Shane Returns to Paradise

Source: The Scotsman
Author: Richard Purden
Copyright: (c) The Scotsman

Shane MacGowan never disappears, he just chooses a different bar to drink in. The behemoth of Irish music has repeatedly proven that despite years of rock’n’roll debauchery, he can still stand up and be counted among every new generation of artists. So it should come as no surprise that when MacGowan releases a new single, many in both the British and Irish media are moved so far as to hail the track his best work since The Pogues.

In this case, the track is a charity single featuring Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone which aims to raise funds for the Motor Neurone Disease Tribute Fund. The triple A-side also features Jim Kerr from Simple Minds, with whom Johnstone sings a version of ‘Dirty Old Town’, and Scottish singer-songwriter John McLaughlin, who has worked with pop acts such as Westlife and Busted.

MacGowan was asked by Glasgow producer Phil Fern to contribute a song when he was in town in January for the Celtic Connections festival. After his show at the Barrowlands, MacGowan appeared on stage the following night with Primal Scream at the Glasgow Academy. Watching the punk survivor thrash out ‘Loaded’ and Johnny Thunder covers on stage was quite a sight to behold. Naturally, a night of debauchery in the Scream’s hometown followed, but MacGowan managed to make it to the studio on the Sunday night to write and record ‘Road to Paradise’.

A week later he is still to be found in McGinn’s bar on Hope Street. “I’m off to catch a flight down to London to join Primal Scream in Hammersmith and do it all over again,” he boasts. He then drains his pint and picks up a battered old acoustic guitar that once belonged to Rory Gallagher. “When we get it together I’m going to do a record with Primal Scream. We’re both busy on our own stuff at the minute but the plan is to do some tracks and then go on the road together in Ireland next year.

“Primal Scream are one of the best bands around. People don’t like to see us do well because guys like us are meant to die, take an overdose or f*** up in some way, and when we don’t people want to know why.”

For Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, the feeling is mutual: “Shane is a classic songwriter, a great person and I love the guy.”

MacGowan’s new single has reminded many why the Irish songwriter is still so universally revered. The 1990s were a hazy and dark time for MacGowan, now 46, but the past few years have seen him operating comfortably outside the mainstream, playing live regularly and juicing up the engine of his latent songwriting talent.

And it’s not just the music industry that is re-invigorating MacGowan’s lust for life, he is also venturing tentatively, if he could ever be described so, into a film career. He stars in the forthcoming film The Libertine alongside Johnny Depp.

That aside, there is a string of musical collaborations on the boil, including a project with Bono. He is also reeling from picking up a top Italian songwriting gong. How is he managing to take on so much? “I’m trying not to get too big-headed,” he laughs with that familiar devilish hiss. As far as MacGowan is concerned, despite what the media might think, the single doesn’t represent a comeback – he’s been busy all the while. “I’ve been touring, writing, I put out a live record and this is the second double A-side I’ve done with Celtic,” he says.

Glasgow’s been good to Shane: the first charity single, ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, was a charming and ragged Irish ballad depicting his love affair with the city which went largely unnoticed outwith the football club’s community. The new single seems to have gathered more impetus. MacGowan’s motivation to promote the single so doggedly is down to Jimmy Johnstone’s involvement. Johnstone has been suffering from motor neurone disease since 2002.

“I heard about Jimmy’s illness and I know it can be cured with money,” says MacGowan. “The last time I saw him he seemed fine, but people can seem fine and drop down dead the next day. The reason for doing this record is to raise money and prolong Jimmy’s life, which is as good a reason to do anything. Put it this way: I hope to be having a drink with Jimmy in a few years’ time.”

The single was originally due for release in May but was hit by a run of bad luck. Firstly MacGowan was hospitalised by an unprovoked attack on him in London. Then the major record stores in England refused to stock the single on the grounds that it was too much of a “specialist interest” release, and national radio DJs felt unmoved to play it.

Despite no industry support, the track went in at number eight in the independent chart and record shops finally relented. MacGowan recovered from his attack and set up a string of live performances and interviews. This coming week he will continue his promotional tour in Ireland to support the single’s release there tomorrow.

Since our last meeting, MacGowan has completed filming The Libertine, described as a 17th-century Hollywood romp.

“People are getting it mixed up with Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s nothing like that; it’s funny but in a very black kind of way. It’s basically a true story about the Earl of Rochester, who was probably the most paranoid tyrant outside of Stalin and me.

“Johnny plays Rochester. I play a drunken minstrel. I’ve played a bandit, a terrorist and now I’m a drunken minstrel.”

Long-term friend Depp is another guest on the long-awaited new MacGowan album. “Yeah, Johnny is going to be on it, but he’s not just on there to get his name on the cover; he’s there because he’s actually a great guitarist. Johnny played on The Snake, and this record is going to be a bit more punky in a similar way. He was also in the video for ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’.”

News of a studio album, his first in seven years, will appease MacGowan’s fan base. They have a 3,000-strong petition on his official website demanding that his manager Joey Cashman be ousted for not managing his profile correctly. In fairness to Cashman, nothing goes ahead without MacGowan’s say-so – he won’t be told what to do by anyone.

“The record is going to be out in time for the Christmas rush, we’re going to put another EP out after this single and we’ll be playing some more shows, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve not played in Edinburgh for a long time, but that’s because I had a lazy, unimaginative agent.”

It sounds like being Shane MacGowan is motivation enough for now.