Film & TV

The Pleasure and the Pain of Shane MacGowan

Shane MacGowan in 1986, from Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. (© Andrew Catlin/Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)
An outlandishly entertaining documentary about the Pogues singer-songwriter

People are amazed he isn’t dead yet, but as Shane MacGowan notes, they’ve been saying that for more than 40 years, since he first became a celebrity in the punked-out London Seventies. He and his date were having a fine time at a Clash concert in 1976. As one does, the two were biting each other’s arms until they bled, but she got a bit overstimulated and smashed him over the head with a beer bottle. Word spread that she had bitten his ear off. A photo of young Shane appeared in a music magazine under the headline “Cannibalism at Clash Gig,” and the legend was born.

MacGowan’s snarling, snaggle-toothed look earned him prominent display in the media and attention for his own handmade zine, Bondage. Yet somewhere down deep, under the ridiculousness and the rage, was a songwriter who would go on to give us the beautiful “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” and the anti-Christmas carol that became a classic of the season, “Fairytale of New York,” which sold more than a million copies and the success of which, a family member says of Shane, “blew his brain away.” The name of MacGowan’s band was originally Pogue Mahone, but the BBC forced a change when they found out this was Irish for “Kiss my ass.” MacGowan’s band therefore became the Pogues, as we learn in Julien Temple’s outlandishly entertaining documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.

Born in England, raised in Ireland, and then returned to England in furious adolescence, MacGowan, 62, noticed at some point that “most of Ireland was in London.” In the early Eighties, as world music caught on, “I just thought, well, if people are being ethnic, I might as well be my own ethnic,” he recalls. The Pogues started by playing traditional songs on throwback instruments (a tin whistle figures prominently), then adding MacGowan’s own compositions to the set list, leaving audiences delirious with both the energy of the music and national pride. As Bruce Springsteen did for New Jersey, so MacGowan did for Ireland. He clarifies that his songs aren’t exactly about his homeland, though: They’re about being Irish in London. MacGowan’s plaintive, ragged baritone made them intensely vivid, capturing an entire diaspora’s longing, its brashness and playfulness and delight in its roots. It’s the voice of the flourishing Irish soul in clover, down the pub and ready for mischief.

Born in 1958, MacGowan grew up in the kind of atmosphere, in rural Tipperary, that we can scarcely comprehend anymore; no running water, no electricity. When he was a boy, a devout aunt taught him the Catholic catechism, aiding concentration by giving little Shane cigarettes and alcohol. He remembers drinking Guinness from age five or six, two bottles a night. Cue a black-and-white clip of an Irishman expressing a common view: “Well, if you give ’em enough when they’re young, they won’t go overboard later on.” This hypothesis didn’t hold up particularly well.

Temple, who cut his teeth making punk and New Age videos and later directed a few films, has little photographic documentation from MacGowan’s early years to work with, so he conceives the film as a scrapbook of crazy illustrations using campy stock footage, dramatic recreations, and animation (some by Ralph Steadman, some in the style of R. Crumb). MacGowan’s memory is pretty good, considering all the alcoholism and heroin abuse, and he has lots of hair-raising stories about, for instance, chugging whiskey as a kid: “The farmyard animals were talking to me,” he recalls. “I was out of my f***ing brain.” In London, Shane won a scholarship to Westminster School, took a lot of beatings, discovered a vocation as a boy drug dealer, and got kicked out. Interviewed about this, Shane’s dad Maurice recalls telling the headmaster, “I don’t want him to come back to this stupid f***ing c**t of a place anyway.”

Scrappy, these Irish, and they enjoy a pint, if this film is to be believed. MacGowan was sometimes asked if his songs and his persona were slightly damaging the national brand by reinforcing negative stereotypes about drunken Paddies. He says he merely writes about “the Irish way of life,” which he defines as follows: “Cram as much pleasure as you can into life and rail against the pain that you have to suffer as a result.” It’s also notably Irish of MacGowan that he is forever downplaying his own learning. (At that private school, before he got expelled, he won a history prize.) He says things like “We’re a literary people even if we’re illiterate,” and the influences of Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien are apparent in his songs. There’s a tender, wounded being within, no matter how often he answers autograph requests by writing “F**k off” or telling his pal Johnny Depp (seen drinking with him in the movie), “You’re so cute, you make me sick, actually.” Another pal seen chatting amiably with MacGowan is his fellow Irish Republican, Gerry Adams. In his punk years MacGowan went around with choppy short hair dyed blond and the letters “IRA” on his forehead. His mom told him, “You really are gonna have to become famous to justify that haircut.”

MacGowan once injected so much heroin into his toes that he couldn’t walk. He says a doctor told him that if he had left it two more days, he would have needed to have his legs sawn off. These days MacGowan is frail and wheelchair-bound, having fallen and broken his pelvis in one of many mishaps, but at least he’s living a healthy lifestyle. In the bar, when Depp asks if he wants another drink, he announces, “I’m fine. I’ve practically given it up.” Off camera, several people burst out laughing. Asked whether he has self-destructive tendencies, he scoffs. Of course not. He is merely looking for happiness, he says: a crock of gold.

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