- 30 Jul 04
That, according to Shane MacGowan, will be the title of his next, and exceedingly long-awaited album. in the meantime there’s Sean Nós, the war, his dad, drink and Celtic football legend Jimmy Johnstone to be going on with.
Reports of Shane MacGowan’s demise – artistic, physical, mental or otherwise – are always exaggerated, usually as a result of how the singer comports himself in public. Any reporter has to wonder how much of the man’s dissipated act is just that: a put on, a shtick. Speak informally with him about music and you hear someone talking with considerable articulacy about a very ephemeral subject – or at least as articulately as can be expected of someone with no teeth and a mouthful of Japanese food.
Yet, his career has been on the slide for a good ten years now. His last album The Crock Of Gold came out in 1997, and that was a patchy affair at best. And yet, the pilot light is still on. Ask MacGowan to name-check a couple of new bands that have taken his fancy and he’ll mention Republic Of Loose and a London band called The Scene, whom he reckons have the same arrogance as early Pistols. On being told of New York Doll Arthur Kane’s death, he crosses himself and looks genuinely upset. But get him talking about sean nós singing and he’ll tell you to turn the tape back on so he can get the following on the record:
“Technically speaking, according to Ceoltais, sean nós has to be in Irish, it cannot be funny, it can’t be fast, it can’t be . . . entertaining. The sean nós song is generally juvenile, yeah? Like a Noddy book – although there is much heavier stuff about killing and fucking and revenge and ghosts and stuff like that. But normally it’s sitting in a room listening to somebody sing, bending Irish out of shape, the way you get grace notes, like blue notes in jazz, sean nós is like jazz singing, they will leave out whole syllables, they’ll elongate whole syllables, they’ll leave out consonants. Y’know ‘Forever Changes’ by Love? A lot of time he (Arthur Lee) leaves out the last word in the rhyme so it can go (makes guitar noise). That’s pure sean nós singing, yeah? The greatest sean nós singers have been able to sing songs in English; they’ve twisted the English language to their way, like our writers. We use English as fun.”
So whom would he consider a great sean nós singer?
“One is Joe Heaney, who I actually met as a kid, because I was brought up in a party house, many times he came to our house. Joe Heaney had a whole thing, from the saddest song he ever heard in English to the saddest song he ever heard in Irish, to ‘The Old Woman From Wexford, to ‘Arthur McBride’‚ to ‘Fuck-the-Brits’ songs, stuff like that. There was a great record called The Road To Carna; Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger collected songs from the Irish, about 20 years before he died, and it’s the best recording. But with sean nós, essentially the words don’t mean that much, it’s total expressionism, like Coltrane.”
You’d be hard pressed to get this kind of talk out of any Irish musician. Nevertheless, over the last few years, Shane’s name has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Like his public contretemps with Sinead O’ Connor. Or his getting beaten up in a London pub a couple of months ago.
And then there’s the matter of a petition from fans on Shane’s own website to have Joey Cashman removed from his role as manager/minder, a petition that received the support of MacGowan’s own father Maurice and at least one member of his backing band The Popes. Shane’s handlers have declared that subject off limits today, although if you ask him about it, the singer will say this:
“My dad has no control over who works with me. Me, me and me alone has to take responsibility for anything. Petitions are ridiculous. Jim Morrison; y’know the beginning of ‘The Soft Parade’ and ‘Celebration Of the Lizard’ on Absolutely Live? There was some bunch of mad born-again Christians down in the south petitioning the lord to stop blokes having cocks or something, and it starts off: ‘You cannot petition the lord’ yeah? Not that I’m the lord or anything . . .”
Perhaps mindful of his presence distracting from the business at hand, the usually omnipresent Joey Cashman is nowhere to be seen today. Nor are the various and nefarious species of corvine hangers on that usually attend Shane’s presence in a Dublin bar. Instead, a composed and capable Tipperary man by the name of Sean Fay has been charged with getting Shane to the various churches of media on time, and the current PR blitz is ostensibly being handled by Gerry O’ Boyle, owner of the Boogaloo Bar and one-time proprietor of Filthy McNasty’s, a favoured London literary watering hole and hangout for Shane, Nick Cave Irish writers such as Pat McCabe.
O’ Boyle has taken the trouble to ring me before today’s interview begins to give the proceedings a positive spin. He tells me about Shane’s cameo as a drunken minstrel alongside Johnny Depp and John Malkovich in the forthcoming Restoration-era film The Libertine; about Shane’s winning the Italian equivalent of the Ivor Novello (previous recipients include Lou Reed and Tom Waits); about the four consecutive Sundays booked in Ronnie Scott’s for early next year.
We’re sitting in the Library bar of the Central Hotel in Dublin on a Friday afternoon in mid-July. Dressed in a stripy shirt, suit jacket and trousers, face fuzzed in soft beard, pale blue eyes clear and bright, Shane’s looking a lot better than the last time I interviewed him, which was in late ’97. Back then he was in a bad way, nodding off into his drink every few minutes and speaking like a man who’d suffered a stroke. Today he might not exactly pass for one of those bland and aerobicised mediocrity-mongers currently masquerading as pop stars, but he’s wakeful enough for a man who was up at three this morning catching a ferry to Dublin and doing radio slots five hours later.
“I sat down to a mammoth drinking session and woke up later when we got in,” MacGowan says when I ask him how the trip was. “Had a good sleep. Kccch-kccch-kccch.”
Ah yes, the laugh. A sibilant hiss halfway between Ernie from Sesame Street and a rattlesnake. Get used to that sound. You’ll be hearing it a lot.
As we settle down to talk, Shane’s eating a Japanese take-away with his fingers and decanting sake from a Styrofoam container into a shot glass, spilling a good half measure on the table before diligently mopping it up with a serviette. At one stage he passes me a plastic sachet of sushi dressing and asks if I’ve got good teeth. I use my fingers.
The reason for our meeting today is to plug the single ‘Dirty Old Town’/’The Road To Paradise’, a tribute to former Celtic player Jimmy Johnstone, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a while ago. Proceeds from the single, which has already done respectable business in Scotland and England, go to a variety of charity organisations, including the Jimmy Johnstone motor neurone disease tribute fund. Released under the moniker The Bhoys From Paradise, both songs are also on the soundtrack to the Johnstone documentary film Lord Of the Wing. The first tune is a version of the old Ewan MacColl-penned, Pogues-covered classic featuring a duet between Johnstone and Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr. The second is a new Shane composition featuring The Kick Horns. As MacGowan songs go, it’s a jaunty and robust blast of pub-rock, if hardly his finest moment.
Never having heard him wax on about football before. I ask Shane if he’s a Celtic fan.
“I am a Celtic fan, although I have no interest in the game itself,” he says. “But they are a stalwart of flagrant Republican bigotry in the so-called British Isles, yeah?”
From there, we somehow get onto the subject of the anti-war protests in Dublin in the spring of last year, on which occasion Shane climbed on stage and did an impromptu ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda’ accompanied by Glen Hansard of The Frames. Inquire of Shane what he made of the Irish government allowing US military aircraft to use Shannon Airport as a stopover and he says this:
“Do you know what happened at Shannon Airport? The security was so tight, but two women demonstrators got in and irreparably damaged two airliners. Have you ever seen the security at Shannon?
I have. And I’m wondering how civilians go about disabling military aircraft. Where do you start?
“You just slash the fuck out of it, and the Yanks are such shitheads they won’t fly a plane that’s even got a dent. That’s why you get cheap Yank cars if they’ve got a dent in them. And their GIs are coke-sniffing, useless, moronic . . . and then some stupid reporter asked Bertie, Mr Ahern, The Taoiseach, the leader of our nation, what about America? And he said, ‘America is America.’ Kccch-kccch-kccch.”
That sounds profound.
“Well it’s true isn’t it? What do you want him to do, declare war on America?”
No, but he could’ve told them to go and use somebody else’s airport.
“It would’ve lost us 45 billion. I don’t think it’s an argument. If you want to be a bunch of wankers, be a bunch of wankers.”
This is Shane all over. In the space of a minute, he’ll go from anti US military sentiments to supporting Irish governmental ostrich policy. But for all the nationalist posturing, his tastes in art have always been avowedly internationalist. In fact, he’s still buzzing from a recent sojourn to Tangiers, which he says was exactly as Burroughs described it.
“I saw more Mugwumps than humans,” he chuckles. “I was stoned out of my head.”
So we get to talking about Naked Lunch and how if you don’t have a local guide in Morocco you’re up the creek. We talk about the Joujouka musicians Brian Jones recorded there in the late 60s, and the gig those same musicians played in The Project around 1990, an ear-splitting but oddly purgative experience akin to Ornette Coleman.
“Not Ornette,” he corrects me. “More like Coltrane. Late Coltrane. Or Eric Dolphy. Or Pharaoh Saunders.”
Earlier on, he’d leafed through a book of Lorca’s writings I’d given him as an icebreaker, telling him the first time I’d ever heard of the poet was through ‘Lorca’s Novena’ off Hell’s Ditch.
“‘Lorca’s Novena is a direct rip-off of ‘Lament For Ignacio Sanchez Mejias’,” he says. “And ‘Fiesta’. After spending five weeks in Spain I realised Lorca was as important as Joyce, Yeats, Kavanagh or O’Carolan in Ireland.”
Here we can only ponder such an obviously intelligent and intuitive character allowing himself to be portrayed as a cartoon buffoon. It all comes down to this: because Shane hasn’t put out an album in seven years, the central premise of his public life has faded to the degree that he’s now regarded as walk-on gom in the Sindo version of a Paddy pageant: Shane as everybody’s favourite batty alkie uncle, Shane at war with his father, Shane the smack addict, Shane the victim.
The Shane MacGowan who wrote ‘The Boys From the County Hell’ and ‘Lullaby Of London’, the balladeer, poet and all-singing, all-dancing duende vendor, has gotten half-buried under irrelevancies. MacGowan could talk about James Clarence Mangan or Sam Peckinpah or Brendan Behan until he’s blue in the face, but few in the cultural dungheap of present day Dublin would give a damn.
Maybe a few more would if he made another record. Shane tends to get tetchy if you bring up the subject of productivity.
“‘S not my facking fault,” he says. “It’s the business. I’ve been here all the time; I could be putting out as many albums as Costello, y’know what I mean? But I won’t put out shite, y’know? Kccch-kccch-kccch! But there is another album.”
“I’ll be recording in six weeks’ time. Then you’ve gotta allow a month for pressing, interviews, blah-blah-blah.”
Got a title for it?
“I Did It For Ireland And The Money – Nothing Else. Kccch-kccch-kccch!”
So he’s getting his act back on the road?
“It’s never been off the road. What do you want me to do, shit my pants in front of you? It’s not my fault. And even if it was my fault I wouldn’t be sorry. I mean, you can have prolific punters like Elvis Costello or you can have guys like... y’know, Tim Buckley’s dead. Jimi Hendrix is dead. Bob Dylan’s almost dead. Kccch-kccch-kccch! Well, actually he was dead for many years, and at the Fleadh the other week it was great. It was the best Dylan gig I’d ever seen. He had Ronnie Wood playing guitar up his arse and it actually worked.”
Somebody once asked Shane MacGowan why he drank, and he gave about the best answer this writer ever heard. He said he drank in order to experience Paradise. Today though, the singer is in a more prosaic mood.
“I drink because I’m thirsty,” he says, then slurps some more sake.
So what does it take to get him out of bed and write a song; does he have a set way of working?
“I like playing the guitar and playing the piano.”
Does he feel like more of a musician than a writer?
“That’s just semantics, yeah? I write music, yeah? I write the lyrics, yeah? When I’m writing a song, it gives me more actual pleasure to hear someone else sing it than do it meself. I like to sing songs written by other songwriters that I admire, who tend to be, like, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Irish guys you’d never have heard of, Joe Heaney, my own family. The older generation of the family. I was born into a rave: gambling, drug-taking, drinking, live music, the radio, dancing.”
A couple of years ago, Tom Waits listed Rum Sodomy & The Lash as one of his ten favourite records, describing The Pogues as playing like sailors on shore leave.
“That’s a pretty good description,” Shane says. “We were definitely characters, the Pogues in the early days. We were all men. Apart from Cait, who was 17.”
Ever get a notion to write a book or a screenplay?
“Course I do, yeah. So I’ll write a bit and think, ‘You arrogant eejit.’ What I do is I’m a bandleader, frontman, entertainer. Technically the lousiest gig we ever played, the audience went bloody bananas. We earned our money.”
And there we leave it. Shane has a signing session in Tower Records, and he’s already late. Not grievously late, as Sean observes, just fashionably late.
Shane spits out the phrase like a maggot.
Then they’re gone. The pretty Polish girl working the bar sweeps up bits of rice from under my feet with a dustpan. I finish my drink. Half an hour later, outside Tower, I stop by the ATM. There’s a young homeless fellow there, crouched beside the hole in the wall. He looks up at me.
“Who’s in Tower?” he asks. “Is it Shane MacGowan or Christy Dignam?”
I key in the bank link number.
“They look the spit of each other.”
“You think so?”
The machine asks which option I require.
“Yeah. Shane’s bigger though.”
I key in withdraw without receipt.
“Who do you think’s better?” the homeless guy asks. “The Pogues or Aslan?”
I tell him I’m a Pogues man. The machine asks which account, current or cash save. The homeless guy says, “What’s that song about New York?”
Cash save. The machine tells me to wait.
“‘Fairytale Of New York’.”
The machine makes a beeping noise and then spits out the money and the card.
And the homeless guy says, “That was a great song.”
Dirty Old Town/The Road To Paradise is out now on RMG.
Photography by Liam Sweeney.