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Poet. Entertainer. Pub philosopher. Drunk. These are all the full-time professions of the enigmatic Irish singer / songwriter Shane MacGowan. Although not necessarily in that order.
While Shane spent most of his youth in England, he is admittedly Irish through and through, making no qualms about his ill-feelings of England. The young Shane grew up with a love of early American garage / punk bands such as The Stooges and The New York Dolls, but it wasn't until he first saw the Sex Pistols perform that he realized what he had to do. After forming his first punk band The Nipple Erectors, he went on to start the band Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for "kiss my ass"), which coupled Shane's snotty punk attitude with the more traditional sounds of Irish folk music. Later shortening their name to simply The Pogues, MacGowan and company built a fervent following of fans, which also included many stars such as U2, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Sinead O'Connor, Johhny Depp and Nick Cave, among others.
The band's decision to become more progressive in their later years didn't sit too well with MacGowan, who was also at the time becoming more and more unreliable - showing up to gigs drunk beyond repair or, worse yet, not showing up at all - which ultimately led to the band firing him.
Since then MacGowan has formed his own band The Popes, who continue to follow in the spirited (in more ways than one) tradition of the early Pogues material. He's also had his share of personal troubles over recent years, including the 1999 fatal heroin overdose of 25-year old friend Robbie O'Neil in his London home, the recent deaths of close friends Joe Strummer (lead vocalist from The Clash) and Kirsty MacColl (the singer / songwriter who performed with The Pogues on their 1987 hit "Fairytale of New York"), not to mention another close friend, Sinead O'Connor, who turned MacGowan into the police after witnessing him snorting heroin in his London home.
Livewire's Tony Bonyata tracked down this elusive artist in his Dublin flat to discuss topics that run deep throughout Irish history - music, drink, death, politics and, yes, even leprechauns (although Shane's are not exactly the mischievous, fun-loving little men in green that we've come to expect).
Not sounding too far from Ozzy Osbourne in tone, MacGowan seemed to be on a mental plane somewhere between slightly sober and stammeringly shitfaced, as he stuttered, slurred and added the questioning phrase "yeah?" to the end of nearly every sentence uttered from his lips. That, combined with his distinctive laugh which sounded as if he had violently shaken a can of Guinness and then popped the top into the phone (krrrrsshhh sshhh), made for a very unique chat indeed. (And just in case you're wondering, even though it may have been 3,700 miles away, our interviewer had the decency not to let his guest drink alone).
Livewire: The last few years you've played in The States around St Patrick's Day. Is there a reason why you're performing closer to home [in Dublin and London] this year?
Shane: Yeah, because we've played in America every fuckin' year before. And we always lose money when we play there, yeah?
Livewire: Do the Irish treat St Paddy's Day the same as in The States, because we get pretty crazy over here?
Shane: No, it's always been more of a religious holiday over here. It's really an [Irish-American] immigrant thing, the way you celebrate it over there, with the fuckin' green Guinness and stuff, yeah?
Livewire: Do you consider yourself a folk artist?
Shane: No! I play Irish popular music, yeah? Calling it folk is like putting it in a box. It's a living tradition, you know?
Livewire: And you wouldn't necessarily call yourself a rocker then, because that puts you in a box as well.
Shane: Exactly, yeah. But I mean, we swing and we rock and... well, you know what we do, yeah? And Irish music does that. Irish music is guts, balls and feet music, yeah? It's frenetic dance music, yeah? Or it's impossibly sad like slow music, yeah? Yeah? And it also handles all sorts of subjects, from rebel songs to comical songs about sex, you know what I mean, yeah? Which I don't think people realize how much innuendo there is [in Irish music]. If you listen to a Dubliners record or a Clancey Brothers record the songs that aren't about drinking, or shooting the Brits, are gonna be about fucking (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Like maids when their young with an old man, you know what I mean? Comical songs about getting hung, you know what I mean? We've got a black sense of humor (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Which is perfectly suited to New York. I think that's why we're understood in New York, much better than we are anywhere else in America.
Livewire: What's your take on some of the newer Irish-American bands, such as The Tossers, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy's?
Shane: Well, I've worked with Dropkick Murphy's before. But the band I really like is called Lancaster County Prison. They're really good.
Livewire: Do you feel that these bands lifted what you were originally doing with The Pogues?
Shane: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Livewire: What's an average day consist of for you?
Shane: Well...[stammers], I mean...today's a day off. But normally I'm doing a gig or I'm recording, or I'm doing a television appearance. If I've got a few days off I'll be working on new stuff, or whatever, yeah?
Livewire: Speaking of new stuff, are you working on anything now?
Shane: Yeah, we're in the middle of recording an album.
Livewire: With The Popes?
Shane: Yeah! That's my band!
Livewire: Do you feel closer to your work with The Popes more than The Pogues?
Shane: No. no, no, no! The Popes are just doing what The Pogues were doing until it went wrong, you know?
Livewire: Do you think that The Popes are doing it as well?
Shane: (Pause) Well, we're doing it a lot better than The Pogues were doing it the last few years. I'm not into progression. I'm not into fusion. I'm not into any of this shit, yeah? I'm just into doing what we do, you know what I mean, yeah?
Livewire: Do you feel stronger to any particular album that you've made with The Popes?
Shane: No. I've never put out an album I didn't actually like. With The Pogues, at least the first three albums I'll stand by completely, yeah? Because I was in artistic control then, yeah? And the last couple of albums I'll stand by anything that's got my name on it, yeah? But I'll stand by anything that is on The Popes' albums, you know? I wouldn't put stuff out that I didn't like. I don't put out bad music. And I can tell the difference. I know that.
Livewire: Do you feel that your recent book A Drink With Shane is the definitive story on yourself?
Shane: Yeah, well, that was not written by me, yeah? It was A Drink With Shane MacGowan. Just what it says. It's not an autobiography. It's not a biography. It's just a garbled bunch of tapes of me out of my brains talking to my missus, yeah?
Livewire: So you don't feel that it's an accurate account of Shane MacGowan?
Shane: I think it's a funny book. And you should take it as a funny book. It's all true, yeah? How ever fantastic it might seem, yeah? But there's a lot of historical inaccuracies and things like that, you know? She sort of left out all my early life in Ireland, and stuff like that, and went straight to the rock 'n' roll and the sex and the drugs and...
Livewire: Straight to the throat.
Shane: Yeah, yeah.
Livewire: What's your drink of choice?
Livewire: Too many to choose from?
Shane: Well, Irish Whiskey, I suppose...and actually Gin I quite like. I drink Gin or Whiskey. And I like the stuff that you got over there like... Schnapps and shots and those kinds of things, you know what I mean?
Livewire: The ones that get the job done quicker.
Shane: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like it that way.
Livewire: Would we know any of your current drinking mates?
Shane: Well, right now I'm in Dublin where you bump into people all the time, you know? I saw Ronnie Drew [from the Dubliners] a few nights ago. Well, actually all over I bump into people all the time.
Livewire: You've worked with quite an impressive list of artists in the past, such as Nick Cave, Sinead O'Connor and The Jesus and Mary Chain, to name just a few. Do you have any plans for other collaborations in the near future?
Shane: Yeah, sure. I just did a couple of tracks with Ronnie Drew. And I'm probably gonna have quite a few guest stars on this album. We're just trying to get an album that's as exciting as our live performance. It's impossible, obviously, but that's what we do every time we record an album.
Livewire: When can we expect to hear this new material?
Shane: When it's finished! (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Actually it should be out in the summer.
Livewire: And you don't think that you'll be touring over here in The States to support it?
Shane: Well, maybe I will. Who knows...of course, we probably will. We'll probably do the East Coast anyway.
Livewire: I hope if you make it that far you won't forget about us here in the Midwest.
Shane: Yeah, yeah, sure. As longs as...(pause)
Livewire: You don't have to take a bath on it?
Shane: Well, even if we do have to take a bath on it, if the album is being distributed properly then its worth it, you know? But at the same time I'm not going to waste my time trying 'break' America, you know what I mean? Too many people have died trying to break America. America doesn't break unless it wants to (krrrrsshhh sshhh), you know what I mean? We've got a great following out on the East Coast, but I think we're more of a cult band everywhere else, yeah? And that's already fuckin' far more people than there are in England and Europe, you know. It's a lot of people anyway.
Livewire: I caught your show with The Popes in Chicago a couple of years ago, which was incredible. I did, however, think it was strange that at one point you somewhat matter of factly turned away from the audience and vomited onstage. Was this a first time for you, or just another night.
Shane: Well, I mean, that happens every now and then, you know what I mean? The excitement and you have a few drinks before you go onstage, you know? You try getting up there and jumping around in front of thousands of people!! (krrrrsshhh sshhh)
Livewire: Its just that it seemed so natural.
Shane: Well, it was. It was. It wasn't unpleasant, you know? I just did it and carried on, you know? In the early days with The Pogues a lot of us used to puke onstage, because we used to drink a helluva lot before we went on. We used to practice puking at the right time, you know, 'where's the stop?' (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Between words, you know what I mean? Or in-between a chorus and a verse.
Livewire: So you've pretty much got this puking thing down to a science then?
Shane: Yeah. I try not to miss a word, you know? (krrrrsshhh sshhh).
Livewire: In the music and media world you're sometimes viewed as this self-destructive mythological being ready to drop at any moment.
Shane: They've been saying that for the last 25 years and here I am talking to you on the phone, you know what I mean?
Livewire: So you feel this a misunderstanding of yourself?
Shane: Yes! I've pissed on those bastards graves! (krrrrsshhh sshhh). I mean, if I've been self-destructive for 25 years, as they've let on, yeah?, how come I haven't destroyed myself yet? (krrrrsshhh sshhh sshhh)
Livewire: I understand that your friend Sinead O'Connor got you arrested a couple years back after she saw you snorting heroin in your own flat.
Shane: That's right, yeah.
Livewire: Did this end your relationship with her?
Shane: No, but it ended my relationship with heroin.
Livewire: So you're telling me that you're totally clean now?
Shane: Yeah! Of that, yeah.
Livewire: Well, congratulations.
Shane: I'm not recommending to people that they should rat their friends out to the police, you know what I mean? At the time I was furious, obviously, but I'm actually very grateful to her now.
Livewire: You've lost a lot of friends to drink and drugs over the years.
Shane: Who hasn't? Haven't you?!
Livewire: Actually, no, I haven't.
Shane: I don't think that I've lost any more than anyone else who's played in bands for years, yeah? I've lost family to drink. I've lost good friends to drugs. But in concerns of the percent, most of my family and friends either lived to a ripe old age or are still alive. My mother and father are still alive and still drinking (krrrrsshhh sshhh krrrrsshhh sshhh). And several of that generation, yeah? The generation before that lasted well into their fuckin' nineties, most of them, yeah? And there's even some of them that are still murking around, that I run into that I knew as a kid from that generation. I've lost a few friends to drink in Ireland. And I've lost a few friends from the music business to drugs, you know? I don't think it's any more than normal, no. A lot of these friends that you're talking about were liked by a lot of people. I had a lot of friends - like Joe Strummer and Kirsty [MacColl] - neither of which had anything to do with drugs, actually.
Livewire: Were you very close to Strummer?
Shane: Yeah! And to Kirsty. But neither of them died from drugs. So I've lost a lot of people to other things as well. People die, you know?! It's a fact of life. (krrrrsshhh sshhh).
Livewire: Do you ever think about your own mortality?
Shane: Yeah, I reckon I'm gonna go for over a hundred, yeah? If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go.
Livewire: So it's not something that you worry about then?
Shane: No. I have no intentions on checking out anytime in the near future.
Livewire: Happy to hear that. I know that you mentioned the band Lancaster County Prison earlier. But outside of the more traditional Irish music is there any other new music that turns you on?
Shane: Well, they're not traditional Irish! They're rocking and they're...listen to them! You mentioned the Dropkick Murphy's and all those bands, but these guys have got the real savagery, you know, yeah? They're pissed off, you know?
Livewire: Okay, but outside of any Irish influences.
Shane: Well, I still love Nick Cave. What he's doing, yeah? I still love Johnny Cash and what he's doing.
Livewire: What do you think of Nick's new album?
Shane: Nocturama? The new Nick Cave album? Um...I mean...they take awhile to get into - Nick's albums, you know? But I think it's fine, yeah. I just like Nick Cave, you know? I always have. I always will.
Livewire: Do you still pal around with him?
Shane: Not really for a long time, no. He lives over in England by Brighton-by-the-Sea and he's trying to have a quiet life sort of thing. But I'm trying to get ahold of him to interview him for the Sunday Independent [Irish newspaper] about religion (krrrrsshhh sshhh).
Livewire: Well, there's probably no better guy in the music world to talk to about religion than Nick Cave.
Shane: Apart from me (krrrrsshhh sshhh). You see, we're both religious maniacs.
Livewire: If I could be a fly on the wall for that interview!
Shane: (krrrrsshhh sshhh) Yeah, I'm gonna do it. 'Cause we're both sinners who know we're in for redemption (krrrrsshhh sshhh)...but don't do anything constructive about it (krrrrsshhh sshhh). The human condition, you know?
Livewire: You painted the cover for your Crock of Gold album. Do you still paint?
Shane: Yeah, yeah. It's one of those things that.... I've been through a lot...yeah, right, a lot of people have died over the last few years and I suppose after that Crock of Gold album is when it started happening, you know? And I've been pretty down in a lot of ways. I haven't been painting as much as I used to, you know what I mean?
Livewire: So was your painting somewhat of a therapy for you when people were dying around you?
Shane: What, you think it's that bad that it looks someone in a nuthouse painted it? (krrrrsshhh sshhh) I think it's quite a good painting, personally.
Livewire: Would you consider it Expressionistic?
Shane: It's a picture of some leprechauns standing around a crock of gold. That's what leprechauns really look like!
Livewire: After how many pints? They look like gremlins.
Shane: They're not nice little guys. They're devils! They're little devils!
Livewire: So are these the type of leprechauns we're to expect over here this St. Patrick's Day? Little Devils?
Shane: You've got them over there, for fuck sake! They wear turbans (krrrrsshhh sshhh sshhh). No, they don't. They got fuckin' white hair and they look like a bad comedian and they've always get their dad behind them telling them what to say (krrrrsshhh sshhh sshhh).
Livewire: Bush, the American Leprechaun?
Shane: He's an absolute fuckin' idiot! I just hope the Arabs can hold their temper, you know? I mean, he's taking on like nearly half the world, 'cause it's Islam, you know, yeah? It's like he's doing Al Qaida's job for 'em, yeah? What do you think? Do you think it's going to happen anyway?
Livewire: I certainly hope not.
Shane: So do I, but you're over there, you know what I mean! I mean everybody's against it here and everywhere else. You're quite good at blowing away your leaders when they're doing a good job, you know? (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Why can't you do it when they're doing a bad job? (krrrrsshhh sshhh krrrrsshhh sshhh). You have done quite a few tosses, but only on the good ones, you know? (krrrrsshhh sshhh). I mean, look at your '60s record - Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, fuckin' Malcolm X...Jesus Christ! (krrrrsshhh sshhh krrrrsshhh sshhh). You should repeal it so you can get it back to bloody three terms so you can keep a guy like Clinton when you get one, yeah? Bush isn't going to do three terms, don't worry about that! (krrrrsshhh sshhh). Are you going to stop him if he does? (krrrrsshhh sshhh). That's the way you do it, you know. (krrrrsshhh sshhh).
Livewire: What's your immediate plans right now?
Shane: I'm leaving for holiday tomorrow just to relax. I haven't been on holiday for years. So I'm going to Morocco, and I might shoot around the place a bit. Or I might just observe it from a fairly safe distance. I can't write about the stuff that's eating away at me when it's still eating at me. I've got to be somewhere where I can have a good time to write disturbing songs.
Livewire: So while you're physically getting away from it, you're also bringing what disturbs you along?
Shane: Yeah, I'm bringing my demons with me and I'm dispelling them in the chilled out, laid back atmosphere of Morocco.
Livewire: Chilling out with your own leprechauns?
Shane: That's right! Yeah (krrrrsshhh sshhh).
Photo by Phil Bonyata