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Books and Culture

Matthew Hennessey
God’s Lucky Man
The “charmed life” of Shane MacGowan
14 March 2014
Photo by wicho

They say God takes care of fools and drunks. If so, he’s been working overtime the last few decades taking care of Shane MacGowan. As the frontman and principal songwriter of the Irish rock band the Pogues, MacGowan is as famous for his lyrics and whiskey-timbered voice as for his unlikely longevity, despite a Homeric appetite for intoxicating substances, especially, but not limited to, alcohol. Though he cuts a shambolic figure, MacGowan is still upright at 56, a feat many view as a minor miracle. His rheumy eyes and distinctive throat-clearing cackle suggest not genius, necessarily, but late-stage dipsomania; there is nary a tooth left in his head. God or something like God must be taking care of MacGowan. He’s not been doing the job himself.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, reports of MacGowan’s impending demise were so frequent that English author Tim Bradford felt compelled to write a book called Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive? No one, not even MacGowan, takes talk of his mortality seriously anymore. “For the last 35 years I’ve supposed to have been dead in six months,” he has said. “But when all these bastards say you’re going to be dead in six months it tends to give you an incentive not to be. . . . Let’s face it, I’ve got a charmed life. I’m a lucky bastard, know what I mean?”

Whether luck, God, or some combination of the two is responsible for MacGowan’s Promethean tolerance for self-abuse, he has nonetheless been deservedly celebrated for the vivid originality of his songwriting, for which he has often been called Ireland’s greatest living poet. Indeed, his best writing evokes the poetry of William Blake, whose claim that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” has served as a road-map for MacGowan’s public career. “If you’re asking whether drink and drugs have worked for me,” he told an interviewer in 1994, “I’ve got to say they have. I’m one with William Blake on this one. Drink and drugs and all that shit, it’s a short cut to the subconscious.”

Fans and critics could be forgiven for thinking that MacGowan’s subconscious is a place of darkness, an insane asylum, a prison cell, or a congress of libertine Irish nationalists and saucy fair maidens groping their way toward alcoholic oblivion like Earth-bound fallen angels. But it is also a religious bouillabaisse of Celtic paganism, Catholic mysticism, and “drunken Zen.”

This Irish bard was, in fact, born in England to Irish parents on Christmas Day 1957. He spent his earliest years living with relatives on the family’s ancestral farmhouse in County Tipperary, along Ireland’s “broad, majestic Shannon” river. It was a deeply religious household, like most in rural Ireland in the 1960s. In the evenings, MacGowan remembers, his aunts and uncles would gather in the parlor to pray the rosary together. In his 2001 quasi-autobiography, A Drink with Shane MacGowan, coauthored with his longtime girlfriend, journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, he writes that his Irish relatives prodded him to become a priest. “Their wish was to have a priest in the family, instead of a drunk in the family,” he recalls. “It was one step up for everybody if I became a priest.” At six, he rejoined his parents, who had been forced abroad in search of work, and never lived in Ireland again—save for summers and holidays—until after he achieved fame in the early 1980s. When he speaks, if that’s what you can call it, he speaks with an English accent.

As the child of immigrants, MacGowan grew up between worlds, not fully Irish by virtue of his accent, not fully English by virtue of his last name and, crucially, his religion. “Irish kids of my age got split down the middle, really heavily,” he writes. “They either decided that they would never be English . . . or they became ashamed of their own parents and their own roots.” MacGowan was unequivocal in his resolve to resist becoming English. He would never be at home in what he viewed as an alien and enemy culture. He claims to have been “fanatical about hurling and the IRA,” two pastimes that would have been decidedly unpopular in the London of the late seventies.

Cultural alienation gave the budding poet an angle from which to explore the seedy side of London in song. It also gave him unique perspective as an interpreter of the Irish musical tradition. With the remove of distance, MacGowan sussed out the political and attitudinal affinities—since exploited by countless imitators—between British working-class heroes such as the Clash and balladeering Irish folk heroes such as the Dubliners. Listening to the Pogues is like getting a punk-rock telegram from Brendan Behan. Their music sews together seisún music—the traditional jigging and fiddling you’d hear on a Wednesday evening in a rural Irish pub—and straight-ahead punk rock of the sort that MacGowan was weaned on as a teenager in late 1970s London clubs.

In his 1995 autobiography, Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten recalled, “Shane MacGowan used to come and see us play all the time. He’d be down in the front totally pissed out of his head in his Union Jack T-shirt. When he joined the Pogues, he traded it in for [an Irish] tricolor.” For his part, MacGowan saw something in the snarling, anarchic Sex Pistols that few others did: “I probably wouldn’t have been so bloody interested in them if Johnny Rotten hadn’t have been so bloody obviously Irish.” In the arithmetic of the time, Sid Vicious plus William Butler Yeats equals Shane MacGowan; punk plus poetry equals the Pogues. But poetry alone is not what drew people to the Pogues; it’s also MacGowan’s voice. It was a voice out of time. “I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to make time irrelevant, to make generations and decades irrelevant,” he says.

The Pogues recorded five studio albums with MacGowan at the helm before sacking him in 1991, when the band finally tired of his bad behavior. His contributions to each capture the spirit of the sly remark made by that other great London Irish poet, Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.” MacGowan’s particular gutter had not just a great view of the stars, but the heavens as well.

No Irish artist of the twentieth century—or, to be more precise, no twentieth-century artist working in the Irish milieu—could escape the influence of the Catholic Church. MacGowan is no exception. “When the sacred blood of the Holy Ghost is boiling in my veins, I think of Jesus on the cross and I scream out for his pain,” he howls on “The Church of the Holy Spook,” the opening track of his 1994 post-Pogues solo debut, The Snake. While Irish writers from James Joyce to Seamus Heaney larded their work with criticism of the Catholic Church and celebrated the diminution of its priestly influence over everyday life in Ireland, MacGowan’s view of the Church has always been more complex. “The Roman Catholic Mass is one of the most beautiful experiences a human being can be subjected to,” he has said. “It’s not something you want to do, it’s something you’re beaten into doing. But then once you’re there, right, the whole thing takes you over, and like, you go . . . WOW! OH OH OH.”

A self-proclaimed “religious maniac,” MacGowan describes his adult faith as a “free-thinking Catholicism.” He claims special devotions to Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Martin de Porres. As an adolescent, he took his relatives’ urging to heart and considered the priesthood, even if driven more by his base human appetites than by the spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion that the Church prefers: “Like every house I went to visit they’d give me loads of booze, know what I mean? . . . And I was religious, so I mean, I wouldn’t have to fake it.” As recently as late last year, MacGowan remarked, “I’m very grateful to Christ and his Holy Mother and Joseph and all the saints, including my family, that have passed on.”

In A Drink with Shane MacGowan, presented as a conversation between Clarke and MacGowan, he describes a personalized, syncretistic set of beliefs incorporating multiple religious elements. “The Holy Ghost is basically the Tao,” he says.

—What about Jesus?

—Jesus was an enlightened human being.

—So he was the Tao.

—Being a human being obviously is the Tao. We’re all the Tao.

—So Jesus was the son of God.

—No.

—No. So, do you pray to Jesus?

—Yes.

—Why do you pray to Jesus if he’s not . . .?

—Because he was . . . for the same reason I pray to Buddha.

—Right. And why is that?

—He was a totally enlightened, holy human being.

—Where is he now?

—He’s around.

—What happened to him? Did he get resurrected or what?

—Yeah.

—So you believe that Jesus died . . .

—Yeah.

—And you believe he was resurrected?

—Yeah.

—Who resurrected him?

—He resurrected himself.

—He resurrected himself, so he’d obviously developed special powers.

—Yeah. I think he went to the East, and developed Taoist powers. Tao magic . . .

—Right. So who else do you pray to?

—I pray to the wind and the rain because I was brought up a devout Roman Catholic.

If this expansive view of Christian salvation exceeds the boundaries of Church teaching, it nevertheless places MacGowan squarely within the rich and sensual faith tradition practiced by his Irish ancestors. Author Charles R. Morris has called nineteenth-century Irish Catholicism a “witches’ brew of half-remembered pagan rites and fractured Catholic ritual—a jumble of hexes, fairies, banshees, saints, and Latin prayers.” This is not a bad description of MacGowan’s songwriting. Give a listen to 1985’s “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn,” and it’s all there—angels and devils, ghosts and banshees, fighting, fornication, midnight mass, and the mythological Irish warrior of the song’s title.

MacGowan’s tribal Catholicism, like his London, is at home with the sacred and the profane. The experience of being a teenaged Irish Catholic in London during the 1970s, at the height of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and the IRA bombing campaign on the English mainland, shaped MacGowan’s religious outlook. Intensely political and intensely Catholic identities were being formed in Irish communities around the world. In London, Boston, New York, and elsewhere, teenagers with Irish surnames were radicalized daily by reports of Irish Catholics in the six counties of the North being rounded up by British soldiers and held without trial in internment camps.

MacGowan’s passion for the cause went somewhat further than most. “I always felt guilty because I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland,” he writes. “I felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA. And the Pogues was my way of overcoming that guilt.” But the Pogues were rarely political in song, the notable exception being 1988’s “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six,” which dramatizes the story of a group of Belfast men tortured and wrongly imprisoned for the horrific 1974 bombing of two central Birmingham pubs that killed 21 and injured 182. In MacGowan’s telling, the men were guilty of nothing more than “being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.” The song was banned by British radio.

As a solo artist, MacGowan was more explicit about his support for militant Irish republicanism. Consider the opening lines of “Skipping Rhymes” from his 1997 effort, The Crock of Gold, recorded months before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought active hostilities in Northern Ireland to an end:

We put the hood around his head
Then we shot the bastard dead
With a knick-knack paddy-whack
Give the dog a bone
Send the stupid bastards home

Most people—Catholic, Protestant, or Taoist—would find this sentiment, not to mention the “poetry,” execrable. Had anyone noticed, MacGowan may have faced a boycott, been dropped by his record label, or gotten run out of his home city on a rail. But The Crock of Gold sold poorly and quickly dropped from view, as did MacGowan. He next surfaced in 2000, when Irish singer Sinead O’Connor reported his heroin abuse to London police. A rehab stint in London’s Priory Hospital ended poorly. During the next decade, MacGowan mustered a handful of live performances, most of them received with the grudging respect due a once-great artist who has mostly squandered his God-given talent.

For the last decade, the reunited Pogues—they took MacGowan back in 2001—have embarked annually on modest tours of Europe and the United States, performing 20 or 30 shows per year, typically clustered around St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas. Unrepentant and unreformed, MacGowan has never been a compelling live performer, but these shows always sell out. In recent years, the group’s songs have been featured in episodes of David Simon’s The Wire (about Irish-American cops in Baltimore) and, more incongruously, in a Subaru commercial. Their Christmas classic, the MacGowan-penned “Fairytale of New York,” was recently named “Britain’s favorite Christmas song” by the ITV television network. “Fairytale,” about gin-soaked, drug-addicted lovers who might just make it despite spending Christmas Eve in a Big Apple drunk tank, rose to Number Two on the British pop charts in 1987 and remains the commercial and artistic peak of the Pogues’ career. Step into an Irish pub anywhere in December and try not to be swept away by its soaring melody and sing-along charm as the whole place raises a glass to the chorus: “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay/And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.” It is MacGowan’s crowning achievement and likely to be the song for which he is best remembered.

In 2012, the Pogues recorded a live CD/DVD in Paris to mark their 30th anniversary as a band. What Pogues fans really want, though, is a new album of original songs, something that MacGowan hasn’t been able to deliver in 17 years. With several band members now living in America and guitarist Phil Chevron’s death last year from cancer, the odds seem stacked against it. MacGowan is lurching toward 60, and no one will be surprised if he doesn’t make it. Then again, Shane MacGowan may outlive us all.

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