Streams of Whiskey: The Pogues and Me at Boogaloo

July 28, 2009

Just got back from my Euro-book tour for The Way Home and it was a good one.

Our first stop was Amsterdam, where I am published by Ambo/Anthos. Emily and I stayed in the Ambassade Hotel, a writer's inn situated on a canal, with a huge library containing the work of the guest novelists going back generations. On the first night my editor and publisher, Chris Herschdorfer, and his lovely wife, Elvira, picked us up for dinner in a boat they had rented for the occasion, and we motored through the canals for an hour or so, seeing Amsterdam from a new perspective, moving out into the open sea and docking at a seafood restaurant in an industrial district. The food was outstanding, one of many great meals I had over the next two days. I did press and photo shoots in the hotel during the day. It's work, but it ain't digging a ditch. And it is a long way off from my first visit to Amsterdam in 1980, where as a backpacker I stayed in the Hotel My Home (still standing, still cheap) by the train station and spent daytime hours in the "coffee shops" and nights in the city's many bars drinking Jagermeister and beer. I had fun then and I had a different kind of fun there last week. A special shout-out to Ambo/Anthos publicist, Marijn de Jong.

Next was London where our lodging was the Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street. Upon arrival I went down to the bar and met my pal, journalist Michael Carlson (a transplanted yank, played football for Northwestern), who used to do the NFL show in the UK on Sunday nights. More press followed, orchestrated by Gaby Young, publicist for Orion, my UK house. I did a couple of BBC shows, one with Jeffery Deaver, who I first met years ago at a film noir festival in the Swiss Alps. I did newspapers and magazines and talked up the book. On Wednesday night I had an event at the Prince Charles Cinema (near Leicester Square) with David Simon. Before the show we found a nearby pub to tune up and drank Jameson's and Guinness in the street with my editor, Jon Wood. Drinking in the street is one of my favorite English customs. We were relaxed for our event.

For the weekend we traveled to the town of Harrogate, two and a half hours north of London by train, for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. It is one of the most enjoyable festivals because the readers participate and often close down the bars with the authors. We're talking about Brits (and plenty of Scots and Irish, too) so there is some sick partying going on throughout the weekend (the hotel bars don't close until the patrons are finished drinking, another fine English tradition). I did an onstage interview with thriller writer Simon Kernick and that went well. Emily and I hung out with novelist Mark Billingham (who won a major award at the festival) and his wife Claire, a television director (attractive, funny, the whole package), who wore a silk pajama top on closing night. On her it looked good. Sunday morning there was another event with David Simon, moderated by my friend, the excellent novelist and push-up champion Laura Lippman. 600 paying fans were in attendance. Needless to say, The Wire is a bit of a phenomenon in the UK.

I have skipped mentioning one event in London (leaving the best for last) so I need to go back. Actually, back to D.C. in the spring, where Emily, David, Laura, and I caught a performance of The Pogues at the 9:30 Club and then met them backstage. The band were fans of The Wire (we had used several of their songs, memorably, on the show) and we were all fans of their music going back to the 80s, when I was buying their vinyl imports at records stores like Phantasmagoria in Wheaton, Maryland. A few weeks later Emily and I met band member Spider Stacey and his wife Louise when they were back in Washington. Over a meal in Chinatown, on H Street, (Full Kee, my spot for Chinese) I told Spider that I would like to do a pub event in London when I came over in July, and asked him if he would be interested in playing a set after I did a reading. He agreed and through Gaby Young hooked it up at Boogaloo on Archway Road in Highgate, run by a fellow named Richard who used to book the old Filthy McNasty's. The gig was set for Thursday, July 23. To my surprise, it wasn't just Spider and a couple of friends on the bill, as I had understood it would be. It was The Pogues, who had come to play their first pub date since 1983. In other words, it was history.

After a nasty rainstorm and several pints of Guinness, I came on late, and read a ten minute excerpt from The Way Home.

Then the band ambled onstage. Shane McGowan (in full pirate gear, wearing black and an eyepatch), Spider, Jem Finer, Andrew Ranken, James Fearnley, and the rest of the lads (including a horn section), with guest guitarist extraordinaire James Welbourne (The Pretenders, Joe Pernice). They opened with "The Body of an American," one of my favorites from their catalogue.

They played "The Sick Bed of Cuchullainn," "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," "Transmetropolitan," and the beautiful ballad, "Kitty."

They played, for the first time in public, The Wire's theme song, "Down in the Hole," with Spider on lead vocals. It was a raucous, invigorating set, and very emotional for me. That's not just nostalgia talking; the band, with its poetic lyrics and evocative, rough hewn instrumentation, moves me like no other. My friend, the Welsh writer John Williams, turned to me during one particularly affecting moment, and said, "This is old London."

I was honored to be a part of it, and thrilled to be a witness.

[Editor's Note: All Video by Paul Murff]

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George Pelecanos