Shane MacGowan Leaves the Astral Plane

The Irish singer and songwriter Shane MacGowan, a founding member of the punk-rock band the Pogues, died on Thursday, of pneumonia, at age sixty-five. It might sound as though he went young—and, by ordinary rubrics, he did—but MacGowan was a famously voracious consumer of drugs and prone to physical trauma. For decades, he flung himself around as though he were made of rubber. (“He was repeatedly injured in falls and struck by moving vehicles,” is how the Times put it in his obituary this week.) By all accounts, MacGowan was a man of irrepressible appetites, hungry and ungovernable. He was beloved for his songwriting (Dylan, Springsteen, and Bono were ardent fans), and also for his rotten teeth (when he finally had them fixed, in 2015, his dental surgeon described the experience as “the Everest of dentistry”). That he made it this far feels like a miracle, both for him and for us. Because if MacGowan was seemingly unconcerned with the preservation of his corporeal self, he was positively obsessed with elevating the soul.

MacGowan was born on Christmas Day in Pembury, a village in Kent, in southeast England. His parents were Irish immigrants, and he was brought up in Tunbridge Wells, a middle-class suburb of London, often returning to Tipperary, his mother’s home town in Ireland, in the summers. As legend goes, by age five, MacGowan was already downing two bottles of Guinness a night, and was given his first taste of whiskey not long after. Those early experiences proved crucial: intoxication, impropriety, diaspora, Ireland, exile, and displacement all became core themes in MacGowan’s songwriting. He formed the Pogues in 1982. The band—which then included Spider Stacy on tin whistle, Jem Finer on banjo, and James Fearnley on accordion—was originally called Pogue Mahone, after the Irish Gaelic phrase póg mo thóin, which means, of course, “kiss my ass.” MacGowan was already somewhat infamous within the U.K. punk scene for appearing in a photo, published in the New Musical Express, in 1976, with blood dripping from his ear and down his neck. The headline read: “CANNIBALISM AT CLASH GIG.” (“Me and this girl were having a bit of a laugh which involved biting each other’s arms till they were completely covered in blood and then smashing up a couple of bottles and cutting each other up a bit,” MacGowan told the British rock magazine ZigZag; incidentally, the girl in question was “Mad” Jane Crockford, of the excellent London punk band the Mo-Dettes.)

The Pogues released a début LP, “Red Roses for Me,” in 1984. It combined the fury and euphoria of traditional Irish folk music with the fury and euphoria of punk rock. The coalescence of the two genres felt somehow natural—it’s not hard to see how one history bleeds into another, rebellion and community finding more rebellion, more community—and also completely insane. Though he was born abroad, something about MacGowan’s perspective felt particularly and specifically Irish, so devotional and frenzied, born from a kind of deranged conversation with the whole of Irish literature and tradition, from Joyce to Behan to the Flanagan Brothers. (On “Transmetropolitan,” which opens “Red Roses for Me,” MacGowan even lets out a “KMRIA!”—an acronym for Kiss My Royal Irish Ass, and a heading in the “Aeolus” episode of “Ulysses.”) The band’s second album, “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” was produced by Elvis Costello and named after a quote attributed to Winston Churchill. (“Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash.”) It might be my favorite of the five records the Pogues made with MacGowan. The band often reimagined traditional vernacular tunes, and it’s hard to tell which songs here are MacGowan originals and which have been hollered in crowded pubs for centuries—every track sounds both ancient and new. On “Sally MacLennane,” MacGowan sings about splitting town, adroitly inhabiting the psychology of both the leaver and the left: “So sad to see the grieving of the people that I’m leaving / And he took the road for God knows in the morning,” he yells. His voice was just so rich—craggy, thick, sloppy, entirely without pretense. The Pogues’ next record, “If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” is probably their best known, in part because it contains the single “Fairytale of New York,” a melancholy but nonetheless jubilant Christmas song featuring the English singer Kirsty MacColl. MacGowan is a deft, generous, humane lyricist. His best stanzas, such as the one that opens “Fairytale of New York,” contain pathos, despair, and a kind of dreamy hopefulness:

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, “Won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

I’m always grousing about how popular culture has become professionalized—guided by corporate interests, certainly, but also often lacking in spontaneity, mess, weirdness, glee, imperfection, or anything else that resembles sentient life. Though his vices were plainly and unromantically destructive—deeply toxic in every sense—MacGowan will always be a kind of high-water mark for what can happen when an artist disregards the whims or expectations of the Zeitgeist. Nothing the Pogues did ever felt intended to be palatable or to satisfy anyone’s expectations; nothing about MacGowan was small or manageable.

In 1991, Joe Strummer, the Clash’s front man, briefly stood in on vocals after MacGowan had been kicked out of the Pogues for being too unruly. At a show in Cologne, Strummer performed the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” with the band. Miraculously, some audio has survived. There’s a stanza in the middle of “Straight to Hell”—itself a deeply strange and transcendent track about immigration and notions of home, featuring what might be Strummer’s greatest vocal performance ever—that always reminded me of MacGowan. That night, Strummer slurred through it before disintegrating entirely. I hear it, now, as loving homage:

You wanna play mind-crazed banjo
On the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.?
In Parkland International, ha, Junkiedom U.S.A.
Where Procaine proves the purest rock man groove and rat poison
The volatile Molatov says
Huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh
Huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh, huh
Straight to hell

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