I was upset when I heard Philip Chevron died today. I’ve been a huge fan of his band, The Pogues, for 26 years, and I’ve seen them live dozens of times. But it was the example he set as a man that I admired most.
As a teenager, when it began to dawn on me that I’m gay, I lacked high-profile role models I could relate to. Gay culture and lifestyle, such as they were back then, seemed alien to me. I didn’t like Kylie and fashion, I liked punk rock and football.
Imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered that a member of one of my favourite bands, The Pogues, was gay – and he was a football fan. He seemed inherently and immediately heroic: if he could thrive as an openly gay man in a band like that, I felt, maybe I could be accepted in my world, too.
Ever the biographer in spirit, I began to research his life. One day, I stumbled upon a song he wrote before he joined The Pogues, called Under Clery’s Clock. The song, about anxiously waiting for a date in Dublin, covers familiar terrain at first.
Then, this happens…
Strange as it seems, all I want is to embrace by the streetlights, just like other lovers do without disgrace.
Well, try arguing with that. For such a gentle and slight Irishman, Phil sure knew how to pack a punch with a single line. I felt humbled and inspired by his strength and simple eloquence.
My favourite part of every Pogues concert came when he sang his song Thousands Are Sailing. I’ve always loved Shane MacGowan’s rasping, rambling delivery, but when Phil sang this song, with his gentle, theatrical tones, everything seemed perfect. He was a sweet, small man singing with the strength of a giant.
Thousands… is a beautiful and haunting ballad about Irish immigrants to the United States. I must have listened to this song hundreds of times over the past 20 years. Yet some of its lyrical passages still hit me like I’m hearing them for the first time….
In Manhattan’s desert twilight
In the death of afternoon
We stepped hand in hand on Broadway
Like the first men on the moon
And The Blackbird broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet
And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps
I danced up and down the street
Then we said goodnight to Broadway
Giving it our best regards
Tipped our hats to Mr Cohen
Dear old Times Square’s favourite bard
Then we raised a glass to JFK
And a dozen more besides
When I got back to my empty room
I suppose I must have cried
I was so thrilled when, one day, a magazine I wrote for received a letter from Phil about how much he enjoyed one of my articles about football. He said my article had inspired and comforted him. I could hardly believe it! I wrote back and we met up in London a few times and then I spent a weekend at his home in Nottingham.
It was in the middle of summer and I remember how we laughed as we snuck into Nottingham Forest FC’s deserted stadium, and then sat in the empty ground for hours talking about football, music and the Hillsborough disaster, which Phil had witnessed first-hand. This was between the band’s break-up and subsequent reunion. I think he had mixed feelings about my incessant questions about The Pogues.
We lost touch over the years but I was glad to have known him. Realising how much he had gone through, coming out as a gay man in 1970s Ireland of all places, it was nice to be able to tell him in person how his example had inspired me and others.
A few members of the outer Pogue family have died over the years, including Joe Strummer and Kirsty MacColl. Phil is the first member of the band itself to pass away.
I’m sad he has gone. He was the little Irish giant who showed me the way.
(Here is the studio version of Thousands Are Sailing, with MacGowan on vocals. I can’t find a live version with Phil singing anywhere online.)