Shane MacGowan – a rare talent to be celebrated and mourned

Of the umpteen classic songs Shane MacGowan has written, one came to mind when his 60th birthday show at the National Concert Hall was first announced last month. The Body Of An American, one of MacGowan’s odes to Irish-American immigration, begins solemnly, capturing the initial sobriety of an Irish wake before the drink comes out. The passing of “big Jim Dwyer” then erupts into a fervent celebration of life – “The men all started telling jokes, And the women they got frisky, By five o’clock in the evening, Every bastard there was piskey,” spits MacGowan joyfully.

The singer’s 60th birthday concert, and the ensuing after party, will doubtlessly be a similarly raucous affair, though it also has the feeling of a wake. In celebrating MacGowan’s singular contribution to Irish music, there is also a mourning for the talent he once was. 2017 may have marked MacGowan’s 60th birthday, but it also marked 20 years since the release of his last album of original material, 1997’s The Crock of Gold. MacGowan has now spent longer as a somewhat retired and reclusive former songwriter than he has in recording and releasing new material.

Tonight he will be surrounded by a number of performers – Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, Nick Cave and The Pogues’ own Spider Stacy among them – who once risked their ability to write and perform for the kind of self-destruction that MacGowan has made his lifestyle.

Gillespie and Cave brought themselves back from the brink and – in Cave’s case certainly – have only got better as they nurtured their evident talent.

MacGowan, however, through conscious choice or inner demons, has chosen self-destruction over his remarkable talent. It is a decision that has perplexed many of those closest to him. James Fearnley, his Pogues bandmate, once told me of how he was envious of how MacGowan had a capacity to write such beautiful lyrics “full of chastening pity for the human condition” without putting in too much effort.

Fearnley said that this left him baffled, particularly given MacGowan’s suicidal drinking; that one day the singer could present as an absolute mess, incapable of speaking, and then the next walk in with a song as remarkable as A Pair of Brown Eyes. “A stable perception was never reachable,” Fearnley said, “as to whether Shane was a genius or a fucking idiot.”

It’s shame then that in recent years he has veered away from that propensity for genius; that his ability to write has been silenced by nameless demons that are perhaps rooted in a childhood that, Fearnley said, had “not always been happy” or the bullying MacGowan endured over his looks during his formative years as a schoolboy in England. By all accounts his mental health appeared to have deteriorated as the Pogues fame grew in the late 1980s, something which he appears to have found increasingly difficult to deal with.

It is sad that his talent now appears lost. Tonight, some of us will mourn that a little while celebrating the songs that he has given us and which will live on long after he has gone.

Perhaps the love that will be in the room tonight from all corners might even be enough to spear an unlikely revival for the songwriter who has already made some changes to his lifestyle (he has given up spirits and now drinks only wine).

As Billy Bragg commented on a recent documentary on Fairytale of New York, “I wish he was still writing. I wish he was still knocking out albums every year because the way he wrote and the approach that he took, and the position that he was coming from was pretty rare in British pop music.”

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