Rum, sodomy and on the lash
PROFILE: SHANE MacGOWAN
IT'S two days from the 50th birthday he thought he'd never see and Shane MacGowan is even more bemused and befuddled than ever. How, after a life of such famously bacchanalian excess that he was told 25 years ago that he had six weeks to live, has it come to this? It's one thing to be best known for a sentimental Christmas ballad, no matter how esoteric, but it's quite another to have Middle Britain rise as one to prevent Radio 1 censoring 'Fairytale Of New York'.
If the Pogues' larger-than-life frontman and chief songwriter has become something of an unlikely national treasure, it is mainly thanks to his bittersweet duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, which returns with Slade-like inevitability each Yuletide. But it's easy to forget that it wasn't always thus. Nineteen years ago, the BBC banned another of his songs, 'Birmingham Six'. "They're still doing time/ for being Irish in the wrong place/ And at the wrong time" sang MacGowan as Patrick Hill and five innocent men served time at Her Majesty's displeasure. They're out now but the song is still off the playlist.
The same is not true of MacGowan: he's back in vogue in a way he hasn't been since the critical acclaim that greeted the revolutionary, high-octane albums Rum, Sodomy And The Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God made the Pogues one of the hottest bands in the world. Just yesterday, his toothless coupon leered from the pages of the tabloids as he stumbled out of actress Davinia Taylor's Christmas party with fellow good timers Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Sadie Frost.
Make no mistake, his consumption of alcohol and narcotics has been dizzying. MacGowan says he was fed Guinness from the age of four by the collection of aunts and uncles who raised him in Tipperary in an attempt to put him off alcohol in later life. It didn't work: at eight he drank his first bottle of Powers whiskey, and he soon added drugs, smoking joints at 13 and taking acid at 14. By 17, he was hanging out with rent boys and junkies (he says he was once the former, although that seems unlikely given his trademark jug-eared plug-ugliness), and so strung out that his doctor threatened to have him sectioned unless he submitted to six months in the notorious Bethlem detox clinic, the first of four stints trying to dry out.
At one stage he claimed he was polishing off 50 LSD tablets and three bottles of whiskey a day and, as he came apart at the seams, his antics became increasingly bizarre. In New Zealand he painted himself blue, claiming he'd been ordered to do it by Maori spirits; back in London, the night before the Pogues were due to fly out to tour with Bob Dylan, he took so much LSD that his girlfriend came home to find him covered in blood after eating a Beach Boys album. He told her he was about to host a summit of world leaders to avert the Third World War. He missed the plane and never toured with Dylan.
At one stage in 1999, his friend Sinead O'Connor found him snorting heroin and called the police, leading to another spell in rehab which ended abruptly when he was thrown out for bad behaviour. But not all of MacGowan's celebrity friends they include Bono, Nick Cave and Pete Doherty believe that he is totally out of control. Bono argued that his self-destructive behaviour is "a mask, his way of ignoring people he doesn't want to deal with. Shane is more together than people imagine".
Not that those people will necessarily include the other members of the Pogues, who fired their garrulous talisman after he disintegrated on tour in Japan in 1991. After falling out of a train door at a station and knocking out the few blackened teeth which hadn't been removed in drunken fights, he then performed an unscheduled exit from a van at 50mph on the way back to the hotel. When they got there, the other members of the band sacked him, replacing him with Joe Strummer. All he had to say was "Thank you, you've been very patient with me".
Bombastic yet with a deeply sensitive streak, MacGowan perceives himself as a latter day Brendan Behan; as a romantic Irish iconoclast with a ready wit, a free-thinking republican writer who suffered for his art, his convictions, his unwillingness to be shackled. Perhaps that is why he allowed himself to be typecast as a drunken minstrel in the Johnny Depp film The Libertine, or why he called his caustic memoirs A Drink With Shane MacGowan.
He has a razor sharp mind, even when addled with drink, and is incredibly well-read. MacGowan says he was reading Marx and Trotsky as an 11-year-old, and he references William Burroughs and James Clarence Mangan regularly, even if he doesn't have a lot of time for Samuel Beckett ("a miserable fat old bastard"), WB Yeats ("an old fairy") or even Plato ("basically just some Greek c***").
An avid reader as a child, the moment MacGowan decided to channel his vast energies into music came when he left detox aged 17. "It was like fate," he says. "The first thing I saw when I came out of the madhouse was the Sex Pistols, a bunch of people who looked like they ought to be in a loony bin." He became Shane O'Hooligan, living the punk dream and fronting first The Nipple Erectors and then the Millwall Chainsaw.
When his third incarnation, The Nips, failed despite the patronage of The Jam's Paul Weller, he decided to shake up the world of Irish folk music instead and launched Poguemahone ("kiss my arse" in gaelic), soon shortened to The Pogues. A six-piece band, the aim was to fuse the energy of punk with the story-telling qualities of traditional Irish folk, a strange aspiration given that MacGowan was the only Irishman in the original group.
Even then that was debatable. MacGowan was born in Tunbridge Wells and although he returned to Tipperary at three months, by the age of six he was back in England and has been there ever since; his accent is more Islington than Dublin. His feelings on his adopted homeland are hardly ambivalent or charitable. "I'm completely Irish," he said before dismissing England as "a miserable, stinking, boring, stupid, useless waste of a time".
Yet even enmity is beginning to wane. MacGowan remains convinced he's an irredeemable nihilist, but there are signs he's mellowing. He has moved back to Tipperary and is engaged to long-term girlfriend Victoria Clarke after her dalliance with Van Morrison. He has even owned up to having a son in Scotland.
A shortage of money means that he is back with the Pogues again, but this time around, three of the band are tee-total, their touring schedule is no longer punishing and Clarke says that MacGowan can sometimes go two or three days without touching a drop. Can it be that the last really wild man of music is finally settling down?
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MacGowan got into the elite Westminster public school on a music scholarship in 1971 before being thrown out after being caught with drugs. Fellow former pupils include Martin Amis, Sir Peter Ustinov and politicians Nigel Lawson, Tony Benn and new Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
His first burst of tabloid fame came in 1976 when his earlobe was bitten by a girl he had been kissing at a Clash concert. A picture of him covered in blood appeared with the headline "Cannibalism At Clash Gig".
Joe Strummer later described MacGowan as "one of the best writers of the century".
On his drinking, MacGowan says booze "gets rid of your inhibitions so you can concentrate on the music; it stimulates the creative forces."
He appeared on the BBC Children in Need single 'Perfect Day' and has dueted with Sinιad O'Connor, inset, Nick Cave and The Jesus and Mary Chain.
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