The Pogues recall one wild Chicago night with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello

As the Pogues bring their farewell tour to Chicago, Spider Stacy recalls a wild night of bar hopping, piano jams and assassination re-enactments with Tom Waits.
Photograph: Bleddyn Butcher The Pogues
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On Thursday 3, the Pogues bring their farewell tour to the Congress Theater. The band’s first U.S. jaunt included a visit to the Vic on July 12, 1986, and with every tour since it has brought a volatile marriage of punk and traditional Irish music to the Windy City. So when I chatted with vocalist and tin whistler Peter “Spider” Stacy, I expected tales to flow like whiskey.

In the ’80s, thanks to the support of NPR and the folk scene, the band’s local audiences were a mix of punks and professorial types (my dad took me to my first Pogues show). I prodded for vibrant recollections of one of the capitals of Irish America. Shortly into an overseas call with Stacy, I was questioning the strategy. He had a few nice things to say about our city—he likes Wrigley Field and the Tossers—but the 52-year-old could not recall any folk following (“It’s not something I ever noticed”).

After several uncomfortable minutes, Spider announced, “Actually, there was one thing we did in Chicago that was absolutely brilliant.

“Before our first show there in 1986, in the afternoon before our sound check, we went to see Tom Waits doing Frank’s Wild Years at the Steppenwolf,” Stacy starts. “It was great, obviously.” The Gary Sinise–directed production, written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, was near the end of its eight-week run at the Briar Street Theatre. The sold-out play was based on a song from the gravelly pianist’s 1983 breakthrough, Swordfishtrombones. Waits, who has since listed the Pogues’ 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash as one of his ten favorite records, was excited to spot the band, which made its presence known.

Pogues accordionist James Fearnley laughed so raucously during the production that he ruined a bootleg the band was taping. During a post-show Q&A, Fearnley commandeered the theater’s piano to play an improvised tango based on Elmer Bernstein’s theme from Exodus.

“Waits was doing the show again that evening,” Stacy recalls, “but he came and caught our last couple of numbers.” The crowd demanded several encores, one of which coaxed to the stage a reluctant Elvis Costello, who had produced Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and was traveling with his bride of two months, Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. “Then we went out drinking with Tom,” Spider says.

Actor Aidan Quinn, coincidentally in town, tagged along and helped guide Waits and the Pogues on their North Side bar-hop. “Then there was one that had a piano in it,” Stacy explains. “Tom started playing. You can’t ask for anything more than that.” The bar they ended up in was Holstein’s on Lincoln, a small club on its last legs that was owned by folksinger Fred Holstein. Costello eventually made his way to the watering hole and belted a few tunes himself. Yet Stacy’s fondest memory of the evening came when the group drunkenly crossed the street to check out the infamous alley of the Biograph Theater. “Tom showed us the spot where Dillinger had been shot by the FBI,” Stacy remembers with a chuckle. “His wife took a photograph of me standing over the body of our old lighting engineer Paul Verner. Sadly, he is really dead now. I had my tin whistle in my hand, pointing it at him like it was a gun.

“The pictures were kind of juvenile,” Stacy says with a sigh, a quarter century later. “But I don’t suppose you can get more Chicago than that.”

The Pogues’ farewell tour hits [node:32331 link=Congress Theater;] Thursday 3.

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