Shane MacGowan lead singer of the Irish band The Pogues died on Thursday aged 65. This post below by Rod Bishop was originally published on 3 January 2021
Shane McGowan, who together with his band The Pogues, remapped the landscape for Irish music has always stayed one step ahead of Keith Richards as the most wasted figure in contemporary music.
Let’s take one performance indicator in a matrix of musical longevity – teeth.
Even when the rest of him looked pretty crook, Keith’s teeth have always been sound. Shane MacGowan’s, on the other hand, are one of the wonders of our time.
Although not highlighted in this Julien Temple profile of MacGowan, they remain a mesmorising facial feature.
We first see them on a five-year-old Shane when his parents introduce him to alcohol; then there’s the crooked teenager teeth in need of a brace; followed by the scary yellowed and blackened fangs in The Pogues during their glory years.
So little does Temple make of MacGowan’s teeth, I needed to consult Wikipedia to find out what happened to them. Apparently, they were all gone by 2008, before a nine-hour dental procedure in 2015 gifted him a new set of dental implants.
There’s not much evidence on YouTube that MacGowan had any teeth at all during those intervening seven years and in many clips, he is clearly toothless. It’s a miracle he has made it through alive and it really seems a little unfair his teeth gave up sometime back.
A lifelong IRA supporter, MacGowan was introduced to the Irish rebellion at five-years-old, along with the alcohol. His family home, The Commons in Tipperary, was an IRA safe-house. When he and his friends played ‘Vietnam War’, MacGowen was always a Viet Cong.
Later, in London, his libertarian, musical, Irish patriot parents let him roam at will. Expelled from school for selling drugs; his earlobe was bitten off at a Clash gig; he stacked shelves in grocery stores; worked in construction; and spent time as a rent-boy (“Just hand jobs.”)
His first punk band The Nipple Erectors morphed into The Nips and were regarded as promising enough to open for The Clashand The Jam. As MacGowan’s songwriting became more accomplished he helped to form Pogue Mahone(“Kiss my arse”) and later, he alchemically married punk to traditional Celtic Irish folk music. Throw in lyrics peppered with Irish history, republicanism, nationalism and alcoholic lament and The Pogues were born.
MacGowan has literally lived the lyric “I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober” from the Irish classic Carrickfergus (a prototype Pogues song if ever there was one). His work sits comfortably alongside that song as well as the Irish alcoholic poets and writers such as Brendan Behan and the hard-drinking culture of the lads from The Dubliners.
Some of MacGowan’s lyrics:
When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne
And you heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone
Frank Ryan brought you whisky in a brothel in Madrid
And you decked some fucking blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids
At the sickbed of Cuchulainn we’ll kneel and say a prayer
But the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair
- The Sickbed of Cuchulainn
May the whores of the Empire lay awake in their beds
And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads
While over in Ireland eight more men lay dead
Kicked down and shot in the back of the head
- Streets of Sorrow
I could have been someone
(Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you)
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing ‘Galway Bay’
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas Day
On a rainy night in Soho
The wind was whistling all its charms
I sang you all my sorrows
You told me all your joys
Whatever happened to that old song?
To all those little girls and boys
So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling, sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talking
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing
I gave my love a late night kiss
I tried to take a late night piss
But the toilet moved so again I missed
- Rain Street
Johnny Depp may have staked up much of the production finance for this documentary given his “Johnny Depp presents” opening credit. He joins Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke and musician Bobby Gillespie as interviewers. Depp is easily the worst of them, all infantile sycophantism and attention-seeking.
MacGowan, confined to a wheelchair and recovering from a broken pelvis, vapes and drinks on top of god-knows-what prescription drugs thundering around his system. Only with Gerry Adams does he give the appearance of sobriety.
Temple has made his career from music videos and his feature length music documentary subjects include Keith Richards, The Clash, Joe Strummer and The Sex Pistols.
Here, Temple takes an obvious tack. Make it all as high energy and exhausting as a Pogues concert. It’s not a bad call, but through all the animation clips, historical photographs, film clips, Ralph Steadman illustrations and the crash-cut editing, the two elements you want more of are the same two elements that always made The Pogues so arresting – its creative front man and his music.
The Pogues discography contains a few covers including Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town and Eric Bogle’s musical masterpiece about Gallipoli. Written when Shane MacGowan was probably still in short pants, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda was quintessential Pogues material:
Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the life of a free rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty Outback, I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915, my country said son, its time you stopped rambling, there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun and they marched me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the Quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli
And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well. He shower'd us with bullets,
And he rained us with shell. And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia…
…So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity
The band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away…
WhenThe Pogues version is used in this film, we aren’t shown any footage of Gallipoli or even the First World War. Rather, as a voice-over laments Ireland’s low population we have a montage of Irish immigrants arriving by boat in New York and footage of the ocean liner RMS Andania.
The only concession to Eric Bogle’s lyrics coming from a defining Australian cultural experience is a shot of a liner going under the Harbour Bridge and a still photo of the Bridge under construction. The idea seems to be to show Irish immigrants as a working-class diaspora.
(Construction on the Harbour Bridge didn’t start till 1923, five years after the end of the First World War and eight years after Gallipoli).
The cultural theft of Bogle’s music and lyrics to illustrate something entirely different is what you’d expect from a Pommie filmmaker in the 1950s.
Still, only a few years ago I took an English acquaintance to a NSW country town and watched in amazement as he tried to use English coins to buy a carton of milk.
What can you do?
Tiocfaidh ár lá!
(Republican IRA graffiti for “Our Day Will Come”)