Author: Ben Marshall
Copyright: (c) Loaded
Prolific drinker and songwriter Shane MacGowan gets the round in
I’m not hurting anyone, I’m just getting pissed and stoned and having a good time. I haven’t got a death wish. I’ve got to put an end to this crap once and for all. I don’t want to die. I have no self-destructive impulses whatsoever. Anyone with a death wish should be dead. It’s not that difficult to do. If I really wanted to die, I’d be dead already.” Shane MacGowan’s voice is almost anaesthetically expressionless. The brained, monotone slur arrives late and remote. No drink and drugs hyperbole could do justice to my first impression of Shane’s patternless speech. At points I concentrate so hard on deciphering and individual word or sentence that I forget to put the rest of them together. The pauses, often alarmingly long, are accompanied by a drooping of the eyelids and a slight, weak cough. When, though, I eventually catch an earful of what he’s saying, it’s a revelation. Shane’s brain works fine. It’s just that it seems to be communicating with his mouth through a crackling long-distance line with a 20-second delay. I let my heart rule my head. I do exactly what I feel like doing at the time. Even if I know it’s on the dangerous side.”
The Crock of Gold, the first album in five years from the former leader of The Pogues and The Popes, takes its title and its themes from James Stephens’ novel of the same name. The book traces one man’s journey toward happiness and concludes that the heart is the key to it all. Along the way he meets demonic leprechauns who give him directions, both right and wrong. Intellect is eventually subsumed by the whims and desires of the soul. It’s one hell of a ride. The album, MacGowan’s best work since The Pogues’ 1988 LP if I Should Fall From Grace with God, is aptly titled. Shane, by his own admission, has met his fair share of demons. Wrestled with them and been ripped off by them. He’s even hung out with them, been friends with them.
“I’ve always been like that, yeah. I was like that as a kid. I was brought up on a farm and then in London. In their own different ways both places offer plenty of opportunity to get in trouble. I took the opportunities?”
Shane is not well. In fact, it’s safe to say that he’s very far from well. A recent broken hip has left him limping. Meanwhile, the constant boozing – half pints and pints of Martini occasionally consumed with uppers or downers and drunk in rapid succession (the only thing other than song writing that Shane does quickly) – means he moves at a weird underwater pace. I have seen other heavy drinkers compensate for the booze with hapless but studied steps and exaggerated purpose. I’m like that myself. Shane makes no such concessions to social niceties, his is a comprehensive slow motion affecting his gestures and locomotion as well as his numb tones.
By all accounts, in the last few years Shane has drunk pint after pint of the Martini. Gallons of it. Probably a whole shimmering, Olympic-sized swimming pool full of it. A swimming pool just like in the Martini ad. Not that Shane is much of an advert for the drink. Shane may be bright but there’s nothing right or light about him. The conversation is heavyweight and his opinions reveal an elliptical intelligence and an ability for hard, unflinching self-analysis. Above all, he explains, he is a pleasure-seeker, whose lust for life was and is, so powerful, that he was bound to take a few knocks along the way. Bad health, he tells me, is a consequence of very good living.
“I have suffered,” he says in tones reminiscent of a reluctant confession. “Because life is suffering, but it’s also fucking pleasure. You can’t separate the two. If you didn’t have pain, then you wouldn’t realize when you’re having pleasure. It’s partly knowing that it’s not going to last that makes happiness so wonderful. It will be struck down in the end, so you’ve just got to grab it while you can. That’s the thing everyone misses; I’m just having a good time.
“I’m just following the Irish tradition of songwriting, the Irish way of life, the human way of life. Cram as much pleasure as you can into life, and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result. Or scream and rant with the pain, and then wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure.”
Right now, beautiful pleasure seems a million miles away. It’s a sobering experience meeting Shane. So sobering, in fact that I immediately feel like I need a large drink.
Shane MacGowan was born almost 40 years ago on Christmas Day to Irish Catholic parents. The date, combining as it does religion and boozy festivity – two themes that run through a great many of MacGowan’s songs – has a kind of supernatural poetry to it. Shane’s earliest memory is of standing on a table, aged three, singing to more than 40 friends and relatives. “That was my first public performance,” he says. I think I must have known then that I wanted to sing. I’ve been writing since I was a kid.”
By the time he was six, Shane was living in London. His parents, having little trust in the largely Protestant state education system, sent him to the Catholic Westminster Public School. At 14, he was expelled for possession of dope, acid and pills. The MacGowan myth says he then spent the next four years wandering the West End’s grimy streets and hanging out with junkies and rent boys in amusement arcades and porno cinemas. If this is true, then it’s certainly the inspiration for The Pogues’ brutal lament ‘The Old Main Drag’. MacGowan is, perhaps understandably, vague about this period. What is certain is that by the time he was 8 he had spent six months in a detox clinic.
Then came punk rock with all its savage excesses. Shane would play a bit part in it, forming his own band The Nipple Erectors, later to become The Nips. The group released just three singles. The most significant of these, ‘Gabrielle’, was a thumb-nail sketch of what was to come; a barbed love ballad at a time when all of MacGowan’s punk peers were writing fast and furious rants against the system.
In 1980 MacGowan got together with his friend Spider Stacy to form The New Republicans, per forming Irish rebel songs at Richard Strange’s club, Cabaret Futura, in front of New Romantics and a bunch of soldiers who almost ended up kicking their heads in. The gig was significant in two ways. To begin with, Stacy and MacGowan were giving a voice to London’s largely voiceless and then much despised Irish community, something MacGowan has never stopped doing. Secondly, by marrying punk’s raw vitality with an unmistakably Gaelic anguish and sentiment, they were flying in the face of futurism’s pseudo-cock-tail-lounge cool.
By the time The Pogues appeared (initially Pogue Mahone – Gaelic for ‘Kiss My Arse’), they were as unlike their contemporaries as an atomic bomb is unlike a gun. Their gigs were explosive, lexical flashes that irradiated everything in their immediate area with toxic street poetry. Beside them the foppish, eyelinered Howard Jones and Duran Duran looked absolutely absurd.
“We hated all that. The whole New Romantic/Futurist thing, the blandness of it,” says Shane, the faint ghost of sneer appearing across his broken mouth. “It was completely soulless. Okay there were some good bands. I liked Soft Cell, but even then I got irritated by the videos. Bands like Duran Duran though, I thought they were disgusting. Like, do you remember when they did that video where a little African boy was shining their shoes? Stupid, offensive rubbish. I thought Spandau were the only good ones out of that lot. They were good boys, y’ know?”
Between 1984 and 1990 The Pogues released five albums. Three of them (Red Roses For Me, Rum Sodomy And The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace with God) are classics, regarded by luminaries such as Christy Moore as having made an invaluable contribution to the Irish Folk tradition. Moore recently told film-maker Michael Connelly, who’s just a completed a TV documentary about MacGowan called The Great Hunger, that Shane’s songs would still be sung in pubs a hundred years from now. It’s a compliment that Shane, a longtime admirer of the man, seems touchingly embarrassed to receive. “I’m very proud,” he mutters. Nick Cave reckons that Shane has probably lost and thrown away as many great songs as he has recorded.
Shane agrees: “I do lose a lot of stuff. But if I lose a song I just write another one. Christy Moore said that music is just floating around in the air. Millions of songs and all we have to do is reach out and grab them. So I’m always grabbing, ‘cos if I don’t grab it myself at the right moment it’ll follow on and get to Paul Simon. See, I really believe musicians are just transmitters…”
The Pogues’ last two albums, Peace And Love and Hells’ Ditch, were alternately inventive and indifferent. MacGowan had by then completely given himself over to booze and narcotics. The band were eventually to fall apart in 1991 during a tour of Japan. At the time Shane told a journalist he had taken 50 tabs of acid in a single session and was reputed to be drinking three bottles of whiskey a day. It was the whiskey, he believes, that really got to him.
“I don’t drink spirits any more,” says Shane. “I wasn’t a nice guy when I was drinking spirits. I would turn into a fucking wanker and then pass out. I mean who wants to do that?
“I have been strung out on heroin. Ages ago now. I’m not sure I was an addict, but I do know that heroin’s not a problem, providing you can get hold of it. Spirits are a problem when you can’t get hold of them and an even bigger problem when you can. I tell you, if I was on a death-trip, I’d still be drinking spirits.”
The death wish question is something that has haunted Shane ever since he first came to public attention more than 20 years ago. Shane, one of London’s first punks (before punks joined Beefeaters and the Queen Mum on postcards), was pictured on the front of the music paper Sounds covered in blood, a vacant grin on his face. The mindless pleasure and violence suggested by the shot seemed to epitomise punk’s live-fast-die-young nihilism. In the opinion of at least one journalist of his acquaintance, Shane freeze-framed this point in his mind’s eye and has been replaying it ever since.
This view of MacGowan, one he rigorously rejects, is convenient to the point of being willfully disingenuous. His expulsion from school, his chugged odyssey through London’s streets and his time in the detox clinic point the sort of personality that didn’t need the cover of a music paper to spur it on to further excesses.
“I’ve tried everything. Speed, smack, coke, crack. Every drink you could possibly flicking imagine. I tried it because I was curious and inquisitive. Even as a small boy I was desperate to learn about things. I read a lot of books, not Enid Blyton or any of that shit: I went straight to James Bond, then on to serious literature. The same thing that made me read was what took me to drink and drugs.
“But I wanna make it clear, I wouldn’t recommend anybody to try anything. I’m not saying don’t do it. I just wouldn’t recommend it. Believe me, I’m not a champion of abusing your body. Perhaps you can get much better kicks out of mountain biking. But that’s not for me. I like to use my imagination, to see where my mind can go?’
Joey Cashman, Shane’s manager and constant companion told me earlier that when Shane was drinking spirits, he was almost impossible to be around. “The worst thing is when it’s someone who you know is a really nice person, and you see them turn into a complete shit in front of you. I don’t know any other chug that does that to you. The trick with any drinker is to get ’em to mix it up, so they don’t specialise in one thing.”
I mention this to Shane. He nods slowly.
“It’s unbelievable the damage alcohol can do. I don’t drink as much as I used to. Junkies lie, but they know they’re lying. Alcoholics don’t even know they’re lying. They think they’re OK. That’s the most damaging thing. I’m not an alcoholic?”
If alcoholics don’t know they’re lying, then how does Shane know he’s not an alcoholic?
“I slur my speech a bit,” he continues. “I may be a bit unsteady on my feet, but that’s as far as I go. I honestly don’t get any pleasure out of fucking drinking myself into oblivion. There’s no kick. I want to appreciate the kick. If you take too much you can’t feel that, you just go out like a light. All I actually drink is wine mostly, beer, and Martini.”
He studies his glass for a moment and laughs. It’s a great laugh, a wheezing, hissing, leaking fridge laugh like Mutley from Wacky Races. Momentarily his eyes widen, making him look like a startled child. It’s this image of him, jug-eared, surprised and full of wonder, that graces album sleeves and posters and hangs beside pictures of the Pope and Peter O’Toole in countless Irish pubs around the world.
“It’s weird that, isn’t it,” he acknowledges. “Me being next to The Pope. I believe in the teachings of Christ, but not in the way that it’s practised, by the priests. I believe that guilt is useless. Awful fucking emotion. I really blame and hate Catholic priests and popes and cardinals for using and abusing children. I think it’s something that eats me up inside. Self-hate and the hate for the people that made you feel that way in the first place.”
And the cracked smile’s gone.
Shane may have gone out too deep in life but somehow, against all the odds, he can still swim up through the fathoms, up through his Martini swimming pool. He can still sing, still write songs, still enjoy a drink. He can live with the hate, live with the past and cope with the present. Just. As for the future, I don’t believe Shane has ever given it the slightest consideration.
“I’ve been ripped off a lot, I’ve made a lot more money than I’ve ever seen. The record business stinks. I know a lot of people who’ve been killed by this industry, more than have by drugs. Money and greed can suck the life out of people. But there’s no point in having regrets.
“I’ve had a very, very happy life. If they stuck me in a box tomorrow I’d know I’ve had a bloody whale of a time. How many other people have made loads of money and done every drug under the sun, and gone out every night, and been all over the world before they’re 30. A few maybe. I’m one of the lucky few?”
If luck has many faces, then Shane MacGowan’s is one of the least likely.
A new single, ‘Lonesome Highway’ is out on ZTT on 20th October; followed by an album, The Crock of Gold, in January