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A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan is no fairytale

Book review: The biography doesn’t shy away from troublesome aspects of his character

A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan
A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan
Author: Richard Balls
ISBN-13: 978-1787601086
Publisher: Omnibus Press
Guideline Price: £20

Over two decades ago, a friend and colleague undertook a commission to write a Shane MacGowan biography, with insider approval. Not long after beginning the project he handed the advance back. The real story, he decided, was so dark and disturbing that to write the truth would cause more grief than good.

There hasn’t been a definitive biographical study of The Pogues singer. TV documentaries such as The Great Hunger and If I Should Fall from Grace discreetly averted their eyes from the more unsavoury aspects of MacGowan’s life and times. A Drink with Shane MacGowan, co-authored with his long-term partner Victoria Mary Clark, was an entertaining ramble, but by definition an unreliable narrative. Pogues accordionist James Fearnley’s Here Comes Everybody was a fascinating, if somewhat over-written artifact, and again came with its own subjective angle. Of all the Poguetry, maybe Julien Temple’s 2020 film Crock of Gold came closest to bottling the band’s rowdy spirit.

A national hero, garlanded with presidential honours, but he hasn't written a decent song since the 90s

So, A Furious Devotion, drawn from numerous interviews with the central subject and supporting cast, is long overdue. But while Richard Balls, author of books about Ian Dury and the Stiff label, is a diligent researcher – and no doubt a very patient interviewer – he is at best a workmanlike writer, prone to clunky metaphors and overuse of the passive voice (there’s also a lot of “would have” instead of plain past tense).

To his credit though, he does not shy away from the more troublesome aspects of his leading man’s character. MacGowan is a complex individual, immensely gifted and yet cursed by some early trauma that has compelled him to self-medicate for decades. He can be at once petulant and generous, evasive but also shockingly honest. Again and again in A Furious Devotion we get the sense of him not as functional pop star, but a rabbit in the headlights, spooked by the responsibility of recording schedules and touring timetables and his band and crew’s financial dependence.


Here’s the basic narrative arc: the son of Irish ex-pats in England Maurice and Therese, MacGowan is indulged as a child, plied with porter and set on tables to perform at family gatherings and house parties. Summers in Tipperary are idyllic, winters in London less so. His mother, haunted by displacement and depression, is medicated and miserable in the urban sprawl. His father, a well-read, progressive man with an anti-authoritarian streak, grants his son a long leash. MacGowan’s teenage years are marked by truancy, petty thievery and the ingestion and dealing of drugs. He listens to the MC5 and the Stooges, the Pink Fairies and Hawkwind. He identifies with the freak factions of early 70s hippiedom. He’s expelled from school and admitted to Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatric facilty in London, at 17, an experience that scars him so deeply he carries a lifelong fear of being permanently sectioned.

Punk rock delivers him from evil. He adopts the surname O’Hooligan and becomes a poster boy for NME music magazine photographers at Sex Pistols gigs. He’s regularly beaten up by anti-Irish toughs or Teddy boys. He forms a band, the Nipple Erectors, with his girlfriend Shanne Bradley. The Nipple Erectors become the Nips, then the New Republicans, then Pogue Mahone. MacGowan finds his tribe: Fearnley, Finer, Spider, and the firebrand Cait O’Riordan. They bond over a love of music, literature and film; booze-fuelled misfits playing a souped-up London-Irish folk-punk-ceili hybrid in a climate of hunger strikes and IRA bombings. They forge allegiances with like-minded roots rebels like the Shillelagh Sisters, the Boothill Foot Tappers and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. MacGowan learns to channel his uncommon facility with language into the writing of modern-day trad-ballads that owe equal debt to John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly. The first three Pogues albums are astonishing. The band is pure swagger, shamelessly parading Paddy-at-a-wedding chic: suits, shirts and brogues, ties loosened, hair askew. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits profess themselves fans.

Following the worldwide success of the single Fairytale of New York in 1987 and the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God, MacGowan begins to chafe against the pressures of playing in a professional touring unit. Manager Frank Murray is a music biz veteran who believes in old-fashioned graft, but his charge doesn’t have the psychological steel to withstand the rigours of the road. When O’Riordan leaves and Phil Chevron and Terry Woods join, the band gains musical artillery but loses something intrinsic in terms of identity. This is no natural democracy, nor is MacGowan fit to lead. He hates confrontation and doesn’t want to quit the band, so he sinks deeper into alcoholism and drug psychosis: heroin, speed and LSD. It all comes to a messy end in Japan in 1990 when the band stage an intervention and ask him to leave. His response: What took you so long?

In the aftermath, MacGowan forms a new band, The Popes, and releases one fine album, The Snake, in 1994, but it’s a short-lived comeback. Things get darker as the decade unfolds, he spends weeks blitzed in front of the TV, indulging hangers-on because he can’t bear to be alone, nodding out in public. People in his orbit die with frightening frequency. The 21st century finds him living on past glories, partaking in occasional Pogues reunion tours, releasing the odd sub-par single. He is a national hero, garlanded with presidential honours, but he hasn’t written a decent song since the 90s.

And that’s where we leave it. A Furious Devotion is an epic story, some might say a classical tragedy, but a frustrating book. Balls is to be commended for his legwork. It’s his research that keeps the story afloat. But once the drama fizzles out and we’re left with the apparition of MacGowan as a stricken man, wheelchair-bound, on a constant drip-feed of drugs, booze and movies, the final chapters deteriorate into a litany of tributes and testimonials. A Furious Devotion is a swift and efficient read, but MacGowan still hasn’t found the biographer worthy of his story.

Peter Murphy is author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber). He records and performs under the name Cursed Murphy.