Rock ‘n’ Roll Paddy

Source: Seattle Weekly
Author: Kurt B. Reighley
Copyright: © Seattle Weekly 2003

Lots of folks bitch about the “Hallmark holidays,” the ones engineered primarily to pump up the coffers of the confectionary, floral, and greeting card industries. But at least those are transparently commercial. I don’t think anyone labors under the illusion that Secretaries Day (oh, excuse me—Administrative Professionals Day) began as an ancient pagan ritual. What I find more unsettling is the proliferation of “alcoholidays,” festivities like Cinco de Mayo and Mardi Gras that liquor companies spin into excuses for binge drinking. And this Monday marks one of my least favorites, St. Patrick’s Day. There are better ways to celebrate Irish culture than swilling Budweiser tinted shamrock green. For example, tuning into the Sundance Channel for the U.S. TV premiere of If I Should Fall From Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story.
As director Sarah Share’s 90-minute portrait of the singer reminds viewers, there have been many times and places throughout history when celebrating Irish pride was distinctly frowned upon, and London in the early 1980s (during heavy IRA activity) was one of them. But with their rapid, ramshackle, post-punk take on traditional airs and drinking songs, MacGowan’s band, the Pogues, not only flouted convention, they introduced a whole new generation of listeners to traditional (well, sort of) Irish music. Prior to hearing their breakout LP, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash, in 1985, the only specimen of music from the Green Isle in my collection was A Treasury of Irish Melodies by lachrymose tenor John McCormack, an unwelcome gift from a vocal coach. Shelling out my own funds for a record propelled by concertina, mandolin, and accordion would never have occurred to me, had the British music press not insisted so emphatically that I must.
Share’s film is pieced together from promotional videos; live recordings; early footage of MacGowan’s early pop-punk outfit, the Nips; and interviews with former bandmates, family members, fellow artists (Nick Cave, Elvis Costello), MacGowan’s longtime girlfriend, and, of course, its subject. Despite the disparities in stories from different camps—band members say MacGowan quit the Pogues in 1991; their longtime tour manager insists the singer was “fired”—the tone of the film is evenhanded. MacGowan recounting seeing the Sex Pistols in their heyday receives just as much screen time, if not more, than his 2000 heroin bust. The E! True Hollywood Story this isn’t.
While Fall From Grace doesn’t sensationalize —or romanticize—the darker aspects of MacGowan’s life, neither does it shy away from them. His early expulsion from school, youthful episodes of petty crime and drug experimentation, and his stay at a mental institution are all addressed. The topic of alcoholism isn’t discussed in great detail until the tail end of the film. It doesn’t need to be. The sight of him clutching a beer or double gin and tonic in practically every clip makes its point more discreetly (and renders the sight of him sipping what seems to be a milk shake out of a to-go cup in one segment downright tender).
But more importantly, Fall From Grace accomplishes what MacGowan’s limited musical output in recent years has often failed to do: It reminds the public of what a tremendous talent he is. His speech may be slurred (U.S. viewers may find themselves wishing for Trainspotting-style subtitles), but MacGowan’s opinions about the music made during the Pogues’ prime are crystal clear. He admonishes Costello, who produced the album, for piecing together Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash from a multitude of individual takes, rendering it a patchwork that diminished the band’s live energy. MacGowan also takes full credit for the string arrangement that opens the Yuletide classic “Fairy Tale of New York,” the group’s best-selling single and high point of their 1988 masterpiece If I Should Fall From Grace With God—producer Steve Lillywhite, the singer reveals with a sneer, wanted to use “a machine” for the intro. And he flatly admits the Pogues should have quit before 1989’s Peace and Love, by which time he claims he was deliberately composing songs at house-music tempos to appeal to mainstream European audiences.
MacGowan may have lost more of his rotting teeth (and, sadly, much of his audience) over the past decade, but as Grace attests, his charisma remains intact and his artistic legacy still proves valid. Like Cave, who opts to discuss his own addictions rather than analyze his friend’s, I’m hardly on firm moral ground to admonish anyone for having a drink or three too many. If you want to get loaded (“responsibly,” of course) this Monday night, be my guest. But if you do, raise a toast to Shane MacGowan. His achievements may not ultimately measure up against the discovery of fermentation, but it’s still too soon to let their memory be carried away in a tide of green beer.