I SAW Shane MacGowan and The Pogues only once. That was when I and a colleague from my newspaper were in London in December 2001 to work on a story about the demise of Britpop. We were going to focus on London as the centre of black and Irish music. So to hell with Blur, we got tickets for The Pogues at the Brixton Academy. This was their Christmas show as well as their first reunion gig after MacGowan had been kicked out of the band in 1991. A truly memorable concert. Everyone, including band members, was furiously drunk, all in line with a heartfelt Shane quote: “No way I was gonna be stone cold sober before a crowd of drunks."
They started with a rowdy version of Streams of Whiskey from their 1984 debut album Red Roses for Me. It was the first song Shane wrote for The Pogues, inspired by Irish poet Brendan Behan. Everyone belted out the chorus: “I am going, I am going, any which way the wind may be blowing. I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing." From there on it was pure mayhem. Not just streams of whiskey but rivers of beer, lakes of cider and puddles of puke. We danced, we slipped, we cheered and we drank. The guy behind us was so drunk that he didn’t notice his girlfriend had collapsed after being hit on the head by a plastic cup. But what the hell, it was great to see Shane on the stage, in great spirits, still standing, in a suit, glass of beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, still alive after so many years of topping the Next Rock Star To Die list. He sounded as slushy and sloppy as ever.
And now he’s gone, having died from pneumonia on November 30 at the age of 65.
Most of us had written him off a long time ago, this punk poet who grew up in Tipperary, Ireland. He and his rabble-rousing troupe had given us three fabulous albums in the 1980s then a few lesser ones that still had the odd great song (think Summer in Siam, The Sunnyside Of The Street and Hell’s Ditch). They had successfully merged Irish folk with punk rock, broadened punk’s appeal beyond the three-chord ethos. They used a tin whistle, a banjo, an accordion and other unusual (at least for punk rock) instruments. But they played as if possessed by some Fomoire, an Irish devil, and Shane’s lyrics went way beyond the usual “I don’t care" and “I hate" lexicon of punk rock. You could hear he had read writers such as James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Behan and Graham Greene. You could see that he admired the self-destructive Irish author James Mangan (“A republican, an alcoholic and a junkie," he said admiringly). He wrote songs of redemption and resurrection, of love, defeat and hope. He was a true and proper Irish poète maudit.
Without The Pogues I would probably never have given folk music a chance. For me, folk was played by boring beards with home-knit socks and girls with long hair and shivery voices. Folkies wore Jesus sandals and sang about “my true love" or some medieval king, or elves and other assorted fantasy stuff. Why would you listen to that if you could listen to Ramones, The Clash and the Sex Pistols? So I never gave it a thought. Until I heard The Pogues. That must have been when their second album appeared, the Elvis Costello-produced Rum Sodomy & the Lash, which had truly memorable tunes such as The Old Main Drag, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn with its long and complex narrative, and Dirty Old Town, a cover of an old folk song that The Pogues had made entirely their own.
I loved the way they painted images of seventies London, a grim and dirty town with greasy working men’s cafés, ancient-looking pubs, vibrant street markets, a cutting-edge fashion sense, fish and chips served in old newspaper, tribal rivalries (punks, skinheads and teddy boys beating each other up), puke-splattered tube stations, the ever-present smell of Jeyes Fluid, lukewarm beer, Page 3 girls, aloof Rastafarians, fantastic record and book stores, old perverts lurking in Soho, that low grey sky, the rain, the drizzle and seminal music clubs. There were bums and prostitutes, junkies and bottle fights, poverty and riches. London, in the late seventies, was scary and exciting. A dirty old town indeed.
And Shane wrote songs about it, particularly about the Irish community of north London, in areas such as Camden and Kentish Town. He loved the underclass, the dossers, as he called them, the people who had somehow fallen by the wayside and who now passed the bottle or the syringe in wet parks and smelly alleyways.
The week we saw The Pogues in Brixton, we also made a pilgrimage to Filthy McNasty, a famous Irish drinking hole in north London frequented by the likes of MacGowan, Scottish writer Irvine Welsh and Pete Doherty of Libertines fame. It was here in the late nineties that Shane met Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, just before Adams was to meet British prime minister Tony Blair. Tell him “Tiocfaidh ar la", instructed Shane, “our day will come". Shane was a staunch supporter of the Irish cause with a hearty dislike for the colonial English. The most political song of The Pogues was Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, about six Irishmen falsely convicted for a bomb attack in Birmingham in 1974.
The night we were in Filthy McNasty there was not much happening, but we happily drank our Guinness (“the second best in London", said the pub advert), stared at the photos of “celebrities" (Johnny Depp was also a regular) on the wall and felt part of history. And later that day, or the next, it’s all a bit of a blur, we interviewed Pogues biographer Ann Scanlon, who was very friendly but whose boyfriend (a member of quasi legendary London bands Gallon Drunk and Flaming Stars) became more and more antagonistic as the afternoon wore on and more glasses of stout were consumed. It was all part of the London Irish adventure.
I lost track of Shane and The Pogues after he was kicked out of the band in 1991, when even they, notoriously serious drinkers, couldn’t keep up with his erratic behaviour. Like his hero Mangan, Shane had become an alcoholic and a heroin addict (and let’s not forget the speed and acid). The other day I rewatched Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, Julien Temple’s fascinating but painful documentary that came out three years ago. We see Shane in various shapes, states and sizes. Towards the end, he can no longer walk and barely speak. His eyes lack any form of expression. His laugh is a frightening wheeze. His head is permanently tilted, which makes it seem as if he’s drooling. He still drinks though. He did like his drink, old Shane.
The documentary has some stunning scenes of Shane as a young punk rocker who gets “his earlobe bitten off" by a girl during a 1976 concert of The Clash. “Cannibalism at Clash gig", headlined the New Musical Express (although it turned out the girl had hit him with a broken bottle). Shane and punk were a match made in heaven: the freedom it gave the boy who had been drinking since the age of six and who found the move to London extremely hard, because he didn’t fit in, and was kicked out of school for dealing drugs.
He saw an early Sex Pistols gig and was sold. Like him, they “looked as if they should’ve been in a loony bin". Punk embraced him with open arms. He became one of the faces, having started a fanzine in which he wrote under the name Shane O’Hooligan. He formed a band called the Nipple Erectors, who later as The Nips recorded a couple of singles and a live album. But then, around 1982, he had his epiphany: marry punk to Irish folk! Bring tradition into the 20th century! Use the language and the energy! Use London and its urine-stained backstreets and its dossers and the rain, always the rain! The band would be called Pogue Mahone, kiss my ass. Then they became The Pogues.
So they made three great albums. But around 1988 it all got too much for Shane. The Pogues had become what he detested: a rock band. “I compromised. I should never have wavered off the path," he said. And all the attention was focused on him, the singer, whose recklessness with booze and chemicals had become notorious and perfect tabloid fodder. There was endless touring. He lost the plot. He had psychotic episodes, painting himself and everything around him blue. He fell out of a speeding van. His sister Siobhan had him committed to a mental hospital. The doctors said he had six months to live. In Crock Of Gold, Siobhan describes him as a sensitive soul, broadminded and funny. “But the drugs and the drink made him removed and aggressive."
A few years after his bandmates gave him the boot, he formed a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, equally messy, equally energetic, seriously rocking, but not as good as the original Pogues. He kept on keeping on, appearing on other people’s albums, surviving, his songwriting cheques (Fairytale of New York had become an evergreen) bringing him some regular income. He led what he claims was the Irish way of life: “You cram as much pleasure as you can into it, and you rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result, and then you wait for it to be taken away with more beautiful pleasure."
He could no longer visit his old haunt Filthy McNasty because it was sold in 2013 and had been turned into a fancy gastropub, a fitting metaphor for the transformation of London. But he did find love and got married five years ago to Irish journalist/writer Victoria Clarke, after an 11-year engagement. She was with him when he died.
That night in the Brixton Academy in 2001, they played no fewer than 25 songs over almost two hours, including my favourites such as If I Should Fall From Grace With God, Rain Street, A Rainy Night in Soho, Thousands Are Sailing, A Pair of Brown Eyes, Sally MacLennane, a medley of Irish rebel songs, and, inevitably, Fairytale of New York, with Lila MacMahon in the role of the late Kirsty MacColl who sang on the original version. It was their biggest hit, still one of the best-selling Christmas songs. It’s a conversation between a junkie (her) and an alcoholic (him) who celebrate Christmas together in New York and quickly start throwing insults at each other. “You’re a bum/ You’re a punk/ You’re an old slut on junk/ Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed/ You scumbag, you maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas your arse/ I pray God it’s our last." Yes, it’s the most unlikely Christmas hit. Or maybe not. Maybe Shane just wrote down what we all know: Christmas is full of good intentions and hope, but also lies, fights, regrets, tears and rage.
The only song that was missing that night was Death Is Not The End, which he recorded with Nick Cave for the latter’s album Murder Ballads. Together, Shane, Cave, PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue and Anita Lane sing: “For the tree of life is growing/ Where the spirit never dies/ And the bright light of salvation/ Up in dark and empty skies/ When the cities are on fire/ With the burning flesh of men/ Just remember that death is not the end."
RIP, Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan.
♦ VWB ♦
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