Shane MacGowan, longtime frontman for the Pogues and arguably one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, has died at the age of 65.
MacGowan's death was announced by his wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, posting jointly via her Instagram and MacGowan’s official account.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I am just going to say it,” wrote Clarke. “Shane, who will always be the light that I hold before me and the measure of my dreams and the love of my life and the most beautiful soul and beautiful angel and the sun and the moon and the start and end of everything that I hold dear, has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese.”
Born Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan on Christmas Day 1957 in Pembury, Kent, England, MacGowan was the son of Irish immigrants, Maurice and Therese, and it would be an understatement to say that his parents' country of origin had a profound impact on his career.
Although his first moment of fame actually came via a photograph in 1976 - after he suffered an earlobe injury while attending a Clash gig, an injury which drew blood, he became the subject of an infamous headline - MacGowan soon became known as the frontman for the punk band known as the Nipple Erectors (subsequently simply known as The Nips). By 1982, however, he was fronting the band that would bring him his greatest fame: The Pogues.
The origins of the Pogues – originally known as Pogue Mahone – can be traced back to 1977, when MacGowan and Spider Stacy met at a Ramones show at the Roundhouse in London. Upon the breakup of The Nips in 1980, MacGowan drifted in the direction of Stacy’s band, the Millwall Chainsaws.
As Stacy wrote on Twitter in 2019, “My semi-mythical pre-Pogues outfit the Millwall Chainsaws cut a swathe around North London at the same time as the Nips and the Invaders, yes. 7 gigs in 2 years. And a tape.”
In 1982, MacGowan, Stacy and his bandmate Jem Finer, and former Nips guitarist turned accordionist James Fearnley came together to form Pogue Mahone, playing their first gig on October 4 of that year. Before the end of the month, they’d added bassist Cait O’Riordan and drummer Andrew Ranken to the band, and while they would effectively spend 1983 honing their sound, the following year would see the release of their first single, “Dark Streets of London,” and their debut album, Red Roses for Me.
While Red Roses for Me was only a minor hit at the time of its release, climbing no higher than #89 on the UK Albums chart, the Pogues quickly began to forge a name for themselves as a live band. By the time they released their sophomore LP, 1985’s cheerily-titled Rum Sodomy & The Lash, the band was finally starting to earn a bit of commercial success to combine with the critical acclaim that’d already been earning: with the album, they found themselves in the top 20, landing at #13, and they were starting to make an impact on the singles chart as well, with “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Sally MacLennane,” and “Dirty Old Town” all landing in the lower reaches of the Top 100.
“We deserve every single accolade we get because I honestly believe that this band is doing something better than the rest of the sh*t around,” MacGowan told Melody Maker in 1985. “I don't really think that [having a hit single] will make too much difference to us in terms of any pressures we might have to face. And anyway, I find it pretty pathetic to carp on about pressures and all that sh*t when you compare it to the boring horrible jobs I had to do before this band. Even if I drink myself to death doing this, I'd still prefer that to all those other jobs put together."
While the last sentence of that quote might well be considered belatedly prophetic, there's little question that MacGowan made the right choice by deciding to stick with The Pogues. Indeed, at the time of his remark, he and the band were just around the corner from finding the major success that they deserved: in 1986, the band cracked the top 30 with their EP, Poguetry in Motion, which introduced the all-timer, "A Rainy Night in Soho."
All told, the Pogues had six entries in the top 40 of the UK Singles chart while MacGowan was fronting the band, with the highest entry being 1987's "Fairytale of New York," which climbed to #2 that year, then returned to #36 in 1991, and then to #3 in 2005. (It must be said that the odds of the song finally making it to #1 just got considerably more realistic.)
By 1991, however, MacGowan’s well-documented battles with his demons had led to a situation where – after an infamous performance at the WOMAD Festival in Japan – it became evident that he could no longer serve in his stead as the lead singer of The Pogues.
This spurred MacGowan to form a new band called - wait for it - The Popes. With MacGowan on vocals, of course, it still sounded suspiciously like The Pogues. It also led to a re-recording of a classic Pogues song, one originally sung by Cait O'Riordan, that was transformed into a duet with Sinead O'Connor.
MacGowan's departure also led to some snarky interviews over the course of the next few years. In a 1994 chat with the Friends of Shane newsletter, he spun the situation as one where the band’s commercial success had put him in a position where he now had more creative freedom on his own anyway.
"I've always had my music, but I couldn't play what I wanted,” said MacGowan. “On the Pogues' best album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, me and Jem wrote every note, apart from the traditional numbers which I arranged... but after that, things changed. On Peace & Love I had one last go, then I gave up. I thought the music business people would leave me alone, so I could have my fun. On Hell's Ditch, I didn't take hardly any interest at all, apart from being dragged off the floor in front of a mike. I had a laugh... but they rejected all the best songs."
"I'd be quite prepared to write their next album for them," he then teased, "if they feel like playing some good music for a change. Seriously, though, I still love them. I love them all."
Indeed, MacGowan proved that continuing love in late 2001 when he reunited with his former bandmates for a Christmas tour. This, in turn, ultimately led to another tour in 2004, and a few others over the course of the subsequent several years. While it didn't result in any new music from the band, it did at least show that the bond between MacGowan and his bandmates hadn't deteriorated nearly as much as the tabloids - or even MacGowan himself - might've implied.
In a 2015 interview with VICE, MacGowan claimed, “I went back with the Pogues and we grew to hate each other all over again,” an apparent attempt at humor which led to a sudden chastising by his wife (“Every time people print that you hate them, they get upset”) and an on-the-spot course correction.
"I don't hate the band at all—they're friends,” MacGowan clarified. “I like them a lot. We were friends for years before we joined the band. We just got a bit sick of each other. We're friends as long as we don't tour together. I've done a hell of a lot of touring. I've had enough of it."
By that point, MacGowan was in no position to tour anyway: he’d had a bad fall that summer while leaving a Dublin studio, a situation which put him in a wheelchair for what turned out to be the long haul. He did, however, at least get his oft-spotlighted bad teeth – which ultimately lost in their entirety by 2008 – fully replaced in 2015, including one gold one. To give an idea of just what a big deal MacGowan and his teeth were by that point, he found himself the star of a Sky Arts documentary, A Wreck Reborn, which detailed the implanting of his new set of choppers.
This was not, however, MacGowan's first shot at TV stardom: although it was never broadcast, he was effectively the star of a planned Channel 4 series entitled A Drink with Shane MacGowan. Although a pilot was filmed at the Viper Room, as you can view below, it never made it beyond that, and given MacGowan's well-documented unreliability at the time, it's hard to imagine that it ever would've lasted for the long haul anyway. That said, it nonetheless gives you an idea of the sort of folks he was prone to hoist a few bevvies with, including - but in no way limited to - his longtime friend, Johnny Depp.
In late 2022, MacGowan was hospitalized for an infection, during which time he was diagnosed with encephalitis. Although he was subsequently released, he was back in the hospital in July 2023, being treated for another infection, and it was becoming increasingly obvious from subsequent posts by his wife that – although MacGowan was continuing to fight the good fight – his condition was poor.
Although he was released from the hospital on November 22 with a smile on his face, MacGowan's return home was a brief one.
In her Instagram post announcing MacGowan’s passing, Clarke wrote of her husband:
“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. 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. Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your presence in this world, you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music. You will live in my heart forever. Rave on in the garden all wet with rain that you loved so much. You meant the world to me.”
In regards to her last sentence, let the obvious be written outright: she was in no way alone in feeling that way. To paraphrase a Pogues song title, millions are mourning. But while MacGowan won't see another Christmas Eve, his music and his poetry remain eternal.