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Drinking in Shane’s words

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Source: The Irish Times
Author: Brian Boyd
Copyright: © Irish Times 2001

In a new book, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, the man who put the trad into punk has again put the life back into a London-Irish genre, writes Brian Boyd.

The diaspora writes back. Of the too many rock biographies published over the years – most not progressing past a Teletubbies’ level of analysis – there’s something remarkable about the fact that two of the best of the genre detail the London-Irish experience. Johnny Rotten’s No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs considerably upped the rock memoir ante by eschewing the drugsnorting, groupie-shagging format in favour of a vivid portrayal of the “firstgeneration” experience and how the pushand-pull effects of two cultures made their impact on his significant musical adventures with The Sex Pistols.

Now Shane MacGowan – that fascinating amalgam of O’Riada and Tom Waits – has made a major contribution to the canon. Called A Drink With Shane MacGowan (the title is obviously a publisher’s idea), it’s further proof that the oft-troubled relationship between Ireland and Britain provides plenty of raw material just waiting to be shaped into something creatively resonant. And it’s catching: that other great first-generation son of Éire, Morrissey, has delved deep into his Irish-ghetto-inManchester upbringing to inform the songs on his new album, which he’s calling Irish Heart, English Blood.

There are plenty more of those who grew up with dual Irish/British identities waiting in the wings: Oasis, Caroline Ahearne, Boy George, Embrace, Paul Merton. People who know what’s it like to grow up amid pictures of John F. Kennedy and the Pope, or songs of famine, emigration and despair; people for whom accent and passport colour couldn’t be taken for granted. Few of their stories will come close to the one told here

MacGowan shows incredible powers of recall (given the abuse to which he’s subjected his mind over the years) to produce an enormously vivid and descriptive picture of his life and dramatic times. Apart from the obvious “genius songwriter” storyline, the reader is also treated to some highly articulate and intelligent insights on subjects as varied as De Valera, dub reggae, taoism, the International Brigades, recipes and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, as well as an in-depth pharmaceutical guide to drugs and drink. Many, though, will have to overcome the obstacle of the book’s co-authorship. MacGowan’s long-time girlfriend, Victoria Mary Clarke, describes herself – one would hope ironically – as “rock chic, Irish citizen, self-help guru and Vogue model”. She originally set out to write her boyfriend’s biography (perhaps not the most critical and objective person to do it), but after conducting a series of wideranging interviews with her subject over a four-year period, the book was written up as an extended question-and-answer session, with both Clarke and MacGowan receive writing credits.

Apart from an annoying habit of calling her boyfriend “sweetpea”, Clarke stays out of the narrative action. Her questions are phrased so as to put some form of chronological order on the action, but all too frequently MacGowan digresses for a couple of pages before having to be reminded of the original query. Far from giving a disjointed feel to the proceedings, these tangential rambles add to the book’s appealing conversational style. The obvious downside to girlfriend-interviewing-boyfriend is that Clarke doesn’t, or isn’t encouraged to, probe into one or two sensitive areas of Shane’s life (such as, did The Pogues sack him or did he walk?). But the upside compensates in that MacGowan, obviously, is comfortable in Clarke’s presence, and tells tales that he has never told before.

The basic outline of MacGowan’s life is familiar to even casual fans of his work. Born on Christmas Day in 1957, he grew up in a farmhouse in Co Tipperary. His family then moved to Britain when he was six. At 14, he won second place in a poetry contest at his school, a feat which earned him a scholarship to a private school, Westminster, in London.

Expelled for smoking marijuana, he spent the next few years drifting and, after a spell in a psychiatric hospital, he got a job in a record shop. Punk then exploded around him and he became a well-known “face” on the scene – you can still see him pogoing violently in the audience in old Clash videos. He formed his own punk band, The Nipple Erectors, who were alsorans of their time, before fusing trad Irish music, rockabilly and vestiges of punk in The Pogues, one of the best-ever bands. Songs like A Pair Of Brown Eyes, Rainy Night In Soho” and Fairytale Of New York established MacGowan as a songwriter of extraordinary talent and ability. His legendary drinking and drug-taking led to a split with The Pogues in 1992, and although he has continued releasing records with his new band, The Popes, he has never again reached the creative highwater mark of the 1986-1990 period.

In the opening few chapters of the book, he talks, sometimes bitterly, sometimes affectionately (this duality about everything and everyone in his life is a feature of the memoir), about Irish Catholicism. He rails against the Church’s one-time “policy” of denying the sacraments to women who were taking the Pill and the effect this had on members of his family. A tad more graphically, he recounts how he was a gifted child, claiming that “when I was three, I was writing IRA stories; when I was six, I had read Venus In Furs”. Destined to be fast-tracked in the educational system, his prodigious drug and drink use (acid, whiskey, whatever was going) meant that at the age of 14, instead of “become a fuckin’ Jesuit or something”, he found himself stealing from wherever he could and beginning a long and antagonistic relationship with the police force.

It’s the incidental, seemingly throwaway, stories about this part of his life – his picaresque adventures when he went back home to Tipperary for holidays and his adventures when working as a barman in London – that fascinate. He has often been compared to Brendan Behan and here, in prose as opposed to verse form, you understand why. Expressive, emotional and possessed of a sometimes disturbing sardonic wit, his stories are conjured up with technicolour imagery and painstaking detail.

As a chronicler of the seedy London underworld – all drink, violence, theft and more violence – he is without peer, and although he does some point-scoring when he’s talking about his involvement in the punk years (Johnny Rotten and Elvis Costello get more than a passing lash of his tongue), his evocation of those heady days, when a genuine musical upheaval was taking place, is replete with equal parts hilarious anecdote and penetrative analysis. There is so much more to savour: one minute talking about indie actor Steve Buscemi, the next about Carl Jung; throwaway lines about how Caruso wasn’t a tenor, he was a baritone, and about how Merriman’s The Midnight Court was a major influence on his own songwriting. Throughout, MacGowan’s earthy turn of phrase and casual use of the vernacular add a comic feel to his monologues (“Nora [Barnacle] gave him [Joyce] a hand job on the beach the first day they went out for a date”).

There is no moralising or self-justification about drink and drug use; instead he just talks knowledgeably about the subject, using his first-hand experiences to add an extra soupçon of interest. Certainly, if you ever wanted to know what a bad acid trip entails but didn’t want to go to the bother yourself, turn to page 356 where he reveals all. Contentious (particularly about the IRA), combative (about the other members of The Pogues) and contradictory about most everything (drink, religion, music), this book reads as well as his songs sound.

A Drink With Shane MacGowan is published by Sidgwick and Jackson, price £15.99 in the UK