The poet king is dead. Long live the poet king.
Pogues singer Shane MacGowan charged hard in his 65 years of life, so hard that his longevity became a running gag: Is Shane still alive? He didn’t burn the midnight oil; he drank it straight. It seemed impossible that he could have made it to 40. Then to 50. Then to 60.
Well, the joke’s on you. Shane MacGowan is immortal. Though he died this week at 65, his voice lives on. “I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to make time irrelevant, to make generations and decades irrelevant,” he said. The pure music of the Pogues came to me, as it often did in those days, on a cassette. A friend of my older sister was into punk rock. “Your family is Irish, right?” he said to her. “You’ll like this.”
He was right. Rollicking reels and bollicking ballads about immigration and hunger, wakes and whiskey, the banshee and the bastard Brits. The music waltzed in from behind a green velvet curtain, a swirl of accordions, whistles, and banjos, punctuated by the occasional rat-a-tat report of a snare drum. But the main attraction was the voice. It was gravelly and deep, a gargoyle’s howl, a gorgeous death rattle. It spanned centuries, singing the song of Ireland, from Brian Boru to Brendan Behan to the lonely pubs of Times Square to the dark streets of London. It carried that weight. What a voice. I fell in love with that voice.
Most kids where I was from (and when I was from) worshipped guitar gods. None knew who Shane MacGowan was. They recoiled in horror from his famous toothless smile. “That’s your guy?” they asked. “He’s got no teeth, wears a rumpled suit, and looks like he hasn’t taken a shower all year?” Yes. The look was cool, but the music was the thing, and I took much from it.
The Pogues became an obsession. While everyone else was buying hair metal and hip hop, I was paying $30 for a four-song Japanese import EP to get a listen to a single Shane-penned song I’d never heard before. The voice transported me. From my New Jersey bedroom in 1986, I sailed the Irish Rover in 1806. I hunted Greenland’s whale fisheries, played the Waltzing Matilda, and fought my way through the County Hell. I worked on the railroad. I crawled back home at dawn. I gave the walls a talking.
Shane MacGowan modeled himself on Behan; I modeled myself on Shane MacGowan. He sang that he dreamed he’d met with the hellraising playwright and passed the time of day. Behan told him to go where streams of whiskey are flowing. I dreamed I met with Shane and asked him to liberate me from stultifying suburbia, to sit down by the fire and teach me to sing with that voice, to show me how to touch the eternal. Get me out of here, Shane.
It wasn’t easy in the 1980s and 1990s to learn about your favorite bands, unless they were on MTV, which the Pogues emphatically were not. To be an obsessive fan required diligence. I scanned every record store rack for new releases. I skimmed British music magazines wherever I found them, hunting for any mention of Shane’s legendary antics—drinking with Nick Cave, getting booted out of the Pogues during a tour of Japan, getting turned in to the cops by Sinead O’Connor. All of this stuff really happened. Shane really walked the same earth as I did. He was always still alive, last I heard.
It was my good fortune to see him perform several times. I lost my best T-shirt in a fit of delirium at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It was the summer of 1995. “This next song is for Jerry Garcia,” Shane snarled into the microphone. The Grateful Dead leader had died that day. The crowd didn’t seem to care for the dedication. Some booed. Shane looked disappointed. “I’m serious. Jerry Garcia was a great musician,” he said before launching into “The Body of an American,” with its sing-along chorus: “I’m a free-born man of the U.S.A.” The walls nearly fell in.
A few years later on New York’s Randall’s Island, Shane’s post-Pogues backing band looked annoyed as they vamped through the introduction to “If I Should Fall From Grace with God,” waiting for the poet king to make his entrance from the side of the outdoor stage. I waited, too, along with about a thousand Guinness-soaked hooligans on a dusty infield under the hot sun. The band looped the intro three times before Shane finally stumbled into sight, gripping the mic stand for balance. It turns out he came not to sing but to issue a threat: “The IRA could wipe out the American army in 10 fookin’ minutes sssshhhhhhhhh.” He was famous for his unique laugh.
In the fullness of time, I saw him play more times than I needed to. If you came for the music, his performances could be underwhelming. If you came for the craic, you might leave happy, though you probably woke up feeling it the next day. As the years passed, he became nearly immobile on stage. He seemed fragile, like you could knock him over. A stagehand would bring him lit cigarettes between songs. He seemed too addled to keep up with the band most of the time, the swirl of his own lyrics moving too quickly for his brain to process. Sometimes he came in on the chorus. Sometimes he just eyeballed the crowd from behind dark glasses, swaying gently as the smoke curled around his head. Sssshhhhh.
I also saw the Pogues play without him, but without him they weren’t much. In the mid-2000s, however, the Pogues brought him back. When the tour came to America, I ran to buy tickets. I couldn’t believe I’d get to see the full team on one stage. Perhaps the ghost of Behan himself would appear, marching us all out the back under a flag of green and gold to bring freedom to dear old Ireland.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Shane broke his leg the previous night in Boston, causing a cancellation in New York. I was mildly disappointed, but life does tend to go on, until it doesn’t. Then only the music remains. I named my daughter Sally after a Pogues song.
Shane MacGowan, like Brendan Behan, was a true character, his legendary appetites tempered by a rare ability to draw out the sweetness in human frailty. He was the London Irish street urchin of his songs. He drank. He lay in gutters and looked at the stars. He saw beauty in this ugly world. His gifts allowed him to know what Patrick Kavanagh called “the true gods of sound and stone.” He was both poet and king.
All hail the poet king. Long live Shane.
Photo by Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images