It should be no surprise. Shane MacGowan, erstwhile songwriter and singer for the Pogues, had over the years downed oceans of whiskey and porter and ingested enough recreational drugs to get the whole bloody EU buzzed.
Although news of his death was long expected, it was still a shock to learn that MacGowan died today. And even more so because it came not four months on the heels of the majestic Sinead O'Connor's death. The cause of Shane's death wasn’t specified, but decades of abuse surely played a part. One is reminded of the famous description of Bob Dylan in the 1960s: “He wasn’t burning the candle at both ends. He was using a blowtorch on the middle.”
Dylan’s famous motorcycle accident in 1966 afforded him the chance to step away from his incendiary habits. MacGowan never found – or didn’t take advantage of – such an opportunity. The tales of wretched excess are legendary and play all-too-neatly into the “drunken Irish poet” cliché epitomized by Brendan Behan and, latterly, by Mister MacGowan. Genius is often used as an excuse for addiction and the damage to oneself and to others that follows in its wake. MacGowan’s descent was a long, slow, and painful one to observe.
Born in Kent, England on Christmas Day, 1957, MacGowan’s parents were Irish. He spent a portion of his boyhood in Tipperary. Back in England as a young man, he was one of many who were inspired by the punk movement to start a band. One thing led to another and the eventual result was the Pogues. (As their fans know, Pogue Mahone, the band’s original name, is Irish for “kiss my arse.”)
Much ink will be spilled recounting epic tales of the Pogues and MacGowan atrocious habits and even worse behavior. Such as quotes from Neil McCormick of the Telegraph, who describes his songs as "succinct narratives of the Irish diaspora in Britain and America that drew on the poetry and culture of his homeland. His songs were peppered with finely observed details, and had, at their heart, a bittersweet romantic longing for a shattered community clinging to its historical identity, and a beautiful empathy for outsiders and the downtrodden." And the best description of that snicker, "he laughed frequently, emitting a sound halfway between white noise and an industrial accident."
I could go onnnn, but let’s focus instead on the reasons we loved – and worried about – Our Shane in the first place.
MacGowan and company officiated at the shotgun wedding of Irish Trad and Punk Rock. He brought a cold eye and a gift for the vivid detail to his lyrics, evoking the listeners’ sympathy for the rebels, runaways, and misfits who live on the rough margins of cities. “The Old Main Drag” is about a rent boy’s decline and fall:
In the cold winter nights the old town it was chill
But there were boys in the cafes who'd give you cheap pills
If you didn't have the money you'd cajole or you'd beg
There was always lots of Tuinol on the old main drag
One evening as I was lying down by Leicester Square
I was picked up by the coppers and kicked in the balls
Between the metal doors at Vine Street, I was beaten and mauled
And they ruined my good looks for the old main drag...
The Pogues - The Old Main Dragwww.youtube.com
“A Rainy Night in Soho” offers a far more tender remembrance:
I'm not singing for the future
I'm not dreaming of the past
I'm not talking of the first times
I never think about the last
Now the song is nearly over
We may never find out what it means
Still, there's a light I hold before me
You're the measure of my dreams
The measure of my dreams
The Pogues - A Rainy Night In Sohowww.youtube.com
Years of hard living exacted a toll on MacGowan. His notoriously rotten teeth were (finally!) replaced in 2015. A fall that same year resulted in a hip injury that put him into a wheelchair. In December 2022 he was hospitalized with viral encephalitis. He’d been released from another hospital stay shortly before his death. He’s survived by his wife, the journalist Victoria Clarke, his sister, Siobhan, and his father, Maurice MacGowan.
We at Popdust adore Shane. He was one raucous lad. And this one’s for...the Mighty Kevin.