Dabbler Heroes: Shane MacGowan

For someone born in Kent and educated at Westminster School, Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan is pretty damn Irish.

If your image of MacGowan as the archetypal Paddy Baddie – a rebellious anti-hero straight out of the pages of a J P Donleavy novel: gap-toothed, black-toothed, staggering blind drunk from the bar-brawl to the gutter – has just taken a bit of a knock from the above information, then rest assured: his parents were both Irish and he did spend his early childhood in Tipperary. Oh and he was expelled in his second year at Westminster for drug possession.

Let’s get the big thing out of the way. Shane MacGowan is a self-destructive alcoholic, who really ought to be dead by now. It’s easy to get sanctimonious here; but then it’s also easy to fall into the lad’s mag trap of lionising drunkards, where every disgraceful incident is a joke laced with admiration, as if we’d all do it if only we had the guts to live the full rockstar lifestyle.

‘There but for the grace’ is a better sentiment. Oliver Reed was thrown off the set of the Channel 4 discussion programme After Dark when he attempted to embrace feminist writer Kate Millett while uttering the immortal phrase: “Give us a kiss, big tits.” Paul Gascoigne turned up in Northumbria looking for his ‘pal Moaty’ with a can of lager, some chicken, a fishing rod, a Newcastle shirt and a dressing gown. In 2002, Shane MacGowan got so drunk before a gig at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre that he threw up over fans in the front row mid-performance. He was in a wheelchair at the time because of a broken leg. Yes, alcoholism makes people do funny things. But then so does Alzheimer’s. The disease itself isn’t funny at all.

So MacGowan is not a Dabbler Hero for his drinking, but for his songwriting. This peaked in the mid-1980s with the Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash album, and the Poguetry in Motion EP. The latter contains the first released version of A Rainy Night in Soho, one of the loveliest love songs you’ll ever hear and including this choker of a verse:

I’m not singing for the future
I’m not dreaming of the past
I’m not talking of the first time
I never think about the last.

It takes a lot of skill to write something that simple. There really was a poet’s soul behind that boozy snarl (MacGowan got into Westminster School on a literary scholarship). An Irish poet too, but a specific kind: London Irish. As well as a rainy night in Soho there’s a Misty Morning, Albert Bridge, a London Girl, the Dark Streets of London and a Lullaby of London. The rentboy protagonist of The Old Main Drag is kicked in the balls by coppers in Leicester Square, then beaten and mauled between the metal doors at Vine Street. London and England are two different things. The Pogues were not English, then, but an Irish band from London.

Shane MacGowan saw the Sex Pistols in 1976. The same year at a Clash gig a girl bit his earlobe off and his bloody, goofy mug made the papers (NME headline: ‘Cannibalism at Clash Gig!’). This was merely one of a series of extremely punk activities he indulged in during the late 1970s, including calling himself Shane O’Hooligan, creating a fanzine called Bondage, playing in bands called The Nipple Erectors and The Millwall Chainsaws and working, inevitably, in a record shop.

Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for ‘kiss my arse’) played their first gig at The Pindar Of Wakefield on 4 October 1982 and Red Roses for Me, their debut album as The Pogues, appeared two years later. MacGowan was eventually sacked from his own band in 1991. In between times he gave us Fiesta (which should have been in the Horny Pop post really), Sally MacLennane and the best Christmas pop song ever.

For me, though, his finest moment is A Pair of Brown Eyes, from the Rum, Sodomy and the Lash album. The lyric is pure London Irish and weirdly affecting, possibly because all men feel there’s a pair of brown eyes they’d like to come home from a war for. Unusually, MacGowan actually explained it once, in an interview in 1987:

It’s just about a guy getting pissed at a bar round here. He’s getting pissed because he’s broken up with this bird and… you know how it is when you just go into a pub on your own to drink and it’s really quiet and you get this old nutter who comes over and starts rambling on you. So this old guy starts on about how he came back from the war, the First World War. Or the Second. One of them anyway. And he tells him about the ship he had out there and how he got out and came back and this girl had f***d off with someone else, a girl with a pair of brown eyes. Which is the same situation as the young guy sitting there listening to all this rubbish and the juke box playing Johnny Cash and Ray Lyman and Philomena Begley, classic London juke box tracks. And in the end he gets to the stage where he says f*** it, and he goes stumbling out of the pub and he walks along the canal and starts feeling really bad, on the verge of tears, and he starts realising that the old guy has had a whole f***ng lifetime of that feeling, going through the war and everything, but his original reaction is to hate him and despise him. I’m not saying he goes back and starts talking to him but you know…

Even the video still sort of holds up. MacGowan sings beautifully and the drink hasn’t killed him yet. Of course, it still hasn’t technically killed him now, but you know… Best never to think about the last.

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18 thoughts on “Dabbler Heroes: Shane MacGowan

  1. Worm
    June 3, 2011 at 12:59

    I used to drink in his pub, Filthy McNasty’s, when I lived just round the corner in Finsbury. Of course that’s where that other public school rake Pete Doherty used to hang out with MacGowan and get up to all sorts.

    • Brit
      June 3, 2011 at 14:00

      An unwise pairing indeed.

  2. russellworks@gmail.com'
    ian russell
    June 3, 2011 at 13:25

    Yes, more folk than punk that one, I can dig it.

    JP Donleavy, there’s a name I haven’t seen for a long while…

    • Brit
      June 3, 2011 at 13:59

      I was briefly obsessed with Donleavy in my late teens. I must do a 1p Review sometime of his best – “A Singular Man”.

      ‘A Fairytale of New York’ was named after Donleavy’s novel of the same name, MacGowan must be a fan…

      • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
        June 6, 2011 at 11:53

        Weren’t we all, Brit, weren’t we all?

  3. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    June 3, 2011 at 13:53

    Recommendations for you.

    You listened to The Pogues. You might also like The Dropkick Murphys.

    The Murphys are a Boston-based Irish folk punk group who have, since 2004, become establishment darlings in Boston thanks to a somewhat tenuous connection to the Red Sox.

    • bugbrit@live.com'
      Banished To A Pompous Land
      June 3, 2011 at 14:24

      I have to say David that there is more to being the new Pogues than being load and ‘Irish’. Dropkicks are fun but theres nothing to compare for a moment to Shanes songwriting.

  4. bugbrit@live.com'
    Banished To A Pompous Land
    June 3, 2011 at 14:21

    Thanks Brit, that’s a fine write up. So right about the drinking though, it isn’t funny or bloody heroic. Look what he’s already done and wonder what he could have done.

    I’ll comment no more as Mrs. Banished will be right on my heels with this one and don’t want to cramp her syle.

    Glad I finally got to see him in March after so many years.

    • colormeblushing@live.com'
      June 4, 2011 at 04:37

      Mrs. Banished? lmao… I’m a native I’ll have you know… Native of a Pompous Land lol

  5. ranee.zaporski@gmail.com'
    June 3, 2011 at 15:30

    The songwriting is great. The fact he is a lead singer from the 80’s/90’s who is not a pretty boy prone to using an entire canister of hair mousse each morning is also a point in his favor.

    • Brit
      June 3, 2011 at 15:42

      Not a pretty boy? How can you say that Ranee?

      • ranee.zaporski@gmail.com'
        June 3, 2011 at 21:24

        You’re right. My bad.

  6. rory@peritussolutions.com'
    June 3, 2011 at 16:13

    I was on an early morning flight to Malta some years ago and MacGowan boarded last and alone, wearing Elvis-Vegas shades and carrying a large holdall. We were delayed for about 20 min while he shuffled up & down the aisle trying to force his bag into an overhead bin. Eventually he agreed to let a steward take the bag & sat down. Apart from the teeth he was remarkably presentable given the years of abuse. I saw him in the bar of the Olympia (not his own gig) in the 90’s and he was drooling & stocious and some hangers-on were still buying him booze, not a pleasant sight. Some lovely music along the way though.

    • Brit
      June 6, 2011 at 10:18

      Love that ‘shuffling up and down the aisle’.. yes, I can see it now.

  7. Gaw
    June 3, 2011 at 21:04

    What a beauty! I especially like the ‘Irish band from London’.

  8. colormeblushing@live.com'
    June 4, 2011 at 04:32

    I would still take a snog from Shane any day.. even though I think he may have spat a tooth at me during his 2009 DC concert! Musical genius and there is no other like him.

    • Brit
      June 6, 2011 at 10:16

      Good heavens.

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