Author: Jon Wilde
Copyright: (c) Loaded, all rights reserved
The film director Oliver Stone once remarked that every new generation needs someone to go out on the edge for them. During the ’60s when rock’n’roll excess was properly born with the hippy counterculture, rock stars could be found queuing up at the edge of the abyss, their senses totalled by a drug intake that often verged on the heroic. Many of these ’60s hedonists (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin and Brian Jones among them) failed to last the assault course. Others, like Eric Clapton, reformed and settled down in country mansions, emerging once a year for cosy month-long residencies at the Albert Hall.
By the early ’70s, the counterculture had foundered but a whole new chapter of rock’n’roll excess had opened up, best epitimized by Led Zeppelin who set a seemingly unattainable standard of mindless depravity for the rock bands that followed them, which included sex with sharks, chopping up hotel rooms with samurai swords and the cultivation of whacking great drug habits. “It’s like a stag party that never ends,” commented Jimmy Page on the band’s dissolute lifestyle. But, eventually, the stag party did wind itself up. By the start of the ’80s, Led Zep and many of their contemporaries had given up the ghost and an era of drug fuelled decadence was at an end, to be succeeded by a period of reform where charity events, raised awareness and body consciousness became the new fashions. Rock and roll had finally buried its coke spoon in the back garden and discovered its conscience. As soon as the mass media tired of documenting the lives of former hell-raisers who had discovered early morning jogging and wholewheat muesli, they began their search for a new symbol of rock’n’roll excess and they found it in the shape of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues.
Long before Keef and Hendrix discovered smack, William Blake had written that: “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom – for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.”MacGowan might have been unaware of Blake’s philosophy but he had been living it out from an early age. At the age of 14, he had been expelled from public school for possession of dope, acid and pills. At 18, he spent six months in detox hospital recovering from a prolonged drink and drugs binge. Upon leaving he discovered punk rock and won his 15 minutes of celebrity after reputedly having his ear bitten off at a Sex Pistols gig. A further footnote in the punk history books was secured when he formed his own band, The Nipple Erectors, whose spunky ‘Gabrielle’ became something of a minor punk classic.
Then, in 1982, came Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for ‘kiss my arse’), later rechristened the Pogues after complaints about the name. The motley Anglo-Irish crew quickly built up a loyal following with their ingenious heathen marriage of punk rock and Irish folk. From the start, media attention focussed on the group’s weakness for the sauce. “We just became known as a bunch of drunks,” remembers MacGowan. “I could never understand how the drinking got so much attention. All bands drink. All bands take drugs. No one forms a band just to impress their mums. You don’t expect people in bands to drink skimmed milk and spend their weekends washing the car. They spend their time and their money indulging in every self-destructive activity that is denied them by a normal 9 to 5 job. So yeah, we were drinking, we were speeding, we were stoned, and so were our audience. Big fucking deal.”
The Pogues made three bona fide classic albums (Red Roses For Me; Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash; and If I Should Fall From Grace With God) and a fourth, 1989’s Peace and Love, that suggested an interesting transition to more explorative musical territories. By this time, MacGowan had been officially adopted as the leading fuck-up of his generation and the tales of his excessive and erratic behaviour were legion. Coke, speed, ecstasy, dope, acid, crack, uppers, downers and copious amounts of alcohol we all considered essential fuel for his creativity. At one stage, he openly admitted to taking 50 tabs of acid and drinking three bottles of whiskey a day. By the end of 1989, it was clear that MacGowan was hovering perilously close to the edge of self-destruction. It might be said that he was no longer slumming: he was in the slums.
Unsurprisingly, MacGowan’s extra-curricular habits began to take a toll on his own creative faculties and, inevitably, his working relationship with the rest of the band. The fifth Pogues album, Hell’s Ditch, was clearly a troubled affair, written and performed by a group that was falling apart at the seams. With fears about MacGowan’s deteriorating health escalating daily, it was only a matter of time before something gave. The Pogues finally parted company with MacGowan during a tour of Japan in September 1991. The group soldiered on without their vocalist and main songwriter to widespread indifference. MacGowan simply retired to a health farm, gratefully handing over the baton of animalistic excess to the Happy Mondays and Guns N’ Roses.
Three years on, MacGowan is back with a new band, the Popes, and an album’s worth of songs that, whilst falling short of a complete return to form, suggest that his troubled muse has not completely deserted him – even if that once enthralling voice now sounds cracked beyond repair. At 36, the ravages of excess are scrawled all over his body; ghastly skin of greyish tint; a set of teeth that might have been modeled after the skyline of Beirut; a mind that veers between startling lucidity and stumbling incomprehensability.
“I’m not a healthy man,” he says, with a marvellous sense of understatement. “I’ve lived a totally irresponsable existence. I’ve given no thought to what I’ve swallowed or poured down my throat or stuck up my nose over the years. It was only when a doctor told me that I was was like a cat rapidly running out of lives that I decided to calm down – purely for the sake of staying alive. I’ve had to adjust to a slower pace of life and that’s made writing a lot more difficult. But I’m recovering. My liver, my whole body, is starting to regenerate. I still like a drink but I’ve learned there’s no point in carrying on when I’m already drunk. Drugs? Whether I’m still doing drugs is none of your business. Let’s just say that I’ve learned some lessons. You liver and learn. That’s your headline.”
The splenetic rage that gloriously illuminated those early Pogues albums might have given way to a not untypical thirtysomething sense of self-reckoning, but much anger remains in reserve for the manner in which he was adopted as the ultimate totem of hedenistic excess in the ’80s.
“The drink and the drugs,” he says, “make for a neat little rock’n’roll story. The media are always looking for someone to stick into that particular box. That box was there all right and I might have slept in it for a while but I managed to crawl out of the fucker. They thought they had nailed it shut but they were wrong ‘cus I’m still here and I’m very much alive. I’m older now than most rock’n’roll casualties are when they die. I’m a bit too old now to fit the bill. They’ll have to find some other cunt to jump through those hoops, and I’m sure they will.
“I’m no survivor. I hate all that survivor shit. I’m still living my life on my own terms and I’m not the only one. Keith Richards learned his lessons from all the black guys who had been ripped off by the slime of the music business and went his own way. Iggy Pop was nearly fucked over by the business but managed to pull himself out of it, having decided that he didn’t want to die in some shit stained toilet with a needle stuck in his arm. I didn’t have to go through the Pogues to decide that I didn’t want to die in the gutter. I made that decision when I was three years old.
“I’ve never bought into the idea that the show must go on, even if you’re dying. That’s why I’m not touring the world with the Pogues anymore. They’d have to be dragging me out of a wooden box and sticking an electric current up my arse to get me to perform. I’ve always thought of that side of the business was shit. It’s a business that’s full of horrible disgusting people. A lot of it I could never accept. The rest of it, well, I don’t have any fucking choice. The day I can’t accept it any longer, I’ll grab me a machine gun, go round the record companies and blow the fuckers to bits. We’ll grab us a couple of sawn-off shotguns. You do the record companies and I’ll sort out scummy newpapers. Going out in a blaze of fucking glory. How about it?”
This rather inviting suggestion is punctuated with a prolonged burst of that now-famous laugh: a fairly faltless impression of cold sick being sucked down a clogged drain. Despite appearances to the contrary, the 1994 version of Shane MacGowan is content with his lot as he has been for close to 15 years.
“Yeah, I’m pretty happy,” he says, absently stubbing a cigarette out on a pair of already filthy baggy black trousers. “After all that fucking misery in the last years of the Pogues, I’d forgotten what it was like to be excited about having a record coming out. All this horrible frustration that had built up inside – I’ve got it all out on the new album and the live shows I’ve been doing. I’d forgotten it was possible to do that. I remember watching Joy Division in 1979. It was fucking terrifying, y’know. Like a horror film or something. You were scared to go for a piss in case you missed something. He was clearly disturbed but he managed to exorcise his demons onstage. That’s what I’ve always done. Smashing a few things up, the odd voodoo ritual… I’ve been singing with my trousers ’round my bollocking andles and haven’t noticed ‘cus I’ve been so out of it. That’ sone thing I learned with the Pogues. About the only thing. When I went into the Pogues, I reckoned I knew all ther was to learn. When I came out of the Pogues I realized that I knew fuck all about anything. ”
MacGowan may have learned to regualte his habits but you’re unlikely to find him ordering muesli by the crate-load or happily spending his mornings happily jogging around Hyde Park with Eric Clapton and Sting. Devoted pursuers of pleasure might adjust to living life in a slightly less frantic lane but, like leopards, they can hardly be expected to change their spots over night. After visitng Jom Morrison’s vandalized grave, Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose offered a new twist on on the famous William Blake dictum when he commented: “The path of excess leads to a dirt plot in a foreign land that people pour booze on and piss all over.” For Guns N’ Roses the stag party continued nevertheless.
In the case of MacGowan, it remains a moot point whether he’ll write anything as bare-arsed inspirational as Dark Streets of London’, as downright beautiful as A Pair of Brown Eyes’, or as purely emotive of Fairytale of New York’ ever again. Morover, it’s doubtful whether his ravaged voice can ever scale the emotional heights once attained on the Pogues’ version of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’.
For the former Shane O’Hooligan, the road to excess might now offer a rather smoother course, byt he’s not about to take a sudden detour to some picturesque village where rock’n’roll survivors all sit around the church hall self-rightiously lectuaring Q readers on the dangers of drink and drugs whilst gargling expensive mineral water. MacGowan might have escaped from the tawdry wreckage of his own life with some vestage of his awesome talent intact, but he won’t be staggering into the pulput to repent.
“If you’re asking whether drink and drugs have worked for me,” he concludes, “I’ve got to say they have. I’m one with William Blake on this one. Drink and drugs and all that shit, it’s a short cut to the subconscious. Y’know, real wisdom has got fuck all to do with with your three times table and the capital of Belgium and all that bollocks. When you take a load of drugs, you get into a state of mind where you see reality in a completely different light and that obviously helps when you’re writing songs or whatever.
“See, there’s two kinds of creative artists. There’s those who get their highs and inspiration from their environment, from life itself if you like. They don’t feel the need for artificial stimulation. Then ther’s the other kind, like myself, who need drink and drugs to fuel what they do. If you take enough drugs and blow those doors open, they’ll remain open. All those drugs I took, they blew my fucking mind wide open and it’s stayed open. That’s why I can afford to pace myself these days. That’s how it is, y’know, and no cunt is going to tell me any different.”