Shane MacGowan turns forty on Christmas Day. Ten years after his biggest hit Fairytale of New York, Alan Corr joins the greatest living Irishman for a drink in his London local.
London cabbies are not renowned for their love of music. Green lights, uncongested highways and extravagant tippers yes, music no. As we cut across King's Cross heading to Islington on a dreary afternoon in late November, my matey cabbie asks me what I'm doing in London. Meeting Shane MacGowan I tell him. "The bloke on the telly?" Well, he's a singer actually. "Oh right!" he exclaims. "The guy with the teeth."
Oh well. Filthy MacNasty's Whiskey Cafe on the corner of Amwell Street, Islington, Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan has arrived after a delay that involved nothing more controversial than traffic. He orders up the first of many Martini turbos, which is a triple Martini in a tall glass with plenty of ice. Filthy's is not the grimy shop that one might expect from ist excellent name. It's a well-appointed bar and lounge on an affluent-looking corner of Islington. By eight in the evening it is thronged with the kind of Londoners whom you'd expect in Soho brasseries. The walls are bedecked with Shane MacGowan's gold discs. He, of course, famously sold his to a local record shop years ago. MacGowan has been coming here for nearly four years. "There's lots of Irish pubs in London," Shane tells me. "And I drink in others occasionally, but there's something special about Filthy's." For the purpose of this article, there are no tape recorders and no notebooks. We are here to have a chat and a few drinks in the spirit of Christmas and to talk about one man's remarkable career. Shane tells me he has been stitched up by the press too many times."Yeah", he drawls. "Journalists come in 'ere and drink with me and they're all very friendly, buying the drinks and that and then they go off and stitch me up. But journalists are all drunks anyway, anytime I meet one they're pissed."
Unlike most pop performers, MacGowan is an imposing six foot one. He is wearing an expensive-looking black suit and he speaks in a London accent not unlike that of TV guru Janet Street Porter except, of course, without the teeth. His laugh sounds like a slowly deflating beachball full of petrol. His face is by now pretty damn famous, so famous in fact that Aer Lingus, in a nice tie in with MacGowan's continuing fascination with emigration and the Irish abroad, are featuring Shane's mug in a series of ads in the press. It takes up a whole page opposite a copyline about the advantages of flying Aer Lingus to America, "especially if you've got a reputation."
MacGowan was paid handsomely for that. Likewise with a recent documentary about him where the word 'genius' was applied so many times that Einstein would have been embarrassed, and he was elevated to modern icon status. The whole thing left him cold. "It's very nice all those people sayin' those things about me but I did it for the money." And how much did he get? "None of yer business," he says, and the beach ball deflates again.He dutifully signs scraps of paper of autograph hunters who stand beside him for long minutes telling him how wonderful he is. Shane sits quietly, listens and thanks them all politely.
He's forty on Christmas Day, and it's ten years since The Pogues' biggest hit, Fairytale of New York, reached No 2 in 1987. It was kept off the Christmas No. 1 spot by The Pet Shop Boys Always On My Mind ("faggots with synths," says Shane with a snigger). He ascendancy to Godhead for fans, fellow musicians and even critics has been long complete with his work with The Pogues, but MacGowan's solo career since his departure from the band in 1991 has been overshadowed, despite the quality of the music, by frankly tiresome tales of his intake of drink and unpredictability. For the record, he had five turbos in five hours I spent with him.
His new album The Crock Of Gold is named after the James Stephen's novel and fable, "about the amlicious leprechaun who leaves the gold at the bottom of the rainbow". Almost taking his artistic cue from his natural musical forebears The Dubliners and in particular their smash hit Seven Drunken Nights, it's a dirty, coarse, irreverent and unforgivingly honest album.
There is perhaps nothing on the LP to match the sheer sadness and beauty of The Song With No Name from Shane's debut solo LP The Snake, but the man himself is certain his new songs is superior. "The Snake was too produced," he says. "ZTT got one of their producers in and cleaned it up." As for The Pogues, he very rarely sees any of them apart form Spider Stacey. Spider is currently dusting down the tray he used to bang his head with to keep time in the band's earliest days, and forming a new band.When Shane is back in his hometown of Nenagh, which is very often, he still lives in the house where he was brought up. He's playing gigs with The Popes in Portlaoise prison soon. Why didn't you go for Long Kesh? I ask mischievously. He looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and amusement and simply says, "Have you ever tried to get a gig in Long Kesh?"His original plan for his new album was to include the word 'Paddy' in all of the song titles. As somewhat of a compromise, the record starts with a salvo of three tracks Paddy Rolling Stone, Rock'n'Roll Paddy and Paddy Public Enemy No 1 that put his brutally real take on paddyism back on the musical agenda. MacGowan is naturally vocal on that subject. He denies, however, that Paddy Public Enemy No 1 is about Dominic McGlinchey.He has interesting opinions on Padraig Pearse, Brendan Behan and Bunny Carr, and still draws lyrical and lifestyle inspiration from James Clarence Mangan, a Republican alcoholic and junkie poet much beloved of James Joyce. Mangan lived a perfect miserable life and died in penury. Shane recently met Gerry Adams. "We bumped into each other at the arts festival in West Belfast," he says. "His people were behind him and my people were behind me so we really didn't say that much to each other, we didn't get a chance with everyone around but I thought he was quite reserved. I dunno, I think there was a mutual respect."
There is no love lost between him and Elvis Costello who produced The Pogues' album Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. "Costello robbed my bass player, didn't he?" he says referring to The Pogues' Cait O'Riordan who married Costello in 1986. Shane's musical tales are still broadly Irish. He raves about Ronnie Drew's solo album and anything by Sinead O'Connor. At the mention of U2 he warns, "You're not gonna get me to slag U2, they're my mates." I am not trying to get him slag U2. "I'll say that Bono is the good boy and I'm the bad boy."
MacGowan's attraction to the more brutal and sad things in life has always been clear from his lyrics, and nothing has ever replaced the immediacy and anger of punk rock for him. "Sid and Nancy was crap," he says about Alex Cox's biopic about Punk's 'golden' couple. "I was around for punk and that movie did not show the way it really was." Back in '76, even before he had formed his first band The Nipple Erectors, MacGowan became a classic image for the punk press, sprawled on the floor in clubs, a toothless grin plastered across his face. Some say it's a moment that he's been living ever since. Other than music, Shane's life these days is unsurprisingly normal. He goes to the cinema a lot, eats out (Italian, Greek, Chinese) and goes to the pub. Earlier this year he was laid up for a spell when he broke his hip falling from a bar stool in Filthy's. "It's not like breaking your arm, or whatever," he says. "It takes along time to get better." He gets up to ring his longtime girlfriend Victoria Clarke. She's out. A writer, Clarke is currntly working on a new book. "It's about trying to find yourself in the madness of drugs and rock'n'roll," says her boyfriend. "Tschsss, tschsss, tschsss."
Having accepted my numorous offers to cigarettes all night, when I run out, with a cackle Shane produces a packet of his own that have been in his pocket the whole time. "Tschsss, tschsss, tschsss." The joke's on me. As the evening wears on you begin to notice that Shane MacGowan becomes even better company. He is quick to laugh his deflating beachball laugh, and eloquent despite the turbos. When we eventually part, he is not roaring drunk, just nicely relaxed and good humoured. "Happy Christmas," he cries. "Happy Birthday", I rejoin. Neither will be the last.