Raise a farewell toast for Shane MacGowan, one of rock’s most fiendishly brilliant growlers, snarlers, songwriters, story-tellers, and blackguards. Shane was the resident Celt-punk genius of The Pogues, one of the great Irish bards of his or any other era, which is why the world is mourning his death on Wednesday. But Shane’s demise has been predicted so many times, over 65 years of hard living, it’s bizarrely shocking that the end has finally come. Hell, in one of his best-loved songs, “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain,” he interrupts his own funeral, snarling, “They’ll take you to Cloughprior/They’ll shove you in the ground/But you stick your head back out and shout, ‘We’ll have another round!’”
But mortality was always at the heart of his music. “That is something you get from Irish songs,” MacGowan told Rolling Stone in 1985. “They casually mention things like death. I mean, it’s there. It’s gonna happen sooner or later. It’s just whether you go in a dignified way or not.” And what did he think was a dignified way to go? “Drink two bottles of whiskey.”
If there’s a song that sums up his mad genius, it’s one he didn’t even write: “The Auld Triangle,” the Brendan Behan prison ballad he used to sing with The Pogues. It’s his fiercest vocal tour de force, over accordion and tin whistle, turning it into his own life story. Shane rasps about lost men in prison, crying over girls who forgot them years ago, choking on voices that have gone unheard so long they’re barely human. He chews on every line and spits it out, for verse after verse. The song is a prison cell he’ll never escape. So many singers have done “The Auld Triangle,” from Behan to Bono to Bobby D, but nobody’s ever made it sound as lonely as Shane.
The Pogues blew up in London in the early 1980s, bashing Irish folk music in the rowdy spirit of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. “We were all into punk,” Shane told Rolling Stone in 1985. “And once you’ve heard and liked that feel, you can’t really go back to being laid-back.” He led the charge with the broken-glass rasp in his voice, his rotting teeth, his maniac grin. He also wrote the songs that made them legends, on their three classic albums: the 1984 debut Red Roses for Me, the 1988 hit If I Should Fall From Grace with God, and their 1985 masterpiece, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.
Whenever people dismissed The Pogues as a band of drunk Irish louts, Shane would shrug and say, “We’re not really Irish.” They were immigrant’s children, natives of nowhere, and they played their rootsy music to dramatize how far they were from their roots. No songwriter chronicled the immigrant experience like Shane did, tapping into all the angst and revelry of the Celtic diaspora. As he said, “The Irish stuff wasn’t new to the audience, the rock & roll wasn’t new to the audience, but the mixture of the two was. The idea that you could headbang to your mum and dad’s old records, to the Dubliners and stuff like that.”
The Pogues didn’t bother with the authentic trad style of the Chieftains or De Danann—more like a wedding band gone berserk. They always raised hell onstage. I saw them in 1987 in New Haven, an awesomely violent mess where an Irish football team happened to be in town that night, all the boyos shouting “Give us a song, Shane!” The Pogues began with “The Body of an American,” and by the first chorus I was drenched in Guinness and sweat and Shane’s demon slobber. What a night.
But Shane’s songs were the main attraction. His music was saturated by his literary obsessions—James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, Seamus Heaney. He specialized in songs of exile, sordid tales of immigrants far from home, rovers wandering a hostile world. So many classics: “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “The Old Main Drag,” “Streams of Whiskey,” “White City,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” the psycho-skiffle banger “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.” The Pogues’ most famous song is also their most anomalous: the Christmas ballad “Fairytale of New York,” a duet with Kirsty MacColl, which has turned into an evergreen bad-vibes holiday classic.
McGowan was born on Christmas 1957 to Irish immigrants in England, who soon moved back to County Tipperary. He grew up on the farm, soaking up local folklore and songs, until the family moved to London when he was 8. In London, he was an outsider, despised by the English kids. “I was beaten up a lot,” he recalls in his book A Drink With Shane MacGowan. “They used to say, ‘Oi, Paddy, sing us an Irish song.’” The bullies would command him to sing the rebel song “Kevin Barry,” then beat him up for the anti-Brit lyrics—a lesson for him in how much trouble he could make with a song, but also about how to turn symbols of oppression into weapons.
The only English place he felt at home was his Uncle Frank’s pub in London, near the Dagenham Ford factory where generations of Irish laborers worked. As Shane recalled, “I loved being allowed to stand behind the bar, watching all the fights and the band playing Irish songs, which I knew.” He wrote one of his biggest hits about that place, “Sally MacLennane,” calling it “the pub where I was born,” only a slight exaggeration. It’s where the workers gather to drink and sing about the homes they can never go back to; they can’t escape the bar just as they can’t escape the songs. In so many ways, all his songs start out in that pub.
Shane made a splash in the London punk explosion with his band the Nipple Erectors, calling himself “Shane O’Hooligan.” He was still the outsider, antagonizing the English but also assimilation-minded immigrants. As he said, “I was being confronted by Paddys who didn’t want to be Paddys, and I had a strong Irish accent.”
But he truly found his voice with the Pogues, inspired by heroes like the Dubliners or the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. “There was no generation gap with the Pogues, we weren’t just playing to teenagers,” he said. “We were doing showband music but putting a massive kick up the arse into it as well as traditional Irish music so we were taking seriously stuff that hadn’t been taken seriously in pop music before.”
You can hear that in a song like “The Body of an American,” his toughest tale. It’s a Celt-punk funeral march for a rich Irish-American boxer who retires to the Irish countryside, so he can die on “the shores where his fathers lay.” Big Jim Dwyer has the sentimental Yank fantasy of returning to the homeland he never really came from, where the locals despise him. When he dies, they break into his house to drink his booze and turn it into a party. As Shane yells, “Fifteen minutes later we had our first taste of whiskey / There was uncles giving lectures on ancient Irish history/The men all started telling jokes and the women they got frisky / By 5 o’clock in the evening every bastard there was piss-key!”
But by the last verse, Shane’s at the harbor, saying goodbye to his sweetheart he’s leaving behind. He’s boarding the boat to Amerikay, to start the cycle all over again. He knows he’ll never make it back home again—but also that he’ll never really escape.
Songs like this made him an Eighties rock antihero. He posed for a famous NME cover with kindred spirits Nick Cave and Mark E. Smith, enshrining them as “The Unholy Trinity.” He teamed up with Cave for a strange 1992 duet on “What a Wonderful World.” The Pogues were infamous for drink and drugs, with Shane outdoing them all. He got a perverse kick out of yowling pub chestnuts that respectable folkies disdained, like “The Wild Rover” and “Whiskey in the Jar.” Yet he also brought his punk sneer to classics like “Dirty Old Town” (from Ewan MacColl) or “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (from Eric Bogle). His voice sounded ravaged by the horrors he’d witnessed in his sat-on-and-shat-on excuse for a life.
The Pogues found their most hardcore fans in the U.S., as Shane always knew they would. They chronicled the strange obsessive romance between Ireland and America, between immigrants and natives. For their first album cover, they posed under a portrait of JFK, and named the album after the last words that went through Jackie Kennedy’s mind in Dallas, seeing people with flowers, right before the shots rang out. (“I remember thinking, ‘How funny—red roses for me.’”) Their songs had all the contradictions of the Irish diaspora—the yearning for the old sod vs. the desperate urge to break free. For many fans around the globe, Shane’s spewed-up-in-church voice was one we’d been waiting to hear our whole lives. That’s what makes him massively influential on artists with a Celtic tinge—you can’t imagine LCD Soundsystem, The Hold Steady, or Post Malone without him—as well as folk-punks like Gogol Bordello.
But the Pogues finally cut him loose in 1991, as his drinking and drugging blew out of control. I saw him live in NYC in November 1995, after the release of his long-long-long awaited solo debut, The Snake. A great album (“The Snake With Eyes of Garnet”!), but at this point, his music was overshadowed by his self-destructive image. The MC introduced Shane with the words, “Here’s a guy who’s not gonna be around much longer…Because he’s going to Philadelphia tomorrow!” The crowd roared. Shane played up his boozy-outlaw act to a cartoon extent—a couple of boyos behind me scoffed in their brogues, “Fookin’ London Irish!”
Nick Cave spoke fondly of Shane in 2018, in a talk at Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre. Cave said, “I think Shane was the greatest songwriter of us all, from our whole generation.” But he told a sad story of going to Shane’s place, a den of dissipation, with papers strewn all over the floor in piles—each one a song. Shane sat at the piano, played Nick a song, then casually tossed it back into the mess, another lost song never to be dug up again. For Cave, who prides himself on his 9-to-5 writing discipline, it was a bittersweet moment—as he said, “So many of his songs nobody will hear.”
After the Pogues, Shane remained a legend, despite extremely sketchy work habits and extremely sporadic output. He was always a welcome presence in other people’s music, as in his 1995 Sinead O’Connor duet “Haunted.” Sometimes he just dropped in for a one-line cameo, in Nick Cave’s 1996 “Death Is Not The End,” or the 1998 all-star benefit version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”—one line was enough to give the whole song a drop of poison. In 2006, I read a news report in the Irish Echo, NYC’s expat paper, revealing that Shane had just lost two of his remaining teeth. That’s the kind of news that Shane fans lived for—somehow, it felt comforting to know your man was still out there losing teeth.
The fantastic 2001 book A Drink With Shane MacGowan is a dialogue with his wife Victoria Mary Clarke, often in bars, a book full of literary arguments and horror stories. He lost his last teeth in 2008, got new ones (doing dental work on Shane—that’s like volunteering for combat duty), got confined to a wheelchair, got sober. Yet every time he rallied from a health crisis, the world was rooting for him. He seemed indestructibly tough—and in his music, he still does.
That’s the power of hearing Shane seize a song like “The Auld Triangle” and flip it into a new story. For him, it’s not just a song about being locked in a cell—it’s about being locked inside the song, haunted by all the ancient tunes your ancestors used to sing while starving on the farm, or rotting on a coffin ship across the ocean. The past is a trap you can’t elude, because the songs are always there to haunt you, chasing you around the globe when you’re trying to flee. He brought out that dread in Irish music, but he faced it with his own punk sense of stoic rogue bravado. It sums up the artistic legacy that makes him a giant, now and forever. Fare thee well, Shane McGowan.