Skip to Content
Search Icon

Shane MacGowan, R.I.P.

On the frontman of the Pogues.

Everyone must have a cool cousin. It was probably during the summer following my seventh or eighth grade year when I was visiting my mother’s family in south Georgia that I noticed for the first time a new poster on my cousin Susan’s wall next to her Depeche Mode, Violator, poster. The new one displayed a sepia-toned image of a boxer crouching at the ready, the words PEACE and LOVE etched across his proximal phalanges, a sixth finger on his right hand accommodating the length of the former word. Fans of The Pogues will recognize the image as the cover of their fourth studio album. It was my first encounter with a band that would predominate over much of the musical landscape I would inhabit through my teen years, college, and into my professional life. And at the center of the band stood the improbable figure of Shane MacGowan.

MacGowan was not himself born in Ireland but was a son of the vast Irish diaspora—his parents having emigrated from Ireland to the Home Counties in southern England shortly before he was born. But he was raised in an environment saturated with Irish political and cultural identity, spending a lot of time with his own cool cousins in rural County Tipperary. MacGowan is often remembered  for the alcohol-sodden beat-poet persona that came to define the band for much of its audience. This is unfortunate, not only because of the real consequences playing the part all too well had on the health and longevity of both his body and his band, but also because it so often was a distraction from his true brilliance as a songwriter. Nobody wrote songs like Shane MacGowan, certainly nobody of our generation. As a songwriter, MacGowan was more comparable to someone like Warren Zevon than Joe Strummer, whose band, The Clash, was clearly the original inspiration for the sound and general attitude of The Pogues. But MacGowan was always more of a natural storyteller than Joe Strummer, and The Pogues wisely reached beyond the reggae-inflected punk pop of their era to MacGowan’s roots in the Irish diaspora.

While much of their material included covers of traditional pub tunes and ballads, a substantial number of The Pogues’ songs were written (or co-written) by MacGowan. His strengths as a storyteller shine in songs like “The Boys from County Hell,” “The Sickbed of Cúchulainn,” “The Body of an American,” and “Turkish Song of the Damned,” which opens with a stunner of an intro that would make both Warren Zevon and Edger Allen Poe envious:

I come old friend from hell tonight
Across the rotting sea
Nor the nails of the cross, nor the blood of Christ
Can bring you help this eve
The dead have come to claim a debt from thee
They stand outside your door
Four score and three

Fans rightfully turn to “Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues’ biggest commercial success, as a favorite. But I have always somewhat preferred songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” or the woefully underappreciated “A Rainy Night in Soho,” which was originally relegated to an EP. Each of these songs, all written by MacGowan, packs as much wistful pathos as the better-known “Fairytale of New York.”

We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell

Sometimes I'd wake up in the morning
The ginger lady by my bed
Covered in a cloak of silence
I'd hear you talking in my head

For long-term fans of The Pogues, it was difficult watching MacGowan’s slow and inevitable decline. I have at home a copy of the 2002 documentary, If I Should Fall from Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story, which covers his life history and is interspersed with performance clips and interviews. I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s painful to watch MacGowan stumble through interviews, barely functional, helped along by his long-suffering wife, Victoria Clarke. I prefer to remember him as he appears in a 1985 concert in Munich that you can easily find online. It’s the The Pogues at their peak following the release of their best album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. The delightful Caitlín O’Riordan is still in the band on bass and, more importantly, Shane looks healthy, happy, and in command of his faculties. They rip through an ebullient set of some of their best music, opening with “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” and closing with “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Shane is the heart of the performance, the rest of the band and the crowd feeding off the vital energy he radiates on stage as his voice and tempo rise and fall in harmony with the narrative arc of all these songs about whalers, immigrants, soldiers, and assorted roustabouts.

While MacGowan was never a model Christian, his music is suffused with the Christian supernatural ethos. Christmas (his birthday), midnight Mass, prayer, ghosts, death, judgement, heaven, and hell—MacGowan wrote about these subjects regularly and with conviction. I find that you can almost always tell the difference between a storyteller who uses Christian supernatural themes as a kind of creative-writing prop untethered to real belief from those who genuinely believe in such things. Real artistic excellence is always buoyed by the conviction that the stories you tell are fundamentally true. A ghost story told by an atheist will never chill to the bone quite the same way as one told by a man who genuinely fears for his eternal soul.

It was only recently that my suspicions about MacGowan’s faith were confirmed. In Julien Temple’s recent documentary about the singer, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, MacGowan describes attending Mass as “one of the most beautiful things human beings can experience.” And in an interview last year with Karl Gustel Wärnberg for the Catholic Herald, MacGowan opened up even more about his faith, explaining that “I always loved the stories of the lives of the saints, and I believe in the saints and always have, I pray to them every day and to Jesus and His Holy Mother.” That his own birthday fell on Christmas had special meaning for him too. “I don’t take it for granted that I was born on Christmas Day, Christ’s birthday, and I don’t like that people miss the point of Christmas. It’s not about Santa Claus and presents, it’s supposed to be about the teachings of Christ, who is love.”

It was therefore of little surprise, and with a great deal of comfort, that I read MacGowan received the last rites at the time of his death, presumably in accordance with his own wishes. This Christmas, watch The Pogues live in Munich, raise a glass to Shane MacGowan, and say a prayer for the repose of his soul. Memory Eternal.