With the recent publication of Shane MacGowan’s (eagerly anticipated for more years than I care to remember) biography, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, penned by long-time partner Victoria Clarke, memories flooded back of an eventful, even life-threatening, albeit journalistically fruitless sojourn I made with both of them to Shane’s birthplace in Silvermines, Co. Tipperary, sometime around ’96 or ’97.
The book was already well past the expected deadline, the advance long since spent, and Victoria confided she hadn’t got much past the first chapter. Such was Shane’s reluctance to sit down and speak when confronted by a tape recorder. I was only vaguely aware of the contempt in which he held those objects, and for that matter, journalists in general. It was never going to be an easy oneâÂ¦ in fact the interview never actually took place, and below is the cobbled together piece I hastily produced on my return, and presented to Loaded magazine. They never used itâÂ¦ no interview to speak ofâÂ¦ so for the first time in all its unexpurgated glory (with some updates)âÂ¦ read onâÂ¦
What’s this life lark all about if you can’t be a little reckless every once in a while? You know, adopt that ‘devil may care’ attitude, live a little dangerously; teeter around the edge of the abyss. Isn’t that what its all about. None of us would be working for this particular publication if all we were looking for was a bit of an easy life, a bit of security and a company pension, you can get that with any number of other titles on the shelves. Isn’t it more gratifying to thrive on the fear of the great unknown, the adrenaline thrill afforded by never quite knowing where you’re going to end up, and the ultimate buzz of laying bets on whether or not you’re gonna come through your latest assignment physically and mentally unscathed.
But then again, in adopting an uncharacteristically sensible viewpoint for a moment, there’s a bloody great gulf between merely acting a touch irresponsibly and physically putting yourself in the front line of something potentially life-threatening. Kevin Williamson (a veteran of Poptones Soundoffs), a literary boozing buddy of mine, recently did something which falls well into the ‘irresponsibility’ category.
As a means of promoting Children of Albion Rovers, the anthology of new Scottish writing which he edited and compiled, he fairly sensationally posed for a Sunday Times photographer outside the players entrance to Ibrox, half an hour before the kick-off of an Old Firm game, whilst adopting a crucifixion pose and sporting a Celtic jersey and scarf whilst globules of phlegm rained down on him from dozens of outraged Rangers fans. Admirable, and depending on your loyalties, commendable, but within the bigger picture, and I’m sure he’d agree, pretty damned irresponsible. History an’ all that.
But then again, what about accompanying Shane MacGowan on a four day drink’n’drugs binge in his native Tipperary? Isn’t that equally irresponsible? In retrospect, I’d probably agree, but when the offer was made it was more a case of, in the immortal words of Lou Reed – ‘I guess I’m just dumb cos I know I ain’t smart, but deep down inside I got a rock’n’roll heart’. I accepted it as a challenge, but its more than likely there weren’t any other takers, and the editor decided ‘ get that bloke Innes, he’s not shy of a drink, plus he’s a Jock, so there’s a Celtic connection too ‘.
So, what makes Shane MacGowan such an illustrious and fearsome drinking cohort? Well, for anybody acquainted with his antics while fronting The Pogues, it’s fairly obvious. For the rest of you, this is an individual who took hedonism and excess to limits not witnessed since the ‘live fast – die young’ set of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Between penning countless brutally descriptive portraits of lowlife witnessed from gutter-level and conversely, some of the most sublimely beautiful recollections and observations on his native land, Shane MacGowan appeared to be metaphorically digging himself into an early grave as a result of his chosen diet of speed, coke, ecstacy, acid, uppers, downers and of course, fucking great oceans of booze. He was single-handedly turning self-immolation into an art-form, albeit of freak-show proportions.
Various medical experts have been predicting his life expectancy wouldn’t exceed six months from as far as back as 1986. Since then he’s managed to baffle and dumbfound the entire medical profession, although his company should perhaps start carrying a government health warning, as he was quoted as recently as March 2000 in The Irish Sunday Independent as saying ‘ It’s a tragedy. I am beginning to feel that a lot of people are dying in my flat’.
Around 1989, his LSD intake fluctuated between ten and twenty tabs a day, which obviously played havoc with the recording of the If I Should Fall From Grace With God album, resulting in the band over-running studio time by a month, at a cost of a thousand pounds a day. At one point he claimed to be doing in the region of fifty tabs of acid and three bottles of whiskey a day, around which time he allegedly performed a sound-check with his coat pulled entirely over his head, then spent the majority of that evening’s performance scrambling around the stage on all-fours looking for bottles of booze he’d earlier stashed on stage.
Shane seemed to experience a period where he and transport of any kind appeared to be at loggerheads with each other. Following a break-up with long-term girlfriend Victoria, he reputedly embarked upon a massive Poitin and magic-mushroom binge, during which he is said to have painted himself entirely black before throwing himself from a moving vehicle, hospitalising himself in the process. Then there’s the much documented, ill-fated Pogues tour of the Far East, where Shane was apparently sacked after drinking too much Sake and falling backwards off a bullet-train in Japan, fracturing his skull in the process.
Aeroplanes too, were not without their problems. On one particular occasion, Shane was refused permission to board a transatlantic flight too numerous times to mention over a three-day period. When finally firmly ensconced in the salubrious environs of club-class, he set about consuming in the region of fifty vodka miniatures, and these are doubles, before being unceremoniously carried off at Los Angeles International Airport. Another classic, retold to me by poet Jock Scot, a long time drinking compadre of Shane’s, involved a helicopter, Ascot and a Primary School playing field full of kids. Jock had convinced Channel 4 that, for their forthcoming documentary on Shane, it would make a welcome change to get him out of the much over-used barroom scenario and into a different environment.
So what else did the Poet Laureate of life’s downtrodden enjoy almost as much as drinking? Horse racing – Shane loved a flutter on the ponies. Getting him out of North London and up to Ascot was going to be a problem though, but this was seemingly overcome by the novelty of a helicopter ride courtesy of Channel 4 and accommodation in a nearby stately home owned by some debutante types of Jock’s acquaintance, making it seem more of an occasion. It had been arranged with the headmaster of a local primary school to allow the helicopter to land in the school playing fields the Saturday morning in question. So far so good. But come Saturday morning, MacGowan was nowhere to be found, certainly not in his house or any of his regular haunts. He’d been out ‘on one’ for at least the previous 24 hours.
Countless calls later, he’d been located in some uncharacteristic area of London, holed up in a boozer, claiming he couldn’t be arsed with the Ascot nonsense any more. He was gonna need some gentle persuasion. What Jock and various others, no strangers to obstacles such as this, decided on, was to play him at his own game, by pretending to join him on a marathon spirits session and, when they thought he was guttered enough, suggest a meet up with some other friends in another bar, in the vicinity of the designated helicopter take-off point.
Anyway, I digress, they finally got him into the copter almost comatose by this time, but what they hadn’t reckoned on was that the headmaster of the school had arranged for the whole school to turn out as a welcoming committee for the visiting dignitary Jock had mentioned would be arriving. MacGowan had been going nuts inside the helicopter, causing the Channel 4 types to fear for their lives, and was now refusing to get out. Confusion reigned over the playing fields, but on sighting the first figures alighting from the helicopter, a huge cheer went up and hundreds of flags were waved with a passion. This exuberant response began dwindling somewhat, when the kids clicked that the two men were running away from them instead of meeting their adoring public, and appeared to have a thrashing lunatic strapped into a stretcher between them. Confusion reigned once more, and the crowd finally dispersed, wondering what all the fuss had been about, none the wiser that they had just witnessed Ireland’s finest in full fling, albeit the restrained version. Shane locked himself in his room for the whole weekend, refusing to even entertain the thought of the races and, unsurprisingly the television programme never got made. Wouldn’t have it any other way Mr MacGowan!
The fact that Shane MacGowan is still with us is nothing short of miraculous, and indeed testament to this almost immortal, cast-iron constitution he’s managed to construct over the years, which by now must be far closer to being elephantine than anything remotely resembling human. And this, dear readers, is why several days largin’ it with Mr Magoo, was never gonna be a stroll in the park.
Having spent around half my lifetime imbibing and ingesting booze and substances respectively, I felt quite rightly more qualified for this one than some lily-livered wannabe who’ll wallpaper any given surface with the contents of his stomach at the very thought of ten consecutive JD & cokes. Then again, for something of this magnitude, a bit of preparation and artificial stamina wouldn’t go amiss. So, with a week’s worth of wine and whisky abuse behind me, I leapt on the southbound 125 with several wraps of Colombia’s finest and an unflinching desire to drink the buffet-car dry. Several hours later, on arriving at Kings Cross, I’d achieved my aim where whisky was concerned anyhow; I then set about negotiating a route to Victoria which didn’t involve either extreme of the Northern Line.
Hooking up with LOADED lensman, Shakey, at Victoria, we boarded the Gatwick Express and with a slight degree of trepidation, agreed there was no turning back now. On arriving at Gatwick, we discovered we were flying with a new Irish flight operator which, in time, added substance to the old adage that the Irish, no disrespect intended, have their own, sometimes unfathomable, ways of doing things.
We first bumped into Victoria Clarke, Shane’s girlfriend of ten years, at the check-in, and were informed that Shane had seemingly wandered off somewhere. Eventually, he showed up and, even in my advanced state of inebriation, he looked somewhat worse for wear, not quite with it, to put it mildly. It was only later I discovered he’d been at close mate’s funeral the previous day, and had been up drinking all night, so it was hardly surprising he wasn’t in the most garrulous of moods. Nonetheless, he was keen to retire to the bar as we had more than an hour to kill before boarding.
A couple of treble Martini and lemonades down the hatch and he began to open up a bit. At least enough to inform me I’d probably be alright over there cos I was a Celt, but Shakey was on thin ice on account of him being a Brit, and then he laughed that infamous MacGowan laugh, the one that kind of wheezily goes Krshhhh through the gap in his teeth, and sounds like water running down a drain. Then out of the blue he turns to Victoria and announces ‘You gotta go and get me some underwear’ to which she responds ‘and you gotta go and pick up your prescription’, then in perfect synchronicity they up and go their separate ways, leaving us to our own devices.
Victoria returns first, remarking that the flight’s been delayed by fifteen minutes and the screen now shows 2010 as departure time. Shane returns, so its time to get another one in and then we’re off, or so we thought. Shane has trouble locating his boarding pass, so I pick up his holdall and carry it through security towards departures. He finally catches me up and casually remarks ‘If I knew you were gonna carry me bag through, I woulda put me coke in it instead of stuffin’ it in me shoe’, causing me to look at his overstuffed loafers which gives him the look of a man suffering from mild elephantitis of the foot. Before I can give the implications any further thought, I spot Shakey and Victoria walking back in our direction with expressions which couldn’t exactly be described as ‘tickled pink’.
‘The flight’s gone,’ says Shakey confirming my worst suspicions
‘How can it have gone, it’s just gone five to eight,’ I say, stupidly thinking that stating the obvious is gonna change anything.
‘We’d better go down the airline information desk and see what the score is,’ he says calmly, like a flight-missing veteran.
The four of us roll up to the desk in a state of obvious agitation, but to no avail. We’re quickly battered into resignation by a carefully rehearsed monologue in perverse beaurocratic logic which goes something like this:
‘I’m dreadfully sorry, but that was the last flight to Shannon tonight, you’ll have to come back at 10.30 tomorrow morning.’
‘But the TV monitors said that the flight left at 20.10.’
‘Yes, but your boarding pass tells you the correct flight information and departure time, which was 19.55.’
‘Yeah, but surely you refer to the screen for the latest up to date information, like delays for example.’
‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do until tomorrow morning.’
‘So why does the screen give the wrong time?’
‘That’s the time the flight used to depart at, and although we’ve asked the BAA to change this, they have still to get around to doing so.’
‘Right, you admit you’re in the wrong. So we can have the same flights reinstated free of charge for tomorrow?’
‘You’ll have to take the matter up with the BAA. There’s absolutely nothing I can do for you tonight.’
Talk about going around in fucking circles. My hangover was threatening to start a lot fucking earlier than I could conceivably have imagined. We decided to cut our losses and caught a cab to Soho. At least there, I’d manage to postpone the inevitable comedown for a while.
We managed to secure a table at a swish Italian joint in Soho, and soon the wine was flowing like there was no tomorrow, although there most certainly was, as I was about to find out to my cost. Shane had loosened up considerably by now and was speaking about the trauma of the previous day’s funeral. It transpired that it was Charlie MacLennan who had died, a long-standing member of The Pogues’ road crew. At the age of forty-four, he’d died in his sleep of a heart-attack, although subsequent reports in the national newspapers stated traces of alcohol, heroin, cocaine and cannabis were found in his blood-stream following an evening celebrating his birthday.
Shane claimed he’d put most of his hard-living days behind him, but this obviously hadn’t been one of them. He was the third out of six original crew-members to have died in recent years. It’s one thing to say, well it goes with the territory, but nonetheless it must be a sobering thought and surely caused Shane to question his own mortality.
‘Yeah, but my heart’s stopped beating twice now, but Victoria’s always been around to revive me’, he says almost matter of factly
My ‘But what if she wasn’t there, should it happen again?’ elicits nothing more than a c’est la vie type shrug, which in this case should, strictly speaking, be c’est la mort.
Any attempt to discuss drink and drugs finds Shane utilising his defence mechanism, which basically translated, means he’ll just stare straight back at you with a kind of stupefied expression which effectively says more than merely saying ‘Do you really expect me to answer that?’
He obviously harbours a deep mistrust of journalists, and perhaps quite rightly so. For too long now, they’ve expected him to jump through the hoops of hedonistic excess for their benefit, to justify their fascination with his penchant for self-destruction, rather than his God-given gift as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. But perhaps therein lies the fascination; that someone apparently so broken, so destructive and full of self-loathing can continue to create the occasional work of almost incomparable beauty and compassion.
I decide to lay the interviewing aside for a while and within minutes of making this decision, we’re discussing the methadone tablets Shane picked up at the chemist. Suitably bolstered by the copious amounts of booze we’ve already thrown down our necks, both Shakey and myself get on a ‘C’mon then Shane, let’s try them’ sort of trip. It’s precisely at this point, when Shane shouts across the table ‘How much smack d’ya usually take then!’ that there appears to be a lull in every conversation across the entire restaurant. For, oh at least a moment, we
feel about as conspicuous as a surplus knob at tarts’ tea-party, but only until the table behind us becomes the focus of the assembled diners. ‘There’s Harvey Keitel’ Shane says with a mixture of awe and amazement, ‘It’s fuckin’ Harvey Keitel!’
Shit, poor Harvey, who’s obviously over for The London Film Festival, had obviously just nipped in for a quiet bowl of pasta, and within minutes he’s got a pissed-up Scottish jerk telling him the moustache is a bad move, and a manic looking London/Irish bloke with no teeth trying to engage him conversation of an other sort. Harvey obviously had no idea who Shane was, but still he chose to adopt a very polite but bemused expression.
On the other hand, the young couple accompanying him, film festival PRs I reckon, couldn’t have made their feelings more apparent if they’d tried to, as they glowered down their noses at us as if we something unpleasant they’d just trodden in. It was probably a good idea to just let them be and get back to our own table. Things became decidedly hazy from then on in. I vaguely remember going downstairs to the gents with a half-ounce bag of coke and Shane shouting manically after me ‘There’s a hole in the bag, watch out for the hole!’ but the voice seemed to come from a long way off, but sure enough there was indeed a hole. In fact I think it came in useful to help direct me back to me table on my way back.
I wasn’t really thinking straight at that point. I further disgraced myself by mistaking a girl for Cher and joining her table for longer than was polite, and rounded up the evening at a neighbouring table, by falling asleep on another girl’s chest. Shane bought three bottles of wine for a nightcap, then we all headed off our separate ways, agreeing to rendezvous back at Gatwick the following evening.
The following day starts badly, very badly and unpleasantly sets the tone for what’s to come. I awake on Shakey’s settee, soaken wet and shaking. Being somewhat unsure of my surroundings, I sit bolt upright in an alcoholic panic, and that sends bastard great tidal waves of nausea sweeping through my body. I make it to the bathroom just in time, retching what appears to be gallon after gallon of burning fluid from the pit of my stomach. I repeat this exercise around a dozen times before we all meet up again to attempt to reach the Emerald Isle. I feel thoroughly wretched, and that’s after just one night in the man’s company.
That evening, unsurprisingly, the mood is somewhat more subdued, and any attempts at communication with Shane are initially responded to in the monosyllabic. For some reason, Shakey’s managed to fly club-class, which leaves me stuck between Shane and Victoria. Once he tires of trying to give away the ending of the book Victoria’s reading, he kind of nods off mid-sentence and falls asleep on my shoulder until we land. No interview tonight then.
After a bumpy taxi ride with the heater full on, which needless to say, does wonders for my fragile state of health, we finally arrive in Silvermines, Tipperary. We’re made extremely welcome by Shane’s parents, Morris and Therese, who are obviously over the moon to see the return of their wayward offspring in one piece, albeit clutching a half empty bottle of wine he’d cracked open in the Taxi en route. ‘Has Noel phoned?’ he immediately shouts, undaunted at the barrage of pleasantries levelled in his direction. ‘We’ve got to meet him in the pub’.
‘But he’s babysitting until midnight, cos Mary’s out working’ his mum replied
‘Yeah, but we gotta meet him now!’
‘But he’s in the house and he can’t go out and leave the baby until Mary gets home’.
‘But he’s organised a lock-in at the pub so we can get a late drink’.
Shane disappears from the room while his dad sorts us all out with drinks. In a moment, Shane’s back in a hell of a state, ‘The fuckin’ coke! The fuckin’ coke! Quick someone, do somethin’, the coke’s fallen down the bog! For fuck’s sake sort it out!’
‘What is it! I thought you’d finished with all this narcotics nonsense’ Therese replies sternly, but calmly.
‘I have! It’s not fuckin’ narcotics! It’s fuckin’ coke! We gotta get it out and dry it out!’
At this point, Shane’s younger sister, Siobhan, arrives and takes charge like the seasoned veteran in these matters she most probably is. Totally unfazed, she manages to retrieve the bag from the toilet, and pour it into a clean grill pan and casually lays it in front of the open fire to dry out.
Meanwhile we all sit around watching The Late Late Show, supping our Guinness, while Colombia’s greatest export is returned to its former glory, in front of the blazing fire and surrounded by Christmas decorations, as if it is the most natural, pre-festive scenario in the world. Shakey and I may have exchanged a furtive glance or two. I don’t really remember. Following that mini-disaster, Noel phones from the pub and suddenly everything in Shane’s world is okay again. The coke has been returned to an acceptable state and Noel’s in the pub, which in turn, has decided to stay open late for a select few, in honour of Tipperary’s greatest son.
We finally get to The Kiwi Bar in Nenagh’s High Street, and sure enough there’s a serious lock-in going on in a bar half the size of Shane’s folks’ front room. There are banjos and guitars and what I would usually describe as a night with great potential on the cards, but I just don’t seem to be able to muster any reserves of strength to be up for this particular craic. I try a pint, and almost immediately throw it up, and spend the remainder of the night/morning sitting in a corner wishing I was in a comfortable bed. Talk about letting yourself down in the wrong company.
The drinking and singing is relentless, and finally, even in my advanced state of misery, something happens which forces me from my corner to witness. Shane who, when I last clocked him, had his head in very close proximity to the surface of the bar, has been cajoled by those around him, and in particular a pretty young girl with a lovely Irish singing voice, to do the festive thing, and give us a rendition of that Christmas song, the most beautiful one ever written, which taking on board last year’s tragic events, has become even more poignant than ever.
Curiosity more than anything, hauls my carcass from the corner I’d made my own, not thinking for one minute Shane is going to even get past the first verse. But eyes closed, and very unsteady on his feet, he rises, and with beautiful banjo and bodran accompaniment, he exceeds all expectation, and so indeed does his young partner in crime. It is faultless, it is perfect and it is beautiful, even moreso than the record, if that’s possible and I can’t really take in at that moment the fact that I have just witnessed something bordering on the legendary.
In a small bar, along with maybe twenty or so other people, in his hometown, I have just watched one of the greatest songwriters of my generation, perform a rendition of one of his most classic compositions. Fuck me, this was humbling indeed! I was even more misty-eyed and speechless than I had been previously. This alone, made everything worthwhile, the rest seemed irrelevant. Shane’s mate Noel, a top guy by the way, is fucking panelled, but nevertheless insists on driving us the five miles back to Shane’s folks, and once there, becomes embroiled in yet another drinking session with Shane, who is showing no sign of letting up. For Shakey and myself, its Goodnight Tipperary.
I awake at noon. Shakey will be halfway across The Irish Sea by now, having gone up to Carney Commons (a great old house which has been in Therese’s family for centuries, full of beautiful religious Icons, and where The Popes used to rehearse at one point), with Shane to do some photographs. I kind of expected Shane to return mid-afternoon in the vain hope that we could at least do some of the interview, but I climbed Silvermines Mountains with Victoria, had a coupla pints and a late lunch with her and Siobhan in The Hibernian Bar, drove out to Carney Commons and sat through most of Saturday evening’s TV entertainment before he finally returns to drag me back off to Jamsies Bar close to closing time.
We have a coupla drinks in there, and then we try to locate Noel, which shouldn’t have been too difficult considering we were in his house last night at some point. For some reason the fact that there are two number thirties in the same street make this somewhat more of a task than it ought to have been. We do much the same as the previous night, only it’s a more restrained affair and I manage to last the pace this time.
Its Shane who succumbs to exhaustion this time, passing out on me in he taxi home. He awakes long enough to pour some drinks, but by the time I’ve located my recorder to get something down on tape, he’s fast asleep in the chair, breathing deeply. I begin thinking about this elusive interview, when suddenly I notice his breathing has stopped altogether. It was definitely more audible before. I think about what he’d told me about Victoria doing and reach over and thump him in the chest. He tenses, his eyes open then close, and his breathing starts up again gradually maintaining its regularity. Christ, and here’s me worrying about a fucking interview!
I leave for London the following morning. Shane has decided to catch a later flight, so we’ll do the interview in his local, Filthy McNasties, at nine-thirty that evening. I was aware that Victoria was heading up to Dublin to see her family that day, and although I’m not saying he’s completely averse to our interview, I do think there’s a million and one other things that would take precedence. Even so, back in London with no place to crash and having watched my last train to Edinburgh leave, I’m still standing knocking back double Jacks and Coke in Filthy’s at closing time on a rainy night in Islington. In fact, I’m doing just what Shane does every night of the week in this self-same bar, except this one of course. Cheers Shane, wherever you are, Fairytale alone made it all worthwhile!