Sympathy for the upright

Jun 17, 1998 at 12:00 am
It's been said that the likes of Keith Richards and Jimmy Page owe a debt to their maker in that they're still alive, kickin' and can hold a six-string, but it's a miracle of historic proportions that poet-singer and musical raconteur Shane MacGowan is still alive --though one wouldn't be able to tell to look at him.

MacGowan's endurance could be blamed on the much-hyped Irish myth-stereotype of "drink and die" or rock 'n' roll's stereotypical fascination with the "crash and burn" aesthetic. Though he could be seen pogoing at England's famous club, the Roxy, during punk rock's heyday (that's MacGowan aimlessly stumbling into people in the documentary The Punk Rock Movie), he is known to most of the world as the frontman and, more or less, the brains behind Ireland's the Pogues during his time with the group from its formation in the mid-'80s to his departure in 1990.

While most of that decade's musical artists were more consumed with hair appointments or feeding the world than producing quality studio work, the Pogues were able to take Ireland's traditional folk roots and put a barbed wire, rock 'n' roll edge on them that would cut the freshman listener expecting dance-around-the-fire Celtic sing-songs. And MacGowan's fractured, poetic lyrics added an additional threat of poignancy to the proceedings. With the assistance of Steve Lillywhite, 1988's classic If I Should Fall From Grace With God managed to put a voracious spirit back into an art form long given up for dead.

But by the time of the Pogues' 1989 follow-up, the overlooked Peace and Love, MacGowan was a Molotov cocktail, exploding at every gig. For those who witnessed the Pogues tour in support of Peace and Love, it's hard to forget the not-too-pleasant memories he left an audience at Ann Arbor's Nectarine Ballroom. MacGowan went on a tirade about America's "Batmania" feeding frenzy in the wake of Tim Burton's hit Batman film. In a move-it-or-lose-it ultimatum, the Pogues managed to hold MacGowan together long enough to complete the somber album Hell's Ditch in 1990 before serving him his walking papers (though MacGowan claims it was the other way around).

So what's an unwashed, slightly dazed and toothless man supposed to do under such circumstances? Why, record a cover of "What a Wonderful World" with a frail, pale Australian battling chemical vices of a different sort, Nick Cave. Whatever the motive behind his particular path, MacGowan miraculously managed to beat his former bandmates in the end (anyone out there have the painful experience of sitting through the MacGowan-less Waiting for Herb Pogues album from 1993?) by keeping the ol' heart ticking long enough to record his solo debut, The Snake (1994). This record with his new band, the provocatively monikered Popes, featured guest contributions by Sinead O'Connor, Pogue member Spider Stacy and actor Johnny Depp (!) among others. Though not entirely an artistic success, The Snake, and its follow-up release, The Crock of Gold, find MacGowan straying back to the traditional Irish music that inspired the Pogues' formation in the first place.

Nevertheless, MacGowan managed to beat the devil, Daniel Webster and any other musician taking David Bowie's Rock 'N' Roll Suicide a little too literally. Maybe there's a method to MacGowan's madness after all. God willing and hopefully conscious (unlike his oxygen-assisted 1995 Detroit appearance), MacGowan will be in always unpredictable form when he brings his Molotov cocktail self to Detroit's St. Andrew's Hall this week. Colin McDonald writes about music and film for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]