Three score and more

Ahead of his 60th birth­day bash at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall on Mon­day, friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors Nick Cave, Camille O’Sul­li­van and Glen Mat­lock on the ge­nius and the ex­cess of Shane Mac­Gowan

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Friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors on Shane Mac­Gowan

Few thought Shane Pa­trick Lysaght Mac­Gowan would live un­til 40, let alone cel­e­brate his 60th birth­day. At 35, the Pogues fired him, as the band who made him fa­mous could no longer tol­er­ate any more of his way­ward and de­bauched be­hav­iour.

A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, and Mac­Gowan has a gala star-stud­ded con­cert in his hon­our at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall this Mon­day, fea­tur­ing a host of friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors, in­clud­ing Nick Cave, Johnny Depp (who ap­peared in the video for his 1994 sin­gle That Wo­man’s Got

Me Drink­ing), Bobby Gille­spie of Pri­mal Scream, Glen Hansard (who per­formed A

Rainy Night in Soho at for­mer Pogues man­ager Frank Mur­ray’s fu­neral last Jan­uary), Camille O’Sul­li­van, Cerys Matthews, Clem Burke of Blondie, Glen Mat­lock of the Sex Pis­tols and for­mer band­mates Cáit O’Rior­dain, Terry Woods, Spi­der Stacy and Jem Finer.

Mac­Gowan and Nick Cave go back a long way. They recorded and re­leased a splen­did cover ver­sion to­gether of Louis Arm­strong’s

What a Won­der­ful World in 1992, but they knew each for years be­fore­hand, mem­o­rably par­tic­i­pat­ing in an end-of-year NME sum­mit to­gether with Mark E Smith of The Fall.

“God knows when I ex­actly first met Shane,” Nick Cave tells The Ir­ish Times. “He’ll re­mem­ber. Shane has an as­ton­ish­ing mem­ory. We spent a lot of time to­gether. Many nights over the years. I think we were the only two peo­ple that could put up with each other.”

While Cave and Mac­Gowan were nat­u­ral-born hell­rais­ers back in their day, Cave thinks their friend­ship is grounded in some­thing much deeper. “Al­most in spite of our frac­tious de­meanours we had ro­man­tic na­tures,” Cave says. “We recog­nised that in each other. And a love of words. I al­ways loved his stories that would run on into the night and how the evenings would in­vari­ably end with Shane singing songs. Shane star­ing into your eyes and singing you a song was quite some­thing, you know. Not eas­ily for­got­ten.”

Nick Cave’s rec­ol­lec­tion of where and when he met Mac­Gowan might be hazy, but for Camille O’Sul­li­van, it was an en­counter she’ll never for­get. “I was in a friend’s house in Harold’s Cross eat­ing a Christ­mas pie when I got a phone call from Shane’s girl­friend Vic­to­ria, ask­ing if I’d like to sing Fairy­tale of New

York with The Pogues in the Olympia,” she re­calls. “The only prob­lem was they wanted me on­stage in an hour.”

O’Sul­li­van agreed to the 11th-hour re­quest. “I know the song like ev­ery­body else, but I re­alised I didn’t know it well enough,” she re­mem­bers. “I got some­one to print out the lyrics and I cy­cled down to Dame Street try­ing to read it on the way.

“The first time I met Shane was singing with him on­stage. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. His Mum usu­ally sang it, but she couldn’t that night. It was the most men­tal in­tro­duc­tion I’ve ever had to any­body.”

In the late 1970s, Mac­Gowan cut a dash on Lon­don’s nascent punk scene. Af­ter see­ing The Sex Pis­tols in 1976, he de­voted his life to music, first with The Nip­ple Erec­tors (or The Nips) and The Millwall Chain­saws, and later with The Pogues and The Popes.

At a Clash gig, a girl re­port­edly bit a piece of his ear off, although it is said he was re­ally struck by a bot­tle. Mac­Gowan’s inim­itable vis­age first made the pa­pers un­der an NME head­line: “Can­ni­bal­ism at Clash Gig!”

Sex Pis­tols bassist and vo­cal­ist Glen Mat­lock first en­coun­tered Shane in those heady days. “I re­mem­ber Shane pogo­ing right in front of me in

Shane’s music comes from the tra­di­tion of tak­ing a left­field stance of do­ing what you want when you want. Ob­vi­ously, the mu­si­cian­ship is also stun­ning and pos­sesses a punk-rock at­ti­tude

the Notre Dame Hall in Lon­don,” Mat­lock says.

“I al­ways saw him around be­cause he’s quite a dis­tinc­tive fig­ure, let’s put it that way. All this was prior to The Pogues. Later on, he re­ally sur­prised a lot of peo­ple with the sheer qual­ity of his song­writ­ing, me in­cluded.”

Mac­Gowan and The Pogues fused the filth and fury of punk with the poetic sen­si­bil­i­ties of Ir­ish tra­di­tional and folk music. He might have been go­ing to punk gigs, but he was lis­ten­ing to The Dubliners and The Clancy Broth­ers at home.

In Oc­to­ber 1984, The Pogues re­leased their rau­cous de­but al­bum, Red Roses for Me. Rum Sodomy & The Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall From Grace of God (1988) fol­lowed, fea­tur­ing some of Mac­Gowan’s best-known songs: A Pair of Brown Eyes, A Rainy Night in Soho, Sally MacLen­nane, Streets of Sor­row/Birm­ing­ham Six (co-writ­ten with Terry Woods) and, of course, the JP Don­leavy-in­spired duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, Fairy­tale of New York.

Amaz­ing an­ar­chy

Mac­Gowan and The Pogues turned per­cep­tions of Ir­ish music on their head. “There is a time­less­ness is Shane’s music, but amidst all that you have this amaz­ing an­ar­chy,” says O’Sul­li­van. “There is a wild aban­don­ment and free­dom to it. Shane is one of the best per­form­ers and singers out there, and it is very hard for any­one to fol­low him. I feel elec­tri­fied when­ever I see him sing.”

Glen Mat­lock sees a con­tin­u­a­tion of the val­ues The Sex Pis­tols and The Clash stood for. “Shane’s music comes from the tra­di­tion of tak­ing a left­field stance of do­ing what you want when you want,” he says. “Ob­vi­ously, the mu­si­cian­ship is also stun­ning and pos­sesses a punk-rock at­ti­tude.”

Ev­ery­one in Mac­Gowan’s cir­cle of friends also has nu­mer­ous hair-rais­ing stories from over the years.

“I am very good friends with Shane’s won­der­ful wife, Vic­to­ria,” Nick Cave says. “She told me once some years back that she de­cided, af­ter much hand-wring­ing, that she couldn’t stand Shane’s booz­ing and drug-tak­ing any more and she was go­ing to leave him. It was a huge de­ci­sion for her.

“Vic­to­ria packed her bags, told Shane it was over, and left. Af­ter about three weeks, she started to feel con­cerned about Shane’s well-be­ing and she rang him up. She said to Shane, ‘How have you been get­ting on since I left you?’ There was a si­lence and Shane said, ‘Whaaa . . ?’”

Mat­lock fondly re­calls be­ing in the stu­dio with Mac­Gowan to record a charity sin­gle. “Shane put to­gether a few peo­ple to a make ben­e­fit sin­gle for Haiti, so Bobby Gille­spie, Nick Cave and I got in­vited down and we did IPuta

Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to­gether. Chrissie Hynde also came down, so Nick Cave, Shane and I were sit­ting in the con­trol room watch­ing Chrissie hav­ing a go at the song. She is fan­tas­tic, but she had a com­pletely dif­fer­ent idea on how to sing the song. Some­body had to tell her, and Chrissie is quite a feisty char­ac­ter, so we drew straws. Nick Cave lost, so he had to tell Chrissie.

“Me and Shane were look­ing at each other laugh­ing. I won’t say ex­actly what hap­pened, apart from Nick look­ing very sheep­ish, but it was quite a mo­ment and ex­tremely funny.”

Camille O’Sul­li­van re­counts an in­fa­mous story about Mac­Gowan tak­ing hal­lu­cino­gen­ics. “He was sup­posed to go on tour with Bob Dy­lan, but he didn’t turn up,” she says. “Vic­to­ria dis­cov­ered him eat­ing a Beach Boys al­bum be­cause he’d taken so much acid and thought the third World War had started. There was a sum­mit meet­ing go­ing on in his head where he was the leader of Ire­land against the great world pow­ers. He just wanted to show Amer­ica’s in­fe­ri­or­ity, so he de­cided to eat the record.”

O’Sul­li­van has had her own ad­ven­tures with Mac­Gowan. “Each time I meet Shane, it tends to be a very pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion,” she laughs. “Once I was in A&E and I got a phone call to go on the Late Late, where we did Devil in Dis­guise. I col­lapsed af­ter­wards and had to go into hos­pi­tal for an op­er­a­tion. The pro­ducer thought this was hi­lar­i­ous that I was the one go­ing to hos­pi­tal.”

In­deed, there is the one about an Ir­ish singer who had to be car­ried out of RTÉ, but, for a change, Mac­Gowan was the one do­ing the car­ry­ing.

But for all those boozy years, Mac­Gowan is hav­ing the last laugh at those who pre­dicted his pre­ma­ture demise, and his songs are rightly con­sid­ered to be among the great­est ever writ­ten.

“I al­ways thought Shane was the best song­writer com­ing out of our gen­er­a­tion,” states Nick Cave. “There was an on­go­ing strug­gle be­tween bru­tal­ity and beauty, both in the way that he sang and the words that he wrote, which was ex­tremely mov­ing and very hon­est. And you know, I don’t re­ally need to say this, but peo­ple love him. He speaks di­rectly to peo­ple, to their strug­gles, in a di­rect and un­adorned way.”

Per­spec­tives: Shane Mac­Gowan’s 60th Birth­day Cel­e­bra­tion is at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall, Dublin on Mon­day, Jan­uary 15th


Far left: Nick Cave and Shane Mac­Gowan on­stage in Lon­don in 1992. Left: Mac­Gowan and Glen Mat­lock re­lax dur­ing the record­ing of a charity sin­gle for Haiti.

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