A Furious Devotion: The Authorised Story of Shane MacGowan, by Richard Balls, Omnibus Press, 334 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1787601086
“When he turned round to skip back up the room the focus had gone from his eyes, not so much from drunkenness but because he seemed to be in another world, ancient and immemorial, lost in the familiarity of the tune despite my clumsy playing.” Recalling this scene four decades later, in his memoir of his years with the Pogues, James Fearnley wrote that the playing of a traditional Irish air on a tin whistle had given his friend, Shane MacGowan, temporary respite from “the confusion of London” and his “stubborn restlessness”. Fearnley, playing a tune he had heard on a Chieftains LP, had, briefly, taken his friend to another place … rural Ireland, perhaps his family’s cottage in Co Tipperary.
Four months after the magnificent “Fairytale of New York” lit up the Christmas playlists forever, Fearnley, annoyed at MacGowan’s petulant behaviour in a taxi, turned to him and said, “I bet you were spoilt as a child.” Enraged, MacGowan held his forearm against Fearnley’s throat in a headlock. Realising he had made a bad mistake, his bandmate rebuked himself for the times he “succumbed to the temptation of disparaging his lyrics as products of a puerile fascination with horror and degradation, goaded by self-loathing and harried by the ineluctability of pain and death. Though I was sure he would have been the last to admit it, through them all, I sensed Shane’s prayers for some sort of respite. It was something I should have known from my first visits to his flat …” As it happened, by this point MacGowan’s brief tenure as the most original songwriter of the 1980s had ended.
Fearnley first met MacGowan, then known as Shane O’Hooligan, at the beginning of the decade. Their drinking sessions involved going from pub to pub, leaving drinks behind, as MacGowan quickly led the way to the next one. He was barred from more than a few in his locality. Conversations in his flat went on for hours, with MacGowan doing most of the talking, on subjects such as the Bobby Sands hunger strike, the American hostages in Iran, before veering off into topics as diverse as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the buxomness of the women depicted on cans of Tennent’s lager. “The connections Shane made left me with the feeling that I was lost in some potholing expedition,” Fearnley remembers. “His meaning seemed forever to slip like water through the narrowest of chinks, into a neighbouring chamber whose reverberations scattered all its sense.” The twenty-three-year-old MacGowan admitted he could not get to sleep at night without a few tins of lager. A portrait of Brendan Behan hung on the wall.
The punk rock explosion of 1976-’77 came at the right time for MacGowan. He had been kicked out of a very prestigious school, Westminster, for drug-dealing. His own drug-taking had affected his mental health and he accepted his parents’ view that he needed professional help. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1975, aged seventeen, and found himself in a ward for patients with extreme alcohol and drug dependencies. While it seems that he had a relatively good experience there, the memory of “drugged up psychos with death in their eyes” stayed with him, as did the realisation that, for some, life can take an unalterably wrong turn early on. The first gig he attended after leaving hospital – still an angry young man – proved life-changing. The headliners, fronted by Joe Strummer, made an impression, but the support act were the band he had always been waiting for – the Sex Pistols. MacGowan tells his biographer, Richard Balls, that he saw “this little red-haired Paddy up there”, pouring beer over his head and “sneering at the audience shouting insults at him”. MacGowan “still attracted attention with his unconventional looks”, Balls writes, “but punk was inclusive and a welcoming home for life’s outsiders”.
After everything they had been through, his family, unusually, were pleased with the new-look Shane O’Hooligan. His sister, Siobhán, recalls: “Punk was very anti-drug and anti-hippie … we were pleased about that … Punk was a good thing for Shane; it had a lot of positive energy and he could do something, he could belong to something.” Well-known in the punk scene, in 1977 MacGowan had a serious girlfriend and a group who could claim to have one of the best band names in rock’n’roll, the Nipple Erectors.
During the Troubles life could be difficult in England if you were Irish, or identified yourself as that. In the eyes of some, Irish connections made you suspect when the Provisional IRA were bombing targets in London. People from Ireland, or second-generation Irish, often stayed quiet about the situation in the North of Ireland. MacGowan wore his Irishness on his sleeve, however, and aired his views vocally. And so did his second-generation Irish friends. One woman from Limerick found that “they were very aware of their Irishness and they didn’t see it as a source of embarrassment”.
Meanwhile, the world of popular music moved on and in 1981, making a satirical point about the New Romantics, the synthesiser-based music movement then in vogue, MacGowan got a gig for his new band, the New Republicans. The group that eventually became the Pogues made its unfashionably stripped-back, and shambolic, debut in a trendy New Romantic venue, belting out Irish songs such as “Poor Paddy”, Behan’s “The Auld Triangle”, and a MacGowan original, “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go”. British soldiers in the bemused audience threw chips at the musicians, and not, as legend has it, glasses. The Irish manager of the venue panicked – “I don’t want to get in trouble … ” – and, literally, pulled the plug. Balls spoke to an Irishwoman who remembers the New Republicans’ first and final gig: “There was only myself and [her boyfriend] and maybe about four other people in the audience that actually knew the band, and there was a whole bunch of squaddies there, and it was just mad. I remember looking at the band and thinking, Jesus, what are they at? Nobody’s ever going to go to this, nobody’s ever going to get this … It was Shane and Spider that I remember. Spider was really out of tune on the whistle, he could hardly play it. You did know you were watching something extraordinary, but I never thought it would ever become popular.” The New Republicans had a very short life, even by punk rocker standards, but the title of the venue they played in proved to be prophetic – Cabaret Futura.
Synthesiser bands dominated the airwaves in the early 1980s, but in 1982 a British band swapped a soul sound for an Irish folky sound and enjoyed spectacular success. With banjo and fiddle, accordion and whistle, Kevin Rowland’s Dexys Midnight Runners stayed at number one for a month with “Come on Eileen”. Rowland was a second-generation Irishman, his parents having come from Mayo. “For his group to score such a huge commercial success with a record so connected to his Irish roots,” Balls writes, “was a spur for Shane.”
The Pogues, as an original and exciting outfit with an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, began to take shape – as a London band. Balls points out that MacGowan was the only member of the group with two Irish parents. Some of them did not have an Irish background, like Jem Finer, who later wrote the music for “Fairytale”. Finer is quoted on the question of the Irish dimension in A Furious Devotion: “[T]he songs could only have been written by someone who was looking back at Ireland, [but] they were very much about London as well. You could take all the places, names, the bars and cafes, and streets, and make a fascinating Shane MacGowan’s London out of them … It’s London-Irish: London songs through this ‘outsider of Ireland’ prism. Most of us in the band were in some way outsiders. People who had grown up feeling a bit alienated. My father is a Jewish guy, and I grew up being ribbed for being a ‘Yid’. So, I had a kind of feeling of being a bit ‘other’ and I think it was quite a powerful thing in the history of [the] group.”
With two powerful albums out, the Pogues, now the best live act in Britain and Ireland, had two tetchy encounters with the Dublin media on the same day in 1985. During a radio show debate they were accused of bringing Irish music into disrepute by playing up the “drunken Paddy” image. Noel Hill, then and now a distinguished traditional musician, declared that playing rowdy pub ballads amounted to a “terrible abortion” no less. On the Late Late Show, where they performed the more than irreverent “Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” – “Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid” – Gay Byrne asked, “[W]hat are ye?” Ceilí band, ballad group or “punk rock outfit”? “We’re all of them,” MacGowan replied. Outside the media debate, they had their defenders. Christy Moore saw the initially hostile reactions in Ireland as being similar to criticism of Planxty in the early 1970s: both upset the purists by emulating the trailblazing Seán Ó Riada in taking Irish folk music in a new direction. The Dubliners, more urban than rural Ireland, loved the Pogues, which pleased all of them, but MacGowan in particular. Further afield, Tom Waits thought they were great. It was said that Bob Dylan was impressed with them.
When MacGowan lost it in the taxi with James Fearnley, in 1988, the Pogues were in the charts in several countries with a third, acclaimed, album, but their drug-addled frontman was in a downward spiral. Exhausted from touring, MacGowan could not cope with fame. This “shy and complex” man, to quote Balls, wanted to get out. He couldn’t bring himself to say this, so he behaved ever more erratically. The Dylan debacle of 1989 sums this up. When the Pogues were invited to tour with him in the US, MacGowan was too drunk to be allowed onto the plane at Heathrow. Then he disappeared, until the dates with Dylan had been completed. His days as a seriously creative artist were over.
MacGowan’s short and dazzling career is similar in many respects to Brendan Behan’s. Neither could handle the limelight, but before they fell from grace they produced work of genius that will last. Both made us laugh, and cry.
In A Furious Devotion, Richard Balls chronicles the rise and fall of MacGowan. And his long years of effective retirement. Balls has worked hard to write this biography, even going so far as to stay over in MacGowan’s home. Is this the biographer’s equivalent of method acting? He has spent a lot of time with MacGowan’s loving family – talking to anybody he can find – but he does not flinch from writing about the bad side of this story. No rock ’n’ roll biography would be complete without harrowing tales of excess and Balls does not shirk his responsibility here. In analysing the sound and the fury of MacGowan in this authorised biography, he may not get closer to the inner self of his subject than others who have attempted the task. But he always treats this brilliant artist with respect. The greatest songwriter in the Irish tradition – at least in the history of recorded music – deserves that.
John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left, published by Liverpool University Press, which will appear in a paperback edition next year.