Remembering the Pogues: If I Should Fall from Grace with God

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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.

Kathy Cain
Kathy Cain
Kathleen Cain began her career in Seattle writing and producing documentaries and talk shows for television and radio. She hosted a two-hour interview program on the notorious KRAB FM, was a contributing editor for late, great Seattle Weekly, and a writer/creative director at the legendary Heckler Associates for many years before starting her own communications consulting firm, Cain Creative.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I had zero familiarity with Shane McGowan and very little of the Pogues, until now. -Just a lack of proper education, I suppose. Nonetheless, I hereby nominate this article as the best written in 2023. I’d add more, but my breath has been taken.

  2. Thanks for the memories. “Dirty Old Town” has always been my favorite as far as Pogues tunes. Even if it wasn’t written by them, they made it their own. Reminiscent of a drunk man shouting into a foggy night.

    • A perfect description of that song! Since Dirty Old Town was written by Ewan MacColl, the father of Kirsty, it’s not surprising that Shane nails it like it was one of his own. Kirsty wrote In These Shoes, one the best girl anthems ever. The official video is the funniest and most delightful little four-minute movie in the pantheon. If watching it doesn’t make you get up and dance, you should get your vitals checked.

  3. I now have a list (as soon as I make it) of singers (?!) and songs to search for online and to listen to, as well. I enjoyed reading about both singers and songs I’d never heard of previously. My thanks to Ms. Cain and for the mentions of KRAB and the Weekly in her bio.

  4. Terrific piece.

    “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash” has always been one of my favorite album titles (and albums, too). 😉

    I think “Fairytale of New York” is such a great Christmas song, especially as I get older, as it touches on the missed dreams and shared lives, melancholy, and hope that many of us feel during the holiday season.

    Kirsty McColl was terrific duetting with Shane in the song – a perfect blend of spite and love. She was also gone way to soon.

    “The NYPD Choir is still singing ‘Galway Bay’…and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day!”

    Happy holidays!

    • That fabulous album title comes from a description of the traditions of the British Navy, attributed to Winston Churchill. Like Shane, he was a master of the trenchant remark.
      You’re right about MacColl’s death; it was too soon and almost unbelievably tragic. I continue to hope someone will make a movie about her.

    • A lot of very interesting people used to hang around that bar. One who always comes to mind when I think about those days is the brilliant, charming, whip-smart, and utterly irreplaceable writer Mike Davis, who passed away just a year ago. What a loss.
      Although this may an unwarranted aside, Davis’s book, City of Quartz, is considered the definitive biography of the city of Los Angeles. And his Set the Night on Fire, published in 2020, is about LA in the sixties. Many people think that the Stephen’s Stills song, For What It’s Worth, is an anti-war anthem, but it was written about the curfew riots on Sunset strip that kick off Mike’s fascinating and compelling cultural history of that time.

  5. Kudos to Kathy Cain for her eloquent encomium to the recently departed Shane MacGowan. Brendan Behan was born one hundred years ago in Dublin. His candle burned out at the age of 40 in 1964. So Shane managed to outlive the bibulous, bombastic and bardic Russell Street rebel by 25 years. Brendan’s demise was a combination of alcoholism and adulation, compounded by diabetes. Shane’s boozy excesses were occasionally enhanced by narcotics. Yet somehow he made it to his mid-sixties.

    I was at Kells the night Shane made his entrance. Alas I had left ten minutes before he appeared. My dear friend Wayne Quinn–deceased now for over ten years–and I had performed some music at an early evening birthday party in the back room. Festivities had ended around 8pm and Quinn and I stayed at the bar for an extra pint or two before making our way home. The next day the young bartender, who was from Ireland, told me that we had just missed Shane. I have no doubt that he would have escorted Quinn and me as his guests to the show…which I believe was at the Showbox. The bartender told me about the vermouth. Yikes. Shane’s legendary temulence was surely on full display as he roared away that night with the Popes.

    God bless you Shane. Rest In Peace. And as Kathy suggests, go easy on the vermouth. Thank you Kathy Caine.

    • This is high praise coming from you, my favorite literary scholar and my personal moral compass!

      I had no idea that you and that beautiful saint and angel Wayne Quinn were also there on the night when Shane wandered into the actual Post Alley, looking for a not-so-quiet spot to top up on vermouth. As my husband points out, it’s a good thing you two didn’t run into him or he never would have made it to the gig. He would have stayed there, singing with you and Wayne, and cribbing phrases from the sparkling conversation of Sarah Kronzer—one of the most delightful people who ever worked at that bar—to file away for future use.

      Thank you for the friendly comment. And also for “temulence!” I’m so pleased to personally confirm the theory that no one is too old to learn a new word.

    • As I’ve said on several occasions, I ripped off your style about 20 years ago and I’ve never looked back. So thank you for that. It’s not easy being a wiseguy; it requires regular practice and more than the average number of brain cells. Too many people try it and too many just end up being irritating instead of illuminating. But you’re a master of the art, Art.

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