Pogues singer Shane MacGowan dead at 65

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Shane MacGowan, the singer and main songwriter for the Pogues, who fused punk energy and traditional Irish music but whose lifestyle often overshadowed his musical contributions, has died. He was 65.

“It is with the deepest sorrow and heaviest hearts that we announce the passing of Shane MacGowan,” his wife Victoria Mary Clarke, sister Siobhan and father Maurice said in a joint statement.

The statement said MacGowan, who was recently in hospital related to a diagnosis last year of viral encephalitis, died peacefully early Thursday with family by his side.

MacGowan appeared on five Pogues albums, spanning their 1984 debut, Red Roses for Me, through to 1990’s Hell’s Ditch. Their most successful album was If I Should Fall from Grace with God from 1988, which included popular band songs Fiesta and the title track.

Also included on that album was a song released the previous year, the duet Fairytale of New York with Kirsty MacColl, an unconventional, profane Christmas song featuring a bickering couple that was a welcome alternative for fans tired of often saccharine seasonal fare.

“We knew we were going to try and do a Christmas song that wasn’t going to be sentimental crap,” MacGowan told CBC’s The Hour in 2014.

It was reflective of the approach of the band, with MacGowan emerging from London’s late-’70s punk scene and forming the Pogues with original members Jem Finer, Spider Stacy and James Fearnley. They were originally named Pogue Mahone, meaning “kiss my arse.”

They mixed boisterous raveups, politically tinged material and poignant ballads, incorporating tin whistle, accordion and mandola in traditional rock instrumentation — ” a blend of the Clash and the Chieftains,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote.

“The idea was to give the tradition a kick in the ass,” MacGowan said in the 2020 documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, produced by friend Johnny Depp.

Praise from Bono, others

The lion’s share of original songwriting during that span fell to MacGowan, earning the highest of praise from artists such as Bono.

“The words are everything for him. That’s where he lives,” the U2 frontman said in the 1997 BBC documentary The Great Hunger: The Life & Songs of Shane MacGowan.

With the band or in a subsequent solo career beginning with 1995’s The Snake, MacGowan collaborated with artists such as Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Dubliners, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer.

“We’d become a rock band. We’d become what he hated,” he said in Crock of Gold of the end of the Pogues, who continued on without him for a couple of albums.

But it was also true MacGowan caused some friction, emulating the hard-living ways of Irish poets and writers he admired, such as Brendan Behan and James Mangan. In addition to a lifelong taste for alcohol, MacGowan was also taking heroin.

Music writers had prepped his obituary as far back as the 1990s. He had years of health problems and used a wheelchair after breaking his pelvis a decade ago.

He was long famous for his broken, rotten teeth until receiving a full set of implants in 2015 from a dental surgeon who described the procedure as “the Everest of dentistry.”

Hard-living ways

MacGowan insisted in interviews through the years that his drinking and substance abuse was not born of self-destruction, but a desire to cram as much living into his years.

“I find him sad to be around, but these are my values,” said Sarah Share in 2003, the year her documentary The Shane MacGowan Story: If I Should Fall From Grace was released. “He doesn’t see himself as a tragic figure at all.… The fact that he’s dependent on drink — he just think that’s rock ‘n’ roll and it’s the price you pay for being in that business.”

Born on Christmas Day 1957 in England to Irish parents, MacGowan spent his early years in rural Ireland before the family moved back to London. Ireland remained the lifelong centre of his imagination and his yearning. He grew up steeped in Irish music absorbed from family and neighbours, along with the sounds of rock, Motown, reggae and jazz.

He attended the elite Westminster School in London, from which he was expelled, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown in his teens.

A man holds up a paper that says, 'Bondage' in a black and white photograph.
Shane MacGowan, then 19 years old, holds up a copy of his punk rock magazine, Bondage, in London in an undated photo. (Sydney O’Meara/Getty Images)

He found purpose in the punk rock scene, and was frequently seen in photos and videos from the era at shows by bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols. He started a punk fanzine, Bondage, and formed the Nipple Erectors — a good live band, he later said, but “nothing to write home about.”

MacGowan and the Pogues would periodically reform from 2001 on, though in recent years his health issues put an end to his performing days. He was honoured by Irish President Michael Higgins with a lifetime achievement award at a 2018 event attended by Bono, Depp, O’Connor and many other musicians.

Clarke wrote on Instagram that “there’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world.”

“I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures,” she wrote.

MacGowan was preceded in death by Pogues bandmates Phil Chevron in 2013 and Darryl Hunt in 2022.





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