Julien Temple had never considered making a documentary about Shane MacGowan, the sensational, shambolic former Pogues frontman, until MacGowan himself asked him to do it. The pair had met in the mid-Seventies when MacGowan was just another punk pogoing at the Sex Pistols’ early shows, and they have remained friendly in the decades since. The director, whose credits include the yin-yang Sex Pistols films The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury, as well as pics about the Clash, Keith Richards, and the Kinks’ Davies brothers, among others, was wrapping up another film when Irish-English singer contacted him. The request caught him off-guard.
“I was weighing, ‘Do I want to go through the pain of it?'” Temple says, during what he describes as a rainy night in the west of England (not Soho). “Shane is not what you’d call an easygoing man. The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not doing any interviews.’ But I was also fascinated by how great the story was potentially, and how much I respected his songs and his attitude. You know, he wouldn’t be Shane MacGowan if he wasn’t difficult.”
With some encouragement from Johnny Depp, a mutual friend of Temple’s and MacGowan’s who helped get the singer talking (or rambling, as the case may be), the filmmaker agreed. The result is Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan — a two-hour account of how the vocalist, who was born in England to Irish parents and spent a good chunk of his youth on the Emerald Isle, improbably rose above meager beginnings and a star-crossed relationship with alcohol to slingshot Irish music, in all its tin whistling, fiddle-plucking, Guinness-swilling glory, to the top of the pops.
It can be tough to watch. MacGowan is now confined to a wheelchair, the result of a nasty tumble some years back. He mumbles so incoherently that subtitles run throughout the film, except for when he wheezes a scratchy laugh. But Temple provides enough context, showing how the Pogues frontman drew inspiration from Ireland’s war with England, and adds humor courtesy of several animated sequences to help make the story compelling. Even though MacGowan would not suffer traditional interviews, Temple films him speaking with his wife, Depp, friends, and frenemies (but no Pogues). Crock of Gold captures the songwriter’s importance to pop music and Irish culture.
“The fact that Shane made it as difficult as he could made it a better film, I think,” Temple says. “It forced us into inventing solutions to problems that he kept throwing out. You just have to know you’re going to [have to] roll with the abuse, try and stay standing up, and not walk off. And then if you achieve that, you’ve got a great subject to make a film about. That’s why it’s called ‘A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan’ — like a boxing match.”
Why did you ultimately decide to make a film about Shane MacGowan?
I’ve been working on a number of music projects concerning the social, musical, and cultural history of England through various artists for a long time now, really beginning with the Sex Pistols in the late Seventies. There’s a sense that the films cover the period since the war, from people like Keith Richards’ and Ray Davies’ childhoods through punk. To me, there was a missing gap of when I was young, and the London Irish were a very big, very visible community. So a film that touched on that would fill in a gap for me in this mapping out of this musical, cultural terrain.
When did you first meet Shane?
I came across him in the punk moment in London in ’76. The first interview anyone did with him was by me, which is in the [Crock of Gold] film. He’s got peroxide-blond hair. Every punk had to get the bottle out and splash it over the head like Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar. It was a rite of passage. And you had to speak like Guy Ritchie to the power of 10, this “mockney Cockney” accent. People like Joe Strummer laid it on with a with a trowel and so did Shane.
He used to knock me out of the way in the mosh pit. It was really fascinating then when Sid Vicious left the crowd and joined the Sex Pistols. There was kind of a vacancy, which I guess Shane applied for and got the job, because he became the new focal figure in the punk crowd in front of the Pistols and the Clash. And if you were filming it, your camera would pan across everyone and get stuck on Shane because he was so into it; he was metabolizing the energy really, metastasizing it. It was chemically changing who he was.
What was his personality like when you met him? Has he changed much?
Well, he was a young punk out to prove himself. You wouldn’t have known he was Irish if you didn’t know his name; he was very “London.” You would not have believed that whole Irish dimension of Shane could have happened at that time, that kind of importance that he has carved out for himself in contemporary Irish culture and tradition. But that’s what the film is about, really: discovering how he was able to do that. The energy he took from punk was one thing, but obviously his roots in an imaginary childhood in Ireland whilst growing up in Tunbridge Wells, outside London, all fed into this creation of the Shane MacGowan we know as the great songwriter and lyricist that he is.
Shane says that Irish music is like punk music in the film. Do you see it that way?
Yeah, I mean, that’s Shane. He said the music is human, it’s raw, it’s earthy. And I think that is true. Punk was about going back to the roots of rock & roll and stripping away all the unnecessary frills and arpeggios and things. And Irish music never went into that anyway; it was music made in farm kitchens and in public houses with the people singing along with a pint of Guinness in the hand. That was the meaning of it. The music was back to the people, the basics, the communities. So I can understand why Shane would feel that.
How much of a role did London play in his quest to return to Irish basics?
He gave a voice to that London Irish community for the first time. It wouldn’t have happened if Shane had lived all his life in [Ireland’s County] Tipperary. He would have been bored of it and left, like lots of other people. But the fact that he was in London and could mythologize about it, and connect it to the legends and the old stories of pre-Christian Ireland, and the great literature of Ireland, the James Joyces, the Flann O’Briens, the Brendan Behans — all that allowed it to become this incredibly romantic and powerful version of what it is to be Irish that really connects with Irish people are around the world.
There’s a lot of talk about the Troubles and Irish pride in Crock of Gold. Since you were growing up in London at the same time as Shane, what was your perspective on what was going on at the time?
I was very aware that a war was going on between England and Ireland. I used to go to film school here and there’d be a bus that would pick us up. I remember one morning sitting on the bench waiting for it on Holland Park Avenue in London. And there was this God-almighty bang. I nearly jumped out of my skin and turned around and saw a Jaguar car about 50 feet in the air up, right behind us in this square. So you were very aware that there was this war being fought.
It was a difficult time to be Irish because it really divided people. And I remember very clearly when Shane was he was banned from singing the “Birmingham Six” song about the people who were wrongly imprisoned for the Birmingham bomb incident — and the Guilford Four, as well. You were very aware that this was a thing that had been going on for 800 years, but it wasn’t over yet.
Did knowing Shane change your perspective at all?
I learned a huge amount about Irish history, and English-Irish history that I didn’t know from Shane’s knowledge of what’s happened over those 800 years. I didn’t know that we sent Irish slaves to the Caribbean like African slaves. That was a shock to me.
What did you think when you saw Shane, the guy at the front of Pistols gigs, fronting the Pogues?
I was very blown away by some of it, like “The Old Main Drag” was a song that really got me. I’d been part of that punk moment; I knew that whole “rentboy” [male prostitution] scene around “the Dilly,” [London’s] Piccadilly. People like Boy George were involved in it. And that seemed like such a raw and honest portrayal, an unflinching song about that, but clearly with an Irish edge. You felt for the young Irish kids who came to London and were kind of washed up and had to do shit like that. It just really spoke out.
I remember hearing “Boys from the County Hell,” which is London, I guess — the “Irish County of London” — and that was really a punk song about giving voice to this this community that had had no focal figure and Shane provided that as a kind of rallying call for these London kids of Irish first generation, second generation descent who really rallied around the Cause. So those early Pogues gigs were quite revelatory, like this amazing, heaving, massive punk-like energy, but celebrating being Irish through Irish music. It was very powerful. And I just understood the power of these lyrics got bigger and bigger with songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “A Rainy Night in Soho.” These are great songs. Whoever wrote them, whatever culture it’s filtered through, they talked about the human condition on a universal, timeless level.
On paper, the Pogues’ music is quite odd: Shane has a growly voice, and there’s lots of tin whistle and fiddle playing. It’s not pop. Why was it so popular?
A growling voice? Yes. Tom Waits has a growling voice; it doesn’t put me off him. Joe Strummer had a bit of a growl on him as well. I like bit of a growl. But the band couldn’t have worked if it didn’t come from outside Ireland. They recognize that in the film. You’ve got to remember that Irish music was very unhip at that point. It was all fiddles and tin whistles, as you say. And it felt kind of in the folk museum kind of thing. It didn’t have an epic quality that it should have had that Shane brought back to it, I reckon.
Much of Crock of Gold focuses on Shane’s origins. What were your favorite legends you heard about him?
His whole childhood, the kind of Grimm’s fairytale way he sees it, those summer holidays he spent in Ireland. He’s steeped himself in the myths; he’s drinking at age three — or is he? I don’t know. Is that true? But it sure is funny, him getting drunk with the animals and talking to them and the old people saying, “Give him a bit [of alcohol] now and he won’t want any later on [in life].”
Similarly, he had a mad teenage life. Before he got into punk, he was in mental institutions and addicted to drugs, depressed, suicidal. Punk saved him as a teenager. People don’t often see punk in that way, but there were a lot of damaged souls who were saved by punk in London because they had nowhere else to go. No one would treat them with any dignity or respect. But in that scene, it didn’t matter if you were ugly or slightly deranged or very miserable or unhappy or a bit violent. You were kind of accepted.
Were you ever worried that his story was too depressing?
Well, I think you see Shane’s story on many levels. There are multiple versions of Shane in the film. Really, he’s one version with Johnny Depp, he’s another version with [Primal Scream frontman] Bobby Gillespie — he’s aggressive with Bobby — but then with [Irish republican politician] Gerry Adams, he’s got a lot of respect. He’s kind of looking up to Adams in a way you don’t normally see Shane looking up to anyone.
I think you’ve got to understand that his story is a triumph. It’s an incredible achievement to be given the Irish légion d’honneur, to be sung in Irish pubs all over his country and wherever Irish people are. He’s connected with his culture in a way that few people are able to. So that’s a triumph in anyone’s books.
But there’s also a tragedy there. You look at him in the wheelchair, and it’s not a great place to be. I hope he can get out of it. So there is a cautionary tale just in watching the film. Some moments, you’re laughing hopefully, and the next minute you’re going, “Oh, my God. This is kind of sad.” But I think he contains those two elements with him and many more. His black humor gets you out of a lot of miserable spots. So I didn’t want to demonize him, certainly. I didn’t want to canonize him. I didn’t want to whitewash him. I wanted to show as many aspects of him as possible, and then let the audience kind of decide what they think of his life. A lot of people just know the abuse, the drink, and the drugs and “Fairytale of New York.” But there’s a huge amount more to him than those elements to me.
How would you describe the state he’s in these days?
Well, he certainly doesn’t drink to get drunk anymore. When I was working with him, he was sipping white wine. He wasn’t glugging it back. I think there is probably a chemical balance that he needs to keep going. But the idea that he’s some drunken idiot is totally wrong. He is very sharp mentally. I think there are a lot of people who’ve tried to tie him up in this kind of “circus freak, monstrous abuser of everything he can get his hands on” type image to diffuse his real power and his danger. You know, he’s a very provocative artist. He challenges you on many, many levels with his music and his words. And people try and get him on these chat shows and make fun of him, prod him with sticks like a dancing bear or something. And they don’t realize that Shane is far more venomous with his wit than they can imagine. So he ends up destroying them rather than the other way around.
Was there anybody that you tried to get to speak for the film who did not agree?
Well, there was a band called the Pogues, who turned us down one by one [laughs]. I don’t know whether that was because of me or because of Shane. Probably both fronts. I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. It’s a shame.
But again, I think these things turn out the best if you react to them in the right way. I didn’t want to make a rockumentary about how the band did this album and that album. I wanted to make a thing about the soul of Shane MacGowan and how a soul like that is forged. If you had to split it up with [the perspectives of] five or six or however many of [band members there] were, you dilute the whole thing anyway. There were other people we asked who I can’t remember now, but I think we had enough. What was important to me was that they showed the different aspects of Shane that I thought needed to come out, which you wouldn’t get in the straightforward, wrinkly rock-star armchair doc.
It’s said in the film that Shane brought glory back to Irish music, but what do you think his legacy is?
I think his legacy is that he changed the notion of Ireland. There’s a horrible cliché, you know, Darby O’Gill, the old Irish leprechaun and all that nonsense — I think he blew that wide apart and made people see Ireland in a new, more relevant contemporary way. I think the aftershocks of that still very important, particularly for young musicians coming out of Ireland and out of the Irish diaspora in East Coast America, Australia, all over the place where Irish people who ended up.
And Irish music is in a particularly good state right now, with Fontaines D.C., and Lankum, this fantastic young Irish band who really connect old Irish music with newer forms; they’re kind of 40 years on from what the Pogues were doing. And there’s Lisa O’Neill who sings in [Shane’s] birthday concert. She’s a very fiery kind of girl singer who really is in Shane’s tradition. So I think he’s really alive and well as an influence on modern Irish music.