For mysterious reasons, the fates kept throwing me together with Shane MacGowan. I was a respectable, middle-class art critic. He was the untameable, rotten-toothed, curse-heavy, drug-addicted, Christ-bashing, hissing, pissing, scallywag genius of post-punk Irish poetics. Yet our paths kept crossing. Till the end.
I first met him as the 1980s were petering out. I was presenting The Late Show on BBC2 and MacGowan’s scabrous band, the Pogues, were on the bill. During filming, I tried to be a professional presenter and ask him a few questions about the music but he mumbled something guttural that sounded like “f*** off”, so I skulked off to a corner and watched them. Christ, they were good.
Soon after, they made me head of arts at Channel 4. In those distant days, the position consisted chiefly of doing whatever you fancied. One of my ideas was to make a British version of a Bollywood movie. I loved how Bollywood films would regularly put the plot on hold while everyone sang a song. Why not take a bunch of Pogues songs and incorporate them in a Paddywood drama?
To write it we got in a thrusting young Irish newcomer called Ronan Bennett, who went on to script Top Boy. The cast featured Harriet Walter as a posh English wife and Richard Hawley as the is-he-or-isn’t-he IRA bomber with whom she dallies. Peter Davison was in it and so, of course, was Shane, belting out a thunderous version of The Old Main Drag with the unlikely couple in the audience.
With the ice broken, Shane and I began a peculiar creative relationship driven mostly by the promptings of his dazzling partner and wife-to-be Victoria. Her first crazy plan was to make a chat show, fronted by Shane, in which he would discuss unusual topics with his celebrity buddies. “Let’s call it A Drink With Shane MacGowan,” I howled.
We got as far as shooting a pilot in the Viper Room in Los Angeles, where Shane and his best buddy Johnny Depp were joined by the porn star Traci Lords, Sean Penn’s brother Chris, and Sy Richardson (“I play bad guys, and I have fun doing it”). The topic was violence.
In between snatches of rambling conversation about Hollywood’s glorification of brutality, the talking would stop for music by Shane MacGowan and the Homewreckers. The pilot contained so much smoking, drinking and swearing it was never shown.
Next, I commissioned a Christmas film from Malcolm McLaren called The Ghosts of Oxford Street in which the former Sex Pistols manager prowled around London, encountering various pop star pals dressed as Oxford Street characters. Tom Jones played Gordon Selfridge. Shane, dressed as a Regency dandy, popped up with Sinéad O’Connor to sing a new version of Fairytale of New York.
While all this was going on, we talked here and there — although talking with Shane was never easy. His thoughts emerged slowly and his conversation was punctuated with weird hissing noises that became his trademark. His drug problems were evident. When I left Channel 4, my contact with him dried up until a few years ago when Victoria asked me if I would write a catalogue of Shane’s art. “His what?” I gulped. It turned out that ever since he was a kid he had also been addicted to drawing.
Victoria sent over a gigantic pile of his papers she’d collected from under the bed, in the cupboard, in every drawer, and asked me to make a selection for a book. It was such wild, twisty, heretical stuff I agreed immediately.
The art, and the London show at which it was unveiled, felt scarily truthful. Shane’s drug-taking found fierce expression in swirling, thrusting abstracts. But what surprised me most — what really hit home — was the religious stuff.
Shane was that maddest of religious types: a fervent Catholic who loves sinning. His art was packed with saints, crucifixes and Hail Marys, interspersed with cruel jokes about Jesus. Underpinning it all was the instinctive certainty that any true god would always find a way to forgive a true sinner. Especially if they were Irish.
I last saw him a few months ago. I went round to his overheated flat in Dublin the day after Bruce Springsteen, who was playing in town, had popped over. It was lunchtime. Shane was a few joints into his day and happily refilling his gin and tonic. Wheelchair-bound, he sat and stared at the telly, where a jittery cowboy movie from the 1960s was playing. We talked about Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali — his favourite artists. I told him I liked the big crucifix he had around his neck. He told me he liked my art films.
When I left, I gave him a hug and he felt so small and bony I hoped I hadn’t hurt him. As sure as eggs is eggs he’ll be in Heaven now, shouting abuse at Jesus and then begging him for forgiveness. Which Jesus will happily grant.
Farewell Shane MacGowan. You crazy Irish legend.