In the spotlight of Pogues frontman lyricist and author, drawing on his Irish heritage. A life as colourful as the title suggests.
Shane MacGowan once remarked, ‘The British press have been giving me six months to live for the past twenty years’.
You will be forgiven for making the same mistake when you watch Crock of Gold, Julien Temple’s candid documentary on MacGowan’s life. Permanently slumped to one side and emitting the occasional amused wheeze that could belong to a man 20 years his senior, MacGowan lives on. Here is a body and mind that has endured decades of substance abuse, alcoholism and, as we learn, a coma and two stints in mental health institutions.
And yet, several drinks in, he remains remarkably lucid with a recall to rival healthier and less inebriated souls. His ability to hold his own is not wholly surprising since The Pogues’ performances were rarely sober affairs – by MacGowan’s own admission he only became frontman because his predecessor lacked the capacity to stay upright throughout a set while drunk!
MacGowan’s recollections paint a picture of his childhood in Tipperary that is – in his own words – cast in sepia tones of wistfulness. He evokes familiar memories of heady, sun-drenched summers, of women stoking the hearth and of pubs alive with music and laughter. What some might find less relatable is the fondness with which he recollects the bleaker features of his childhood: drinking and smoking from the age of 6 and the rudimentary toilet facilities in 1960s rural Ireland- ‘piss[ing] out the front door and shit[ting] in the fields’.
Yet, these experiences seem to bear no real distinction in MacGowan’s mind; the fondness with which he remembers Ireland’s lush fields and vibrant culture is interspersed with his formative experiences drinking whiskey and learning to swear as soon as he could talk. To him they are one in the same.
In many ways, this capacity to make light of the darker realities of life is what defines MacGowan’s songs. His lyrics spotlight the tramp, the drunkard, and the rent boy and spin tales of cold nights on filthy streets, being out on the lash and a ‘swift one off the wrist’ (hand job) down dark alleyways.
MacGowan himself is a contradiction between a debilitated, physically diminished addict and an inspiring intellectual lyricist. This is deftly reconciled by Director Julien Temple’s careful hand.
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By Connie Hatt: culture Columnist.
“In many ways, this capacity to make light of the darker realities of life is what defines MacGowan’s songs.”
What comes across loud and clear is that MacGowan’s connection to his Irish heritage and engagement with Ireland’s fraught history is central to his worldview.
As a child he discovered the bones of people who died in The Great Hunger while playing in the dunes. This inspired his lyrics for The Dunes.
MacGowan’s Irish punk perspective was forged in the crucible of 1970s and 80s Britain, in the context of IRA paramilitary actions against England. As a boy he was moved, against his will, to London and sent, briefly, to Westminster school on a scholarship. MacGowan encountered prejudice against the Irish in these early years and punk eventually provided an outlet for his angst. His music built on a long-standing tradition in Celidh music of discontent with English rule, merging with the contemporary anti-establishment attitudes of punk. His own rebel song about the Birmingham Six, Streets of Sorrow, represents his personal contribution to Irish republican efforts in the period.
One contributor observes ‘The Pogues could never have happened in Ireland, The Pogues needed to happen from the diaspora.’ To illustrate this, Temple draws from a wealth of archival footage of rural Ireland, the 1980s punk scene in London, and images of MacGowan navigating these worlds. Himself a part of the fabric of this musical era, directing films and music videos for punk artists, Temple is individually qualified to document MacGowan’s life. He brings together audio extracts from MacGowan’s past interviews, accounts from family members, and new footage of MacGowan in conversation with his wife, his biographer, musician friends, and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams.
Though not for the faint-hearted, Shane MacGowan’s legacy stretches far beyond Fairytale of New York and Crock of Gold is a must watch for punk fans as well as cultural and historical enthusiasts.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan is now available online and can be rented from the BFI and Amazon.
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