A Drink With Shane MacGowan

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"A Drink With Shane MacGowan"
   Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke (Grove Press) 359 pages
                Reviewed by Rory Dubhdara

There are not many lads to arise from the turbulent post-Industrial age, who can transcend and rise high above the stagnant and turbid pools of CEO-produced “pop music”, teenage suicide, corporate rock, grade school shootings, “the war against terror”, broken families, transitory fashions and hollow trends quite like the remarkably rambunctious and rapturous musician known as Shane MacGowan. Throwing off the status quo-imposed yoke, and shattering all illusions, Shane does poetic justice by removing the veil that covers the eyes of most fans of Irish music. What the vast public misconceives as “Celtic music”, is redefined by the visionary zeal of Shane MacGowan and his rowdy , randy yet ethereal music. In this fascinating book, Shane leads us down a chaotic memory lane, back to the seminal source and origins of the music that we all love, down an undulating and rocky road, littered with youthful intoxication, drug addiction, street violence, crime, prison life, and the punk rock subculture of London, that culminated in the founding of the Pogues, and after parting ways with the Pogues ——  the birth of “Shane MacGowan and the Popes”. This gripping and rowdy book is one of those rare tales that you will be able to read through in one sitting, as it will without a semblance of doubt, grab you by the bollocks like the iron claws of a wailing banshee lost on the misty moors somewhere near Tipperary.     
       Born in 1957 in Tipperary(1), Ireland to an Irish rebel family whose farm cottage was often a safe house for the IRA, the sense of independence and rebellion was instilled in the lad at a very young age. Growing up at a time when traditional Irish music had been co-opted by the conservative music organization known as “Ceoltas”, who had in fact, banned any bands that did  not concur to their ultra-conservative/reactionary guidelines, and who were actively purging the Irish music subculture of most of the original   tribal elements of its sound and fury, such as the use of the Bodhran which is a Celtic tambourine and a vital  element of Irish music. In what Shane would later term a “crusade for Irish culture” (as he was wont to say: “...there’s no point in Ireland getting the six counties back, if Irish culture has been totally forgotten and destroyed. That will have meant that they’ve won in the end.”) against Irish fusion, progressive rock, “Celtic” new age music and other plastic trends that Shane saw as a threat to Irish culture. Shane wanted to “bring Irish music out into the make it part of popular music again. "To make young people realize that in their own backyard there was really good music...It had to be dragged into the 20th century...we just gave it a shot up the arse. We didn’t take ourselves seriously at all, but we took the music seriously...And we had drunken yobs crying in the audience, swinging from side to side, and putting their hands up with peace signs and stuff. These were guys who normally beat each other shitless at gigs. Skinheads, psychobillys, punks...all getting their hair cut into Paddy quaffs, and getting old suits and white shirts, and turning up at gigs looking like us. And so the more that the press said, ‘They’re a bunch of drunken louts who can’t play, like the Sex Pistols thing, the more popular we became. The more people came to see us, to see this fucking freak show. But instead of a freakshow,  they came out loving the music, and howling for more.  It brought out the animal in people, but it also brought out the soul and the heart, in the beat, in the voice, in the intellect…all together. Whereas your faggot-with-synthesizer bands only hit the intellect.
     "Do you know what I mean, only hit the intellect? They were all about angst, and chic, and all of that. All those sort of posey things. All the sort of things that are produced by the intellect, and the ego. Whereas we hit you in the gut, in the soul, in the heart, and in the beat, like Irish music does. It wasn’t art. We weren’t brilliant, we were just playing brilliant music. You know what I mean? We weren’t that good at it, but we were playing it on rock and roll stages, at rock gigs, to young audiences. And we also appealed to older people, who loved the idea of their sons and daughters listening to the music that they loved. So the mums and dads loved us as well. And the grannies and granddads. So we’d not only get rock gigs, we played loads of Irish venues, and ballrooms and weddings, and things like that, where there would be three generations of people digging it. Like, at one gig, a priest introduced us. And we played with the Shillelagh Sisters, in the big hall in front, with the Kennedy picture, in the Camden Irish Centre. (A photo of the Pogues in front of this same Kennedy painting adorns the cover of their first album; “Red Roses For Me”)...And afterwards, the priest thanked us, because it was a charity gig. A priest thanked us and said what a brilliant band we were, and all the rest of it! It’s surreal, you know!”

      Indeed, this is the magic of Shane MacGowan and the music he has been such an integral part of; bridging the gap between the traditional and the modern, the stormy and the ethereal, the turbulent and the serene, the separation between older folk and the youth, between punk rock, modern rock and roll, bluegrass, country and traditional Celtic music, this tremendous obstacle and challenge Shane MacGowan handled voluminously. Shane’s biggest obstacles, in this regard, were represented by modern trendy musicians and staunch traditionalists both, who saw Poguemahone  (the original name for the Pogues, which is Gaelic for “Kiss My Arse”) as a threat to their well entrenched prejudices, in fact, even with his own band members, who by the time their third album “Peace And Love” had been released, really drifted far from their Celtic roots, with strange creations that Shane MacGowan was none too pleased with:

“...The audience dwindled and dwindled (as the Pogues began to play Celtic music less and less). And the songs on the first follow up album (“Peace and Love”) were awful. And the songs on the third album (“Hell’s Ditch”) were absolutely pathetic. It’s like what the Chieftains did with Sean O’Riada of the group. I was the one who actually fucking could write, compose Irish tunes, in the Irish tradition. And write lyrics in the Irish tradition but make them about modern subjects. And I could also arrange old tunes, like 19th century, 18th century tunes, and take the ‘these’ and ‘thous’ out, and rewrite the lyrics so they made sense...And I would add a riff. A hornpipe, maybe to introduce it. I added riffs to the tunes, which is an innovation for Irish music...I was bringing it into the 20th century in the same way that O’Riada was doing it...I didn’t realize that this was gonna fuck up my idea for the group. My idea for the group is what I’m doing now. From now on we’re doing a lot more traditional stuff (for the Popes). We already have. We were doing ‘Poor Paddy On the Railway’, ‘Spanish Lady’, and stuff. But after Frank (Frank Murray, the manager for the Pogues before he was fired)  , traditional Irish tunes were taboo. And there was  a democratic vote taken on that. Forcing all the pressure on to me to write all the music...I was the one who from a baby had been ingesting Irish music….(But) I couldn't teach James (James Fearnley, the Pogues piano, cello, mandolin and accordion player) any kind of Irish accordion style. The Tipperary one was the one I was trying to, cause that’s the one I know. And its very easy for a beginner, if you get him young enough. But its very difficult for an adult, because it used the black notes, black buttons, as percussion.  And they’d use that with a bodhran, which had been banned by Ceoltas. All the real musicians, country musicians, used bodhrans, but you wouldn’t see a bodhran in Clare (Clare was the location of the official headquarters of Ceoltas). Untill Sean O’Riada said, ‘Fuck it...I’m gonna conduct this bunch of idiots, who wouldn’t be able to play a note without my fucking genius’...He was a   modest man, Sean O’Riada. ‘I’m gonna play the bodhran, and be a  conductor’, and he shocked Ceoltas, horrifically...And he also used an orchestra who were drunk and out of tune. Ceoltas disapproved of him as a rebel and as far as they were concerned the bodhran is completely out. There is no percussion in traditional Irish music. There’s only the upright piano, the harp, the pipes, and the fiddle, and a tenor voice, if you were   going to use your voice….So you can imagine the fucking wailing caterwauling fucking shite that was coming out on records, y’ know and on the radio, before O’Riada came along. And O’Riada played the music...arranged all the old tunes, and wrote several Masses in Irish, which Ceoltas  also disapproved of ...This was all rebellion, know what I mean?  And Ceoltas  would’ve done anything to destroy him, but he was instantly loved by every body...He was a driven man, he said fuck the rules! From the mid 1950’s to the early 1960’s, O’Riada was the sound of Ireland, to most Irish people, and certainly to most Irish Americans.”

With Sean O’Riada as his main role model and source of inspiration, Shane set out to save Irish music from both the stale dogma of tradition and the trendy aspects of modern “Irish music” like Irish fusion and new agey music falsely called “Irish”  and progressive rock that were taking Irish music far from its tribal roots.

“My plan was to make the music hip everywhere...The real music. I wanted to destroy Ceoltas...and have the fleadh ceols happening again, like when I was a kid, in all the towns...I anticipated it being bigger on the east coast of America. Cause I knew all about the American-Irish, the New York Irish, and the New Jersey Irish….The east coast Irish.”

And Shane’s predictions were accurate...Shane’s music has left an indelible mark on the Irish-American community in the Northeast,  (seeing Shane and his celebrated Popes at the Roseland in NYC last Spring is proof enough of this, the crowd was massive and howling for more, and chanting “Shane! Shane! Shane!” while battering the floorboards and shaking their fists in the air) and his phenomenal Celtic Magic will be heard for years to come. This ground breaking book, a compendium of nine lengthy interviews with the musicians missus (whom the tune “Victoria” was inspired by, on “The Snake” album) who does a great job of answering the right questions to get the best answers, with no evasion or phoniness, penetrating the depth of Shane and his music, which will be praised for years to come, if not for its authenticity alone, but for its thundering Fenian sound and fury! Certainly Shane Mac Gowan will be remembered as one of the “Immortals” of the Celtic Music Hall of Fame, alongside the likes of Amergin, Taliesin, Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, The Dubliners, Sean O’Riada, The Wolf Tones, Athenrye, the Clancy Brothers, and Eire Og to name just a few…

“It’s anonymous….The anonymous stuff, from the really early times moves gradually on down through the centuries and into lyrics of Irish songs….The poetry doesn’t date either. It’s an oral tradition. It was an oral tradition, and started  being written down in, I suppose the 16th century. But they were still (much earlier) carried by the people. They are all songs, really, all those old Irish poems. ‘The Midnight Court’ would have had a tune. Or it would have been lilted. That’s why Irish songs don’t date, because they come from the same tradition. That’s why I’d much rather be remembered as an Irish songwriter than a rock songwriter...Because it’s immortality. To have one of your songs accepted into the tradition is a real honour.”

                                                                —— Shane Mac Gowan

“Those who know, not only that the Everlasting lives in them, but that what they, and all things, really are IS the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish-fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord. These are the immortals.”
                         ——-  Joseph Campbell, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”


1. It was incidentally, in Soloheadbeag, in the county of Tipperary, where the first act of “revolutionary justice” was meted out on two British cops on the first day of the historical meeting of the Dail (Irish Republican Parliament, presided over by Sinn Fein ), where a contingent of Irish Volunteers led by Sean Tracey and Dan Breen “decided to strike a blow for Ireland and shot two policeman dead in a hold-up for gelignite” (from The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan), showing the strong historical roots of Irish National Revolutionary sentiment in Tipperary...

You either love the guy or hate him, the one-time toothless lead singer of the legendary Pogues, later the Popes, and lately doing guest singing with Nick Cave, Cruachan, the Dropkick Murphy's and many more, this book is required reading for any fan of Shane Mac Gowan...
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