There was more than a dash of kismet involved when Philip Chevron joined The Pogues in April 1985. Having produced the B-sides for the Anglo-Irish folk rowdies’ third single, A Pair Of Brown Eyes, the Dublin punk trailblazer would volunteer his services to the band when banjo player Jem Finer had to take paternity leave.
“I’d never picked up a banjo in my life,” Chevron would later admit, and made good with one day’s rehearsal. There were strong forces at work; “I’d found a group of people to whom I felt I instinctively belonged for the first time in my life,” he told Carol Clerk for her definitive band history Pogue Mahone Kiss My Arse: The Story Of The Pogues (Omnibus, 2006).
Born Philip Ryan to a theatrical family on June 17, 1957 – though he said he may have been born the day before – he was raised in Santry in north Dublin. In 1976 he would form pioneering, literate Irish punk band The Radiators From Space, adopting his stage name either as homage to the Woolworths budget Chevron label or to give the impression he was a scion of the American energy multinational.
The Radiators would record the albums TV Tube Heart (1977) and Ghostown (1979), the latter produced by Tony Visconti and featuring the celebrated, Joyce-quoting Song Of The Faithful Departed, wherein narrator Johnny Jukebox takes a midnight ramble and communes with the ghosts of Dublin past. It would be regularly covered by Christy Moore.
The lack of a commercial breakthrough caused the group to split in 1981, whereupon Chevron found himself in London, numbering among his associates Elvis Costello, record man Ted Carroll and future Pogues manager Frank Murray. During this time he would record interpretations of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Brendan Behan, work at Camden vinyl oasis Rock On and produce indie chart successes for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, The Prisoners and his old friend, the German actress and singer Agnes Bernelle, whose Father’s Lying Dead On The Ironing Board was one of 1985’s more macabre and twisted albums.
Joining The Pogues would prove something of a baptism of fire, when he was almost immediately hospitalized in Helsinki after schnapps caused an ulcer to enflame. Having introduced more dynamic stage moves to the hitherto largely stationary band, Chevron was sufficiently taken with the experience to stay when Finer returned, and moved over to guitar, becoming a full member for the group’s second LP Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. Gay, Chevron later recalled his unrequited love for his heterosexual accordionist bandmate James Fearnley; though romance was not meant to be, esteem was unaffected.
Chevron arguably could have contributed more songs to The Pogues’ canon. But with Thousands Are Sailing, from 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God, he wrote one of the group’s signatures – a poignant reflection on the Irish emigrant diaspora, awake to paradox and contradiction but with the weight and force of traditional song.
Chevron would experience drink problems throughout his time with The Pogues – he was pictured sitting on the sleeve for If I Should Fall From Grace With God because he was too weak to stand. His health growing more precarious, he would leave the group in 1994, two years before their final split, settling in Nottingham.
In 1998 he completed his father Philip B Ryan’s unfinished book, The Lost Theatres Of Dublin; he would also reactivate The Radiators in 2004, and record two new LPs. Since 2001, he had also been touring to great acclaim with the reunited Pogues, and remained a thoughtful and accessible presence on the group’s web forums. Though he was thought to be free of the head and neck cancer diagnosed in 2007, it would return earlier this year in terminal form. Even when hardly able to speak, Chevron was a pithy email interviewee with a steady gaze on his own mortality. As he told the Irish Mail’s Jason O’Toole in June: “I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic, Pogue who is dying of cancer – and don’t think I don’t know it.”
On August 24, friends and admirers including Mary Coughlan, Paul Brady, Shane MacGowan, Gavin Friday, Horslips and The Radiators From Space played the Philip Chevron Testimonial Concert at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. He is survived by his mother and sister. In a statement, his bandmates wrote, “He was a remarkable and fantastically talented colleague, but most of all a friend… Philip will be missed terribly and will always be in our hearts.”