Enlarge image

Shane MacGowan (2nd from left) with the Pogues in 1984: Seven million barrels of port wine

Photo: Steve Rapport/Getty Images

He sang the most beautiful love songs of all time. Most of them were about his love of alcohol. I remember the first time I heard the Pogues song "Sally MacLennane," in which Shane MacGowan languished about returning home after a long absence to this title character named Sally. At the time, I thought to myself, this must be a great woman. Then I was told that Sally MacLennane is a brand of beer.

MacGowan is said to have been inspired to write the song by the ritual farewell drinks he celebrated with his cronies the Pogues in a pub in London in the 1980s, before taking the train to the port city of Holyead to take the ferry to Dún Laoghaire in Ireland. Ireland was home. London was the stranger. Or was it the other way around?

»It was like living in a pub«

MacGowan was born on Christmas 1957 to Irish parents in the English county of Kent. However, the family soon returned to Ireland. For the first six years, little Shane lived in a cottage near Tipperary. There was no running water, but the place was always full of uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. Almost everyone was making music, everyone was drinking. Celtic myths were told, Celtic songs were sung. Supposedly, someone in the house was always awake drinking and singing. "It was like living in a pub," MacGowan once recalled.

It's hard to say whether all the memories are correct. Exaggerating about what you have lost is part of good manners in the Irish tradition. One of the Pogues' biggest hits was "Irish Rover," a traditional song they performed with Irish folk superstars The Dubliners. The narrator in the song is a sniffer and drunkard who tells of the voyage on a fabled sailing ship that supposedly had five million pigs, six million dogs and seven million barrels of port wine on board before it sank at sea. Who wants to contradict a drinker?

MacGowan has put different versions of the beginnings of his own drinking into the world. He once said that an uncle at the age of six had given him two Guinnesses a night before going to bed. Another uncle is said to have introduced him to whiskey at the age of eight, when he was already living in London with his parents. Another legend he spreads is that when he was ten, his grandmother promised to provide him with whiskey if he never succumbed to the devil in return. In this case, the cup almost takes on the meaning of a sacrament. At the same age, he also claimed to have read James Joyce's 1000-page work »Ulysses«.

Punk with scholarship

The fact that MacGowan was indeed so smart is evidenced by the fact that he later received a scholarship to the renowned Westminster School in London, but for no longer than two years. He was expelled from school for rebelliousness. After the happy childhood in Tipperary, the youth in London was rather gloomy. His father spent most of his time drinking in the pub, his mother was in bed with arthritis and depression.

MacGowan found in punk an outlet for his anger, his frustration, his alienation in the world. He first gained fame in 1976 when the »New Musical Express« published a picture showing a scuffle at a performance of The Clash, in which he pounded with a bleeding ear in front of the stage. The wound had been inflicted on him in a scuffle by the future Mo-dettes bassist Jane Crockford. Since then, MacGowan's always tarnished likeness, mostly marked by self-inflicted devastation, has become an integral part of punk iconography.

When he founded the Pogues in the early eighties, he combined two narrative styles in their music: the principle of punk to create great art without means. And that of Irish literature, to hide great feelings out of destituteness. What can be more punk than lighting up an entire gritty pub with a smile with a few stumps in your mouth, as was MacGowan's trademark?

The casting of the Pogues was ultra-pragmatic in keeping with the genre. The bassist was Cait O'Riordan, who had met MacGowan in a record store. She had a bass at home, but had yet to teach herself how to play. MacGowan's drinking buddy Spider Stacy was also in the band, but at one of the first gigs he behaved so anti-social that the others wanted to kick him out. MacGowan fought to remain, but as punishment Stacy had to learn the filigree Tin Wistle, which at first glance seemed to be the most unpunky instrument imaginable.

The Rough Sound for the Workers' Struggle

In songs such as »Poor Paddy« or »Dark Streets of London«, MacGowan took up the basic Irish experience of uprooting, as experienced by migrant workers from the country all over the world, but also in London. The lyrical grandeur with which he brought the old tales of the Irish railway, construction and steel workers into the present day was enormous. It was in the 1980s that the last great workers' struggles raged in Britain. MacGowan and the Pogues provided the raw sound. At the same time, they gave a voice to the many Irish migrants in Britain.

The Pogues had their biggest hit with the 1987 Christmas ballad "Fairytale of New York." It tells a relationship story from the perspective of an Irish immigrant in New York who was put in a jail cell for drunkenness. In a duet with the British singer Kirsty MacColl, MacGowan uses language that is now considered toxic to explain the curse and blessing of the togetherness that has apparently been going on for some time. A text sample that we don't want to translate here: "You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot / Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it's our last". Love as MacGowan sees it. He could make swear words sound like caresses, which was also a magical gift.

The brawler ballad, which is still played up and down many radio stations in the Anglo-Saxon world at Christmas time, brought the band a lot of money. She also described a bit the precarious relationship between the band members. In addition to alcohol, MacGowan used harder and harder drugs, he himself mentions cocaine, heroin and crack cocaine, among others. Touring and recording with him became more and more difficult. In 1991, the band kicked him out after he allegedly shot himself off with a mixture of saki whiskey and LSD on a tour of Japan. His place as singer was taken over by Stacy, whom he himself had once protected from being kicked out. MacGowan then recorded some not-so-magical songs with the band The Popes. In 2001, he returned to regular appearances with the Pogues.

On Thursday, after a long illness, the great poet, singer and Irishman Shane MacGowan died. He was 65 years old. One of the many sayings attributed to him is: "Bad health is the consequence of a good life."