Shane MacGowan is a textbook case of someone who should be dead but somehow keeps rolling. In MacGowan’s case “rolling” is the right word because years of dedicated self-destruction have wrecked his sense of balance, confining him to a wheelchair. Now 62-years-old the former lead singer for the Pogues sits with his head tilted at an angle, speaking slowly, hurling occasional shafts of wit from out of the fog. He’s still drinking and smoking, against doctor’s orders, and says he’d love a hit of heroin because he’s been such a good boy for so long. When MacGowan tells us he doesn’t have a death wish he is completely credible. He didn’t achieve this degree of ruin by gazing longingly at death but by embracing life to the fullest.
Someone in this film says MacGowan would like to live forever, and he seems to be giving it a go. Although 27 is the official age at which celebrated rock stars depart this earth he appears quite happy to carry on in his own steady way while those around him drop off. He’s reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s character, Molloy, who crawls along contentedly on his belly after losing the use of his legs.
At more than two hours Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, might seem too long, but not when your subject is the very definition of excess. The film is an unsparing, affectionate portrait that explains a lot about MacGowan without making excuses. To tell this story Temple has dipped into every box of tricks he has used in making well over a hundred video clips for everyone from Sid Vicious to Janet Jackson.
One wishes Temple had made more documentaries because nobody has shown more verve and imagination in capturing the world of popular music. His film The Filth and the Fury (2000) was the very last word on the Sex Pistols, with a montage that mimicked the jagged styles of Punk music and fashion. For Temple it was also an attempt at redemption after having been roped into directing Malcolm McLaren’s schlock exercise in self-aggrandisement, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980).
As the title suggests, Crock of Gold is not just about MacGowan, but about Ireland. The 1912 novel of that name was a classic piece of blarney by James Stephens, himself no bigger than a leprechaun. Temple takes up the Irish mythology and blends it with a scoop of social realism in portraying MacGowan’s childhood in County Tipperary – a world of hard men and harder women, who worked like slaves in the fields all day and partied like bacchantes every night at the local. Everybody drank, and drank, from the first thirsty moments of puberty. MacGowan was about six when he got started. His clan was fiercely religious, which was no barrier to drinking, swearing and making music.
Nobody in Tipperary had forgotten the potato famine of the 1840s or the barbarisms inflicted by the English. There were endless heroic stories about the Irish Uprising of 1916, and the battles fought between the IRA and the Black and Tans during the War of Independence, from 1919-21. We get a good, long look at this essential background through a mixture of archival footage, dramatic reconstruction and animation.
By the time MacGowan’s family had relocated to Tunbridge Wells in search of a better life Shane was so thoroughly Irish he was destined for a rough time at school. The beatings duly arrived but so did the high marks. A literary prodigy in his teens, MacGowan was already reading James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, and had exceptional writing skills.
His parents were bright, artistic and liberal-minded, but when the family moved to London, installing themselves in a concrete box in the trendy, brutalist, Barbican complex, Shane’s promising start hit the wall. At a posh grammar school he fell foul of drugs and English prejudice. He became a member of the ‘no future’ generation until Punk rock came along and “saved his life”. Instantly recognisable by his tall, gangling figure and set of teeth that resembled the fronds of a Venus flytrap, he was a familiar figure in the front row of gigs by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and other legendary bands. MacGowan became one of the faces of Punk, a mini-celebrity who was frequently photographed and interviewed.
After the Punk revolution had fizzled into tabloid fodder and the streets filled with New Romantics, MacGowan got together with some friends to see whether the hard edge of Punk could be combined with Ireland’s indigenous music. The result was The Pogues – short for Pogue mahone (póg mo thóin) – or “Kiss My Arse” in Gaelic.
Having enjoyed instant success the band embarked on one of the most gruelling, kamikaze touring schedules of all time. They travelled around the world, playing every night of the week, sometimes twice a day. They seemed to be perpetually drunk, with MacGowan the drunkest of the lot. The height of their fame came in 1988 with Fairy Tale of New York, a duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, with the Pogues as backing band. It rocketed to the top of the charts, and remains the most popular Christmas song of the 21st century.
By this stage MacGowan was a wreck, debilitated by non-stop performing, propped up by huge quantities of booze and drugs. In Wellington one night he painted himself and a hotel room blue, following instructions from dead Maori warriors. When the bubble finally burst, after he fell out of the van in Tokyo and ended up in hospital, he felt an enormous sense of relief. But by then the damage had been done.
Whenever we are lifted out if this riotous, decadent narrative it’s to be confronted by the aged MacGowan reclining in his wheelchair, wheezing through the chasms in his teeth, as he discusses old times with his wife, Victoria; with Gerry Adams, the former head of Sinn Féin; or an idolatrous Johnny Depp (Yes, Johnny Depp Alert. And beware, there’s also a Bono sighting).
And yet what stayed most vividly in my mind when the film was over, was not MacGowan’s crazed lifestyle or Temple’s picture of a rock era that had fallen into the abyss, but the incredible, heartfelt power of the Pogues’ music. For all his extremism, MacGowan wrote lyrics that touched the heart, delivered in a voice that once heard was never forgotten. The fast songs were all energy and attack, the slow ones so sentimental they could ambush the most cynical listener. Within that shell called Shane MacGowan there once lived an incredible wellspring of thought and feeling. It’s a melancholy realisation that the gold has been spent and only the crock remains.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
Written & directed by Julien Temple
Starring Shane McGowan, The Pogues, Victoria Mary Clarke, Gerry Adams, Johnny Depp, Ann Scanlon, Maurice MacGowan, Siobhan MacGowan, Bobby Gillespie
UK, rated MA 15+, 124 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 December, 2020