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One More for the Road

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Source: The Telegraph
Author: Mick Brown
Copyright: (c) The Telegraph 1997

Drugs and drinks, he’s had more than a few, but regrets? Shane MacGowan says he wouldn’t change a thing and with a new album and tour, the Popes’ frontman proves he can still go with the flow. Mick Brown gets a round in with him.

There are those who believe that Shane MacGowan is among the most gifted and singular singer-songwriters to have emerged in British music in the past 15 years (although MacGowan, ferociously loyal to his Irish ancestry, would probably quibble with ‘British’). As the founder and singer of the Pogues, and latterly as the leader of his own group, the Popes, he has blazed a unique trail, fusing the abrasive energy of rock with the keening melodies of traditional Irish music.

MacGowan writes beautiful, moving, extraordinary songs, about drink-sodden nights, the thrill of placing a bet on a winning horse, the leaving of Ireland, and the reflections of a soul caught between redemption and damnation. ‘If I should fall from grace with God/where no doctor can relieve me/If I’m buried ‘neath the sod/But still the angels won’t receive me/Let me go boys, let me go boys/Let me go down in the mud where the rivers all run dry.’

But if people love Shane MacGowan for his music, what fascinates them about him is something else entirely. It is, to put it bluntly, the wonder that, at 39, MacGowan is still alive and able to write and sing at all. His reputation for inebriation entitles him to stand – or perhaps the word should be sway – head unbowed alongside such legendary imbibers as Brendan Behan, Hurricane Higgins and George Best. Even by the daunting standards of rock musicians and Irish writers – the criteria by which he would perhaps wish to be judged – his physical dereliction and consuming habits loom on a scale that have become almost comical.

Apocryphal stories abound of MacGowan’s alcoholic intake, his drug consumption, his erratic and wayward behaviour. There is the story of MacGowan arranging to be collected outside his record-company offices, and waiting an hour before realising the company had moved offices the year before. There is the story of MacGowan trying to throw himself out of a car travelling at 50mph, ‘to prove he was immortal’.

There is the story of MacGowan, high on LSD, walking past a taxidermist in London, seeing a stuffed bison on the street outside and rushing to the nearest phone to tell the police about a wild animal on the loose. There are many stories of his fellow drinkers watching him wander off to the toilets in a pub, and wondering if he will ever come back. But none of these stories quite prepares you for meeting MacGowan in person. ‘Don’t talk about drinking,’ I’ve been warned by a friend of MacGowan. ‘Everybody talks about his drinking; he’s sick to death of it.’ But how can you not, when the very first thing you say to him is, what are you having? It is arranged that I should meet him in a north London pub. It is his favourite haunt. His records are playing as I walk through the door, and there are gold discs of the Pogues on the wall. (Not MacGowan’s: he sold his to a collector’s shop.)

He is sitting at the corner of the bar. He is being photographed. He is swaying on the barstool, a glass in one hand, a cigarette held to his lips, as if he can’t quite trust himself to let go of it, or be bothered to make the effort to pull it away. He is wearing an old overcoat and a sweatshirt that says Guinness. His hair looks as if it has been attacked by a lawnmower. He is apparently oblivious to the photographer working around him, apparently oblivious to anything. He doesn’t notice when a friend introduces me until I thrust out my hand. He looks up, as if from a dream, brings me into focus, shakes my hand, then looks away again to the two half-pint glasses of Martini in front of him (because people are always setting them up for Shane). The Martini is sparkling in the glass; no, it’s dancing. MacGowan studies it closely, like it’s the best thing in the world. And I think, this interview isn’t going to happen.

‘Give him a few minutes,’ says his friend, ‘and he’ll be fine.’ And at length, MacGowan struggles off the barstool and vanishes into the gents. He comes back a few minutes later, rubbing his nose. ‘He’s fine,’ says his friend. ‘Being Irish means having a sense of humour, definitely, and a sense of freedom. It’s very important for the Irish people to be free. And it’s important to respect yourself and respect other people – even if you’re beating the shit out of them at the time.’ MacGowan sways back on his barstool and laughs.

Conversation with MacGowan happens in slow-motion. Questions seem to hang in the air forever; answers for even longer. His voice is slurred, punctuated with a recurring, ‘y’know what I mean?’

When he laughs it’s like water sluicing down a sink, sssshhhh – a wheezing gurgle of air being drawn up from the throat and expelled through the space where his teeth should be, except that MacGowan has no teeth. He lost them in Japan, falling head first out of a van, high on saki, and smashing his face on the pavement.

MacGowan’s family are Irish, but he was actually born in Kent, on Christmas Day, 1957, while his parents were in England visiting relatives. He spent the first six years of his life living in a farmhouse in northern Tipperary. It was an upbringing, he suggests, rich in song, poetry and dance, and particularly rich in drink. In 1964, the family moved to London in search of work and MacGowan’s father took a clerical job with C&A.

‘It was complete culture shock,’ he says. ‘Black people and big city streets – the whole thing. I’d spent my childhood in a remote, country part of Ireland. Lots of hills, small farms and the River Shannon. Lots of traditional music around; hurling and horse-racing and all the rest of it. I hated it, coming here.’

MacGowan was a precociously clever, but troubled, boy. He won a scholarship to Westminster public school, but was expelled at the age of 14 for possession of drugs. After completing his education at an inner-city comprehensive, he worked as an odd-job man at the Indian Embassy and as a barman, before being swept up in the advent of punk rock. The amphetamine-fuelled thrill-seeking of punk struck a particular chord. At a performance by the Clash, at the ICA, a girlfriend, in a moment of intemperate exuberance, slashed his ear with a beer-glass. The photograph of a wild-eyed, blood-stained MacGowan, along with the erroneous caption that his ear had been half-bitten off, appeared on the front page of the music paper Sounds, and became a motif of punk’s nihilism.

‘Shane once said to me that he was the happiest he’d ever been in the punk days,’ recalls one friend, ‘because the punk world was as chaotic as he was.’ His consumption of drugs was such that, while still in his teens, he had already been admitted to a detoxification unit to be treated for addictions to alcohol, valium and barbiturates, after trying to throw himself out of a window.

Taking his cue from the do-it-yourself ethic of punk, MacGowan sang with a band called the Nips, and then, in 1981, formed Pogue Mahone (Irish for ‘kiss my arse’), fusing the energy of punk with the wild Irish music of his childhood, the drinking-songs-in-exile of the Dubliners, the rowdy showbands he had heard on the jukebox in his uncle’s Irish pub in Dagenham. ‘You don’t leave Ireland because you leave Ireland physically,’ he says. ‘There’s a whole London-Irish community here – the music, the culture, the drink. That was my life.’ By then, punk had run its course. The prevailing style of the day was ‘New Romantic’ – foppish young men in frills with synthesisers. But Pogue Mahone quickly began to build a reputation on the pub-circuit in London, as much for their drunken, rabble-rousing demeanour as their music.

‘The buzz around the business was, how could anybody sign this group?’ says Dave Robinson, the founder of Stiff records – who eventually did just that. ‘They were so out of it, they couldn’t even perform a gig from beginning to end. They were the opposite of safe. But that was part of their appeal. They were fantastically exciting; they could whip up that football crowd sort of fervour in an audience. I remember watching them play in a pub and after three numbers they fell into the audience and never reappeared. I thought if this could be bottled, if the band could be coerced into performing at full length, people would love it .’

Abbreviating their name to the Pogues, the group made five albums, centred on MacGowan’s bittersweet songs of the wild life, the view of the stars from the gutter, and the craic – the Irish idea of a good time embraced with an almost religious fervour. ‘For a long time, the audience in Ireland was very upset by them,’ says Robinson, who’s also Irish. ‘Irish people have a worry on their shoulders that they’re going to be seen as Paddies, whereas Shane was very happy to be a Paddy. He wanted to be more Paddy than the Paddies.’ It is said that at the first Pogues rehearsals, MacGowan was so shy about his singing that he would turn his back on the group. Fortified by alcohol, his persona as the wild Irish boy became intrinsic to the Pogues’ appeal.

‘He drank too much,’ Robinson adds, ‘but then a lot of people do, but in the first instance he wasn’t drinking to complete excess. We talked a bit about that in the vaguest possible terms. We said, professionally it’s just going to be boring if you’re just going to get pissed and blather to the audience. And he understood that.’

But as the group’s success began to grow, so too did MacGowan’s consuming habits. An interviewer for Q magazine, in 1988, noted how MacGowan washed down stomach-ulcer pills with port, wine, brandy and a champagne chaser. An acquaintance remembers an afternoon in a Dublin pub where MacGowan moved from brandy and lemonade, through triple tequilas, on to Bloody Marys. ‘I’ve never witnessed anyone who could drink so much and still be standing. But he had this odd, quasi-scientific approach to being intoxicated, mixing things to get the effect he wanted. He once told me he hated being straight. It’s boring.’ In 1988, en route to California to play some prestigious shows supporting Bob Dylan, MacGowan collapsed at Heathrow airport. His doctor diagnosed hepatitis, and advised the singer that he would die within two years if he did not stop drinking spirits. MacGowan switched to white wine.

Another acquaintance recalls arriving at his King’s Cross flat one morning shortly afterwards. ‘It was unbelievable, you could hear the empties falling on the floor as you pushed the door open. He was there with a two-litre bottle of wine and a packet of Kraft cheese slices. This was breakfast.’

His alcohol intake was complemented with opiates, cocaine, speed, Ecstasy and LSD. At one stage, he was reportedly taking up to 30 tabs a day. (‘All right, it’s true,’ MacGowan said recently, ‘but that was a long time ago. Anyway, once you go over a few tabs that’s it. It doesn’t have any further effect. And you get used to it’)

Eventually, the inebriation that had once been intrinsic to the Pogues’ stage show became a liability. On a tour of Japan in 1991, MacGowan missed three performances, and the group asked him to leave.

MacGowan says he had been wanting to leave the group for years, ‘But the bastards wouldn’t let me go. Joining the Pogues was one of the best things that ever happened to me,’ he says, ‘and leaving them was one of the best things that ever happened to me. By the end of it, I hated every second of it. They’d moved so far away from what we were doing in the first place. I didn’t like what we were playing any more. I refused to knuckle under and become professional. They were all becoming professionals and growing huge egos. In the early days they had a lot of respect for me, but they’d lost all respect for me.

‘I have very little ego,’ he says suddenly. ‘I intentionally destroyed my own ego, which stopped me becoming an arsehole rock star, as much as it could. Well, I did become a bit of an arsehole rock star at one stage, when the Pogues were really going strong. But I didn’t feel that it was what I was doing that was making us a big, big thing. I always thought the music was more important than us. Like, I’ve never felt arrogant or better than anybody else. I believe in humility.’

His girlfriend, Victoria Clarke, believes that if MacGowan had stayed with the Pogues it would have killed him. ‘It drove him, quite literally, mad.’

At one point, he was admitted to a Dublin mental hospital and certified insane. After a week, he was transferred to a hospital in London, and allowed to discharge himself. ‘It was frightening how institutionalised he became on the road,’ says Clarke. ‘Terrifying. I couldn’t believe an adult of high intelligence could genuinely believe himself to be trapped in a situation like that and not be able to leave. Fame can be a debilitating thing. People become totally convinced by what everyone around them is telling them, and they become frightened, and that’s what happened to Shane.’

Clarke says that, since leaving the Pogues, MacGowan ‘has had to take responsibility for his own life’. He formed a new band, the Popes, and released his first solo album, The Snake, in 1994. A new album, Crock of Gold, was released in October, and MacGowan begins a tour next week. Crock of Gold is a collection of drinking and rebel songs which recalls the Pogues at their vintage, rabble-rousing best. ‘I wanted to go right back to the roots and start all over again,’ he says, ‘back to pure Irish music and simple songs, with lots of humour and lots of emotion and energy and a bit of anger.’

According to MacGowan, a perfect song ‘should hit you emotionally. It should hit you in the feet, in the groin, in the heart and the soul; it should bypass the intellect completely. It should have an unforgettable melody, a hypnotic beat and a certain magic about it’. He pauses. ‘I don’t believe in the intellect. I think William Burroughs was right when he said, “destroy all rational thought”. Reason is a prison. I don’t believe in logic or rationality. I believe in magic.’

MacGowan says it’s ‘a bit of a myth’ about him being a heavy drinker. ‘I used to be. I was really bad. But I got a grip of myself. It was killing me. It was ruining my life. So I slowed down. It was hard to do, but I had to do it.’ He pauses. ‘Alcohol’s a real bastard for your health.’ Nowadays, he says, he drinks only wine and Martini. ‘Two or three halves of Martini and I get a buzz on. But I don’t like to drink to oblivion, because there’s no fun in that.’

But however much he drinks, you think, it’s too much – the slow-motion movements, like a swimmer struggling up from a great depth to reach the surface; the vision slipping in and out of focus; the nicotine-blackened fingers reaching uncertainly for the glass.

He slides off the barstool, bound for the gents, and returns a few minutes later. Now his manager arrives, to check on his charge. ‘Your medicine, Shane,’ he whispers. ‘You’ve spilt your medicine.’ MacGowan brushes at his sweatshirt.

MacGowan doesn’t like giving interviews, doesn’t like too close an inquisition into his life, his work, his habits. ‘People ask me stupid questions,’ he says. ‘And then I get aggressive, so I get a reputation for being difficult. But I don’t give a shit what some other geezer thinks about me. All I’m interested in is what the audience think, and what I think.’

Certainly, what does not always come across in interviews is MacGowan’s air of innocence and vulnerability, nor his intelligence. He is phenomenally well-read. He talks about Joyce and Hemmingway, Dos Passos and Genet, Alan Watts and Chinese poetry. He says he believes in the spirit of Catholicism, but not in popes or priests. ‘I don’t agree with dogmatic morality.’ He describes himself as ‘a Catholic Taoist. I believe in going with the flow. I’m a hedonist. I like to live well. I like to eat and drink and dance and sing and screw and get the most out of life.

‘When I’m just enjoying myself completely, that’s when I feel the most religious as well. Because I thank God for it, for pleasure. Because there’s so much pain in this world.’ He studies his glass. ‘I think you should have as much pleasure as you possibly can.’

All of this comes in fragments and pieces, the talk of seeing himself ‘in the tradition’ of Brendan Behan and the Irish drinker-poets, and you wonder if there’s some kind of conscious rationalisation for the life he leads – the path of excess leading to the palace of wisdom, and so on, except that MacGowan says he is not interested in wisdom. ‘Wisdom is something the intellect seeks, and I don’t use my intellect very much.’ He pauses, glassy eyed, to fumble another cigarette out of its packet. ‘If I lived any other way I wouldn’t write the songs I do. Maybe I could live some other way, but I don’t want to. As long as you go with the flow, there’s no rules about how you live your life.’

Those who have known MacGowan the longest find the relationship between alcohol and creativity more questionable. ‘Shane is very innocent in a lot of ways,’ says the singer Nick Cave, one of his closest friends. ‘There’s a love and warmth within him which is often overlooked. And he is incredibly open to the things around him, which is why he’s such a great writer. He sees the beauty and horror in things, and his gift is to be able to articulate that in a very simple way. But a writer has a spiritual obligation to remain as powerful a vehicle for inspiration, or God, or whatever you want to say to work through, and the thing I find difficult with Shane is that he makes it very difficult for God to get a word in.

‘He would say he needs to drink and take drugs in order to write, but, of course, he doesn’t. I was in much the same situation as him. I took enormous amounts of drugs, I thought to inspire the voices in my head. I realise now that on the occasions that I take drugs, it’s to shut the voices up. I think that’s what’s happening with Shane, but sometimes I worry that the light may just vanish behind the clouds.’

Dave Robinson, who stopped working with MacGowan after the Pogues’ second album, puts it more bluntly. ‘In rock and roll, a star is someone who nobody ever tells the truth to. Shane is very street. And he’s a very, very bright guy. But now you’re dealing with alcoholism. People don’t talk in those terms; they just say he drinks too much. But he’s an alcoholic. Big time. And that’s a shame, because he’s a very talented, intelligent person with a lot to offer.’

Victoria Clarke has been MacGowan’s girlfriend for the past 15 years. They met, she tells me with a laugh, in a pub. A rock journalist, she is now helping MacGowan to write his autobiography, provisionally entitled Crash Course to Oblivion. ‘Shane thought of it,’ she says. Is that how he would describe his life? ‘It’s one way…’Clarke, one senses, is well used to people expressing incredulity that she should have stuck with MacGowan as long as she has. ‘I never wanted my life to be boring,’ she says. ‘And he hasn’t disappointed me in that respect.’

MacGowan, she says, is ‘a total romantic and an idealist, and he has integrity in a way that nobody else I’ve ever come across does. He is absolutely true to himself.’ What, I ask Clarke, is important to MacGowan? ‘Ireland. Being a musician. A drink. The next drink.’She long ago abandoned thoughts of reforming him. ‘You realise that’s not going to work and that everybody has their free will, and really there is nothing you can do about people’s free will. Even if you locked them up, they’d still find a way out.’

She has learned to stop worrying, she says, about whether MacGowan is killing himself. ‘When you live with someone like that, and you love them, you have to adjust to the possibility that they may die at any moment.’ She pauses. ‘I suppose it’s like when you live with somebody with Aids. Once you’ve imagined yourself at the funeral a few times, you feel strangely liberated by that. But I feel fairly confident that he’s not going to die on me. I’m not afraid that he’s going to, but I know I’d be upset if he did.’

The indestructibility of MacGowan has become part of the myth. To put it bluntly, people have been expecting him to die for years. No one expects MacGowan to follow the path of those forty-something rock stars, born-again in the faith of clean living, yoga and public repentance. MacGowan says that when he’s made enough money, he will go back to Ireland, not to retire but to ‘start living properly. I want to be a high-spirited old man. I hope I won’t be miserable.’ And – without the slightest hint of irony – ‘I hope I’ll be healthy.’

At one stage I ask MacGowan whether he would like to have children. His answer is surprising: he says he has a son – a 16-year-old in Scotland whom he never sees. ‘I don’t know when he’s going to turn up. He might turn up one day. So that’s one; I think that’s enough.’ He reaches for his drink. ‘I don’t feel, like, fatherly at all. I’m not a fatherly sort of person. I like having a laugh with other people’s kids, but the sense of responsibility of having my own is something I wouldn’t really like. Because you’re not ready for that? ‘No. I’m a real mess myself, y’know what I mean? I wouldn’t wish myself on any kid as a father. I can hardly do my own flies up.’ Ssshhhh. ‘I’m really disorganised and irresponsible.’

Does that frustrate him? ‘Oh yeah, a bit. I’d like to be much more responsible, brave, organised and all the rest of it. Have a real grip of my own life, d’you know what I mean? But that’s not the way the flow goes for me. It’s just not the way I am.’

And you couldn’t change? MacGowan is studying his glass. ‘I don’t believe in deliberately changing yourself. I think you change the way you’re meant to change.’ The Martini is sparkling, it’s dancing and he is drifting away. ‘When it’s time I’ll change.’

The Popes’ nationwide tour starts in Manchester on Wednesday