Published On: Sun, Dec 3rd, 2023
Music | By MDN

‘Chaos? This is natural living!’ The genius of Shane MacGowan | Sean O’Hagan

Last week, as the weather turned cold in the wake of Shane MacGowan’s passing, some lines from the Pogues’ first single, Dark Streets of London, kept echoing in my head.

“Now the winter comes down, I can’t stand the chill

That comes to the streets around Christmas time

I’m buggered to damnation and I haven’t got a penny

To wander the dark streets of London.”

Released in 1984, and set in and around Hammersmith, the song was the first inkling of MacGowan’s singular talent for evoking damaged souls adrift in a cold-hearted city, in which “the pubs and the bookies” provide solace and an outside chance of a change of fortune, what Seamus Heaney called “the lure of warm, lit-up places”. The song, like many that would follow, was almost certainly written from experience.

When I got to know Shane and his fellow Pogues not long afterwards, his stomping ground was King’s Cross, where he lived, and the not-so-dark streets of Camden Town. When the bars closed, back then, after-hours drinks could be had in the local Greek restaurants and tapas bars, which Shane knew intimately. I had first crossed paths with him at some now hazy point in the mid 1970s, when he manned the Rock On record stall in Soho Market, which was round the back of Leicester Square tube station. He was not the greatest salesman. I remember turning up more than once to find the stall unattended, Shane having gone off to grab a sandwich or a drink, but the often obscure soul, blues and garage-rock records he cajoled me to buy were always gems.

Some years passed before, to my surprise, I bumped into him again in the queue for the toilets at a London gig by the Cramps and the Fall. Having in the interim gained some notoriety as Shane O’Hooligan, one of the faces of punk in 1977, he surprised me further by announcing that he was about to go on stage with his band, the Nips, who were bottom of the bill. Their set was blessedly short and spectacularly untogether, but they had something.

Nothing, though, quite prepared me for my next sighting of him as he led the Pogues – then called Pogue Mahone (an anglicisation of the Irish for kiss my arse) on stage in a long-gone dive in Brixton on a chill winter’s night in 1983. Apart from their cool-looking female bass player, Cait O’Riordan, they seemed to have walked out of another time and place – an older Ireland as evoked in creased family snapshots, of my father and my uncles as young men, looking stern and serious in dark suits and open-necked white shirts. They opened the set with The Auld Triangle, a slow, yearning song I had heard often at family gatherings as a child, my father being a devotee of the Dubliners, a band who made it their own, and whose roguish spirit had evidently shaped the Pogues’ sound and attitude. By the time they shifted gear into a more raucous instrumental outburst, all banjo, accordion and thumping punk drums, I was transfixed. With hindsight, I realise it was their nerve as much as anything that made my jaw drop.

As has been noted, the Pogues were a London-Irish band, rather than an Irish one. The distinction is crucial. It rests not just on their punk-inflected sound but on MacGowan’s songwriting style, whether the gritty urban realism of The Old Main Drag or the bruised romanticism of The Broad Majestic Shannon, a love song steeped in an exile’s longing for home. As I got to know Shane more, it seemed that he, like his songs, was, to say the least, singular, defined by the extremes of dogged self-destruction and deep sensitivity. More than anyone else I have ever met, he lived entirely in the moment, the eternal present as he understood it, inextricably linked to an altered state of consciousness: alcoholic, chemical or hallucinogenic.

In 1988, in a motel room in Atlanta, Georgia, I sat down with Shane to do an interview on the last night of a week-long trip through the American south with the band. It was a Sunday evening as I recall, and Shane, who hated interviews, was for once in a sober and reflective mood. When I asked him about the mixture of tenderness and brutal realism that characterised his songs, he said: “People don’t understand what it takes to write a truthful song, a song that is trying to be pure and honest.” Though I pressed him to elucidate, that was all he would say on the matter.

For a time, some would say too short a time, Shane MacGowan wrote pure and honest songs like no one else. Last week, when I chatted with his friend and fellow songwriter Nick Cave, at a public event in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, we began with a kind of impromptu tribute to Shane, who had died that morning. Nick spoke candidly about his “pure spirit”, as well as how envious he had once felt about Shane’s ability to cut to the heart of things in his songs, and the empathy he evinced for the outsiders and marginalised who inhabited them. He regarded Shane with obvious awe as “the songwriter of his generation”.

Though this is not the time to go into it too deeply, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that Shane’s lifestyle of dogged excess – and the darkness that sometimes descended in its wake, at considerable cost to himself and those in his sway – diminished his extraordinary talent. “You call it chaos,” he once admonished me, when I asked about his rapidly advancing state of dissolution. “I don’t regard it as chaos. I regard it as natural living.” For too long, though, it was anything but.

It strikes me, listening again to the great Shane MacGowan songs, how attuned they are to the rhythms and cadences of vernacular speech, to things heard or overheard, and remembered. The “tinker boys” who fleetingly appear in The Body of an American, hissing advice to the “Yanks” whose Cadillac has stalled – “hot-wire her with a pin”. The dreamer in the “drunk tank” in Fairy Tale of New York, who recalls how he “Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one”. His finest lyrics carry the weight of lived experience, and thus evince an authenticity that cuts to the core of things. Somewhere, between the brutal honesty and bruised romanticism, lies the purity.

‘I believe in the dignity of the human soul,” he once told me, when asked about his spirituality. “People who can put up with incredible hardship and still not be depressed, still enjoy themselves.”

I did not see Shane that often over recent decades, but his passing, though not entirely unexpected, hit hard. It feels like the end of something, though what exactly I cannot pinpoint. It may be that, like many who knew him, I cannot ever imagine meeting anyone as naturally gifted – or as wildly eccentric or scabrously funny – again.

I recently found an illustrated book of his lyrics, Poguetry, for which I had written the introduction back in 1989. Inside, above his scrawled signature, a spidery inscription reads, “Run like fuck!” From what, or to where, I have no idea, but it still somehow seems like good advice from one who knew.

Sean O’Hagan is an Observer feature writer

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