Shane MacGowan and me, by Nick Cave, Glen Matlock, Camille O’Sullivan
The Pogues singer is celebrating his 60th birthday at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on Monday, January 15th. Here, his friends pay tribute
Few thought Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan would live until 40, let alone celebrate his 60th birthday. At 35, the Pogues fired him, as the band who made him famous could no longer tolerate any more of his wayward and debauched behaviour.
A quarter of a century later, and MacGowan has a gala star-studded concert in his honour at the National Concert Hall this Monday, featuring a host of friends and collaborators, including Nick Cave, Johnny Depp (who appeared in the video for his 1994 single That Woman’s Got Me Drinking), Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, Glen Hansard (who performed A Rainy Night in Soho at former Pogues manager Frank Murray’s funeral last January), Camille O’Sullivan, Cerys Matthews, Clem Burke of Blondie, Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols and former bandmates Cáit O’Riordain, Terry Woods, Spider Stacy and Jem Finer.
MacGowan and Nick Cave go back a long way. They recorded and released a splendid cover version together of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World in 1992, but they knew each for years beforehand, memorably participating in an end-of-year NME summit together with Mark E Smith of The Fall.
“God knows when I exactly first met Shane,” Nick Cave tells The Irish Times. “He’ll remember. Shane has an astonishing memory. We spent a lot of time together. Many nights over the years. I think we were the only two people that could put up with each other.”
While Cave and MacGowan were natural-born hellraisers back in their day, Cave thinks their friendship is grounded in something much deeper. “Almost in spite of our fractious demeanours we had romantic natures,” Cave says. “We recognised that in each other. And a love of words. I always loved his stories that would run on into the night and how the evenings would invariably end with Shane singing songs. Shane staring into your eyes and singing you a song was quite something, you know. Not easily forgotten.”
Nick Cave’s recollection of where and when he met MacGowan might be hazy, but for Camille O’Sullivan, it was an encounter she’ll never forget. “I was in a friend’s house in Harold’s Cross eating a Christmas pie when I got a phone call from Shane’s girlfriend Victoria, asking if I’d like to sing Fairytale of New York with The Pogues in the Olympia,” she recalls. “The only problem was they wanted me onstage in an hour.”
O’Sullivan agreed to the 11th-hour request. “I know the song like everybody else, but I realised I didn’t know it well enough,” she remembers. “I got someone to print out the lyrics and I cycled down to Dame Street trying to read it on the way.
“The first time I met Shane was singing with him onstage. It was terrifying. His Mum usually sang it, but she couldn’t that night. It was the most mental introduction I’ve ever had to anybody.”
In the late 1970s, MacGowan cut a dash on London’s nascent punk scene. After seeing The Sex Pistols in 1976, he devoted his life to music, first with the Nipple Erectors (or the Nips) and The Millwall Chainsaws, and later with The Pogues and The Popes.
At a Clash gig, a girl reportedly bit a piece of his ear off, although it is said he was really struck by a bottle. MacGowan’s inimitable visage first made the papers under an NME headline: “Cannibalism at Clash Gig!”
Sex Pistols bassist and vocalist Glen Matlock first encountered Shane in those heady days. “I remember Shane pogoing right in front of me in the Notre Dame Hall in London,” Matlock says.
“I always saw him around because he’s quite a distinctive figure, let’s put it that way. All this was prior to The Pogues. Later on, he really surprised a lot of people with the sheer quality of his songwriting, me included.”
Shane and The Pogues fused the filth and fury of punk with the poetic sensibilities of Irish traditional and folk music. MacGowan might have been going to punk gigs, but he was listening to The Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers at home.
In October 1984, the Pogues released their raucous debut album, Red Roses for Me. Rum Sodomy & The Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall From Grace of God (1988) followed, featuring some of Shane’s best-known songs: A Pair of Brown Eyes, A Rainy Night in Soho, Sally MacLennane, Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six (co-written with Terry Woods) and, of course, the JP Donleavy-inspired duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, Fairytale of New York.
MacGowan and the Pogues turned perceptions of Irish music on their head. “There is a timelessness is Shane’s music, but amidst all that you have this amazing anarchy,” says O’Sullivan. “There is a wild abandonment and freedom to it. Shane is one of the best performers and singers out there, and it is very hard for anyone to follow him. I feel electrified whenever I see him sing.”
Glen Matlock sees a continuation of the values The Sex Pistols and The Clash stood for. “Shane’s music comes from the tradition of taking a leftfield stance of doing what you want when you want,” he says. “Obviously, the musicianship is also stunning and possesses a punk rock attitude.”
Everyone in Shane’s circle of friends also has numerous hair-raising stories from over the years.
“I am very good friends with Shane’s wonderful wife, Victoria,” Nick Cave says. “She told me once some years back that she decided, after much hand-wringing, that she couldn’t stand Shane’s boozing and drug-taking any more and she was going to leave him. It was a huge decision for her.
“Victoria packed her bags, told Shane it was over, and left. After about three weeks, she started to feel concerned about Shane’s wellbeing and she rang him up. She said to Shane, ‘How have you been getting on since I left you?’ There was a silence and Shane said, ‘Whaaa . . ?’”
Matlock fondly recalls being in the studio with Shane to record a charity single. “Shane put together a few people to a make benefit single for Haiti, so Bobby Gillespie, Nick Cave and I got invited down and we did I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins together. Chrissie Hynde also came down, so Nick Cave, Shane and I were sitting in the control room watching Chrissie having a go at the song. She is fantastic, but she had a completely different idea on how to sing the song. Somebody had to tell her, and Chrissie is quite a feisty character, so we drew straws. Nick Cave lost, so he had to tell Chrissie.
“Me and Shane were looking at each other laughing. I won’t say exactly what happened, apart from Nick looking very sheepish, but it was quite a moment and extremely funny.”
Camille O’Sullivan recounts an infamous story about Shane taking hallucinogenics. “He was supposed to go on tour with Bob Dylan but he didn’t turn up,” she says. “Victoria discovered him eating a Beach Boys album because he’d taken so much acid and thought the third World War had started. There was a summit meeting going on in his head where he was the leader of Ireland against the great world powers. He just wanted to show America’s inferiority, so he decided to eat the record.”
O’Sullivan has had her own adventures with MacGowan. “Each time I meet Shane it tends to be a very precarious situation,” she laughs. “Once I was in A&E and I got a phone call to go on the Late Late, where we did Devil in Disguise. I collapsed afterwards and had to go into hospital for an operation. The producer thought this was hilarious that I was the one going to hospital.”
Indeed, there is the one about an Irish singer who had to be carried out of RTÉ, but, for a change, Shane was the one doing the carrying.
But for all those boozy years, MacGowan is having the last laugh at those who predicted his premature demise, and his songs are rightly considered to be among the greatest ever written.
“I always thought Shane was the best songwriter coming out of our generation,” states Nick Cave. “There was an ongoing struggle between brutality and beauty, both in the way that he sang and the words that he wrote, which was extremely moving and very honest. And you know, I don’t really need to say this, but people love him. He speaks directly to people, to their struggles, in a direct and unadorned way.”
Perspectives: Shane MacGowan’s 60th Birthday Celebration is at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on Monday, January 15th
My favourite Shane MacGowan song
Cáit O’Riordain – The Body of an American
“This is a classic MacGowan entire life-story in a song. It is forever branded on my heart for a glorious moment for Cole’s wake on The Wire. I realised what song was playing under Landsman’s eulogy. It is such a perfect scene and anyone who doesn’t think it’s one of the great cultural highlights of the 21st century can f***ing fight me.”
Camille O’Sullivan – Fairytale of New York
“I was a big fan of Kirsty McColl. It’s like a film in its own right, and you feel like you’re right in there living it. The lyrics are stunning. ‘I could have been someone. Well, so could anyone.’ I don’t see it as a Christmas song but one of the most perfectly formed songs I’ve ever heard.
Glen Matlock – A Rainy Night in Soho
“While I adore Fairytale of New York with Kirsty McColl, I really like the Rum Sodomy & the Lash album. Particularly A Rainy Night in Soho, because Soho means a lot to me.”
Nick Cave - Summer in Siam
“My favourite song of Shane’s is Summer in Siam. It is so bold and simple and condensed. It’s a brave piece of writing. And such a lovely tune.”