The Tossers: Shamrocks, Brains and Guts

July 2001

“There weren’t any bands out there playing real music, emotional music that you could dance to, or laugh to or cry to…..” -Shane MacGowan

Lester Bangs once said rock-n-roll would die an empty death once it’s turned into a corporation fit for mass consumption. This it most certainly has. Examples abound, nowhere more sickeningly than in the “free thinking” world of punk rock: Has it lost its edge? Does its inability to seem exciting and fresh spell it’s own demise, even though it is more popular than ever? Do the hordes of Bad Religion and Blink 182 clones’ successes translate into punk’s ultimate meaninglessness? Mass produced bands and massed produced crap?
There is currently a movement within the punk rock genre that, to some critics and fans, is facing a similarly detached future. The fusion of Celtic folk with ’77 Style punk rock really isn’t a new concept. Shane MacGowan and Spider Stacy were toying with the idea as early as 1980. Nearly everyone has heard this experiment’s results: the almighty Pogues. One of the best bands of all-time, to be sure. Certainly, Stuart Adamson of the popular ’80’s band Big Country used Celtic sounds and attitudes to that group’s advantage. Adamson’s early punk band, the long defunct Skids, were a definite precursor to this genre. Listen to “Into the Valley” and tell me Stuart’s guitar doesn’t sound like bagpipes on purpose. Then there are the groups that just never made it big, like The Men They Couldn’t Hang. So, no, the genre isn’t new, but to a whole new generation, it seems relevant and exciting. My question is – is it? Or is it, too, being prepackaged and sold to a new generation for them to “fit for mass consumption” and, subsequently ruin, as Bangs theorized? Is this genre overstaurated?

It wouldn’t take long before one could list quite a few current punk/streetrock bands whose sounds are described as ‘having an Irish folk flavor” or sound “kinda Pogues-y.” Many have actually covered old Irish folk songs on vinyl. Actually, it is almost the norm nowadays. It’s almost refreshing to read a review where the reviewer doesn’t use the aforementioned terms to describe a new Oi! or streetrock album. Zines like Hit List and Flipside complain about the ‘overuse’ of Celtic sounds in much of today’s punk. Are they right? Is this genre becoming watered down and boring?

Lest you think me cynical, I do believe there are bands out there today and one local band in particular, that have proven to me that the genre is still relevant. For all the Irish folk/punk/Oi! bands that are becoming bigger and more popular, and for all the ones who form or incorporate Celtic sounds simply because it is the “in” thing to do, for all the ones whom some critics accuse of falling prey to the banshee that cries “sell-out,” hope awaits. It exists in the form of the bands who have been around, those who have paid their dues, those who have remained true and understand that there is more at stake than just money. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Chicago’s favorite sons, The Tossers.

Only the End of the Beginning
“And we just thought: Fuck it. What we’re doing is good, no matter how badly we’re doing it. It’s good because it’s based on good music.” -Shane MacGowan

I’m not saying I was there at The Tossers first show. I have, however, been following them since their first demo “Pint of No Return” and have been to countless shows over the years. I’ve seen them on their own in dinky, fucking dank bars and I’ve seen them open for legends like Stiff Little Fingers and the aforementioned Shane MacGowan. They have paid their dues, took their lumps and logged their miles without the level of success that some ‘newer’ bands have tasted – and still, here they are.

“Damn near ten years” Tony Duggins, singer and mandolin player, says, when I ask how long the Tossers have been at it. He says this with a look that seems to be a cross between pride, wistfullness and maybe a bit of weariness. Today, the Tossers line-up is as follows: T. Duggins handles the vocals, guitar and mandolin, his brother Aaron Duggins is on tin whistle, Dan Shaw is on bass, Clay Hansen is on banjo and Bones handles the skins.

Back in 1992, when the Tossers started, there weren’t as many bands doing the Celtic punk thing, as many are now. Tossers bassist Dan Shaw gives an appropriately MacGowan-esqe ‘vague’ description of the Tossers humble beginnings: “Everybody but Clay grew up together. It just happened, I don’t really remember much of the details but I guess it was mostly luck.” Luck, guts and a bastard talent. The early gigs were described as “Pretty much the same as now – consuming intense amounts of alcohol, playing all night and not getting paid”. Eventually, the band began to get its name out. Clay Hansen joined in 1997 after the violinist (Jason Lovell) quit and as Shaw recalls, Hansen ” had never played a banjo before but didn’t tell us that. We gave him a copy of the disk and he borrowed a banjo and 2 weeks later he showed up at his first show. That was almost 5 years ago.”

The Tossers crew hails from Chicago. Chicago, as those from there know, wears its Irish history like a badge of honor. While their loyalty to the town is undying (“Chicago is the best fuckin’ rock-n-roll town in the states” Clay said) I wondered how they got their start with punky Irish folk. When asked if it was the South Side influence or the passing down from family member to family member that made the lads want to play the Irish stuff, Hansen replied. “Yes, it was handed down but I think we got sucked in cause the songs were mostly about drinkin’ and fuckin.’ We enjoy drinking and fuckin’ so it felt good to play those songs. We all came from different bands who were trying to be rock stars so we didn’t really feel the need to play anything anyone would like. We just got to play what we liked.” The Tossers also posses an unquestioned work ethic. “We played anywhere, anytime, for anybody, with anybody” is how Clay summed it up. How, then, do they feel about the rising popularity of the Irish punk/folk thing? About bands who are quite popular like the Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly? (Both of whom I am a great fan of) Tony said he loved both bands and Hansen replied “We don’t think about it. The Dropkicks rock and Flogging Molly are nice guys. We don’t give a fuck about fads. If we did we would have started a boyband.” Well said, mate.

Rebel Songs and Blow Jobs
“When I was really little, I was brought up by the people in Tipperary who knew millions of songs. It was real gut level stuff, music that’s been handed down from generation to generation” – Shane MacGowan

I was in Champaign, Illinois on June 12th at a local Irish bar called Mike and Mollys and caught up with the Tossers there. After the Tossers second of two sets ended, I stepped back and thought about what I had just seen and was, quite simply, amazed. And I began to think about the difference between the Tossers and other popular Celtic Punk/folk bands of the day and wondered why the hell I think the Tossers are so much better at what they do than most. The answer seemed to me to lie in what MacGowan termed the “gut level stuff.”

The Tossers two sets on a balmy 90 degree night included no less than TWENTY old Irish folkie standbys and as many of their own originals. The sets also included the American folk classic “The Long Black Veil” and the sea shanty “South Australia.” All of it immediate, ‘gut level stuff’, nothing forced or phony there. While certain bands may choose the most obvious of Irish songs to cover, Duggins and company dug deep. The standards were there, of course: “The Wild Rover”, “The Irish Rover” “I’ll Tell Me Ma” “Seven Drunken Nights” etc, etc, but also were the lesser known gems (at least among the Champaign crowd) like: “Monto” “Muirsheen Durkin’” “Home Boys Home” and “Poor Old Dicey Riley.” Hell, they took two requests from me: “The Fields of Athenry” (not really a request, per se as their own “A Night On Earth” segues into it anyway) and one of my personal favorites “Holy Ground.” (By the way, the Skels of New Jersey do a blistering version on CD, as well as a little bootleg with Pat Kennedy of the late Molly Maguires fame on piano) T. Duggins started and re-started “Holy Ground” until he had it how like he liked it and blazed through it. This, to me, is guts, ladies and gentlemen. Fucking do it until it’s done right. Take requests and if you fuck up, who cares? Give it another damn shot. Gustiest of all may well have been when T. Duggins sang alone, without any accompaniment from the band, and he did this several times that night. The last being “The Parting Glass.” Fucking brilliant. This is band that knows its material and respects it’s roots.

The band took requests all night and when I shouted, “play the Clash,” Aaron Duggins replied “The Clash were pussies” but then I heard the familiar strains of “London Calling” being played on mandolin. Tony Duggins strikes again- that cheeky bastard. Their own songs included the by now Tossers classics: “Buckets of Beer” “When You Get Here” “Aye Sir” and newer favorites like “The Crutch” with it’s “So Give Me Two Pints of Stout – Oi!” chanted chorus well intact and “Mad Riot” tearing things up as well. All in all, they must’ve played damn near 40 songs.

Afterwards, when I got a chance to talk to Tony, he was soft spoken and laid back (or was that drunk?) I told him I wished they had played a favorite of mine from the first CD “We’ll Never Be Sober Again” a slow-burning song called “Alone” where Duggins speaks of rebels wives who ‘wear black’ for their lost husbands. It’s a haunting piece, the mood very somber, and the lyrics of “Mrs. Ryan wears black, Mrs. O’Shea wears black, Mrs. Kelly wears black” drive the point home. “That’s a good rebel song, that one” Tony told me. Which brings me to a point. I remembered the Pogues and Shane in particular had gotten accosted several times for their ‘rebel leanings’ and Black 47 were dubbed the ‘musical wing of the IRA” by the British press. I wondered if the Tossers had ever encountered any physical violence from this or any other scenario. “Yes,” Clay said. “I had a girl try to stab me in the eye with her keys once while her boyfriend tried to steal my amp. Actually, there have been a lot of times we have gotten into scuffles but we are pretty non-violent so we usually talk our way out of fightin.’ Sometimes it can’t be helped. We used to fight a lot more when we were younger and found out it wasn’t that much fun getting the shit kicked out of you.” Hansen also revealed a bit more about these confrontations. “Most fights start over one of us fucking some dudes girlfriend or wife. I had a girl in a club suck my cock in the balcony while her husband was down stairs one night. He came looking for her wondering why she was gone so long and he didn’t get the joke. All the boys were downstairs boozin’ and didn’t know I was getting an ass-kickin.’” Are you sure these guys aren’t rock stars? That sounds pretty Keith Richard-esqe to me. Should they be re-christened Motley Tossers?

All in all, it was a great show and the Tossers were a great bunch of guys. As they were loading up, they were wondering if they indeed had a show in the next town they were scheduled in. Who knows, but they were going to get drunk anyway. Road warriors, each and every one of them. And a damn fine band. A damn REAL band who know their roots and play for the sake of playing.

Buy A Tossers CD
So it goes – The Tossers were one of the first in the current ‘revival,’ as well as being one of the best and, if there’s any justice, will reap the rewards in the near future. It’s funny, having talked with T. Duggins, it is apparent that he is down to earth and is in no way buying into the hype-ridden world of punk rock. And sometimes this isn’t any easy thing to do. Sometimes even bands with the best intentions and truest to their roots, become bigger, and can fall prey to mid-level success. There are always those among the punk rock locals who sanctimoniously kiss ass and get backstage and ‘party’ with the bands, due to the free tattoos they give, the beer they supply or something of that nature. Sometimes some of the real fans seem to get overlooked. Sometimes, with new popularity, and new fans, the new crowd take the band over as their own. Not so with the Tossers. I had never talked with Tony before, but once I told him my purpose, to get an interview/article for a zine promoting the Irish Punk/Folk scene, he didn’t think about it for a second. “Sure, definitely”, he said. And I could tell it wouldn’t be uncomfortable and he was actually going to listen to my questions, rather than cut me off to tell someone to “go get him a t-shirt” so he could give it to some skirt in the crowd. Nah, he was content to discuss issues, his music and music in general. Hmmmm…. Maybe there’s hope for this genre after all……Tony Duggins and the Tossers are for real, folks…

The Tossers have two full-length CD’s available: “We’ll Never Be Sober Again” and “Long Dim Road”. A complete discography can be found at Purchases can be made there as well. Future releases include an upcoming 6 song EP with 2 originals, 2 traditional and 2 covers: Jerry Lee Lewis “Rockin’ My Life Away” and Bob Dylan’s “7 Curses.”

Clay said it turned out good. Then again, he’s the bastard that got the blowjob in the balcony. Rock star, indeed.

By Sean Holland

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