A Man of Many Words and Few Teeth

Source: The Guardian
Author: Andrew Anthony
Copyright: © The Guardian 2001

It’s no surprise to find the former Pogues frontman clutching a gin bottle – after all, wasn’t he thrown out of the Priory recently? But it is odd to find him not drinking a drop from it : ‘I’m completely Irish’ he says in a completely English accent. He dismisses England as a ‘miserable, boring, stupid waste of time’

Rock’n’roll offers two long-term career paths: death or confession. Sooner or later, you either join the ranks of casualties (Elvis, Hendrix, Vicious) or rehabilitated survivors (Eric Clapton, Steve Tyler, Elton John). Actually, there is a third option. You could be Shane MacGowan.

For the best part of two decades the former frontman and songwriter for the Pogues has been treading a precarious path between addiction and annihilation. During that period his uncompromising lifestyle has gained a near-mythical status; a point neatly illustrated by the titles of a forthcoming book, Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive? and a new comic strip in Viz magazine, The Adventures of Little Shane MacGowan .

The 42-year-old man who shuffled into the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, north London, last week was, if not very much alive, then certainly some way from dead. Clutching a bottle of gin at four in the afternoon, he looked as though he had just awoken, which, as it turned out, he had. He had been up till six that morning entertaining an Irish film crew that is making a documentary about him. Dressed in a black suit decorated with unspecified stains, he cut a curiously equivocal figure: gloriously resilient, yet somehow pathetically resigned.

His appearance, of course, has long drawn comment. The jug ears and, in particular, the unique dental arrangement – his teeth look as if they had been removed and then randomly reassembled in unlikely parts of his mouth – have come to symbolise his indifference to the usual cosmetic vanities of rock stars.

Stranger than the teeth, though, is the fact that beneath the lank hair and the outlaw beard, MacGowan’s skin looks unnaturally healthy, even youthful. Although pallid, there are few signs of wear and tear. Some years back, he fell out of a tour van that was moving at about 50mph. But there’s not so much now as a cracked vein. A couple of weeks ago it was reported he had been thrown out of the Priory clinic, after the latest in a series of abortive attempts over the years to dry out.

His two-week admission to a detoxification programme followed an incident last November in which singer Sinead O’Connor, MacGowan’s erstwhile friend, contacted the police to allege that he had been taking heroin.

She has said it was an act of tough love. ‘I love Shane and it makes me angry to see him destroy himself selfishly in front of those who love him.’

While he readily admits his alcoholism, MacGowan denies that he is addicted to any drug.

He was reluctant to discuss the matter at first, but changed his mind and responded to O’Connor’s claim. ‘I might as well clear up the fact that she’s made out I was lying on the floor in a coma, whereas in fact I was sitting on the sofa having a G and T and watching a Sam Peckinpah movie, Cross of Iron .’

He sidestepped my inquiries about the hospitality of the Priory. ‘The priory? It had a love cross outside, it was full of priests. They were buggering each other.’

When I suggested he must at times have been a cause of great concern to his friends, he paused for a second, and then said: ‘I’ve heard a lot of people who whinge about how worried they are about me. How much it is to practise their acting techniques in case they’re ever in a soap opera, I don’t know.’

The disagreement between MacGowan and O’Connor brings into opposition two people who have in their differing ways revolutionised outdated images of Ireland and yet, at the same time, have managed to represent the two most dogged Irish clichés: the romantic boozer and the religious nut. O’Connor recently restyled herself as a priest called Mother Bernadette.

It was noticeable that, despite holding on to the bottle of gin and also accepting a can of lager chaser, MacGowan didn’t take so much as a sip from either in the hour we spent together. I wondered how aware he was of his own mythology.

‘I’m aware of it,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think about it. I don’t think. You know, William Burroughs said “exterminate all rational thought”.’

He once said, by way of explanation for his thirsty proclivities, that ‘you don’t join a band to drink milk’. In the end, it was his drinking and drug use that saw him thrown out of the Pogues in 1991. He later formed the Popes, a loose combination of backing musicians he occasionally fronts.

Bono, one of the many musicians who have paid tribute to MacGowan’s talents as a songwriter, has said he thinks much of his self-destructive posturing is ‘a mask, it’s a way of ignoring people who he just doesn’t want to deal with. Shane is more together than people imagine’.

If it is a mask, it’s one he seems incapable of removing. He’s certainly more articulate than he lets on. Once edited, MacGowan is an impressively fluent speaker. However, his raw conversation is littered with multiple ‘likes’ and ‘ers’ and ‘yeahs’ and ‘d’you know what I means’.

The combined effect makes the mock-street talk of, say, Mick Jagger sound like Prince Charles. Although born and raised in England (he gained a scholarship to Westminster public school), save for the six years he spent with his grandparents in Tipperary from the age of three months, MacGowan is defiantly Irish.

‘I’m completely Irish,’ he said in an accent that is completely English. He says he had his original voice ‘kicked out’ of him. He described his feelings on first arriving in England as ‘disgust, hatred, fear, loathing’, and went on to dismiss England as ‘a miserable, stinking, boring, stupid, useless waste of a time’. As we were both being filmed by the Irish documentary team, I suspected some of this invective was not for my benefit but for that of the viewers – the programme is to be broadcast on the Irish-language channel Telefis na Gaelige – who he may have assumed would be more sympathetic.

In the Eighties, on Pogues albums such as Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace with God , MacGowan penned a number of hauntingly memorable ballads that drew on the experience of the Irish diaspora.

Although often traditional in form, they were uncannily vivid and determinedly irreverent. They were unmistakably Irish, but viewed from another perspective; viewed, in fact, from England. Perhaps this was the reason MacGowan endured a life here that was not to his liking, so that he was brought close to his subject of the uprooted. He bristled at the idea and told me he spent half his time in Ireland now anyway, and this country provided him with no helpful viewpoint. He’s currently working on an album entitled Twentieth-Century Paddy .

‘All Irish people born in the twentieth century are paddies,’ he explained. ‘It’s going to be about IRA men, lonely farmers that hang themselves because they can’t get a wife. One is based on my mother who got into modelling and was then voted Colleen of the Year in 1954.’ I had heard that a young man had not long ago died of an overdose in MacGowan’s Camden Town flat. Taking everything into account, did he think about death much himself?

‘Death pops up every now and again on the old cinema in the back of my head. And I’ve seen a lot of death. Like any other human being, I wouldn’t invite death.’

He told me he had once come close to dying and he had prayed to the Holy Ghost. ‘I was screaming at him: “You fucking bastard, I have faith in you. Now fucking show yourself and get me out of this bed”. I made an absolute recovery mentally and physically. I’m from sturdy peasant stock.’

How was he feeling now? With the untouched gin in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other, he fixed me with a wide-eyed stare and said: ‘Fine.’