Author: Gavin Martin
Copyright: (c) NME
Inside BBC’s Elstree Studios, Top Of The Pops’ weekly parade of old lags, new hopefuls, teen heart-throbs, impossibly long legs, short skirts and eye- smacking pastel hues is in full swing. All pop life is here.
A dancer from Reel 2 Real invites some of East 17- newly shaven, kitted out in black parachute gear, looking like condoms with see-through helmets – into her dressing room. Bespectacled, with satchel over his shoulder, his brother Dave well behind him, Kinks front-man Ray Davies hurries past the young folk; an old boy being honoured with a 30th anniversary appearance.
Checking in under the flashing light, The Cranberries enter the studio while Whigfield’s dancers go through their paces at the other end of the corridor. Alongside them, the geezer from 2 Unlimited displays his formidable pecs. All around, the place is buzzing with portable phones as pluggers and record company types try to strike deals, conspiring and conniving to get their charges into a position where entry into the thinly-disguised parade of sexual titillation we call The Charts is assured.
Upstairs in a smoke-filled dressing room is where we find Shane MacGowan. After encountering the company downstairs, finding Shane is a bit like happening upon the proverbial old aunt in the attic. There behind the door, amongst the parcel of seasoned rogues and salty veterans who comprise his backing band The Popes, Shane is a sight which will surely cause the oestrogen-crazed East 17 fans in the studio below to reappraise the very idea of beauty.
Heavier set, fuller of face than the last time he was on the nation’s Number One music programme. he’s here to perform and promote ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’, the second hell-for- leather single from his soon-come album ‘The Snake’. It’s a record that puts to rest any talk about him being all washed up. reaffirms his status as a writer of wit, vision and insight and pairs him with a band that match prime-time Pogues for bristling, bollock-blasting rock’n'roll and fluently melodious Irish romanticism.
But changes rumoured to have turned MacGowan into a fit-for-life, London Marathon-contending mirror image of his once decrepit self aren’t, perhaps, all they’re cracked up to be. Recent talk of Shane looking ‘great’, ‘good’ or even simply ‘well’ must be tempered with the fact that we are talking about Shane here – career alcoholic, lifelong reckless abuser, a man who is only alive because he’s been favoured with the sort of constitution usually reserved for large plough-pulling farm animals.
Some things haven’t changed at all. He’s still surly and unpredictable. still given to long, informed, opinionated rants about everything from the history of jazz to Eastern philosophy to gangster movies to 19th Century Irish romantic writers. And he’’s still possessed of a laugh that sounds like a litter-of-piggies- snuffing-at-the-tea-time-trough.
The trademark missing-in-action front teeth give him the look of a shocking apparition – right out of one of his more demented song scenarios. Even when he’s not laughing, he snorts and cackles a lot – the application of a brand name inhaler doing little to unblock his congested nasal passages or clear the constantly rheumy eyes that sometimes give him a little boy lost on the brink of tears look.
And, naturally, it being 6pm, Shane is well sozzled. The day began with triple measures around ten, then moved steadily into a lager and Martini fog- his current favourite way of following a regime where he cuts back on his drink intake. As someone later points out, this really is MacGowan’s idea of moderation: ‘He used to drink Long Island Ice Teas by the pitcher, not by the glass. Basically that’s every white spirit you can think of with a drop of Coke to colour it. It was… well, it wasn’t funny. He has a lot of problems as a result.”
Keen to find something to chase his drink down with, Shane is gobbling headache tablets.
“I have to take something for these headaches that I seem to be getting more and more frequently,” he says, as a member of his road crew appears at his side, hand outstretched. “Y’see, everybody seems to be getting them more and more frequently.”
Call it cabin fever, MacGowan-itis or simply a case of TOTP-oprophy, but just beneath the surface calm everyone seems a little shaky. It’s been a long day and after what was the umpteenth and, surely, final take on The Popes’ spendid bedraggled performance the news arrives that a camera failed and… they have to do it all again. Leaning against the wall outside the dressing room is the man that presenter Claire Sturgess will breathlessly introduce as Johnny ‘Edward Scissorhands’ Depp, The Popes’ special guest star for this evening’s performance and the finest cheekbones of his generation; a genuine, million dollar Hollywood movie star. Johnny just flew in from LA yesterday and he’s suffering from the state of mind / occupational hazard they call jet lag.
“Every time I was about to fall asleep last night I started hallucinating,” he grins.
With supermodel girlfriend Kate Moss (a prime mover in persuading him that a TOTP rendezvous with Shane would be ultra cool) by his side, Depp is clad in a spectacularly coloured KC & The Sunshine Band shirt decorated with gold inlays. He purchased it years ago from a secondhand shop in Florida when he was a struggling musician fronting a band called The Kids. He belt-eves it once belonged to a member of the celebrated Miami-based disco era TOTP regulars, just the thing to provide some orthodox glitz to sugar the bitter pill when Shane’s let’s-frighten-the-kids physiognomy assaults the nation’s living rooms.
Depp has been MacGowan’s old mucker for a few years now, and a fan for even longer. Like many actors of his generation, he has a ‘holiday’ band (Pee, an outfit he occasionally fronts with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes). He hangs out with the Chili Peppers, with whom he made a ten-minute private movie called Stuff, which he says aims to “show the way certain substances take effect”.
He had MacGowan and The Popes turn up and play at the opening night of his infamous LA club/drinking hang-out The Viper Room, a place in the news earlier this year when River Phoenix expired on the pavement after a night inside. Depp says, tactfully, that The Viper Room has turned out different to the underground club he intended but, on the right night, it’s still “a fun place”.
Recently he’s directed and starred in the video for ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’, playing a drop-down drunk to MacGowan’s sober-as-a-judge barman.
With his roles in Cry Baby, Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Benny and Joon and his new Stateside opener, Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s biopic of the cross-dressing B-movie director who is widely touted as the worst director who ever lived), Depp has moved from massive clean-cut success on US teen TV show 21 Jump Street at the end of the ’80s to become freak befriender and an ultra cool icon for the ’90s. He says it was all an accident.
“When I first started doing films, the band was making little money. I thought of acting as a way to finance my music habit. My whole upbringing was playing in bars and clubs since I was 14; I still feel like I’m a musician. There’s nothing like being onstage with four or five guys with a really loud guitar and all the adrenalin, there’s nothing to compare with it.
“It was my friend Nicolas Cage who suggested I should try acting. For the first two or three years I was in movies I never thought I’d be doing this as a living. I thought it was a way of making some money and then I can go back and play in the band. I didn’t care if my acting was good, bad or whatever. I just wanted to get a pay cheque.” DRINKING RED wine, wearing a T- shirt which shows the American map painted red with the legend ‘Indian territory’ printed beneath, Johnny has agreed to sit down for an interview. The idea was for it to take place the night before with MacGowan. You know, get them together, open a bottle, have a laugh, see what happens… But Shane was late and Johnny was later. Depp didn’t seem to have been told about the idea, claimed to not want to take attention from Shane. And MacGowan – who’d been short-tempered, monosyllabic, paranoid and tetchy throughout the interview that preceded Depp’s arrival – hardly seemed up for more chat.
Depp came into Filthy McNasty’s, MacGowan’s favourite London drinking den, with Kate Moss, ten years his junior and, with the finest cheek bones of her generation, something of a mirror image to the delicately featured screen star. Someone showed them a cartoon from Private Eye. In it a supermodel, obviously based on the slimline Moss, is saying, “It gets on my tits,” and a guy with a big question mark above his head is looking on. Everyone laughed.
“We’ve made the big time” smirked Johnny, “all we need now is a strip in Bazooka Joe bubblegum and we’ll have it made.” Depp and Moss seemed to have their tongues in each other’s mouths as often as possible. At the door of the photo studio Shane took the 31 -year-old heart- throb aside and told him how it was going to be.
“This photographer is going to try to get us to put on make-up and do poses. I don’t want that shit I just want to stand with you talking, smoking and drinking. And he’ll just have to work with that.”
“Couldn’t we have lust a little make- up?” says Johnny, possibly suffering from ‘slap withdrawal’ after playing Ed Wood.
It wasn’t hard to see who wore the trousers in this relationship. As the session progressed and Shane became increasingly stoic, pissed off, mouthing obscenities, looking positively stone- faced in his boredom, Johnny found it hard to keep from cracking up, obviously delighted to be hanging out with the Byronic genius that is MacShane.
“He’s a piece of work, isn’t he? The first time I met Shane… he doesn’t remember it. He was on a pool table, guitar in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He was tired… ha ha ha ha.
“Gerry Conlon (wrongly convicted Guildford Four man, subject of the In The Name Of The Father movie) is my friend, l’ve travelled round Ireland with him – don’t like being in the States for too long, I like to stay in transit.
“It wasn’t until two years later when I was in Dublin with Gerry that I met Shane. 1 was always a big fan of The Pogues and l think he’s one oft the few true poets around.
Just hanging out with him was great; when he asked me to come round and play on his record that was a real honour. Though I guess you could always cover it in the mix if I was shitty, right?”
He’s just finished shooting a movie with Marion Brando, a man who he readily compares to MacGowan.
“These are two guys who are completely true to their vision, non- conforming, uncompromising. I think Marlon is an incredibly gifted artist. Beyond the fact that Mariln is considered the most gifted actor of our time, I think he’s an artist in his thoughts, ideas and anything he does. Shane’s the same. They’re a couple of guys whose first instinct is always to go against the grain, it’s an admirable trait in anyone.” JOHNNY DEPP may be over-rated as an actor, but he’s certainly modest about his own talents and he seems a decent, even honourable sort of guy. He treats others with respect and expects the same back. One time in London he’s said to have laid a bloke flat out in a bar after he’d been persistently bothering some ladies in Depp’s company. Good for him. But here and in America there’s a tabloid soap opera made out of such piffling details as his ‘hell-raiser’ (he likes a drink) shock horror reputation, a spectacle of smashed hotel rooms and love affairs with famous actresses that everyone is obviously desperate to hear about.
“Being known is something I won’t ever get used to. I don’t consider myself famous. when I hear the word fame I don’t think of that as my arena. I’m known to the public but, for the most part, people are cool. It’s tabloid journalists who give you problems. I don’t understand the fascination with these people who tell lies for a living, is that really so interesting?
“I tell you what it sometimes almost feels like being a minority in the ‘SOS or ’605. People think you get special treatment but you get shit as well. If you have any heat inside you and you’re not accustomed to taking shit, your first instinct is to plant your fist in their face. But then there’s the lawsuit fans, there’s always people like that out there.”
Ask MacGowan what he and Depp have in common and he’ll tell you, somewhat disingenuously, that they are “both easy-going guys who want a peaceful life but can’t get one”. A PEACEFUL existence wasn’t what MacGowan had in mind the first time I saw him. It was coincidentally the first time I’d ever been to the NME offices and he’d arrived in the lobby to demand a meeting with the writer who’d given ‘Gabrielle’, his then current single with The Nips, a curt, dismissive review.
Wild-eyed, drunk, obviously speeding, a London Irish public school drop-out turned minor punk celeb famed for having had his ear bitten off at a Clash gig months previously, he seemed like a guy with chips on the chips on both his shoulders. I gave him a wide berth.
A few years later I got to know him. The Nips had split, he was working in Rocks Off, a mutual friend’s secondhand reoord shop in Soho, amassing a formidable record collection which, despite unconfirmed reports about him selling off gold discs by The Pogues last year, he still cherishes.
I bumped into him on the top deck of a bus leaving King’s Cross one night in 1981-’82. He told me that his new band were ready to go and I should come and see them. I got a free sample there and then from his mate Spider on tin whistle, someone else banging a tin beer tray, Shane hollering, the whole thing collapsing in liquor-fuelled merriment.
I had my doubts but MacGowan held onto his vision and, throughout the ’80s, unfurled it in a series of compositions that rank with anything from that decade. Bloodied, scarred and surreal war songs; heartbreaking snapshots of street-life; bejewelled, tear-stained unrequited lover’s laments; rude leering lambasts; joyous, spirit-lifting and crowd- igniting anthems. MacGowan seemed to excel at any form he put his mind to, using his talent to turn bitter disaffection into galvanising, community bonding art.
But in time The Pogues and the lifestyle he had chosen threatened to drown him completely. His brilliant idea became a trap and, somewhere on the high seas, lost in a fog of drink and drugs he jumped ship and “went to Thailand, I’d been there before and I went again”.
We wondered what would become of him. A FEW years after his departure from The Pogues, word went out that MacGowan was back He’d moved to Dublin, was hanging out with Van Morrison, living in Bono’s house, in as well as could be expected shape, with reams of good new material, putting the finishing touches to his new band.
I went to a dinner party where he was among the guests. He was his usual charming, shy, retiring self. “What a fucking boring dinner party” he announced during a pregnant pause. And yet when a baby persisted in crying, MacGowan took the situation in hand, sang a selection of lullabies to her and, in no time, had the child sleeping like… a baby, actually. Then, almost as soon as he’d finished, he got up and fell at a 90 degree angle face down on to the floor.
Motto: you always have to take the rough with the smooth with MacGowan. At times you have to take the rough with the rough. So it is when he arrives for the interview in Filthy’s. He bangs an impatient tattoo on the table between gobbling pills from his medicine jar and breaking off mid-conversation to stare into the middle distance.
“If I’m in a bad mood, or I’m feeling ill or I’ve gone loopy because of tour madness it shows. I’ve done all sorts of ridiculous things onstage. I’ve performed with my trousers round my ankles, in various places. I did a whole tour of Germany wearing no shoes, dressed in smart suits but wearing no shoes.
“Towards the end of The Pogues I gave up completely, grew a beard, stopped cutting my hair, went onstage in a leather jacket, trying to hold on to the microphone to just stand up onstage.”
There’s the first of several periodic pauses as Shane stares into the space, gathering his thoughts. Maybe he’s manoeuvring over a dead zone in his alcohol-addled brain, maybe his metabolism is taking a chemical reading. MAYBE IT’S JUST AN ACT. Whatever, when he starts talking again he’s slurred, stumbling and winded like a bar-room brawler reeling from the blow the Martini has just delivered to the kidney.
“If I’m… if I.., if I’m in a really bad way there’s nothing that can save the gig. Although with my audience, or the audiences I’ve played to, if they see I’m down, y’know, they’re capable of bringing me up. Even though I go onstage thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this, I’ve been doing this solidly now for eight or nine years every night of my life and I really do not want to do this’. I know I’m bloody ill, I know this is never going to end and the only way I’m getting out of this band is in a box.”
At the time MacGowan said he felt like an old whore. “Screwing for a living, it’s only good if you’re an amateur or a part- timer. Old whores don’t have much fun.” In Dublin he collapsed onstage and was rushed to hospital suffering from “nervous exhaustion”. In England he was in and out of convalescent homes between tours.
“Waking up there, not able to have a drink frightened the life out of me,” he’d say later. “I had to get out as quickly as possible and get down the pub.”
Did you have a death wish then?
“Does it sound like I had a death wish? I said I knew, I didn’t say I hoped I was getting out in a box. Of course I didn’t have a death wish, the reason I left was because I didn’t have a death wish. The reason I tried to leave loads of times before they were actually kind enough to throw me out was because I didn’t have a death wish. Life is sweet. What on earth makes you think I’ve got a death wish? This question keeps coming up, every journalist I bloody talk to asks it.”
Well, it’s an option for anyone trapped in that position.
“It’s not an option, it’s not an option for me.
It was an option for Kurt Cobain. Shane is angry now, furious.
“He didn’t have an option. He had two options and they both had the same outcome. He kicks the smack, goes through the hell of kicking smack and his kid gets taken away anyway. Or he doesn’t kick the smack and he definitely gets the kid taken away. He hadn’t enjoyed performing for bloody ages, if you believe what he said in that note – and there’s no reason he should lie about anything when he’s about to kill himself – what was there to go on for? I think the thing with Kurt was he’d taken too much too soon whereas it had taken me years to get as fucked up as I did.”
There’s three mentions of hard drugs on your album, it’s not something people usually mention in songs.
“So what are you saying – that we should just cover it up, pretend they don’t exist?”
You depict them favourably. In ‘Victoria’ you’re in “an opium euphoria”, isn’t that sending out dodgy signals?”
“No, not at all, the characters in my songs aren’t me. Anyway the guy’s in Thailand, they’re all on opium there (laughter).”
You always tell interviewers that your liver’s regenerating. How can it when you still drink so much?
“How do you know how much I drink?”
I’ve seen you drinking. “So…” That’s all you want to say about that?
“Yeah, I like a drink, it’s no secret, but I’ve cut down a lot and my liver’s getting better. End of story.” 7″‘,’ ‘.” “How do you know how much I drink?”
I’ve seen you drinking.
That’s all you want to say about that? “Yeah, I like a drink, it’s no secret, but I’ve cut down a lot and my liver’s getting better. End of story.”
The album title track has the narrator using poitin and laudanum dispensed by 19th Century Irish republican writer James Mangan to break the bounds of time and nationhood. it’s an astonishing song, based on the same idea as ‘Streams Of Whisky’ wherein the narrator met the blessed Brendan Behan in a dream.
“Yeah, it’s one of those ones that I don’t know if I was asleep or awake when I wrote it.”
Why is the snake used as a symbol of freedom?
“Work it out for yourself!”
What are the effects of poitin?
“It’s like an opiate, takes away all the pain. uncertainty, inhibitions, anything you might be worried about, lifts all the dark clouds. Fills you with a warm glow. You can see why people in Ireland are strung out on it. I know a lot of people are strung out on it.”
You think all drugs should be legal?
“Yes, but they should make crack so ludicrously expensive that only people who are rich enough and stupid enough to really want to take it can get it, whereas now it’s completely the other way round. It’s ridiculous, if they really wanted an end to the crack problem they could do it in one go, legalise everything else, cut out all the hassle of getting everything else.
“Before crack I would have said the most damaging drug was alcohol and nicotine but crack, it’s… it’s… long pause. gazing into distance, a little drifting) it’s foul. I can’t express my revulsion towards it. Sure, if you take one or two hits of crack in an evening it won’t do you any harm, you know what I mean? But you feel just as good with a couple of double brandies or a line of smack or some really good coke. But with crack you find yourself chasing your own tail, trying to get back to your original hit and you can never get back to your original hit.” MACGOWAN SAYS he’s happy now, fresh and re-energised. He has no ambitions, “just to play music and get paid well for what I do. I don’t need to kill myself going all round the world, I get my money from publishing”.
In the future he’d like to have a go at acting. but first there’s a record to promote. He’s looking forward to a forthcoming short tour. So far the gigs he’s played have had the same buzz as good nights with The Pogues.
“I’ll play a certain amount of gigs but if I feel any pressure I’ll automatically stop. I won’t subject myself to that ‘show must go on even if you’re dying on your feet’ shit any more. I’m a solo performer now, I haven’t had this sort of position in a group since the early days of The Pogues. If anybody starts to give me a pain in the arse I’ll just kick them out.”
The limousine from TOTP is speeding through North London to a late night video shoot. The Depp-directed clip for ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’ isn’t suitable for children’s TV so a back-up is required. But there will be no guest appearance – Kate has whisked Johnny away for the night. Shane is talking about Flann O’Brien’s classic of Irish literature, At Swim Two Birds. He says when he read it as a youth he thought it was very funny, but now that he’s older he knows it’s true, life is actually like that. He’s convinced that one of the characters in it is the head of his record company.
Upfront, the girl from the record company is starting to panic. Tired by the TOTP experience and keen to spend time with Kate before going off to shoot a movie with Jim Jarmusch and Robert Mitchum, it seems that Johnny will not only miss the video shoot but also some crucial radio promotion they hoped he’d do for the Shane single. It may be the difference between hit list and miss list.
MacGowan has dozed off. He wakes up. says he needs to pick up some booze. (A 30-minute car journey without a pick-me-up? Unthinkable, Jeeves, unthinkable). The girl from the record company has some beer, he can relax.
Joey Cashman, long-time Pogues associate and credited as “album co- ordinator” on ‘The Snake’, fills him in on the Depp crisis. MacGowan is dead against having a manager; he says experience tells him they are useless, parasitical. “I’ve never seen a manager do something that I couldn’t do myself” he fumes. He’ll phone Johnny. Johnny’s a grown adult, he’ll understand what’s required if it’s explained to him. Joey won’t let him have the portable phone.
“He’s my friend, Shane, I won’t have him disturbed at this time of night.”
“He’s my friend, too,” says Shane. “He was my friend before he was your friend,” insists Joey.
The car stops outside Joey’s house, where him and Shane continue their heated negotiations on the street.
Whatever was decided, somebody made the call. Two days later the deed was done, Depp joined Macgowan for a short radio interview, made himself available. Before he went back to the silver screen he really did do all he could to help one of “the few true living poets” get the exposure he deserved. The way he probably figured it was, better being a Pope for a few days than a Hollywood schmuck for a life-time.