Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ. It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday. Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.
Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful. A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues. Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.
In the summer of 1995, I was in New York when I learned that MacGowan and his post-Pogues band the Popes were performing at a local venue. So I bought a ticket. The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs. He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals. Then he disappeared. The band did a few more instrumentals and then followed their leader’s example and exited too. The crowd nearly rioted. Poor Shane did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him. Or indeed, much of a future.
Yet the old bugger was still on the go three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh music festival at London’s Finsbury Park. This time he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens. And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o! Shane-o! Shane-o!” until, finally, an appreciative grin spread across MacGowan’s bleary features.
He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties. He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time. Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.
The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact. Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?
In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan. A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great. It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious. I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts. (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)
© Pan Books
Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall. During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono). Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave. He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.
Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he’s written and / or ones he’s sung.
The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash). Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…” If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.
Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash). Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away… FAR AWAY!”
If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name). This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.
Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God). Obviously.
Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God). Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant. It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.
Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love). A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”
© Mute Records
What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities). MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.
God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned). Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.
That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake). This features one of the best choruses ever: “That Woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!”
Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake). Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner. I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle changes made to his lyrics at the very end of the song. The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.” The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.”