Living the fairytale
ITíS A ROCKY road from Dublin to Shane MacGowanís home in Tipperary, where rain floods the roads and relentlessly hammers the bus windows - in what feels like the middle of nowhere.
Weíre meeting at Philly Ryanís bar in Nenagh. This is the town MacGowan immortalised in Paddy Rolling Stone and The Broad Majestic Shannon, not far from where he grew up. On arrival Iím told that Philly, a publican, funeral director and florist, is the man to lead me to Shane. On the wall of the bar hangs a picture of Philly with Shane and the late Joe Strummer. Within moments Iím introduced to a colourful cast of characters who are more than willing to exchange tales about Shane while they sup Guinness in the cosy and strangely smokeless atmosphere. A jovial old man with a flat cap and walking stick asks what time Iím meeting him. "Four oíclock", I reply. "Ah thatíll be four oíclock in the morning." The place is now roaring with laughter. "He had some work done in the cottage recently," says another. "He made the fellows a pot of tea. There was no milk so he produced a bottle of Baileyís and splashed it in their cups; I donít think the work was finished that day". A tough-looking personality walks in called the Brick. This guy has appeared in a few MacGowan songs over the years and by this stage I feel like Iíve walked on the set of an old Irish drinking song.
The wind rattles as I dry myself at the hearth - MacGowanís regular spot. A few minutes later he walks into the bar like just another thirsty punter. The first time I interviewed him in Dublin was not the easiest gig but, having caught up and crossed paths in Glasgow a few times since then, he greets me like an old friend. Once heís aware that youíre not going to stitch him up or rip him off, heíll chat freely for hours on any subject - completely uninhibited. This is undoubtedly the most relaxed Iíve seen him and he sits for most of the day nursing one drink. Heís looking fresh and smartly dressed in a black overcoat, shirt and trousers, with his hair swept back from his face.
Not far from the town is the remote village of Puckaun where he lived with his grandparents until the age of six. His home has been in the family for over 400 years. As a child, he says, it was "an open house where locals would gravitate" - to sing songs, drink, play music and tell ancient Irish folk-tales. For most of his life he has flitted between Tipperary ("Tipp") and London. "Iím glad Iíve had the two, because I donít think Iíd appreciate Tipp as much if I hadnít lived elsewhere," he says. After kicking a serious drug habit he left London and returned to Tipp for good.
Today he still embodies an eccentric mix of shy farmboy and demonic hellraiser but, thankfully, heís given up trying to live up to the precedent he set at a Clash gig in 1976. The teenage MacGowan was photographed and splashed across the press with a mangled ear after being bitten by a frenzied girlfriend, all in the name of punk. "I was about 18 and was a bit of a face on the scene at that time," he says. "Sid [Vicious] was a friend of mine before he joined the Pistols. There were only about 100 punks in the whole world at that point. Sid was completely misrepresented after he died; he was a really great bloke and nothing like the image that there is of him now. That film, Sid and Nancy; I mean what rubbish. I was involved with the music, I have to admit that, but I hated that film... I didnít hate the music."
MacGowan wasnít surprised to see an old acquaintance on Iím a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here: "Johnny Rotten was always friends with bugs, alligators and maggots long before he did that programme. These were the kind of people he surrounded himself with; he relates to people who canít talk back... which is not to deny that he was the greatest cultural influence and spokesman for a generation. Never Mind the Bollocks and Metal Box were masterpieces. He summed up what it was like being a teenager in the 1970s and, more importantly for me, a teenager from an Irish background."
During the height of The Poguesí success, when most journalists were preparing MacGowanís obituary, Joey Cashman, (former Pogues tour manager and his current personal manager) said: "Shane will outlive everyone." Certainly MacGowan has survived many of his closest friends and major contemporaries. "The Skids were always one of my favourite bands after the Pistols. Big Country was a big influence on The Pogues when we started out; their first album is a classic. I loved Stuart Adamsonís bagpipe guitar sound. Sadly, Stuartís passed on to wherever we go. I first met Richard [Jobson] and Stuart [Adamson] about 20 years ago. It doesnít surprise me that he [Jobson] is making it as a film director; Richard was a lot more than just a rock star. If you study the lyrics it was all in there with The Skids. There was a song about his father dying called The Devilís Decade which is absolutely brilliant." He takes a sip of gin and sits back reflectively: "Those guys were brilliant together and brilliant apart."
When it comes to his future, MacGowan is less certain. The recent Christmas shows with The Pogues made sense for everyone involved because of Fairytale of New Yorkís massive popularity throughout the festive season. He was the last member to agree on the reunion, partly because he doesnít want to confuse the public and is keen to point out that The Popes will continue to be his foremost commitment. It is expected that The Pogues will continue with further Christmas shows and are looking at limited touring; if MacGowan chooses to carry on. "I was 47 on Christmas day and I am actually thinking of retiring," he admits. "It was refreshing to do those songs again with The Pogues. The tour was great and there is going to be a live album out in March, after that we are just going to see what happens."
Although The Pogues re-formed for a Christmas tour in 2001, this was the first time original member Cait OíRiordan had joined the band since leaving in 1986. She seemed an obvious choice to replace Kirsty MacColl on Fairytale of New York. The tour was also used to highlight the events that continue to surround MacCollís tragic death.
MacGowan says. "It was a huge speedboat going at a ridiculous speed at a place where there werenít supposed to be any speedboats! The area was reserved for swimmers and they cut her in half. The chair was what [the speedboat driver] should have got. Justice wasnít done."
At this point MacGowanís cousin Sean walks into the bar. "Itís Liam from Hothouse Flowers on the phone," he says. MacGowan has been asked to play a last-minute benefit gig in Dublin alongside members of The Dubliners, Hothouse Flowers and BP Fallon for the Irish Red Cross Asia Appeal. As I sit there MacGowan rattles off a set over the phone: "You should come along... it might be the last time you will see me on stage with Ronnie Drew."
After his performance in the Celtic Connections festival tomorrow in Glasgow he will go on holiday with his long-term ex-partner Victoria Clarke, the author of A Drink With Shane MacGowan. He recently admitted that his only regret is their current separation. "I just ranted and raved for five years and she turned it into a book," he says. "She had to wait till I was in the mood and I was a much moodier guy then than I am now; Iíve learned my lesson. Anam Cara are the Irish words to describe what I feel about her. In English it means soul friend. Itís a more beautiful description in Irish. I canít really say how I feel in English."
The next night in Dublin at the RDS concert hall, MacGowan meets up with "his good lady" Victoria and he performs a storming set that features Ronnie Drew on I Walk the Line and Irish Rover. Hothouse Flowers back him up on Pogues songs that havenít been aired for more than 15 years and heís joined by Cait OíRiordan for a rousing finale of Fairytale of New York. The immediate future is tomorrowís show and it is hoped he might record the third instalment of his Glasgow trilogy while in town, said to be about the Bible John Barrowland murders. At present The Popesí line-up is unconfirmed, but his manager isnít worried.
"Listen," Cashman says. "Shane had an argument with The Popes once and went on stage by himself. They were sitting in the dressing room and couldnít figure out why the crowd were so into it but heís done it a thousand times in Tipp.
"Shane will go out on stage on his own if he has to and still knock them out."
Shane MacGowan and the Popes play Celtic Connections, Glasgow Barrowland, tomorrow.
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