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Rave On: Shane MacGowan 1957-2023

“Rave on in the garden all wet with rain that you loved so much.”

–Victoria Mary Clarke, widow of Shane MacGowan

The outpouring of grief that followed the death of Shane MacGowan at age 65 was expansive, from fans reminiscing about chaotic Pogues gigs with beers thrown all over the stage, to the president of the Irish Republic, Michael D. Higgins, calling MacGowan one of “music’s greatest lyricists,” and adding, “His words have connected Irish people all over the globe to their culture and history, encompassing so many human emotions in the most poetic of ways.”

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This wide breadth of appreciation encompassed MacGowan’s entire career, from his beginnings as a dissolute punk rocker to eventually being almost universally adored and considered a “national treasure” by the Irish. His death, just as his perennial Christmas song, “Fairy Tale Of New York,” was gearing up to be played in malls and shops across the world might be considered a cruel twist of fate.

That the subject matter of this tale of two squabbling down-and-outs, recalled in a drunk tank reverie, rarely enters the public consciousness–with most folks content merely to join in the chorus of “And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”–speaks volumes for MacGowan’s ability to wed subversive yet poetic lyrics to winning melodies. It’s his best known song but, with his band, The Pogues, he equalled and even bettered it on several occasions. A poet of the street, his drinkers and lost dreamers seemed to epitomize Oscar Wilde’s famous line that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

But ultimately MacGowan was so much more than that. Well versed in Irish literature and tradition and with a grand grasp of history, he was a modern writer in an epic sense. His triumphs, however, were frequently eclipsed by his drinking and drug habits as reported in the tabloid press. Often inebriated during interviews, MacGowan could be his own worst enemy.

Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, 1958, in England, to Irish parents. However, he spent the first six years of his life in Ireland’s Tipperary before the family relocated to London. An avid reader, he also proved to be quite a creative writer, a skill recognized when he was granted a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster private school (perversely called a public school in England). With three Nobel Laureates and seven Prime Ministers numbered amidst its alumni, this was quite an achievement … but, in a foretaste of what was to come, MacGowan was expelled from the school for drug taking in his mid teens.

Drifting into the London world of squat-sharing, he worked in local record shops and was well placed to join in the burgeoning punk scene, first as a noteworthy fan (calling himself Shane O’Hooligan) and pictured in the press after being bloodied by a broken bottle at a Clash gig, then as the leader of his punk-rock band The Nipple Erectors, soon shortened to The Nips. Despite cutting several singles and an album the band failed to make waves, and in 1982 MacGowan formed the Pogue Mahones, a ragged band of similar-minded folk such as “Spider” Stacy and Jem Finer. With the band delivering fiery renditions of traditional Irish songs played with a punk abandon, they rapidly gained a degree of notoriety on the London live scene (MacGowan dissolute, cigarette in hand and Stacy hitting himself on the head with a tin tray). Soon they were plucked up by Stiff Records, who released their first album, Red Roses For Me.

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The album mainly consisted of covers of familiar Irish songs given a good thrashing by the band, with MacGowan channelling groups like The Dubliners and ringing them through his punk-infused mangle. Prior to the album’s release, the band shortened their name to The Pogues, the BBC having discovered that Pogue Mahone was an Irish Gaelic term which could be loosely translated as “kiss my arse.”

It was their next album, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash that fully unveiled MacGowan’s songwriting skills. With Elvis Costello in the producer’s seat, it was a leap forward that had  MacGowan delving into gutter romance on “The Old Main Drag” (along with “A Rainy Night In Soho,” released soon after on an EP), even as “Sally MacLennane” became a concert favorite whenever the band hit the stage. The doyen of rock critics, Robert Christgau, described it as “probably the best album of 1985,” adding that, “MacGowan can roll out bitter blarney with the best of his role models.” A superb version of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” cemented the band’s links with an earlier folk tradition, something that was fully realized when The Pogues recorded a single with The Dubliners, a wild version of “The Irish Rover.”

The success of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash was eclipsed by the next album, 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God. The addition of Phillip Chevron and Terry Woods to the lineup allowed for a more expansive sound, incorporating elements of world music, and  both were able to add their songwriting skills to the mix–Chevron contributing “Thousands Are Sailing” considered by many to be MacGowan’s best vocal performance on a song that saluted the Irish Diaspora.

MacGowan co-wrote “Fairy Tale Of New York” with Finer, and “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” was a joint venture with Woods, MacGowan’s contribution an explicitly political point about two sets of supposed IRA prisoners, jailed for terrorist offenses, who were subsequently found to be victims of a miscarriage of justice, pardoned and freed. A brace of MacGowan songs on the album (“If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” “Lullaby Of London” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon”) proved that it was MacGowan who remained the band’s guiding light, with the latter song perhaps his most enduring hymn to Ireland.

Following the success of “If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” The Pogues were firmly on the world stage and became the opening act for Bob Dylan during the 1989 leg of his Neverending Tour. But MacGowan’s increasing alcohol use led to several nonappearances at shows, and their two subsequent albums (Peace & Love and Hell’s Ditch) found MacGowan sharing more space with the band’s other songwriters. Finally, in 1991, the band sacked him due to his increasingly erratic behavior. MacGowan recorded two albums, billed as Shane MacGowan and the Popes, before eventually rejoining The Pogues for reunion tours on an occasional basis. He would remain active into the 2000s, recording with various artists until a fall resulted in a broken pelvis and confined him to wheelchair.

Despite ongoing health problems and the absence of new recordings, MacGowan’s legendary status only grew in his last decade. The perennial release of “Fairy Tale Of New York” and accompanying censorship outcry over the use of the word “faggot” in the lyrics gave him regular exposure, while younger bands such as Ireland’s The Mary Wallopers cited him as an inspiration. This culminated in a 2018 gala concert held in Dublin to celebrate his 60th birthday, with the Irish president awarding MacGowan a Lifetime Achievement Award. His last year was spent battling viral encephalitis and other illnesses, leading to lengthy hospital stay before he passed away at home after a bout of viral pneumonia, his wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, and sister Siobhan MacGowan at his side.

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That a man with such a checkered history, considered by many as a dissolute rogue, should be considered a national treasure is testament to MacGowan’s talent. Charismatic, literate and driven, he gave new life to the Irish song tradition years before the nation’s economy picked up. At a time when Ireland was still reeling from The Troubles and more famous for its emigrants than its citizens, MacGowan’s lyrics, sung in his characteristically slurred vocals, hit home across the world.


Paul Kerr is based in Scotland and has been writing about music, in particular Americana, for a number of online sites and various music magazines for a couple of decades. If you’re interested in learning more about Americana, check out his great site at Blabber ‘n’ Smoke at www.paulkerr.wordpress.com. 


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