Give ‘Em Enough Pope

Source: NME
Author: Johnny Cigarettes
Copyright: (c) NME 1997

Shane bin in?” The PR to Ireland’s Greatest Living Poet (TM) leans over the bar of ‘legendary’ lslington whiskey bar Filthy MacNasty’s, eager to establish the current whereabouts of his most famous client.

The answer is, of course, “Yes, frequently, over a period of years.” And sure enough, three mobile phone calls, a brief slurred conversation and 90 minutes later, our hero arrives.

Shuffling slowly across the wooden floor on some epic, inexorable, single-minded voyage to the end of the bar, he has the weather-beaten but determined demeanour of an octogenarian war veteran. Or maybe he just has worse hangovers than you. The perilous, cliff-hanging ascent of his bar stool is apparently performed in slow motion. But he’s made it, and immediately a glass filled with ice and Extra Dry Martini is pushed under his nose. His eyelids struggle open to greet it and, some moments later, having overcome the ‘animal, vegetable or mineral’ conundrum, an arm reaches robotically to raise the pale green brew to his parched lips.

You needn’t worry about Shane. though. See, for all the Oscar-winning impression he gives of being a hopelessly pissed, semi-conscious, inelegantly wasted wreck of a man, barely capable of any kind of social or even mental function, that fierce intellect you’re forever being assured of by his friends and sympathisers gradually makes itself evident.

The reason for this rare audience with Shane is to promote his forthcoming album with The Popes. ‘Crock Of Gold’, only his second since he split from The Pogues in 1991. It’s a considerably less punky, more commercial and orthodox Irish sounding record than 1994’s ‘The Snake’. Arguably…

“Well ‘The Snake’ was a mess. It was basically a rock album. It was an atrocity – two or three good tracks and the rest of it was rubbish.”

Funny you should say that, Shane, because you are quoted in a music mag this month as saying this new album is not much cop, and you’re past your best…

“No I didn’t say that. And if I did say that it must have been because I was in a bad mood that day, y’know? No this album’s really good, y’know, I really like all the stuff on it.

“It’s 2Oth-century Irish music. We’ve got to the 20th century now. We started out in the fucking 18th century with The Pogues’ first album, then the 19th century with the second album, got up to the 1950s with the third album. Then we put out a load of rubbish, and I put out ‘The Snake’, right. which was a load of rubbish, and this is now like the fourth album. And we’ve reached the 1990s.”

So is the next album perhaps going to be future Irish music? Sort of Space Rock With a Tin Whistle perhaps?

Shane snuffles up a big greeny to chew on as he ponders this possibility.

“It’s… contemporary Irish traditional music.”

Righto. It seems strange that he considers this the most contemporary music he’s ever made, though, when he’s falling back more than ever on traditional Irish music, with less modern punk edge or lyrical content than ever. His voice sounds bored and lifeless, the music listenable enough, but slightly bland fiddly-diddly fare.

The truth is, there is one hell of a lot of myth surrounding Shane MacGowan and his music. Nowhere was this more evident than in a recent BBC documentary, The Great Hunger. The great and the good of Irish music and letters queued up to eulogise MacGowan as a great poet / song writer/ literary demi-god/genius. At least three of which he has been in his time. But people throw about terms like ‘great’ and ‘genius’ as if they’re permanent titles. People still see Shane MacGowan in terms of the brilliant stuff he wrote on the first three Pogues albums. For the best part of a decade, though, he’s done little else to live up to his name except apparently live out a romantic notion of the lifestyle associated with the Irish literary tradition, as a disciple of the Brendan Behan church of the poison liver.

“Any great art goes along with lifestyle,” he groans. “If the art isn’t from the street, and if the lifestyle isn’t from life, then it’s not good art.

“1 never had any romantic dreams about all this. I had an ambition to make Irish music successful and popular music for young people, you know what I mean? To get it across to the record-buying, gig-going public. And

to a certain extent I achieved that.”

Fair enough. So is there anything left for Shane MacGowan to prove as a musician or songwriter?

“No, I don’t think I’ve got anything left to prove. I make records because I’m a musician, and that’s what I do, as well as playing gigs…”

Can you ever envisage…

“…and rehearsing…” Hmmm. Can you see yourself… “…and driving around in tour buses…” Yeah, yeah. So if you weren’t…

“…and waiting around in f-in’ airports…” It doesn’t sound much fun, this lark. “It’s better than working on an assembly line. At least I’m doing what I want to do.”

Sure. But The Popes haven’t exactly been the hardest-working band in show-business over the last few years, and yet Shane still seems to be writing all the time. Maybe his, erm, ‘lifestyle’ might be better suited to less energetic pursuits. Could he ever imagine doing something else completely? Poetry? Novels? Short stories? Public speaking? Paralympics?

“No, not really. I’ve written a few short stories, they’ve been broadcast. I’ve had a few attempts at writing a novel, never been able to finish one. I’ve written a few screenplays, but I’ve never done anything with them. It’s just something I do as a hobby, y’know?”

Wouldn’t you be happier just writing songs for other people and not actually performing or making records yourself?

“Yeah. I’d be very happy with that. I still enjoy performing. But when I felt like it. I’d be very happy with other people doing the hard work. I don’t enjoy particularly… well I do enjoy writing songs and I do enjoy doing gigs. But I enjoy performing other people’s stuff more. Because it’s different, and it’s the music I love and grew up with.”

How about a more radical alternative altogether? A career as a media celebrity, bar-room philosopher for hire, or perhaps, if recent projects are anything to go by, the new David Letterman!

“Yeah, we made one episode of a chat show in LA. We had Chris Penn on it, and a real private detective, who wouldn’t admit he’d ever killed anyone but obviously had. And a porn model who’d turned into a pop singer, and Johnny Depp was on it too. And we had Los Lobos on it. I thought it was a laugh. It was a good mixture of music and chat. The subject was violence. It was never shown.”

Oh dear. Then again, I don’t think we ever really saw you as an urbane, family entertainer in the Terry Wogan mould really…

“It was nothing like the Terry Wogan show.” Sure. So who would be your ideal guest? “Robert De Niro. Someone like John Coltrane, except he’s dead. A famous serial killer. Gerry Adams. You know, interesting people.”

Instead, Shane seems fairly content chain-sipping half-pints of Martini among friends here at Filthy’s. And he’ll be 40 soon. A ‘sobering’ thought, perhaps?

“Yeah, it bothers me a lot. It’s very hard to get used to the idea of not being a young man. I find it very depressing, but I try to be positive about it.”

Are you any the wiser for your advanced years?

“Yeah, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot.”

And in case you are worried, as people permanently are, it seems, about his long-term health, Shane would like it to be known that contrary to popular legend, he is not drinking himself to death.

“Well if I am, I’m nearly 40 now, so I haven’t done very well, have I? I’ve learnt my lessons. Stay off spirits – they’re the killers. And don’t drink too much. It’s a hard thing to do, but…”

Rumour has it, though, that the hard stuff Shane’s been into of recent years has been of a more chemical variety…

“I’ve taken a bit of this and a bit of that. But I’ve never got near to being addicted. Alcohol is actually the most dangerous drug. Alcohol will kill you if you drink too much of it. Simple as that.”

According to your press, you’ve always maintained that you’re not an alcoholic…

“I’ve never said I’m not an alcoholic. Khkhkhkhhhh!” That famous MacGowan snake-hiss

laugh finally makes an appearance. “I don’t know what an alcoholic is. How d’you define it? You either have a drink or you don’t. A little bit of drink won’t hurt anybody, know what I mean? What are you living for if not to enjoy yourself. I enjoy drinking. It’s a social thing, just like most people.”

Can you imagine a life without drinking?

“I can imagine it, I’ve done it. I didn’t like it. It’s not my way.”

D’you need drink to write or have you ever written sober?

“I drink all the time, so I never get to that point. There’s been times when I’ve had to give it up, and I don’t feel very inspired. I’m sure I could write without it if I had to. I just don’t want to.”

Maybe Shane MacGowan is one of those people that leads a charmed life. Maybe he’s got a guardian angel stopping him from toppling off this mortal barstool?

“Yeah, I believe I’m being guided on my way. I’m a Catholic Taoist hedonist. I believe in the pursuit of pleasure. And I believe in the teachings and the words of Jesus. But not in the way Catholicism is organised and practised.”

And so to the question that begs to be asked. Shane MacGowan – have you pissed your talent up the wall?

But before he can answer, Shane’s manager steps in to offer his thoughts on the subject.

“People always say that about people. But look at the likes of George Best or Alex Higgins -if they hadn’t been like they were there would have been no point. They wouldn’t have been great at what they did. They were great because they peaked and they had fun doing it. Better than being a f-mg schoolteacher.”

“Yeah,” shrugs Shane. “I agree totally with that.”

Cheers. Anyone fancy a pint of Martini? Oh, but first, we forgot to ask the inevitable question. Who’s your favourite Spice Girl?

“I f-in’ hate all of them… but I hate the wog most. Khkhkhkhkhkhhhhh!”

He’s joking, of course. Although you wonder if he’d have seen the funny side of a joke about ‘Paddies’. But maybe it reflects an important point about Shane MacGowan. He’s from the old school of rock’n’roll, where you don’t have to pretend to be a nice guy. There’s no censorship or media-friendliness involved here. The reality of the man may be grotesque as often as it is capable of great beauty. For all the mythologising of his life, his lifestyle and his art, ultimately you sense he doesn’t really care what you think. Only God can judge him.

And as another celebrated bar-room balladeer, Tom Waits, once put it, there ain’t no Devil – it’s just God when he’s drunk.