Due to some weird quirk of my former high school’s scheduling software, the third period AP English class was standing room only while the sixth period one featured a grand total of five students. I lucked into the latter section, which was less of a class than an conversational bullshit session for college credit.
The teacher was an Irish ex-Marine who had been a notorious hardass when my dad as a student, but had since mellowed into a staunchly humanist liberal. I don’t know what caused that transformation, though I’ve wondered if it was a crisis of conscience over whether his old “gung ho” attitude led to some his former charges getting their names added to the small memorial marker on the edge of Woburn Common. In any case, he was a real soft touch who treated this fluke of enrollment as an opportunity to establish a genuine sense of rapport with each and every one of us in the class.
It did get a little weird and uncomfortable at times, like when he launched into an impassioned speech about Raskolnikov’s inner struggle between genuine feeling and affected alienation while staring directly at me. But he was also the man who taught me to appreciate The Great Gatsby and allowed me to blow off a ten page paper after my grandfather died. He was a good man. I wouldn’t say he inspired me to any loftier goals, but I was glad we crossed paths.
Among the students in the class, there was a low-key “Breakfast Club” dynamic going on — a handful of kids from different cliques and circles who wouldn’t have normally socialized with each other but became close within the confines of that one classroom. I spent most of my time chatting with a tough-as-nails glam metal chick from East Woburn and a Drama Club lass (complete with funky hat and a plastic flower pinned to it) who was a friend of another girl I’d briefly dated.
Mostly we just talked the kind of crap that teens talk when they don’t want to do schoolwork, but a few weeks into the semester the Drama Club lass asked if I was interested in going to a Pogues concert with her at the Opera House in Boston. The person who was supposed to attend the show with her had backed out for whatever reason, and her mother didn’t want her going into the city at night alone.
As absurd as it sounds (even to me), I had acquired a weird reputation for being streetwise about the perils white suburbanites projected upon Boston. I’m pretty sure the alpha and omega of it was because I frequently took the bus into the city to spend time with my father in South Boston. Whenever Johnnie or Janey Ranch-Home needed a protective “plus one,” my name was at the top of the list.
I didn’t know who or what the Pogues were at the time. The Drama Club lass explained them as “kinda, like, Irish music but also, like, punk and all the songs are about getting drunk and stuff?” Honestly, I didn’t really give a shit about the specifics. A girl had asked me out and all other details were trivial by comparison.
The show was great. I even enjoyed the opening set by punker-turned-folkie Phranc, despite it being astronomically distant from my hardcore/thrash metal wheelhouse. (I only found out a few months ago that future friend Jack Feerick was also in attendance that night.)
Awareness of ethnicity wasn’t really a thing for me growing up. While my North Woburn pals embraced their Irish and/or Italian heritage in various ways, the closest thing I had to that stuff was painted wooden horses and the occasional nauseating dinner handed down from my older Swedish relatives. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of Irish immigrants, but of the prim and anti-Papist orange variety. For her, Ireland was about glassware and Darby O’Gill and that fucking unicorn song.
The Pogues, though, were absolutely feral. There weren’t lace curtain tenors or mannered rusticism there, just the primordial pulse of an ancient song that veers manically between tragedy and celebration. Nothing since The Clash’s first album had grabbed me as forcefully and emphatically by the shorthairs as the Pogues did. Being introduced to them through a live performance only amplified the effect. I left the Opera House partially deafened and a fan for life.
The next time I hit the Newbury Comics store in Burlington, I picked up the cheapest (because I was poor) Pogues offering they had on the rack — a cassette copy of the band’s 1984 debut Red Roses For Me which had the same weird manure reek all Enigma tapes had.
Over the next few months, I obtained the rest of the band’s discography to date. The later albums were enjoyable, but plagued with a sense of diminishing returns and directionless drift that sent me back for another round with their first album. There’s a proof-of-concept purity to it that sets it apart from their later and more ambitious efforts — a Class of ’77 punk fanboy and crew directing that scene’s fierce energy into the realm of traditional Irish “folk” (as in “of the people”) music.
No disrespect to Rum Sodomy and the Lash or If I Should Fall From Grace With God, but Red Roses for Me is the Pogues album I’d take to a desert island with me.
I lent my original copy of the tape to the Drama Club lass, who never returned it. It was two years before I found a replacement copy at Planet Records in Kenmore Square, which itself was replaced by an expanded import CD version purchased at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square. The LP reissue was a birthday gift from Maura last year, and arrived just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
Weirdly enough, I used to have a mad crush on Cait O’Riordan — especially how she looked on the Red Roses for Me album cover — and then a year and a half later I met Maura who could’ve been her doppelganger. One of our earliest topics of discussion (besides anime) was a shared love of The Pogues.