Waiting for MacGowan

Source: Rock’n’Reel, Issue 30
Author: Charmaine O’Reilly
Contributor: Ingrid Knetsch
Copyright: (c) Rock’n’Reel 1998

Certain people you meet in life leave a lasting impression on you. Shane MacGowan is one of them. He’s the archetypal creative genius, hovering somewhere between madness and sanity: a master of paradox, transforming the life of the wino, the downs and out, the emigrant into a song of terrible beauty. Who but Shane could write a verse like: “See the man / The crushed up Carrols packet in his hand / Doesn’t seem to see or care / Or even understand. And all he says is / F yez all, F yez all” (St. John of Gods).

MacGowan has become a living legend … he’s even had a BBC documentary dedicated to him recently, titled The Great Hunger. In it he received the kind of respect and eulogy that most great artists only gain posthumously, with the likes of Bono declaring “I don’t think anyone writes better lyrics than Shane” and Sinead O’Connor stating “He’s a genius even when he’s fucked up. It’s an incredible beauty that he does.”

If you’re not a MacGowan fan, chances are you’ll find his lyrics deeply offensive and explicit in the extreme. But then, the chances are you’ve also missed the irony!

It’s 7.30 pm on a Sunday evening, and as I sit in Filthy MacNasty’s Whiskey Café the barman informs me that Shane’s manager is on the phone. My heart sinks, for I am certain the formidable Mr MacGowan is not going to show. My fears are allayed however, as Joey (manager) explains that “Shane’s not feeling too grand and will be running late”. Perhaps, he suggests, myself and companion Rob should go and get something to eat and come back about 11.00pm, when Shane will be feeling ‘a bit better’.

At 11.00pm we duly return to MacNasty’s and, by midnight, the shutters are down, the lights are off and a lock-in begins. By 1.00am my patience is running thin and I figure, if Shane does ever show (as everyone assures me he will) I will be drunker than he. At 1.30am I feel like we’re the two characters in Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. My eyes are heavy and my senses dulled, so when the barman informs me (in lilting Irish tones) that my visitor is at the door, I’m not sure whether I’m dreaming or not.

Suddenly silence and by the light of the flickering fire, Shane MacGowan appears. Close behind him is Joey, manager and ex-Pogue, steering the big man through the room into another area of the bar, where Shane plants himself on his resident bar stool. It was at this stage I realised that this might be the most demanding interview of my journalistic career. Shane was pandered to by the bar staff, who appeared to be lining up pints of Martini. he growled at me in his Irish brogue that he wanted a few moments to get his head together. I obliged, until to my horror I began to suspect that he was quietly nodding off. It was now or never!

Shane, new album “The Crock of Gold” is possibly your most uncompromising yet, with some fiery Republican lyrics. is “Paddy Public Enemy No. 1” about Dominic McGlinchey (aka ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey)?

“It was inspired by him, but it’s as much about all the other blokes who’ve ever been shot and bummed on. People that have heard the album seem to like it … (long silence) I just tell it like it is.”

Do you think it’s important to document Irish history the way you do?

“Yeah, I’m just part of a tradition. ‘The Crock Of Gold’ is my attempt at covering all aspects of Irishness. People still think there’s only one type of Irish music. The album takes you through the whole spectrum. There’s ceilidh, showband, punk, rock and roll, traditional .. know what I mean?”

And when people compare you to the great Irish writers like Brendan Behan how does that make you feel?

“Well, he was a writer and a poet and I’m a song writer, so there isn’t really a comparison but it’s quite flattering if they think I’m like him, ’cause he’s my hero.”

How did you come across the character of James Clarence Mangen? In the documentary about your life they say he was a big inspiration to you.

“They put a lot of emphasis on him in the documentary and I don’t know why. It’s just their view, know what I mean? But I’m into James Mangen. He was a revolutionary Irish poet in the 19th century. He was also a junkie and alcoholic.”

Did you identify with Mangen in some way?

“Naw, I’m just into his stuff.”

Are you singing about yourself in songs like ‘Rock’n’Roll Paddy’?

“Naw, I don’t really sing about myself very much. I just put myself into the character of someone else. How it feels to be them. I get my inspiration from my own experience and from other people’s experience.”

The song ‘St. John of God’s’ is really beautiful. Who’s it based on?

“Well, I can’t tell you ’cause Frankie (who’s Frankie?) told me never to explain my songs to anyone!”

I could see that behind the scary persona, Shane was having a bit of fun with me, so I decided to give it another go. Well that’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it?

“Yeah … it is,” he grinned, before hissing his crazy laugh at me.

And it’s my favourite song, and I was dying to know more about it, I whined.

“Ah, go on then … ‘St. John Of God’s is about ‘St. John Of God’s.”

Yeah, but that’s not much help!

“St. John of God’s was put in charge of Christ’s mother when he was being crucified. It’s also a name of a detox centre where you can dry out in Dublin. It’s a portrait of someone I met in St. John of God’s … yeah.”

At last I thought. How do you get on with your band, The Popes?

“I’m much happier now, than when I was with The Pogues. It’s not democratic; I do whatever I want to do. We’re good friends but I decide what to do. And as usual, I write all their music, as I did even when I was in The Pogues. I write everything: the drum pattern, the bass line. I produce it and sing it.”

Were you pleased with the documentary The Great Hunger?

“I didn’t enjoy it much and I wasn’t particularly pleased with the finished article. Well, the producer took a certain attitude about me, rather than being realistic about the whole thing. I didn’t really feel it was me who was being portrayed.”

In it you say that leaving Ireland as a six year-old boy as very traumatic, as you found it difficult to adapt from an Irish culture to an English one. Did you ever overcome that feeling of alienation?

“Naw, I’m not a part of English culture. I’m going back to Ireland all the time. and have been ever since I was a boy.”

Could you ever see yourself going back there to live, then?

“Yeah, I am!”

So any idea when that’ll be?

“Soon, very, very soon … I’m going back to Tipperary.”

What’s your idea of perfect happiness?

There ensued a long, poignant silence as he mulled over this one, finally coming up with rather a sad answer.

“I don’t have one. I don’t think there is perfect happiness in this world.”

Do you believe in a life after death?

“Yeah … I do.”

Are you still a Catholic at heart, then?

“I’m Taoist Catholic. I believe in Ying and Yang, too. I like to go with the flow.”

What’s your biggest fear?

“Running out of money or my girlfriend leaving me.”

Are there any aspects of your past that you’d change, given the chance?

“Yeah, I wouldn’t have come back over here for a start.”

At which we both laughed. Shane making a noise that resembled cartoon dog Mutley.

“Ireland’s my home … it always was. I love getting on the boat. It makes me happy. In all my school holidays I used to go back. I left school at the age of fourteen and I’d work for about six months over here, to make money to go back. Then I’d come back over here for night life. I never lost contact with Ireland, even when we were touring the world.”

Do you think that some of the great writers like, for instance, Coleridge, would have been so creative they had not experimented with drugs and alcohol?

“No, they wouldn’t have been so creative. Opium and alcohol definitely made for a higher standard of poetry in the 19th century than there has been this century. As for great writers, I think the greatest English literature this century has been Irish literature.”

And are you of a great tradition of artists who’ve unlocked the subconscious?

“Well, it’s not just writers who’ve experimented. Musicians do too. I’m a musician first, and a lyricist second. It’s the music that comes first.”

Who do you most admire musically?

“Loads of people. The great Irish musicians like Carolan and O’Riada, and The Dubliners. Carolan was a harp player who wrote traditional tunes; Sean O’Riada’s dead now but The Chieftains were his backing group. He began the Irish music revival in the 50th.”

What about contemporary bands like The Men They Couldn’t Hang? I know that Danny from The Popes sometimes steps in as their drummer.

“Yeah, I like them. I know Swill, Jon, Cush and Beastie …. they’re friends of mine.”

Any other folk rock bands you like… (long pause and the Mutley laugh)?

“Naw, I didn’t know there were any others.”

What’s the most important lesson that life’s taught you?

“Don’t expect anything.”

We start talking about Ireland: me telling Shane how I could associate with that feeling of being a foreigner in a strange land (I left when I was twelve years old), and he pulls out a letter and insists I read it. The letter is from a particularly famous Irish politician (use your imagination) wishing Shane a happy birthday (Xmas Day) and signing off with “keep making the great music”.

Shane was beginning to look a little uncomfortable. I knew he’d been involved in a minor car crash earlier in the week and, although he wasn’t badly hurt he’d bruised his ribs and had been shaken up by the experience. I figured the big man could do with a respite, so I decide to stop asking questions. Strangely enough it was just then that he suddenly came to life, insisting that as we were both sleepy (it was 3.30am by this time) we should have some vodka.

“It really peps you up” he insisted.

Within seconds curious little thimbles of the stuff appeared and, as if by magic, Tom McAnimal, The Pope’s banjo player materialised too (excellent timing, Tom). The craic was good as we toasted ‘The Crock Of Gold’ followed by similar tributes to Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Punk Rock!

Shane was in excellent form by now, recounting his drinking session with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello in a Chicago bar, and his acting debut – with Matt Dillon – in the ‘Fairy Tale Of New York’ video. I poke fun at him by asking if he’s name dropping and he begins to sing … “Name drops keep falling on my head…”

As the clock strikes 4.00am, we raise our glasses one again. “To the finest musician/songwriter ever to come out of Ireland …” Here’s to you Mr MacGowan! I reluctantly say farewell to Shane and friends remembering the words of that other famous Irishman, Christy Moore: “A hundred years from now, when many another artist has been forgotten, they’ll still be singing the songs of Shane MacGowan.”