Streams of Whiskey: Shane MacGowan at 65

Looking back on the career of the Christmas-born Irish punk king

Shane MacGowan (Image: Reddit)

The first song Shane MacGowan wrote in 1984 for his new band, The Pogues, was “Streams of Whiskey.”

It was an acoustic-powered adrenaline rush, a happy(ish) song about the drinking and carousing life – a song of curses and camaraderie, of bloodshed and jail. It begins with MacGowan dreaming of hanging with the late Irish novelist-poet Brendan Behan. When the chorus kicks in, MacGowan barks, “I am going, I am going, any which way the wind maybe blowing/I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing!”

Shane was pretty much indulging in that desire when I first met him, walking down the steps of the band’s de facto clubhouse, Filthy McNasty’s Whiskey Café in London, grasping a tall beverage in each hand, a big smile on his face, his Jack-O-Lantern teeth in evidence. Which is to say that first meet-up with MacGowan was everything you might it might be. There was drink, there was craic, there was good fun.

It was fair to say there wasn’t much separation between the singer-songwriter and the character in that song. They were one in the same. That would go on for “Boys from County Hell,” and more than a few others, too. Those songs were a rowdy entrée to the world of The Pogues, whose music would prove to be a an oft-rough and wild, but strangely sinuous, mashup of Irish traditional music and punk rock. The Dubliners meet the Sex Pistols on speed, as one classic early description went.

I was doing a feature on The Pogues as part of my 10 days of slamming around London’s pubs and clubs. I asked MacGowan about his fans. “They’re absolutely devoted to [our band], the way I used to be with the Sex Pistols,” he said. “I think they’re mad but I understand what it’s like to be that age.” 

Indeed. A few nights later, I’d see The Pogues at the packed-to-the-gills Mean Fiddler club, headlining an anti-heroin benefit. (Caution: Irony alert. Heroin enters the picture down the road.) What MacGowan said was spot-on: It was one of the best, most boisterous and crowd-bonding gigs of my life, the music rip-sawing through the room, bodies banging against each other with aggressive affection as helter-skelter tales of hilarity. I was an outsider, a Yank, but I don’t think I’d felt as much a part of a group bonding with a crowd and band since the Ramones at CBGB in 1977.

Success had come calling in the UK for The Pogues and would soon be on the doorstep in the United States.

“I’ve got a taste of it,” MacGowan told me. “I’ve been struggling most of my fucking life and I’m sick of it. But I don’t want to go out and get limousines or anything like that. The fame bit, if that goes with it, it doesn’t really worry me too much. If we ever make it, we’ll probably let ‘em down just like the bloody Sex Pistols did. I hope we don’t. Who can say?”

Well, they did and they didn’t. 

Right about now – Christmas Day, 2022, MacGowan’s 65th birthday – you’re probably hearing The Pogues in all their tattered glory as “Fairytale of New York” makes its annual run as one of the best Christmas songs in the punk or post-punk world. 

No one thought that at the time it was released, semi-buried as the fourth song on 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Not that MacGowan’s co-write with banjo player Jem Finer wasn’t a great story-song of slurry romance and busted dreams and the Eve spend in the drunk tank, with MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl cussing each other out. I mean it didn’t scream Christmas Warmth, but then again neither did Die Hard. But in England, at least, it joins Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” as the tune of the day. MacGowan has called it The Pogues’ “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

 

VIDEO: The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl “Fairytale in New York”

“Fairytale” was termed “the most popular Christmas song of the 21st century’ in Julien Temple’s excellent 2020 documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. 

Some other bits from the doc: “The original Pogues lineup was very good and we were pissed [drunk] every night when we were on stage,” reflects MacGowan at one point. “Actually, we’re better when we’re sober but it’s not as much fun so we get drunk.”   

There’s a key question buried deep. A TV interviewer – someone who’s known MacGowan for years – bestows rapturous praise upon MacGowan’s output and asks, “How can you do it when you appear to be on the edge of falling over all the time?”

“Well, I’m sitting down at the moment,” MacGowan answers, cheekily. 

When the interviewer pursues it – is he drunk now? – MacGowan says no, but it appears he’s been drinking. 

“I have no self-destructive impulses whatsoever,” MacGowan claims, about continuing with lifelong habits. “Anyone with a death wish should be dead; it’s not that difficult to do. …It’s true that I am out of it most of the time, but I can write songs when I’m out of it. In fact, it’s easier to write songs when I’m out of it.”

At another point: “I’m just following the Irish way of life: Cram as much pleasure as you can in your life and rile against the pain that you have to suffer as a result and then wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure.”

There are many archival concert clips and interviews. There are three main contemporary “interviewers” – his longtime friend and film co-producer Johnny Depp, his wife Victoria Mary Clarke and former IRA/Sinn Fein president/Pogues fan Gerry Adams, who praises MacGowan’s songs of redemption and sorrow. “You deepened our culture,” Adams tells him. “You made us sad; you made us happy; you made us reflect.” 

In the film, The Clash’s late co-leader Joe Strummer calls MacGowan “a visionary, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.”

MacGowan is a brilliant writer whose songs often coursed along an embittered, defiant, spirited track. He expressed the tangled-up impulses of futility and hope as well as anyone He lived; he loved; he fought; he drank. He screwed up. He rose the next day to do it all again. Or his characters did. He did it with The Pogues until they’d had enough of his wayward ways – imagine your lead singer-songwriter is so fucked up you have to ditch him? And temporarily replace him with Joe Strummer? And then promote tin whistle player Spider Stacy, Shane’s best bud in the band? (Stacy handled lead vocals on the last Pogues album and currently tours as Poguetry with former Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan and the Cajun Grammy-winning band, the Lost Bayou Ramblers.)

MacGowan’s singing-songwriting days didn’t end with The Pogues – well, there were several Pogues reunions after the band stopped being a viable recording unit – but he did carry on with the Popes, the under-appreciated coda to his career. Some great shit there, in the mode of early Celtic-punk Pogues and less world-music Pogues. He recorded two albums (The Snake, 1994 and Crock of Gold, 1997) with the Popes, which still exist sans Shane. 

I saw The Pogues at least a dozen times and MacGowan and the Popes thrice in Boston – once at Avalon (August 1995), one in a sweltering packed-to-the-gills club, the Harp (June 2000) and then at the Paradise (May 2002). It was the same old Shane. Wait for it. And by that, I mean, wait for him. He was about three hours late for the scheduled set time at both the Harp and Paradise. Which was, at least, better than George Jones when I stupidly went to the second set (not the first) at the Paradise in 1982. (George took “ill”; no second set.)

Same old Shane on stage too – cigarette in right hand, drink in the left, hanging onto the mic stand, sometimes for dear life it seemed. Barking out semi-intelligible vocals, incomprehensible between-song chat, the music carried along by speedy Celtic rhythms and melodies. Slurry, shambolic, passionate, diffident, roughshod. The set lists a mix of early Pogues and Popes songs.

After that show at the Harp, MacGowan and I repaired to (yet another nearby) Irish bar, drank and yakked. He friendly with me – we’d known each other for years – but pissed off because he had three full albums of new material but it was held up by the record company ZTT, by one woman in particular, who he called “a cunt.” (No album ever came out.)

Back in 1985, in London, a heroin wave was sweeping London. MacGowan was talking about that anti-heroin benefit the Pogues were doing (with The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Billy Bragg, under the name Duckbill Pattinson).

“Half the people are junkies,” he said. “It’s cheap, you can get it anywhere. Smack is a fucking killer. You see your friends turn into completely boring berks who’ll anything for a hit.”

 

VIDEO: Shane MacGowan and The Popes “Paddy Rolling Stone”

One of MacGowan’s songs from 1997 with the Popes was “Paddy Rolling Stone,” with one couplet running, “I don’t need my junkie friends knocking at my door/I just wanna do an old-time gig with a buxom Irish whore.”

So, he had that thought in him from 1985 through 1997 at least. Maybe longer. Experience shows you can have that thought firmly planted in your head and yet…

The last time I saw him was 15 years ago, at a Pogues reunion gig, playing Avalon again. After the set, we were backstage, upstairs. We were sitting on a banquette, his manager Joey Cashman, to my right, Shane to my left. Joey was enthusing how both he and Shane had gone through a detox program together and had kicked heroin. Joey was proud of his hard-fought, newfound sobriety.

I turned to Shane and politely asked how kicking heroin had gone for him. With a desultory look, he said, “If you had some, I’d do it.” That was a bit of a conversation stopper. (I had no heroin to offer.) 

Shortly, when they were clearing the backstage area, he pointed to the half-drunk liquor bottles that had been on the band’s rider, and told a helper to put them in a plastic garbage bag. A to-go bag. The bottles clanging, they walked down the stairs on their way back to the hotel or wherever the “party,” as it were, might continue.

I’m not the only one who’s wondered how so many brilliant songs could come from a mind so frequently sozzled, but we all know rock ‘n’ roll is rife with that sort of thing.

If you’re wondering how Shane is these days … He fell and broke his pelvis in 2016 while reportedly doing “a complicated dance move,” according to his wife, Victoria. That put him in a wheelchair. In late 2020, he broke a knee and tore ligaments.

The Independent reported in mid-December that he’d been hospitalized with an infection earlier in the month but had been discharged. (Yes, home for Christmas.)

Clarke, who’s very active about these things, has kept fans updated on his health with social media posts over the years. At this late point in 2022, they would be home in Dublin with Shane “watching the football.” She’d tweeted that “the doctors are confident that he will be OK.”

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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