Jeffrey T. Roesgen: Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve kept holding off on this review since last year.  Why?  Because with a book as unique as this one, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where to begin.  First off, lest the title lead your mind astray, this is not a book on how to pass a weekend at your local S&M parlor, though I’m not judging if that’s your thing.  It’s a book about The Pogues’ 1985 album of the same name.  Why name a record Rum, Sodomy & The Lash?  Well, because it looks wicked cool amongst your record collection, and because it’s a quote from Sir Winston Churchill: “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash.”  That just makes me love ol’ Winnie all the more.  (Psst; if you haven’t read Churchill’s short story “Man Overboard!”, you really should.)

But back to the Pogues.  Back in the day, this rough-and-tumble bit of punk attitude put out a bunch of hard drinking songs you could pogo to.  Nowadays if you’re not up on your Celtic punk, you probably hear ‘em during the Christmas holidays, when “Fairytale of New York” gets a ton of airplay (as it should, because it’s gritty, true and amazing).  The Pogues re-formed in 2001, but if you haven’t seen ‘em already in this new millennium you may be out of luck, at least if you’re in the States.  That’s okay though, their music lives on well and fine in CD and MP3 form.

Because the Pogues are such a seminal punk-folk band, it’s no wonder that Bloomsbury Academic/Continuum Books decided to publish a look at this album in their 33 1/3 series.  And this book is as rowdy and intelligent as the album it’s based on.  Cutting between a treasure trove of information on how the album came to be is a story that can only be described as a RPF (real person fiction, to those of you who don’t get with the fanfic) of the highest order.  Author Roesgen places the Pogues on board the Medusa (Méduse), a French ship known for its tragic end and for the beautiful, haunting oil painting by Théodore Géricault that illustrates the horrors of survival at sea.  Géricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa, is what the cover of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is based on, with the Pogues’ faces tacked on, as if they were there.

Though the sections that dealt with the whys, hows and wherefores kept me entranced, the bits about the Pogues as seamen (and women) were great at first, but left me feeling like I was reading a fan’s big dream brought to life.  It’s not that it’s not well written — Roesgen does a brilliant job of describing it all in such detail it almost had me reaching for a handkerchief to wipe away the salt spray — but it felt a bit overmuch, as if he was using the tale to pad an otherwise thin offering.  Perhaps if I was more of a seagoing missy I’d have enjoyed it more.  Instead, I found myself leaving the book alone for gobs of time, then coming back to it over and over.

The information packed into this book is well worth the sort-of-interesting-but-not-compelling tie-in tale.  I’ve always thought of the Pogues as the thinking punk’s band.  Here, Roesgen lets you know that that’s exactly the case; frontman Shane McGowan discusses humanism, James Fearnley talks about how the themes in The Raft of the Medusa echoed what was happening in England in the 1980s, and when the band discusses instruments and tones used in certain songs, you definitely get a higher sense of musicality than most of the other punk bands of the time.

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, the album, is a classic and should be listened to by anyone who has a love of Celtic rock, punk or just good musicianship.  The book Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is mostly for fans of the Pogues, but anyone who is interested in how the record got made would definitely get something out of it.  Just skim the fictional account; it’s more fun as a quick read in-between the good bits.

(Continuum Books, 2008)

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