At Filthy McNastys, an Irish pub in London, the sign over the bar says, “Oh, Lord Make Me Pure, But Not just Yet.” Gold records by the Pogues hang next tophotos of JFK, Elvis Presley, and Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. There, in the flickering candlelight, dwells an icon who deserves similar enshrinement–but for the rather surprising fact that he’s still alive.
Shane MacGowan, the notoriously unhinged former Pogues singer, now miraculously back in glory as leader of the Popes, is holding court. He’s sporting a sort of fallen teddy-boy look: sideburns, assorted crucifixes around his neck, an earring, a black pompadour, and a white T-shirt with rolled up sleeves. His blue little-boy eyes look incongruously innocent. He has, roughly, one front tooth. “I’m a singer, it doesn’t matter how many teeth you got. Actually, it’s probably easier to sing without teeth.”
After greeting me with a flipped bird, MacGowan finds out I’m an American journalist and quickly makes amends: “Oh, well, fuck you twice then.” Then he settles in for a bit of his favorite beverage: a triple dry martini, Michelob back. (A concession to health. He used to drink pitchers of Long Island iced tea.)
Before the evening is through, MacGowan will offer informed opinions on Jesus, jazz history, and John Woo movies, and declare that Elvis Costello is a “fat, boring, talentless, four-eyed git.” He’ll be funny, insulting, and, seemingly, drunk beyond cognition. But he will never actually be offensive, defusing his rudest cracks with that signature laugh—a sound you can approximate by filling your nose with stout and exhaling through all cranial orifices simultaneously.
“Never underestimate Shane,” cautions Spider Stacy, MacGowan’s former bandmate and friend of 15 years. “Don’t expect some shambling, drooling fool. Because then you’ll find he’s got a very sharp brain indeed.”
“Bollocks!” MacGowan yells toward the bar. “I said a triple.”
The Pogues formed in 1982, shortly after MacGowan, Stacy, and assorted drinking buddies gave an impromptu performance of Irish rebel songs at a West End club. Naming themselves Pogue Mahone, Gaelic for “Kiss My Arse” (or, more literally, “Kiss My Hole”), the crew confounded locals by actually remaining a band. Even more astonishingly, yobbo MacGowan turned out to be one of the finest lyricists of his generation.
On the near-perfect 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, MacGowan revealed a gift for buoyant Irish melodies and hilarious, heartbreaking portraits of desperate wastrels. Later, I ask a 20s-ish paddy with a Pogues tattoo what he thinks of MacGowan. “Well, he’s our greatest living poet, isn’t he?”
But the living part, that was the trick.
Never a puritan, MacGowan began revealing his unhappiness with the band’s increasing “progressiveness”–always a dirty word in his lexicon–in ways that often involved nose-dives to the concrete. Finally, in September of 1991, while on tour in Japan, the other Pogues sacked him, citing chronic unconsciousness. “I had been begging them for three years to let me leave,” he marvels. “Then they said they fired me!”
While the Pogues attempted to replace him with Joe Strummer, MacGowan continued to pursue his odd vision of a good time. “After the Pogues broke up,” he remembers, “that’s when I had the most fun. Probably because it’s the lowest I’ve ever sunk. It’s only your friends who are worried about you. I was having a great time.”
Sounds dubious, but the Popes’ debut album The Snake resoundingly proves that, at 37, MacGowan remains in full possession of his marbles. Tales of drinking and heartbreak are rendered with catchy songcraft and foul-mouthed lucidity. “Hands of the barmaid/Bringing off a bald-headed monk.” Who else could follow those lines with the plaintive “I’ll be your handbag/Though I’d rather be your negligee”? Stacy, who plays on the album, along with those Pogues MacGowan can still abide and some newly enlisted debauchees, says, “I think the intention behind the Popes is a return to the way the Pogues used to be.”
On “The Church of the Holy Spook,” MacGowan sings: “Rock and roll/You crucified me/Left me all alone.” I ask MacGowan what sorts of things abetted this crucifixion: a few drugs perhaps?
(A MacGowan quote from a British magazine: “Cos in that case it’s a speedball and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Brilliant.”)
Well, how about just for fun?
(Another quote: “So I’m shitting myself down in Alphabet City trying to score some crack…”)
You never did drugs.
(Another: “I was taking about 50 tabs some days. I was tripping all the time.”)
” ‘Course, I didn’t say I swear on me mother’s life.”
Well, what if you were to swear on your mother’s life?
“I never swear on my mother’s life. I don’t think it’s a nice thing to do.”
In this post-Kurt-and-River era, MacGowan is leery of endorsing unhealthy behavior. But he seems made of altogether different stuff from these celebrity casualties–more abusive, yet less at risk. His eyes and skin are both relatively clear, always a good sign. For moral support he’s got the perfect array of friends: Joe Strummer, Gerry Conlon of the falsely accused bombers the Guildford Four, and Johnny Depp. Victoria, his lovely girlfriend, says she only beats him up occasionally “when he’s being an idiot.”
“I feel fine,” he says, quietly exasperated. “And if you want a fucking doctor’s report I’ll bloody send you one if I could be bothered, but I can’t. You’ll have to take my word for it.” MacGowan lurches up, almost knocks over a stool, and–drawing one last ceremonious tug off the Michelob–staggers off to the john. There’s a strange, cockeyed grace to that loping trip loo-ward, and both the tourists and the lifers in Filthy’s clap MacGowan on the back as he passes them by. Maybe it’s out of admiration, maybe it’s for a bit of his luck.