- 15 Jan 18
"Things are already outta control, well outta control," he told a not wholly surprised Liam Fay...
Liam Fay called on Shane MacGowan at home, where over mugs of brandy, the singer cheerfully rationalised his notorious alcohol-intake in the face of widespread concern that he might be drinking himself to an early grave. The premier Pogue disagreed, predicting instead a happy fulfilling life away from the stage, in which he would own and run a fully-licensed restaurant in London and face extended vacations in Thailand.
Through The Keyhole, episode 735 a continuing series in which, each week, you the reader are invited into the home of a rich and famous pop-star and given a detailed description of the surroundings and decor from which you must deduce the name of the celebrity who lives there.
Today we find ourselves on the top floor of a three-storey Georgian building in the Marble Arch area of London. The house is quiet and unremarkable in every respect, except for the fact that the serenity is punctured every couple of minutes by a strange and disturbing sound that could be anything from the hissing of a rattle snake or a stalling ignition to the noise a Space Invaders machine makes when all the little Pacmen have been gobbled up. This sound is coming from the large bedroom where our mystery person sleeps, eats and relaxes. Let's have a look in there, shall we?
There are two single beds in the room, both bare except for unzipped sleeping bags and a few cushions. A miniature black 'n' white television is balanced precariously on the back of an armchair and right beside that there's a fairly expensive-looking hi-fi system. Along by one wall sit four or five huge cardboard boxes full of records the selection comprising of everything from The Doors through Makem And Clancy to Public Enemy. Behind the door hangs a heavy black overcoat that used to belong to showbiz Svengali Jim Hand. And over by the window you can see the emerald-green guitar that was a present from gravel-voiced Scottish singer, Frankie Miller. The floor is littered with piles of clothes and the bric-a-brac of someone who spends most of his or her nights on the town (heaps of loose change, beermats, customised matchboxes etc.) and at the foot of one of the beds there's the remnants of a hastily prepared breakfast an empty sliced-pan wrapper, a tub of Flora, a jar of Marmite and a greasy knife.
However, the most notable feature of the room has to be the vast phalanx of bottles (empty and full) that form a sort of centrepiece. Whatever you're having yourself, it's here: brandy, gin, vodka, wine, port, all sorts of mixers, not to mention two plastic shopping bags loaded with cans of Budweiser. The place literally smells like a brewery.
Well, have you guessed the name of our mystery resident yet? You're fight, it's not Tanita Tikaram, Daniel O'Donnell, Sade or even Axl Rose. This is, of course, where Mr O'Hooligan himself, Shane MacGowan, lays his hat and calls home. And the strange noise that ricochets throughout the house is his bizarre, blowgun of a laugh.
For years, Shane lived in a renovated squat in Camden Town but he had a rather leisurely approach to details like the payment of gas and electricity bills and he returned home from a tour once to find that everything had been cut off. Now his digs are in this house near Marble Arch and his landlady, Kathy MacMillan, looks after his overheads. (Incidentally, Ms MacMillan makes a cameo appearance on the new Pogues album, playing the typewriter on 'Down All The Days', a song about disabled author, Christy Brown.) Shane has no plans to buy a house. "What do I need a house for?" he chuckles. "All I need is a bed, a toilet, a chair and a drinks cabinet."
It's the evening after the night before and Shane isn't that long out of bed. The previous day The Pogues had launched their fourth album, Peace And Love, with a characteristically momentous debauch of a party in Kentish Town and long after most normal people had reached their hooch plimsoll lines, MacGowan was still splashing about, ingesting oceans of the stuff. But then, what else is new?
Now, he's sitting on the edge of the bed, sipping brandy from a coffee mug and looking very disgruntled and depressed. It's not that he's got a hangover; he's already had a tuft of hairs of the dog: That always does the trick. He's pissed off because tomorrow The Pogues travel to America for the first leg of what is to be a very lengthy world tour. And Shane has gotten to the point where he hates the very thought of going on the road again.
"I'm sick of performing live," he scowls. "I've done too much of it. Over the last while it's gotten to the stage where we're doing it every night, week after week, and it's too much. It's very hard to put as much into it and you have to really work on psyching yourself up getting drunk enough but not too drunk to fucking enjoy it and be good! You have to do it, so you do it but it's a bit like screwing for a living. Screwing is only good if you're an amateur or a part-timer. Old whores don't have much fun."
What keeps you going then if you hate the prospect so much?
"The fact that I need more money", he says and the Space Invaders machine goes off again. "I do actually enjoy music and playing music, you know what I mean? I hardly ever do it with this band though. It's all interviews and travelling and promotion. I hate all that. OK, if we haven't done a gig for ages and we do one and it turns out to be good then I enjoy that but doing it all the fucking time is awful.
"We better have a fucking massive American hit this time round or there'll be fucking trouble. If that happens we'll be able to take things a bit easier. Obviously, it's far more enjoyable making records and playing gigs if you've more time and you don't have to do every gig you're offered 'cause you need the money. I want to be able to pick 'n' choose. But all this comes under the heading of career strategy and the business side of things. I'm just not up to dealing with that, I'm not enough of a bullshitter, so I leave that up to our manager Frank (Murray). He tells me he's working on it. He better be."
Why don't you do what some other acts do: make loads of glitzy videos and send them round the world to do the touring for you. In other words, stay at home and let your promotional fingers do the walking.
"Now, that's a good idea. Why the fuck didn't we think of that. Get Frank on the phone. I want a meeting. I'll have to remember that one. It's clever that. There could be a place in our organisation for you if you play your cards right."
On a more serious note, the ritual of live performance becomes decreasingly attractive in relation to the extent to which Shane and indeed all of The Pogues are becoming increasingly worried about the danger of fatal crushes at their often phenomenally boisterous gigs. A case in point is a recent concert at the St Andrew's football ground in Birmingham where almost 100 fans were injured because of a stage-front squash.
"In that case we had sorted out certain requirements before we did that gig," explains Shane,"but when we got there it wasn't done the way it was arranged. So we're gonna have to be even more careful in the future 'cause I'm not interested in watching somebody get crushed to death in front of me while I m on a bloody stage singing a song. In that case, we saw what was happening and were able to stop the gig before it became another Hillsborough or something but that was just luck. It basically comes down to bad organisation and fucking greed on behalf of the people who run these things and the awful fucking thing is that we don t have enough control to avoid situations like that, not compared to the responsibility we have."
Do you feel that as you get bigger as a band that events snowball and you lose control over things generally?
"Things are already outta control, well outta control," he says, topping up his brandy mug.
In what way?
"I don't control anything I do now," he sighs, "too many other people have influence over me for my liking. I want to get really big so that I can control everything! That's what I want to start sacking people at will, willy-nilly, just 'cause I'm in a bad mood. That kind of thing makes people more co-operative if they don't do what you want you fuck 'em. Unfortunately, we're at nothing like that stage yet."
He stares at me for a moment, trying to gauge how I'm responding to this piece of rock 'n' roll megalomania, then he throws his head back and cackles insanely. Do you ever feel like jacking all of this in and doing something else?
"Yeah, quite a lot Not doing anything else though just jacking it all in, doing nothing. I dream about going to Thailand and living there. It's the best place I've been abroad. I'm not counting Ireland, that's more of a second home. Thailand is a great bloody place. I could live there very cheaply, nice comfortable surroundings and nothing to do except lie around drinking all day. It costs virtually nothing to get pissed in Thailand. And they don't speak English so I wouldn't have to waste time talking to complete strangers. And they never even heard of The Pogues. They've also got a great, laid-back attitude to sex! It's a fucking dreamland."
Is there anything you like about the music business?
Do you enjoy being a pin-up?
"Fuck off! I m not a fucking pin-up."
There are posters with your face on them and people stick them up on their walls, therefore you're a pin-up.
"I haven't really thought about it. It doesn't worry me, I must admit. It's just so fucking absurd, the idea of it."
Surely you had pictures of people up on your wall when you were a kid?
"Not ugly fuckers like me, no. Jimi Hendrix maybe, or Blondie but not someone who looks the way I do. That'd be a bit like putting Morrissey on your wall or the guy out of Simple Minds. People do that but I don't know why or what it means. They must have mercury poisoning or something."
These days there are as many ways of looking at The Pogues as there are members of the band. Like truly progressive democrats, they have expanded their musical and lyrical vision to incorporate even more of the talents, influences and experiences of all the angles in this distended octagon. And while musically they are still all for one and one for all, it's the individual slants that give this gestalt the edge on other collectives.
Philip Chevron, Terry Woods, Jem Finer, Daryl Hunt and Andrew Ranken in various combinations share writing credits on eight of the fourteen tracks on Peace And Love, but this does not mean that Shane MacGowan is, in any way, being pushed out of the limelight. On the contrary, the unique nimbus which his songs have always exuded still dominates the new album and is reflected and refracted throughout the others' endeavours. MacGowan is, as ever, the band's focus, anchor and frontman in the real sense of the word.
Physically, emotionally and psychologically, he is the embodiment of everything The Pogues stand (and stagger) for. From his concrete-mixing voice that is by turns incoherent and lyrical, and his devil-may-care lifestyle to the rough tenderness of his worldview, he is the original death-or-glory anti-hero. And it is his hedonism, sense of common decency and enthusiasm for anti-authoritarian rebel rousing that keeps the kiss-my-arse freight train hurtling along at such breakneck speed.
Of course the big window to any examination of Shane MacGowan has to be his drinking. While for a time, The Pogues cried foul at what they claimed was the media's exaggeration of the extent of their drunkenness and portrayal as a group of Booze Brothers, there is now little attempt on their part to demur from the popular perception. For many of the band and especially MacGowan, alcohol has become a sort of lifeforce that determines, informs and deforms both life and work.
Shane MacGowan drinks all day, every day. ("Beer is a kind of staple", he says, "but I like most things. I like brandy at the moment. 'Ere you want some?"). Over the last decade, he can't remember any time when he went for longer than a week without getting drunk and even then that was because he was in hospital having collapsed from overdoing it. In a highly publicised incident last December he keeled over in Dublin and was rushed to hospital suffering from what he now jokingly describes as nervous exhaustion. Surely something like that must frighten the life out of you?
"Waking up in hospital not being able to have a drink frightened the life out of me," he nods. "It fucking scared me shitless, mate. I had to get out of there as quickly as possible and get down the pub."
But do you worry about the long term effects of heavy drinking? Ultimately, it can kill you.
"Having to stay off drink for a week nearly fucking killed me, so which is worse? The reason I keep drinking is that I hate hangovers. And the thing is, if you have a drink in the morning you feel better! That's just a fact, yeah? It's withdrawal and the hair of the dog that bit you, that works. That doesn't mean you have to get completely pissed first thing in the morning . I just drink slowly all day and all night. It doesn't mean I'm pissed all the time but I do feel better and I never have hangovers. Sure, your tolerance builds up and I have to drink more now than I used to but you don't have to keep escalating until you need three bottles of brandy just to stay straight. It levels off after a couple of years."
Do you ever worry that you might be following in the self-destructive footsteps of people like Brendan Behan, Luke Kelly, even Jim Morrison?
"Naah, it'd spoil your pleasure, wouldn't it?"
On a day-to-day level, it must be difficult to maintain relationships or even do any work if you're drinking all the time?
"I never write when I'm sober, never have. Wouldn't even know where to start. But just because I drink all day doesn't mean I'm always pissed. I'm probably clearheaded for more time during the day than some people who wouldn't regard themselves as heavy drinkers."
Do you do things when you're drunk that you regret afterwards?
"I do things I regret quite often. Less often as I regret less. I probably do more than I should regret nowadays but I don t bother regretting so much. You know what I mean? I've got rid of most of my guilt. But it's got nothing to do with drink. In fact, I'm more likely to do something I regret when I'm sober and in a very bad mood; then I'm a real bastard!"
How do you react to the accusations that your lifestyle is a bad example to some of your more impressionable fans?
"I'm a fucking bad example, a very bad one. But I would say that our fans don't need any bad examples to a large extent. They're quite capable of being completely obnoxious degenerates all by themselves. God bless em!"
The criticism that is most often levelled at The Pogues and the one which angers them most is that they re-enforce the stereotype of the drunken Irishman .
"I m not re-enforcing any stereotype," protests Shane, "but the media, perhaps, especially in Britain have used us to re-enforce it. It's rubbish! The point is I am not a stereotype. But I am Irish and I do drink a lot, yeah? Yet, I don't play hurling, I don't ride race horses or train them, I'm not in the IRA. They're the other elements of the stereotype Irishman. You see it suits certain people to have all the Irish portrayed as drunken yobs. It's like the London/Irish festival, the other day. I've been at that three or four times. It's great, loads of people enjoying themselves and in all the time I was there I only like saw one guy kicking the shit outta someone. What do they do this year? Send in a bunch of coppers, guaranteed to start a fucking ruck. Then they put it on the news. Fucking bastards!"
Have you any perception of what Shane MacGowan will be like when he's 60?
"With a bit of luck, I'll still be alive, rich and living in Thailand."
Would you like to have kids?
"Naah, I don't like kids. It's not just that they're smelly and noisy but unfortunately you have to have them in the same room as you, otherwise they'll hurt themselves. I'm not the kind who'd just farm them out to whatever unlucky woman might have happened to bear them for me. I wouldn't be prepared to change a single nappy or babysit for even one night; that's not the kind of attitude to have kids with, is it?"
How well did you get on with your own parents?
"Fine. They didn't mind me drinking or that but there was a certain amount of aggro every now and again. I moved away from home before I really went off the rails though. I left home when I was eighteen and I reckon you have to do that to do exactly what you want."
How do they react to your current lifestyle?
"They're used to it, I suppose. I get on fine with them now 'cause I hardly ever see 'em. But that's enough of the old family fortunes, alright?"
What else do you spend your money on apart from drinking?
"I like good food, nice clothes, I travel a bit but there's not much else to spend money on except eating and drinking, is there? I'm not much good at investments."
Do you gamble much?
"I used to bet a lot but I don't anymore. When you got a reasonable amount of money there isn't the same kind of incentive or thrill in betting. It's far more exciting when it's almost your only form of income or expenditure. I used to fantasise about a real big win, you know 50 to 1, 100 to 1, and putting everything I had on it. Bloody great wouldn't it? I wouldn't be a fucking pop star if that happened. The last thing I won, I think, was Jim Hand's big overcoat. He bet that the 'Irish Rover' wouldn't make it to number one in Ireland and he put his coat on it. He lost! It's a bloody good coat too."
Five years ago, The Pogues erupted from a Camden Town bazaar of cheap pop perfumes and the more pungent odours of London's multi-cultural melting-pot. With a toot on the flute, a twiddle on the fiddle, a shake, rattle 'n' roll, they popped the cork of musical ghettoisation, blended a lethal cocktail of punk sediment and dance-floor plonk with the more traditional vintages and the bubbly has been flowing ever since. Like an anarchic mob, they blew the cupola off rock's commercial capitals and, at the same time, plundered the sacred vaults of buried heritage (within weeks of their first visit to Ireland, the jig was well and truly up for folkies who preferred their trad pure and embalmed). But then none of this seems anything other than as it should be to Shane MacGowan.
"It's all based on genuine, real-life horror", he says and laughs that laugh, "or real life ecstasy. It's just what happens in real life and there are no other rules apart from that. Very few people where I come from grow up surrounded by just one kind of culture or one kind of anything. So why should we pretend otherwise. There are lots of things going on at the same time it all depends on what corner you turn, which street you go down, what mood you're in, how lucky you are, whatever."
Unfortunately, he feels it's a modus vivendi that is bewildering to most rock critics.
"Most of them miss the point every fucking time," he says. "They've either got bad memories or they never listen to records. Either or both! Every now and again they say that we've made a new radical departure or something. We haven't, we've always done diverse things. Go back to 'London Girl' or 'Rainy Night In Soho' or our first album; we've always been diverse and had variety. That's what this band is about, reflecting the general musical hotch-potch. But journalists can't see that. They don't listen to music for the same reasons as everybody else, for entertainment and because it gives them an emotional outlet, they listen to music for some kind of weird sociological reasons. For instance, the way they report soul simply because they think that soul is a fad music. It's not! Different things come up in soul all the time and the sound changes but it's still soul. But the journalists see every little variation as some kind of revolution. They miss the point."
He does, however, make one honourable exception.
"Hot Press is much better than the English music papers," he says. "You can actually read Hot Press and find something out about the people and the music they're talking about. It's still witty and it still slags people but it's actually fucking relevant. Over here the music papers are so faddy they need gimmicks. One week, Public Enemy are it and nobody else fucking matters a shit. A year later, Public Enemy get two lines on the news page. In between, Acid House was everything and now that's supposed to be boring, it's had its fucking 15 minutes. They're not in touch with what's happening."
Mention of Acid House reminds me that Shane has already gone on record as a big fan of the stuff.
"Yeah, I like all good soul and Acid House is just a form of soul. When it was really going everything was cool. It brought all the hippies and punks and that back into the discos and because it wasn't seen as belonging to anyone in particular all the kids blacks, whites, Irish, Pakis, Greeks were into it. Then those berks on the television started reporting it and when the police saw it on the box, it frightened them. Actually no, the police probably read about it in the Sun. Then they decided that they had to destroy this new drug menace . But the music is still going strong in some places."
Was Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah The Pogues' Acid House record?
"It was meant to be. I wanted it to be a real hard dance record but that's not the way it turned out. Generally, I like Steve Lilywhite's production but I don't actually agree with the way he mixed that one; it was a bit soft or something. And I was very disappointed that it was such a complete flop though it did still get into the American Dance chart at No. 38, which isn't bad for a white folk/rock band. We had to put out a single for Christmas but unfortunately I was kinda out to lunch at the time. But the B-side has got a 12" version which is more the production I wanted for the A-side."
Are there any solo projects that you'd like to get involved in or does The Pogues occupy all of your creative time?
"There's lots of things I'd like to do but there just isn't any time. Production and stuff like that. Me and Phil managed to fit in producing one of the tracks on the new Real Wild West record and I enjoyed that. Real Wild West are a great band. They're one of the few Irish bands that are doing something different. Great lyrics and great songs!"
Any non-musical ambitions?
"Yeah, I'm always buggering around with stuff. I've written a screenplay and submitted it to a company but I haven't been told to write a script yet. If I could get it together I wouldn't mind writing screenplays and scripts. It's not a big deal, it's just something I do for a laugh now. But there are films that haven't been made yet and I'd like to have a crack at writing them unless someone else does it first; sleazy kind of films, set in a late-night Greek restaurant or something but with humour. A bit like the songs."
Over the last year or so, Shane MacGowan has come to the conclusion that the Japanese are the ideal audience for The Pogues.
"The most outrageous things sell in Japan," he explains. "They're heavily into Ska right now. Gazza Rebel Rockers, yeah? They mean fuck all here, but they're big news in Japan. The Japanese just buy what they like. Record companies cannot market stuff over there. It doesn't matter how many videos or blow-dried photographs you got, if they don't like you, you can fuck off. They don't pay any attention to the music press if there is such a thing. Heavy metal is another thing they're mad about. They're totally open-minded, you know. No bullshit. We did a short tour over there last year and went down very well. They're real polite but they showed their approval."
To illustrate his point, Shane gives an hilarious impression of a Japanese audience's reaction to The Pogues that has to be seen to be believed. Do you sell many records in Japan at the moment?
"If we did mate, we wouldn't be having this conversation in this fucking room! We'd be in a large sumptuous restaurant... in Thailand."
The Shane MacGowan retirement plan is nothing if not straightforward. He wants to get his hands on as much money as possible ("getting it is fairly easy, holding on to it is the hard part") and then buy himself a large restaurant in London. This establishment would be open all hours, serve virtually every known form of cuisine and would, naturally enough, have a full alcohol licence. A relaxed ambience would also be very important and Shane would act as a sort of host/maitre d' who would drink on the premises, sample the food and chat with the customers ("Is everything alright with your meal, sir?") So what kind of clientele would he expect at Chez MacGowan ?
"I'd let anybody in, anybody," he explains, except the police of course. "Well, I'd probably have to let them in as well, wouldn't I? And if anybody started buggering around or causing trouble I'd throw them out. That seems fair, doesn't it? What I'd like to do is recreate the situation like it is in Ireland where you can spend an entire day in a pub or restaurant, everything is very relaxed. The Irish attitude to drinking is that it is something you can do at any time of the day or night and you can eat while you're doing it as well. A lot of people in Ireland basically conduct business from the pub and I'd like to offer that facility to Londoners. I d also like to serve good food from all over the world 'cause that's never been done before from the one place."
So you're something of a gourmet then, are you?
"Naah," he laughs, "I just like to eat good food when I can. I ate shit for long enough when I was unemployed or just buggering about and sometimes I wasn't able to eat at all. Having a certain amount of money means that I can afford to go to good restaurants now and I like that. I particularly like Greek restaurants, there's always so much happening."
Does your fame and instant recognisability restrict you in terms of your social life in London?
"Yeah, it's fucked me up a lot," he admits, "but I still go out. There is always a certain amount of hassle now but mostly people are nice, they congratulate me or ask for an autograph and obviously I'm not going to tell them to fuck off. Now and again though, and it seems to happen a bit more often nowadays, I get some guy who's just looking for aggro. And I find it quite easy to give it to him! In fact, I quite enjoy it cause it gives me a way of venting my frustration. And people telling you you're fucking great all the time can really get on your bloody tits, especially when you don't actually agree with them. I mean, I just want the fucking money, man, that's all the reward I want."
Would you regard yourself as generous or selfish?
"I'm selfish but I'm generous with money and drink and things like that. Not overly so but if someone needs a drink I'll buy it for them. Apart from that, I'm very selfish in every other way you can think of."
Do you still worry about Falling From Grace With God?
"I'm an Irish Roman Catholic, you know, and it still means something to me; Heaven and Hell and sin and all that. It stays with you from childhood. My parents played this ping-pong lapsing game. One minute they were lapsed, the next minute they were back in the church again but they always made sure I went to mass up to a certain age so they couldn't blame themselves if I turned out an atheist. But when I lapsed at eleven, that was it, they accepted it. I lost the faith at eleven but by the time I was fourteen I believed in it again but not in the literal sense. The imagery and that is great, very beautiful, and very scary ideal material for a songwriter."
Do you ever worry about death?
"No, I think about other people's deaths. I think about all the horrible ways that others die. So many people die horribly, sad, disgusting deaths; starvation, getting beaten to death by police or massacred by a bunch of fucking twats."
Do you have any faith in politics?
"Naah. Politicians are a bunch of shits and anyone who's any good in politics gets crucified sooner or later. Sometimes literally, I mean, Nelson Mandela is a good politician and he hasn't seen the light of day for over twenty years. There are a couple of good people in the Labour Party but the fucking carve-up merchants will get to them before long. I think Haughey is a good politician by the way."
Are you sure there isn't something in Jim Hand's coat that's had an effect on you? It has, after all, attended its fair share of Fianna Fail Ard Fheiseanna, I'd say.
"No. I believe that Haughey is sincere in his goals and objectives. He's a sincere politician and a very clever man."
Some would say devious?
"Course he's fucking devious! Look at the cunts he's dealing with, the British government and Margaret Thatcher! Fuckin' hell!"
Do you think music is an effective means of political expression?
"Naah. Protest songs can work alright if they're good, if it's basic, simple, no bullshit, then it can be effective; like if you shout 'Free Nelson Mandela' or 'Fuck The Pigs' or whatever. But people who make long analyses pronouncing judgement from a stage at a rock concert, those people have got their heads up their arses. I don't know what they're doing being musicians. But the two extremes nowadays are Sting saving the rain-forests and Rod Stewart doing nothing except fucking and drinking champagne all the time. If I could afford it, I'd save the rainforests during the day and have the champagne in the evening. I don't even like champagne."
Finally then Shane, why did you put a picture of a boxer on the cover of an album called Peace And Love?
"Nobody seems to know who it is. He obviously wasn't very good 'cause he didn't get very far. I like boxing, watching it... I don't like doing it! But anyway somebody, I forget who, found this glass negative of this boxer with no name and we put peace and love on his fists. So he's like saying 'Peace And Love or I'll bust your fucking head in!'"