Old habits die hard
Twenty-five years ago, Shane MacGowan was given six weeks to live. But he's still here, and so are the Pogues - back to their original lineup for a new lease of life. Dave Simpson joins them in Dublin to relive the bad old days.
Shane MacGowan doesn't remember much about leaving the Pogues, except this: "I was glad to get out alive." It was 1991. The band were in Japan, in the middle of a gruelling tour that had driven all the members to the brink of insanity and MacGowan was finding it particularly hard to live up to his reputation as a "songwriting legend". Sake was his chosen refuge.
"We were on a train," remembers mandolin player Terry Woods. "There were two vans sent to pick us up and Shane was in such a state he had the second van all to himself. The Japanese are really polite and this guy ran around to open the door and Shane was so pissed he just fell out in the street. He was very bloody and knocked himself out. When we took him back to the hotel they thought he'd been in a car accident."
Thirteen years later, MacGowan has made it to a Dublin hotel, late and not exactly unscathed - "I was given six weeks to live, about 25 years ago!" - but at least he's here. The same can be said of the Pogues, reunited for the first time in their classic line-up including bassist Cait O'Riordan, who left in 1985, unable to face any more touring. A flurry of activity includes the remastering of their entire back catalogue and live dates in December; there may be more if MacGowan is in the mood.
Today his mood is playful. Not entirely sober (but certainly not drunk), he takes delight in treating the interview like a police interrogation (something with which he is familiar), deliberately mishearing questions and firing them back.
"I did it for the money," he says of songs that lit up albums like Red Roses for Me (1983), Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and 1988's classic If I Should Fall From Grace With God. He dismisses his legacy with the words, "I just wrote a few songs." He points out that he didn't write Dirty Old Town or The Irish Rover. But he did write A Pair of Brown Eyes, Sally MacLennane, 1987's Christmas hit Fairytale of New York and many other much-loved songs. Which raises the obvious question of whether MacGowan will record new songs with the Pogues. "I wouldn't mind," he admits, before remembering himself. "Do you think I'd tell you cunts? Hehehehe!" MacGowan hasn't made a new album since 1997's The Crock of Gold, with his sometime post-Pogues band the Popes. "I've been tired," he pleads.
However, those around him suggest he's emerging from a "dark period" that included Sinéad O'Connor reporting him to the police in 1999 for snorting heroin (a wake-up call which, he has claimed, stopped his use of the drug), the death of Kirsty MacColl, who partnered him on Fairytale of New York, and a split from his long-term partner Victoria Clarke, muse for such songs as Rainy Night in Soho. I've been told that mentioning any of this is likely to upset him.
MacGowan has always been a complex, contrary so-and-so. His songs are like the man: uncouth, belligerent but with streaks of insight and sensitivity. The latter wasn't immediately apparent when he had his first stab at notoriety as Shane O'Hooligan. MacGowan had arrived in the 1976 London punk scene after growing up in a Tipperary farmhouse (where a large extended family gave him Guinness aged just five) and a scholarship at Westminster public school that ended in drug-related disgrace after six months. Then, as now, his diet was literature (Brendan Behan, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, The A to Z of Communism . . .) washed down with whatever was available.
His first spell in rehab came at just 17, when, after falling foul of valium, he admitted himself into the notorious Bethlem hospital. "I've been lucky," he says. "The first band I saw when I walked out of the madhouse was the Sex Pistols."
He met Spider Stacy, the Pogues' penny whistle player, at a Ramones gig. Why did they bond? "Bonk?" he gurgles, before comparing the pair to "punk's Morecambe and Wise".
MacGowan formed the Nipple Erectors and managed Stacy's band the Millwall Chainsaws. But the energy had dissipated by 1983. To create their own excitement, they called themselves the New Republicans, taking the stage at New Romantic night-spot Cabaret Futura performing Irish rebel songs before an audience of poseurs and squaddies. "A classic gig," remembers MacGowan, revealing the remains of dental work.
"We were pelted offstage, but a lot of people were interested. The man who owned the place, bless him, was Irish and he pulled the plug after six songs for our safety and the club's reputation. He said 'Great show lads - never come here again.' " They didn't, but within a year they had formed the Pogues, who took a similar approach to traditional Irish music. The difference between them and bands like the Dubliners was, as MacGowan observes, "We played faster and took more speed." Stacy's job involved playing tin whistle and banging a beer tray over his head. Irish musician Noel Hill called them "an abortion of Irish music". And so a generation fell in love. "I remember one gig where this kid's shirt was ripped straight off his back," chuckles Terry Woods. "He'd no shoes on and one leg of his trousers was ripped off, and it was pissing down with rain. I remember thinking, 'How's he gonna get home?' But he was having a great time."
Riotous Pogues gigs were almost like acid house raves before their time (indeed, MacGowan cites the Pogues' later 1989 Peace and Love album as an Irish take on acid house). English youths draped themselves in Irish flags. But behind the mayhem was lasting substance. Arguably their most substantial contribution was to transform the English view of Irish people and Irish culture. When the Pogues emerged, a climate of suspicion saw English schoolchildren taught about the Empire and many people equated Ireland with the IRA. "It was very difficult growing up London-Irish in the 1970s," remembers Cait O'Riordan, "having this funny name and parents who had this funny accent, with bombs going off . . ." But suddenly, a generation was listening to MacGowan songs such as Birmingham Six (which was banned, then vindicated when the Six were released) and wondering whether things really were quite as society painted. "The climate of racism really did change completely, at a social level, when the Pogues came along," says Spider Stacy.
But MacGowan is unconvinced that his band somehow helped lay the foundations for everything from Irish pubs to the peace process. "You still think we're drunken Paddies." He's understandably even more reluctant to acknowledge any responsibility for introducing binge drinking to the UK's youth: you certainly didn't get that at gigs by bands like Duran Duran. "That's because nobody in there was old enough to drink," he gurgles.
Alcohol fuelled MacGowan's creativity but became a problem for the band once they relied on it to ease the madness of touring. In Germany, with media eyes on MacGowan, it wasn't reported that Stacy was given three weeks to live (these days he doesn't touch a drop). Meanwhile, the frontman hated his own stardom and the expectations surrounding his writing gifts, becoming so obliterated that he "couldn't remember the bloody words." "It became really obvious that Shane didn't want to do it any more, and that was his way of telling us," says Stacy. After the sake incident, MacGowan was asked to leave. "It was a relief," he says.
Today, MacGowan sits with a double gin and tonic (which he barely touches) and insists that many of the subsequent stories about his drinking are exaggerations. "It's a story," he pleads. "Every time I pick up a drink there's a photographer and it becomes, 'Oh look, Shane's pissed again.' " Still, he doesn't always fight preconceptions - in the new Johnny Depp film, The Libertine, MacGowan plays a drunken minstrel.
Last Christmas, a celebrating O'Riordan had just been thrown out of Dublin's Shelbourne pub when she came across a familiar figure. "I went, 'Shaaane!' " she laughs. "I used to be in your band." Touchingly, MacGowan said that he has missed the Pogues and wanted to build on a previous week-long reunion in 2001 (which was without O'Riordan, who he clearly adores). He won't say whether he misses the way songs once came to him "bang, bang, bang . . . like from above, as if I was just the conduit."
Which brings us back to this apparent creative block. As I tiptoe towards the "dark period", he refutes any suggestion that he's somehow paying the price of abuse, particularly of LSD, which for a time was a major creative tool. "I took my first trip at 14," he snorts. "I've never stopped taking acid." So why did the songs stop? Finally he snaps. "Because my fucking girlfriend left me." Can you not put that in song? "I could, but I'm hoping she'll come back to me." MacGowan looks like he could punch me. I almost want to hug him.
MacGowan recently moved back to the farmhouse in "Tipp" where he grew up, and it's been good for him. The black mood vanishes as quickly as it arrived. He jokes - looking me right in the eye - of "walking in the fields, shooting trespassers". More candidly, he admits that he has been unhappy but has been helped by eastern mysticism, and shows me a book which falls open at the line: "By wiping away ego we can see things as they are." In May, a new MacGowan composition, Road to Paradise, emerged on a charity EP in aid of ex-Celtic and Scotland footballer Jimmy Johnstone, who has motor neurone disease. The situation is further muddied by Woods' assertion that Shane is happier because he's not under pressure. "But he does have new material and I know some of it is really good. He's beginning to come back to what he was."
I ask MacGowan to sign a record sleeve and at first he seems uncomfortable, saying: "Can't we do it at the gig?" Then he remembers that he's in a hotel, "the gig" isn't until December and embroiders If I Should Fall From Grace With God with scrawl. I'm expecting something offensive, but it reads beautifully, like a lyric: "It's time we began to laugh and cry about it all again!"
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