Photo by Ben Rayner
We won’t go too much into who Shane MacGowan is here because, for God’s sake, you should know. He’s got our vote for best lyricist of the 20th century, and he’s a singer who can bring grown men to tears with just one well-turned phrase. Is he a drunk and a now-and-then junkie? Sure. But the fans that find amusement in that, the ones who hold him up as some kind of mascot of Irish debauchery, are missing the point entirely. That’s a simpleton’s way of looking at Shane. That’s how fucking Walt Disney probably saw the Irish. The only thing we want to say about his boozing is that it’s a shame it will probably kill him before his time. Or who knows, maybe it will kill him right at his time. Who are we to guess how long Shane MacGowan will live? He turns 51 this year. We hope he lives forever.
We interviewed Shane on March 1st in his kitchen in Dublin’s Donnybrook area. Donnybrook is historically one of the unruliest parts of Ireland thanks to the reputation of the Donnybrook Fair, which was notorious for its drinking, fighting, carousing, and banshee-like shrieking. It was banned in 1855, and Donnybrook is now one of the city’s most respectable areas, but the legend remains.
During our time in his kitchen, Shane was projecting images from a DVD of traditional Irish folk music from the 60s and 70s onto the wall of his living room while singing along to the music. He drank white wine and gin from a mug with “Morphine” written on the side and chain-smoked hash. He punctuated almost every sentence with “Know what I mean, yeah,” and then made his trademark laugh, which is indescribable but can best be transcribed as, “Eeeeshshshsh.”
PS: We never put “celebrities” on our cover, but we couldn’t do the History Issue without this man on the front of it.
Vice: Hi, Shane. We came to take your photo and maybe talk a bit about history.
Shane MacGowan: OK, you better sit down then. Some people would say that these cameras were worse than guns because they could steal your souls. Know what I mean, yeah? Eeeeshshshsh.
Which Irish historical figure do you most admire?
But he’s your friend, so let’s say anyone apart from Gerry.
Eamon de Valera. He was the Irish prime minster, president, and, like, the main author of the Constitution of Ireland. He had an American passport because his mother was an immigrant who went over to America, right? She got married to a Hispanic American. So they got their American passports and they came back.
He was president of Ireland all through the 60s, right?
Yeah. He was a politician but he was a crack shot as well. He was tasty. He took it up with the Brits in the civil war.
What else was special about him?
He did what Stalin did, but he did it without killing all the people, know what I mean, yeah? He was a great figurehead for Ireland. When World War II came around, the English asked him for their support and he said, “Fuck you, Churchill, you bastard!”
Churchill kept saying, “We want to use your ports,” but Valera pointed out that he already had the main ports across the world. Eeeeshshshsh.
What do you think about Churchill?
A lot of people nowadays complain about Mad Bomber Harris and what he did, but really all he was doing was carrying out the orders of Churchill, who was a mad, fascist, racist nutter. And the fucking Americans were as well. They completely destroyed Dresden and they had to rebuild it, stone by stone, over 15 or 20 years. The Germans were keeping all their most valuable treasures underground, know what I mean?
You’ve been a big supporter of Irish independence your whole life. How do you think the ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland have changed the country?
Well, there have been less bank robberies, you know what I mean, yeah? Eeeeshshshsh. There’s generally been less paramilitary activity.
Right. What else has changed?
Well there have been a few things like girl-napping and child-napping and child killing and girl killing and girl and boy abuse and that’s led to a lot of people getting kicked out of their jobs in the priesthood. Eeeeshshshsh. That was a joke, that was a joke. I didn’t mean that.
It’s funny because it’s true. But what have been the actual benefits of the ceasefire?
For a start, we got rid of the Brits, you know? And now Ireland’s, like, the biggest growing economy in the world. Ireland was like a child at school that was bullied. Then one day it says, “No fucking more, right?” This country’s been growing at something like 3.7 per cent per year. Ireland leads the way in education in the world. This didn’t happen overnight but it’s happened and it’s growing all the time.
So Ireland is in a good place now, in your opinion.
Look, when you get to the point where people are complaining about the price of a pint you know that you’re out of the real shit, yeah?
How much is a pint here anyway?
I couldn’t tell you. Thirty years ago I could have told you what a pint cost. It was about ten pence.
When the British were in Ireland, what were the darkest times?
Things like Bloody Sunday and when they were bringing in the SAS. Know what I mean? It wasn’t looking good.
And now in Belfast, the ex-loyalist paramilitaries are entrenched in criminal activity because there’s nothing else for them to do.
When you’ve been in full-time active service for years and then suddenly it’s done, you’ve got to do something, right? Whenever there’s change in society there’s criminality, you know what I mean? The English had their highwaymen. They would rob from everybody.
NICK CAVE PORTRAIT
During our time in Shane’s kitchen, we mentioned that the following day we were going to see Nick Cave play with Spiritualized in London. Knowing that the two were old friends, we asked Shane if he had a message for Nick. He made this drawing for us to pass along. We still haven’t given Nick the drawing because we kind of want to frame it and keep it.
Vice: When did you become friends with Nick Cave?
Shane MacGowan: It was at Filthy McNasty’s for an NME thing with him and Mark E. Smith. We were all talking. I thought Mark E. Smith was an idiot. He’s not very nice. He was going on about the IRA and he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Is there a time during the Troubles that you remember fondly?
There was a ceasefire in ’64, and then in ’66 there was a celebration of the Easter Rising, which was the rebellion attempted by the Republicans to win independence from the Brits. The celebration wasn’t in any way threatening to the English. It was just a year of people getting pissed and it started at Easter with Nelson getting his first blowjob. Know what I mean, yeah?
Right, when the IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar. That was an unpopular monument to the British admiral Lord Nelson that was on O’Connell Street in Dublin.
Ireland is like Vietnam, right? The forces had to leave. They were flushed out of Vietnam, just like here.
Wasn’t Irish hero John F. Kennedy president of the United States when Vietnam began, though?
Yeah, but Kennedy was going to pull out. He probably would have pulled out and that’s probably why they shot him. He was sick of getting shafted by the army and the navy telling him what to do all the time. Then Bobby Kennedy was carrying it on and he got plugged before he even got time to do anything. Bobby also got shot because he was an Irish Catholic immigrant.
History hasn’t been kind to the Irish.
On the whole, history has been absolutely, stupendously stupid. But the thing is that Ireland has got faith and hope. We have that more in abundance than any other country. We live in the moment.
I guess we should talk a bit about music too. How’ve you seen the music industry change?
I remember times when I first started dealing with labels and things, there were people like Chris Blackwell at Island who were good. When I was first around there was like a huge musical and cultural revival going on. There was no generation gap really in music and now there is. And I remember MTV starting as well, and that was meant to stir things up and be good but then it just turned into Dire Straits and Van Halen and then Michael Jackson and then all the rest. You know what I mean, yeah?
Are you still making music?
Of course. But I don’t really write music. I just play and the song comes out, you know what I mean? And I still listen to the old Irish music because it’s incredibly powerful, you know?
Are there moments in your life that you don’t care to remember?
No! I remember all of it. And I liked all of it—even all the bad stuff that happened. That was all OK as well.
That’s a good way of looking at it.
It’s like evolution, yeah? I think all Darwin really proved is that some things are better looking than others. Life is like a Groucho Marx movie. It’s good to create your own world, yeah? You know what I mean? From the bad to the good, you’ve just got to live with it all. There are humans and monkeys and there are differences between some of them sometimes. But I think generally there’s not much difference really. Eeeeshshshsh.
Special thanks to Gerry O’Boyle and Lisa Moorish.