A Furious Devotion: A Flawless Portrayal of Shane MacGowan
Formerly, the rock biography was a pretext to string together a maximum of eccentric anecdotes, offered with the minimum of thought or due diligence. Following Samuel Goldwyn’s saying about printing myth rather than fact, these books have a fairly informal relationship with reality. Fortunately, maybe things have changed. Music biographies these days are often serious business, weighing the cost – paid by the subject, as well as his associates – of all that sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. The rascals of old have become the psychological case studies and uplifting tales of today.
As you would expect, given what we already know about the tumultuous life of Pogue singer Shane MacGowan, Furious devotion has no shortage of examples of extreme behavior. There are episodes involving hallucinogenic drugs where our hero paints himself blue and ribbons a room with a samurai sword. He eats a Beach Boys vinyl record – blood flowing from his severed mouth – as a commentary on American cultural inferiority. On tour, his luggage consists of a trash bag with a knot in it, filled with “half-drunk wine bottles, bits of Greek food, broken CD players.”
But baggage comes in many forms. Beneath the colorful vignettes, biographer Richard Balls embarks on a believable and heartfelt attempt to map the bewildering dance between MacGowan’s creative genius and a painfully damaged existence. Having previously written books on Ian Dury and Stiff Records, Balls knows the musical field well. Better yet, he knows his subject personally. He stayed with Shane and spent time with his sister, father and extended family. This close access pays off as it traces MacGowan from his beloved Tipperary roots to a teenager in London, fame with the Pogues, and three decades of decline.
MacGowan was born “in exile” on Christmas Day 1957, four months after his parents moved to England. This rebellious spirit was educated in English fee-paying schools. From an early age, he demonstrated an exceptional literary spirit. MacGowan was reading Dostoyevsky at age 11, while his English teacher has preserved his weird and wonderful creative stories for half a century.
He was expelled from Westminster School for drug use and trafficking. In 1975, at age 17, he suffered from a mental health crisis which forced him to be hospitalized. Liberated by punk, MacGowan has evolved from a face on the stage to a music creator.
His best songs with the Pogues have imbued Celtic lore with grimy urban romance and an irreverent spirit that remains electrifying. Celebrated by Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Bruce Springsteen, MacGowan’s reputation is based on the songs he wrote in the 1980s, released on Pogues albums. Red roses for me, rum, anal and eyelashes and If I were to fall out of favor with God and on the Poguetry in motion EP.
This is not a biography of Pogues. Balls is keeping an eye on MacGowan, which makes sense, but a little more insight and analysis of the work would have been welcome.
Yet while MacGowan’s genius is widely taken at face value, Balls kindly refuses to take the singer at his own estimation, leaving his contradictions to remain. A prize fighter in his own imagination, in reality MacGowan hates confrontation. He is a shy man who thirsts for company. A stubborn soul, but generous to the excess. Every now and then a painful awareness of his plight seeps through the beaten bravado.
Such a fragile character has never been adapted to the rigors of touring or stardom. Performing live with the Pogues became so difficult, on and off the stage, that he was eventually asked to leave the group, much to everyone’s relief. In the 1990s, MacGowan fell into heroin addiction. During a dark spell, death seemed to follow him everywhere. In 1999, Sinéad O’Connor reported him to the London police when she feared that he and his partner were in danger of death.
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As for scaring MacGowan off the heroine, that seemed to do the trick, but the human demons are manifold. Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite calls him one of only two “absolute bohemians” he has encountered, the other being Keith Richards. “Shane… had absolutely no need for order in his life,” Lillywhite said. While Richards remains creatively active and seemingly healthy at 77, MacGowan appears broken, struggling to create anything substantial over the past 25 years. A fractured pelvis and hip fracture suffered after a fall in Dublin have made him dependent on a wheelchair since 2015.
As the book unfolds, the meaning of the subject as a solid entity escapes not only the reader, but also the author and those close to him. MacGowan seems lost even to himself. Balls joins him in his two-bedroom apartment in Dublin, where Shane drinks, watches gangster movies, and sleeps without a routine. He likes the people around him but doesn’t necessarily want to talk to them.
“Take away the wine, e-cigarettes, and other paraphernalia from his little white table, and he’ll panic,” Balls writes. “There, on that little plastic surface, is everything he materially wants out of life and its continual replenishment gives him peace of mind.”
Far from a rock’n’roll carnival, it’s a sensitive but unwavering portrayal of a romantic, vulnerable and deeply complicated man whose talent burned fast and brilliant – and ran out. The heartfelt 60th anniversary celebrations at the National Concert Hall in Dublin in 2018 seemed like the farewell. “Shane MacGowan is not done yet,” concludes Balls. You hope he is right, but you fear he is probably wrong.
Biography: A Furious Devotion by Richard Balls
Omnibus Press, 384 pages, hardcover € 21.99; eBook £ 12.29