Lunch (and several drinks) with Shane MacGowan

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Thirty years after the formation of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan is still here. But will he ever be able to get used to the idea that one day he won’t be? 

Age takes its toll. If, for example, you’re a rock star who became very, very famous 30 years ago for taking traditional Irish music and giving it a wild, punk twist, and you also liked a drink, then you might not look quite as sprightly as you used to. And if, for example, you’re a journalist who has interviewed quite a lot of artists over the years, and you keep reading that the rock star you’re about to interview is often several hours late, then you might not feel excited, or indulgent, but quite tired and cross.

You might even send an email to the rock star’s girlfriend, saying that you do understand that her boyfriend, who’s called Shane MacGowan, isn’t always the most punctual person, but that since you’re flying in and out of Dublin in a day to do the interview, your schedule is actually quite tight. And when you get an email back saying that “there is usually a delay”, and then another one suggesting that you get a later flight back, you might have to fight the urge to say that perhaps the rock star could just bloody turn up.

But then, when you send quite a firm email, saying that it might be better to cancel the interview if your time is going to be wasted, you might be quite surprised. You might, for example, be sitting in a cinema watching Skyfall when you get an email from the girlfriend, who’s called Victoria Clarke, saying that “Shane says you can come to our house”. And that she will cook you lunch.

“It’s usually,” says Victoria, as she welcomes me into the kitchen of the 1930s redbrick semi she and MacGowan rent in a suburb of Dublin, “young men who get sent to interview Shane. They see him as a challenge!” Well, yes. You can see why. Ever since the Pogues were formed, in 1982, its lead singer has  been causing what he might call mischief and what anyone else might call mayhem. It wasn’t just the drink. Everyone knew about the drink. His fellow band members, in fact, got so fed up with the drink, and the missed flights, and the terrible, slurring performances, that, in a hotel room in Japan, in 1991, they chucked him out. The drink was bad enough, and all the things it led to, but it was never just the drink. It was the feeling that this was a man who was at war with the world.

In interviews, the man who wrote “Streams of Whiskey”, “Rainy Night in Soho”, “Fairytale of New York” and other songs that sometimes seemed as near as a song could get to a poem – songs that are on the new live “best of” CD and DVD that’s being released to mark those 30 years – often spoke as if words were weapons to be hurled. Sometimes, he spoke as if they were a precious gift to be withheld. And he nearly always behaved as if his presence was. Sometimes, he was four hours late. Sometimes, he’d turn up and then just wander off.

“I have tried,” says Victoria, in her lovely book, A Drink with Shane MacGowan, “to make Shane more like other rock stars, more presentable, more domesticated, more respectable, more business-like”. She has spent years, she says, trying to make him into “a more ‘normal’ person”. But it has, she says, been “to no avail”. The man she met in a pub when she was 16, and is still with nearly 30 years later, refuses, she says, “to conform to anyone else’s idea of how he should be”. Shane is Shane, she says in the book, and he’s “unique” and “magnificent” and a “genius”.

I don’t yet know if Shane is Shane, or if he’s “unique”, or “magnificent”, or a “genius”. He’s still upstairs in bed, and I’m down here. But Victoria, I can tell you, is a sweetie. She’s very pretty, in a very Irish way, with very dark hair and very blue eyes. She collects Coronation mugs, which is quite a surprising hobby for the Irish-born (but English-sounding) girlfriend of an Irish musician who has always said he hates the English. She has a thing, it’s clear, from a picture on the wall, and a book on the kitchen table, about angels. And she’s a damn good cook. She tosses scallops in a pan with the flair of a Nigella or a Jamie.

They have lived in Dublin, she tells me as she stirs the scallops, since 2001, after they both had a spell in the Priory. His, she says, was for heroin. Hers, she says was for depression. They split up for a while, she says, but couldn’t live without each other, and got back together.

I want to hear more, but the doorbell rings. It’s the photographer. It doesn’t seem polite to grill Victoria about her tricky boyfriend in front of her, so we all sit down, have a glass of wine, and tuck in. By the end of lunch, we’re all best friends. By the end of lunch, I could sit there all day. But by the end of lunch, it’s time to prime myself for a drink with Shane MacGowan.

I nip to the loo, and when I come out, he’s there. Three o’clock. On the dot. “Is there any wine?” he asks, as Victoria hands him a cheese-and-tomato sandwich, and then lines a mug of tea up with a big glass of what looks like gin. “Yes,” she says, sounding brisk. “White wine?” “Yes,” he says. Then he makes a noise that sounds like a snort, and sniffs.

I didn’t, of course, expect him to look like the gangly youth with the terrible teeth who looked as if he’d bleed adrenalin. I knew that the terrible teeth, or at least a lot of the terrible teeth, had gone. But I didn’t expect him to look like this. He has, it’s true, been ill. He has, apparently, had gastroenteritis. (The doctor said he could only eat clear liquids, which MacGowan, unfortunately, took to mean gin). But the man sitting opposite me, behind a table covered with packets of pills and cigarettes, reminds me both of a hobbit and a china doll.  His hair is wild. His skin is pale. His lips cover gums where there should be teeth. But his eyes are clear, bright, piercing, beautiful blue.

So, I say, suddenly feeling that I’m at a vicar’s tea party, what was it like coming back to Ireland? Shane MacGowan, by the way, both is and isn’t Irish. He was born in Kent to Irish parents in 1957, but lived in Tipperary, with relatives, until he was six. Like quite a few children of immigrants, he shuttled between the old country and the new one, but when he was six he was sent back to live with his parents, first in Brighton, then in Kent, and then in London. He has, it’s clear, always felt Irish, and has made his name from music that had Irish traditions at its heart. But until he moved to Dublin 11 years ago, he had lived much more in England than he had in Ireland.

“Well,” he says, in his strangely muffled voice, “we’ve both been coming back and forth all the time.” His voice, it soon becomes clear, is muffled because you need teeth to form clear words. “I live down in Tipperary,” he says, “but this is our Dublin pad, rented.” He lives, he means, in the big old farmhouse that always felt to him like home. “If I’m not doing anything,” he says, “I’ll go down there, most of the time, do you know what I mean, yeah?” I find myself nodding, even though I don’t. “Which,” he adds, “is more and more nowadays, because I’m fading it out. All that touring, and gigging, and all of that, I’m sick of it. You know?” Again I nod, although I don’t. And how many gigs, I ask, does he do now? “I’ve got one more,” he says, “this year.”

It’s a far cry from the days when he did 340 gigs a year. But then MacGowan has been “touring and gigging” since he was practically a child. At 18, he was in a punk band called The Nips. (Their first name, he reminds me, with the weird clicky noise he makes in the back of his throat when he thinks something is funny, was The Nipple Erectors.)

Then, when he met Peter “Spider” Stacy and Jem Finer, and later Cait O’Riordan and Andrew Ranken, there were The Pogues. (Their first name, he doesn’t need to remind me, was Pogue Mahone, which is Irish for “kiss my arse”.) And after he was chucked out of the Pogues, there were the Popes. The Pogues without Shane MacGowan were like a Pope without a church. The Popes with Shane MacGowan, but without the Pogues, were like a tribute band: fine as far as it goes, but without the alchemy that makes the original work. The Pogues without MacGowan split up in 1996. They re-formed, with him, to do live shows in 2001.

“We’re probably as good now as we ever were,” says MacGowan. “But I’m 54 now, and I like recording as much as I like playing live gigs. Fifty four is a very good age to start retiring. I’m not one of these people that, you know, lives for being on stage.”

Fifty four, I can’t help thinking, sounds like a great age to retire. But some of us, unfortunately, will have to plough on. How different, I ask, did Ireland feel during the boom years? MacGowan picks up one of his drinks and takes a noisy slurp. “When I was a kid,” he says, “it was the Fifties and early Sixties, which were, like, the worst years since the Brits left.” He makes the clicky noise again. “And then, yeah, you had the war up in the North, you know what I mean. I think the Chinese have got a saying, ‘may you live in boring times’, but I haven’t lived in boring times. But there was a huge boom in the Sixties.” (I think he is referring to the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’... but I know what he means). And then he launches into a long history lesson, which takes in Waterloo, the fact that Wellington was an Irishman, and the fact that “Thatcher made everything worse”. Did she? How? “Like,” says MacGowan, “‘I won’t negotiate with terrorists’. We didn’t call them terrorists. We called them freedom fighters!”

I don’t doubt it. Does he still? “Yes.” Even if they killed innocent people in shopping centres? “Yes.” The IRA, he says, did “some of the cleverest things over the years”, and also “some of the stupidest things”. He mentions the mortars in Downing Street, and the fact that the cabinet “hid under the table”, which he seems to think is very funny. But he did, he says, find it “harder and harder” to defend some of the things that were going on. Did he try? Another slurp. “Yes. That’s how I was brought up. I was brought up Irish Republican. It’s like a religion.”

It certainly seems to be. Those early years in Tipperary seem, in fact, to have set the tone for his life. His uncles gave him two bottles of Guinness a day from the age of five. He was given his first bottle of whiskey at the age of six. That big old farmhouse was, he says, “a shebeen, a place where people used to come and have all-night hoolies, a safe house and a hedge school”. It carried, he says, “the whole sort of literary and political and musical traditions” of the people who “knew what the struggle was about”. His Auntie Nora was “the religious leader of the family”, who used to get the whole family together to say the rosary every night. She would end, he says, with novena prayers “to get the Brits out”. No wonder England, and even a Franciscan convent school in England, was a shock. MacGowan was never a big fan of school, but the lessons he learnt at that “hedge school” in Tipperary put him “miles ahead” of his peers.

His mother, who had been a top model in Ireland, but who worked as a typist in England, had him reading Hardy, Dickens and Edna O’Brien. His father, who worked for C&A, had him reading Joyce from the age of six. And everywhere, he says, there were “these great songs, rebel songs and funny songs”. “I’d be going,” he says, “can you write out the words of that? And they’d go, ‘ay, we’ve got an even brighter spark than usual here’.”

He won a scholarship to Westminster School, but was “kicked out” after a year and a term for smoking dope. He worked (illegally, since he was only 14) in a supermarket, and then in a bar. Doesn’t he, I ask, have any regrets about not finishing his formal education? “No!”

And which Irish writers, I ask, since they’re clearly in his blood, does he feel closest to? MacGowan takes a bite out of his sandwich, which isn’t as easy, without teeth, as you might think. “I’m really heavily,” he says, “into the Behans”. He has mentioned Brendan Behan, the poet, short-story writer, novelist, playwright, and drunk, as an inspiration before. “All the Behans wrote, actually,” he says, “and they all sang as well.” He also mentions Yeats, O’Casey, Seamus Heaney and John McGahern. McGahern, I tell him, captures that Irish mix of violence, and drink, and rural beauty, and fierce tribal loyalty, better than almost any writer I can think of. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, and it almost makes me want to forgive him for the “freedom fighters”, “I think he’s great”.

He had, he tells me, been in session bands in Ireland, and in England, when he saw the Sex Pistols, and discovered punk. Punk, I say, still glowing from our McGahern moment, changed the world. “At the time,” he says, “we thought we were changing everything for ever, and to a certain extent, we have, we did.” To a certain extent, they did. Punk, and its “anger is an energy” message, certainly had a big, and lasting, effect on music, fashion, and art. And what MacGowan and his fellow band-members in The Pogues did, in mixing the best of a tradition – tender ballads and full-throttled jigs – and giving it a fierce, anarchic edge, smashed the boundaries between “high” and “low” art in a way that seemed to combine real innovation with real heart. So when did it strike him that they were doing something new? MacGowan makes the weird, clicky noise. “When,” he says, “my friends told me they thought I’d gone mad.”

His mother, he has said, always wanted him to be famous. “She wasn’t,” he says, “a pushy mother, who put me into pageants and things, but she would always say, ‘for God’s sake, before you even think about shacking up with a bird,’” and then he looks at me, and corrects himself, “ ‘I mean a lady…’ ” He doesn’t quite finish the thought, but the gist of it is clear.

His mother, he has said, was “denied the sacraments” after using contraception, because a doctor told her that if she had another baby, she’d die. It was, he says, “ridiculous”, but it doesn’t seem to have dented his Catholic faith. Does he still go to mass? “Yes, when I get the urge.” And does his religion have any effect on his life? MacGowan looks straight at me. “I should think so. You can’t say ‘I didn’t have a choice’, do you know what I mean?”

Well, yes. I do. And is he, I ask, but I almost don’t want to, happy with the choices he has made? “Um,” he says, and there’s a very, very long pause. “Yes. Sure. Yes.” When the Pogues took off, I say, feeling the need to cheer us both up, his life went mad. “Well,” he says, “it wasn’t exactly sane anyway. It was, like, ‘fuck it, let’s just go for it’, do you know what I mean?” And how would he rate the work? “Well,” he says, “if Dylan’s a genius, then I am. And so,” he adds, because he obviously wants to be generous, “are all the other guys and girls in the band.”I’m not quite sure how to follow this, so I ask what ambitions he’s got left. This time there’s no pause. “To live as long as I possibly can, and to come to terms with dying before I do.”

For a moment, we’re both quiet. For some people, this might seem like a small thing. But when you’ve drunk as much as Shane MacGowan (and not all that many people have drunk as much as Shane MacGowan) then staying alive isn’t a small thing at all.

I don’t know if Shane MacGowan’s a “genius”, but I’m pretty sure that he has produced some bloody good work. Most of it was quite a long time ago, but it’s still bloody good work. And he’s alive. He still drinks an awful lot, but he is still alive. And is he, I ask, happy? There’s a long pause. “Yeah.” Less or more than he used to be? “I’ve always,” he says, “been happy.” What, even as a bullied Irish boy in an English school? “Well,” he says, and it should make me smile, but instead it just makes me feel sad: “I’m a bit of a rebel boy by nature, a bit of a pain in the arse. If people are going to tell me I can’t do it, I’ll do it.”

The Pogues live CD and DVD ‘Best of’ are out on Polydor on 19 November

This article will appear in the 10 November print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

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