Nowadays they call Shane MacGowan a “punk poet”; but before punk they just called them "poets."
Over the holidays, we'll be posting awesome music documentaries in conjunction with the cool cats at MVD Visual. Today we've got If I Should Fall From Grace, Stream the documentary below, and be sure to read the awesome essay by Dan Weiss on the beautiful mess that is Shane.
Nowadays they call Shane MacGowan a “punk poet”; but before punk they just called them "poets." A big-eared kid expelled at age 12 for what his dad thinks he remembers was “cannabis,” McGowan was abusing alcohol and his teeth before he went through his natural teenage inclination to start a band. Seeing The Sex Pistols was a revelation for him but produced a paradoxical effect, getting him in touch with his traditional side, and went from making (actually underrated) pub-new wave with two hilariously areola-based outfits (The Nips and Nipple Erectors) to traditional Irish music sung through a tattered throat with hardcore force simply because he couldn’t believe no one else was doing it.
His new band was The Pogues, short for “poguemahone,” gutter-Irish for “kiss my ass.” Early flecks of genius like “Streams Of Whiskey” caught the attention of Elvis Costello who similarly mined punk's energy and translated it to other styles, and he went on to produce The Pogues’ stone-cold classic second album Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. As the comparatively-labored Nick Cave attests in the documentary “If I Should Fall from Grace,” the “punk poet” brilliance sounded like it just dropped out of McGowan, without a bad line. It’s true; few non-rappers in music are so rightfully renowned for storytelling and turns of phrase that don’t at all sound like someone sat down and whittled them out. Shane’s stories seem overheard in bar, swiped from a napkin, or maybe nicked the father of a girl he was dogging. It’s hard to imagine the guy even concentrating; he spent the wonderful Pogues reunion show I caught a few years ago in a wheelchair from keeling off the stage the previous night.
Since the speed of pennywhistle-inflected Irish folk tunes melded perfectly with punk, and his rotting complexion gave him an easy slot in the antihero seat, McGowan became instantly renowned for fallen hero anthems like “The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” as well as (unusual for punk except for X or maybe the Vibrators) his romantic side on “Sally MacLennane” and “A Pair Of Brown Eyes.” That latter impulse and the band’s desire to be pop stars brought them to Steve Lillywhite for third album If I Should Fall from Grace With God, which amongst more great barnburners like “Thousands Are Sailing” and “Bottle Of Smoke” wielded a huge hit, and arguably the greatest Christmas song of all time, “Fairytale Of New York,” in which Kirtsy MacColl guests to joyously call Shane a, “Cheap, lousy faggot” unedited all over the charts.
Then the boring stuff happened: Shane’s substance abuse overpowered the band, slurred his voice beyond comprehension and they thought they could go it without him. The Pogues without Shane fucking sucked, but luckily Shane without the Pogues actually thrived quite nicely, making his second masterpiece The Snake in 1995 with the awfully similar-sounding Popes (in name too). He still sang about “Nancy Whiskey,” turned out “Haunted,” a gorgeous duet with Sinead O’Connor that deserved to be as big as “Fairytale,” and continued to write perfectly, in-his-romantically-destructive-wheelhouse tunes like “Paddy Public Enemy No. 1” until the Pogues reunited for obvious reasons involving their aforementioned sucking and Shane's aforementioned ruling.
“If I Should Fall From Grace” is exactly what you’d expect: lots of amusing stories from his parents, his wife Victoria Mary Clarke (a journalist), and creepy, spit-flecked snickering from the genius himself, the latter two also penned a highly amusing and occasionally scraggly handwritten memoir of their own, A Drink with Shane McGowan that’s also worth picking up and reading upside down beside your favorite whiskey tumbler. With his unabashed desire to be famous and his romantic’s knack for lines like “I built my dreams around you,” Shane was never as much of a punk as he was made out to be, even if he flipped the switch that would eventually turn bands like Flogging Molly and the now Scorcese-famous Dropkick Murphys into fairly renowned Celtic-punk road warriors in their own right. But a better comparison would be Tom Waits, or hell, even Bob Dylan. The words just dropped out of those guys too. People expect MacGowan to be a tragic hero because he drinks himself within Reaper range on a daily basis. But he’s still alive, and in a way he always will be. Just wait til the next drunk punk expelled kid decides to resurrect timeless folk tunes in a band. Plenty of Shane’s contributions will be included.