Drugs couldn’t kill Shane MacGowan. Alcoholism can’t kill Shane MacGowan. He’s suffered injuries, beatings, overdoses, and oppression, but keeps getting up on his feet like a prize fighter refusing to hear the bell, like Cú Chulainn fighting the sea. Actually, he can’t get up on his feet anymore, he’s been wheelchair bound since breaking his pelvis in 2015. He’s lost all his teeth (they’ve been replaced) and seems to speak without moving his mouth but still has a lot to say, capping his pronouncements with a distinctive laugh. Sometimes it sounds like the hiss of a snake, at other times like a snore.
The new documentary Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan is part biography, part blarney, peppered with braggadocio as thick as brown sauce. “I knew I was great from an early age,” the former Pogues singer says of himself. He’s earned the right to brag. At his best, he’s as good a lyricist as any other songwriter you’d care to celebrate. After no less than former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams mentions a favorite lyric, Shane replies, “I was quite impressed with that as well.”
The film was directed by Julien Temple, who’s helmed similar biodocs on the Sex Pistols (2000’s The Filth ant the Fury) and The Clash (2007’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten). Like his other films, it mixes archival footage, classic movie clips used for thematic effect and animation, in this case based on illustrations by renowned British illustrator Ralph Steadman. Temple’s association with MacGowan goes back to the 1970s when he was filming The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle about the Pistols’ rise and fall and MacGowan was a pogoing punk in the crowd. MacGowan refused to sit down for interviews, so Temple largely relies on audio from the past. He is filmed, however, carousing with various friends and associates, including producer Johnny Depp, who appears drunk and affecting a bogus Irish accent.
The film opens with animation of the heroes of Irish mythology, Fin Macool and Cú Chulainn, faeries and banshees, before MacGowan tells us, “God looked down on this little cottage in Ireland and said ‘That little boy there, he’s the little boy that I’m gonna use to save Irish music and take it to greater popularity than it’s ever had before’.” When asked why God would do such a thing, he replies, “Because God is Irish.” Irishness is so wrapped up in MacGowan’s sense of self it’s overbearing at times. Not that he gives a fuck what myself or anyone besides Gerry Adams thinks.
MacGowan spent his early life in rural Tipperary, an idyllic existence where prayer and song lived side by side with smoke and drink. His recollections seem ripped out of a Pogues song. “We pissed out the front door and shit in the fields,” he says and that “fuck” is “the most popular word in the Irish vocabulary and I was brought up to say it from a very early age.” The family moved to England when he was about 6 where he suffered nervous breakdowns and was bullied for being Irish.
The family eventually moved to London, where MacGowan became one of the first UK punks, following the Sex Pistols from show to show. “Punk is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says but after the initial explosion all he was left with was “a load of old brothel creepers, a couple bottles of Crazy Color and our broken dreams.” As world music became fashionable, he decided “If people are being ethnic, I might as well be my own ethnic.” Enter, the Pogues.
Originally named Pogue Mahone, Gaelic for “kiss my ass,” MacGowan says the band’s original intent was to make Irish music and Irishness hip again. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Their influence can be heard today in any number of “Celtic punk” bands and seen on television shows like Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, which chronicle the Irish experience with irreverent humor. The band was built around MacGowan’s songs which could be both tender and profane, often in the space of a single verse, and displayed a mastery of language and narrative to rival Ireland’s celebrated poets.
The band’s 1987 single “Fairytale of New York” brought the Pogues mainstream success, but non-stop touring exacerbated MacGowan’s drinking and drugging. As the band veered further away from traditional Irish music, he came to hate what they’d become and welcomed his dismissal in 1991. He soon became a character, “Shane MacGowan,” the drunken Irish rocker always teetering on the edge of death. MacGowan claims playing up the drunken “Paddy” stereotype was a way to reclaim it from the English. That doesn’t really make any sense but as long as the drinks were free he didn’t seem to mind.
Looking a decade or two older than his 62 years, MacGowan is almost unrecognizable from the ugly but kind of cute lead singer of the early Pogues. Hunched over in his wheelchair, the words seeping from his mouth like a gas leak, he still has his wits about him as he recalls details from Irish history or his own. His appearance is enough to make you swear off alcohol but it’s hard not to admire his irascible attitude, unchanged from the hyperactive punker seen cavorting in his youth. “There are things that I wish had gone the other way, but there are no regrets,” he says. “I savagely get rid of them.”
Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Crock Of Gold is epic in length and scope, cataloging a life of ups and downs in a variety of different settings. It echoes the story of the Irish themselves, fleeing poverty and starvation and finding glory and heartache overseas. Funny, sad, interesting (and, at times, even a little boring), I imagine it’s not unlike a night out with MacGowan himself. Minus the hangover.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.
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