Rather than just talking about the Pogues' lauded sophomore album, Roesgen takes us on a sea voyage, one that's compelling but leaves us wanting more.
As Jeffrey T. Roesgen’s book on the Pogues’ second album is two-thirds fictional narrative and one-third nonfiction analysis, I decided not to listen to Rum, Sodomy & the Lash prior to digging into the slim volume. I'm familiar with at least some of the songs (and surely everyone knows their version of “Dirty Old Town” at least), but one of my few general problems with the varied and often excellent 33 1/3 series is that many of the books are kind of closed, directed more at obsessive fans than the casual or even interested audience.
Roesgen’s tack -- retelling the tale of the raft of the Medusa (depicted in the famous painting by Géricault that the Pogues took and altered for their album art) as if the Pogues themselves were itinerant musicians who wander aboard and almost die from the experience -- seemed more outsider friendly than most. Given the likely paying audience for these books, and the kind of fan you tend to have to be to write one, I can understand why most of them are angled toward an insular view, but it’s to Roesgen’s credit that I enjoyed his book thoroughly without being intimately familiar with Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, and even more so that upon my subsequent listening to the album (because Roesgen certainly makes you curious) I was a little bit disappointed. The Pogues are great, to be certain, but they don’t sound quite as wild and significant as Roesgen manages to make them sound on the page.
Certainly Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (the book, this time) rewards fans -- I am fairly certain there were references that went over my head, and even the ones that are eventually revealed and explained to the non-fan seem like they’d be more fun to catch right away. Roesgen strands the band on board a ship with an incompetent captain and a domineering French Governor of the Sudan (both historically accurate) but then surrounds them with the figures and songwriters they employed on the album, leaving them mingling, drinking and fighting with Jesse James, Jock Stewart, Eric Bogle and “Uncle Brian”, among others.
Short chapters in the narrative are occasionally interrupted by even shorter passages addressing each song (at the point in the narrative where the songs come up, which is a seemingly random order). Roesgen’s overall thesis about the band in the non-fictional parts -- that the Pogues were concerned here mostly with showing how the struggles and pains and joys of the downtrodden life are universal, not constrained by time or culture or language -- is a convincing one, and he writes well on the sodden joie de vivre Shane McGowan and company bring to these songs. He also does well to avoid mythologizing McGowan and his excesses --there are vivid scenes with each of the band’s members, and McGowan is a cheery cipher more than anything.
It would have been nice to have a bit more hard information for reference -- the actual tracklisting of the album, the names and roles of the band members all in one place, recording details -- but you can look those up elsewhere, and it’s only after the story ended that I wanted to find out more (and again, much of the target audience probably doesn’t need that information). The only other real complaint I have is that it sometimes feels like there’s not quite enough stuff here -- Roesgen’s fiction is compelling enough that a more fully fleshed out novel along these lines is kind of appealing (although with the Pogues such an integral part of the appeal, maybe not practical) and similarly after almost every song I found myself wishing he’d given himself a few more pages to talk to band members, draw together the books that have already been written about the band, and give his own analysis.
But that’s both the appeal and occasionally the frustration of the 33 1/3 series, the volumes of which are slim enough to be polished off in one sitting. Roesgen leaves you wanting more, and convinced both of the greatness of his chosen album and of the beating, vital heart of the band that made it.