When Shane MacGowan trolled Bono: 10 funny, sad stories about the Pogues frontman

Shane MacGowan in 1987
Shane MacGowan in 1987 - Redferns
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I only met the late Shane MacGowan once, in 2005. I was in the infamous Colony Club in Soho, in the company of the equally late dandy and artist Sebastian Horsley. Horsley introduced me to his friend Shane, who gave me a look of staggering disinterest and boredom. Lost for anything more interesting or original to say, I stammered to the Pogues frontman: “I’m terribly sorry, your chair seems to be on my coat.” MacGowan’s expression did not alter, but he grudgingly adjusted his seat, and I escaped from our brief encounter unscathed.

My experience with the troubadour, songwriter and iconoclast was one of the least memorable that I imagine that MacGowan ever had. Over the course of his 65 years on this planet, he met and was feted by everyone from Gerry Adams to Kate Moss. It was a testament to how beloved he was by his fellow musicians that none other than Bruce Springsteen visited him in his Dublin home in May, and Bob Dylan declared from a Tipperary stage last year that “I want to say hello to Shane MacGowan out there. He’s one of our favourite artists and we hope he makes another record soon. Fairytale of New York means a lot to us. We play it every Christmas.”

Yet MacGowan’s inimitable, rackety life was rich in drama, event and contradiction. From Westminster public schoolboy to unlikely reality gardening reality television show star, he packed more into his six and a half decades on this earth than most people could have hoped to manage in ten lifetimes. Here are 10 of the funniest, saddest and most MacGowan-esque stories that illuminate a life misled on the grandest scale imaginable.

1. He started drinking early

MacGowan was born into a middle-class Irish family; his mother Therese was a singer-turned-typist and his father Maurice worked in the administrative offices of C & A. Maurice was, however, in his own inimitable description, “a local roustabout”, and took his son to the local pub with him from a young age, to keep him company while he drank heavily with his fellow boozers. MacGowan became one of these drinkers from a youthful age. As he later recalled, “I was drinking stout aged five, I used to get two bottles of Guinness a night. If anyone questioned [my family] about it they would say, ‘If you give him enough when they’re young, they won’t go overboard with it later on’.”

Shane MacGowan as a toddler, in a still from the documentary A Crock of Gold
Shane MacGowan as a toddler, in a still from the documentary A Crock of Gold

This did not happen, in part because he progressed to spirits at the age of six, thanks to his aunt’s boyfriend. MacGowan said that “He bought me a Baby Powers [a bottle with two doubles in it] one day in a bar. He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about that’. I kept it for a while as I thought about drinking it, then one day I drank it in the middle of the day. I got a ferocious belt off it. I thought ‘God almighty’. I got a rush of it and then walked out into the farmyard and the animals started talking to me. My uncle John who was walking past, looked at me drunk and said ‘What the f--k!’ I was out of my brain. That was the first time I got drunk on whiskey and there’s been a few bottles of whiskey since then.”

2. He was Westminster’s unlikeliest – and shortest-lived – scholarship boy

Westminster School: alma mater of the likes of Nick Clegg, Helena Bonham Carter, Andrew Lloyd Webber and, bizarrely, MacGowan. After he attended a prep school in Kent, he won a scholarship for the prestigious London institution thanks to his facility for literature. As he later recalled in an interview with the Guardian, “My family were all very literate – my father went to university and is very well read – so I learned to read really young. I was regarded as a gifted child and I won a scholarship to Westminster school by writing essays.” Unfortunately, his time there was to be limited. He summarised his adventures there pithily. “At Westminster, I started doing pills and acid and going to the pub. I didn’t last there very long. I got nicked for smoking a joint and was kicked out. My mother was a bit upset, but my father wasn’t. He didn’t think that I was getting a lot out of school.”

3. He went ‘completely lula’ as a teenager

After MacGowan was expelled from Westminster, he found himself miserably adrift in London, a city of which he later said “London is no fun for a kid. To be quite honest, nowadays it’s no fun for an adult. It was bloody awful. There was f--k all to do in London. I hated England and every time I went to stay in England some disaster happened. My parents were unhappy there and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t help it rubbing off on me, and I got disturbed. I started having recurring nightmares and all the rest of it.”

Shane MacGowan aged 19
Shane MacGowan aged 19 - Getty

This eventually led MacGowan, suffering from a bout of measles and the trauma of his mother’s illness, to go, in his words, “completely lula”. As he put it, “I had a nervous breakdown and ended up in the looney-bin for six months. When I came out of the madhouse – after turning the tables on the shrink and psycho-analysing him – I went on a raving bender.”

4. The Sex Pistols blew his mind (initially)

The early years of the Sex Pistols have passed into musical legend, with their legendary gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 being famous for having attracted everyone from Morrissey to Mick Hucknall. Yet when MacGowan saw them supporting Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash act The 101ers, although he was initially equally enamoured, their influence did not prove to be a lasting one. As he described the experience: “That’s when I saw God. I saw this little red-haired Paddy up there pouring beer over his head and sneering at the audience shouting insults at him. And then he’d launch into this loud, raucous rock ‘n’ rollin’ number with foul lyrics, I thought this was the pop band I’d been waiting for all my life.” Yet he subsequently decided that “The punk scene was great while it was small and, to be quite honest, punk was over for me by the end of 1977. So then back I went to Ireland, with the dye washed out and wearing a suit.”

5. He made Fairytale of New York as a bet

Even those who are agnostic towards MacGowan’s band The Pogues celebrate his 1987 single Fairytale of New York as one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written, if not the best Yuletide number of all time. (It would not be remotely surprising if MacGowan’s death saw it become this year’s Christmas number one.) Yet its origins stem from the band initially being asked to cover The Band’s Christmas Must Be Tonight by their manager, and them dismissing it as “awful…f--k that, we can do our own.” It was none other than Elvis Costello, who had produced their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, who bet MacGowan that he couldn’t write a classic Christmas number that would resonate through the years.

The singer, who was himself born on December 25, collaborated with his bandmate Jem Finer on a song that was inspired in equal parts by Ennio Morricone’s wistful score for Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time in America and JP Donleavy’s novel A Fairy Tale of New York. MacGowan had never been to New York at that point, so the song’s appropriately fantastical quality owes everything to his imagination and little to reality. It was also, he claimed, autobiographical in its depiction of a battling couple; as he said “I identified with the man because I was a hustler and I identified with the woman because I was a heavy drinker and a singer. I have been in hospitals on morphine drips, and I have been in drunk tanks on Christmas Eve.” Nonetheless, MacGowan also came to despise his most famous song, saying of it “it pisses me off when people talk about it” and “I’ve got a few favourite songs, but it’s not one of them.”

6. He left the Pogues in style

The Pogues have been accurately described as one of the drunkest and most rowdy bands in history, but even they were unable to cope with their singer’s behaviour, which eventually came to a head in 1991. MacGowan had, by this stage, frequently not turned up for gigs and was an increasingly belligerent and unstable presence, and missed two of the four concerts that the band were booked to play. The reason for his absence was that MacGowan, travelling on a bullet train between cities, had been given sake; one of the few kinds of alcohol that he was not previously familiar with.

Spider Stacey and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues in 1988
Spider Stacey and Shane MacGowan of The Pogues in 1988 - Steve Pyke

He took to it like the proverbial duck to water, and drank such a vast quantity that he fell out of the train carriage, knocking himself unconscious in the process. After his bandmates decided enough was enough and gave him his marching orders, MacGowan was unfazed. His quoted response was simply “What took you so long?” He eventually returned to the band in 2001 and they continued to play gigs until 2014, with their joyous Christmas shows a particular highlight.

7. His teeth deserved their own documentary

When I briefly met MacGowan, I was struck by the fact that his mouth seemed to be without its usual compliment of teeth, and that those that remained looked rather forlorn and far apart, like tombstones in a bombed graveyard. Eventually, his much-abused fangs were the subject of their own documentary about their reconstruction, 2015’s Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn. Working with the dentist Darragh Mulrooney, who described his task as “the Everest of dentistry” as he noted that “there was a whole team required to get to the summit”, MacGowan’s existing teeth were removed and replaced by a set of 28 new dentures, moulded onto a titanium frame.

Mulrooney was concerned by whether the procedure would affect the singer’s inimitable voice, saying “Shane recorded most of his great works when he had some teeth to work with. The question on everyone’s lips is how it will affect his voice. The tongue is a finely attuned muscle and it makes precise movements. We’ve effectively retuned his instrument and that will be an ongoing process.” But the procedure went well, said Mulrooney: “There was a moving moment when someone gave Shane an apple to eat … something he hadn’t done in 20 years.”

8. He had an unlikely array of famous friends

In addition to the likes of Springsteen, Dylan and his frequent collaborator Nick Cave, MacGowan was beloved by a range of hellraisers and would-be hellraisers across the spectrum of film, music and fashion; Johnny Depp idolised him, playing guitar at his wedding to his long-term partner Victoria Clarke in 2018. “There are moments in life when you know this will happen one time and one time only, when you get the opportunity to spend time with greatness,” Depp said of his hero. He was also unique in that he was one of the few people to stay friends with Depp, the actor’s former girlfriend Kate Moss and her former paramour Pete Doherty, indicating either a hitherto unguessed-at skill for diplomacy – or simply that people liked hanging around with him.

With his friend Johnny Depp, who made a guest appearance on MacGowan's first solo album, The Snake, in 1994
With his friend Johnny Depp, who made a guest appearance on MacGowan's first solo album, The Snake, in 1994 - MIrrorpix

Nonetheless, U2’s Bono might have had more than he was bargaining for when he offered MacGowan the chance to live in one of the flats that he owned in Dublin rent-free for a period in the late Nineties. MacGowan delighted in exposing himself to passing travellers; as he said, “Bono put in a glass roof and wall. I used to wave my willy at the train as it passed and hope they thought it was Bono’s.” As Clarke remarked, with infinite understanding, “Bono was very patient.” And such was MacGowan’s renown that, at his 60th birthday party in Dublin, he was feted by the U2 singer, along with Cave and none other than the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, who said after MacGowan’s death that “Shane will be remembered as one of music’s greatest lyricists.”

9. He was almost a reality star

MacGowan and Clarke were together for decades; the two initially met when she was 16 and he was 24, and she wrote a volume of memoir about their relationship, 2001’s A Drink with Shane MacGowan, saying of their relationship that “it makes the Fairytale Of New York couple from Shane’s Christmas song seem tame and orderly.” Increasingly, she found herself acting as MacGowan’s spokesperson and sounding board during his media appearances, which she handled with good humour and articulacy, and the two of them were often invited together onto television. Yet perhaps the strangest show that they appeared on was the 2009 Irish reality programme Shane and Victoria Grow Their Own, in which they tried to grow vegetables in their back garden, aided by their famous friends.

What made the “disjointed” and “anarchic” production so insanely watchable was that Clarke showed herself to be every bit as eccentric as her then-partner, refusing to read any of the gardening manuals that she had been given for guidance, and instead trusting that her belief in angels would somehow provide the basis for potatoes and carrots to be grown. MacGowan was not an especially useful presence on screen. One critic remarked that “when he laughs, it sounds like a hiss because he has no teeth which makes him look way older than he is, though admittedly the rotten teeth weren’t a good look”, but also concluded of the show that “I suppose I watched gobsmacked and cringed quite a bit but yes, it was compulsive viewing.”

10. … And a chat show host

In 1995, the art critic and television producer Waldemar Januszczak was commissioned to make the pilot episode of a show entitled A Drink with Shane MacGowan for Channel 4. The idea behind the episode was simple; MacGowan would host and interview an eclectic range of guests who would include his friend Johnny Depp, former adult star Traci Lords and the novelist Joe Gores. MacGowan and his interviewees would be given free-flowing alcohol, and the result would be, Januszczak hoped, both scabrous and revelatory. In the event, the combination of MacGowan’s less-than-insightful comments (he said of the legendary film director Sam Peckinpah simply that “He’s dead!”) and his resentful, intoxicated guests meant that the show failed both as entertainment and as circus-level spectacle.

Although the Daily Star wrote about the potential for mischief in excitable style – “Shane goes out of his way to cause an upset. Late night TV hasn’t seen anything quite like it. The stars are invited to drink as much as they like it as the conversation flows. We’re not sure whether the bad language will be bleeped out, but it’s certainly bound to cause raised eyebrow among concerned parents” – the results were boring rather than hilarious. Although MacGowan’s performance of the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place was at least energetic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pilot was never aired, and the series was not brought to fruition.

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