UP FOR IT AGAIN AND STILL NEVER NORMAL
SHANE MacGowan assumes the position at the bar of his favourite north London watering hole, Filthy MacNasty's in Amwell Street, shouting his personal drinks order over the Dubliners' din. 'I'll have a double Harvey Wallbanger and a double vodka on the side. With ice,' he adds, very much as an afterthought. Sitting down to rap, the former Pogue, now full-time leader of his new band the Popes, rips the filter off a Chesterfield and lights up. 'I've got a lung infection,' he cackles, snuffling and snorting like a family of badgers at suppertime. So why smoke, then? 'Eh?' he replies, genuinely puzzled. MacGowan peers at me from behind Polaroid sunglasses. His teeth are all over the shop. There is a fresh cut on his temple. Skulls decorate his shirt. A blue enamelled likeness of the Holy Virgin nestles incongruously around his neck, clanking against a decent collection of crucifixes. An insurance policy?
Perhaps not. Though he is renowned for an obdurate temperament and an unpredictable nature, Shane isn't quite the ferocious figure of legend. Despite being one of the most recognisable characters, facially and musically, to have emerged during the last decade or so, MacGowan claims to pay his public image scant heed.
'It's bollocks. I don't care what they write,' he says with an airy wave of a nicotine-stained paw. 'I weigh my press, I don't bloody read it. And it weighs a good bit.'
The perceived view of Shane as a wild drunken maniac has, he reckons, been exaggerated. 'I only have to throw up or collapse on stage once and suddenly I'm doing it every night. I've done thousands of gigs without forgetting the words. Sure, I'm a good showman. I enjoy myself. What's really annoying is the people who worry about me, because then I find myself worrying about them worrying about me.'
This Saturday 30,000 potential worriers will be fidgeting on his behalf at the Finsbury Park Fleadh as they watch Shane make only his fifth live appearance with the Popes. Aside from the odd project with Nick Cave or Jesus and Mary Chain, it's been four years since he picked up the cudgels of his favoured sound: 'Hard, straight down the line rock 'n' roll meets Paddy-beat,' he snarls.
Friends on the close-knit London Irish scene say that if MacGowan is hardly hovering over a copy of The Pledge with a wet nib he is at least back at the controls. During his last days in the Pogues he had a habit of disappearing to hide in the cupboard before show time. Not any more. 'He's up for it again,' according to one pal in the Mean Fiddler organisation. 'Three years ago he was getting very maudlin. He had a fatalistic air. Now he even looks before he crosses the road.'
At the Fleadh, Shane will cherry-pick from the substantial repertoire that kept him alive during the dark moments. His bag of songs was already bursting at the seams with contemporary classics like Fairytale of New York, Lullaby of London and Rainy Night in Soho. Now he has an album's worth of fresh ditties to unleash, including Snake with Eyes of Garnet, That Woman's Got Me Drinking, Nancy Whiskey and the Velvets-inspired I'll Be Your Handbag. The Popes' debut album is out on ZTT in August. 'It's called Kiss Me Ring. The other titles were too obscene to contemplate. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's like the early Pogues, or the Dubliners meet the Sex Pistols.' Uh-oh, here comes that cackle again. 'Last time I was baptised with water. This time I'm baptised with fire.'
The son of a 'pen-pusher and a convent typist', MacGowan was born on Christmas Day 1957, in England, much to his chagrin. From three months old he was raised in Tipperary. 'Me spiritual home. Some'd call it a godforsaken bog. I think it's beautiful.' He still lives in the family house there (his parents live down the road): a sign over the door says 'Trespassers will be shot and then the Garda Siochana (the police) will be called'.
When his parents returned to find work in England, Shane was eventually educated at Westminster School, until he was kicked out at 14 for big-time rowdiness. After a period of shock therapy chased down with Valium and speed, he stayed on to greet the snot-nosed arrival of punk, befriending the likes of the Pistols and the Clash, and fronting his own raucous outfits, the Chainsaws and the Nipple Erectors (later the Nips).
Yet, while most of his peers have since been sucked into rock's corporate maelstrom, MacGowan has maintained his punkish muse with traditional fervour. 'To me, intellect has no place in lyric writing. It's all totally spiritual. I write as it comes, in bars mostly, on scraps of paper. Fortunately, I lose 90 per cent and edit the rest. I'm not self-indulgent. I spew it out and then tear it to bits like a critic,' he spits.
MacGowan's music has been covered by Christy Moore, the Clanceys and Sinead O'Connor, as well as numerous folk groups. Flattering, he says, a good feeling, but not as good as the people who approach him in the street wanting to shake his hand.
As for the mega-fame enjoyed by his friend Bono, in whose Martello Tower he stayed last year, well, that would be disastrous. 'Wouldn't fancy it at all. Maybe the money. Not that I make any attempt to lead a 'normal life' - I don't know what that is - but I do try to be true to meself. I travel as much as I can. I've got a roaming spirit. I like places where the people are similar to the Irish: Thailand, Portugal, Spain. People who will have a good time at any expense. I respect that.'
Neither a sociable animal nor a happy recluse, Shane maintains a close-knit circle. Recently separated from his wife of long standing, he says he has no desire to recreate himself in the form of another human being. But yes, he would like to have children. He bridles slightly at the personal question.
The longer one spends in MacGowan's company the more apparent it becomes that he is no "eejit". He'll converse as knowledgeably about the Milesians or the historical roots of Irish music as he'll call the odds over Count Basie or Jimi Hendrix - 'the only man I'm totally overawed by. Everything he's done is faultless'. These enthusiasms are reinforced by total recall and 20/20 vision.
To some, Shane MacGowan is an interpretive genius, while others insist you have to hear another artist cover his work to gauge its full value. He doesn't mind, either way. 'If it brings people joy, that's all that matters. It's back to the stories about me. I try not to look at my own image, because I'm just a speck in the universe. The rumours are like fish - they get bigger, don't they?'
When I get up to leave, I notice MacGowan has somehow accumulated six drinks. The only one he's touched, however, is a pint of water.
Shane MacGowan and the Popes play the Fleadh, Finsbury Park, this
Saturday. Other headliners include Crowded House, Cranberries, The Proclaimers,
D-Ream and the Dubliners. Filthy MacNasty's and the Whiskey Cafe, 68 Amwell
St, EC1, celebrates Bloom's Day next Thursday from 3pm, with Joycean readings
by Shane MacGowan, Patrick Bergin and others.
Your intrepid maintainer is DzM.