Shane MacGowan Is Gone.
"I met my love by the gas works wall."
Late 1996, The Dogs Bollix, Tamaki Makaurau.
I’m at the front of the bar yelling my order to the bartender, jostling with other thirsty punters on a Friday night, keen to piss their wages up against a wall letting loose. The black stuff, long luscious pints of creamy goodness.
Back down the stairs, arm full of drinks, there is a girl I’ve been seeing for a couple of months. She is laughing and smoking a cigarette as the band return to the stage in the unhurried, work-a-day, fashion of Irish bands. No pretense, no gimmicks or silly outfits, just great songs that speak to the heart of the drinking classes, afflicted by work, but momentarily set free.
I’m meeting her mother in the morning, who doesn’t really approve of me but must have worked out she’s fighting a losing battle. But tonight no one is thinking of tomorrow. The band starts up…
I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town
The song I know well, but it hits a bit differently on that night. I look at my girl singing along her eyes smiling at me. I think she might be the one.
This morning as I write this she is fast asleep in our bed, it was her birthday yesterday, a good one I hope. But I’ve opened my phone and seen the headlines.
The lead vocalist of the Pogues, writer of great songs, a human health warning against excess, and singer of the one Christmas song everyone actually likes, even if it’s not Christmas time, is gone.
My memories are full of nights of laughter in smoky Irish bars, a quarter of a century ago, but further back as well.
Late 1986, David’s house, Union St, Rotorua.
Growing up there were four of us in a gang together, myself, Matt my best mate who I often talk about in these newsletters, David, and Keith. It’s fair to say we weren’t part of the popular crowd, and also that we couldn’t have cared less.
David was the one who introduced me to Punk. The Clash and the Pistols, the Dead Kennedys and the Damned. In later years when he moved to Australia he’d send me mix tapes of punk bands he’d discovered there. But back then in 86 I remember “discovering” the Pogues at his place.
What wasn’t to like? A band that blended the raw energy and honesty of punk with the melodies and rhythms of traditional Irish music. They were originally called póg mo thóin, Gaelic for “kiss my ass”, if that wasn’t enough to appeal to a teenage boy the big album of the time was “Rum Sodomy & the Lash”. I was in.
Somewhere lurking in my brain was the idea of being a musician or something to do with the music business. I loved reading about music almost as much as listening to it. A few years later on a trip to Auckland I picked up a biography of the band in a bargain bin in the foyer of a mall. I was hooked even more.
Reading the tales of their early days, the wildness, the drunkenness, the songs, and the stories took a teenager from the provinces around the world. I still remember part of it now, the guy who couldn’t really play an instrument so his contribution was to go on stage and bash his head with a metal tea tray - as some sort of percussion.
July 1999 Finsbury Park, London N4.
In 1997, the year after that night at the Dogs Bollix, Fi and I moved to London. Needless to say there were many more hours in bars with Irish music, Guinness, and cigarettes. Seeing the same places that I’d read about the Pogues playing and those name checked in the songs, listening to their music again. Now Fi and I were off to see the man himself at the Fleadh, an Irish music festival.
I remember it was a stinking hot July day in London, the train was sticky and as we got closer to the local station you could see that more and more of the people aboard were heading to the same destination. Don’t you just love that feeling of arriving at a music festival, walking in, the excitement and anticipation in the air?
As much as I was looking forward to Shane I was also excited to see Van Morrison. Fi and I loved his songs too, a favourite of my Dad too, those Astral Weeks gone by.
But MacGowan was the one I really wanted to see. He was playing on the second stage, away from the main area. For those familiar with Mt Smart in Auckland, the equivalent in years gone by of the Supertop tent.
It was really hot in there, full of a younger crowd, young punks full of beer and sweat there to see their idol. One of the all time greats, and to be honest one that perhaps many of us were possibly a bit surprised was still alive. He didn’t look in great shape.
Not well at all, his teeth pretty well gone, his skin palid, he was thin and a bit unsteady. But he sung like you’d expect him to and those wide eyed punks full of bluster showed due deference to the great man. I was glad I’d seen him, he didn’t look like he was long for the world.
I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
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
Later that year Fi and I moved home to Auckland, we lived initially with her Mum. I should add after all these years Fi’s mum “Mick” is one of my favourite people, many is the time the two of us have put the world to rights over the years.
Over the next 18 months we bought a house over in Blockhouse Bay Rd in Avondale (Heights if you’re a Real Estate agent), and got married. We also spent quite a bit of time in Irish bars.
Coming back to NZ was a culture shock, we were used to going out any night of the week, the Horse and Trap with 3 other punters on a Tuesday was pretty grim but there was always life in the Irish bars. The Bollix, the Claddagh in Newmarket, and most of all Murphys in town - back when it was a great bar with live bands and no pokies.
We lasted 18 months before returning to the UK for another stint, moving to Wembley Park in North London, our local just around the corner was an Irish bar called “The Parish”.
I remember buying A Drink with Shane McGowan from the O2 centre on Finchley Road. It was written by Victoria Mary Clarke, his girlfriend, they would marry in 2018. It was a sobering read and certainly made me wonder again how the hell Shane was still alive after the lifestyle he had lead.
Not the fake rock star lifestyle of throwing televisions out of hotel windows or snorting cocaine off of groupies. But that of a drinker of beer and whisky and long sessions on the daily.
This might be a good point to mention I’ve not had a drink myself since September of 2021, I’ll write about all of that one of these days. There are many tales good and bad to tell, suffice to say my life is a lot better as a result.
I will just add though for anyone who might not be feeling good about their drinking there is great happiness on the other side, as hard as that might be to believe right now. So regardless of how many times you might have tried, from a heavy drinker of 30 years, there is a better life on the other side.
When we lose our heroes there is a great sadness, as much for the part of our life they they were in, as the person themselves. I loved Shane’s music, his own songs, the old traditional ones, and of course the Christmas one - anyone who wants to change the lyrics on that, quite frankly, can póg mo thóin!
I hope you don’t mind a non-political one but I figured when I read the news that was all I’d be thinking about this morning so I’d best write about it. Of course I’ll also be listening to his wonderful music.
Of streams of Whisky, and journeys far away. Of returned soldiers broken by war, and a pair of Brown eyes. Memories of singing and laughter, intertwined with my girl. Soon I’ll wake her for the day and tell her the news, it’s going to hit her hard too.
Take care all of you lovely people, thanks for the memories and the music Shane.