Tributes to The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, who died this week, noted his immense presence and unique talent. Born in Kent to Irish parents, he also gave voice to an Irish-English generation, writes author Joseph O’Connor.
The first time I saw The Pogues live was at a midnight gig in Dublin in 1985.
Shane’s voice was dangerous, dark, exciting, wolfish, a sound once heard never forgotten. He yelped at the microphone as though it was about to attack him, then he lilted, eyes closed, like a crooner.
On the stage by his feet was a bottle of tequila. Seven songs in, it was empty.
You heard the influences in his music, from The Dubliners to The Clash, and you knew that what he was doing was radically new. At the same time, he was utterly authentic, rooted deeply in a tradition.
His songs were peppered with references to cultural figures, from writer Christy Brown to mythological hero Cuchulainn. He understood a truth that even important artists sometimes forget – if you’ve nothing to evolve from, you’ve nowhere to go.
I had heard traditional music before The Pogues; everyone in Ireland had, but it was often twee and sanitised, cleansed of its power, made more hummable, certainly, and easier to listen to, and in no way at all unpleasant.
But The Pogues did Irish song with dirt under its fingernails, as spellbinding as American gospel, as heart-rending as Puccini, as wild as the sea-spray on a Connemara cliff, as wrenching as a Kilburn hangover.
Shane was steeped in the corpus of older Irish ballads he heard from his mother, Therese, and on childhood trips to Tipperary from England. But he glimpsed something new in them: that these songs were our Chaucerian saga, our tarot cards, our Odyssey, our blues, our soul music.
Composed by storytelling geniuses whose names we will never know, they represent some of the finest achievements in narrative of these islands’ writers. Shane would join that pantheon himself.
The Irish novelist John McGahern, himself a onetime London resident, said the most important thing any storyteller needs is “first, a way of seeing”. Story-making is a matter of intense perception before it is a matter of style.
Shane, an oversimplified figure, had a unique way of seeing which arose from his complex identity. He was Irish and English, rural and deeply urban, punk and poet, true believer and upstart. He was reverent and rude, a very knowledgeable man and an iconoclast, smalltown and metropolitan at the same time.
He was literary, like others of his family, and louche like punk London. He wrote lovingly of the broad majestic Shannon and of rainy nights in Soho in the English capital. Remove any of those allegiances and you might still have a great artist. But you wouldn’t have Shane MacGowan.
Those of us growing up in Ireland, whose cousins had London or Liverpool accents, immediately got the point, if there was one. The multitudes of British-born people who, like Shane, returned often to their parents’ Ireland, now had a bard of their own.
He thought of himself as Irish but didn’t do slogans or exclusions. In footage of early punk gigs, he’s to be seen in the audience, wearing a Union Jack-patterned suit.
His genius – I do not use the overused word lightly – was to see that there was only a limited point in appropriation.
Other bands of the era adopted reggae stylings or tried to borrow from the wonderful authentic movement that was two-tone ska. Shane’s passion saw to it that his own music would be offered not as a version of Irishness or a version of punk, that in essence they were one and the same.
“The sea is wide, and I can’t swim over, and neither have I wings to fly”
A line such as this one, from Carrickfergus, a traditional ballad Shane admired, says more about state of mind than any sentence loaded with adjectives and adverbs. Shane understood the power of simple words placed in order carefully.
“The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay” (Fairytale of New York)
It’s poignant, perfect, beautiful, touching. It’s punk grown up but still gritty.
He melded punk, folk, balladry, Woody Guthrie-style protest blues with a fiery lyrical flair and a style of musical presentation all his own.
Part of the style was the adoption and adaptation of a very old mask, the stage Irishman stumbling for the audience. To some, he was a rollicking drifter in ragamuffin punk tatters. You could see it was a persona he felt safe in.
There were periods when the mask perhaps became hard to remove, a second skin. Sometimes it made it difficult for Shane to be seen clearly. Roaring boy he could be, but there was also a hugely committed and serious artistic sensibility.
I used to wonder if Shane went home quietly at the weekends to mow the lawn or walk the dog and do yoga. You don’t achieve the truly remarkable things he achieved as a writer if you’re out of it all the time.
I’ve been going to gigs since I was 14, and this year I turned 60. I think I’ve been to 500 concerts. Like the T-shirt says, “I may be old but at least I saw all the great bands.”
At the very top of the list were the annual Pogues’ concerts in London around St Patrick’s night in the late 1980s, often at the Brixton Academy. Dark times, when the bomb and the bullet still featured in relationships between Britain and Ireland.
When you were a young Irish immigrant in a city where the locals were a bit afraid of you, and you of them, grace and solidarity came roaring from that stage, out of a mouth that looked like a thunderstruck graveyard.
His art was fuelled by a reality about the strange country that was Ireland, a so-called republic that could not feed or employ great multitudes of its own citizens, who had fled to the land of the ancient oppressor for work.
Money that they sent home kept Irish families fed, a guilty secret Official Ireland didn’t like to acknowledge. Those people were rarely written about in novels or short stories, rarely spoken of in Irish political speeches. They were inconvenient, a bit embarrassing. There was silence around them.
When Shane sang, that silence, the awful wordlessness was defeated. He was of an immigrant people; it was time they be heard. The Brixton Academy would often see tears. You were part of the generations who’d been asked to disappear, but you were far from alone in your loneliness.
Shane MacGowan was of that body, was in fact its greatest voice. I hope the angels are ready for what’s coming.
Bestselling author Joseph O’Connor has written extensively about the Irish emigrant experience. His latest novel is My Father’s House