Shane McGowan died yesterday. An event which we dreaded would happen much sooner than it did touched the souls of not only those who admired his musical and lyrical genius but of those who recognised that a very special person has been in our midst.
What can I say about Shane? The greatest lyricist, a true poet, a punk spirit, a beautiful soul. An inspirational Irish son. At the height of his fame my Irish friend Kathy and I – two massive Pogues fans – were in the Scala all night cinema in King’s cross. This was a cool place to hang out in those days and attracted an eclectic crowd of arty types, punks, rebels, and street kids in the know. Drinks could be bought at the bar and taken into the auditorium, themed movies played back to back from 11pm until dawn when we would all emerge blinking into the sunlight, the sound of Sunday church bells ringing in the new day as we reeled our way to the tube station.
This memorable Scala Saturday night, Kathy and I were sitting in our aisle seats enjoying the irreverent, rambunctious atmosphere, when a figure came staggering up the stairs and stopped right next to us, beer in hand. Kathy looked up at him and in disbelief said, ‘are you Shane McGowan!?’ In that unmistakable gentle growling drawl he replied, ‘yeah’. All Kathy could say in reply was, ‘woohoo!’. I sat there awestruck. How I wish now I’d said something to him, but the sight of an idol I’d only previously seen on a TV screen standing in front of me in the flesh was so unexpected and surreal I was struck dumb. And anyone who knows me will testify to what an unusual state that is for me.
In fact, I can’t think of any ‘star’ or famous person then or since who would have had this effect on me. But Shane was special. He was unique, not just in talent but in authenticity. Truly authentic people are very, very rare, and Shane was radiantly so, which is why his light burned so brightly and warmed so many hearts. We are so flooded in our private lives and in the public sphere with egos dealing in the shallow things: image, money, unearned fame, or talent squandered on the alter of commodification, that when we encounter someone possessing so prodigious a gift, yet concerned only with pouring his soul out into his words and music, we recognise a different note chiming in our own soul, one at total odds with the materialist spectacle we are daily encouraged to partake in.
It seems sadly and beautifully apt that he should leave us in the Christmas season, when his masterpiece, A Fairytale of New York is gracing the airwaves. How ironic, then, that a sanitised version is being played by corporate stations who wouldn’t know authenticity if it stormed their AGM. The ‘offensive’ lyrics are those between the couple arguing in the song; ‘you cheap lousy faggot’, and ‘you’re an old slut on junk’, are to be muted or changed by Radios 1 and 2, yet if these were characters in a play, would the BBC be so exercised? Shane was writing with absolute veracity when he created these people who spoke to each other during a drunken quarrel the way he truthfully saw them, and it pains me that the lyrics which follow have been overshadowed because they are, in my opinion, the most beautiful ever written.
As the brawl goes on and these hurtful insults are thrown, the song slows as the woman utters the devastating words: ‘You took my dreams from me’. What could possibly be worse than this? When I first heard the song I fully expected angry or accusatory words to follow, but this is Shane McGowan, and he pierced my heart with the most unexpected and moving response:
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can’t make it all alone
I’ve built my dreams around you
‘I kept them with me babe’. I remember gasping on first listen, so confounding was the place I had been taken to. Only Shane could write a song that conveys the deep and enduring love between a couple who appear at first to hate each other, who are struggling with addiction on the underbelly of society. In the place we least expect to find beauty, there it is. This is songwriting on another level. It’s transcendent. And much like Shane himself, who to the outward and unpenetrating eye, seemed rough and ready, but whose depths were filled with an acute sensitivity and delicacy of nature, A Fairytale of New York stands as a testament to the empathy, grace and creative genius of this unique man with the sublime talent. I saw him sing it live a few years ago after Kirsty McCall had also left us too soon. I was simply in heaven.
My two favourite quotes of Shane’s have to be:
‘I’ve been a babe magnet for some time now’ and…
‘All I can do is go by the words of Christ, who was the only talker we had, for fuck’s sake. Buddha didn’t speak. The Holy Ghost didn’t speak. But I think it all boils down to the same thing…it’s all about unity, love and compassion.’
Shane lived with absolute integrity, and how many of us will be able to say that at the time of parting. His vulnerability, his humour, his obvious humanity shine out of all the work he has left us. What a legacy. That night in The Scala cinema was a magical moment I have always treasured. And how wonderful that Shane found such a great love with his wife Victoria that lasted right to the end of his life, and beyond I’ve no doubt. They were together for over thirty years, and married in 2018. Here is her heartbreaking, and heartwarming, statement issued yesterday on Instagram:
He’ll be up there now raising a glass to all of us.