'I Don’t Like Christmas, It’s Gross': An Interview with Shane MacGowan
The legendary singer, songwriter, and frontman for the Pogues talks about his new teeth, his relationship with the band, and "Fairytale of New York."
It's the Saturday before Christmas and Shane MacGowan, the singer and songwriter most famous for being the toothy face of the Pogues, is lying on a sofa bed in his living room in Dublin, holding an electronic cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other. On one chair next to him stands a half-drunk bottle of white wine, the dregs of a bottle of Smirnoff, a load of glasses, and an empty Bart Simpson mug. Placed on the other is a pharmacy bag stuffed with boxes of pills.
Over the summer, he fractured his pelvis leaving a studio in Dublin and has barely been able to move since. "It was a fall and I fell the wrong way," he says. "I broke my pelvis, which is the worst thing you can do. I'm lame in one leg, I can't walk around the room without a crutch. I am getting better, but it's taking a very long time. It's the longest I've ever taken to recover from an injury. And I've had a lot of injuries."
If any time of year feels more obvious to visit one of the greatest lyrical poets of his generation, and writer of what is ubiquitously cited as The Greatest Christmas Song Of All Time, "Fairytale of New York," it's probably the week he is croaking out of speakers in every pub, shop, and shitty Christmas party you'll go to. But ostensibly we're meeting Shane to discuss his recent dental surgery, which has transformed his gummy grin into a set of Hollywood whites, the process of which was filmed for an hour-long documentary titled Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn.
If there's one thing that's shadowed Shane's career more than "Fairytale of New York," it is his constitution for drinking and hard drugs. A "wreck," however, feels a bit harsh. "Nah, the title was my idea," he says. Shane's wife of 30 years, the writer Victoria Mary Clarke, is sitting on the sofa next to him. "I wanted to call it 'A Fairytale of New Teeth,'" she says, "but he didn't like that." He gives us a grin. The color, he says, is A1—"the brightest white it's possible to go," which, under Victoria's orders, were based on Michael Fassbender's. "There was a picture of him on the cover of Tatler Man, and I just said to the dentist—do you think Shane could have teeth like that? And he said no problem."
Unlike Fassbender, Shane insisted on having one gold tooth. "I went to the Greek islands years ago on holiday and I was really impressed with the Greek fishermen. I drank a lot with them," he says. "They had really rotten teeth but they all had one gold tooth—that was their bank account. If they were ever stuck for money they had gold in their mouth."
By the time the film came to be made, Shane's face was, he says, "falling to bits... I looked awful."
"It was," adds Victoria, "but you do look nice now."
"I don't know," he says.
"You do," she says again. And gets up to make sure his pillows are straight.
It's often said that if it wasn't for Victoria, Shane might not be here at all. Today, she moves around him constantly, making sure he is comfortable, fetching him drinks. When she shifts over to the sofa bed to have her photograph taken with him, Shane perks up—and he's the most animated I see him.
"I'm not going to be eating Christmas dinner, I'll tell you that... I can't stand all that sort of stuff."
The couple met, they tell me, at the now-closed Royal Oak pub in Temple Fortune, north London, via their mutual friend Spider Stacy—the tin whistle player in The Pogues. "We swore at each other," says Shane.
"No, I told you to fuck off, you didn't swear at me," Victoria snaps back.
"You told me to buy Spider a drink."
"Well, it was his birthday and I'd run out of money," says Shane.
Victoria was 16 at the time. She'd just moved to London from Ireland. Her and Shane didn't start dating straight away, but instead entered a kind of old-fashioned courtship that was quite uncommon by the mid-80s. Shane would pay for her to get a taxi home from Pogues gigs, and they'd go dancing at Northern Soul clubs and watch late-night horror films. "We'd go to the Scala in Kings Cross and see like George Romero and Creepshow and Night Of The Living Dead and all those zombie films," she laughs. "We did like to stay up all night. We loved eating in restaurants, too. For a really long time. One time we stayed at the same table in a Greek restaurant for 13 hours." Thirteen hours? "The waiters were really nice, you know. They would come and say, 'Would you like dinner now?' And then we'd have the next meal."
Shane was born in Kent on Christmas Day, 1957, but he spent most of his early years living with his mothers' family in Tipperary. "It was like growing up in pub, it was brilliant," he says. It was busy, full of music, books, and the occasional IRA man, as his family offered their home as a safe-house for republicans. He was an avid reader—Joyce, then Burroughs—and won a literature scholarship to London's Westminster School. "I was smart," he says. "I did A-level English when I was 13 years old. But I was busted for drugs, dope, pills, and acid, and kicked out. I didn't try to fight it. I didn't really want to go." Punk was kicking off, so he got a string of laboring jobs, shifts working in pubs and also worked at a record shop.
In December 1976 he put out a fanzine called Bondage with the Sex Pistols and the Jam on the cover. "Sniffin' Glue, the most famous fanzine at the time, cost 10p," he says. "I charged 30p for mine. I made a pretty packet out of it—I gave up my job. I never got around to doing another one, though. I was 18 years old—I had gigs to go to, clubs to go to, girls to go out with."
"The Pogues just got a bit sick of each other. We're friends as long as we don't tour together. I've done a hell of a lot of touring—I've had enough of it."
He formed the band Pogue Mahone in 1982, named after a Gaelic phrase meaning "kiss my ass." They were a hybrid of punk and traditional Celtic folk that sounded unlike anything that had gone before it. By 1984, the band had morphed into the Pogues, signed to cult punk label Stiff, supported the Clash on tour, and put out their debut album—Red Roses for Me. Victoria remembers attending the bands early gigs: "I came from a place that was really quite reverential about Irish music. When I saw the Pogues for the first time I was shocked. I thought they were totally taking the piss. It was crazy. Everyone was throwing chairs and throwing drinks. It was dangerous, for the band as well as the audience."
The band's seminal second album was 1985's Rum Sodomy & The Lash. Produced by Elvis Costello, it is a flawless collection of craggy balladry and raucous abandon. In 2013 Johnny Depp called Shane "one of the most important poets of the 20th century." Listen to "The Old Main Drag" and "Pair of Brown Eyes" from this album and it's hard to disagree with him.
The Pogues' great success came in 1988 with their third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. It featured "Fairytale of New York," Shane's duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, the daughter of Ewan MacColl, whose song "Dirty Old Town" was famously covered by the band. How does he feel when he hears the song now? "Bored," he says. "It's nice to hear Kirsty sing." He pauses for a second. "It's a great record—I can be objective enough to hear that it's a great record. We all know that we made a great record. We were a great band."
The Pogues got together in 2013 for a one-off Christmas tour, but since then have been quiet. Are they no longer active? "We're not, no," he says.
Shane was fired from the Pogues in 1991 as a result of his drinking. They carried on with various replacement frontmen, including Joe Strummer, but eventually fizzled out in the mid 1990s. In 2001 they reformed, something Shane freely admits was for the money. "I went back with Pogues and we grew to hate each other all over again," he says.
"You don't hate them!" Victoria says. "Every time people print that you hate them they get upset."
Shane retracts that last bit: "I don't hate the band at all—they're friends. I like them a lot. We were friends for years before we joined the band. We just got a bit sick of each other. We're friends as long as we don't tour together. I've done a hell of a lot of touring. I've had enough of it."
Shane spends most of his time these days in this red brick terrace. On the front door hangs a Christmas wreath, there's a spindly tree in the corner with a card of Prince William and Kate Middleton on top and a painting of Che Guevara draped in tinsel. Above the fireplace is a mirror with "Fuk U2" scrawled on it. He's known the band since they started, and even went to see them in Dublin a few months ago in his wheelchair. He stayed at the party until 5 AM.
I ask Shane how he will be spending Christmas this year. "Well, I'm not going to be eating Christmas dinner, I'll tell you that." Not even with his new teeth? "No, I can't stand all that sort of stuff. I don't like Christmas—I think it's gross. And I'm not eating much, even with the teeth." So you're not doing anything at all, then? "You are!" says Victoria. "You're having dinner at your sister's. But he's vegetarian, so it's not turkey." Suddenly Shane pipes up, disapprovingly. "I'm not vegetarian!" he bellows, almost spitting at the suggestion. "I just went off it. I ate meat all my life. Most of my early life growing up on a farm in Ireland, I ate bacon, cabbage, and potatoes. I ate what I was given. I'm not a vegetarian, I just don't like lamb. I don't mind the odd steak."
Did having a birthday on Christmas day piss him off as a kid? "It was the 50s and 60s—there was no money—people got pairs of socks for Christmas. The last thing you worried about being born on the same day as Jesus Christ was that you got one load of crappy presents instead of two loads of crappy presents," he says.
So what's next then for Shane MacGowan? "I want this to get better," he says, pointing to his injured pelvis. I ask if he'd ever consider writing fiction like his friend Nick Cave, with whom he collaborated with on a 1992 cover of jazz standard "What a Wonderful World."
"No," he says. "Real life is far more interesting." I guess if you're Shane MacGowan, it is.
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Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn will be on Sky Arts on Thursday, December 24 at 10:45 PM.