- 15 Oct 21
The Boy From The County Hell
There has been a tendency, because Shane MacGowan was such a gifted songwriter, to ever-so-slightly romanticise his life. Hats off then to Richard Balls for telling it as it is and surely was. In this meticulously researched biography of a man who, it could be easily argued, pissed a great talent up a wall, Balls unearths illuminating stories that may be unfamiliar, like MacGowan’s mother Therese Mary being hit on by Patrick Kavanagh, and - talking of literary heavyweights - his former English Teacher Tom Simpson describing the young MacGowan, who at his father’s encouragement was reading Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck and Joyce at age eleven, as “brilliant”. The fact that he held on to the boy’s hand-written stories proves this was no nostalgic rethink. I've been in the same room as MacGowan once or twice, but I can't claim to have met him. Those who have tell me his is a formidable intellect, and I don't doubt it.
Trips to his parent’s Tipperary and his Da’s record collection gave him a grounding in The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers and The Fureys, although his first concert was the mighty Mott The Hoople. In the years before punk, he’d recommend Iggy and The Stooges, The MC5, and Johnny Thunders to his classmate, Thomas Robertson, who would later find fame after changing his surname to Dolby. At fifteen, he was nicked with speed, grass, and acid, and admitted for drugs and booze treatment for the first, but certainly not the last, time.
It all changed when he went to see Joe Strummer’s 101ers at The Nashville and had an epiphany while watching the support band, The Sex Pistols. It should also be noted that he proved his far-from-eejitry status by flogging a vintage union jack t-shirt to the young Paul Weller for £500(!). If his own punk band The Nipple Erectors didn’t exactly bring him success, they – and the movement – did give him direction.
Jem Finer came in at the end of the renamed Nips’ run and the new group they put together were initially going to play Greek music if MacGowan is anyone to go by, but at their first gig in 1981 as The New Republicans, they were knocking out ‘The Auld Triangle’. The success of Dexys Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay showed what could be done and they settled on the name Pogue Mahone.
The unlikely rise of The Pogues is well covered; the initial buzz around the single ‘Dark Streets Of London’, their signing to Stiff Records, Philip Chevron dragging Elvis Costello to an early gig, his falling for Cait O’Riordan and subsequent offer of support slots, and the crucial arrival of manager Frank Murray. It was he who was at least partly responsible for persuading Costello, who saw his task as capturing “them in their dilapidated glory before some more professional producer fucked them up”, to produce their breakthrough album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. Familiar names flash by as the tale picks up speed; B.P. Fallon, Christy Moore, Gay Byrne, our own Bill Graham, Tom Waits, Ronnie Drew and the unlikely hit single, Steve Lillywhite, Kirsty MacColl and the magic of ‘Fairytale Of New York’, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Johnny Depp, and many more. Through all this the self-abuse only gets worse, with MacGowan committed to the St. John Of God Psychiatric hospital at one point. Eventually, and inevitably, after the brilliance of their last album together, Hell’s Ditch, the band had enough, the wrecked MacGowan could no longer perform to any reasonable level, and he was out.
For his next move, MacGowan put The Popes together, and their set lists included both Pogues and Nips songs, but they were perhaps even more dissolute, with Balls relating how the recording of their debut album was cleaned up every night but “they were so fucking out of it nobody even noticed”. MacGowan’s intake is prodigious and ridiculous, and, to give just one example, Sinead O’Connor’s recounting of the state of him during a Top Of The Pops recording for their duet on ‘Haunted’ is a sad affair. Later, she would report him to Kentish Town police when she found him taking heroin “to stop him dying”. He somehow stays this side of the grave. Others around him are not so lucky.
There’s live Pogues reunions, and a split and reconciliation with long-time partner Victoria Mary Clarke and their eventual marriage, a nine-hour procedure to rebuild his teeth, and the star-studded 60th Birthday celebrations in the National Concert Hall. As for where he’s at now, on the one hand you have O’Connor, “he doesn’t want to live, or he wouldn’t be doing all the drugs” while on the other you have MacGowan himself, “I don’t want to die just yet. I don’t want to die at all.” As for the immortal work he’s done, no less an authority than Bruce Springsteen puts it like this, “I truly believe that a hundred years from now most of us will be forgotten, but I do believe that Shane’s music is going to be remembered and sung.”
Balls does refer to the last time I saw MacGowan perform in public, with Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders when they supported Fleetwood Mac in The RDS on their most recent visit. What he doesn’t say is that it was, being as charitable as possible, not great. Despite that, this balanced and rather excellent biography finishes up with Ball’s claim that “Shane MacGowan is not done yet”. As an ardent admirer - as so many are - of his songs of genius, I genuinely hope he’s right.