about the
command of the Medusa. The Captain, he explained, had
never before commanded a ship, let alone a convoy. Hed
been in the Kings navy serving against the Bonapartists
during the revolution. There, hed not reached higher than a
customs officer. And yet after Waterloo and Napoleons final
exile, hed been given, in reward for his loyalty, command of
this entire convoy. Many would have made more suitable
commanders, but theyd been Bonapartists. These men now
sat under the Captains command and they anticipated, even
wished for, his incompetence.
And the Governor? I asked.
He twisted his eyes, smirked, and said nothing.
Philip walked over, reaching for my cup. We passed it
between us while Stewart continued on about the pockets of
animosity against the Captain, all the while his eyes shifting
about the deck. In that short time, he revealed a talent for
allowing us to glimpse his secrets, knowing well that his
demeanor caused us to summon even more. He told us how
his pistol had been taken when hed boarded the ship but that
hed stashed two others in his case. I patrol the situation, he
said, and then sipped and walked away up the stairs.
While the rest of our group slept and Cait thwarted the
pleasantries of various men, Philip and I sat beside one of the
guns with our instruments, a guitar and banjo, and worked
songs. We sounded out a melody that we found could be
merry or melancholy depending on how deliberately we
played the notes. We found an intricate melody, then a
soaring progression: a prolific session. Philip would close his
eyes and conjure some secret notion when we played
something to his liking: the ghosts still haunt the waves,
the sirens sing no lullaby were things he uttered.
What bards are these? A voice called from the gun on the
opposite side of the floor. An immense man chuckled and
crawled through the crowds to us. He removed his canvas
pack and reclined against our gun. He held a round iron shot
in his hand that he released and rolled on the floor between
his knees. His name was Bogle, a traveler whod been
through the Mediterranean, working barges. When he leaned
close, his voice was soft, Will you play for the deck? Philip
motioned to the corner where Andrew slept. Next to him was
James with his chin at Andrews feet. Shane was against the
wall, his breaths inflating the loose scarf around his neck.
Ah, later perhaps, Bogle said while he chuckled and rolled
the shot. He asked about our music and even knew some Irish
lyrics. He sang something of his own but resembling The
Old Claddaugh Ring. Later, he took up the guitar while
slept. Upon the expanse of his chest, the instrument was a toy.
He trapped the shot between his thighs and with the thickness
of his fingers fumbled at the strings. I took a final sip and then
leaned back into the gun. And despite the laughter, the shouts,
the brooding for Napoleon, I fell away from the room.
Rochefort, June 16, 1816
A rush of water pounded at the walls and the ship lifted.
Bogles iron shot rolled from his legs, slamming into the
ankle of a man who stumbled and spilled his cup. When he
came to his feet, the man stammered through a crowd,
slurring, yelling for the man whod tripped him. Bogle rose to
his feet, bending at the waist to keep from extending through
the ceiling. The man chuckled. An accident.
Unsteady and free from the anchors hold, the Medusa floated
idle, shifting in the water. Sea legs, sea legs, now, men
hollered. For two days our convoy sat this way without the
wind to push us from the harbor. Heat drove us up to the main
deck at intervals. There we met Corrard, an engineer, who
spoke of his task to survey and build Senegals railroads. He
moved his head over to a collection of twenty foreign men
who sat among slabs of cargo staring back at us. My
navvys, he called them, navigators to build for me. Even
on the gundeck, the navvys remained silent and together.
Corrard was a loyal host to them, protecting their meals and
keeping them from fights.
In the afternoon I stood on the main deck, looking back at the
coal buildings of Rochefort, and at the other three ships of the
convoy. Like our Medusa, each of them held sailors arrayed
around the decks, poised for the breeze. To my shoulder came
Jock Stewart, who motioned to the quarterdeck
with his head. Upon it, the Governor paced between the rails
thrusting his finger to the sails, to the sky, to the horizon. He
shouted at the Captain, who stood with his hands at his back.
Stewart cursed both of them. Haste will mean catastrophe.
Then he walked over to a young sailor and the two whispered,
each taking glances at the quarterdeck.
We returned to the gundeck and marveled at the stock of wine
barrels. Every half day a new one would roll in and was
tapped. There were pans of biscuits brought in throughout the
day and in the galley there were pots of soup made from the
uneaten meat and vegetables of the elite passengers. Shane,
whod been missing since last evening, came onto the
gundeck with his arm around the neck of Frank Ryan. They
laughed and stumbled together, Ryans long, rigid trunk
keeping them both on their feet. He drank cup after cup in our
company, saying that the Governor would make a restless
voyager, that hed push us for speed, that the officers would
overthrow him, that the African coast was treacherous. Shane
nudged a finger at Ryan, He stirs the officers. And Ryan
nodded to one passing for a cap of brandy. Shane said to us,
Ask him why he goes to Africa?
Ryan lifted his finger to the side of his nose and Shane
released an unfolding cackle that peeled at the roof of his
mouth. Then he and Ryan went away to the barrels.
Philip turned to me, questioning if I recognized his unspoken
concern: Revolt? Mutiny? I looked back at my friend and
handed my cup to him. The anchors had lifted and we waited
only for the grace of the wind. Nothing could be done.
An officer and a soldier entered the deck, the first ones not
soliciting a drink. The officer was tall with curling hair the
color of wheat. Id seen him with the Captain poring over
charts and orders, one of his aides. He held an ornate, curved
blade in his belt and moved with deliberation among the
crowds. At last he reached the corner where he, James, and
Andrew surveyed the room. We migrated toward them with
Cait. The officer explained that the absence of wind had made
the Governor, his family, and his staff restless.
Music would do good for the stalled expedition. The officer
looked to each of us. The Governor requests you to play on
the main deck.
We hunted among the crowds and found Shane and Spider
with Ryan making merry with the navvys. We collected our
instruments. Bogle hooted and slapped the floor. He and a
crowd followed us up the slender staircase.
On the main deck, a ring of passengers had already formed
and it politely parted for us to fill the center. All the faces,
adorned with cheerful eyes, were those of the wealthy: King
Louiss passengers. There were women before us with
children at their thighs and men posed proudly above them.
Behind them, droves of soldiers, sailors, and gundeck
passengers approached. Above us on the quarterdeck sat a
collection of the ships elite: the Captain, the Governor, his
wife and daughter, each seated in armchairs. We tussled with
our instruments: Spider, some flutters of whistle; Philip,
tuning; James, pulling air into his accordion. Then we looked
to Shane.
Wild Cats of Kilkenny! he proclaimed, following with a
shriek that resounded over the harbor.
Cait started with a violent rumble from her bass, then Andrew
with a turbulent rhythm, then Philip and I picking quickly.
Shane shrieked again and the tempo gained. Soon James and
Spider joined with merry melodies above it all.
The children whod been attempting to dance and the men
and women whod followed with their heads began to look to
each other. Was this Isle music? Without cue we halted.
Shane released another shriek, and Cait alone began with her
bass rumble again. Then another shriek. The Governor turned
to his wife and sent her away. The fine men and women
found channels through the crowds and backed out, bringing
the hands of their children with them. The soldiers and sailors
came to the front, stomping and dancing and pawing at Cait.
There was lurching in the air and shoving in the collection of
men. The navvys joined and we launched again, Wild Cats
of Kilkenny! There was a short bout of mayhem on the deck,
with arms and feet pounding, men bounding. Above the
music, no one heard the shouts of the sailor whod been cast
into the harbor. For some moments every fiber of the ship
resonated with the melee that was rough and merry at the
same time. Like most of our audiences, our music embraced
something primary in them, like a kinship understood. It
fostered merry aggression, as if everyone had simultaneously
purged something. Just as this banging and clapping and
hollering reached a wonderful, aural height, a collection of
shouts rose and the officers brought their men to attention.
Shouts rose up for us to stop, and the music rang for one last
measure and then died. The masses on the deck quieted. The
Captain and his staff looked down to us from the quarterdeck.
The Governor and his armchairs were gone. We collected our
instruments and left the main deck. We were not to play there
In the night, the wind began to stir and the Medusa, at last,
crept ahead and out of the harbor.
The Wild Cats of Kilkenny
The title of Rum, Sodomy & the Lashs sole instrumental
composition may evoke the limerick:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till instead of two cats there werent any.
The wildcats of Kilkenny claw themselves to pieces til
theres nothing left, says Spider Stacey in the biography of
the band, Pogue Mahone. Title aside, the music also supports
this notion with its two contrary themes: the first a primal
bass and drum rhythm and the second a jovial accordion and
whistle melody. Despite their contrast, the compositions two
themes meld for a time before dueling and coming apart; all
amid a series of feline-esque shrieks. Id written the second
half, the bit where Spider [whistle] and James [accordion]
come in and Shane had written the first half, Jem Finer told
me in our conversation. Thats how a lot of things happened;
like disparate things being put together.
Thats a good way of describing the band as a whole.
Andrew, James, and Philip had played music since they were
young, including jazz, rhythm and blues, and show music.
Jem didnt take up an instrument until 1978, when he learned
the guitar and then the banjo. Jem explored bluegrass
pickings a lot, and diligently, remembers James Fearnley,
who himself adapted his piano playing to the accordion. Prior
to an ultimatum that would put him out of the band if he
didnt learn
the tin whistle, Spider was a vocalist. And prior to becoming
a Pogue, Cait owned a bass that hadnt yet emerged from
under her bed. Shane played the guitar, though time would
prove that the verses and melodies that he conjured and held
in his mind would be his most effective instruments. The
band found empowerment in the punk scene and vitality from
folk music. There was the Operation, Andrews Cajun band
that he was reticent to leave in the early days. There was the
Irish music that Shane had known all of his life and that had
more recently captivated Jem and Spider. There were the
Millwall Chainsaws, there was the jerky pop of the Nips,
Philips Radiators from Space, the New Bastards, the New
Republicans, and the Mixers, all outlets for the individuals
whod one day find themselves as Pogues. Yet in spite of the
crooked paths they took, the Pogues, starting with their debut
Red Roses for Me, displayed focus and democracy. In Pogue
Mahone, Spider says: The Pogues sense of community was
a very important thing about the band. It contributed to our
longevity and the atmosphere around us, because it was really
an easy one. And in my conversation with Jem he
emphasized, At the end of the day we were all people with
wide-ranging interests.
The Rum, Sodomy & the Lash period had its own dynamics:
the bands manager, Frank Murray, had them touring
constantly, slipping in recording dates at Elephant Studios
whenever there was the slightest break, in not only their
schedules, but also in that of the records busy producer, Elvis
Costello. Theyd integrated a new member, Philip Chevron,
first as a temporary live replacement for Jem on banjo, then as
a permanent guitarist. Their rising popularity left the
Irishness of their music open to scrutiny. These disparate
issues, however, wouldnt outwardly affect the
Pogues, nor would they betray the remarkable flow and depth
that the finished record maintains.
The culmination of the Pogues frantic touring and piecemeal
recording of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash came at the records
release party on July 30, 1985. Still billed as legendary, the
party was held aboard the HMS Belfast, a World War II
cruiser moored in the Thames. The affair, arranged by the late
Stiff Records public relations man Philip Hall, featured an
abbreviated set from the Pogues, clad in gold-buttoned
replicas of Admiral Nelsons navy uniform. It was a
rollicking time of rum, merry-making, and even a journalist
cast overboard.
In the twenty-three years since its release, the record has been
lauded by the mainstream music media, revered by punk
zines, and praised by fans. In my recent interview with James,
he said of it, With the vaudeville of The Gentleman Soldier
and contemplation of hopelessness of The Old Main Drag,
the implied threat of Im a Man You Dont Meet Every Day,
Im very fond of it, the breadth of influences, the scope of
attention. And in Pogue Mahone Jem says, I think its a
really brilliant album. And its pretty good after all these
years to still think so.
The Bay of Biscay, June 23, 1816
A man raced into the gundeck and made for the corner where
wed stowed our instruments. His long tan coat fluttered at his
back while both of his arms held something large in toward
his abdomen. He sank flat to the floor behind Andrews drum
cases and rolled there for a moment. Then he rose, without his
coat and with his hands slipped coolly into his pockets. With
meandering footsteps he moved away from the corner, just as
an officer and a pair of soldiers lurched
through the door. The coatless man perched his chin to the
floor and dissolved into the crowds.
A mans gone off with the Governors rum, called the
officer. Has he come this way?
It was silent. The officer looked about the room. He
recognized Frank Ryan and asked him again. Ryan stood with
his shoulders lifted. The officer prowled for another moment
before motioning for the soldiers to follow him away. When
sufficient time had passed, the coatless man walked back out
from the crowds. He peered through the doorway and then ran
into the corner. He tore up his coat and extended up two jugs
of rum into the low ceiling. The Medusa swung with the roar
of the men on the gundeck. Songs broke loose from
Frenchmen and English; even the navvys had a song.
You must play! voices rang up. Play!
In a moment, Andrew, standing behind his drums, counted off
and we began, as fast as we could play, filling the bowels of
the ship with sound. Shane pulled a folded page from his
jacket, opened it, and shouted its text in time with the music.
His voice was deep, commanding, and scattered as he sang of
the misdeeds of a soldier. Hed reach a chorus, And the
drums agoing a rat-ta-tat-tat and Andrew would pound
along at the snare. Spider hauled up a biscuit tray, crashing it
against his brow in time with Andrew, creating a great clash.
The gundeck crowds clapped along, stomping, some jaunting
up into the low, wooden beams of the deck and then
collapsing to the floor, clutching at their skulls and laughing.
The coatless man fought through the merry melee with one of
the jugs. He thrust it before me washing a warm wave of rum
onto my sleeve. The man had placid blue eyes and a nose that
angled upward like a snail. I ceased with my
banjo and lifted the jug of spice to my lips and then passed it
along to Philip. Then the man paraded up with the band,
stomping and jigging along. Men would reach from the crowd
to touch his shoulder and rub his hair. Instantly he was a hero,
the first of the Medusa, spiriting the Frenchmen. Hed cast a
first strike against the Royalists on the ship: the Governor, the
Captain, and their elite entourage. Spider leaned to the man
and asked his name. Then he called it out, Jesse James and
another roar rose. Spider extended out his arms and the music
diluted away. He began to play a tiny whistle tune that
mounted at each measure until men began to clap and stomp
along. We started to play again. I picked quickly at my banjo:
a long mountain tune. Spider, in his rusted holler, sang an ode
to James, the new hero. The gundeck shuddered with the
surge of the crowds. When there were tilts of the ship from
the swelling sea outside, the crowds would lose balance and
heap onto each other. When they rose to stomp again, the
mens lips were rich with delight. As we played, I watched
their faces. Something beyond Jesse James and our music
stirred them. They had streams of sweat riding over the
brands on their chests: a revolution transformed.
With Spider singing, Shane and Frank Ryan jigged among the
band. Ryan hadnt expected Jamess theft and his
canonization, but it played into his plan for revolt. And he
danced. Together the two men gulped from the jug,
embracing amid the music. JesseJames, the crowds
called over and over, diluting even the music we played.
The spectacle was damning for James. On the order of the
Captain, a Lieutenant came into the gundeck to settle the
noise. A collection of soldiers stood behind him. When they
came through the crowds they found Jesse James dancing
before the band, passing around the Governors rum. The
Lieutenant thrust his finger at James and the soldiers toggled
for a moment, looking to each other. The Lieutenant drew out
his pistol and ordered the soldiers again. One soldier moved
ahead and a branded man from the crowd charged out and
pulled him down. The soldiers put the branded man down
with the slap of their rifle butts. The music ended. Shouts
came from the crowd. The Lieutenant held out his pistol.
Another squad of soldiers came into the gundeck. There were
volleys of curses and the threat of a massive brawl. I could
see the tendons of hands, rigid and taut, clutching at shirt
sleeves, and mists of spit bursting from the mouths of the
men. Finally, under the watch of many guns, Jesse James was
released from the crowds and seized by the soldiers.
To the hold with him! ordered the Lieutenant.
Another officer leaned ahead and whispered to him. The
Lieutenant slapped his pistol against his side and lifted his
shoulders. He looked to the floor and thought for a moment.
Then he spoke, Place a guard at the door and check him
when we reach St. Louis.
The soldiers pulled James away to the hold while the crowds
cheered and banged their cups to the walls. Ryan stepped
before the crowds. Remember this, he shouted and then
raised his arms, urging Spider to play again.
Outside, the Medusa led the convoy out of the Bay of Biscay.
Later wed learn the source of the Lieutenants hesitation to
lock Jesse James away in the hold: that in the dark, among the
stores of flour and wine, there were three barrels of gold,
90,000 francs altogether, property of the King of France.
Jesse James
Two decades after the conclusion of the American Civil War,
Jesse James continued to fight. With his gangs he raided
farms, trains, and Federal banks, taking his spoils in the name
of the Confederate cause. Hes purported to have killed
multiple men during his heists. His misdeeds aside, the
traditional The Ballad of Jesse James focuses on the
betrayal involved in Jesses death.
By the 1880s James, whod assumed the name Thomas
Howard, faced a mounting manhunt. His brother and partner,
Frank, had escaped east and the members of his gangs had
been either killed, captured, or frightened away. Desperate for
companionship and protection, James turned to Charley and
Bob Ford. Charley had been a raider with James, but little
was known of Bob. One hot afternoon at his home in St.
Joseph, Missouri, James, in an uncharacteristic turn,
unbuckled his guns from his waist and climbed onto a chair to
attend to a picture on the wall. Recognizing the rare
vulnerability, Bob entered the room and put a bullet into the
back of Jamess head. In the aftermath of the murder,
investigators determined that Bob, whod received a pardon
for the crime, had secretly conspired with Thomas T.
Crittenden, the Governor of Missouri. Bob Fords legendary
act of cowardice and betrayalto shoot an unarmed man in
the back, to infiltrate Jamess home and friendshipis the
subject of the song. It also laments the wife and children he
left behind.
The Ballad of Jesse James, extracted from the American
folk tradition (and purportedly written by traveler Billy
Gashade), has seen interpretation by Frank C. Jackson,
Woody Guthrie, and the Clancy Brothers, among others. In
our conversation, Spider told me that it was Ry Cooders
however, arranged on his soundtrack for the 1980 western
The Long Riders, that provided the inspiration for the Pogues
selection and performance of it. Similarities are apparent
between the two renditions; namely in their whistle intros and
full band treatments. That said, not even Cooder captures
Jesse Jamess rowdy, unrelenting spirit like the Pogues.
Theirs is a visceral rendition, from Spiders flailing vocal
performance (of the slightly modified lyrics) that evoke the
Confederate Hellion, to the samples of The Long Riders
bullets ricocheting through the speakers. The music deviates
from folk versions, too, with its unhinging bluegrass. James
Fearnley recalls recording the song, We ripped into it, as we
liked very much to do, and which we became very good at.
The transformation of Jesse James from a reverent folk ode
to a galvanizing scorcher illuminates the role that punk played
with the Pogues. Carol Clerk reflects on Shanes first
encounters with the genre, The [Sex] Pistols changed his life
instantly and forever. He was riveted by their amateurish,
anarchic musical attack, by Johnny Rottens vocal
mannerisms and confrontational posturing, and particularly
by the fact that this group was brazenly flouting the accepted
rules of rock etiquette he enjoyed its controversy and
danger, but most of all he loved the fact that it championed
the individual. In my interview with Andrew Ranken, he told
me, True to the spirit of punk, another great love and
influence, we managed to make a rare old din, without any
expensive musical equipment or sophisticated studio
trickery. In so doing, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash demonstrated
that punk, formally articulated as a cultural phenomenon in
the mid to late 1970s, had emotive roots that extended
through history. Its one of the many triumphs of the album:
to give ode to the heritage and struggle inherent in
all things, ancient or contemporary. Music aside, Jesse James,
as one of Rum, Sodomy & the Lashs many characters, had
irrevocably punk qualities. He died a nonconformist,
unwilling to compromise to what society asked of him. He
had mobs sent from high levels of government to assassinate
He stole from the rich and gave to the poor,
He had a hand and a heart and a brain.
Jesse James, a rebel, a son, a father, a husband, a punk.
Passing Cape Finisterre, June 24, 1816
At night, those who didnt collapse would burrow into their
blankets in no particular place: masses of bodies aggregated
for warmth, heaving and snoring. A few would savor the
tranquility and ascend to the main deck to peer from the rail
into the flutters of darkness. In these moments, should there
not be any texture upon the water, it would seem that the
Medusa crested along in a deep vacuum, without barrier
between sky and water.
I stood alone on the main deck. There was minimal
conversation from the crew and only the slightest lap of water
at the hull of the ship. From the rail, I could look out beyond
the stern to the tiny lights from the other ships of the convoy.
I looked up to the sails that the wind held in large crescents,
pushing us along, due south. Beyond the sails were stars
unmolested by clouds. They beamed like punctured holes in a
deep blue shroud, letting in the light of elsewhere. Stars: tools
of navigation, hatching patterns of travel across the sea. In my
mind I connected stars with lines, with arcs, drawing them
down to some point where I presumed the horizon would
bea distilling exercise that brought vitality to my thoughts.
Voices came from the quarterdeck in the night and I looked
up into the torchlight to find the Captain toiling over charts
with another elegant man in fine civilian clothes. They dealt
with each other gently, ignoring the counsel of the officers
and aides behind them. While I watched, Jock Stewart
wandered past with a sailor who seemed both irritated and
frail. Stewarts eyes followed mine to the quarterdeck.
They plot for the quickest route, he whispered.
For the better. Theres revolt.
Stewart looked to the sailor and motioned for him to stand
beneath the quarterdeck and listen. The sailor resisted.
Stewart reached into his coat and took out a pair of coins. He
slipped them to the sailor and brushed him away. Then he
sniffed the air like a predator. The quick route leads us
through somewhere more perilous than revolt, he said.
The Arguin Bank.
He told me that the Bank was an expanse of sand splaying out
into the sea from the deserts of western Africa. Its submerged
mounds and seacliffs were unknown to navigation charts. The
ministers at Rochefort had warned the Captain of this and
charted a route for him that went deep into the Atlantic,
beyond the borders of the Bank. Their course would turn
toward Africa only once we were due west of the Port of St.
Louis, where the rivers cut deep, safe gullies in the seafloor.
The Captain had promised the ministers to keep to this route,
to keep the convoy together, to rely on his officers who had
decades more experience at sea. Hed promised to extinguish
the animosity that he held for the Bonapartists. Hed offer a
refreshed spirit of French unity back to Senegal. But all of
these plans and vows had been scrapped even before the ship
left Rochefort. The new Governor of Senegal pushed for
speed, and the Captain had neither the strength nor the
competence to oppose him; the speed would take us over the
hidden treachery of the Bank.
Then Jock Stewart walked further down the deck, sliding into
a shadow and disappearing from my awareness.
Bogle and James came up the stairs, engaged in a
conversation about the Madeira Islands. The sailors and
officers had for days been discussing how wed anchor there
and restock.
Well reach it in three days, said Bogle.
James proposed that we play at the port of Funchal. Well
bring back our own rum, baked chickens, cheese, bread.
Shouts came from the quarterdeck. A group of officers had
massed around the Captain and the elegant man that stood
with him. An officer lurched his finger at the Captain and
cursed him. A group of Royalist officers charged from the
other side of the deck. Soon, the altercation consumed
everyone on the quarterdeck. Absorbing curses and
accusations from every angle, the Captain stood with his arms
about his back, deferring to the elegant man who spoke in
uncompromising lines: The Governor must arrive in one
week, I know Africa like France, Well inform ourselves
of our depths at every stage, Ill safely bear you through the
Soon the group of officers retreated down the stairs from the
quarterdeck. Stewarts sailor rushed from his position below
them and hid in the shadows.
We will wreck.
Why does he appoint a civilian?
Well signal the other ships.
Rally who we can. The deck was empty. The officers
glanced over to James and me standing there with Bogle,
whose shoulders cast round cliffs of shadow onto the deck.
Small dark swells began to roll the ship.
The Navigator of the Medusa was an elegant man, the
president of a philanthropic organization that claimed to have
done great expeditions into Africa. Like the Captain and the
Governor, he represented the notable ranks of French society
and had never been a seaman. Sometimes, when he spoke, his
eyes would channel off elsewhere, disassociated from his
words. It was said that his face held this exact attitude when
he first discussed the depths of the Arguin Bank. So when
resistance mounted from the officers that the Bank should be
avoided at all costs, the Captain and the Governor looked to
him, the man most qualified to execute their will.
I use King Louis to demand that you obey our Navigator,
the Captain told his crew.
In an attempt to cushion the decision, the Captain would
allow a days leave at Madeira when we arrived.
In the night, Frank Ryan came up the stairs and trotted to the
officers whod grouped near us. They whispered, at times
slicing the air with curses. Ryan raised his hands as he
approached them. He entered the center of their group and
whispered to them.
As dawn came, a sailor skipped past, waking Bogle and
James, who slept against the rail. The officers and Ryan had
plotted through the night, scheming for revolt, right under the
nose of the quarterdeck. Stewarts spy also had been
prowling, drawing close to the plotting men and then darting
off into the shadows.
Two days to Madeira, the sailor said. I brushed him off,
uncertain of what to wish for. With Philip and Andrew I
proposed that we leave the Medusa at the port of Funchal,
where a supply ship would return us to Portugal or Spain.
They didnt answer at that moment and instead strained their
eyes as ripples of sunlight slithered from the horizon. A pair
of children emerged from the stairs and ran between the
quarterdeck and the central mast, chuckling to each other.
A holler came from the rigging, Overboard! Starboard,
Sailors massed to the rail of the ship. We leaned out and
could see the arms of a sailor writhing up from the sea. He
fell behind the ship at a great rate, the first reference wed had
for our speed. I narrowed my eyes to the victim and
recognized him: the frail sailor, Stewarts spy.
Another sailor raced up to the quarterdeck and informed the
commanders. The Captain held stiff at the news; with only his
torso he looked out beyond the stern of the Medusa. An
officer urged, We must turn for him. The Captain took in a
heap of air and looked over to the Governor, who sat regal
with his wife in their armchairs.
We cannot turn.
A volley of shouts descended from the officers. The
Navigator approached the Captains ear. While he whispered,
the Captain stiffened even more and said at last, Well drop
sails long enough to send a boat. The Governor twisted in his
chair, a rare compromise between his will and that of the
officers. His wife took his hand and rubbed at his knuckles.
The Captain lapped at his lips during the entire search. When
the single boat returned without the fallen sailor, he turned to
his crew, The rest of the convoy will be along to find him.
At this, sailors shouted from all points of the ship.
Raise sails and make for Madeira, the Captain hollered
above them. And the mention of the islands name dissolved
the protests until they turned to a few isolated pools of tears.
The Medusa set off again.
A few sailors migrated to the rail of the deck. They each
pulled a button from their sleeve and cast it into the sea. They
whispered a eulogy and then returned to their posts. Away,
down the rail, stood Jock Stewart in the approximate place
where the sailor must have fallen, shifting his hands in his
pockets, lifting his nose into the breeze.
Im a Man You Dont Meet Every Day
I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to
make time irrelevant to make decades and generations seem
irrelevantShane MacGowan, A Drink with Shane
On their first two full-length releases, the Pogues immersed
themselves so completely into folk musics temporal
continuum that its difficult to determine where traditional
songs ended and the Pogues began. This notion was so honed,
in fact, that these records seamlessly bound between decades
and centuries. On Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, the Pogues
demonstrate that as humankinds struggles change in context,
their soul persists; whether its in the age of sail, on the cliffs
at Gallipoli, in a working mans pub in Dagenham, or an alley
in Piccadilly. In our conversation, Jem spoke to this point:
The common mans struggle against the system has always
permeated folk music by its very nature people are singing
about their lot. DzM, site creator and administrator of the fan website observes, One aspect I really love
about [Rum, Sodomy & the Lash] is that it generally feels to
be looking to the previous century for inspiration. And in the
liner notes for the Pogues Waiting for Herb LP reissue, Bob
Geldof writes, The Pogues made great records and played
great gigs but the glory are the songs. This is what will last.
Old ones lovingly restored to their pristine attitudes, correctly
interpreted to the now and originals as timeless as if written in
some smoky corner 300 years ago or a piss-stinking bus
shelter in London last week.
Amid this sense of retrospect, Im a Man You Dont Meet
Every Day takes us deeper in time than any other song on
the record. The question, for example, of whether the songs
protagonist was real or fictitious will, in all likelihood, never
be determined, for even the songs origins are unclear. The
curve of the tunes first strain with its leap of a 6th, suggests a
general relationship with many [Scottish] highland and Irish
melodic models, write folk historians James Porter and
Hershel Gower. The song has been associated with Scots
travelers in recent times but Irish influence is apparent. The
song, more commonly known as Jock Stewart, is a sketch
of a man who with each verse becomes more confounding.
We learn that hes a rich landowner, a good shot, a traveler,
perhaps a war veteran, and a man quick to temper. He gives
threatening pretext to his generosity:
So come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine,
Whatever it costs I will pay,
So be easy and free when youre drinking with me,
Im a man you dont meet every day.
Then theres the issue of Stewart shooting his dog. Some
renditions of the song have the dog simply accompanying
Stewart on a hunt. While the Pogues werent the first to
present the former, more brutal version of the lyric, it does
add a complexity to the character of Jock Stewart thats
consistent with the other novel and interpreted ones on Rum,
Sodomy & the Lash, like a drunken, syphilis-chancred,
freedom fighter (The Sickbed of Cuchulainn), a shattered
dreamer (The Old Main Drag), a hell-raising family man
(Jesse James), and a brawling peacekeeper (Billys
Bones). Did Stewart become enraged with the dog? Was it
sick? Was Stewart himself sick? Whatever the case, the
Pogues interpretation demonstrates the vitality of folk music
and its proclivity toward revision.
Further abstracting the character of Jock Stewart is that, in its
most famous version, the songs first-person narrative is sung
by Jeannie Robertson, a woman. Upon first listening to Rum,
Sodomy & the Lash too, its unhinging to come upon, Im a
Man You Dont Meet Every Day. Its here, four songs into
the record, that we discover the haunting sweetness of Cait
Atlantic Ocean, June 28, 1816
For all of the cheer surrounding our call at Madeira, when we
woke, the islands were nowhere in sight. Bogle raised the
stalk of his finger: It should be there. Spider, Shane, and
Ryan were awake early and with us on the deck this morning.
They laughed and pawed at each other while we watched the
chains of command stumble upon the quarterdeck.
By now the Governor had complete control of the ship.
Through each day, he sat in an armchair that required the
work of two sailors to pilot up the stairs from his cabin. When
he did so much as flex his throat, the Captain scurried to him.
The ships order that had seemed so keen a week ago had
decayed into impulsive uncertainty.
This morning the Governor sat reclined with his wife, eating
breakfast and barking orders at anyone in his proximity. We
could see his arms sweeping out to the water ahead. The
Navigator stood away from the Governor at the corner of the
quarterdeck. Stoic, he watched at the horizon, expectant to
find the green mounds of Madeira at any moment.
Below the central mast, on the main deck, an independent
effort ensued. A collection of officers, the same ones whod
been plotting with Frank Ryan in the night, knelt over a
column of charts. They breathed heaps of smoke into the air
and looked up for intermittent reference points with the low
orange sun. Soon a fever of laughter erupted and a Lieutenant
took up the charts and ran to the quarterdeck, past a pair of
children who played in a quiet shadow. The Lieutenant first
went to the Navigator, who stood unmoved. Then he went to
the Captain, who examined the chart and, with a flash of
horror, looked to the west. The Captain called to his aide and
whispered an order to him. We watched as it fanned out from
one officer to two, to four sailors, and then the entire crew.
They moved quickly with the new orders, yanking at rigging,
pulling at ropes, twisting at the helm, and we changed course.
The ship crashed against a series of sea bulges, sending it
rocking with violent tips.
The Lieutenant stumbled past us and Ryan asked for the
news. The Lieutenant toggled between terror and absurdity,
Ninety miles off track.
The Navigator didnt move at the error or at the efforts
to correct it. Over the next day, the fury and uneasiness of his
miscalculation began to infect not only the officers, but most
of the crew.
Catastrophe, wreck, fish food, we could extract from
the French conversations around us.
Andrew came beside me nodding his head. It was consensus
now: wed leave the ship at Madeira. We convinced Bogle to
do the same. The engineer Corrard came to our group with a
cluster of the navvys behind him. He twisted his lips before
he spoke, A mistake off of Africa will not be correctable.
We told him of our plan to depart.
Ive promised railroads to the ministers. And for them,
Corrard eyed back to the navvys, theyll be paid triple.
The track due west to Maderia brought us through a storm.
The clouds grew blue-gray with whirls of haze descending
out of them. A stream of heavy bulges pounded the ship
sending it creaking into deep valleys of water. Crests of froth
washed onto the main deck leaving behind a dark patina.
Sailors, harnessed to the masts, pulled at the rigging while the
Captain, Governor, and Navigator took shelter from the
I stayed alone on the main deck through the storm. I slumped
down against the railing. While the ocean shifted, I shut my
And I was a gardener. It was morning and Id been squaring
an evergreen hedge with shears. Sharp fingers of pine fell
around me as I cut through them, free of resistance. I trimmed
until my shears bit into something thick and I jerked. A shock
ran up my arms and into my spine. I looked down into the
grass and-kicked aside a pile of clippings to find a black
writhing on the ground in perfect halves. It blew phases of
blood from itself, lathering my boots. My instinct was to bend
down and meld the two halves, though instead I watched its
agony, trying to determine head from tail. When I looked up
from the snake I saw my boyhood home over the hedges: so
slouched and familiar. I split through the hedge and walked
into the yard where Id played as a boy. I crept up the brick
stairs and knocked at the door.
Dirty Old Town
For every person who wants to return home, theres another
who wants to escape it. And then there are those who want to
destroy it. Ewan MacColls Dirty Old Town is an
expression of this last notion. Written by the celebrated
British musician, actor, and writer in 1950 as a theme for his
television program, The Manchester Ramblers, its inspired
by his birthplace and childhood home in Salford, Lancashire.
In the song, MacColl describes the towns industrial din: a
chainlinked tapestry with which he falls in love. Whether hes
too saddened by what his beloved home has become or hes
simply been too affected by its pollution and manufactured
ungainliness, his hatred of it pervades even his most
enchanting thoughts. Despite MacColls dank and lonely
lyrical descriptions, his most popular rendition of the song
proceeds merrily with a bounding clarinet and a vocal
accompaniment from his wife, Peggy Seeger. This
juxtaposition between lyric and music is interesting; its as if
MacColl is conflicted in his true feelings toward his town,
that he may love Salford as much as he hates it. In a 2007
article in the Salford Star magazine, Peggy Seeger says of her
late husbands song, I dont think Dirty Old Town is
necessarily negativeits the same feeling that Ewan had
towards Salford all his life, love and hate, that it was a place
which was living and breathing, it had a pulse. The Pogues,
in contrast, offer no such contemplation. Their approach is
pure feeling. In an interview with Melody Maker, Shane
discussed this notion, We still play more to the human
emotions than the intellectual side of things. We still try to hit
people straight between the eyes. Despite their differing
approaches, Shane held an admiration and perhaps even an
identity with MacColl, whose life draws certain parallels with
such luminaries as Brendan Behan, Frank Ryan, and Richard
Tauber. Writer Stephen Kingston remarks, Ewan was beaten
up by police on the hunger marches of the 1930s, trailed by
MI5 for having communist beliefs and banned from
performing subversive plays. In the liner notes of
MacColls compilation Black and White, Colin Irwin writes,
[Ewan MacColl] was the only singer Shane MacGowan of
the Pogues ever went to see in a folk club.
The Pogues version of Dirty Old Town begins with the
humble charm of Andrew Rankens harmonica, evoking a
sense of familiarity, perhaps inviting the listener home. James
Fearnely sheds his accordion in favor of the mandolin. In
what is perhaps the most richly arranged song on the album,
we find uileann pipes joining after the first verse, followed
later by a fiddle. Shanes vocal performance, however, is
what transforms the song. His deliberate diction tortures
every word of the lyric (a device that also surfaces on the
records closing track, And the Band Played Waltzing
Matilda). Philip remarks on the song, Dirty Old Town is a
tough sing mainly because of the long, high E in the second
line of each verse Dreamed a dream by the old canal. It is
not for the fainthearted. In the closing verses this emphasis is
on steel,
Im going to make me a good, sharp axe,
Shining steel tempered in the fire,
Will chop you down like an old dead tree.
Peggy Seeger asserts that when he wrote these lines, MacColl
was perhaps speaking of improving Salford for its native
inhabitants rather than simply destroying it. In the Pogues
performance, however, the town feels removed from
Salford, like it could be anyplace where souls are held
captive. And in the end we have little trouble seeing Shane,
with spite seething from his lips, wielding his axe like a
banshee, hacking his dismal town to splinters.
Madeira, In the Afternoon, June 28, 1816
When we werent playing, Cait could scarcely be found.
Apart from being the sole woman, she was also the youngest
of us. Whether it was this or something innate in her, she
resisted most of our attempts to be protective. Likewise, she
resisted her own grace. If Shane sneered, shed sneer higher.
If Spider held a drink, shed drink two. She wore her hair
tossed high above her brow, sweeping up from her neck. She
wore scales of bravado. She jawed at cat calls from the
crowds. She had every bit the rowdy countenance that would
characterize many of us in the band, but there was also
mystery to her; a quiet depth that we had yet to fathom. Since
wed left Rochefort, if she spoke at all, it would be to a
stranger who wore robust glasses and a black hat. He stayed
in a private cabin, but would ascend to the gundeck when we
played. There, hed lean against the wall, away from the
crowds, and listen, expressionless behind his glasses. When
wed finish playing, Cait would lay her bass on the floor and
step over to him. Shed feather her eyes at her feet, emitting
tiny grins, lifting her shoulders gently. Hes Uncle Brian,
she said to James when he asked.
After a childrens character.
Minute, uninhabited island-plots of Madeira reached up from
the ocean. We rode swiftly along them as they proliferated
west into greater and greater hills. Soon the rich slopes of the
main island appeared before the bow. Calls rose from the
rigging and passengers ran across the deck to the rails. There
were celebrations, unveiling teeth and songs. It was the first
land wed encountered in ten days. On the quarterdeck, the
Navigator stood with the Captain, smiling and rubbing at his
back. The Governor and his wife embraced. The officers
formed a small ring, their backs away from the approaching
island. A barrel of brandy was brought to the deck and
tapped. The sun too seemed favorable for the occasion,
peaking pale yellow and orange between the illuminated
We descended to the gundeck with Bogle to collect our
things. You cannot go, a soldier pleaded while he placed a
hand on Philips and then Andrews back. Philip latched his
guitar case and took a drink from the soldiers cup. He patted
the soldiers shoulder and walked away.
Shane would be sorry to leave Ryan. Spider bid goodbye to
the navvys, whose language hed learned to circumvent with
the wide kindness in his eyes. Triumphantly they hugged him,
asking him to play a last whistle tune. Bogle cast his canvas
pack onto his back. He crouched low and disappeared out of
the gundeck, his immense boots clomping up the stairs. To
Spiders fragile, parting tune, we each followed, leaving
behind an empty crowdempty with no music.
Theres a distinction made for good audiences; ones that offer
as much as theyre given. Theyre the audiences that can
relate so wholly to the music that they become it. The
defeated soldiers, sailors, navvys, and peasants each held the
stories in our songs. As they obeyed their commanders,
sheltered by their unguided will, any of them could slip into
the waves and, in an instant, be forgotten. Songs endure
though, the songs that we play, the songs that relay their
stories, the songs that the greatest audiences know.
Cait hadnt collected her things. She stood at the rail, some
distance away from the crowds. Amid the celebration and
farewells, she watched Madeira sweeping past. She followed
the white and orange ranches that spotted the hills. She craned
her neck up to the chestnut rock of Pico Ruivo, the serrated
horns of its upper ridge cutting into the sky. Uncle Brian
walked to her, but she brushed him away. He opened his
arms, pleading with her, and she turned away, looking back at
the island. The foliage was clear now, rising out of the ocean
and arching around the structures of Funchal. Uncle Brian
stomped away and descended the stairs. The wind pushed
strands of Caits hair while she watched the expanse of the
island come into complete view.
The Gentleman Soldier
The Gentleman Soldier is a piece of slapstick ham, though
it also contains a serious message. When the lyric states that
drums go rat a ta tat, I felt I didnt have much option but to
do that as loud as possible. I dont like music to overstate the
obvious as a rule, but in the realm of comedy I think its a bit
different.Andrew Ranken
There were other songs that Shane had written but never had
a chance to show us, so we just learned them in the studio.
The Gentleman Soldier [a traditional song] we might have
just done for a laugh there and then.Jem Finer, Pogue
Elvis Costello told me to go home and come up with
something [for The Gentleman Soldier]. The something
was a distortion of the Russian national anthem, and a figure
that went satisfactorily with the chorus.James Fearnley
The Pogues never defferred to Costellos seniority as a rock
star. If he had a controversial or unpopular idea, he had to
defend it just like everyone else did, or else watch it get shot
down in flames.Philip Chevron
Wapping lies east of the City of London on the River Thames.
Among its gaggle of centuries-old docks and stone staircases,
sat two notable places for the Pogues: the Prospect of Whitby
and Elephant Studios. The Prospect of Whitby, a renowned
riverside pub, is still there, while the studios have been
converted to a carpark. In his days before joining the Pogues,
Philip Chevron spent considerable time at the studios as both
a musician and a producer. He remembered Elephant: It had
the right combination of reasonable rates, smart engineers,
friendly environment, subterranean atmosphere, and
proximity to a great watering holethe
Prospect of Whitby. There was always at least one studio cat
in situ, sometimes two. It was also at Elephant that the
Pogues became acquainted with Chevrons musical and
production abilities when he produced Muirshin Durkin and
Whiskey Youre the Devil, both B-sides for Rum, Sodomy
& the Lashs first single, A Pair of Brown Eyes. I played
piano on Whiskey Youre the Devil, so my role with the
Pogues was already more sketched than defined, Philip told
me. Elephant also served as the recording site for the bands
debut LP, Red Roses for Me, as well as its penultimate studio
LP, Waiting for Herb.
Also accompanying the Pogues into Elephant Studios for the
dispersed recording sessions was producer Elvis Costello
(who the band would come to call Uncle Brian). Andrew
remembers now, twenty-three years later, To get Elvis
Costello on board was quite a coup at the time. Costello,
whom the Pogues had supported on his tour of the United
Kingdom and Ireland in the autumn of 1984, was already an
iconic musical figure. Hed released a string of acclaimed and
varied records under his own name and with the band the
Attractions. Hed also produced the Specials self-titled debut
record in 1979. In its simplest sense, the Specials shared an
ideological kinship with the Pogues, with their fusion of
disparate musical styles (reggae, ska, rock steady, and punk)
and their portrayal of the dirty belly of urban life. Based on
the success of the initial recording sessions that bore A Pair
of Brown Eyes, Costello and the Pogues agreed to partner
for the entire album.
The union of Costello and the Pogues for Rum, Sodomy & the
Lash, as well as for the rousing follow-up EP, Poguetry in
Motion, was, aside from some disagreements over
and overdubs, happy. Elvis is a consummate artist in the
studio, as elsewhere, always creating, always seeking a new
angle. Yet he understood perfectly that at this stage of their
career, the Pogues needed, more than anything, to be not so
much produced as facilitated, Philip recalls. In this context,
what he did with the Poguesrecording the band as live as
possible but with a great deal of natural acoustic presence in
the individual instrumentswas quite a revolutionary thing to
do in 1985. Costello has said that his aim as producer for the
Pogues was to capture them in their dilapidated glory.
At the Entrance of the Port of Funchal, June 29,
The Medusa stirred uncertain in the water before Funchal.
The crew rushed along the main deck, yanking at the rigging
to change track, contrary to the wind that swept us west. All
of the celebrations had ceased, as the ship made abrupt tilts in
its attempt to call the harbor. The Governor in his armchair
began to lean forward and holler at the Captain. His wife and
daughter sat in their own chairs on either side of him,
caressing his forearms. They wore their fine clothing,
prepared to tour Funchal and then spend the night as guests at
the Princes Villa.
The Captain called orders to every position on the Medusa
while it steered and shifted in the winds that channeled
around the mountains. But whatever action the crew took,
Funchals harbor continued to elude us, until at last, all efforts
ceased and the harbor trailed away. The crew stood drawing
in breaths, collecting themselves. The passengers were quiet.
There was one voice barking from the quarterdeck. Its precise
words scattered in the wind, though everyone could clearly
see the Governor standing at the Captains nose. In what had
become a common gesture, the Captain motioned around to
the air, lifting his shoulders, bowing his head like a boy
absorbing reprimand. The Navigator stood away at the corner
of the deck, not flinching at the words.
Bogle twisted his arms out of his pack and dropped it at his
feet. Ryan congregated with his collection of officers. Shane
wandered over to him and the two men chuckled above the
silence. Other passengers watched as the western slopes of
Madeira diluted into the haze. James extracted a cup from his
bag and went to the brandy barrel that sat alone beneath the
central mast.
For some time it seemed that we might continue on this
course west into open ocean and away from the hazards of the
Arguin Bank. Bogle muttered, Perhaps it was fortune.
We sat on the deck among our bags and cases, finishing the
brandy after the crowds had gone. The Governor, the Captain,
and the Navigator held a conference. When it was over, new
orders cascaded from the quarterdeck and the Medusa twisted
Ba, Bogle said. We make for the Canaries.
Shane, Spider, and Ryan came over to us. Well call at St.
Croix, Ryan said.
Well embark from there.
No. Theyll send in a single boat for supplies.
We are supplied now.
Ryan nodded up to the quarterdeck, With cheese, wine,
oranges, lemons.
The Canary Islands, June 29, 1816
Our failure to call at Madeira and the news that we wouldnt
be let into St. Croix extinguished every sentiment of good
will. Now, we heard rancorous things: shooting the Governor,
kidnapping and having our way with his daughter, setting fire
and abandoning ship at St. Croix, purging the ships food.
There were curses and shoving. Bogle pulled apart a pair of
soldiers. They spat at each other across Bogles chest as he
clasped the bellies of their coats. The officers were no more
pleasant, plotting for violence. Frank Ryan roused them,
shouting until his head shone dull red, stalks of veins rising
from his neck and temples. He struck his finger into the air
and the officers hollered along with him.
Cait reunited with Uncle Brian. He shoved at the soldiers who
pawed at her. Finally, he led her away up the stairs.
In the center of the gundeck a man crashed down, rattling the
wooden floor. It was one of Corrards navvys, a Sudanese. A
soldier stood over him, shouting and spitting. Two columns of
confrontation formed on either side of the fallen man: soldiers
and navvys. Corrard rushed in to lift his man from the floor.
He rubbed at the navvys jaw and then rose to the layer of
soldiers who called Corrards men pigs, cursing their
religion, their language, their skins.
But theyll build railroads for France, Corrard pleaded.
Pigs who know no better.
There were curses cast at the navvys, whose numbers were
too small to challenge the building crowd against them. The
fallen navvy rose and spit at the feet of the soldiers. He
smeared his forehead with his palm, whipping a film of blood
at them.
Corrard braced his navvy, casting him behind him into the
Then, a blaze of cloth and hair sliced between the two
columns of men, heaving fists, stabbing kicks, moving back
ranks of soldiers. It was Frank Ryan, who smacked one of the
soldiers on the chin. A collection of teeth spewed from the
soldiers mouth and rattled against the wall. Another soldier
went to maul Ryan from behind, but he bent forward, seizing
the soldier and pounding him upon the deck. With his hands,
he challenged the next solider to come. But they only cursed
and wavered, standing entirely still. Instead, Ryan met the
ends of four pistols. He crouched, poised to charge these
royalist officers when Bogle harnessed his arms, whispering
to Ryan until he ceased. He released him and put his open
palm to the center of Ryans chest. Ryan became inert, his
arms falling limp at his sides. Under the watch of the pistols,
he allowed a group of soldiers to seize his arms.
To the hold, called the arresting Lieutenant.
Lock him with the thief? asked another officer.
The group descended into the musk of the ship where they
locked Ryan, the second prisoner.
In the night we could see, at some distance above the ocean,
the molten flame of Pico del Teide: a vital, pulsing glow. It
lighted our approach to the Canary Islands: shifting orange,
then red, illuminating the crowns of rock puncturing up from
the ocean.
The Sickbed of Cuchulainn
Though he moved to England when he was a boy, Shane
MacGowans early years in Ireland made a permanent impact
on him. In Pogue Mahone, Carol Clerk describes his
home in Nenagh, North Tipperary: Here death was treated
with the same practicality of every other fact of life there was
in the farmhouse, a dying roomand the history, myths and
legends of Ireland were passed down eagerly and in colorful
detail from one generation to the next. It was dramatic,
sometimes scary stuff to young earsgripping and
To be Irish in England in the late 1970s could also be scary.
The IRA was engaged in a violent campaign for
independence in Northern Ireland. On the streets where Shane
spent considerable time composing his tales and attending
gigs, the phenomenon of Paddy-bashing wasnt rare.
Shanes friend Deirdre OMahony recalls this sociopolitical
climate in the documentary If I Should Fall from Grace.You
had bombs going off right, left, and center. There was a lot of
racism in London at the time and a lot of anti-Irish talk every
time there was another bomb. So for [Shane] to turn around
and celebrate his Irish culture was a very strange thing. And
to give voice to his experience of it that was what was
such a huge revelation with the Pogues.
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash opens with a tense guitar strum
reminiscent of The Auld Triangle, a Brendan Behan
interpretation found on the Pogues debut record, Red Roses
for Me. Rather than following with the solemn tension of
The Auld Triangle, however, The Sickbed of Cuchulainn
erupts into a breakneck stomp that recounts the furious life of
a dying man. His recollections take him to his drunken days
in Germany, ridden with venereal disease, and to a brothel in
Madrid where Frank Ryan gifts him with whiskey. The man
has wrecked taverns that wouldnt serve him and
walked headfirst into certain beatings. He casts irreverence
and absurdity at everything that confronts him, even death.
Yet in spite of his vices, his compassion is keen:
Then you sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks.
The mans rambunctious philanthropy resembles the pursuits
and vices of Frank Ryans life. Ryan, known for his
involvement in the old IRA, fought for Irish independence
and then against the rising tide of European fascism in Ireland
(General ODuffys blueshirts) and in Spain (Francos
Nacionalistas). In A Drink with Shane MacGowan, Shane
says of Ryan, Frank was the laughing cavalier of the old
IRA. He was a womanizer, a drinker, a bold figure of a
man. And he was passionate, an Irish-speaking Republican
Socialist he was a great orator. And he could stir the hearts
of men. MacGowans protagonist in The Sickbed of
Culcuchainn rejects fascism with the same vitriol:
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all
the yids.
In an interview with Melody Makers Barry Mcllheney, Shane
says, Lyrically its a form of humanism, expressing the
belief in the right of every human being to lead a decent life,
without anyone else shitting down on them. And that goes
just the same for a protestant Orangeman as it does for a black
in Soweto. Andrew Ranken added to this notion in our
interview, We were demonstrating that music that had strong
roots in the Irish folk tradition need not have only minority
appeal, but could preach to a very broad church indeed.
Cuchulainn is a chief character in The Ulster Cycle of Celtic
mythology: a warrior reputed for his might. In the episode of
Fledd Bricrenn, a contest is held to determine the mightiest
warrior in Ireland. In the contest, Cuchulainn and two other
warriors are each invited to decapitate a giant, under the
condition that the same giant may later return and decapitate
each of them. The first two warriors acknowledge the
absurdity of the pact and decapitate the giant. They recant
later, however, when the giant magically returns for their
heads. Cuchulainn, in contrast, decapitates the giant and,
when it returns, honors his pact and kneels down, offering his
head. In an unexpected turn, the giant reels back his axe and
softly taps Cuchulainn on the neck. Then, he lifts the warrior
to his feet. The giant transforms into the king and declares
Cuchulainn champion of Ireland, for his integrity and courage
and his loyalty to his word.
The Pogues use of the mythical hero in the song contrasts
with the gaudy magnificence used by many poets. Here,
Cuchulainn isnt deified or romanticized. Rather hes made
human, assuming the same misadventures, indulgences, and
internal struggles between virtue and vice that consume us.
That Cuchulainn retains his integrity and courage in spite of
these carnal issues reveals an alternative essence of might.
The Sickbed of Cuchulainn introduces us to a host of
kindred Irish spirits: the dying protagonist of the song, Frank
Ryan, and this incarnation of Cuchulainn, each full of
complexity and paradoxirreverent with keen spiritual
awareness, drunken with a lucid sense of purpose, relentlessly
brawling for human rights.
The song mentions other historical figures that also fit with
this notion. In the first verse of the lyric:
MacCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed
Both men were popular singers in the early to mid-twentieth
century. Like Frank Ryan, Tauber, an Austrian, also
encountered European fascism when Hitler banned his plays
and films and later seized his Vienna home. After escaping
from Austria, Tauber defiantly said to a London audience,
Hitler has stopped me singing in Germany and Austria. He
wont stop me here. In A Drink with Shane MacGowan,
Shane says of John MacCormack, the sole Irish Papal Count,
Thats how John MacCormack learned to sing by being
beaten up and going to Church. Classic Irish upbringing.
Classic Irish voice.
With the characters and events that The Sickbed of
Cuchulainn rouses, we find that in the end, its a song of
celebration as the (now dead) protagonist burrows out from
his grave and calls for another drink. And although its
celebration radiates out to all people, its Irish in context.
James Fearnley says, [The Sickbed of Cuchulainn] came
from somewhere else, being a traditional melody. While the
tale is far from romantic and the music is wonderfully rowdy,
The Sickbed of Cuchulainn seems foremost to be an ode to
Ireland and its heroes. It lauds the aspects of Ireland that
perhaps the Pogues admire most: its ability to celebrate the
bleak, amuse the melancholy, fight for the downtrodden, and
rouse up songs for the dead. Its might.
The Coast of Africa, June 30, 1816
The ferry returned to the Medusa from St. Croix brimming
with delicacies that the Governor promptly ordered to his
cabin. While a collection of sailors lifted the crates to their
shoulders, the Governor turned to the Captain: Go now.
The rest of the convoy had arrived in the hours that wed been
anchored in the harbor. Framed by St. Croixs inlet rocks, the
posture of the ships masts bent like eyebrows questioning,
Will you sail to open ocean?
Bogle reached into his pack and extracted a telescope, its dull
brass clicking as he extended it to the ships. They signal us,
he mouthed to himself. Turn west, they say.
Jock Stewart meandered past, grinning with his hands poised
in the pockets of his coat. We wont turn, he whispered into
the breeze.
There was another conference on the quarterdeck; the largest
since wed embarked from Rochefort. It included both
factions of officers, and the Captain. Regardless of their
affiliation, the officers motioned to the west.
These conferences and shouts from the quarterdeck had now
gripped everyone aboard. Even the drunks and children
recognized the alarmthe crowds with their necks arched
while the Captain raced between the Governor and the
Navigator, ignoring his officers and the signals of his convoy.
With loose fingers the Navigator swatted at the Captain. He
lit a pipe and stared forward, his decision unmoving: we
would head southeast, the contrary orientation, the contrary
We were close to the African coast. Its heat seethed
everywhere, warming even the water vapor.
Land, a call came from the rigging. The conference of
officers shattered as they trotted to the rail.
We narrowed our eyes from our places below them. Ahead
and slightly to the left, there was a radiating arc of platinum.
It grew in intensity every moment, up over the water, until a
glowing strip of white divided it from the sky. Soon we could
discern shadows and contour within it, mounds of desert
transforming at every lap of the ocean. Each of the
experienced seamenBogle, the sailors, the officersagreed
that it was Cape Bojador that we saw: Africa.
Since the Captains decision at St. Croix to continue on the
direct track to the African coast, Ryans faction of officers
took sounding depths every half hour.
100 fathoms, 350 fathoms, 120 fathoms, the reports
returned. These depths were satisfactory, but narrow
compared to the thousands of fathoms we had during the first
ten days of our voyage. We knew too, as Bogle and the
officers would both say, that the most perilous depths were
precisely ahead of us.
In the afternoon, a passenger walked up as Philip, James,
Andrew, and I sounded out songs, with Bogle improvising
lyrics about our journey. The passenger motioned to the deck
and we invited him to sit. He squatted, rolling up his loose,
soiled sleeves. The skin from his elbows to his knuckles held
a swollen coat of red and tiny vines of white that he scratched
until they bled. The ship shifted and a beam of sun fell onto
him. He looked up to the mast and scampered slightly to his
left under its shadow.
Bogle ceased his lyric and motioned to the mans arms. He
whispered, I know an herb for this.
The man bounced on his squatted knees, moving his eyes
around at the sky. His scratching intensified until a film of
blood wicked into his fingertips. The man wept I lived in the
mountains, in herding villages. In pastures we could look
down into the valleys. They sank far beneath. I was afraid,
imagining myself a moth on the mountainside flying out from
the pasture with nothing but air and a green suggestion of
earth below. The altitude, the drop couldnt be fathomed. I
imagined this ship that way: sailing as a speck above a
shapeless bottom so many expanses below. Sunlight cannot
even reach those depths. Did you know? Water, the same as
glass, yet such an expanse of it creates darkness. I could not
open my eyes at the thought. To feel small again within
something as empty as the distance between the surface of the
sea and its bottom. I wished for land to come. Now its
pleasant, to imagine the sea floor so close. We should wreck
soon and Ill be comforted. He wept more. He sat back,
clawing violently at his arms, muttering to himself between
tears. Finally, Bogle rose and collared the mans wrists. He
lifted him from the deck.
Surgeon! he called.
The surgeon, named Savigny, came forth and, with Bogle,
carried the man down the stairs.
We came along Cape Bojador with the three other ships of the
convoy, each visible at some distance behind us. Through
Bogles telescope I could see the bleached white hills of the
Cape. I could see the waves cresting and then licking ahead to
the hills. The telescope grew hot against my brow and fingers
and I looked up to the afternoon sun. It seemed that it was as
much a hazard as the sea itself: blazing and inescapable. Its
effect was twofold: penetrating, descending beams and then a
rising swelter once it radiated against the deck. I imagined it
consuming a plank of wood this way, heating it to
flaming away into ash, and dusting away into nothing. I
watched as the Cape fell away and we were in open ocean
again, sailing due south.
There were shouts, though this time they were merry.
Wogs, wogs! the sailors called, laughing. As the calls
mounted, a group of young sailors, boys, were pushed to a
point just below the central mast. An officer ordered them
onto their hands and knees. A ring of older sailors and
passengers surrounded them and the Captain even descended
to join the ring. Wog! Other passengers formed an outer
ribbon, observing.
An officer called out and the noise hushed while a barrel was
delivered next to him. He ordered the young sailors to array
themselves into a column on their backs. Then he raised his
arms to summon again the chant, Wogs, wogs. The officer
and two sailors lifted the barrel and ran along, tipping it onto
the column of young men. A cascade of green bread, fruit,
and meat, days past ripening, fell onto them. The young
sailors writhed in the musk-rotten slush. The officer ordered
the men to roll, to lather their faces in it. Cheers and laughter
came from everywhere on the deck as the young, rolling
sailors looked up for breath wearing beards of rot.
James leaned to my ear, Theyve crossed the line of Cancer
for the first time.
As the ritual proceeded, I watched the old sailorsthe ones
whod waged war on the same expanse of ocean that we now
sailed. I watched them laugh and kick in at the ribs of the
young ones who attempted to rest or escape. When the ritual
concluded, they didnt cheer for the new initiatesthey
lashed ropes and threw buckets at them.
Unamused, Shane sat alone with his back to the rail writing
fervently on a square of paper and stroking his fingers in the
air, closing his eyes. I asked him later what he wrote about
and he just looked up, half asleep, The way young men are,
then after considerable thought, the way old men are.
A Pair of Brown Eyes
Scope differentiates Rum, Sodomy & the Lash from the
Pogues next album, 1988s If I Should Fall from Grace with
God. This latter record sheds Rums rusted colloquial tales
and character sketches in favor of original epics like Shane
and Jems Fairytale of New York, Philips Thousands are
Sailing, and new addition Terry Woodss Streets of Sorrow/
The Birmingham Six. In the three years between the two
releases, the lyrics became more elegant and the music
increasingly incorporated new styles including pop, big band,
ska, and Middle Eastern. Also, while Rum, Sodomy & the
Lash conveyed a sense of timelessness over the course of the
entire record, If I Should Fall from Grace with God created
the same notion within single songs. That said, A Pair of
Brown Eyes distinguishes itself on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
in this latter vain. The song describes a pub encounter
between two men, one of them an old war veteran and the
other a young man whos just had his heart broken. The old
veteran scolds the young man for his self absorption and
failure to understand the essence of loss. He describes his
own horrific experiences at war:
And the arms and legs of other men, were scattered all
And when the old veteran finally returns from war, his lover
has gone:
But when we got back labeled parts one to three,
There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me.
Reluctantly heeding the old veterans tale, the young man is
filled with spite, and leaves the pub even more sullen than
when he arrived.
The lyrics of A Pair of Brown Eyes hold a keen sense of
conversation, much like the Pogues best-known song,
Fairytale of New York. In a few economical verses, they
communicate the angst and tension between two generations,
one that had made tangible, carnal sacrifices and another that
had the freedom to wage the internal wars of the heart and
mind. The lyrics also illuminate a consciousness within the
Pogues writing, in their portrayal of generations beyond their
own. Given the hedonistic musical climate of the mid-1980s,
this was a welcome deviation. I think we were all quite
nauseated by a lot of the vacuous, insipid dross that passed for
new romantic music at the time, so it felt great to put
something out that was bold and beefy and had depth and
meaning and morals, Andrew told me. The music in A Pair
of Brown Eyes also supports this. With a rolling snare drum,
it sweeps along in three-time. Andrew remembers further,
On A Pair of Brown Eyes I got to sit down and play a
regular kick drum. That was because it freed me up to play
the pressed rolls which are a big part of the dynamics in the
instrumental and choruses. Despite its unique lyrical
characteristics, the song is a variation on an established
melody, which allows it to meld with the rest of Rum, Sodomy
& the Lash despite its
unique lyrics. James says, The accordion figure in [A Pair
of Brown Eyes] is loosely based on The Old Claddagh
Ring by Dermot OBrien.
In the live setting, A Pair of Brown Eyes is a crowd
favorite. Its one of those rare songs that entire audiences
recite with their eyes closed and drinks raised.
In A Drink with Shane MacGowan, Shane notes the unique
style of the songs lyrics in contrast to other Pogues originals
at the time: They didnt progress from Irish music but they
went from being straight headbangers, straight ballads to
being sort of mini Irish symphonies. I suppose that the first
one like that was A Pair of Brown Eyes.
The Coast of Africa, June 1, 1816
A woman gasped along the rail. Shed been standing with her
daughter looking out over the sea for Cape Blanco, the
Medusas next land fix. Theyd been rehearsing the names of
animals, African ones, when the mother jutted her finger out
into the east. An officer came up next to her, stepping slowly.
Disinterested, he followed her finger to a small blemish upon
the water. At first he couldnt discern it from the rising prisms
of sea vapor. Then, he fixed his eyes and flashed his hand to
the pocket of his coat to his telescope. A shout came from up
on the rigging. Passengers again rushed to the rails, looking
out into the water. Another shout descended.
Philip spotted them, crags of rock puncturing from the
oceans surface. Another! a boy yelled. Soon, we found a
crescent of such rocks about the ship, blunting the water with
the flat of their faces. They are as large
Christ, said Bogle, the tide. He motioned down to the
water, revealing that it had gained shades of brown.
80 fathoms! the sounding report returned. Officers rushed
to the quarterdeck, to the Captain who did nothing but defer
to the Navigator with a tilt of his head. And the Navigator
grinned, raising his chin to the sun.
Ive sailed this water, he assured them. He twisted to the
Captain with his torso, You should put them at their posts.
There came another shout from the rigging, and one of
Ryans officers at last ordered an evasive track. Passengers
slipped across the deck with the ships gigantic shift. There
was a crash of water at the hull that sent passengers and coils
of rope into the air. The current held us idle for a few seconds
and the Medusa released a bellowing creak. Then the sails
reset and there was calm. For the moment we tracked west,
along a wall of rock. There came howls from the quarterdeck:
first the Navigator at the Captain, then from the Captain to
Ryans officer, molecules of spit bursting from his mouth.
After some time, the Navigator had the Medusa back to its
morning track. And when we looked out behind us there was
just one ship remaining: the Echo, the convoys next fastest.
While the crowds watched it, away in the distance there was
debate as to where the other two ships had gone.
Theyve abandoned us, theyve departed west, weve
outrun them again, theyve wrecked off Bojador.
The Coast of Africa, Sunset, July 1, 1816
Arms of pink and orange stained the ocean currents in
slender, flickering sickles of color. The clouds above and
beyond the water bloomed with this light, which created ages
of depth and shadow. The Medusa moved along this
sunset with a gentle rock and without a sound. A ribbon of
passengers watched it from the rail. Perhaps every sunset had
been this way, so majestic and graceful, but only with this
days threatening serenity did we absorb it. By now even the
least informed passenger knew that the track ahead of us held
danger. For those whod never been to sea, there was a fear of
drowning or of maneating sea creatures, and for those who
had, the entity that we approached was folly. The hazards of
the Arguin Bank had been taught well to each sailor and
officer. It had become instinct to keep away from poorly
charted shores; sea voyage offered risks in even the best
known places of the ocean.
The Navigator could feel the heft of the Medusas track and
could sense the impact it had on each soul aboard. He seemed
to swell at the notion, each hour peering less at his charts and
instead allowing the current, the wind, and instinct to guide
his orders. That wed escaped the rock crags in the shallows
off Bojador wasnt a harbinger for himit bloated his
At twilight, a large collection of men had their meals on the
main deck. Their conversations rumbled. The group included
Ryans officers and Jock Stewart as well as
civilianshusbands and fathers. At times, the Royalist
officers would send soldiers down to probe the group, but
each time theyd be checked with a sudden hush. There would
be spitting and low mumbles while the soldiers patrolled
them, creaking past the rancorous faces: slender eyes, stitched
lips. Of course, the soldiers absorbed the animosity, and in all
likelihood shared it, but duty prevented their rebellion. I
wonder if they knew that it was only them, the large cluster of
enlisted men with rifles, sabers, and pistols, who kept the
Medusa from
mutiny. How tragic would it be if we were to wreck because
of incompetence and arrogance, and a soldiers misinformed
duty to protect it.
Spider sat along the rail, teaching a boy the tin whistle. From
it, there would come an occasional sweet flutter of sound,
followed by atonal emissions of air and spit. Spider put his
hand to his own chest. Spider, he said. The boy turned his
eyes while ahead he puffed into the whistle. Spider connected
his fingertips, walking them upward and then down onto the
boys shoulder. Spider, he said again. The boy pulled the
piece from his lips questioning with his shoulders. Spider
said, My arms and legs were long for my body as a boy.
Sitting, he designed his limbs as such, flexing out his toes and
fingertips, So a girl called me Spider. The boy winced and
The tone of the deck was otherwise so grave that we, Bogle,
Corrard, the navvys, and Uncle Brian proceeded down to the
gundeck. Spider rose from the boy, leaving the whistle with
him and extracting another from his pocket. Since Ryans
arrest, Shane spent most of his time with Spider and the
navvys, and they shared songs. It enchanted Shane the way
that the navvy songs built and fell, feeling no preoccupation
with key and tone. Rather, the songs were each like tiny
explorations, searching for notes and structure. There was
inherent rhythm in everything the navvys sangin their
chants, in the echoes from the walls, in the rasp of their
throats, the clap of their hands. It cycled, repeating, their
voices calling and summoning.
In the gundeck, Shane sat upon a barrel, hollering a rendition
of a navvy song, blending it with Gaelic in his own
caramelizing baritone until it was unintelligible. A navvy, the
tallest one, with ankles and arms as slender as oar handles,
him, sitting on the opposite crescent of the barrel. Their
voices ran contrary to each other at first, then a melding came
that bounded loose over syllables and verse. Philip strummed
quiet and tense at it, shifting his fingers to find a key. Soon
the three men broke and, after a moments silence, Andrew
hollered out a quick count and together we launched into
something furious. We tended to each other with no lead, the
sound framed precisely as each player wanted. A
synchronicity developed. There was James hunched over his
accordion, pulling with his shoulders and pumping his fingers
across the keys like a row of pecking birds. Spider followed
the tune just as quick, with every gust pushing through the
whistle. I kept along on the mandolin. Philip crouched and
leapt with his guitar like a toad, surging in the air without
colliding with the ceiling. Cait leaned back away from her
bass while she played it, feeling every quick note as if it were
infinite, droning away. Shane and the navvys shouted their
mutually unintelligible words, grappling with each other, not
quite embracing or brawling. James began a crouched lurch
like Philip while he played. They alternated jaunts and then
did them together. A thickness of air rose from us; ghosts,
dark streets, dead fish swirled about, until, at once, the music
broke and the chords of each instrument took a parting hum.
With this noise, I began to imagine intersections of sound
swirling together, sometimes congruous, sometimes contrary,
sounding, unrepeated, propelled by new permutations: a song
lasting forever.
The navvy gained back his breath while Shane folded himself
into the corner, his knees at his chin, drinking a cup of wine. I
glanced out from behind the mandolin to an empty deck. Only
Uncle Brian was there, who brushed his knees with Caifs
while Bogle applauded.
We ascended again. Most of the passengers on the main deck
either slept or sat awake by the rail. For the first time, there
were open expressions of prayer. The quarterdeck was empty
now except for the Navigator, who stood like an unmoving
wooden fixture of the ship.
The nights darkness was so complete that we rode along in
hollow black. Andrew, James, Philip, Bogle, and I watched
the deck lanterns sway with the ship. I looked out to the spot
where the Echo had ridden: a distant fleck of light. I found
that it had moved some distance to our left since Id last
spotted it and was rapidly gaining on our position. Soon it
was close enough for me to discern individual lanterns about
its masts. They twinkled and pulsed until I determined a
rhythm. I pointed to it.
Signals, said Bogle. We watched the lights until they
ceased and there came a persistent glow, like the eyes of a fly:
empty and watching. There were shifts of the wind that filled
and released our sails. Soon the Echo altered its track again. It
turned due west and crested along at an enormous rate on a
track that came straight to us. An enormous charge blasted up
from the Echos deck and into the blank sky, illuminating
orange, a long ellipse of air and sea. The ocean trembled,
sending tiny oscillations to lick at our hull. As the light
faltered I looked to the Navigator, who peered at the signal
and grimaced to himself. Then the charges blast absorbed
back into the Echo, delivering a darkness that seemed emptier
than before. Then, another charge blasted up above the
Echos masts: its boom delayed for a second after the
explosion. This time the Navigator didnt turn at all. The light
created shadows on the terrified, sleeping, arrogant faces of
the Medusa. Again the glow dwindled to darkness and the
Echos lanterns
began to pulse with their signal. It was close now. Bogle
could discern the signals without a telescope. Turn west! It
came close enough to hear the rush of ocean at its keel. The
sound built. Soon, we could discern the Echos sailors hailing
us with white cloths. We could hear their shouts as it raced
past our bow, not ten lengths away. We watched as its signals
fell impotent and it disappeared away into the west.
There was no twitch in our course. For speed or ruin we
departed all company to head south alone.
Sally MacLennane
I go, without the heart to go,
To kindred that I hardly know.
Drink, neighbour, drink a health with me
Farewell to barn and stack and tree.
Five hours will see me stowed aboard,
The gangplank up, the ship unmoored.
Christ grant no tempest shakes the sea
Farewell to barn and stack and tree.
Joseph Campbell, The Emigrant (Inishry 1913 from The
Oxford Book of Ireland)
Some are convinced the Irish are not serious about anything
other than saying goodbye. Death is accepted, so is battle, the
loss of spouse, even the dying of children. Tragedy seems
indigenous to the land. It was always a puzzle to the English
that in the midst of grief, in the midst or carnage, the Irish
could leap to his feet and give vent to a full-throated song, or
an intricate story, even ones with comic overtones.
Malachy McCourt, Danny Boy
The Pogues could never have been an Irish band
indigenously. Its like theres two Irelands, the people who
went away or are second generation and very often that gives
a different point of view on the culture on what it is to be
Irish.Philip Chevron, If I Should Fall from Grace
There has always been a parallel Ireland. A world outside of
Ireland that is always Irish. An alternative Ireland. This is a
world inhabited by those whom Ireland has failed. Mostly
they had no work or they had ambitions beyond those
articulated nightly in the rooms of forgetting, the sensation
dulling, world erasing bars whose grand dreams evaporated
nightly with the clang of the closing time shutters.Bob
Geldof, liner notes, Waiting for Herb reissue
Songs everywhere. They convey the gamut of human emotion
and unify communities, if not nations. Songs have long been a
vehicle of communication and celebration for Irish culture,
whether its singular unaccompanied Sean Nos or the rhythm
and melodies of full ensembles. Of the six original lyrical
songs on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, five of them mention
singing: In The Sickbed of Cuchulainn, John MacCormick
and Richard Tauber serenade a dying man who later, in a
delirious state, hears drunken men singing Billys in the
bowl. In A Pair of Brown Eyes Johnny Cashs A Thing
Called Love plays on the jukebox and accompanies the
lovelorn thoughts of a young man; his thoughts are made even
more poignant by Ray and Philomenas songs. Navigator
(written for the Pogues by their friend Phil Gaston) mentions
the work camp songs of the navvys (rail
workers). Billy, of Billys Bones, is singing when hes
killed on the Lebanon line. And when Jimmy leaves his home
in Sally MacLennane, his family and friends offer songs of
farewell to him.
Musically, Sally MacLennane presents itself as a pub-room
romp: single strike drum rolls, festive accordion, hollers of
Far away. With the tin whistle, Spider harmonizes note for
note with Shanes vocals (something they also employ to a
melancholy effect on A Pair of Brown Eyes, Dirty Old
Town, and the second verse of Im a Man You Dont Meet
Every Day).
Sally MacLennane, the name of a stout, is inspired by
Shanes uncle Franks pub. Shane recalls him in A Drink with
Shane MacGowan: He was a link with Ireland for me. He
ran a great pub in Dagenham for the Irish Ford workers,
which is what Sally MacLennane is based on. The song
melds Shanes recollections of the pub (like the elephant man,
a real bloke) with Jimmy, who has grown tired of his
locales tendency toward debauchery and violence. When
Jimmy decides to leave his home, his family walks him to his
train and, in so doing, touches on another Irish theme:
departure. Irish writer James Stephens remarks on this theme,
I labor under this disadvantage that never having been out of
Ireland I have never been far enough away to get a proper
look at it, and consequently, although I have lived all my life
in this country, I have never once seen it. But the theme
emerges far earlier than that: In order to prove his devotion
for his wife-to-be, Emer, Cuchulainn journeys far away from
Ireland. Ewan MacColls song The Traveling People, made
popular by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners, documents the lives
of Irelands tinkersa nomadic people who laud in the
liberty of
mobility. Songs of departure emerge throughout the Pogues
discography from early interpretations of Kitty and The
Leaving of Liverpool to the glorious original Thousands are
Sailing. In the If I Should Fall from Grace documentary,
Philip remarks that departure from Ireland had a critical
impact on the creative output of the Pogues: What made [the
Pogues] what it was, was that it was an Anglo-Irish band.
That combination of English people and people like myself
and Terry [Woods] born on the island and people of the
Diaspora like Andrew. Something about that chemistry is
what made the band very interesting.
A major difference between Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and its
predecessor, Red Roses for Me, is a greater willingness to
deviate from Irish songs and themes. We find interpretations
of English, Australian, and American folk songs that also
accompany novel expressions of the world outside of Ireland.
That said, songs like Sally MacLennane (and The Sickbed
of Cuchulainn) remind us of how closely tied to Ireland the
album remains, with its adherence to themes of song and
departure and its melody, strongly reminiscent of the
traditional hornpipe, The Galtee Hunt. In fact, so precisely
does the song fit with these notions that James Fearnely told
me, For the longest time I thought that Sally MacLennane
was a traditional song.
The character Jimmy, in the end, drinks himself to death, an
ironic turn for someone who escaped his beloved home to
avoid that very fate. And yet MacGowans talent for turning
irony back on itself emerges: drinking yielding death, another
departure, another song.
The Coast of Africa, Morning, July 2, 1816
At sunrise, a swell of hot tea filled me and I woke. Andrew,
Philip, and James sat beside me, each holding a cup. Bogle
held out another for me. Well need our wits today, he said.
My stomach was warm with fear and I held the tea in my
100 fathoms, the sounding report returned. For the entire
morning, there was at least that depth beneath us. Ryans
officers, whod been persistently calculating our track since
wed departed the Canaries, came away from their charts with
their heads bowed. Were on the very edge of the Bank, one
of them muttered to Bogle.
A crowd of sailors brought up rods and fished from the deck.
They immediately reeled up stocks of fish, which they
clubbed and opened and took to the kitchen. Through the
morning, plates of cod came up in thin slices coated with
flour. The Governor refused it but the Navigator and the
Captain are like the rest of us. Then sailors brought up a
barrel of wine and people danced rigidly as Philip and I
None of it lasted. Down the deck, a sailor reeled up a heap of
river grasses. Another sailor looked to the water and shouted
that, once again, it had browned. The Navigator laughed at
the news. From the river deltas, not far, he boasted. I have
twice explored those.
70 fathoms, the sounding report returned.
The shallowest, Philip said.
Men and women moaned at the news. There was no more
We are safe! the Captain called out.
The breeze mounted, carrying us faster. Many remarked that
the water had begun to reflect textures like tree bark:
brown and wrinkled. Soon, every head hung out over the rail,
looking down into the water. A passenger poured his cup of
wine into the sea, creating a patch of maroon that quickly fell
behind the ship. Further down the rail a man shrieked,
motioning downward to tiny particles of sand that had begun
to stir in the water below the hull.
18 fathoms, the sounding report returned.
The Captain ran to the Navigator touching his fingers upon
his shoulder, questioning with his brow. I watched the rhythm
of the artery in the Captains neck pulsing like a toad,
exposed and terrified. The Navigator pushed off the Captains
hand and looked ahead. The Governor and his wife and
daughter sat with a plate of fruit before them, isolated,
chuckling to one another.
A passenger ran below the quarterdeck and spanned out his
arms, shouting up to the command, Sirs, we will hit. Such
pleas also came from the sailors, stretching upward in a heap
beneath the quarterdeck. Cait and Uncle Brian tied their
fingers together. The Captain ordered over a squad to guard
the quarterdeck. The Governor continued to nibble, making
slight conversation with his wife and lifting his face to the
sun, lathering himself in it.
More shafts of river grasses floated past and larger kernels of
sand twisted in the bow current. Our speed gained. Bogle spat
into the water. The afternoon sun blazed upon our backs and
necks, roasting them to deep red, but we continued to lean
over, watching from the rail. A soldier standing next to Spider
coiled upon his rifle and sobbed. In the revolution, it was a
comfort to my mother that Id die in France, the soldier laid
on his side, embracing the stock of his gun. Now my body
will be lost.
There were more shrieks and shouts and pleas while we
continued our intrepid course. One of Ryans officers, a
young ensign, rushed the stairs of the quarterdeck. A guard
put his rifle into the ensigns ribs, casting him back down the
stairs. Shane ran to the ensign and, with the aidof a
passenger, helped him to his knees. Shane whispered to him
and then stood, bracing the ensigns shoulders. Vapor hissed
from his lips as he cursed up to the quarterdeck. Without
tilting his head, the Captains eyes moved down to Shane,
who stood below him in an open, filthy shirt and a beard that
cast black whiskers in every direction. Spider slung his arm
around Shanes neck and shouted a diatribe, thick and
taunting. The ensign then revived and caressed his head. He
opened his shirt, revealing a patch of broken vessels that hung
long and purple on the opposite side from his brand. I
watched the wound throb like the Captains neck: they were
in perfect synchronicity. A deafening beat could be discerned.
I became aware of every heart, every vein, every wound of
the ship beating together, loud and dull and then sharp and
alarming like a bell. It grew into a hideous yet essential
sound, a rhythm to frame everything that had happened or
would happen, like a battle march, a droning beat, a death
Then two things happened in rapid succession: a sailor not far
from us reeled in an enormous, writhing cod. As he boasted
and tugged at it, another shout lifted above all the other noise:
Six fathoms! the sounding report returned.
Billys Bones
Billys Bones accompanies the traditional Mrs. McGrath
and Bob Dylans John Brown as songs that handle the
emotional hardship borne by the mothers of soldiers. In the
of these songsand likely the source of the other twoMrs.
McGrath, an impoverished Irish mother watches her son Ted
leave to join the English army in the fight against Napoleon.
In battle, a cannonball takes both of Teds legs, and he returns
to her on crutches and pegs. His mothers initial despair turns
to spite. In the final verse she says,
All foreign wars I do proclaim.
Between Don John and the King of Spain,
And by herrins Ill make them rue the time,
That they swept the legs from a child of mine.
Dylan portrays John Browns mother as an enabler, heaping
with pride at her sons enlistment and departure to war,
boasting all about town over his service. Its only when John
returns to her, unrecognizably mangled, that she realizes
wars brutal reality. Despite the contextual differences in
these two songs, both are overtly antiwar in nature.
Billys Bones, on the contrary, places greater focus on the
soldier himself. While the song is also antiwar (though less
clearly), the character of Billy is a hellion and a brawler
whos revered for beating down a cop. For Billy, violence is a
means of amusement. He is the antithesis of The Sickbed of
Cuchulainn, in which violence is instead used to liberate and
protect. Also deviating from Mrs. McGrath and John
Brown is the songs tempo: Billys Bones is one of the
fastest songs in the Pogues discography. My approach to
this song was to play as fast as I fucking could to keep up,
remembers James. Shanes auction-caller phrasing and the
musics breakneck playing foster the image of Billy firing his
machine gun, fighting, laughing, singingthe abandon that
defines him. In an ironic turn, Billy joins a peacekeeping
force and is deployed to Palestine. Here, he indiscriminately
shoots at Arabs and Israelis all for the amusement of watching
them run. Billy ultimately meets his demise in the desert
somewhere on the Lebanon line. Unlike John Browns mother
and Mrs. McGrath, Billys mother has no image of him: not a
body or a shirt. Like many mothers, shes left with the
emptiness held by the. survivors of those lost in foreign
Now Billys out there in the desert sun and his mother cries
when the morning comes,
And theres mothers crying all over this world, for their poor
Dead darling boys and girls.
The Arguin Bank, Afternoon, July 2, 1816
The Captain approached the Navigator again, this time like a
deer to a brook. Sir, less than six.
The words incubated with the Navigator for many seconds
before he threw his charts and compass against the floor, the
latter making a dense crack as it flipped around on its axis.
Someone come forward who knows this coast better, he
shouted into the side of the Captains face while he made a
grand sweep with his hand. He looked to the Governor, who
nodded approval while sliding an oyster into his mouth.
The masses stood and craned up at the quarterdeck. The
Navigator paused and ordered a new sounding to be taken.
Before the result could be returned however, there was a
shudder. It was slight, like the vibration on a table when a
plate is set upon it. Some of the souls standing on the interior
of the deck didnt even detect it. We rode along again in
quiet. Then there came a second tremble, accompanied by a
rushing sound that peeled along the keel. We slowed for a
moment and then, as if released from a giant hand, we
accelerated again. This sensation was felt by everyone and
there were screams and shouts. The knowing, upward hook in
the Navigators mouth fell. The Governor stared from his
armchair, holding his glass still while the wine inside it tipped
from hemisphere to hemisphere. The Captain looked to both
expressionless men, for whom this predicament was a
novelty. I could hear and even feel the vital, horrid throbbing
again, pulsing from necks and chests and closed fists. A
lapping of the sea accompanied it, slurring the beat like a slip
of air channeling through an enormous shell, inviting us into
chambers of suffering.
An officer yelled up from the silence, Turn sirs, please!
And the Captain at last gave that order. The helmsman reeled
around and the Medusa sliced west. But immediately there
was a third trembling, which this time shook everyone from
their feet. The Governors platter of delicacies clashed as it
hit the floor. The Medusas timber gave a drawn groan. The
sails fell like clouds into the sunset. The rigging swayed.
There were screams and curses. There were threats to charge
the deck. Turn! shouts came.
It was too late. Small wakes collided with the ship and
currents of water channeled around it. We werent moving.
Wed been seized by the sea floor.
Dozens hurried over and arrayed themselves on the rail,
leaning from the ship. Below us, clouds of mud stirred in the
water and the rippled sea floor, magnified up to us as close as
the very floor beneath our feet. On the horizon, in any
direction, there was nothing: just the gentle crease where the
sea met the sky.
Down the long column of those standing along the rail came
the Navigator, whod descended from the quarterdeck. He
craned his neck. I watched his face project both terror and
hubris in a single moment. Raising his head turning to the
deck he called out, A calculated obstacle.
A Lieutenant stepped in front of him, pushing his back into
the Navigators gut. He hollered out, We must do what we
can to lighten!
For some minutes there was a frenzy to purge anything of
weight. Men lifted chests of supplies over the rail and cast
them into the water. The cooks tossed out armloads of pans.
A team of others crouched to lift a canon off its mount.
Women scurried to their cabins to secure their jewelry. And
in spite of this turmoil about the deck and the goods raining
from it, the ship was steadfast; stuck so completely that it
could not shift so much as a grain of sand beneath its keel.
When he saw the purging, the Captain descended onto the
deck in a furious charge. This will stop! he howled. The
King will not have his possessions put to sea.
Officers and soldiers glared to their Captain before enforcing
his command. With the butt of his pistol, an ensign smacked
to the ground a navvy whod been sprinting to the rail with a
wooden chair over his head. The navvys blood seeped upon
the deck as the purging ceased. For some moments, the
Captain conferred softly with the Navigator and the Governor
until he began to bob his head. The Captain then composed
his hands at his rear and called for the sailors to disassemble
the masts and for others to lower down the six support boats
that had been lashed to the Medusas side.
Having been to sea for so long it was odd to be sure of foot,
reminding us of the permanence of our grounding. We could
still feel, in our minds, the shift of the sea, but our feet were
steadfast, the wisest of our faculties.
The Governor had one of the Captains aides bring up a new
tray of fruit and a loaf of dark bread. He picked at it with his
wife and daughter as the sailors ran about the deck and
shimmied along the rigging. Soon, the Medusa was a stout
version of itself, stripped of topmasts and sailsits
adornments. The Navigator descended to his cabin.
The Arguin Bank, July 3, 1816
With its masts disassembled, the support boats pulled at the
Medusa, toiling in the coming surf with columns of ropes,
their fibers twisting loose after only a short time. We helped
to lower material off the ship into organized aggregations of
wood and rope that would float on the water.
The kitchen had been scoured in the night, leaving only
puddles of flour and fruit rinds. The cooks had vacated their
duties and joined the endeavors of the crew. Spider and James
had secured a satchel of biscuits that they passed among us.
Later, Uncle Brian invited us to his cabin, where he
distributed fist-sized blocks of cheese and bread. On the deck
there were huddles of families weeping to each other. Until
now Id not realized the number of children aboard. There
were infants, curled into their mothers chests, sensing fear
and wailing. Some passengers squinted toward the east,
pointing, convinced that they saw the desert. Bogle put his
hand about the back of one such man: Im sorry to tell you,
its a reflection.
The Captain knew that he was impotent to give any further
order that would save the ship. So he turned away from the
boats that tugged at the Medusa from the surf. He called to a
squad of soldiers who in a moment stood crooked before him.
In light of the plundering, I ask you to secure the kings
What about the prisoners in the hold? Asked the sergeant.
The thief and the brawler.
Yes. For only the sake of the gold they should come out and
remain under watch.
Led by the holler of their sergeant, the squad descended to the
hold. Shane walked to the door frame and leaned against it,
looking, at intervals, down the stairs, eager to see his friend
Ryan again. Spider joined him, hoping to talk again with
Jesse James. After a short time the squad reemerged without
the prisoners. The sergeant trotted to his Lieutenant and
whispered to him. Then the Lieutenant charged down the
stairs, followed again by the squad. Shane lifted his shoulders
and grimaced from across the deck. He and Spider stepped
slowly through the door and descended the stairs. Soon they
both rushed back out and quickly sat on either side of the
door. The Lieutenant charged out next, shifting his head,
searching. The Captain shouted down from the quarterdeck,
Sir, you were to guard the hold.
The door was broken down, we found no one, the
Lieutenant called.
I ask you to guard the gold.
The Lieutenant bowed his head to the deck and took in a
breath. The Captain had turned to the sea, disinterested in the
affair. The Lieutenant moved to climb the stairs to the
Captain, but a guard kept him back.
Sir! he shouted and the Captain brushed him away. At last
he said, The gold also is gone.
The Captain swiveled and stared at the Lieutenant. Then he
charged down the stairs, shoving sailors from his path. He
crossed the main deck and descended to the hold. Throughout
the afternoon, he plucked squads from the rescue effort to
search for the gold, Jesse James, and Frank Ryan. As night
came, Shane and Spider roared when they learned that none
had been found.
Jock Stewart, having forecasted disaster even before leaving
Rochefort, moved among the exhausted crew and passengers.
He twiddled his fingers in his pockets, occasionally walking
up to men and placing a hand upon their shoulders. Hed
whisper in their ears and drop coins into their hands. To me
and Philip he brought wine. From my cabin, he said
motioning to the cups. Part of the Governors St. Croix
supply. He nudged me with his elbow and opened his coat,
revealing a pair of pistols, Returned to me last night, by the
Governor. Then he closed his coat and ambled away into the
A Pistol for Paddy Garcia
The distant shadow that approaches in the valley is a rider. He
ambles along a path that ribbons through barren scrub. At his
back theres a wrinkled mountain. The rider comes closer
amid the quiet. Then a rifle cocks in the foreground, and a
shot follows. Smoke rises and the rider falls. The horse bolts.
Ennio Morricones Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu then erupts
from the desolate echo, introducing Sergio Leones film For a
Few Dollars More. Replacing Jems composition A
Pistol for Paddy Garcia into this scene would achieve the
same harrowing effect. Finer used the character of Paddy
Garcia as a symbol for his spaghetti western-styled
compositions, writes Carol Clerk in Pogue Mahone. The
piece includes each of the instruments that had become Pogue
standards: whistle, banjo, acoustic guitar; simple though
dynamic percussion, accordion, and bass. In spite of this, the
piece deviates from the folk-flavored tunes that had
dominated the bands discography to that point. (Such
deviations would become common in the bands future
musical explorations, but were novel for the Rum, Sodomy &
the Lash period.) While A Pistol for Paddy Garcia wasnt
the Pogues first recorded instrumental, it revealed a new
dimension of the band: one that could convey landscape and
emotion without Shanes lyrics.
A Pistol for Paddy Garcia opens with a lone harmonica,
followed soon by Jem slow-plucking on the banjo. Then a tin
whistle enters with a wailing melody. Then a slow drum beat,
like a rifle shot resounding over a plain. These components
perfectly evoke the eerie desolation of the old American west
that Leone captured in his films. Simultaneously, they retain
an Irish melodic influence. The composition builds to a heroic
trot employing the Pogues full instrumental ensemble.
A Pistol for Paddy Garcia, produced by Philip Chevron,
was both a B-side for the Dirty Old Town single and a
bonus track on the albums CD and cassette versions. That it
seems to emulate Morricones spaghetti western film scores is
perhaps no accident. The Pogues were fans of Sergio Leones
films, especially those scored by Morricone. In fact, while
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash takes so many cues from the
decades and centuries that preceded it, it seems that, aside
from late
1970s punk, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone were some of
the only direct, contemporary influences on the band. Philip
Chevron says in the documentary If I Should Fall from
Grace,One of the movies that the band watched a lot on the
tour bus was Once Upon a Time in America we
approached the Fairytale (of New York) intro as if good old
Ennio Morricone had arranged it. Although the creative
forces for Rum, Sodomy & the Lash predate Once Upon a
Time in America, the two share a common tone. Morricones
overture for the film is glorious and grand, while the story
happening amid it is both violent and seedy. But just like in
the many stories of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, there resides an
inherent, poetic beauty that rewards a viewers concentration
and compassion.
Whether this paucity of contemporary influences on the
Pogues reflected the bands deliberate decision to turn away
from the crowd is not entirely clear. The musical landscape of
the mid-1980s was bleak. Jon Tout, Pogues fan and an
administrator of the Pogues Webring recalls, Britain was in
the last throws of ska, punk, and new wave. Metal and pop
were the dominant factors in music, which was generally
electronic or guitar based. Not many bands stood out from the
crowd, and those that did had really interesting instrumental
tracks normally hidden away on B-sides. I was always a big
fan of western movies, so Pistol was the first wow track that
didnt need any researching as to what the song related to.
Philip supports this notion again in the documentary: After
the first blossom of the punk movement [modern music]
seemed to all go horribly wrong quickly. Fitting then that
journalists such as Melody Makers Barry McIlheney began to
write of the band: The Pogues are leading the forward
commando unit dedicated to destroying the new Toryism of
The Arguin Bank, July 4, 1816
The Medusa shifted heavily and many thought wed been
freed from the Bank. There were cheers, arms extending into
the sky. Even the Navigator lifted his head out from the
quarterdeck to ascertain the movement. When we looked
down into the ocean, though, we found swells coming to
crash at our side, frothing up and channeling around the ship.
It was a bombardment that we felt, the impact of a surging
mass with a stationary one. With it, we could sense the
Medusas timbers bending. Sailors and officers ran past,
remarking that the ship couldnt long withstand such an
We must embark from here, said Bogle. The spring tide
wont bring us any higher.
Through the day, the sun would rage when the surf ceased,
alternating wraths. It grew clear that the dislodging effort
would fail, and the support boats were called back to the
Medusas side. The Captain and the Governor went below
deck together. In the time that they were gone, the day
dimmed to brown in spite of its brilliance, like tarnishing
silver. The sun cast golden shadows. The faces and bodies all
took on these effects, allowing us to glimpse every flex of
muscle, every sweep of hair. A new series of waves began at
the ship, hurling around the support boats. One of them
collided with the Medusa, causing a row of planks to come
splintering loose.
Spider had ascertained that there were four hundred people
aboard. There wouldnt be enough support boats.
The Captain and Governor emerged into the brown shadows
after some hours. They sent every last person away from the
quarterdeck, even the Governors wife and daughter. Then the
Captain came to the front, ten feet above us, ascending to the
golden beams. His voice was slow and sure, We will leave
the Medusa together. For those who cannot be assigned a
boat, we will build a raft, one for each boat to tow to shore.
Gold beamed from his buttons and his nostrils, and the
throbbing that had become so deafening diluted into the
background, pulsing idle for a while, unsure of itself.
An officer shouted up to the Captain, Why not ferry each
other to shore in shifts?
We wont have the fighting strength to repel the warriors in
the desert. He nodded east.
How will assignments be made?
The Captain extracted a paper from his coat pocket. Its
How far must we go?
For now build a raft.
Of what?
Within an hour, masts and planking were hacked from the
Medusa and the once great, fast ship was a heap of timber.
Ropes lashed together the timbers until a plot the size of a
barn had been formed.
We descended to the gundeck with the others for our
instruments, but theyd been purged. Andrew stood where his
drum cases had been, reaching up to a ceiling beam and
tapping a rhythm upon it. Spider smirked and held up his
whistle from his pocket. Then he descended with Shane to the
hold. Later theyd say they found something scrawled upon a
plank down there, a message from Ryan, that Shane vowed
only to reveal once we were ashore. He said that barrels of
flour had been spilt everywhere, leaving a film of powder. He
motioned back to the white footprints of his boots and I
watched the flour while it raced away, particle by particle,
into the wind.
We helped with the raft, looking for some pattern in its
construction, until we determined that there wasnt one: it
would be stitched together like a sock doll. We beat crude,
bent nails into the rafts planking with our boot soles. The
entire ship listened to the navvy work songs as they too
constructed the raft: a single man calling and the rest
responding, each voice a rhythm, a melody.
Before the raft was complete, the Governor came to the front
of the quarterdeck and everything dimmed, and as I remember
now, only he stood there. He was a figure of gold, his coat
flaring around his thighs, emitting flecks of glitter in the
brown haze surrounding him. He raised his arms and it was
silent. You are all under my hands. I vow to bear all of you
safely to my colony, or I will not bear myself.
Carol Clerk begins her biography of the Pogues in 1977 at the
Cambridge Pub in London. Its there that a friendship formed
between Shane and Phil Gaston, who worked at the punk
congregational Rock On Records. As far as the Pogues were
concerned, it was a friendship that predated most others, and
it served as an origin from which much else radiated. For
example, Gaston and friend and coworker at Rock On Stan
Brennan managed the Nips, which included Shane on vocals
and, eventually, James Fearnley on guitar. Stan went on to
produce Red Roses for Me. Philip Chevron also worked at
Rock On, where he met a sixteen-year-old Cait ORiordan
and later Elvis Costello. Also convening with Shane and
Gaston at the Cambridge was Deirdre OMahony, an art
student and Gastons future wife. Like Gaston, she was a
steadfast supporter of the Pogues musical endeavors. She
was with Gaston when early audiences cast food at the band
for celebrating Irish culture. She was also there when the
Pogues won over audiences with their ever-current, throttled
energy that at the same time held so close to her Irish past.
Aside from this cascade of personal relationships that Gaston
facilitated both deliberately and by chance, he also wrote
Navigator for the Pogues. The song, about the plight and
culture of rail workers, fits so well onto Rum, Sodomy & the
Lash that it could easily have been written by the band. Like
The Old Main Drag, its a waltz that runs contrary to the
lyrical description of the workers exhausting and sometimes
tragic existence. Its akin to Poor Paddy, a traditional song
that the Pogues interpret with furious exuberance on Red
Roses for Me. The music resembles a song that might sound
from a work camp at night. The intro to Navigator finds
Jem (banjo) and James (accordion) doubling in a climbing
melody that seems to compose itself in the playing. The verse
of the song waltzes along with James following Shanes
vocals. James recalls, On Navigator, and with many of the
Pogues songs, the accordion tried very hard to follow the
vocal melody line, which was a contract I entered into with
Shane and something I enjoyed and still do very much to get
his phrasing and nuances as best I can. The chorus is a plea
to the workersrolling drums, soaring vocals: Navigator,
Navigator, rise up and be strongperhaps revealing that in
spite of the hardship and tragedy that accompanies their work,
theres a pride in their persistence.
* * *
In addition to Phil Gaston, there were others who contributed
to Rum, Sodomy & the Lashs creation. At the soundboards at
Elephant Studios were engineers Nick Robbins and Paul
Philip Chevron said of Robbins in our correspondence, Nick
Robbins became my chief engineer/lieutenant in 1984 and
remains so to this day. Philip credits the Robbins-Scully
team with creating the sound design for Rum, Sodomy & the
Lash, which captures the organic nature of the instruments
while also containing the slightest film of rust, to yield a
weave of fresh and aged sounds. Philip went on to tell me,
[Costello] understood the distinction between producer and
engineer and, having made his overall concept clear, he
essentially allowed Nick Robbins and Paul Scully to design
the sound accordingly.
Costello brought in session musicians Tommy Keane
(Uileann pipes), Henry Benagh (fiddle), and Dick Cuthell
(horns). Keane and Benagh are both featured in the video for
Dirty Old Town, with their thrilling sonic duel two-thirds of
the way through the song. Cuthell, a mainstay in the UKs
2-Tone ska scene, handling the horns for the likes of the
Specials and Madness, plays a cornet solo on And the Band
Played Waltzing Matilda.
Darryl Hunt had been in London cabaret band Pride of the
Cross, which also featured Cait on vocals. Though he was an
apt musician, Hunt was part of the Pogues road crew during
the Rum, Sodomy & the Lash period. Based on this proximity
to the band and his musical ability, Darryl was able to fill in
for Cait when she left the band in the middle of their 1986
tour of the United States. After the tour, he became a
permanent member of the band.
The Pogues met Frank Murray, their future manager, on their
1984 tour supporting Elvis Costello. Murray, whod been a
tour manager with Thin Lizzy, the Specials, the Selecter, and
Madness, had more recently worked with Kirsty MacColl and
Philip Chevron. Murray had the Pogues on the road often,
exposing more and more audiences to the bands live
prowess. Shane remembers of Murray: I think Frank did a
great job. He didnt make any promises. I think he was the
right man for the Pogues at the time.
Stiff Records, whose roster included Madness, the Damned,
and Elvis Costello among others, released the Pogues first
three records. Dave Robinson, Stiffs cofounder, recalls:
Stan Brennan came to see me and then I met the band and
we did the deal. We worked out a very cheap budget to make
the first album and we, Stiff, put the money up. Frank
Murray recalls Stiff during the Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
period, The relationship with Stiff was good. Almost
anything we asked of them, they gave us. They wanted Sally
MacLennane out first as a single. We said no, we wanted A
Pair of Brown Eyes and they gave us that.
Filmmaker Alex Cox took note of the Pogues in early 1985,
and soon thereafter directed the surreal video for A Pair of
Brown Eyes. In it, a paper bag of brown eyes are escorted
through an Orwellian version of London. Later, Cox would
recruit the Pogues to appear in his film Straight to Hell and to
contribute to the soundtrack for his film Sid and Nancy.
The Raft of the Medusa, July 1816
The men beside me moaned as they entered the sea. Theyd
just turned their wives to the support boats, while they
themselves assumed places on the raft. There were so far only
a pack of us aboard the raft, and already it floated below the
surface; water cuffing at our ankles. Through the morning
they loaded barrels of wine and flour and pemmican while
more men descended ladders to the raft. We watched the
support boats and the Governor and his wife and daughter
being hoisted in their armchairs down to the one that was
most seaworthy. Their leather chests came next, followed by
crates of delicacies from St. Croix. A Royalist Lieutenant
commanded their boat that also included a well-armed squad
of soldiers and a small group of sailors. When their boat was
half full of persons and cargo, it cast off from the Medusa.
The Captain rode upon a similar boat, equipped with able
sailors and two squads. Families, officers, and soldiers
crowded the other four boats. I watched for Jesse James and
Frank Ryan as souls boarded and wept, but they werent seen
again. Neither was there a trace of the gold.
We were together at the interior of the raft, our feet wedged
between planking for balance, the water souping now at our
waists. Our bodies held tight together like eggs, each one
gaining stability from the other with the knowledge that a
single shift could send us all into the sea. Uncle Brian held
Cait at the hips, his hands submerged. Bogle was right in
among us. For him, the water came to his thighs. Men close
by braced their hands upon him, as sturdy as a mast. Corrard,
who refused his assignment upon one of the boats, stood close
by with his navvys, between us and a crude mast that had
been rammed between the planking. Savigny, the surgeon,
similarly refused a position upon the boats. We huddled into
each other as a single body, without the room to step.
At last the boats organized. I craned back toward the Medusa:
There was a collection of passengers who wouldnt ride on
the boats or the raft and would instead remain aboard. Most of
these souls stood at the rail watching us prepare to go. I could
hear the Medusas wood baking in the sun and could see Jock
Stewarts figure standing above us. He smiled, tilting his hat
and then ceremoniously drawing out his pistol.
He aimed it at the Captains boat, squinting, taking aim. The
sound of his shot barely emerged above the moaning around
me. His arm coiled back to his forehead. A splinter of wood
flew up from the Captains boat. He aimed another shot and a
tiny plot of water burst. Then he disappeared behind the rail.
The support boats each held a separate rope, which tensioned
at our raft when theyd gone some distance away. At first,
there was nothing but the bark of the rafts resisting fiber.
Were too heavy, men began to wail. Then, slowly, the
water smoothed around us and we moved east. The Medusa
fell behind as the raft slipped along beneath us, water rushing
around our bodies. There was unity: we held each others
arms, we discussed our fears. The sailors revered the sea and
the rafts inadequate construction. The soldiers expected a
battle onshore: There are warrior tribes in the deserts, they
said. Yet there was hope. The Medusa was in the distance
now and we surmised that the shore was close. The sea was
calm and cups of wine began to move among us.
The length of the ropes connecting us to the support boats
creaked and shifted from time to time. Far ahead, we could
see the boats, streaming into radiating white.
The night before, we drank and sang with the soldiers. The
belief was common that wed reach the desert before the end
of the next day. There were some who brooded over this,
leaving tears to pool on the deck. There was the hope, too,
that should we perish, the wine and brandy could obscure that
sensation of dying, that wed simply merge with a death that
tipped like some numbing liquid. The songs we sang were
common ones that we taught and bellowed into the morning.
The Parting Glass
A collection of traditional songs were recorded at the time of
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash with the intent to be used as
B-sides. The Chevron-produced The Parting Glass was
included on the Dirty Old Town twelve-inch single, along
with A Pistol for Paddy Garcia. The Wild Rover and
The Leaving of Liverpool were B-sides for Sally
MacLennane, and Muirshin Durkin and Whiskey, Youre
the Devil were also produced by Chevron in quick order for
inclusion on the A Pair of Brown Eyes single. The
performance of each of these songs revealed yet another
aspect of the Poguesone that paid homage to the Clancy
Brothers and, especially, the Dubliners. Each of these songs
had been released in a version by at least one of these bands,
and the Pogues versions deviated little from them. Later, the
Pogues would corecord a set of pub standards with the
Dubliners, including the single The Irish Rover at Elephant
Studios (a song that merrily describes the tragic end of a
magnificent ship). In Pogue Mahone, Spider speaks of the
Dubliners: Of all the Irish bands, they were the closest to
us. They understand that music is a living, breathing thing
and you dont put it up on a plinth.
Muirshin Durkin and The Leaving of Liverpool are songs
of emigration. The latter bears a strong thematic resemblance
to the sweet melancholy of Kitty, a traditional with which
the Pogues closed Red Roses for Me. Its also the lyrical root
for Bob Dylans Fare Thee Well. Whiskey, Youre the
Devil describes the Irish involvement in the fight against
Napoleon, akin to Mrs. McGrath. Although The Wild
Rover involves only an acoustic guitar accompaniment, its a
rowdy pub sing-along.
With the performance of pub standards like these and the
strength of their original material, the Pogues became one of
the UK and Irelands most heralded live bands. In 1985 NME
named them the years top live musical act. In A Drink with
Shane MacGowan, Shane recalls the musical climate at the
time: There was no decent live music around when the
Pogues started. What I wanted to do was to go back beyond
rock and roll, before rock and roll and do Irish music but do it
for a pop audience. But the Pogues did more than that. Alex
Cox caught the bands January 1985 gig at the Mean Fiddler.
There were people stage diving and jumping around and
although Id seen that reaction to American hardcore bands,
Id never seen it happen in England before. At about the
same time, Barry Mcllheney wrote, The music of these
islands played by the Pogues is certainly a unique and joyous
experience, especially when the atmosphere is just right. In
other words, whenever the room is small enough for the sweat
to peel off the walls, and sufficient Guinness has been taken
to make even the baddest of bad times seem good. In my
conversation with Spider, he likened the live Pogues
experience to a mix between a punk gig and a football match:
Its an intensely passionate fan following.
A keen sense of compassion among the band came through
too in these gigs, as they played benefits for the likes of Jobs
for a Change and Jobs for Youth; benefits for striking
coalminers; and the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign.
Revealing the Pogues sympathy for such causes, James told
me in our correspondence over the use of the Raft of the
Medusa imagery for Rum, Sodomy & the Lash:The themes
that abound in the Raft of the Medusa were applicable I think
throughout English society at the timebut probably
specifically embodied in
the miners strikes and such and the beginning of Margaret
Thatchers destruction of the workers unions. There too was
their onstage shouting bout with neo-Nazis in Berlin, where
Cait lashed out with her bass and Philip reprimanded them by
stopping the show and introducing a rendition of And the
Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
In the US, the Pogues played to packed houses every night,
which is particularly impressive considering that in the
mid-1980s their records were only available on import. DzM
wrote to me on the Pogues mounting prominence at the time
of Rum, Sodomy & the LaskThe song selection speaks to the
young and disenfranchised, the disaffected and alienated. It
captured a band with energy and passion, a band that the
music industry had not yet begun to try shaping. And Philip
told me, As time passes, one gets drawn not to particular
numbers from the album but to the ones that still live and
breathe in a live context. Songs should grow in meaning if
they can. Their recorded versions are just templates.
The Raft of the Medusa, July 5, 1816
The sea had become violent, budging and tilting the raft.
Surges of water washed over our heads, immersing us in the
waves in complete quiet. When each wave dissolved, I could
hear the shrieking: clips of men, especially at the edges of the
raft, yelling for something to hold to. Then the next wave
would come, drowning their words. Sometimes the waves
washed me into a suspended state, my feet coming free of the
planks, with lengths of water above my head. I imagined
burial this way, stranded at some stratum within the earth.
Then my feet would find the planks again and my
head would surface. I could feel Philips hand at my coat and
Andrews around my neck. There came a rhythm: wed
drown, lift, and resurfacetiny resurrections.
After every series of waves, I looked for my friends. When
Id accounted for each of them and summoned enough air, the
next wave would come. In time, the sea calmed and the waves
came to our foreheads, then our shoulders, then our chests.
We embraced and cheered. There were claims that the shore
was close, that wed just crossed an outer shallow that
forecasted the beach. There were more cheers, a feeling that
wed survived the worst the ocean could offer. An ensign
though, an unfortunate one charged with the command of the
raft, lifted his voice above the cheers. He stabbed his arm into
the expanse of water before us. There were just three boats in
sight now, and three taught lines extending out to them. A
group of sailors fished around with a pole and brought up
three limp ropes.
Each person surveyed the water; it no longer moved around
our waists. Bogle extended out his telescope and narrated
what he saw: The three boats are toiling to move us. After
some time, I cannot see the others. After longer, I cannot
see the desert. When he finished, the raft shuddered and we
braced each other.
Theyve cut the rope, men brooded. Theyve betrayed us!
There were other contrary suggestions of faith that the boats
would ferry back for us once they reached the shore.
Another! shouted the ensign as he lifted a fourth rope above
his head. Then another series of waves came that swelled
above our heads. When they ceased, we collected and counted
each other. Though wed survived, we recognized that we
were still. It was an immediate and familiar sensation,
like hunger, though at first our hope suppressed it. We tried to
imagine gentle channels of seawater flowing around us, that
the silent pools that filled the negative space between us
somehow stirred. The inevitable realization soon emerged, the
simplest conclusion: wed been abandoned. The soldiers,
inflating their chests like it was duty, accepted this first, then
the sailors, and not long after, the rest of us. We accepted it
like heritage: that our bodies, fates, families were governed
by forces beyond us. Notions of survival were whispered,
along with the solemn and brutal things that must be done:
Food, Shade, Water. The pulsing emerged again, and
for the first time I could feel my own body tremble with that
rhythm. This time it was in our brains: skulls inflating and
contracting; thought processes, dreams, instincts, no emotion.
It was a moment of paralysis: wills summoned, strength
mustered, a transformation from hope to survival, like the
mind giving a final parting instruction to the body before
itself pushing off for the shore. Amid the pulse, fighting its
current, I went somewhere else. I ignored my instinct to leap
from the raft and swim, to plunge my hands into the water for
fish, to cry out into the unrelenting stillness; in my mind I
found stray bastions of freedom and beauty, somehow woven
into our abandonment. For this, I held to my mind while the
other minds departed, their pulses dampening into one long,
persistent drone, until only mine remained.
The ensign brought up the last two ropes. Wed been
abandoned; free to drift within the swells, sometimes east and
other times back toward the Medusa. The ensign now held all
six of the thick ropes into the cove of his chest. He offered
them above the water at his waist until he was exhausted. We
imagined the sabers that cut the ropes, coming down at the
same time, splitting them apart like the head of a bird.
The boats were gone.
The Raft of the Medusa, July 6, 1816
There were attempts to fashion paddles and sails, but nothing
could overcome the current. It would bear us wherever it
wanted, rarely in a single direction for long.
At some point in the night the sea erupted, flaying and
submerging us in black waters. One wave curled around me
and I lost all orientation. I swam, ramming my face into the
deck of the raft, where a curved nail clawed a portion of my
nostril. A shroud of warmth rushed up past my eyes. Then a
grip seized at my feet, twisting me over, pulling my hair
above the surface. It was the immense hand of Bogle. I hadnt
taken a breath when the next wave came. Philip held me
straight as it passed over us, my chest scalding for air, kicking
the planks below me. James, Andrew, and Philip lifted me
upon their shoulders, above the next swell of water. There, I
discerned between the seawater and the salt of my blood. I
tore off my sleeve cuff and held it to my nose as I watched a
burst light come up in the distance, staining the frothed sea
When the waves subsided, we found that the assault had been
perilous for the men along the edges of the raft. Rows of them
were gone.
In the morning, the water was at our hips. There was room to
step upon the raft. The ensign waded out to its center. Well
ration now, he said and he distributed to each of us a cup of
wine, a biscuit, and a slab of pemmican. There were only a
few cups that we passed between us. Uncle Brian gave his
biscuit to Cait, who pulled it apart in her fingers, savoring the
crumbs. We gulped the wine like water, slurping, impervious
to its burn. The sailors determined that barrels had come off
in the nights waves. There was less pemmican than theyd
calculated. And some barrels thought to contain biscuits
actually held flour. The sun had risen to its full intensity and,
even with the food, some of the older, slighter passengers
began to falter, to lose balance, to lose grip. Others paddled at
the sea with their hands, hollering for everyone to join. As the
day endured and the sun heated the pools of water among us,
some men asked for more rations. The ensign refused. We
looked around to each other, to the tensing faces, fists. The
previous night we were a stranded people, betrayed by our
leaders: we were unified in this. Now, in heat and hunger,
wed become soldiers, navvys, sailors, passengers, French,
Africans: divided masses.
The first brawl occurred at the front of the raft over a soldier
stealing a cup of wine. Two punches were landed before both
men were braced.
The same passenger who had days earlier corroded before us
on the deck let out a horrible wail and released his feet from
the raft, leaping backward. He fell into a mounting swell and
slipped beneath it.
A sailor created a fishing pole from thread, a slice of wood,
and a curved nail. When he reached for a sliver of pemmican
for bait, a soldier swept his hand away.
Fish would feed us longer.
More soldiers forded the raft to molest the sailor, and the
naavys and sailors stepped in their way. Let him fish.
The raft began to polarize this way, soldiers migrating to one
end, navvys and sailors to the other. Only a few of usBogle,
Pogues, and the ensignremained at the center.
The sailors, intent to fish, would try to take up more
pemmican for bait. The soldiers would draw their sabers and
hold them before their faces.
The fish are abundant here, it is known, said a sailor.
Do you see any fishermen? a soldier motioned around us to
the blank, rusted sea.
The sun had baked crusts of salt upon our arms and backs.
The water, below our hips, had thinned our skins. We were
raw now, attuned to each lick of the water, each nerve of us
There was silence for some time, then another call by the
ensign to distribute rations.
Another series of swells reached the raft, and with each
person engaged in his own struggle to keep balance, the
tensions diffused. Then, as the series dwindled, a call sounded
through the waves and two sabers slashed forth, slicing the
shoulder of a navvy and hewing a passenger through the
stomach. The passenger, whod been a bystander to the
conflicts, retched for some minutes, falling to his knees,
gurgling in the water, emitting a foam of red. Then he
succumbed, floating away, past our thighs into the ocean.
Seeing the innocent blood, the soldiers pulled themselves
back. Then the sun depleted any other desires to fight for the
rations. It was quiet until night.
The sabers held the reflection of the moon as they sliced
through the air. Sometimes the pitched rush of the blades
would end in the absorbing thud of meat, human meat, and
then cries of agony. There were such brawls in every quarter
of the raft, men being maimed and killed and cast to sea.
above it was Bogle, who pulled sabers from the clutches of
men and hurled them away. He pushed charging soldiers to
the floor of the raft and pulled apart grappling men. As he
moved to the center of the raft, he harnessed a soldier with the
thick of his arm and squeezed until his machete dropped into
the water. He cast the man down. From behind, another
soldier took back his saber and cut into the legs of Bogle,
whose knees pounded onto the planking. The soldier reeled
back for another cut, but before he could deliver it a group of
navvys mauled him, ripped the saber from his fingers and
threw it off toward the stars. They held the soldier beneath the
water until he ceased moving, then they stabbed him through
the chest and allowed him to float away.
Bogle crawled to a wine barrel and propped against it. He
brought his leg out of the water and bellowed as he twisted it
to inspect the wound. Savigny waded toward him and tore
away a section of Bogles pant leg. A wedge went deep
through both of his thighs, and blood ran from them, flooding
his boot. Savigny ripped a sleeve from his shirt and, with it,
dabbed at the wounds. Then he slid off his belt and strapped it
about one thigh. Bogle leaned his head to the barrel groaning,
watching the brawling.
When the sun rose, the water was to our ankles. More barrels
were missing, and there were open expanses of raft where no
one stood. The soldiers had retreated to their half of the raft,
where they soaked their wounds in the water. Between them
and the rest of us was a heap of flesh, some of it heaving,
some of it entirely motionless. There was an effort in the
morning to cast these souls off of the raft. For them perhaps
silent prayers were conjured, but it became as much duty as
anything else, to lighten the raft, to float properly.
No one could determine how long it had been since wed
been abandoned, there was only the sense that any ferry that
might return for us was late. Wed been left to hold their
ropes. The notion drew me to anger until I collapsedno
further energy for anger; I had to summon what I could for
survival, for the strength so that when rations came, I should
have the ability to raise my fingers to my mouth. And so the
Captain, the Governor, and the Navigator escaped their roles
as adversaries through our focus on things more primal than
The ensign distributed rations: wine and a cake of flour. The
pemmican was gone. Later in the morning, before the sun
reached its crest, a school of flying fishes leapt up into the
raft. At first I watched them, flipping, their wings seething,
unable to propel themselves back into the sea. In our fists we
caught them, eating them whole like tiny silver wafers. In the
afternoon I pulled a cloak over my head to block against the
sun. Within this cavern, I fell away from any real event on the
I remembered things of my boyhood: Sitting in a tree with my
eyes closed, I felt the sway of the smallest branch,
understanding its tiny contribution of stability. I felt roots
holding to every particle of soil and every rock, moving with
the slightest stir. There were tiny oscillations: birds, perhaps a
nest. When a leaf popped off and fell below me to the ground
I sensed life transforming in all that surrounded me: tiny, tiny
changes that determine everything.
More brawling came in the night. I peeked from my coat to
see purple blood and men falling. I saw a soldier grab at Cait,
tearing at her arms. Uncle lurched at the soldier, driving the
three of them into the sea. Cait and Uncle emerged beyond
the edge of the raft, drifting away. Corrard lashed a rope to
his waist and dove for them. Uncle offered Caits elbow to
Corrard and he swam back with her to the raft, where the
navvys clustered around her. Uncle fell further back into the
blue heights of the sea. Corrard dove in again and tugged at
his arm. Uncle reeled over without the thick of glasses and,
for a moment, no one recognized him. On their backs,
Corrard brought Uncle Brian in and again the remaining
navvys pulled him out.
The clashes ceased from exhaustion. Uncle and Cait sat
together weeping, holding each others cheeks in the palms of
their hands. James and Andrew huddled around Bogle. The
blood from his leg had saturated his pants and stained the
water where he sat. Shane and Spider attended to their
wounded navvy friends.
The newly slain were once again cast off of the raft to float
for some seconds like kelp and then fall below the seas
The ensign walked over and smeared a cake of flour into my
hand. His boots tapped upon the planking and, for the first
time, the raft drifted upon the water like a proper craft.
When blended with seawater, the flour gained a clumped
consistency like dough before baking. Philip stirred it in his
palm with his finger before licking it clean. There was utter
silence as thirty-odd of us lay, consuming what was the last
ration, watching the distant sea bulges roll ahead.
Night, with the agony of the sun gone, evoked madness.
Bastards cut the rope, screamed Andrew to the stars.
A soldier moved to shove him from the raft when an elbow
pounded in at the core of his cheek. The soldier fell flat to his
side and remained that way, without the strength to rise.
Shouts rose about the raft, from soldier to Pogue, from navvy
to soldier, but all of them were impotent, without the will to
brawl. The shouts continued even as black swells began to lap
at the raft again, rolling it high and low. At times the raft
shifted almost vertical. Men gripped at planks and ropes to
steady themselves while they cursed to each other. The
heaviest swell sent a sailor over the edge of the raft and below
the surface. Cheers sounded from the soldiers and other
shouts intensified, then more swells came, sending more out
of the raft. Bastards cut the rope! Again.
Then Bogle, now completely serene, began a lyric, and the
cursing ceased.
They cut our rope
And that is our lot,
They rowed away
This is our lot,
Theyre safe at the shore
And this is our lot,
And contrary to this day
Theyll be left to sea
And well be on the shores
For bullets to eat us away
Well hide in holes
From the sea theyll watch us fall
And that is our lot,
To be left for boats.
Bogle sat propped against the last of the wine barrels and
stared out through the waves for a while. Then, without
cue, his neck hinged over and a new, heavy swell washed him
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Yet of all the contingents which went to Gallipoli, it was
Australians who were most marked by the experience and
who remembered it most deeply, remember it to this
day.John Keegan, The First World War
The banjo can be a lonesome, solemn instrument, especially
when its plucked slowly. As it alone introduces the Pogues
rendition of Eric Bogles And the Band Played Waltzing
Matilda, we find a young man wandering Australia with his
pack across an innocent and hospitable landscape. Most of the
land is wilderness, but its hospitable nonetheless because the
young man knows how to reap and respect its nutrients. Its a
free and happy existence. The year, however, is 1915, and
somewhere on the other side of the equator theres a war and
a strategic little finger of land in the Ottoman Empire called
Gallipoli. Whether for adventure or through persuasion, the
young man joins the war effort for Australia, a fledgling
nation still tied tight to the interests of its stepmother, Great
Britain. He joins the army and finds himself training to be
part of a landing force, whose task it will be to open a new
front in the war. He ships out of Sydney with his comrades in
a great, proud ceremony. The accordion enters and
accompanies the ships departure from the quay into the vast
foreign ocean. (James Fearnley told me of his performance: I
gave myself free rein, drifting like smoke over the battlefield
listening to the lyrics and echoing whats going on in them
in some
fashion being plaintive then angry both at the same time.)
The men land on Gallipoli and a slow bass, and drum rhythm
joins, describing the impact of the invaders and defenders:
two nations colliding, laying waste to each other. There are
distant blasts of howitzer guns. The lauded Alliednaval
bombardment didnt clear the Turks away from the hills and
cliffs that define the peninsula of Gallipoli. The Turks pound
the beaches and sand cliffs as scores of Australians and New
Zealanders scatter to negotiate the impossible terrain. That the
landing force is even there, on that particular beach, is folly.
The intended flatter landing site is a mile away. Quickly, on
the tiny, unintended plot of land, the soldiers are trapped,
exposed to slaughter. From their ships, the architects of the
invasion watch. Over the weeks they grow frustrated with
their mens lack of progress and order frontal charges at the
well-entrenched Turks, who proceed to gun down their
invaders with little difficulty. Waves of reinforcements arrive,
though neither can they advance much beyond the beach
cliffs. The intelligence on the Turks is poor and their leader,
General Kemal, is too adroit at maneuvering his forces along
Gallipoli. A stalemate is reached, and each day more men
succumb to sniper fire and artillery blasts.
All the while we hear Waltzing Matilda, the unofficial
Australian national anthem. It rouses some, while others
slouch in their trenches, pining for their former isolated, free
In spite of the shellings and the bayonet charges into
catastrophe, the young man survives. Then one day, a shell
comes over the edge of his trench and, with a pronounced
strike of the drum, explodes onto him. (Andrew described the
creation of this most poignant drum beat: By me playing a
flam on the snare so it sounds like an echo and by treating it
with reverb
also. I was trying to think visually about it and had this image
of a soldier falling but far away as if seen through
binoculars.) The young man wakes in the hospital to find
that his legs have been taken in the blast. The verse breaks
and a cornet joins that, like Taps, mourns the loss at
Gallipoli. Then the cornet breaks and the accordion swells to
the forefront with a climbing melody that sweetly reminisces
on the young mans former life.
When the first hospital ship returns to Australia, every citizen
has readbut, hasnt been able to comprehendthe
headlines: 50, 000 ALLIED DEAD AT GALLUPOLI. Their
curious pride dissolves into horror as they watch their
patched, bandaged, maimed sons being wheeled down the
Though the invasion of Gallipoli ended in failure, Australias
memory of it is enduring. Every April, veterans march,
commemorating the war, as the nation hails them and mourns
their dead heroes. The young man, now old and sedentary,
recalls his own life when he watches the parades. He ponders
how his sacrifice removed him from a peaceful existence in
the bushes and plains. A coda featuring the chorus of
Waltzing Matilda closes the song and the album. As it does,
were compelled to remember the plight of the young man
and his comrades, who, at the hands of poor strategy and their
commanders hubris, lost the essence of their country.
* * *
The Governor, who it seems did not like the sight of the
unfortunate, had, however, no reason to fear that it would too
much affect his sensibility. He had elevated himself above the
misfortunes of life, at least, when they did not
affect himself, to a degree of impassibility, which would have
done honor to the most austere stoic and which, doubtless,
indicates the head of a statesman, in which superior interests,
and the thought of the public good, leave no room for vulgar
interests, for mean details, for care to be bestowed on the
preservation of a wretched individual.Alexander Corrard
and J.B. Henry Savigny, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in
A century before the invasion of Gallipoli, France emerged
from a revolution, exiling its usurper, Napoleon. In the
aftermath, a convoy of four ships departed from Rochefort,
France, to reclaim, as a result of a treaty with the British, the
Port of St. Louis in Senegal. The convoys frigate, the
Medusa, carried the loftiest passengers and cargo of the
convoy: Julien Schmaltz, Senegals new Governor; the
convoys commander, Captain de Chaumereys; and 90, 000
Francs in gold that had been hidden in the ships hold among
barrels of flour and wine. The Captain, whod gained the post
as a reward for his loyalty during the French Revolution, had
virtually no experience at seamuch less at commanding a
ship. France though, was still a country divided, and loyal
military officers were at a premium.
Upon embarking, the new Governor immediately forced his
will upon the Captain. He wished to make it to St. Louis with
all possible speed. The Captain knew that this meant passage
through Africas treacherous Arguin Bank, but alongside his
inexperience, he was also easily manipulated. Against the will
of his officers, many of whom had fought with Napoleon
during the Revolution, the Captain agreed to deliver the
Governor to St. Louis by the quickest route. With the voyage
already underway, the Captain appointed M. Richefort, a
civilian, to be the ships Navigator. Being of the same elite
stock as the Governor, Richefort executed his desire for a
speedy journey without question. Meanwhile, the Captain
stood by, his authority shrinking each day.
As the convoy approached the African coast and the Arguin
Bank, the other three ships of the convoy departed the
Medusas company, opting for the safe but slow route into the
Atlantic and around the Bank. On July 2, 1816, the Medusa
struck the Bank in a spot where it remains to this day. Upon
the wrecked ship, a plan quickly materialized to abandon it,
using six support boats and a crude raft constructed from the
Medusas scrap. The support boats would tow the raft to
shore. Before embarking from the ship, the Governor made an
elaborate vow to keep each passenger safe. When the plan
came into fruition however, the Governors boat was well
provisioned, well protected, and underloaded. The remaining
boats, on the other hand, were crammed with passengers,
leaving 149 people to ride upon the raft. Almost immediately,
the support boats encountered difficulty with navigation,
either due to their overcrowding or their poor condition. Since
the burden of the raft appeared to narrow the boats chances
for safe passage, one by one the boats cut their tow ropes,
until the raft was left to drift alone, with no means of
navigation or propulsion. Through brawling, starvation, and
exhaustion all but fifteen perished on the raft. In the two
intervening weeks before they were rescued, the fifteen had to
engage in cannibalism to survive.
In spite of the similarity in these historical references, as well
as the cultural ones, that weave throughout Rum, Sodomy &
the Lash, it wasnt ever intended to be a concept work in this
sense. Philip told me, If the overall effect was to suggest that
there was erudition at work in the Pogues artistic outlook that
was not intentional. Rather the album, stitched from pub
room and street tales, new and revitalized Irish melodies,
reinterpretations of beloved folk songs, and iconic paintings,
seems to be assembled from an innate consciousness, a soul.
The Raft of the Medusa, July 14, 1816
There comes a hunger so profound that it exceeds both flavor
and appetite. Theres another type still that exceeds even
morality. It instructs that any nourishment is necessary for
We couldnt be sure of time. There was night, there was
unrelenting heat, and there were torrents of waves that shook
the raft: these became our only dimensions. I looked out into
the sun from beneath my coat to observe men sucking on
wood and cloth for stray nutrients their reason purged. Other
men didnt move at all, and it was from them that we gained
our nutrition. A soldier was the first to do it. He made a quick,
shallow gouge, slicing out what he could from the shoulder of
his dead comrade. He twisted up the cluster of brown and
purple, causing it to snap. He brought the piece to his mouth,
trembling. Then he gulped it and crawled away. As the day
wore on he gained the ability to stand and walk. He could
survey the ocean and make remarks to us. We learned of the
poignant cycle hed endured: one of Napoleons soldiers,
jailed, branded, a sentry aboard the Medusa, a crazed brawler,
and now a survivor urging us to eat.
Later a navvy rose, lifted a saber, and cut into the same dead
man. He devoured the innocuous piece of meat and soon
he too could walk. The consumption continued: Corrard,
then us. And soon we had the strength to sit among each other
and talk.
Some who refused to eat didnt have the strength to hold on
when the waves returned. Even we, with our renewed
strength, were too weak to survive many more assaults. I
clung to a rope, Andrew wrapped his knees about the leaning
mast, embracing it. Philip looped his arm under a row of
planking. Shane tied a rope about his ankles. Spider did the
same with his forearms. James held to a spike driven into the
deck. Cait and Uncle laid flat, flush with the surface of the
raft, under a cloak. We each adhered to something. And
although we did so alone, it was our adherence that connected
us in the very worst moments. For a while, we worried about
Shane, with the ropes about his ankles, sitting at the very edge
of the raft, tempting the waves to throw him off. How will
you keep your head above the surface? we asked. Shane
reached into the water and washed it over his chest and head.
Then he widened his arms and smiled into the
sundeteriorating, basking.
The Raft of the Medusa, July 18, 1816
Everything is dim, drowned. I lie alone and sense fragments
of vision and sound. A slight remainder of us falter under our
cloaks, while others are claimed by the sun: humps of cloth
riding our stitched, wooden chimera of the Medusaa raft of
the dead. I hope for the swells to come again and for their
cooling water to be put across the planking and my skin. I
imagine what it would be like to dissolve into the ocean like a
cake of salt. How would my diluted self be any different?
In spite of what I ate, my arms no longer hold the strength to
rise. The moans and the slices of sun drown into fading
aggregations of confusion.
Then a shout comes piercing the core of my ear, penetrating
my skull; then the vibration of someone leaping upon the raft;
then a lurching tip, a splash. Amid my silent disintegration,
there at last comes a clear shout. I raise the cloak that
smothers me to find one of the navvys bounding. His voice
channels in the air, hanging there, incomprehensible. He
shouts again. Then a shout comes from behind me. My mind
hums, processing the intersecting sounds. The raft begins to
shift with movementabrupt polar tilts, different from the
waves. More shouts rise. I crane my head from under the
cloak. The sunlight blinds my eyes, but I raise them. At the
edge of the boat, a navvy bounds in the air. A soldier clutches
his waist and brings him upon his shoulders for as long as he
can muster. They collapse and rise again. The navvy waves a
red cloth in the air. More souls attempt to rise: Corrard,
Savigny, navvy, Andrew, Shane, then Cait, each of them
reaching up to the pack of us shouting, signaling out to the
sea, to some spectacle we cannot detect. I pull at the shoulder
of a soldier.
Its there, we must summon it! he motions to a tiny crest of
material at the edge of the sea.
Its a ship, simple to recognize, our eyes so accustomed to
seeing nothing but sky and ocean. I turn back to my friends,
summoning them and pointing out to it. Theres hope, I say.
A ship. I tear up the cloak that has shielded me for so many
days. I sweep it in the air about my head and others join. We
shout for some time as the tiny, distant ship toggles in and out
of sight. For some time it seems not to react. Then, a series of
low waves rise that obscure it. Are we too far? I ask. And
our shouts die. Some fall again to the deck of the raft. My
mind shifts with the water, but I stand for some blank stretch
of time, my chest aching with each breath.
Then the shouts rise again. The navvy bounds on the edge of
the raft. A soldier waves his shirt. I scan beyond them and
find the larger, darker profile of the ship. Brown skies, gold
shadows, and a dark ship. It laps closer with every swell of
water; we can see sailors on the deck who dont hail, they
stare, turning their faces. I kneel to my friends. We are
saved. Fifteen of us are saved.
A boat lowers from the ships side and crashes into the water.
I fall away again. While the sailors carry us away, I watch the
raft drift empty in a shifting current. Its a trodden slab of
wood with ruts and splinters like an ancient road consumed in
meadow grass. I listen to the ocean as the sailors lay me next
to my friends, covered in sheets, gagging on broth.
The Old Main Drag
I like the stink of the streets, it makes me feel good. I like the
smell of it. It opens up my lungs.Noodles Aronson
(Robert DeNiro), Once Upon a Time in America
The Old Main Drag predates Red Roses for Me and is
among the oldest original songs that the Pogues played. James
recalls, The Old Main Drag was one of the first songs I
remember rehearsing with Shane and Jem at Shanes flat in
Kings Cross. The song begins with a pipe drone that seems
to describe the drawn suffering revealed in the lyrics. James
again recalls: The idea with this song was to discover a
purity of tone, to refer to the drone of the uileann pipes in
the bass-end which was looped (in true analog fashion, on a
tape that stretched some ways across the monitor room of
Elephant Studios, from the tapeheads to a reel whose pivot
was a pencil taped to a back of a chair if I remember
rightly). For me, with that song, its the way the chords go,
pivoting around the root note, as if the root note stood for
fate. The song is also in three-time, giving grandeur to its
brutal tale.
The song is a young mans tale of the streets. It takes place
near Londons Piccadilly Circus, where he wanders one day.
Quickly, hes drawn into the locales vices, including drug
addiction. As a result, he prostitutes himself, is beaten and
arrested, eventually becoming an artifact of the neighborhood.
The tale ends with the young man lying broken, wishing he
could escape from the existence hes etched. Carol Clerk
writes in Pogue Mahone: [Shane] insisted that his songs
were not built around grand themes but were just stories,
albeit stories that were often filled with characters and
situations he had personally observed, such as those in the
Piccadilly streets of The Old Main Drag. Also in Pogue
Mahone, Dee OMahoney recalls some of Shanes
Paddy-bashing beatings in London, It was awful, Shane
would come into the pub with black eyes, covered in bruises.
The lyrics to The Old Main Drag are laden with such
sorrow and brutality that the initial reaction is to sense
nothing but futility. And yet residing deeper in the song is a
beauty to the young mans downtrodden existence. Like the
fifteen emaciated survivors of the raft of the Medusa, he does
what he must to survive. So, while the music sweetly
harmonizes and drones, the lyrics broach crescents of hope
for the young man:
And I wished I could escape from the old main drag.
* * *
The painting Le Radeau de la Mduse, completed in 1819 by
Thodore Gricault, hangs in the Louvre. It depicts a
Collection of castaways whose commanders had, in the
aftermath of a shipwreck, turned them loose to sea on a
makeshift raft. The images creation, which had been
informed by the accounts of survivors and anatomical studies
at a hospital morgue, recounts the struggle and loss of the
Medusas socially expendable: soldiers, immigrant workers,
sailors, modest passengers. Each individual in the painting
(which measures an enormous five by seven meters) lies
somewhere upon the mortal continuum: dead, moribund,
hoping. A modified version of it appears on the cover of Rum,
Sodomy & the Lash. After the recording of the album, Marcia
Farquhar, an artist, art historian, and Jems wife, immediately
suggested that the painting be used for the cover upon hearing
Andrew Rankens idea for its nautical title. Andrew
remembers: I think I mentioned it with reference to George
Mellys book Rum, Bum and Concertina, which I was reading
at the time. I dont think I was serious about it as an album
title, but somebody went, Ooh thats nice, and it just sort of
stuck. The phrase is often attributed to Winston Churchills
description of naval life (according to his assistant, Anthony
Montague-Browne, although Churchill didnt say this, He
wished he had). On the records cover, the faces of the
Pogues (minus Philip, though he does appear on the back and
insert photography) are superimposed over the faces of the
castaways in the original painting. Though Marcia didnt
perform these
modifications for the cover, it was a technique that shed
previously employed, notably in an image superimposing the
bands faces onto babies bodies. Jem recalls Marcias work:
All the time Id known Marcia she had a legendary ability
with scissors, which at the time of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
was culminating in scenes of a savage domestic. Culling
images from the National Geographic and Mothercare
catalogs, she sliced and snipped through the long pregnant
nights of summer 83. I can remember being soothed in my
sleep by the sound of her scissors. To celebrate the birth of
Jack Richmond Brennan, Marcia made Sophie [Richmond]
and Stan [Brennan] a card with Pogue heads collaged onto
catalog model crawlers. The pairs of figures, and in one case
a little family, were far from random. Stan suggested it as a
possible cover for Red Roses for Me, but Marcia thought it
would be misunderstood.
As the cover for Rum, Sodomy & the Lash came to fruition,
Jem, whose face is morphed onto a man motioning out the
edge of the sea, remembers: We were given a choice of who
we wanted to be, and I knew I didnt want to be a dead
person. I imagine I made it because there was some hope
there. He went on to remark on the overall significance of
the cover: It wasnt just chosen because it was a good image,
it was chosen because it had a whole history behind it which
resonates with a lot of subject matter of Pogues songs. A lot
of Pogues songs are about people being shat on. The
Medusas story so captivated Jem that he later wrote the song
The Wake of the Medusa for the Hells Ditch LP.
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash assembles a collection of characters
and images that confront, head-on, the seedy, absurd, brutal,
haunting, heartbreaking aspects of life. The songs and the
cover art are sad and even horrifying when you first give a
listen or a glimpse. Each hue seems darker than the next, and
the tales all end in death or ruin. The music is organic,
toggling between fragile melodies and unhinging stomps.
There arent any explicit catharses to flesh out satisfying
conclusions either. Instead, through the words, music, and
imagery were drawn into rusted little worldsand then
abandoned. But this abandonment allows us to dwell in
spaces of existence that are often occupied and seldom
shared. Its culture, its experience, its history, but not of
Captains and Kings. Rum, Sodomy & the Lash is an assembly
of peoples songs, folk songs, soul songs. It leads us here
without any grand themes and without us even realizing: to a
compassion, to a soul that connects it. A secret beauty
emerges, one thats imbedded in culture, in Irish culture, and
even further, in humanity: were not stranded when we hold
onto each other, when we attempt to comprehend each other,
to see circumstance, to hear songs. Look at the album cover
and find Jem pointing out over the ocean to a ship, hear
Spiders whistle ringing above even the saddest tale, watch
James and Philip lurch and slide about the stage behind their
instruments, hear Andrew give a vital pulse and time that
frames everything, find the spirit and mystery of Cait
ORiordan and the celebratory urge in Shanes words: theres
always beauty and always hope.
[The Old Main Drag] came across to me as one of the most
beautiful things Id ever heard, while the words were
all dashed hope and dealing with things that just werent very
beautiful at all. Thats one of the most enduring things with
Shanes songs: how the arse-end of life can have a beauty of
its ownwhich makes me think of the Raft of the Medusa
too, and the songs on Rum, Sodomy & the Lash are as big as
the fucking canvas used for his painting. I went to see the
painting once. Its enormous.James Fearnley
The story of the Medusa is one of ordinary people being shat
upon from a great height by the rich and powerful. The
insatiable, capitalist, fascist, colonialist, warmongering
entrepreneurs are lurking around every corner, just itching to
turn us into wage slaves, sex slaves, cannon fodder, and
lampshades. But wait, some of us will live to tell the tale, and
here comes Jesse James, Frank Ryan, Cuchulainn et. al. Yes
we have our heroes, flawed they may be, but like Gricaults
great painting, no amount of slashing, burning, lies, and
propaganda will succeed in trampling them
underfoot.Andrew Ranken
One of the reasons a song like The Old Main Drag is so
potent still is the fact that, though written by a
twenty-seven-year-old about, in part, his fictionalized teenage
years, it is actually best performed by the same man, now in
his mid-forties. Not even Shane could have predicted that
such an alignment of meaning had a realistic chance of taking
place, regardless of what he defiantly says about his
determination to live to a ripe old age just to annoy the
journalists who have been giving him six months to live for
the past thirty years.
To me, therefore, there is a sense in which we have brought
these characters with us over the years. Frank Ryan is still
drinking whiskey in a brothel in Madrid; men are still
returning, broken of heart and wounded of limb, from tragic
and superfluous wars; Jimmy is still sad to say he must be on
his way. Survival.Philip Chevron
The Port of St. Louis, Senegal, July 21, 1816
There were columns of white beds, and open windows with
an orange wind breathing inside. I recognized the sleeping
faces in each of the beds. Some I hadnt seen since wed
embarked from the Medusa. Theyd been chapped, burned,
emaciated, withered in that short stretch of time. I saw my
own face reflected in a hall of windows, taut and
expressionless, a corpse.
Corrard walked to my bedside, adjusting in his fine clothes.
He smiled and put a hand to my shoulder.
How long? I asked.
Sixteen days.
Then he walked out of the long, room and into a train tunnel
that was dark enough to dim the rays of heroism that
emanated above his waist.
Later, Shane sat up in the next bed. He cackled into the air
and turned to sip a green liquid on the table beside him. The
sun had scorched every whisker from his face.
Want to know what Ryan wrote in the hold? he asked. He
looked up at the lights and recited this before returning to
Every fiber of this ship is dead. The place where you stand
is buried in the sea floor and youre beyond the horizon in a
shallow ocean. We are survivors who have starved, blistered,
come to the verge of madness, and seen the worst qualities of
our kind. The golden francs, which will have undoubtedly
been spent upon your reading this, were obscured by your
fingertips, and therefore, were always lost.F.R. & J.J.
The Medusas surgeon, Savigny, walked to Andrew, two beds
away. He waved to me. Three were found alive on the ship,
he called.
Jock Stewart? Jesse James? Frank Ryan?
He lifted his shoulders, No. Then he tangled his hands up in
bandages, waving and cycling them like a busted clock. The
Governor has mild sunburn, but has taken office. The
bandages thickened at his arms. The Captain will return to
France to stand trial. The Navigators missing, shortly after he
arrived. When the roll of bandage ended, his arms were
immobile. He twisted his torso to a nurse and asked her to cut
him free. The nurse chased him with scissors while he ran to
each bedside delivering the same message.
If I listened closely, I could hear the waves through the
window. For some time I tried to determine if it was the
ocean I heard or some dangling fragment of memory, a dark
scar. Then a brushing came at my neck, like little spittles of
sea foam. It seeped around me and drew into my face. I
closed my eyes and allowed it to lather me. It thickened the
crimson paper of my skin and nourished my throat, stomach,
and legs. It lifted me, allowing me to float: no more resistance
from anything, free to sleep.
The Bank of the Thames, 1985
The old sailor closed and folded the volume of papers. He
slung off his swollen pack of belongings and stuffed them
inside of it. A publicity sheet, he said. The Pogues. A
collection of youths ran up from the riverbank. The Pogues.
Where have they gone? They asked.
The man motioned to the tavern across the road. The youths
entered and looked around the crowded room. They inquired
with the bartender, who pointed toward the corner. There they
found pint glasses, chiggers, a book of Behan, and a slender
whistle strewn about the table with the Pogues arrayed around
it. Their heads were tucked inside their arms, where,
accompanying their dreams of the living, the dead, the ruined,
and a wrecked ship were unfaltering ages of song.
Authors Note
Rum, Sodomy & the Lash found its way into my Walkman
nearly twenty years ago in the form of an imported cassette. A
few years later, after the tape had slurred into a heap of brown
ribbon, I bought the CD version. A few years after that, I
bought the CD reissue for its collection of bonus tracks. Most
recently, I bought the LP. With each edition of the album that
I owned, the cover art grew larger and larger andwithout
my knowledge, at firstso did the songs. After a while, I
began to think of them not as separate entities but as related
fragments of heritage: secret histories. There were odes to the
misunderstood, eulogies to the unsung, and unrelenting
celebrations. Through the years, as I listened, I began to
merge the characters and images of Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
into a single story. Unsurprisingly, it was a nautical story,
based somewhat on the historical plight of the French frigate
Medusa. This story, at last transcribed from my brain to
paper, comprises roughly two-thirds of this book. Like many
stories, it has evolved over the years
and will probably continue to do so after this book is done. I
offer this story to you not for you to adopt my rendition, but
with the hope that Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (or any music for
that matter), if it hasnt already, might invite you to similarly
honor your imagination.
I based much of my story on Alexander Corrard and J. B.
Henry Savignys account of their experiences aboard the
Medusa and its raft, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in
1816. Alexander McKees haunting and harrowing book The
Wreck of the Medusa was also extremely helpful. Most of the
characters in the story do or have existed, though their
behaviors and actions in my story are fictional.
The other third of this book is comprised of facts, analyses,
and more lucid interpretations of the people, places, and
events that led to Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. Toward this
effort there are many to thank. Pogues: Philip Chevron, James
Fearnley, Jem Finer, Andrew Ranken, and Spider Stacey
kindly shared their thoughts and memories with me. The
breadth and candor of their information allowed me to
explore their album more completely than Id anticipated
upon embarking on this book. Carol Clerk was likewise
generous with her correspondence and advice. Carols
comprehensive biography of the Pogues, Pogue Mahone: The
Story of the Pogues, was a wonderful resource for my
research and is a book that Id recommend to anyone
interested in the Pogues or simply in the many paths that
modern music can take. Similarly, DzM, creator and
administrator of, and Jon Tout, site
coadministrator of the Pogues Webring, whose websites often
served as launching points into my research, kindly shared
their perspecrives.
Stephen Kingston at the Salford Star magazine was most kind
in aiding me with my research on Dirty Old Town. I thank
David Barker, John Mark Boling, Gabriella Page-Fort, and
the rest of Continuum Publishing for creating the 33 1/3 book
series and, furthermore, for giving me the opportunity to
contribute to it.
Charles Ubaughs and Marvin Lin at Tiny Mix Tapes nurtured
my love for writing about music. My parents and siblings:
Chris, Sarah, Hillary, Lauren, Annie, and Craig, supported me
with their encouragement. My ladies: Shannon, Emma, and
Hannah loved me through my rants and exuberance, keeping
me at a satisfactory distance between the moon and the
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Voyage to Senegal in 1816 Undertaken by Order of the
French Government, Comprising an Account of the
Shipwreck of the Medusa, the Sufferings of the Crew, and the
Various Occurrences on Board the Raft, in the Desert of
Zaara, at St. Louis, and at the Camp of Daccard. To Which
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