‘The Dark Beauty, Spirit, and Wild Energy’ of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues
I wrote the song “Shane” for my latest album Sunset Kids while we were taking a break from recording, and producers Lucinda Williams and Tom Overby were back out on the road. We filmed a video with director Joseph Quever running all over Dublin to capture some of Shane’s old haunts, but the song came to me after a trip I’d taken to Dublin to sing at Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday. Nobody really though that this mythical punk rock poet who was born on Christmas day would ever live this long…but he did.
I saw the Pogues for the first time at their New York City debut, at a club in Chelsea called Danceteria. It was pretty intense, and people were going wild to this mix of Celtic folk and punk rock. I’d never seen anything like it before, and probably was not ready for it. It wasn’t until many years later when I went to see the Pogues play again with Joe Strummer fronting the band, because Shane was unable to make the tour. I was a big Clash fan, and there was the almighty Strummer getting heckled by this big crowd at the Beacon Theater with chants of “Shane, Shane, Shane.” I thought that anybody who could have their name shouted out over Saint Joe must be pretty special, so I began the investigation. I bought all the Pogues records and took them out with me on tour. I finally understood the dark beauty, spirit, and wild energy, that this band truly had.
I finally got to see Shane again with his new band the Popes at Irving Plaza where he did a mix of new material and Pogues favorites. The crowd was hanging on every word, singing along, and jumping up and down so hard I thought the floors would cave in. Going to see him was like going to see Johnny Thunders, Keith Richards, or Lemmy, one of these guys that you didn’t know if they were going to make it to the gig or die up there on the stage…kind of like that Daffy Duck character in the Bugs Bunny cartoon who is about to blow himself and says, “Hey boys and girls, remember I can only do this trick once.” Well, Shane did that trick many times. It was amazing to watch the effect he had on so many people, holding himself up on the microphone stand with a cigarette or a drink in the other hand. As fucked up as he’d get, he never missed a word or a beat, telling us stories of a sad and beautiful world. He quickly became one of my heroes, so much so that I name-checked him in my song “Mona Lisa” on my second album, The Heat.
It was a little nod to my crazy, wasted friends who were hanging out every night on Avenue A in New York City. I wanted to give them a little love, and tell them how much I missed them while I was on tour far across the Atlantic. I wrote the line “hanging with the local talent, drinking like you’re Shane MacGowan,” not thinking much of it. The label in England decided to put it out as the first single, and in the middle of a show in London at The Metro, my stage manager Michael Sticca informed me that Shane MacGowan was there. As I turned to my left, I saw him on stage next to me drinking bourbon out of a Pringles can.
When I greeted him, he grunted back at me like some kind of pirate. I asked him what he wanted to do, as we only had a few covers in our repertoire at that point. He went for “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello and we busted into it. I learned quickly the power of name checking somebody in a song. Shane turned out to be a sweet and funny gentleman; acting a bit flirty with Christine Smith, my keyboard player, and shaking hands with me while pretending to spit on it. He smiled like a little kid and had this gaspy, cartoon-dog-like laugh. Recently I found a photo of that very night of me and Shane on stage, and, looking at it closely, I noticed I had a cut above my eye, so I called Christine, who was there that night with me, and asked her why I was bleeding. She said, “You were so excited to have Shane on stage that you hit yourself in the face with the microphone.” Boy, what a sophisticated way to express myself…
While I was singing in Austin, Texas, at a tribute for my dear friend, and great artist, Alejandro Escovedo, I found out that I had been invited to sing at Shane’s 60th birthday in Dublin. The bill looked pretty extraordinary, but it wouldn’t have mattered who was singing, I was honored to be asked. I quickly booked a flight that would have me arriving from Texas after being up for two days straight. Some of the guests performing would be Nick Cave, Bono, Johnny Depp, Sinead O’Connor, Glen Hansard, Cait O’Riordan and Spider Stacy (from the original Pogues), Clem Burke, Glen Matlock, and Shane himself.
I arrived in Dublin pretty sleep deprived, but full of excitement and adrenaline. I went out for the customary Guinness (hey, when in Rome), and had a few more to keep me awake. The event was at the Dublin National Concert Hall, equivalent to Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center in New York. I had a very quick rehearsal with the band, which seemed to go well, and made my way over to catering to get some more beer, and possibly some food. As I entered the tiny side room, there sat Shane, alive and well, drinking a tall glass of wine, but in a wheelchair. I extended my hand to say hello, and he asked me what song I was singing. He squeezed it real tight, looked me in the eye, and recited all the lyrics to “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking”.
I came on pretty early in the line-up and sang my songs with the Clem Burke from Blondie on drums, Spider Stacy and Glen Matlock putting the big power behind me. I continued to watch the show from side stage in the dark when I suddenly realized the man standing right next to me was Nick Cave, but I was too shy to say hello. Shane finally came out and did a duet with Nick, singing a great version of “Summer in Siam.” Bono and Johnny Depp would follow with “Rainy Night in Soho,” and Sinead O’Connor took down the house with a beautiful “You’re the One.” One song after another, there was so much love in the building.
The show ended with all of us standing on the stage behind Shane as the president of Ireland (who is also a poet) came out with some military men to present Shane with a big, golden award. They tried to hand it to him, but it was a bit too much for Shane to hold. At that moment, they turned around and decided to hand it one of the artists that performed that night…and it was me…I was totally surprised and a bit embarrassed, so I turned to Bono, who was standing next to me, and said, “You got to take this, man. We’re in Dublin and I’m a Jew from New York.” He just shook his head and waved at me, saying “No, no, no, you hold it,” so I stood there, clutching the trophy for dear life in some kind of Forrest Gump Malin moment. Eventually we all walked off stage and I carried the thing out into the wings.
There was a big after-party and some jamming in one of the smaller rooms of the theater. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shane sitting quietly alone against a wall in the dark while everybody partied on. I walked over through the crowd, shook his hand again, and thanked him for everything; the songs, the stories, the inspiration. I told him that he better not to go anywhere, that we still need him.
Long live Shane MacGowan.