The life-embracing, death-defying founder of the Pogues is a king hell drinker, a writer and one of the last of a vanishing breed.
by Stephen Lemons
First published on Salon.com, July 31, 2001.
Shane MacGowan, the Irish Charles Bukowski, known for a craggy set of teeth that has inspired more similes than Stonehenge and a liver that would've made James Joyce weep, is one of the few remaining practitioners of a literary tradition that fuses an angry lust for extremes with the exploration of same in poetry or prose. Once upon a time, aspiring writers dived face first into fleshpots, saloons, drug dens, streets and abattoirs, both foreign and domestic. Those gritty, violent, experience-driven universities of transgression produced the likes of Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Malcolm Lowry, Fyodor Dostoevski, Brendan Behan, Knut Hamsun, Paul Bowles and Alexander Trocchi, among others. Shane MacGowan is one of the last of their dying breed.
MacGowan's gargantuan exploits in the realms of substance abuse have been well documented by admirers and detractors alike. Apparently, he was fired from the Pogues, the legendary, London-based Anglo-Irish rock group he co-founded in the early '80s, after his band mates decided in 1991 that they could no longer abide his missing tour dates because he was incapacitated by drink. In doing so, the Pogues signed their own death warrant. MacGowan, the apotheosis of the inebriated Celtic rebel, was the one the crowds wanted.
It was his whiskey-inspired antics and his snarling delivery they craved, and every gig he missed only added to the mystique. I remember a Pogue show at Manhattan's old Beacon Theater where Joe Strummer of the Clash filled in because MacGowan was "sick." The experience was lackluster, to say the least. But to MacGowan's devotees, such disappointments were part of the package. Throughout the '80s and '90s, it was common to be in an Irish pub in New York and hear the often-told myth that MacGowan had six months to live. So when he missed a gig, we were all just happy to hear that he was still alive the next day.
"I'm just following the Irish tradition of songwriting, the Irish way of life, the human way of life," MacGowan explained in 1997 to British men's magazine Loaded. "Cram as much pleasure into life, and rail against the pain you have to suffer as a result. Or scream and rant with the pain, and wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure."
MacGowan wears pain and pleasure on his sleeve, along with beer stains, cigarette burns and the remnants of some long-forgotten curry. In Chicago, he once threw up onstage in midset fronting for his new band the Popes, and resumed singing without a hitch. When he broke up with the Pogues, U2's Bono, one of a passel of celebrity admirers that includes Bob Dylan, Johnny Depp and Nick Cave, let him dry out at his Martello tower in Dublin. Just over a year ago, the Guardian reported that MacGowan was admitted to a fancy rehab facility after his pal, Sinéad O'Connor, called the cops on him -- allegedly because he was hooked on heroin, a rumor MacGowan later denied after he was ejected from said dry-out program for reasons unknown. O'Connor told reporters that she feared for MacGowan's life, but MacGowan shrugged off the whole incident as if that sort of thing happens every day in his world. "I might as well clear up the fact that she [O'Connor] has made out that I was lying on the floor in a coma," he told the Guardian. "Whereas in fact I was sitting on the sofa having a G and T and watching a Sam Peckinpah movie, 'Cross of Iron.'"
MacGowan has often made the point that his alcoholism is inextricably linked to his creative output -- and it certainly seems to work for him. The bulk of the best the Pogues had to offer during their seven-year run from 1984 to 1991 came from MacGowan's pen in whole or in part. Indeed, MacGowan co-wrote with band mate Jem Finer the Pogues' most famous song, the one that's still played incessantly in the bars and pubs of England, Ireland and New York throughout the Christmas season, "Fairytale of New York," which he sang on their 1988 album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" in a duet with the late Kirsty MacColl.
It's a song that could not have been written by a teetotaler. In it, MacGowan's frog voice cracks to MacColl:
It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you, baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true
The idea of some drunk, not unlike MacGowan himself, cooling his hindquarters in the New York drunk tank on a Christmas Eve and wishing his woman the joys of the season is at once pathetic, amusing and poetic. Perhaps because the poet has wished upon himself the indignities of the overly bibulous, he has a natural affinity for the downtrodden. But there's also something to the ancient idea of mind-altering substances being used to unlock the creative process. This is not to say that every writer must be an unrepentant boozer, or that every drunk necessarily has a little bit of Dylan Thomas flowing through his veins, but it does give a writer something to write about.
MacGowan's fondness for firewater is nearly congenital. According to his recent stab at autobiography, the aptly titled "A Drink With Shane MacGowan," which he coauthored with his wife, writer Victoria Clarke, MacGowan began hitting the sauce at age 5 -- his Uncle John in Tipperary would slip him two bottles of stout after stumbling home from "the boozer." Around the same time, he got ahold of his first bottle of whiskey, which he guzzled down midday in a farmyard. What followed was a hallucination wherein nearby geese spoke "gobbledygook" to the young MacGowan. And it was all downhill after that.
Born in England to Irish parents, he was raised in Tipperary for most of the first six years of his life. Afterward, his family settled in London, where he still lives part of the year, the rest of his time being spent in Dublin. A literary prodigy, he was an avid reader of Irish lit, and at age 14 he won a coveted scholarship to the elite Westminster public school. But Westminster booted him out a year later for drug abuse. He eventually found punk, began calling himself Shane O'Hooligan and led an infamous band called the Nipple Erectors. Later he met up with a ragged crew of ne'er-do-wells into traditional Irish music, and Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "Kiss my ass") was born. Since some folks at the BBC knew what that meant, the group shortened the name to the Pogues.
MacGowan was the soul of the group. He wrote and sang a large portion of the songs, and his defiant, drunken truculence quickly made him an idol to legions of Irish, nearly Irish and wannabe Irish. MacGowan retains that status to this day, though his current notoriety in no way matches those bygone days of Pogue popularity. Still, his admirers are doggedly loyal. None other than legendary Irish singer Christy Moore has referred to him as a great poet. It's MacGowan's verse -- steeped in an Irish la vie de bohème -- that keeps them coming back.
MacGowan's penchant for the literary always hits a high note when he pays tribute to fellow writers, such as tippler, novelist and quadriplegic Christy Brown (immortalized by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film "My Left Foot"), whom MacGowan sang of in "Down All the Days" on the 1989 "Peace and Love" album:
Christy Brown a clown around town
Now a man of renown from Dingle to Down
I type with me toes
Suck stout through me nose
And where it's gonna end
God only knows
Down all the days
The tap-tap tapping
Of the typewriter pays
The gentle rattling
Of the drays
Down all the days
You cannot hear that song without wanting to write, preferably with a bottle of Guinness next to you. Or there's the more solemn, dirgelike "Lorca's Novena" on the 1990 Pogues effort "Hell's Ditch," the last the band would make as a coherent unit. The song eulogizes the Spanish poet's execution at the hands of fascist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, and the effect is mystical, as if MacGowan had himself pierced some veil of time and darkness through a vision brought on by the combination of liquor and narcotics:
Ignacio lay dying in the sand
A single red rose clutched in a dying hand
The women wept to see their hero die
And the big black birds gathered in the sky
Mother of all our joys, mother of all our sorrows
Intercede with him tonight
For all of our tomorrows
The years went by and then the killers came
And took the men and marched them up a hill of pain
And Lorca the faggot poet they left 'til last
Blew his brains out with a pistol up his ass
The killers came to mutilate the dead
But ran away in terror to search the town instead
Lorca's corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away
And the only sound was the woman in the chapel praying
One imagines this song being played at MacGowan's funeral, which one hopes is several decades in the future. MacGowan has an alcoholic's fervent symbolism, one interlaced with his Catholicism and the unusual fact that he was born on Christmas Day nearly 44 years ago. And he has an Irish Republican's devout allegiance to the cause of the oppressed. On his second CD after leaving the Pogues, 1997's "The Crock of Gold," there's a song titled "St. John of Gods" -- inspired by his stay in a detox clinic -- that describes a "crushed-up man" who "doesn't seem to see or care" and who repeats to himself "F'yez all, F'yez all." But, MacGowan tells us,
Once he stood, in a bar room brawl
With a broken bottle in his hand
Screaming "F'yez all, F'yez all."
The coppers came
Dragged him away from his crucified Lord
Beat him up in a meat wagon
And they stood him up in court
And all he had to say was "F'yez all."
In 1998, when I interviewed MacGowan, he said that the song described a man he saw while attending the dry-out program in Dublin. "He looked like a saint," he told me in his thick brogue. "But he was a drunk. He never said a word. He had been crushed by society."
"St. John of Gods" is a perfect example of the union of MacGowan's life and his lyrics. The title is also the name of the program MacGowan was in, one he describes in his autobiography as "a loony bin for alcoholic nutters." Apparently, MacGowan was on a particularly nasty drunk and blacked out after drinking "Long Island iced teas, Dublin Airport style." When he came to, he was in the midst of attacking a man who was trying to make his plane. But it was when he fell headlong into an old woman and her groceries that the police arrested him. In a classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" scenario, MacGowan was given a choice between getting sober in the "loony bin" or jail, and he chose the former. Once in, he was committed until he could prove that he'd mastered his demons. And it was there MacGowan saw the muse of his song, the crushed-up old man -- his "St. John of Gods."
When I asked MacGowan if the old man was symbolic of Ireland, he agreed that was one possible interpretation: "He's a figure of defiance through everything. That could be a metaphor for Ireland." But he denied that he saw himself in that old man, saying, "I've had an easy ride." Of course, I suspect on some level he did see himself in the man, having been recently arrested and committed. And it was his ability to empathize deeply with this fellow -- the sort that so many of us pass on the street and ignore on a daily basis -- that facilitated MacGowan's song. Certainly he is not the first to discover the spiritual in society's lost, but his song seems far more authentic because of the marriage of his talent and experience. Imagination is best when fueled by reality.
Granted, MacGowan isn't for everyone. Many hold their noses when they hear of his delight in the sewer, his peculiar Irish chauvinism and the bottomless hole in his jar of bevvy. But at least he takes you on a journey to places most writers today are too prissy to venture, whether physically or imaginatively. The Guardian reported recently that MacGowan's next album, tentatively titled "Twentieth Century Paddy," will be about Irish Republican Army men, solitary Irish farmers who hang themselves for want of a spouse, overdosed junkies and so on. Without a new Shane MacGowan album to look forward to, life would certainly be a hell of a lot more boring -- as it already is without Bukowski. But for the time being, we have MacGowan's offer from the "Crock of Gold":
It's more pricks
That's what it is
I'm a scumbag,
a lout, that's the way
But if you name me a street
Then I'll name you a bar
And I'll walk right through Hell
Just to buy you a jar