Clip: A Ramble Through the Mind of the Pogues’ Poet
A Ramble Through the Mind of the Pogues' Poet
By ANDY WEBSTER
Published: March 13, 2007
BOSTON, March 10 — "He knew he was totally mediocre, he was a measly
old poet, Wordsworth, and never made it at anything like Coleridge,"
Shane MacGowan said, adding, "He had really bad teeth." Mr. MacGowan,
the principal singer of the Celtic rock band the Pogues and a man
fabled for his thirst, affinity for illicit substances and terrible
dentition, has sympathy for Wordsworth's friend Coleridge, who
alienated Wordsworth with his opium use. Like Coleridge, Mr. MacGowan
has his appetites and he too is known for his way with a verse.
The Pogues are in the United States for their annual St. Patrick's
tour, hitting cities where their fan base and Irish enclaves are
strong: Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Next the group
goes to the Roseland Ballroom in New York, with gigs on Wednesday,
Thursday and Saturday, St. Patrick's Day. (The band plays in
Philadelphia on Friday too.)
A reporter had waited close to an hour in the bar at the Ritz-Carlton
here before Mr. MacGowan — resplendent in an untucked
black-and-white-printed tropical shirt, primitive neck jewelry and a
gaudy red and black cowboy hat — shuffled in with Joey Cashman, his
longtime assistant. Mr. MacGowan, 49, asked the waiter for Irish
breakfast tea, and drank with a trembling hand.
It might be said that Mr. MacGowan speaks in a Joycean stream of
consciousness, but a conversation with him is closer to a pinwheeling
ramble with a very well-seasoned regular at the corner pub. He speaks
in a flurry of digressions, uttered in a semi-slurred Irish-London
accent that is tough to decipher at times. When, during one tangent,
the term "British Isles" arose, Mr. Cashman was quick to correct it.
"Don't use the phrase British Isles," he said. "It's England,
Scotland, Wales and Ireland." He added, "If you say it any other way,
he'd probably throw his glass at you."
Mr. MacGowan still possesses the morbid streak he has had since his
days as a punk rocker in his first band, the Nipple Erectors. In
another tangent, speaking about "The Butcher Boy," Neil Jordan's film
version of Patrick McCabe's darkly satirical novel about a boy's
murder spree in County Monaghan, he said with a rasping chortle, "It's
great if you don't actually know everything that happens in every
Irish town every day of the week." He said he loved Mr. Jordan's
adaptation of Mr. McCabe's "Breakfast on Pluto," about a London drag
queen in trouble with the I.R.A. in the 1970s. He said it brought
"back nostalgia for mass killings and bombings, you know what I mean?"
Hours later the Pogues were onstage at the Avalon, playing to a
sold-out house. Fans were carried aloft over the mosh pit, as the
eight-man band pounded out frenzied jigs and reels with a controlled
fury. Workouts like "Fiesta" and "Sally MacLennan" prompted stomping
and fist pumping; "Dirty Old Town," a tune by the folk singer Ewan
MacColl and a longtime Pogues signature, became a deafening singalong.
More than once Mr. MacGowan, staggering, knocked the microphone off
its stand or knocked the stand over altogether, to good-natured
laughter. But his voice was sure, and his bond with the audience
After the show the band retired to an anteroom upstairs. The Pogues'
accordionist, James Fearnley, sat next to Mr. MacGowan on a couch,
protective of him, as is everyone in Mr. MacGowan's orbit, it seems.
The group, whose first album, "Red Roses for Me," appeared in 1984, is
five years into a comeback after a 10-year separation during which Mr.
MacGowan sang with another group, the Popes, and the other band
members put out middling albums as the Pogues. Mr. MacGowan reunited
with the group in 2001 for a few Christmas concerts in Britain. Since
then the band has been playing live with increasing frequency in
Europe and the United States.
Mortality has dealt harsh blows to the Pogues in recent years,
specifically the deaths of Kirsty MacColl, a singer-songwriter and an
occasional collaborator, and Joe Strummer, who produced their album
"Hell's Ditch." A stabilizing force in Mr. MacGowan's life is Victoria
Mary Clarke, a writer and his longtime companion.
"We've been engaged for 20 years," he said. Despite "two or three
breakups," he said, Ms. Clarke can be "very serene." The couple have
moved to Ireland after years in London.
Ms. Clarke's book "A Drink With Shane MacGowan," an as-told-to written
with him, offers, if one-sidedly, clues to the breakup of the band, a
topic Mr. MacGowan tactfully skirts in conversation. Mr. MacGowan said
an album of new material was "almost certainly" going to be produced.
While age and old habits have taken their toll on Mr. MacGowan, his
feistiness remains undiminished. Asked about the prospect of Irish
reunification, he cited Ian Paisley, the Unionist leader in Northern
Ireland and a staunch opponent of the republican cause: "Ian Paisley
is one of the best agents the I.R.A. ever had. He's done more for
returning the six counties than anyone else."