The Mighty Mac

Source: Irish Voice
Author: Tom Dunphy
Copyright: © Irish Voice

TOM Dunphy talks, or rather listens, to ex-Pogue frontman Shane MacGowan who, not surprisingly, has a firm opinion on everything from Northern Ireland to Catholicism.

I’VE been forewarned. “Call him in two hours time — but he might tell you to piss off,” manager Joey Cashman tells me as he gives me the phone number.

Dutifully, I phone the number in London precisely two hours later. It’s picked up after six rings or so.

“Allorgh?” a groggy voice answers.

I identify myself as the music writer for the Irish Voice.

“Whaddya wanna know?”

Hoo boy. My interview with the ex-Pogue — perhaps the most gifted, boozily poetic Irish songwriter ever — is off to an inauspicious start. Shane MacGowan sounds none too happy to be bothered by an American music writer at his home. Undaunted, I reply with a snappy comeback. “Um, how about the title of your next album?”

“It’s called Twentieth Century Paddy,” Shane MacGowan says. “We’re all twentieth century paddys. It’s the history of paddys in Ireland, England, America . . .”

And we’re off. For the next hour or so, Shane MacGowan holds court on a vast number of topics. I get the sense early into the conversation that one doesn’t interview Shane MacGowan so much as one tags along for the ride. He’s in an expansive mood — he claims to have had a bust-up with his girlfriend of fourteen years, Victoria Clarke, so perhaps that explains it — but on this evening, on a telephone three thousand miles away, Shane MacGowan is downright talkative.

So what’s Twentieth Century Paddy going to be like? “It’s going to be a double album, yeh?” MacGowan says. “One album is going to be old numbers like ‘Carrickfergus’ and ‘Spancil Hill.’ There’s broken hearted love ballads — a Carolans-type instrumental called ‘Victoria Clarke,’ some O’Riada-style things . . . It’s not going to be blasting paddy-beat the whole way through, y’know what I mean?” (MacGowan’s management is shopping for a new American deal, following ZTT’s unwillingness to shop the brilliant Crock of Gold in the States.)

Why the title? “It’s for the millennium. F— the millennium,” MacGowan growls. “It’s just another year, y’know? Another year the Brits are in Northern Ireland, y’know? When’s it gonna end?”

The subject of the North rankles with MacGowan like none other. “That David Trimble is an out-and-out Orange fascist thug,” he spits. “The Nobel Peace prize — give me a break. The Unionists are always throwing a spanner in the works. But the majority of the regular people, all they want is safety, peace, and work. And that’s what they’ll get if the border goes, the Brits draw out, and there are thirty-two county elections. And the government doesn’t have to be in Dublin. F—ing move it to Dundalk.”

“The thing about Gerry Adams, is that when he talks, right, he means what he says,” MacGowan continues. “He’s actually saying something, he’s telling you something, he’s answering the question. Every other politician, they sidestep, they talk for three minutes and say f—ing nothing . . .

“The IRA have given their word — they’ve always been men of their word,” he says. “Whatever you think of what they’ve done, whether you agree with their methods, the reasons were purely . . . always patriotic.”

Barely pausing for breath, he continues. “The IRA is not going to wait forever. In five years time there’ll be a different bunch of people and they’ll have different ideas — younger, angrier, and pissed off — and they’ll see that this has been one big Unionist wind-up. That’s how you get your bloodbaths. The way for Britain to avoid that is to pull out with dignity.”

“In this century we got the twenty-six counties. In the next we’ll get the six more,” MacGowan says. “Then there won’t be any need for the IRA anymore. The British Army can go home, shag their wives, look after their farms, whatever. And the only ones who’ll be pissed off are Trimble and Paisley and the madmen of the UDA.”

“But we got ’em back, anyway,” MacGowan says. “Now we bloody own the place [England]. We own all the pubs, the dance halls. We run the drugs — well we fight the blacks for the drugs (laughs). But I’m too old for that shit.” But if Shane MacGowan admires what the Irish have built in London, he loathes what’s occurred in Dublin. “Y’know, a French newspaper said in 1900 that Dublin was one of the poorest cities. In the year 2000 it’s one of the richest. But it’s got no soul, there’s no character left. It’s a hole.”

What does he think about the situation in Kosovo? “I think they should have sent ground troops into Kosovo f—ing weeks ago and just wiped out the Serbs straight away and grabbed him [Milosevic] and tried him for f—ing war crimes!” MacGowan says. “There’s been ethnic cleansing there for f—ing months! What good is bombing? Why are they so scared of sending in ground troops? They weren’t scared to send ground troops into ‘Nam. I mean, the

English weren’t scared about sending ground troops into f—ing Northern Ireland in 1968, were they? Look what that started.”

I suggest that in this post-Vietnam era, neither Tony Blair nor Bill Clinton wish to stand the political heat of body bags returning home on television. “I know nobody wants to f—ing get the blame!” MacGowan exclaims. “But when people are getting massacred down there, it’s not a matter of who gets the blame. The politicians have to have the f—ing guts-that means they have dedicated their lives to helping people who are helpless against bullies and aggressors! If they put ground troops in Kosovo they’d wipe out the Serbs in a f—ing week. They’re supposed to be the f—ing policeman of the f—ing world — they’re not supposed to allow f—ing bullies to go in and commit genocide against other f—ing races.”

“Tony Blair is particularly good at it,” says MacGowan of the British prime minister’s slick media savvy. “I think he’s a natural.” And Clinton? “I think he’s studied the English, actually,” MacGowan asserts. “The Brits are much better liars than the Yanks…”

“The only politician anybody ever believed was Kennedy, anyway,” continues MacGowan. “Kennedy, Martin Luther King — civil rights always turns out in bloody war. Where’s his dream now? When is a change going to come– as Sam Cooke said — for blacks in America? Anyone who does tell the truth gets a bullet in the head, y’know what I mean?

I tell MacGowan the story about the original Kennedy coffin that was

revealed last week — that the original bronze coffin that bore his body from Dallas back to Washington was buried at sea in 1966, at the request of Bobby Kennedy, so it wouldn’t become a macabre collectible. “That’s one of the sickest things I’ve f—ing ever heard,” shouts MacGowan. “So they shot it full of holes to make it sink? And what, put a flag over it pretending he was in it, and dropped it into the sea? F—, they should have melted it down and given [the pieces] to beggars in the street.”


SO WHAT does Shane MacGowan think of this year’s Fleadh? (Visa problems have kept MacGowan grounded in London — he missed a Fleadh show in San Francisco. He’s expected in Chicago, Boston and New York, though.)

“Who’s headlining?” MacGowan asks.

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” this columnist replies.

“Hootie and the bollo- Blowfish?” Instinctively, MacGowan nearly says ‘bollocks.’ “I have no idea who they are. Are they Irish?”

I inform Shane MacGowan that Hootie and the Blowfish are not an Irish band — they are, instead, a wildly popular American band best known for insipid, least-common-denominator songs about hand-holding and unrequited love.

“God, that sounds f—ing awful!” MacGowan proclaims. “I thought this was an Irish festival — what the f— is that?”

Not an uncommon thought. What kind of music would Shane MacGowan book for a Fleadh? “The Fleadh should be Irish, or Irish and country, really,” he says. “Country music is so popular in Ireland, it’s Ireland’s second music. “Ray Lynam is a good country singer, an Irish George Jones.”

I tell Shane MacGowan of George Jones’ recent drunk driving mishap — he seems surprised that Jones was driving a truck. “I thought he’d be driving a big Cadillac or Buick or something,” says MacGowan. “Though I suppose a Mustang would be a bit hip for him.”

Does Shane MacGowan drive? “Very badly, I crash every time I drive,” he says. “I haven’t got a license — but I might persuade someone to lend me their keys, take it out for a spin, y’know? They’ll regret it in the morning . . .”

And how does he feel about America? “I just don’t like America past New York and New Orleans — there’s no place to hang around, yeh? ”

“I hate the bloody highways,” he adds. “I hate Burger Kings, I hate

hamburgers, I hate Greyhound buses. I’d have liked to have been in America during the Jazz Age, or the Golden Age of Hollywood.”


THE voice is different now. In the earlier part of our conversation, MacGowan’s thick London accent was groggy, slurry, trailing off. There are still many pauses, but MacGowan seems engaged. He’s looking forward to visiting New York. “Someone was asking me the other day why did the Irish lose out on organized crime in New York to the Eyeties and the Sicilians? I said it was because we’re always too busy kicking the shit out of each other to get f—ing organized, innit? But we’ve still got the bars, still got the police, y’know what I mean?”

MacGowan, a Catholic, concurrently believes in Taoism, the Chinese religion which stresses an inner path to spirituality. “I don’t believe in the Hebrew God, some big hairy bastard with thunderbolts,” says MacGowan. “The tao is the chaos from which the yin yang starts to make sense. The tao has no shape, no form, it cannot be named. It’s within us and without us, as George Harrison said. It’s everywhere and everything.”

That said, he still looks to Catholicism, especially as a songwriting

inspiration. “You can find God in a pub,” he asserts. Is that what inspired “Church of the Holy Spook” on The Snake? “Actually,

‘Church of the Holy Spook’ is straight down the line what it says — good ol’ Irish Catholicism was good enough for my dear old dad or mum or granny, if people died for it, then it’s good enough for me,” MacGowan says. “I don’t believe in the Holy Trinity — but I do believe in the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spook is just a friendly way of saying Holy Ghost.”

So it sounds like you’ve studied the world’s religions, then, Shane? “I

haven’t studied them!” he retorts, disdainfully. “I haven’t studied. I’ve just thought about it. All I can do is go by the words of Christ, who was the only talker we had, for f—‘s sake. Buddha didn’t speak. The Holy Ghost didn’t speak. But I think it all boils down to the same thing — it’s all about unity, love, compassion.”


THE interview seems to be winding down. “Are you Irish?” he asks. “Are you from the Irish Post?” No, the Irish Voice. “Ah, there’s so many of those f—ing papers anyway . . .”

A BBC documentary on MacGowan’s life, called The Great Hunger, aired last year. What did he think of it? “It was inaccurate — I didn’t care for it,” he states. Of the title, he says, “I hate that sort of shit. Why not call it ‘Shane MacGowan — King of the Ceili’ (laughs)?”

“Or just Twentieth Century Paddy . . .”

Shane MacGowan and the Popes are playing the three remaining Fleadhs — June 12 in Chicago, June 19 in Boston, and June 26 in New York City.