‘I have a really good constitution’
On the eve of a rare headline appearance, hard-living Pogues singer scoffs at health fears
POSTMEDIA NEWS AUGUST 14, 2012
As the Pogues get set for a rare gig, Andrew Perry braves a boozy afternoon with their notorious frontman, the remarkably robust Shane MacGowan
In Somerset, England, next weekend, one of the most uproarious bands of the ’80s is set to make a rare headline appearance at the Strummer of Love festival. In their heyday, the Pogues spewed a punky, energetic version of Irish traditional music, in stark contrast to the sanitized synth-pop that dominated the era.
Yet, for all their music’s rowdy joys, the Pogues’ success was founded on the shakiest ground. Their frontman, Shane MacGowan, was one of his generation’s finest songwriters. Yet, no sooner had the band’s star ascended to its peak with their 1987 Christmas duet, Fairytale of New York, than MacGowan’s wayward lifestyle began scuppering their progress. Eventually he was sacked by his own despairing group.
Such have been his narcotic and alcoholic excesses that few would have counted on MacGowan still being alive today. But he stumbles gamely into the lounge of a Dublin hotel, albeit two hours late for our appointment, and is soon ensconced on a sofa with an assortment of drinks, including a pint of Guinness, a glass of red wine, a bottle of rose, and an extra-large gin and tonic.
It is hard to tell whether he is in the early or latter stages of a binge. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference any more. His skin is deathly white, his hair grey and upward-pointing. He occasionally removes his sunglasses to reveal pale-blue, unfocusing eyes, and when he grins, he displays his gums, now entirely bereft of his once-famous stumpy teeth.
MacGowan grew up between homes in Dagenham and Tipperary. He received a scholarship to Westminster School but was expelled after a year. In his mid-teens, he fell in with the London punk scene: his first band, the Nipple Erectors, supported the Clash and had a single produced by the Jam’s Paul Weller.
By 1982, MacGowan was busking Irish folk numbers around London with the banjo-picker Jem Finer, and gradually the two of them built a group in what appeared to be an attempt to inject punk energy into the Emerald Isle’s roots traditions.
“But that energy was already there in Irish music,” MacGowan insists today. “We just added a bass guitar and a very simple drum set, with a very loud drummer, who was stood up in the middle. He was like this,” says MacGowan clenching his fist, “and then we had Spider (Stacy, co-vocalist and tin-whistle player) bashing himself on the head with a beer tray — another traditional Irish instrument.” He punctuates this statement with a death-rattle laugh.
The band’s ascent was accelerated as much by their frontman’s boozy infamy as by brilliant albums such as 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
For a magical few years, the Pogues carried the torch for hell-raising rock ’n’ roll values, reaching their peak with 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God, which included Fairytale of New York — a dewy-eyed but foul-mouthed duet between MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl, as an immigrant couple slugging it out in an NYPD drunk tank.
“It was the perfect time, and the perfect female singer,” MacGowan says about the success of that song. “But it was kept off the top of the charts in England by the worst record the Pet Shop Boys ever made.” Back then, MacGowan was praised from all quarters; his fans included Hollywood heavyweights Matt Dillon and Faye Dunaway, and top-flight singers such as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, who once simply gushed, “Shane has the gift. I believe him.”
According to Here Comes Everybody, a recent memoir by the Pogues’ accordion player, James Fearnley, however, MacGowan’s lifestyle quickly became a major problem. With worldwide success, came pressure, endless tours, and disagreements about money.
“Me and Jem used to write together,” says MacGowan, somewhat modestly — in the beginning, he wrote, and Finer arranged. “But then the musical differences came — when everybody wanted to know why me and Jem got more publishing (money) than the rest.”
And so the Pogues’ star plummeted down again. The following three years were a tailspin of missed flights, abominable live shows, unpredictable rages and, worst of all, mediocre songs.
MacGowan’s bandmates fired him in a hotel room in Japan in 1991, but thereafter, even the Clash’s Joe Strummer could not fill his shoes. As Fearnley observes: “It was a relief to be rid of (Shane) from the stage, but into his place rushed a banality that was crippling.”
MacGowan went into free fall. In 2001, his friend Sinead O’Connor famously had him arrested, in an effort, she claimed, to get him to kick a heroin addiction.
Later that year, it was surely MacGowan’s declining condition that prompted the erstwhile Pogues to swallow their pride and reconvene around him — to give him one last shot at saving himself. To some degree, it worked — he’s still alive, after all. At some gigs, he appears coherent and familiar with his own lyrics; at others hopelessly awash. At one show I saw, he slouched on a bar stool for ages, inert, with a full pint glass balanced on his head.
“If you’re gonna do it, you might as well enjoy it,” he says, about live performance. “Otherwise you’re ripping off the audience, and you’re ripping off yourself.”
As MacGowan pauses to drain his Guinness, I ask if he worries about his health. “Who, me?” he says. “I’ve got a really good constitution.” And with faultless comic timing, he starts coughing.
“I’ve certainly never glorified any of the excesses,” he says. Even in song? “It’s impossible to do popular Irish songs without cataloguing murder, drink, drugs, whatever. But it doesn’t mean,” he drifts into silence. “Are you on an expense account? Get me a double gin and tonic,” he says, grinning.
It has been a long and bleary afternoon. I order MacGowan his drink. Come on, Shane, I say, what are the chances of you making another Pogues record? He leans forward, and I prepare myself for a grand announcement. With a carefree shrug and another toothless grin, he says, simply, “Anything’s possible.” The ongoing life of Shane MacGowan is testament to that.
The Daily Telegraph
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Original source article: ‘I have a really good constitution’