Shane MacGowan, the singer, songwriter and a longtime leader of the legendary band the Pogues, died last week. He was only 65 and although he seems to have been aiming himself headlong and heedlessly at that early eventuality for most of his life, his death still feels like a tragedy. Given the way he lived, it’s a miracle he lived that long.
Henry Kissinger died the day before, and I remain unmoved. Sorry. My daughter and I have concocted a fantasy where Shane fist-fights HK in the celestial waiting room before moving up to a luxury suite at the Club Seraphim, where he spends some time recovering before playing a concert for a rowdy crowd of bad angels, while Henry is escorted to Door #2.
If you detected an uncharitable tone in my attitude toward HK, you would be correct. But let me remind you that although MacGowan had undoubtedly been bounced from any number of dark, dirty, and dangerous bars during his louche life, he was never barred from any country because their government deemed him a war criminal. No, Shane was welcomed wherever he went. Perhaps not by the solid citizens, but most definitely by a devoted coterie of music aficionados and discriminating lowlifes.
If you’ve never been a fan of Shane MacGowan, I get it. Like most genuine geniuses, he was an acquired taste. For one thing, he was supremely slovenly, the patron saint of dishevelment. If, like me, you are also a devoted Tom Waits fan, but have secretly suspected he might be a tiny bit too clean and well-behaved to be first in your heart, then Shane is your man. After all, Waits had all his teeth. Or appeared to have.
The notable tragedy of MacGowan’s life is that he was a fierce drinker, a habit that was born when his parents began giving him Guinness when he was a child, to make him sleep. That’s according to a book about him by Victoria Clarke, the woman he was engaged to for 11 years (in Irish reckoning, that’s a short engagement) before marrying her in 2018, so there’s little reason to doubt her account.
He was also addicted to heroin. His friend and frequent musical collaborator Sinead O’Conner once reported him to the police for drug possession, in a misguided and ultimately failed attempt to get him off heroin. He eventually quit the drug, and presumably alcohol, in 2016, and he hung on for seven more years before his declining health and relentless decadence finally bested him.
Having spent most of his career crawling on and cheerfully falling off the wagon—and sometimes the stage—he was famous for his raw and rowdy and whiskey-fueled performances. My friend Sarah was working at Kells when MacGowan stopped by to pre-function before his Seattle concert at Under the Rail with The Popes, his band at the time.
He ordered and drank several pint glasses full of vermouth, alternating them with pint glasses of water. Only he could devise—and survive—such a strange and terrible combination of sugar-bomb, cocktail, and hydrating regime. I like to think it was his version of trying to maintain some measure of control.
The thing that separated him from other musical geniuses of his time was his knack for seamlessly mashing up despair and joy. His song, Fairytale of New York, is one of the best of the modern Christmas songs. Weirdly, given the tragic circumstances described in his lyrics, it’s also one of the most popular. No one but MacGowan could take a story about two bitter, ill-tempered losers bickering and trading obscene insults and recriminations after one of them has just staggered out of the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, and turn it into a song that lifts your heart.
Nothing lightens my mood quite like listening to that song whenever I find myself in a head space where, after being assaulted by one too many instances of commercially manufactured holiday cheer, I’m veering too damned close to throwing a rock through a randomly selected store window.
My little family loves Christmas—even when we’re bickering—and we love that song even more. Everyone loves it. But no one knows how he managed to pull off the miracle of making it so lovely and cheerful. Christmas comes once a year, but Fairytale of New York is suitable for any occasion. It lifts my heart the way O Holy Night can never hope to. It reminds me of the remark attributed to another cheeky Irish cynic, Oscar Wilde: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” If MacGowan’s carol doesn’t cheer you up, there’s something askew in your soul.
My favorite Shane MacGowan song is probably all of them. But if I had to choose one, I suppose it would be The Sunnyside of the Street, because it’s the closest that MacGowan has ever sidled toward optimism. Which is, of course, not very close at all. He was mostly allergic to optimism. Although, for sheer back-alley romance, there is no lovelier song than A Rainy Night in Soho. But don’t forget the exquisite Haunted, from the movie Sid and Nancy, with this unforgettable bit of flattery:
“The first time I saw you
Standing in the street
You were so cool you could’ve
Put out Vietnam.”
You see what I mean? They’re all good.
Shane chewed up despair and spat out charisma. In spite of his mostly self-created and enthusiastically maintained ragamuffin appearance, women loved him. Great charm is the great equalizer; ask any discriminating woman. Among those who adored him were some of the best and most original singers and performers of our time, including Cait O’Riordan (the bass player and only female member of the Pogues), Sinead O’Conner, and Kirsty MacColl. They all joined him for spectacular duets, on stage and in recordings. O’Conner preceded him in death this summer, despite the fact that he was nine years older and long steeped in the circumstance of his own demise. No bookie in Ireland would have given you odds on that.
Given that it’s been a year for losing rare and brilliant musicians before their time, you’re probably in the market for a little musical pick-me-up. If so, and you think you might enjoy watching two adorable thugs knock every bit of sentimentality out of one of the most frequently and unfairly sentimentalized songs ever written, I suggest you go online and find the video of Shane and Nick Cave performing their delightfully lugubrious take on What a Wonderful World.
Emerging one at a time out of a sinister black backdrop festooned with sparkly lights that loom and waver like UFO’s, the two singers possess the pallor of uncooked pie crust, looking unwell and slightly out of it, but weirdly sincere. Halfway through the performance, obeying a cheerful suggestion in the lyrics, they shakily shake hands like two zombies bumping into each other in a gloomy hallway. It’s a deadpan and darkly hilarious performance that will make you wonder how Shane managed to sing so beautifully and soulfully, for so many years, with so many of his front teeth missing. He turned it into an art form.
I am embarrassed but not ashamed to admit that my husband and I raised our two daughters on a steady diet of late-night dinner parties, Pogues music, and the kind of disreputable company that goes with both. They grew up to be defenders of the downtrodden and marginalized, as well as fearless seekers after truth, justice, and opportunities to get into good trouble. So, good for me.
Before you consider reporting me to CPS, please know that I have also been dragging them to classical concerts at Town Hall and Benaroya Hall since they were babies. As far as I can tell, those concerts contributed to their current appreciation for the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical complexities of musicians such as Andre 3000, Big Boi, and Pulitzer-Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar, so good for me again.
In 2018, when David Simon (The Wire) and his wife Laura Lippman (author of many fine detective novels) appeared together at a Seattle Arts and Lectures event, my husband and one of our daughters were there, all enthusiastic fans of both writers and sitting in the front row. Since Lippman and Simon worked at the Baltimore Sun back in the day, the event organizers wisely selected Neal Thompson (former Baltimore Sun reporter, Seattle resident, and author of several wonderful books) to interview them.
Near the end of the discussion, Thompson asked them if they had any new projects planned. Simon answered that they were thinking about writing a musical about the Pogues. Forgetting where we were, and acting on pure instinct that overcame what little common sense we have, the three of us simultaneously pumped our fists in the air and shouted some variation of “Hell, yeah!”
I still find it hard to believe that we were the only people in Benaroya Hall who succumbed to the same instinct. But apparently, we were. I know that because all three of the people on stage simultaneously turned their heads toward us and stared, astonished and delighted by the outburst. After a few seconds, Simon said, “Well, we’ve sold three tickets.” The audience laughed, Simon resumed talking, and we sat there feeling embarrassed and conspicuous. Later, as we were walking to our car, we passed Neal Thompson, who stopped us and said, “Hey! You’re the Pogues family!”
Yes we were, and yes we still are. But now, having lost our mascot, our fearless leader, and an honorary member of our clan, we are a diminished family. Rest in peace, Shane. And try to lay off the vermouth.
Note: According to Irish Republican News, his life was celebrated at a funeral in Nenagh, County Tipperary, after his remains were carried in a procession through Dublin, with many prominent figures in attendance.