Shane MacGowan has miraculously survived a lifelong bender and many of his mates. But then they’re not really dead, he tells Mark Dapin.
The question “How are you?” takes on a special resonance when asked of Shane MacGowan. It means, “Are you smashed?” It means, “Are you stoned?” Most of all, it means, “Are you still alive?”
The one-time singer of the Pogues, now leader of the Popes, has been on a savage bender for 30 years, fuelled by beer and speed, wine and crack, whiskey and heroin. The great poet of lost hope, lost loves and lost weekends has kidnapped his muse and tied her to a chair, pumped her full of poison and beat her with shillelaghs, but she has survived the ordeal and – so far – he has, too.
So, Shane, how are you?
“I’m not too bad,” he says.
The tragedy is, it is everybody else who is dead.
His best friend, Popes road manager Charlie McLennan, died of a heart attack in 1997. His housemate, Robbie O’Neil, fatally overdosed on heroin in 1999. Kirsty MacColl, his collaborator on the heartbreaking duet Fairytale of New York, was killed in a bizarre boating accident in Mexico in 2000. Former Clash singer Joe Strummer, the sometime Pogue who took over as frontman when MacGowan first left the band, died in his chair in December last year.
MacGowan slurs and drifts like a drunk nodding off at a table. You prod him to wake him, and he wants to fight you. Like his songs, his conversation is loaded with warmth and venom. If he does not like a question, it’s as if he’s coming back with a head-butt.
Do you still play the Pogues’ songs onstage?
“Of course I do,” he head-butts. “I’m the band leader. The Pogues were meant to be a democracy but it got out of hand. They were refusing to play Irish music, so I left.
“Now I’m a dictator. A benign dictator. Popes or Pogues makes no difference to me. They’re not Pogues numbers or Popes numbers.
“They’re all part of the Irish tradition, whether they’re written by me or somebody else living, or somebody who nobody knows or somebody dead.
“Irish music has been going for … about … you know, I mean, like … a hell of a lot longer than anybody can f—ing, er … since about the time Christ was crucified,” he says.
He has said he feels his best songs were channelled from another place.
“They are channelled. I don’t think about them. Ask any decent songwriter, they’ll tell you the same thing: they don’t know how they wrote [their songs].
“I’ve no idea where it comes from, apart from maybe the fact that I’m Irish, and I was brought up in a household full of Irish musicians.
I’m 45 years old, and I was listening to Irish music when I was in my mother’s belly.”
Is there a timelessness to Irish music?
“I reckon 2000 years counts as pretty timeless. I don’t believe in time, anyway.”
That would explain why you were 26 hours late for this interview.
“You asked me the question, do I believe in time?” says MacGowan.
Er, no I didn’t.
“Well, that’s the past now, isn’t it? What I just said is now the past. And what I just said is now the past. There’s a tense in the Irish language, the continuous past. You can’t see the future, you don’t think about the present – it’s gone in a second – so you live in the past.”
How did you feel when …
“Would you agree?”
I know what you’re talking about, yeah. How did you feel when …
“Time is not linear, or whatever you want to say. I’m not saying we don’t go around and around and around … I don’t know what’s going on.”
How did you feel when you heard Joe Strummer had died?
“That’s a stupid question, really, isn’t it?”
I guess so.
“I don’t think he did die.”
So Joe Strummer isn’t dead?
“He just left his body. Nobody ever dies. When Christ was crucified, he pretended to die, to demonstrate to people that you don’t die.
“His body died, and when He woke up again, He rolled back a f—ing stone – it would take like … more than 40 Irish navvies to shift it – and He started walking around the place, getting people to stick their hands in His wounds if they wouldn’t believe He was there.”
A couple of years ago, friends thought MacGowan was crucifying himself on the needle. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, worried the poet would die, shopped him to the police for heroin possession.
“She did me a favour, in a way,” says MacGowan. He pauses. “I’m not suggesting anybody else does it, you know. It’s not the best way to be put off it – but I was getting strung out.
I wasn’t in anything like the condition she said I was in, but it woke me up to the fact that my missus hated me, so I kicked it.”
So you live life drug-free?
“I didn’t say that, did I?” he head-butts.
You still do drugs, then?
“That’s none of your business. I don’t do that one.”
The written word cannot capture the rich, dark flavours of MacGowan’s conversation. It is barely audible, sliding on the edge of coherence, funny, astute and red-eyed, fighting mad.
He might well be smashed, he could be stoned, but Shane MacGowan’s all right.
MARK DAPIN | THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 11 APRIL 2003