No one should have been surprised when it was announced today that we’d lost Shane MacGowan, aged 65. He lived a worse lifestyle than Keith Richards, and we hadn’t heard from him musically in what seemed like decades. Plus his partner Victoria posted some photos recently that showed a man in terrible health. But I was still shocked. Some people seem like they’ll always be there.
Obviously, I’m from a very different background from Shane and would have a very different attitude to Northern Ireland from him. But I always think it’s important to separate the art from the artist (except in the most extreme circumstances) as I’m not likely to be in the pub with any of them any time soon. With Shane it was very easy to do that as he was a songwriter of almost unique beauty and sensitivity who wrote love songs of a standard few could emulate. When my son texted me about Shane’s passing all I could think was to have a listen to this one, “Lonesome Highway” from his second and last solo album “The Crock of Gold”. How tragic that his last new record was in 1997, 26 years before he died. Also tragic that between his work with the Pogues and his solo work he managed just seven albums. God only knows what unreleased or even unrecorded gems exist out there.
I was aware of the Pogues as early as 1983 and first saw them by accident when they supported Elvis Costello at the Ulster Hall the following year. A great raucous set and great fun but its nature gave no clue about the depth of the talent of the singer, That’s not what the live Pogues were about. The second time I saw them was a couple of years later at the Queens Students Union. Absolutely terrible. Shane could barely stand let alone sing or even remember the words. That apparently was the greatness of the live Pogues, but I’m a bit of a traditionalist even in my early 20s and I like to hear them sing their songs well. So I didn’t see them live again.
But nothing about the cartoon drunk front man could have prepared you for the sheer brilliance and sensitivity of the songwriting that underlay it. I bought the first album “Red Roses for Me” when it came out the month after that Costello show. As a debut it related more to the live band than the Shane we came to know but to me his self-composed stuff was what the Clancy Brothers would have done if they’d been born 20 years later. Largely they painted a version of the London Irish that wouldn’t be allowed now – drinking, brawling, drinking, womanising, drinking and kicking you foreman in the balls. But it was fun, and in “Dark Streets of London” he gave a foretaste of what was to come. The second album was similar – lots of Pogueified old pub songs interspersed with a couple of Shane gems. The playing was great throughout.
But I really GOT Shane MacGowan with the third album, the masterpiece that was “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”. 9 Shane compositions and not a wasted syllable. Obviously it was dominated in the public consciousness by “Fairytale of New York” (yes its been played to death but I can still remember the feeling that went through me when I first heard in the old Virgin Megastore on the Tottenham Court Road) and the controversy over “Birmingham six” when they played it on Saturday Live. But there were 3 songs on it that showed the Shane I came to love rather than like – “Broad Majestic Shannon”, “Thousands Are Sailing” and of course “Fairytale”. Before that there was the EP with “A Rainy Night In Soho” on it. What a song.
Commercially they peaked with that album but the true Shane was in their last 2 albums, released in 1989 and 1990. Songs like “White City”, Rain Street” and my favourite Pogues track “Misty Morning Albert Bridge” (that spoken verse!!!) real diamonds in the rough of what any good Pogues album was.
When the Pogues kicked Shane out over his drinking and drug habits he released 2 solo albums , “The Snake” (1994) and “The Crock of Gold” (1997) . Both great albums if you liked Shane but the latter was by far my favourite of his albums. Stand out tracks the aforementioned “Long Highway” and “St John of God” about a homeless alcoholic man in Dublin. Both songs that epitomise the sensitivity and observational skills that set Shane up there with the great writers.
There’s so much more I could say about the man’s music if I’d had time to prepare. But its 75 minutes since I learned of his passing. So I’ll leave this with my favourite Shame MacGowan lyric – “Misty Morning Albert Bridge”.
Thanks for the songs maestro.
I dreamt we were standing by the banks of the Thames
Where the cold grey waters ripple in the misty morning light
Held a match to your cigarette, watched the smoke curl in the mist
Your eyes, blue as the ocean between us, smiling at me.
I awoke subcon an lonely in a faraway place
The Sun fell cold upon my face, the cracks in the ceiling spelt hell
Turned to the wall, pulled the sheets around my head
Tried to sleep, dream my way back to you again.
Count the days slowly passing by
Step on a plane and fly away
I’ll see you then as the dawnbirds sing
On a cold and misty morning by the Albert bridge.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.