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Demons Who Kiss Shane

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Source: Sunday Independent
Author: Lise Hand
Contributor: Ingrid Knetsch
Copyright: Sunday Independent

The talented but wayward lead singer of The Pogues, Shane MacGowan, is again making headlines for his off the stage antics in which drink and wild living is said to be leaving its mark. And now it is claimed the problem could be getting out of control. Lise Hand profiles a performer who adheres to the Brendan Behan school of inspiration and it’s consequences.

Two days before The Pogues were due to begin a short Irish tour last August, their manager Frank Murray received a late-night phone-call. “I’m not coming home. Tchssss.”

Shane MacGowan, songwriter adventurer and all-around awkward bugger, had no intention of quitting his beloved Thailand for the rigours of the Irish roads. Frank, battle-scarred from endless bouts with his prodigously prodigal son, simply smiled beatifically: “He’ll be here on time, don’t worry,” he vowed.

A bright autumn morning 48 hours later, the crowds on Galway’s Shop Street part like worshipful waves of the Red Sea, to reveal the selfsame Shane pottering along the street, oblivious to the attention, a massive sack slung over his shoulder like a demented Santa.

Inside the sack is his shopping, promptly unwrapped and examined in the comfort of The Quays pub, and which includes a garish cassette radio and a suspect-looking black plastic mac, the latter modelled by Shane on stage later that night.

However, less than a month later, Frank Murray’s luck runs out. At the end of September, Shane fails to appear at the opening dates of the Pogues prestigious US tour with Bob Dylan – an event belatedly reported in several newspapers last week. As the rest of the band carried on regardless the rumour-machine went into high gear. Shane had been rushed to hospital; Shane had collapsed at the airport; Shane was about to re-join the band; Shane refuses to travel, because he hates touring America.

The wandering minstrel eventually turned up in Dallas, but the rumours predicting Shane’s ultimate collapse have persisted into the new decade.

In some articles, it comes as a major surprise that the gangly snaggle-toothed singer with a thirst as big as a lake has managed to make it into the Nineties, more or less intact. Few artists have inspired equally deep feelings of romance and revulsion.

Part of the ongoing fascination with Shane MacGowan lies in the fact that his 30-odd years on the planet have been a continuing tale of the unexpected, taking in public schools and punk bands such as The Nips.

Although punk rock faded with a whimper, Shane has remained loyal to many of its creeds. He has a total disregard for money or possessions – his three most constant companions are a dangling cigarette, a drink and a battered bodhran – a blatant dislike for the pretentions of the music business, and a perfect punk sneer which can suddenly dissolve into either a disarming grin or his trademark cackle like a snake-with-a-bone-in-its-throat.

A combination of bull-headed arrogance, child-like vulnerability and a sardonic sense of humour, Shane has become the unlikely hero of a wide range of people, from society underdogs to jet-setters such as Bruce Springsteen and Matt Dillon. But despite the adulation and recognition, Shane is a constantly troubled soul, beset by a host of personal demons. Everyone worries about Shane’s alcohol consumption, except Shane himself. An unapologetic drinker of wine, pints of Guinness or eye-watering cocktails o gin, vodka and rum, Shane firmly adheres to the Brendan behan “I drink, therefore I write” school of thought – claiming he song-writes “when the bar is shut.”

But the contradictory nature of music’s most steadfast rebel is most apparent in his extraordinary lyric-writing. Variously described as “a romantic of the urban brutalist school”, by one London journalist, or as “one of the finest writers of the century” by Clash vocalist Joe Strummer, Shane has recently joined the ranks of poets such as Pound and Heaney by having his lyrics “Poguetry” published by Faber & Faber.

Shane, who always carries about his person good-luck charms to ward off evil, wrestles with his obsession with death and the spirit world in a succession of chilling songs: “Bury me at sea / where no murdered ghost can haunt me / if I rock upon the waves / then no corpse can lie upon me” (If I Should Fall from Grace With God).

In a peculiar paradox, the writer who articulates his belief in the nameless horrors of the hereafter does little to try and prolong his presene in here and now.

Regarded with equal amounts of affection and exasperation by the other seven Pogues, Shane is constantly at war with his enjoyment of the trappings of fame, and his resentment of the restrictions that fame imposes on him, such as long touring schedules. In an infamous quote, a former Pogues manager said that: “For Shane, being free is being able to get on Concorde with ten bottles of champagne and ten hookers.”

An accurate description or not, Shane has always followed his own Yellow Brick Road – regardless of whether it leads to self-destruction or immortality. Left to his own devices, he would probably be perfectly happy running a bar in Bangkok.

But perhaps not. Dangerously fragile and surprisingly resilient, no-one knows exactly what Shane MacGowan is going to do next – least of all his band. As accordionist James Fearnley once ruefully pointed out: “I don’t know how he does it … The annoying thing is he’ll probably outlive all of us. In fact, he’d probably do it just to annoy us.”