Shane MacGowan: Catch a falling star

Thanks to Shane MacGowan's many friends, he's still with us and making music. The legendary Pogue meets Steven Hands
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When a person introduces himself with some version of the old "I'm mad, me" formula, you can usually bet that you're in for a thunderously dull time. But when it's Shane MacGowan barking out: "I'm a self-confessed certified lunatic" by way of greeting, you should bear in mind that he's the exception to the rule.

When a person introduces himself with some version of the old "I'm mad, me" formula, you can usually bet that you're in for a thunderously dull time. But when it's Shane MacGowan barking out: "I'm a self-confessed certified lunatic" by way of greeting, you should bear in mind that he's the exception to the rule.

MacGowan, troubadour, inebriate and raconteur, and once the lead singer, songwriter and primary face of bands variously known as The Nipple Erectors, The Nips, Chainsaw, Pogue Mahone, The Pogues and The Popes, is mostly 46 years old. His teeth are 83, while his liver is approximately 106. I'm not medically trained: it may be older.

But then, as MacGowan quickly makes clear, I'm not really one to judge. "You're a slob," he ventures. It's true that I'm not wearing my Sunday best, but I had eschewed trainers this evening and am more than adequately attired for an evening in the pub.

However, what I deem appropriate clearly hasn't measured up to MacGowan's sense of fitness. "Look at me," he says, "I'm wearing a suit." And he is. Over his long-suffering frame hangs a funereal black suit, part Blues Brothers, part undertaker, with a hint of Kray, topped off with showbiz shades. However, hidden as it is beneath a menu of stains, it is smart dress in theory only.

Sartorial elegance is obviously something of an obsession with MacGowan: his next question is: "Would you get buried like that?" But perhaps I'm wrong to be surprised. After all, the non sequitur and surreal remark is the province of legends, and MacGowan is certainly that. He's sailed close to the wind for some time now, but when I turn the dust-to-dust question on him, he says he's more of an ashes-to-ashes man. "I'm gonna be cremated. I'll haunt the bastards if they don't. Those worms aren't gonna get me!"

The fact that he's still here at all is something of a mystery to medical science, but rock is littered with the grizzled survivors of bacchanalia and excess. It wasn't that long ago that MacGowan was being reported to the police after a suspected heroin overdose by a distressed and disapproving Sinead O'Connor.

MacGowan, it appears, is unrepentant: "I failed my French O-level, but je ne regrette rien." One reason he's still here is surely that he can rely on more than a little help from his friends. Luckily, the seemingly endless range of concerned individuals MacGowan has charmed into his orbit extend far beyond similarly compulsive running mates (Nick Cave) to more moderate consumers (Bono) and complete abstainers, such as O'Connor.

Chief among these is Gerry O'Boyle, MacGowan's manager, to all intents and purposes. O'Boyle's day job is as the manager of the Boogaloo Bar in Highgate, north London, a drinking hole favoured by the glitterati. When I arrive the only celebrity I see, MacGowan aside, is an EastEnder, although two Libertines are said to be arriving later in gig mode, which explains the kit set up in the bar.

O'Boyle is keen to tell me about MacGowan's current "projects". First is his contribution ("Road to Paradise") to a three-track EP recorded principally in recognition of the former Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone, but made in aid of various charities. MacGowan shares billing with Jim Kerr (formerly of Simple Minds), John McLaughlin (part-architect of Busted) and Johnstone himself, who, MacGowan tells me, "is a great singer". (It should be noted that in spite of this magnanimous act, MacGowan has a pretty poor opinion of modern players, at one point exploding: "Footballers! Bunch of ballerinas playing to peasants!") O'Boyle is genial enough to play "Road to Paradise" over the PA, and there's a fire to MacGowan's delivery that's a revelation after years of relative silence.

MacGowan's second project is his appearance later this year in Johnny Depp's Restoration-era epic The Libertine, in which Depp plays the raffish playwright the Earl of Rochester opposite John Malkovich's Charles II. MacGowan's role is unclear. A solo album is mooted, as are a "month of Sundays" performances at Ronnie Scott's after Christmas, with "very special guests". I ask O'Boyle about labels, deals and suchlike, but things seem less than settled.

So, I ask MacGowan about the new material, and get an unexpected blast at one of the 20th century's musical icons. "Miles Davis spoke a load of shite. But the one good thing he did say is that you can't describe music. You can't describe a painting, and," he adds bizarrely, "you can't describe a particularly vicious dog turd." After a thoughtful gulp of lager, he reconsiders. "Actually, I've got bad short-term memory. Ask me again in 10 years' time, and I'll be able to tell you what it's about!" (To get the full MacGowan effect, you need to know that he punctuates every bon mot with a bandwidth of glottal static masquerading as a chuckle.)

The flesh may look weak, but the MacGowan spirit still burns with a greater intensity than whatever is lurking in the range of three liquid refreshers he has placed around him. A pint glass houses standard-issue lager, while one tumbler is host to what I surmise to be a multiple shot of brandy and Baileys. The third tumbler in this unholy trinity is some concoction of cocktail-style hue. Although each drink lasts the full two hours of our meeting, it's best not to try this at home, kids.

Like many poets and bar-room philosophers before him, MacGowan is an advocate of altered states, but he will admit to side effects. Were they worth it? "My side effects have definitely been inspiring, even if they're frightening. You've got to treat drugs with respect - if you smoke 100 Capstans a day, there's a chance you'll die very quickly. What is frightening is schoolkids doing hard drugs, because they don't know what they're doing. The dealers - I'd string 'em up! Smack is right out of the question, when you're willing to take a chance with every hit."

If you think there's a puritanical tone to MacGowan's views, well... "No, I escaped the poverty trap when I was pissed out of my head!"

Ah, yes, the poverty trap. The MacGowan family moved from their native Tipperary to Brighton for better prospects when MacGowan was just six. The accent may have gone through three or four well-travelled decades, but back then it marked MacGowan out for a few beatings from the local boys. With this baptism of bullying, MacGowan would have to be saintly not to feel resentment towards the English. He still maintains, variously, that "you just think we're fucking monkeys" (a recurrent MacGowan motif), and "the English think Ireland is a barbarian country".

Ever eager to put my head in the noose, I say that the old stereotypes of Ireland are alien to most people aged under 40 in England these days, and are as distant a race memory as the Empire. I'm even foolish enough to mention the fear and suspicion that (I've been told) existed in my native Birmingham after the pub bombings of 1974. Before I'm able to claim that these emotions are largely a thing of the past, MacGowan hisses: "So you think they're guilty?"

MacGowan's in his element now. Before the Birmingham Six were acquitted, he'd composed a song in their honour that was included on The Pogues' 1988 album If I Should Fall From Grace With God. "They're still doing time/ for being Irish in the wrong place/ And at the wrong time", went the lyrics, performed with barely controlled anger. But the subject of Anglo-Irish relations finds MacGowan at his most loquacious (which is saying something), and he unleashes the following pearls of wisdom:

"Trimble and Hume? They've got nothing in common."

"Sean MacBride, co-founder of Amnesty International? He won the Nobel peace prize. He wanted to fuck England. A man of high moral character."

"General Eoin O'Duffy, [of Ireland's Blueshirts, accused of being the equivalent to Hitler's Brownshirts] paid recruits £10 a day and all you can drink. All you had to do was march round town. March? They couldn't even walk straight!"

I decided to ask about The Pogues' 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, the record that put MacGowan's career into overdrive, and said to be named after a (possibly apocryphal) quotation from Winston Churchill.

"Oh, yeah, this was [drummer] Andy Ranken's idea. Churchill said, 'All there is of naval tradition is rum, sodomy and the lash." Churchill was a piss artist, a global psychopath, a speed freak. He reneged on a deal not to bomb Dresden!"

Given MacGowan's hostility to this sceptred isle (the non-Celtic bits, anyway), it may surprise some that he spent time at the same ancient seat of learning as John Locke, Sir Christopher Wren, Andrew Lloyd Webber and, er, Dido - Westminster School in London. "It's meant to be the highest academic standards, to produce politicians, businessmen. They let a bit of rough trade in each year. I passed the entrance exam by writing an essay on TS Eliot's 'Preludes'. Although it might have been 'The Waste Land'... It wasn't to my taste."

After being caught smoking weed by the local constabulary, MacGowan made an undignified exit, but one clearly to his profound relief. A further spot of trouble with the law led to six months at one of Britain's long-since disappeared mental institutions. It was there that the "lunatic" certification took place. "It was the place that used to be known as Bedlam." It would be, Shane. It would be...

What exactly is his relationship now with The Popes, the group he started in 1994? "They're still my band," he claims, but he seems surprised when he realises that he hasn't made an album with them since 1997, although he did guest on Holloway Boulevard (2000).

It's true that his star has never been as high since If I Should Fall.... "I was begging, pleading, with the band not to call the album that," he says. Though the record took The Pogues into a global market, its success did result in MacGowan's karmic fall from said grace.

The album also gave The Pogues easily their biggest hit. The Kirsty McColl duet "Fairytale of New York" is now an annual visitor to the Christmas Top 40, appearing with Slade-like inevitability. The song is quintessential MacGowan, both a welcome deflation of forced gaiety and the loudest of Bronx cheers. And, let's face it, only MacGowan could have made "Happy Christmas, your arse/ I pray God it's our last" into an office-party singalong.

Finally we finish, and with tongue firmly in cheek, Shane MacGowan wants me to assure him that I'm "not going to stitch him up, cause I'll come and get ya!" I hope those worms are patient.

'The Bhoys from Paradise' EP is out now on Active records