Dan Sinker/blog

A Man You Don't Meet Every Day, Remembering Shane MacGowan

If I should fall from grace with God
Where no doctor can relieve me
If I'm buried 'neath the sod
But the angels won't receive me

Let me go, boys
Let me go, boys
Let me go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry

I thought Shane MacGowan was unkillable. If he hadn't died by now, the logic went, with all the drinking and drugs and living harder than most, maybe he never would.

But, of course, he did, today, at 65.

The frontman for The Pogues—the visionary band that mixed traditional Gaelic sounds with punk, creating a joyous cacophony that was singularly theirs—Shane was equal parts street poet and drunken mess. He battled demons and he sung of death, and he made them both seem far more romantic than either really are.

When I was 13, I damn near wore out my cassette of If I Should Fall from Grace With God, the Pogues seminal third album. An album so incredible, so astounding, that writer Hanif Abdurraqib says "I can't believe humans made this," and he's right. It takes off like a shot and never looks back. Miserable in middle school, I'd never heard anything like it. A few decades later I still haven't. The album was a revelation for me: that you could move in so many different directions at once, making art from disparate genres and sounds. That you could find beauty in the desperation of life at society's edges. I'd listen and rewind, listen and rewind, listen and rewind.

The last time I saw Shane MacGowan perform, he was playing a solo gig—he and the Pogues had parted ways a few years before due to his drinking—at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. The show was hours late. There wasn't an opening act that I can remember, just an endless wait with an ever-drunker crowd. Finally, Shane came on stage, weaving and slurring. He could barely stand up, barely sing. He'd start songs and then just sort of fade out. Every time he'd take a drink, the crowd would roar its approval and I couldn't help but feel like people were cheering a suicide. I couldn't be a party to it, and swore I'd never see him play again.

I never did.

It was a few years after that that he almost died in 2000. Sinead O'Connor saved his life when she discovered him unconscious on the floor of his London home. She called the police. He was revived and charged with heroin possession. "I love Shane," she said at the time, "and it makes me angry to see him destroy himself selfishly in front of those who love him."

(To lose them both in the same year is too much. Too much.)

But Sinead was right (always, forever): Shane did destroy himself. The drinking, the drugs, the cigarettes that were ever-present. You don't run your body that hard without it keeping score. There's nothing romantic about it. Nothing fun. Addiction robbed us of a generational talent long before he actually died.

That he sobered up in 2016 after nearly dying of pneumonia prolonged him for almost another decade. But the damage Sinead mourned had long been done. It was just a matter of time.

And yet now—now that what felt both inevitable and impossible has happened—it wasn't enough time.

Shane MacGowan was a genius. A poet of unrivaled talent, capable of finding beauty in the drunk tank and romance in the rotting limbs of war. The unvarnished horror of war was ever-present in Shane's songs. Growing up during The Troubles, he was haunted by the violence, and later said he felt "guilty that I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland."

Of course, in a different way, he did.

Now Shane is gone—his life laid down for Ireland and for art and for all us lost souls—and I hope that before he went he knew that among his torment and his pain and his slow-motion suicide his astounding gift changed so many lives, including my own.

Published November 30, 2023.

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