R.I.P. Shane MacGowan
A eulogy for the scumbag and maggot that fused Irish music with punk and gave poetry the kick in the arse it needed
Shane MacGowan has died. He of The Pogues. He was 65. But that’s measuring it in human years. Each human year is roughly 2.5 MacGowan years. (Often very rough!) Shane MacGowan was, therefore, nearly 163. I miss him already. He was in a wheelchair the last half-dozen years of his life, he had to be subtitled - so impenetrable was his drunken slur. Shane had boasted that he didn’t join a band to drink milk. He had, instead, joined bands to bring joy, and history, and emotion, and knowledge, and poetry, and revelry, and madness, and beauty all together. Somehow he was able to do that startlingly often.
A Pair of Brown Eyes, Thousands Are Sailing, A Rainy Night In Soho…
These are songs he etched into the air, plucked from gutter, dusted off with a bar-towel, and whipped into a frenzy by one of the best bands around.
Billy Bragg said Shane grabbed folk music by the collar and pushed it down the stairs.
Shane was a towering drunk. Happy to seem like the cliche, completely operating on his own level always.
He formed Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for Kiss My Arse) after a few years drifting through bars, punk bands and working in record stores. Shortened to The Pogues, to keep it slightly less confrontational, but Shane was always confessional. If you needed a middleman between Nick Cave and Ronnie Drew, Shane was swaying there next to a lampshade. He might wish to pick its pocket, or try and fuck its socket, but there’d be the most elegant song at the end of the night. He might also have have been a middleman between Van Morrison and Jarvis Cocker if you like.
But one thing is true, Shane stood alone. He slumped, struggled, stumbled, crawled, and yet he was always towering.
Shane was alcohol’s best advert for what should never be replicated. A soul of gold inside a hardened drunk. He was told several times he was drinking himself to death. It only seemed to make him work on match-fitness.
But oh those songs. And of course people reach for Fairytale of New York, as they do most christmases, and now even more so this year. It is one of the greatest short-story songs shared by two voices. The late great Kirsty MacColl is as integral to the performance of the tune as Shane MacGowan. And that was one of Shane’s great strengths. He shared the stage so well. He was maybe a master of the duet form too. As good as Fairytale still is, and always was, I almost prefer his Sinead O’Connor duet, Haunted. And I love very much his work with Clannad’s Máire Brennan (aka Enya’s sister) on You’re The One.
You could read Shane’s lyrics and come away with a whole new appreciation for the songs. You could hear The Pogues kick to life any song and come away with a whole new appreciation of two or three genres you might not always have cared for. This is the true transcendence of being a great rock’n’roll poet.
I reach now for my copies of Poguetry (the collection of his lyrics) and A Drink With Shane MacGowan (one of the best music bios I’ve ever read). And I regret loaning both out to whoever…never to return. But I also love the fact they are out in the world to be heard, to be read, to be shared. We have his music. Which is all we really knew of the man. There were a couple of great (sad) documentaries. The latest being very new - and particularly heartbreaking. But through it all, and there wasn’t a lot of self-pity, we won’t ever get to truly know the brilliance of his madness, the madness of his genius. But he was one. He was great. He was out the box and off his face and somehow he put the lines down and they sounded so magical, so beautiful, so real - and they hang there in the air still. As if they were always there and had been there long before Shane momentarily pinned them down.
I guess we all knew the music would outlast him. Even if, at just shy of 163 MacGowan years, or 65 human years, he gave us more than enough of himself. And made sure to use up everything he had, and all that he was.
You will read better tributes elsewhere today and in the coming days. But hopefully, they will all point you to the music. To The Pogues masterpieces. And from there you can go to other corners for more.
R.I.P. Shane MacGowan