Bellies Up to the Bard

Author: Michael Malone
Copyright: © 2001

Though he’d surely scoff at the suggestion, Irish troubadour Shane MacGowan is the rare rock icon who could actually be labelled a poet. Amid the shit, piss, vomit, whores, gamblers and evil spirits of both the alcoholic and demonic variety that dominate his lyrics are some of rock music’s most poignant takes on love and heartbreak. And who else could pen a song like Fairytale of New York, a Christmas duet where lovey-dovey sentiments degrade into barbs like “You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk,” and “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot?”

In the flesh, MacGowan is a jumble of visual contrasts — rail-thin limbs attached to an oversized gut, along with the famously toothless face that’s alternately cherubic and elderly. The former frontman for the Pogues, a band that brought together the strange bedfellows of punk and Irish traditional music, MacGowan possesses a taste for excess that surpassed even that of his old bandmates, whose frenetic music was fueled by stout and whiskey.

MacGowan split with the Pogues in 1991 and took up with a rough-and-tumble bunch of Tipperary tipplers cheekily dubbed the Popes. Their live shows invariably see MacGowan, like an escapee from an iron lung, stumble upon the stage, hours late, clutching the mike stand for support. To call Popes shows bacchanalian does not do them justice. Fans in tweed hats and harp tattoos pogo, hug, sway, raise glasses and tumble to the beer-slicked floor after throwing punches that wildly miss their mark. The fans are not the only ones slicking the floors — a late March gig at Chicago’s Vic Theater saw MacGowan ignominiously barf on the stage, then growl, “That feels better,” and continue with the show. Think of Mardi Gras, St. Paddy’s Day and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one — like the Pogues before them, it’s one of the most fun live shows you’ll ever see.

Born on Christmas Day 43 years ago, MacGowan gasps and wheezes like an old car struggling to start, with a laugh that sounds like he’s coughing up a bristly fur ball. Sadly, you can’t help but wonder how long it will be before MacGowan’s name and mug appear in the obits and his giddy, boozy live shows are mere memories. After MacGowan stood us up following a St. Paddy’s gig at New York’s Webster Hall, we got him back by waking him up in his Hell’s Kitchen hotel room. Though Keith Richards is generally considered the rock star most in need of subtitles, MacGowan makes that Stoner sound like an evening news talking head. He finishes his statements with “D’ya know what I mean?” and actually waits for your answer. During our chat, MacGowan ruminated on life after the Pogues, his all-time jukebox selections and the perils of letting your missus write your bio. At least we think he did. Do you still get a kick out of performing?

Shane MacGowan: That’s why I do it. It’s a lot of fun making records, d’ya know what I mean? But there’s an art to playing live. It’s a great feeling. It’s indescribable. It’s what I love. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. PB: Is there an age when rock stars should stop taking the stage?

SM: I’m not so much a rock star, d’ya know what I mean? We play Irish music. There’s really no age when you stop playing Irish music. Even if I retired from playing onstage, I’d still be singing in pubs.

PB: Is there a sense of responsibility to your fans to stay alive?

SM: I’m in pretty good shape. I don’t drink anything like what people imagine I do.

PB: How many drinks in a given day?

SM: I don’t count. In Irish terms, I’m not a particularly heavy drinker.

PB: What’s your poison these days?

SM: I like wine, and a lot of the time, I drink Peach Schnapps. It’s only 21 percent [alcohol].

PB: That sweet stuff’ll rot your teeth.

SM: I haven’t got any teeth.

PB: Which of your songs are you most proud of?

SM: Personal favorites?

PB: Yeah.

SM: Well, the obvious ones are Fairytale of New York, Rainy Night in Soho, things like that, yeah? Then there’s London You’re a Lady, Down All the Days, White City, Lullaby of London, The Broad Majestic Shannon.

PB: You’ve got a book, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, coming out in June. Tell me about it.

SM: I didn’t write it, my wife [Victoria Mary Clarke] did. It’s a bunch of interviews that she did while I was drunk. I said a lot of things about people that I wouldn’t have said if I hadn’t been drunk and talking to my wife. But what’s done is done, and I think it’s a good book. It’s entertaining. Know what I mean?

PB: How long have you known your wife?

SM: Actually, we’re engaged. We’re getting married this year. We’ve been going out for, uh…she reckons 14, I reckon 17 years. It’s somewhere in between.

PB: You’re at a bar that has a jukebox that features every song in music history, four plays for a buck. What do you play?

SM: That’s a personal question. Can I just reel off the first four I think of? PB: It’s your money.

SM: Raglan Road, by the Dubliners, Wichita Lineman, by Glen Campbell, Downtown Train, by Tom Waits. [Pause] A song called Inion an Pailitini (The Palatine’s Daughter), by Sean O Riada and Sean O SÈ.

PB: Are you still in contact with your old Pogues mates?

SM: Yeah. Spider Stacy [tin whistle, vocals] plays with us occasionally. I might be doing something with Terry Woods [banjo, violin] in the near future.

PB: It seems as though you’ve surpassed them in terms of popularity.

SM: Spider has his own band, and the rest of them have got various projects. But at the moment I seem to have the highest profile.

PB: Any chance of a Pogues reunion tour?

SM: It’s very unlikely. Who knows? Maybe some day in the future, but there wouldn’t be much point in it at the moment.

PB: Are you a churchgoer?

SM: Occasionally, yeah. I’m a believer, and I pray every day.

PB: Will you be going to heaven?

SM: [Pause] Either heaven or purgatory. Definitely not hell. [Laughs, then phone rings] There’s a call coming through, and I don’t know how to take it. Let me just ask my missus, yeah? Hang on a minute.

PB: No problem.

SM: Hello? [Phone rings again]

PB: Still us, Shane.

SM: She doesn’t know what to do either. Tell ya what, if I put the phone down…. There, it stopped. Keep going.

PB: Read any good books lately?

SM: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. And now I’m reading Broadway, by Damon Runyon.

PB: Do you get a lot of groupies at your shows?

SM: Yeah, but I don’t avail myself of them. I’ve done it in the past, many years ago.

PB: Do you ever have to pay for a drink anymore?

SM: I very rarely have to pay for a drink these days. D’ya know what I mean? The bars I go to, there are so many people there who will buy me a drink, or it’s on the house. If we’re in Ireland, people buy me drinks, and when we’re on the road, a lot of times fans will see me and buy me a drink. Occasionally, I’ll buy myself a drink, or I’ll buy other people drinks, ya know? Yeah? But I do get a lot of drinks bought for me, if that’s what you mean. That’s how I get a reputation as such a big drinker — I always have these glasses in front of me, people always putting them on the table, know what I mean? PB: I guess your fans feel like it’s an affirmation for them, buying you a drink.

SM: Yeah, and that’s very nice of them. I’m not complaining at all.

PB: So who’s the biggest wanker in rock?

SM: I’m not gonna slag any other musicians.

PB: Surely someone out there deserves a slag.

SM: There is, but I’m not gonna say it.

PB: How do you get charged up before going onstage?

SM: I’ll spend about a half hour in the dressing room, just me and the band, having a drink, relaxing until we go on. We don’t hold hands and shout.

PB: What will be your lasting legacy?

SM: I don’t know. People say that Fairytale of New York will be played at Christmastime forevermore, but who’s to say?

PB: What’s the best pub in Ireland?

SM: That’s a ridiculous question. There are hundreds of great pubs in Ireland. Thousands.

PB: What are some of the better ones?

SM: A few of my locals down in Tipperary, yeah? Finney Ryan’s, Martin Lachan’s, the Eagle’s Nest.

PB: Are these all within walking distance of your house?

SM: If you’re a good walker, yeah.

PB: Would you consider yourself a good walker?

SM: I used to be a helluva walker, yeah. I used to walk 15 miles to the dance. But I can’t say I do that anymore, d’ya know what I mean?