Most people who know the name Shane MacGowan probably have him pegged as a stereotypical drunken paddy, fronting The Pogues as a whirlwind of frenzied punk inspired folk music and alcohol try to beat him to the floor in a dishevelled and undignified manner. This is because at the time that the band had reached its highest commercial success, it had also become the thing that he had tried to avoid all along, a serious band with one eye on the cash till and the other on the front cover of NME. MacGowan’s idea of rebranding Irish folk for the modern era and delivering a tongue in cheek party style performance had long since gone out of the window and in an effort to get through the sad fact that his creation had been hijacked by less imaginative souls, he had taken to sabotaging the band with his drunken and unreliable antics. If that is how you perceive Shane MacGowan then you must read this book.
Even the attitude of the book is chaotically in keeping with this innovative and unpredictable character. It is written in the form of a number of interviews between MacGowan and his long-term partner Victoria Mary Clarke, normally in restaurants, bars or in some cases his childhood home. Even though they are set out as a series of questions and answers, you get the feeling that it all flows naturally like a conversation between two acquaintances should and that Clarke’s questions are more of a prompt to keep her subject on track rather than a script upon which to build the book. This does mean that the stories told in the book don’t always follow a chronological path through his life but rather form chapters roughly segregated into certain subject areas. We here of his very unusual and free childhood in Tipperary, his schooling in his parents adopted home of England, his formative years as a “face” on London’s punk scene, the years with the Pogues, both good and bad and even his views on religion, politics and much more besides are covered. Those that know something about MacGowan will already realise that beyond that drunken front man image is a highly intellectual and quick witted individual. Anyone examining his lyrics in depth quickly learns that almost every line written is a reference point, personal, historical, literary or social. The same complexity is found in the man.The joy of this book comes from MacGowan’s constant battle against “celebrity” he never wanted the rock and roll life style, had a very healthy disregard for his own image and with an honesty and self deprecation that is rarely found these days he is the ideal guide to knowing about his own rich and colourful life. No holds are barred, and no embarrassing tale is left out, in a way he seems as proud of his own failures as he is of his successes. It’s as if the telling of the tale is the important thing not how his image holds up in that telling. There is a contradictory quality to the telling also, which makes him even more human, he never claims to have all the answers or even any of them, but he does hold a lot of opinions but there seems to be plenty of room in his ideology to accept that he may be wrong. The is a contentiousness to some of his dialogue also especially regarding the IRA, but then have grown up in an extended family who remember the Black and Tans being a dominant force in Ireland would justify views which today may seem somewhat radical.
Despite the alcohol and pill laden past, MacGowan comes across as articulate and very knowledgeable on many topics, Irish Literature, soul music, history, politics and religion and the interviews are peppered with his often witty and philosophical views of everyday life. Like most people in the public eye, when we get a chance to really get inside them, as this book does, what we find is often not what we expected. Underneath that image that most of us have probably formulated from shambolic Top of The Pops shows and even more chaotic live footage comes and unexpectedly refreshing and human image. You come away from the book admiring his artistic integrity, lack of pretension, refusal to conform, his ability to remain totally unimpressed with rock stars and celebrities, his generosity and compassion, his idealism, his romanticism, his sense of self ridicule and above all his ability to not be smug or self aggrandising in the face of his successes. Believe me, there are enough bad traits to balance these out, this is no Mother Teresa we have here, but if you read this book I think you will find that the man that is Shane MacGowan is a very different person from the image most people have of him.