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The Pogues Frontman’s Defiant Life Is the Perfect F-You to 2020

On December 25th, legendarily hard-living singer Shane MacGowan turns 63. Happy Christmas, your arse. We pray it’s not his last.

Halfway through the new documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, I had a drunkard’s moment of clarity. It was footage of an early Pogues show, the band that melded trad Irish music, punk rock, Catholic guilt, working man’s blarney, centuries of oppression and rivers of booze into the rowdiest hoolies on either side of the Atlantic. It hit me that the last live indoor show I saw came in March at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade with Poguetry, an outfit combining the singing and tin whistling of Spider Stacy, the Cajun stylings of the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Cait O’Riordan to provide seasonally-appropriate vocals

It was a right proper show, saucy and lively, but in a more subdued middle-age audience kind of way. But thinking back on it, what struck me was that myself and the other two dudes didn’t share our weed with the overly chatty “concert guy” who wandered over and tried to ingratiate himself with our one-hitter. No can do, as it was becoming clear there was something in the air, literally and figuratively. 

A week later, on St. Patrick’s Day, all of New York City shut down. Our fall from the grace of god had begun. 

Crock of Gold serves its purpose as a bookend to the Year of Shite because it’s haunted by the spectre of death while also being a joyful ode to life, namely MacGowan’s, as there’s an ever-running current of wait, how is he still alive? running through it. It’s an unanswerable question outside of the possibilities of actual divine intervention for the most prodigal of sons — or perhaps dumb luck and a hearty constitution — but it propels this messy mosh pit of a movie in the only direction that makes sense: Shane MacGowan is still here, and if you don’t like it, you can feck right off.

Whatever one thinks of the “Black Sheep, the Permanent Pariah” (to borrow from a fellow goldenthroat’s living eulogy), MacGowan has lived the life he wants to live and that’s one hell of an achievement for anyone, let alone the cat who once shot so much heroin into his feet that a doctor told him a couple more days and they would’ve “had to cut them off with a saw.” Director Julien Temple — the man behind multiple rock docs, including the Sex Pistols dialectic The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury — actually met MacGowan in the 1970s, when he was a fixture at punk shows where “it didn’t matter if you were ugly.” He was a skinny young Irish kid, raised and bullied in London, who walked out of a sanitarium and into the snarling burn-it-all-down world of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. It didn’t take long for MacGowan to make a name for himself as the lead singer of Nipple Erectors, and as “Shane O’Hooligan,” the guy who made the papers for getting a chunk of his ear bitten off at a Clash show. 

In Crock of Gold, Temple takes a kitchen sink approach to the film, if that kitchen sink was stopped up, filled with cheap hooch and used as a baptismal font of trash punch. Cantankerous doesn’t even begin to describe MacGowan. Years back, at a Pogues whiskey launch, llifer James Fearnley — the band’s accordionist — put it to me this way: “Shane is so contrarian, but good for him. The world needs people who fuck with things.” In this case, MacGowan fucks with his own documentary, refusing to sit for proper interviews. 

To fill the gaps, Temple uses his “whatever we got” template: Stock images, old mini-cassette recordings, random clips of movies like Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, concert footage, talk show appearances, interviews with his parents, outtakes from his own films, voiceover, throwaway cuts, fast edits, subtitles and multiple bugged-out animations in the style of Ralph Steadman, R. Crumb and Mad Magazine, including one from the future Pogue frontman’s teenage days, where he talks an acid-tripping girl out of jumping from a housing project balcony, then they have a righteous shag he fondly recalls to this day. 

Because MacGowan wouldn’t sit for Temple, the director films him in conversation with people like his patient, charming wife Victoria, or Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, who tells a killer story of running into MacGowan at Filthy McNasty’s pub in King’s Cross before going to discuss the Good Friday accords with Tony Blair. MacGowan asked Adams to pass along a message to the English Prime Minister: “Tiocfaidh ar la,” popularly translated as, “our day will come.”

Never let it be said that Shane MacGowan hasn’t lived a full life. 

As for the film itself, it’s a fine line between an exploitative crock and an actual Crock of Gold; it’s certainly telling that not a single member of the Pogues are involved in it. (The less said about Johnny Depp cosplaying MacGowan — I swear he drops into a brouge — the better. MacGowan says their three-decade friendship is legit, but it still seems like Depp secured the financing bag just to slap “Johnny Depp Presents” on the poster and boost his “outlaw” cred. Either way, they’re going to need a new Crock of Gold cut without him in it.) 

MacGowan himself has said the film makes him look like a “miserable person,” but not to my smiling eyes. The band may have been steeped in centuries of Irish misery, but up on stage, they were such good craic that it shines through. A personal favorite is their 1990 Saturday Night Live musical guest spot on St. Patrick’s Day (with host… Rob Lowe?) The entire band stayed upright to deliver a blistering version of “Body of an American,” the people’s anthem for the Holy Day of Imbibement. The uncut, raucous, rebellious energy of wasted youth was definitely not wasted on the young that night.  

Any moment in the film showing off the full band’s magnetism is great, but I already knew about the legendary shows. I once watched MacGowan bring down Roseland Ballroom on Paddy’s Day in a goddamn wheelchair. And of course, everyone knows about the boozing, it’s MacGowan’s thing. As Victoria says, “He just doesn’t enjoy life without a drink.” (He seems to be off the drugs, but it left lasting damage. MacGowan’s sister says an ill-fated trip to Japan where he ended up in a coma and out of the band was when she lost him for good.) 

What I wasn’t prepared for in Crock of Gold, and why in the quieter moments it was so deeply affecting, was the palpable longing MacGowan has for his childhood Eden, a family farm in rural Tipperary, just up the road from where the 1919 Rebellion kicked off. It had no electricity, no outhouse — “We shit in the fields,” he grumbles — but it was filled with a large mix of family that MacGowan reveres to this day. An adolescent bit of atheism has him heartbroken he won’t get to see his beautiful elders again in heaven, so he returns to the altar. 

MacGowan has wonderful recollections of his eccentric kin: Aunty Nora who plies four-year-old Shane with beer, smokes and chocolate, and teaches him to bet the ponies, all fine so long as he studies the catechism and doesn’t miss mass; Aunty Ellen who “died in the dying room with a picture of Jesus looking down on her”; an unnamed aunt who shares his bed and “smokes like a trooper”; and Uncle John who never said anything except one word, which finds MacGowan waxing Galiec poetry (“‘Fuck’ itself is the most popular word in the Irish vocabulary, I was brought up to say it at a very young age.”)

MacGowan goes further back into the past, recalling a time he and another kid went to find the remains of the Great Famine — or Great Hunger, as Gerry Adams prefers, given all the food the English took out of Ireland — in what barely passed as graves. Bones were easily dug up in the sand dunes, the skulls of starvation, of people dead from neglect, left behind by fellow country-folk who would never call Ireland home again. The pain of trauma lives within MacGowan’s mournful dirges.

That might be why, although the current crisis takes a very different form, his music has resonated deeply lately. I’ve been playing the Pogues all year, ringing ‘em out as actual bodies of Americans are rotting away in morgue-ish meat lockers with so many more to come; where the number of families having not enough to eat is reaching epic proportions even though we have a fuckton of potatoes; where it feels like we’re trapped where the “daylight never sees, where lights don’t glow on Christmas trees”; one that is clearly “no place for the old” as the holiday shanty goes. 

I’ve always gotten a kick out of the fact that the genius bard behind the “Fairytale of New York” was, in fact, born on Christmas Day. In Crock of Gold, MacGowan declares “the concept of my birthday being more important than Christ’s is ludicrous.” Fair enough, but MacGowan making it to 63 will feel like a minor miracle, a needed bit of 2020 defiance from a man who refuses to stumble off this mortal coil. Nobody in their right mind would want to live the life he has, but this year, who is living in their right mind? You want to drink your breakfast? Fuck it. Going a few rounds with Crock of Gold’s mix of tragedy, irony, sadness, glee, despair, hope and a giant middle finger to the universe and all of its miserable bastards unexpectedly punched me in the soul. I expected a party, not a note of salvation. 

Shane MacGowan, the anti-hero this year deserves, took me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to be: Back home inside a Brooklyn congregation, sharing the weed in God’s good graces.