Shane MacGowan: The Bottle and The Damage Done

A Film Review by Steve Carey

A Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, A Documentary Written and Directed by Julien Temple. 2020

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This is the story of the songwriter and lead singer of The Pogues, who famously grabbed traditional Irish ballads and gave them a punk twist. MacGowan is almost as famous for his drinking and the calamity that is his gob, which even had its own show: the procedure to replace his long-gone natural teeth was the subject of an hour-long TV program, A Wreck Reborn. Fracturing his pelvis in a fall, he is now wheelchair-bound, damaged by lifelong alcohol abuse and bouts of heroin. His words in the movie require subtitles. He was introduced to alcohol before he was in his teens, and it’s said (though not here) that his heroin use ended in 2001 when Sinead O’Connor shopped him to the cops.

MacGowan was born in Tunbridge Wells, of all places, and though he spent happy summers on the farm in Tipperary, he grew up, reluctantly, in England, attending Westminster School on a scholarship, until given the boot for dealing speed and barbiturates to his fellow (presumably dilated) pupils. Already troubled by mental health issues, which he attributes to life as an Irish country boy at heart trapped in a hostile England and to his parents breaking up, he found acceptance in freak-friendly punk London in 1977. Punk validated his attitude and gave him confidence to perform (The Nipple Erectors, no less), but the breakthrough came when he smeared the sneer across Irish music, setting it ablaze with a joyous Saturday night energy fuelled by alcohol. He played a major role in transforming the cartoon image of the Irish from thick Paddy, the butt of Bernard Manning jokes, fit only for navvying and balaclava-clad terrorism, into a politically engaged people with a rich and joyful culture who know how to have a good time – no less of a stereotype, but at least an enviable one.

MacGowan himself has always been a keen Republican, and ex-Provisional IRA President Gerry Adams comes to sit at his feet and offer praise. When The Pogues launched, Adams was portrayed on British television as the devil incarnate, his words unbroadcastable (but voiced by an actor, rendering the ban pointless). MacGowan claims to regret lacking the courage to join the IRA, but he would have been a bigger threat to discipline and his comrades than to the enemy, and in any case has served his country far better as a poet and a singer. 

The story has its villains. MacGowan is still bitter about one-time manager Frank Murray, who toured the band relentlessly for his 20%. Johnny Depp, whose production company infinitum nihil was instrumental in getting the film made, appears as the kind of friend MacGowan does not need, happy to splash about in spilt booze, fag ash and incoherent non-stories. There is one good gag: ‘What makes you think I didn’t fall asleep watching The Pirates?’ slurs MacGowan, teasingly alluding to Depp’s most commercially successful role in Pirates of the Caribbean. Retorts Depp: ‘What makes you think didn’t?’

Much more sympathetic are two key women in his life, sister Siobhan and wife Victoria Mary Clarke. Both evidently love him and are willing to take him on his terms, though they are neither blind to nor silent on the ways substance abuse has prevented him from connecting, both with others and with his own best self.

MacGowan’s anarchic spirit is well served by Julien Temple, who writes and directs, bringing a lifetime of music filmmaking and a keen sense of place and time. We get Irish myth and social history, stirred in with animation, talking animals and plentiful and judicious original footage. At two hours, the move is twenty minutes too long, but we’re kept well entertained along the way.

Temple found that MacGowan’s inner circle was vital, because it was only with them that the movie’s subject would let down his guard. He raises necessary questions about the bottle and the damage done. MacGowan disdains our pity: he’s his own man. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s argued by his sister that the state he’s in now comes not, as might be imagined, from a self-destructive urge, but from a raging thirst to drain life to the dregs. Either way, the poster boy for living every day and all night like a Pogues gig is a health warning, rather than an invitation.

The climax of the movie is a 60th birthday celebration, featuring a beautifully touching duet between MacGowan and Nick Cave. The rapturous reception – Ireland’s President Higgins turns up to present an award – recognises MacGowan as a rare and important talent, and it is possible though perhaps unlikely that we may not have heard the last of him.

Steve Carey 

Steve is a Joycean and a cinema enthusiast.

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