A paean to Shane MacGowan
- December 1, 2023
- Max Mitchell
- Themes: Music
The late maverick joins the pantheon of balladeers and troubadours.
Early in my university days, with a short-lived and half-hearted attempt at a music career behind me, I was told to write an essay on a poet of my choice. Naturally, it had to be on Bob Dylan, Tom Waits or Shane MacGowan. Alternatively, we could write our own poem inspired by the exotic Lyre of the ancient city of Ur and then write an essay on that. Fancying myself a young poet of quality, I opted to back my own compositional abilities. Dylan, Waits, MacGowan. That’s where Shane MacGowan – who died on 30 November – stands. He joins the pantheon of balladeers and troubadours and his legacy reminds us how important it is to sing a song and sing it honestly.
Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day in 1957 in Kent to a mother from Tipperary and a father from Dublin. Therese, a typist, had music and culture in her bones, having previously been a proficient Irish dancer and by all accounts a beautiful singer. His father Maurice was somewhat less inspiring – a self-professed ‘roustabout’ – worked menial office jobs although he came from a middle-class background. Shane was raised in Ireland till the age of six before hopping around the south of England; Brighton, London and Kent. Though many of his greatest lyrics are as good an expression of London experience as anything Charles Dickens wrote, he saw the city – indeed the world – through emerald-tinted spectacles and his Irish twang was a quirk he never shook.
Due to his obvious brightness, and back when the British school system actually facilitated upward mobility, he won a scholarship to Westminster School. His school mate, the journalist Adam Boulton, recalled that Shane was ‘trailing a gloriously rambunctious reputation even then’. He was swiftly expelled for possessing drugs in his second year.
In the years between leaving school and founding The Pogues, he idled in odd jobs but made it on the front page of a local paper splattered in blood after a fight. The headline read: ‘Cannibalism at Clash Gig’. MacGowan met Spider Stacy in the toilets at a Ramones gig in 1977 and in 1982 they founded Pogue Mahone, an anglicisation of the Irish Gaelic phrase póg mo thóin, meaning ‘kiss my arse’. This was truncated to The Pogues after some Scottish Gaelic speakers complained to the BBC.
In 1984 they released their debut album Red Roses for Me. It was a solid start, a combination of traditional folk songs and some excellent MacGowan compositions replete with swearing galore. ‘Boys from the County Hell’ deserves a particular mention, as does an arrangement of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’. Irish nationalism and republican sympathies are unavoidable parts of the Pogues experience, just as they are unavoidable shadows over modern British history. Indeed, Shane once said he felt guilty about not joining the IRA and used the boisterous Pogues as a form of displacement, marrying an extensive use of traditional Irish folk songs to an anti-status quo attitude.
But the band’s and MacGowan’s apotheosis came a year later with their second album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. Produced by Elvis Costello and recorded in Wapping, the docklands of East London, almost everything about it is perfect. From the Géricault-inspired cover of the band’s faces superimposed onto figures from The Raft of the Medusa to the Churchill-inspired title. The former prime minister is purported to have said of the Royal Navy: ‘Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash.’
And then there’s the music. One of the finest opening songs on any studio album, ‘The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn’ is true original punk music of unmatchable energy. ‘Sally MacLennane’, ‘Dirty Old Town’, ‘Navigator’, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ are all majestic in their craft and startling in their musicality. But ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ is not only an example of a great love poem – it is also war poetry of the highest calibre.
Here is a verse:
‘In blood and death neath a screaming sky / I lay down on the ground /And the arms and legs of other men / Were scattered all around / Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed / Then prayed and bled some more / And the only thing that I could see / Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me / But when we got back, labelled parts one to three / There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me.’
Beneath a ‘screaming sky’, the singer blends Wilfred Owen with Tolstoy. It’s a staggering section of verse; a Prince Andrei-style epiphany that never comes true lying injured on the battlefield as the repetition of the thudding ‘d’ mimics the artillery: ‘scattered’, ‘around’, ‘cursed’, ‘prayed’, ‘prayed’, ‘cursed’, ‘prayed’, ‘bled’. Then there’s the humour, ‘labelled parts one to three’, followed by the sense of tragedy that few women wait for legless soldiers.
Their most famous and successful album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), is strong but lacks the perfect combination of romance, history, humour, melancholy and rebellion that The Lash has in spades.
All great poetry is a distillation; of meaning, of artistry, of emotion, and MacGowan’s favourite process was distillation. He was kicked out of the band in 1992 for his drunken antics and unprofessional behaviour. In protest he formed Shane MacGowan and The Popes but nothing of note was produced. From 2001 to 2009, The Pogues reformed and toured the world. MacGowan made pals with Johnny Depp and his reputation as a serious songwriter and poet – not just a drunken maniac – crystallised. In 2018, he married his longtime partner, Irish journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, in Copenhagen. That same year he won the Ivor Novello Inspiration award and was given a lifetime achievement award by Irish President Michael D. Higgins. In response to his death, friend and fellow musician Nick Cave called him ‘the greatest songwriter of his generation’.
In West African culture, griots are travelling poets, musicians and storytellers who carry on the tradition of oral history. Often it is they alone who hold the secrets of a community or a village’s past. In these cultures, they say that when a griot dies, it is akin to a library burning to the ground. In losing Shane MacGowan, these islands have lost one of its finest repositories of poetry.