The First Time: Jonathan Smith – The Pogues, Cornwall Coliseum, St Austell, 1990

My love for music kicked in around 1978, and yet it was another 12 years before my first ‘big’ gig experience. This was mainly due to a combination of growing up in West Cornwall, and having an abundance of apathy when it came to getting myself organised. So while a few of my friends were hitching or taking trains to get to the closest regular gigs (often in Bristol, 170 miles distant), I was much more reluctant to trek off in search of live music. Also, my tastes at that time were mostly for the music of the 50s and 60s, so I was twenty years too late to see many of the bands I was most interested in, and I was only beginning to challenge myself as I came late to bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths.

The Cornwall Coliseum near St Austell, however, was the one place that did put on bands that we read about in NME or saw on Top of the Pops, and although it was a bit of a barn lacking in anything much like atmosphere, some fairly significant acts came through its doors. It was still the best part of 40 miles from home, though, but I was finally tempted out of my shell when I heard the Pogues were going to be coming.

The Pogues broke into my consciousness when their version of ‘Dirty Old Town’ was played on TV, with the state of Shane MacGowan’s teeth the subject of many a sarcastic joke in the media. However, somehow, they got lumped in with my much loved  C86-type indie scene, and when I heard ‘Sally MacLennane’, I was hooked. I’d grown up with a lot of folk music anyway, but nothing like this. When the ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ album launched them into the stratosphere (with a little help from ‘Fairytale of New York’), I was already an aficionado, having fallen for the rampantly riotous music which was undercut with the sheer poetry of MacGowan’s lyrics.

By the time they came to Cornwall in 1990, it was to help launch their 5th record, ‘Hell’s Ditch’. All was not well in the Pogues camp, though, and it would not be long before MacGowan, the beating heart at the centre of the band, would be ditched by his bandmates. To be fair, they obviously had a lot to deal with, as was quickly obvious when they came out on the big wide stage at the Coliseum. When MacGowan appeared, it was a shock to see him stumbling around the stage, bottle in hand, obviously finding it difficult to locate the microphone at times, He would mutter incoherently into the mic between songs, and Spider Stacey, the tin whistle player, would translate: “This one’s called ‘Summer In Siam‘”, “This one’s called ‘Fiesta’“.

Still, it was a great show, because the band by now was like a humming machine of integrated folk noise, a big band that played with panache and nuance; while MacGowan, though he could barely stand or speak (indeed, he would generally be slumped against the drum riser when he wasn’t needed up front), nevertheless could still sing strongly and intelligibly.

It wasn’t the best gig I have ever seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst; and as the years have passed, I’ve grown to be more and more in awe of the depth and beauty MacGowan could summon through his words, and I feel very fortunate to have seen him onstage to perform them.

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