To say I’m excited is an understatement. Shane MacGowan, the reclusive former Pogue, has agreed to an interview. MacGowan has not talked to a British newspaper for 10 years and there is so much to ask him, not least how he is still alive. MacGowan, a brilliant lyricist and songwriter at his peak, drank and drugged himself to the point of destruction 40-odd years ago. Fans have feared for news of the inevitable ever since. But amazingly he’s still with us, living in Ireland with his journalist wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, and about to publish a gigantic book of his art, handwritten lyrics and school essays. Dublin, here I come!
A few days before the interview, I receive a message from Victoria. “If you can be here for a few days, you will have more of a chance of getting him in a good mood!” Ah. MacGowan is almost as famous for his irascibility as for his music. A few days in Dublin sounds lovely, but impractical. I apologise to Victoria, and tell her I can only do the Friday as arranged.
On the Wednesday, I get another message from her. “Just to warn you, he is very depressed and anxious.” MacGowan always gave the impression nothing bothered him – he would say what he liked when he liked to whom he liked. Anxiety was the last thing you associated with him. And yet he has said he had his first breakdown aged six and suffered with depression through much of his life.
I get into Dublin about 10am. Victoria says Shane will be in bed till at least noon and agrees to meet me at the hotel close to their home. She drives up in their ancient battered green Merc. Victoria is a youthful 55-year-old with emerald green eyes. Everything is green in MacGowan’s life. She and MacGowan, 64, have been together on and off (much more on than off) for 35 years. We go for a coffee and a walk along the beach close to their house. It’s a beautiful day, and Victoria is as sunny as the weather. She grew up in the Irish countryside with hippy parents (an Irish mother and English stepfather), whereas MacGowan lived in London with his Irish parents and spent the school holidays on his maternal grandparents’ family farm in Tipperary. Victoria first met him in a pub in Temple Fortune, north London, when she was 16 and he was 24. He was with fellow Pogue Spider Stacy and told her she had to buy Spider a drink because it was his birthday. She told him to fuck off. But she was mesmerised. Back then he was phenomenally creative, held a room as soon as he walked in, drank for fun rather than out of necessity, and was a sex symbol despite the rotting teeth and Jumbo ears.
When their friend Johnny Depp suggested that having children would be the making of them, she told him they were too irresponsible. “I said the thing is, if we had children, Shane would probably set fire to them. I was terrified Shane was going to burn down the house because he was always dropping his cigarettes. He set fire to John Belushi’s bungalow at Chateau Marmont.”
The young MacGowan was a proud contrarian – he could happily wear a union jack jacket and have IRA tattooed across his head at the same time. As for the Pogues, they created a unique brand of riotous punk-folk. MacGowan’s songs were short stories that referenced literature, music, Gaelic mythology and the Bible. There were songs of yearning (A Pair of Brown Eyes), of exile (Fairytale of New York), of protest (Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six), and covers that were even better than the originals (Dirty Old Town). For a few brief years in the 1980s, the Pogues (originally called Pogue Mahone, the anglicisation of the Gaelic póg mo thóin, meaning “kiss my arse”) were wonderful.
Victoria says he has changed hugely since then, as has their relationship. They are closer than ever, she still finds him funny and fascinating, but she is as much a carer as a partner these days. MacGowan uses a wheelchair and has to be hoisted out of bed by the official carer. In 2016 he fell and broke his pelvis. Then he had a fall on his Zimmer frame and broke his right knee. And another fall, this time tearing the ligaments in his left knee. He has never recovered.
In some ways, Victoria says, she would have liked to have had a more normal life. “More domestic. I’m someone who likes to keep the place quite clean.” MacGowan was known for living in filth and never bathing. “He still doesn’t have baths. He showers very occasionally.” How does he smell? “He smells fine. But he wasn’t into making the place look nice.”
Victoria is extraordinarily open. She talks about her relationship with MacGowan; relationships with other musicians whom she would rather I didn’t mention who wanted to marry her; how she had longed to be famous then hated being the Wag of a pop star and realised she wouldn’t have found fame much fun; how she suffered from addiction to drinks and drugs just as much as MacGowan did but has come out of it healthier than he has.
She looks at her phone. It’s almost 2.30pm. She sounds anxious. “I said we’d be back at 2pm.” So we head to MacGowan Mansions, which is actually a flat on a modest gated estate. She gives him a kiss and apologises for being late. He is watching a Clint Eastwood film. He spends a lot of his time watching movies and TV.
In some ways, MacGowan looks better than he used to. His new teeth are perfect, his hair is in great nick and his waxy skin is flawless, even though it doesn’t seem to have seen sunlight in years. In other ways he looks terrible – old, immobile, saggy. He sits on his green armchair, dressed in black, with a long silver crucifix hanging from his neck as if auditioning for the priest in a Dracula movie. On the walls are pictures, some drawn by Victoria, some by him. Above the fireplace is a crowded pew of religious icons.
Victoria heads off to make a drink. I introduce myself, and ask how he is.
“I can’t walk any more,” he says. Does he still use the wheelchair? “Yeah, that’s how I travel about.”
“Did you have a pleasant chat around the hotel?” MacGowan somehow manages to make the question sound sinister.
It was never easy to understand his slur, but now his words are so slow and indistinct they merge into one. He still has a presence – though a rather sad one. Victoria returns with a mug of tea for me and a tall glass of gin and tonic for him. Mainly tonic – she says he doesn’t drink so much since his accidents.
“We went for a walk,” I say. “It was lovely.”
“Yeah,” she says. “We went to the beach.”
“Oh, right,” he says.
“I didn’t snog him,” she says out of nowhere. “Or shag him.”
“I didn’t accuse you,” he says.
“No, I know. I’m just saying,” she says.
“Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” His laugh sounds like a snore.
“I’m too old,” I say, unsure how to respond.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Fifty-nine,” I say.
“I’ve done older!” she says. “That’s not very old.”
They both laugh. “That’s not very old,” he confirms.
“I was really old in my 30s, but I’m much younger now than I was,” Victoria says.
He starts singing My Backpages. “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” MacGowan can still hold a tune.
“What’s that Bob Dylan one about being young?” she asks.
“That was a Bob Dylan song,” he says.
“What’s the other one, then?”
“Well, he did a few, didn’t he?” He sniffs.
“Forever Young – that one’s also Bob Dylan.”
“Oh yeah,” he says, slurping his gin incredibly loudly.
Victoria brings in bound collections of his art, much of which is in the new book, The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold. There is an introduction from the art critic Waldemar Januszczak, praising MacGowan’s “demented, wild, fascinating, scabrous kind of energy”, particularly the Catholic and sexual imagery, and saying that he is one of the few pop star artists Januszczak admires. The pictures were mainly drawn, in ballpoint pen or felt tip, when he was on the road and off his head. They reflect his character – punky, spiky, rude, religious, funny, surreal, half-arsed, filthy. Many are so densely cross-hatched they are virtually scrubbed out. Victoria points out a picture of Bono as Lord Edward Fitzgerald, leader of the 1798 United Irish rebellion.
Why did you turn Bono into Fitzgerald, I ask.
“I don’t remember.”
“You did these when you were totally wasted,” she says.
It’s hard to get anything beyond a monosyllable from MacGowan. In between there are long silences. He makes it clear he doesn’t want to talk.
“You’ve got lovely skin, Shane,” I say, randomly.
“Oh thanks sweety, Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” He snore-laughs.
“Let’s see some of the filth, then,” I say.
“The filth!” he repeats, possibly affronted.
“Erotic art,” Victoria says.
“Well, filth is a better word. Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
We look at various pictures – a woman with huge nipples smoking a cigar, an array of penises, penetration, fellatio, upside down S&M crucifixions, the works. Have you got a favourite, I ask. “Not really, no.” His short stubby sentences sound so weak they could be dying breaths. They are quickly followed by robust slurps of gin.
One of my favourite pictures is a martini with an eye for the olive and a syringe for the stick. It reminds me of the Buñuel film, I say – what’s it called? “Un Chien Andalou. There’s one shot in it of an eyeball getting sliced with a razor. I would say this is more Dalí. Schhhhhhlrrrrp.”
I ask if he is still writing songs. “No. I’ve got a block.” The truth is he has had a block since the late 1980s.
“You wrote one a few weeks ago, didn’t you?” Victoria says encouragingly.
Was it good, I ask? He has been recording with the Irish indie band Cronin.
He looks at her, despairingly, wishing the conversation, or me, away.
“I thought it was good,” she says. “Shane, is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
“Not really, no. Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the mix of Irish and English influences on MacGowan. His father did a degree in economics, and had a successful career working in management for C&A in London. Shane was a bright kid, and excelled at English. His writing won him a scholarship to the top public school Westminster, though he was expelled at 14 for selling drugs. He suffered another breakdown and spent six months in psychiatric hospital, including his 18th birthday. When he was released he found a new purpose in punk. In 1976, he achieved a level of pre-fame fame when the NME featured a photo of him bleeding from his ear under the headline “Cannibalism at Clash gig” after was bitten by his friend Jane Crockford (later of the post-punk band Mo-dettes) at a concert at the ICA in London.
Did living in England made him feel more Irish? “I didn’t live in England,” he protests. OK, did living in England most of the time make you feel more Irish?
Why? He looks at Victoria despairingly. “God, these questions are fucking …”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she says to him gently. “You’re going to just have to say something about something. Do you want me to close the curtains? The sun seems to be bugging you.”
Victoria leaves the room to talk to the carer.
“Victoria said you had bad anxiety yesterday,” I say. “How are you feeling now?”
“Yes, I had a sudden attack of horrible fear. Nameless fear.” He softens.
I’ve had that, I say – it’s paralysing, and makes you loathe yourself because it’s so pointless. “Well, that’s you. You’re projecting.” He’s got a point.
For all his cussedness, MacGowan is still fantastically sharp. Despite his hostility, he’s got a lovely smile, which he occasionally lets me see.
Victoria told me you like the royal family and cried when Prince Philip died, I say. “Noooo!” he says, outraged.
“You know you like the royal family,” she says.
“She likes the royal family.” And you? “I’ve got nothing against them.”
“You watch The Crown a lot!” she says.
“I watched the first series.”
“You’re lying now. You watched all of it.”
“I can’t remember, you know.”
Does he miss being on the road? “Not really, no. I miss the early days of the Pogues. That was a lot of fun.”
What are your best memories? He gives her another “Oh God” look.
Were you aware of how creative you were back then? “Yes.”
I remind him of something he once said – that in his songwriting he wanted to remind people of how rich Irish culture was, so they would return to the literature of the land and be proud of what such a small country had produced. Silence.
If Waiting for Godot was the play in which nothing happened twice, this is the interview in which nothing happened 200 times. And yet, weirdly, I feel I’m beginning to understand him.
Critics of the Pogues complained that they weren’t properly Irish. But that was to miss the point. MacGowan was writing about the experience of being a London Irishman, a Paddy. He wrote about the discrimination the Irish faced in Britain, Republican politics and miscarriages of justices. He made many young Irish people born in Britain to Irish parents feel proud of their Irishness for the first time. He reclaimed the racist Paddy stereotype and embraced it (even if he ultimately reinforced it). Many of the songs were about being drunk, and he said he was never going to fake it onstage, so he was pretty much permanently pissed. Then he discovered heroin. He only got clean in 2000 after Sinéad O’Connor dobbed him into the police with the blessing of Victoria.
I ask how he feels about the Pogues’ most famous song, Fairytale of New York, being voted the UK’s most popular Christmas song in 2019.
“It pisses me off when people always talk about it,” he says.
Why? “Cos. Cos it just pisses me off, all right?”
Have you got a favourite song? “I’ve got a few, but that’s not one of them”
Which ones? “I said I’ve got a few”
“He said which ones?” Victoria says.
I love A Pair of Brown Eyes, I say. It’s one of many that come to mind. “White City I like a lot. No, not A Pair of Brown Eyes.” You don’t like that? “No.”
In 1991, the Pogues sacked MacGowan from the band even though he by and large was the band. He had become too unreliable. He formed the Popes, which was little more than a Pogues tribute band. The Pogues split up in 1996, reformed in 2001 with MacGowan and finally split up again in 2014. They didn’t record any new music second time round.
I ask how he fills his days now. Are you listening to much? “Not really, no.”
Are you reading? “No, not really.”
The story, possibly apocryphal, is that, by the age of 10, MacGowan was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Is it true? “Ten, 11 or 12,” he says. “It’s the anniversary this year. My dad was very into that, and he got me into it. My mother read a lot as well.”
Do you think people were right to refer to you as a genius? “Probably, yeah.”
What made you a genius? “God! Fucking ridiculous question!”
In the 2020 Julien Temple documentary Crock of Gold, the former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams visits MacGowan and they reminisce (well, Adams does) about their long friendship. On the eve of peace talks with then prime minister Tony Blair, MacGowan asked him to pass on the message: “Tiocfaidh ár lá” (“Our day will come”).
Do you see much of Adams? “No. He’s been here a few times. He’s a very easy person to talk to,” he says pointedly.
“The priest comes round,” Victoria says buoyantly. “That happens regularly. He talks a lot.”
“Yeah, he talks a hell of a lot.”
I’m staring at the icons on the mantelpiece. Have you always had faith? “I was brought up with it, you know.” Have you ever lost it? “Yes, a few times.” Because of stuff that has happened? “I don’t know.” Does your faith get stronger as you get older? Silence.
Victoria brings out some more art – cartoon characters called Bim and Dim. Did you like cartoons as a kid, I ask. Silence.
“You did like cartoons,” Victoria says, exasperated, “You did!” Silence.
“Shane, you definitely liked cartoons. I know you did. You liked the Phantom.”
“Yeah,” he finally concedes.
“Shane, you’re looking at him as if he’s here to kill you or torture you, but he’s not. He’s here cos he’s interested. And he’s trying his best. Come on – you’re not making it easy.”
Do you hate talking in general or just interviews, I ask. “Just interviews.”
Why? “After the first album we were totally misinterpreted.”
In what way? “In what way was I misinterpreted?” He looks at Victoria. Now I’m beginning to feel sorry for him. He seems on the verge of despair.
“That’s a fair question,” Victoria says.
“It wasn’t just me – it was the group.”
But they were only interested in you? “Yes. It turned into that.”
And you didn’t like that? “Yes.” It was undemocratic? “I just told you: I don’t like it.” I’m just asking why, I say. “I don’t know why I don’t like certain things. Schhhhhhlrrrrp.”
Did journalists misinterpret you when they said you had a death wish? He nods. “I still don’t.” Contrary to popular belief, you actually like life? “Yes!” he explodes passionately. “Of course I like life.”
“That’s not always a given,” Victoria says.
“Well, I like life!” he says adamantly.
“I don’t always like life,” Victoria says.
Has she ever not wanted to live? “Yes, quite a lot of the time. But Shane never seems to want not to live. That’s what’s weird.”
Is life good, I ask him. “I’m working at it,” he says. I have a feeling it’s fear of death more than love of life that keeps him going.
Pretend I’m not here; would you say you were in a good place? “Yes. Yes!” Will you be happy when I’ve gone? “Probably, yeah, Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh. You’ve worn me out, Si.”
Victoria shows me what the book will look like when it’s finished. It’s huge and incredibly heavy. They are publishing 1,000 copies at £1,000 each. She told me earlier that they need money for his care.
I ask him if he worries about money. “It’s important when you haven’t got it.” Did you not earn as much as you should have done in the first place or have you spent it all? Silence.
“That may be a personal question,” Victoria says. “Sweetpea, are you going to say anything helpful for the book?” She looks at me. “I’ll probably have to go quite soon.” Silence.
“Look, it’s a picture book,” he eventually says. “That’s all there is to it. People seem to like the pictures.” She goes to put on her coat.
“You’ve been pretty reckless with drink and drugs,” I say. “Have you had any regrets about how you’ve lived your life before? “Of course!” Another passionate explosion.
“She’s done a great job,” he says suddenly. He’s talking about how Victoria has put the book together, but he could just as well be talking about everything else she’s done for him. “Put that in,” she says, delighted. “Put that in.”
Does he think he would still be here without her? A heavy pause, even by his standards. “She lights up my life,” he says from the heart.
“I definitely want to help him to stay alive for as long as possible,” Victoria says. She heads towards the door, waiting to give me a lift back into town.
“Shane,” I say, “I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but it’s not been the easiest.”
“Chhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” he snore-laughs in agreement.
“Why don’t I take a picture of the two of you together?” Victoria says from the door.
“No thanks,” we both say simultaneously, smiling at each other.
It’s impossible not to warm to him when he smiles like that – however horribly he has treated you.
Take care, I say.
“God bless,” he says.
The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold is available to pre-order at store.shanemacgowan.com.