No tale of Shane McGowan and the Pogues would be complete without mention of the man’s teeth — just like the Rolling Stones’ tongue logo, the Pogues were exemplified by the rotting and misshapen tangle of teeth that exploded in every direction out of Shane McGowan’s mouth. From their first appearance on the cover of the Pogues’ debut EP, “Poguetry in Motion,” the fortunes of those teeth mirrored those of the man himself, and the decline and fall of both are amply documented in the Sundance Channel’s documentary, If I Should Fall from Grace: the Shane McGowan Story.
McGowan first appears in concert in Dublin, Christmas 2000, and for those who remember him as a lean, angry young man it is a horrifying sight. Bloated and barely there, he recites his lyrics with the distracted air of one who is held up only by copious amounts of booze and a monstrous ego. His face alone is a cautionary tale against the dangers of the bottle: his swollen alcoholic nose and protruding ears give him a hangdog expression, most of his front teeth have by now fallen out, his eyes bulge out but there is little going on behind them, and the crowd loves it. Nick Cave, himself no stranger to substances, comments on this strange beatification of McGowan’s self-destruction, recalling a music festival in France where the Pogues shambling, drunken performance was matched by McGowan’s intoxication to the point of not even recognising which song was playing — the more the band collapsed, the more frenzied the crowd became.
There are a number of questions which hang over the film like dark clouds — one is the extent to which the Pogues and their management enabled McGowan’s descent into alcoholism and heroin addiction. Cave calls it “an aspect of the Pogues that always disappointed me,” but band member Philip Chevron denies the charge, essentially saying that the whole band had a drinking problem. When Chevron woke up to his own “issues with alcohol,” he realised that touring with the Pogues was “like living in a brewery and trying to quit drinking.” One thing is sure, though, that the roots of McGowan’s discontent long preceded his years with the Pogues. Through interviews with his parents, we learn of his childhood, split between the idyllic village in Tipperary where he spent his holidays, and the concrete and asphalt of London and the Barbican Flats, described by his father as a “fortress.” Life in the flats — drab, depressing, devoid of nature and community alike – led both his mother and Shane to nervous breakdowns, medication, and stays in a mental hospital. In an interview during his time in the Pogues, McGowan observes that “we make fucked up music because London is a fucked up place to live, and if you live in London you’re more likely to be fucked up… than if you live in a nice little village in Tipperary,” indicating the psychic split between childhood/nature/Ireland and adulthood/concrete/London that he never seems to have overcome.
But whatever McGowan’s problems growing up, he had an abundance of ambition and always knew that he wanted to be: a professional musician. He found a voice within the punk movement then breaking out in London. Though he claims to have only been interested in the Sex Pistols because “Johnny Rotten was so obviously Irish,” the punk DIY aesthetic suited perfectly the untapped potential of a bright kid whose formal relationship with the educational system ended at the age of 12. In the promo videos and publicity stills for his first band The Nips (shortened from the Nipple Erectors), we can already see the swagger and sneer he wore through his heyday with the Pogues.
The rise of the Pogues is presented in the film within the context of the London music scene of the early 80s, where punk’s spent energy gave way to a slew of plastic music now largely (and best) forgotten. Through the promise shown on their first album, Red Roses for Me, their dynamite live show, and the charms of bassist Cait O’Riordain, the Pogues managed to persuade Elvis Costello to produce their second album, Rum Sodomy and the Lash. McGowan’s hindsight complaints that Costello made him sing the lyrics hundreds of times, then excerpted individual words from each performance to string together the vocal track, cannot negate the shine that Costello brought to the band’s sound. However, even the stellar production values of that album cannot match the terrible beauty of the band’s long-delayed follow-up, the seminal If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
In truth, it is this album upon which the Pogues’ legend largely stands, and what an album it is — as Nick Cave observes in the film, “There’s not a weak line in it.” The product of ceaseless touring and line-up changes that created a bigger sound than before, the record is a seamless fusion of McGowan’s boozy misanthropy with the band’s musical excellence. The album thunders through a virtual encyclopedia of thematic concerns, never stopping to take a breath, from the title track’s flippant disregard for religion and redemption, to the baroque fantasy of “Turkish Song of the Damned” and “Fiesta,” to the troubles in Northern Ireland and anti-Irish racism in Britain (“Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six”), exile and immigration (“Thousands are Sailing” and “South Australia”), and on to the haunting balladry of “The Broad Majestic Shannon” and the unforgettable “Fairytale of New York.” The film includes video and concert footage from this time that show McGowan and the band at their peak – drunk, yes, but intoxicated on something more, something like poetry, but tough enough to survive Thatcher and the IRA alike, Irish in the greatest and most shambholic sense of the word — a world-touring ceilidh band with the descendant of James Joyce at their helm.
McGowan’s decline, though not immediately evident in their subsequent Peace and Love recording, is said to have begun around this time. One interviewee recalls seeing him down an entire bottle of gin before going on stage, and it was clear that he was now drinking to escape the pressures of touring and the people that surrounded him rather than to celebrate friendship and success. His performances became more erratic, though an ensemble performance of the Pogues with the Dubliners on Irish television singing “The Irish Rover” comes off quite successfully. That was when he actually managed to arrive at the concert venue. Stumbling through the “Hell’s Ditch” sessions, which McGowan himself admits were vocally sub-standard, things came to a head on the subsequent tour, and another of the lingering questions is raised — did the Pogues fire Shane McGowan?
McGowan, clearly drunk and almost incomprehensible through most of the interviews (subtitles may be in order), is evasive on the matter, claiming bizarrely that the band wanted to stop playing Irish music. Philip Chevron, representing the rest of the band, asserts that McGowan, in his roundabout way, had made it clear that he wanted to spend less time touring and more time at home, while road manager Joey Cashman comes right out and says “They fired him — I was there at the meeting.” Either way, the split was final (though Spider Stacey later makes an appearance onstage with McGowan’s new band, the Popes) and devastating to both parties, leaving both the Pogues and McGowan as spent forces, condemned to rehashing their former glories with varying degrees of success. The Pogues remained a popular draw on the concert circuit, replacing McGowan with the great Joe Strummer, but their albums sales declined and none of their subsequent songs can be said to compare with the McGowan era.
Shane McGowan’s wilderness years were spent drinking and drugging it, occasionally dueting with artists such as Nick Cave (“Wonderful World”) and Sinead O’Connor, who notoriously shopped him for heroin possession in an apparent attempt to intervene with the man’s self-destruction. Even his long-time girlfriend Victoria Clarke, “the girl with green eyes,” had begun to tire of his head-long descent into oblivion, but if the film is to be believed, she held on and helped pull him out of it, at least to some extent. So when we see them walking through the fields around the family house in Tipperary, holding hands, McGowan drinking whiskey straight out of the bottle held in his other hand, she laughs it off, saying, in effect, that he’s really good at drinking and that most of his songs are about booze anyway. To be sure, he is a barstool prophet par excellence, but this is hardly a happy ending — the bright and ambitious youth has given way to a shadow of a man, who resembles no-one more than Ozzy Osbourne, another survivor of substance abuse whose addled thoughts are now aired for the world to hear, his mind and body crippled from years of dissipated living.
The Shane McGowan that emerges from this portrait is as paradoxical as his music; hiding behind a mask of simplicity lies a complex man who wrestles every day with his own private demons. He is a man who threw it all away: “I never gave a damn about the beauty that I smashed,” he once sang — neither the music, his lovers nor his own mind, it seems. As his father says in the film, “We always knew he had a brilliant mind, and he still does, a few billion brain cells later.”
(Music Video Distributors, 2003)