Shane MacGowan, Pogues Singer and Poet, Dead at 65


Shane MacGowan, the sandpapery voiced former Pogues frontman who served as the bridge between traditional Irish folk music and punk rock, has died. MacGowan’s death on Nov. 30 was confirmed in a statement by his wife Victoria Clarke. In another statement, the BBC reported MacGowan “died peacefully at 3.30am this morning (30 November) with his wife and and sister by his side.” He was 65.

“There’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world,” Clarke wrote. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your presence in this world you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music.”

Earlier this month, MacGowan entered a Dublin hospital to get treatment for an infection, according to Sky News. The news outlet reported that he’d been diagnosed with viral encephalitis last year. His sometime Pogues bandmates Spider Stacy and Terry Woods visited him during his stay before he was released last week. Two weeks ago, Clarke wrote on Instagram that she was “facing terrifying fears.”

For the past four decades, the singer and guitarist embodied Irish spirit by turning traditional pub anthems like “Waxie’s Dargle” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” as well as the Dubliners’ “Dirty Old Town” into rousing rock anthems with the Pogues. His voice was deep, husky, and whiskey sodden — the perfect combo for the Pogues’ slide-whistle–soundtracked rave-ups. When he sang the opening lines to the band’s biggest hit, the unlikely Christmas staple, “Fairytale of New York,” his guttural matter-of-factness made you feel you were right there with him, under arrest: “It was Christmas Eve, babe … in the drunk tank.”

MacGowan’s extracurricular activities eventually started mirroring his lyrics, as drinking became more important to him than singing about drinking, and his unpredictable behavior led to the Pogues firing him. He then formed Shane MacGowan and the Popes in 1992, reunited with the Pogues in 2001 and broke up with them a second time around 2015. MacGowan subsequently led the Shane Gang and collaborated with other artists as a solo performer. Although his wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, reported he was sober by 2016, his years of debauchery had by then caught up with him; he’d suffered a fall when exiting a studio, fracturing his pelvis, the previous year leaving him wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.

But hard living was the destiny for the artist, who was born Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan on Dec. 25, 1957, in Kent, Ireland. “I’ve been fucking drinking since I was a kid,” MacGowan told Rolling Stonein 1989. “I had my first bottle of Guinness when I was six, my first bottle of whiskey when I was seven. It made the world go mad; it fucking opened my mind to paradise. … I haven’t been sober, dead-straight sober, since I was 14. I’m not interested in being sober. Drinking makes me see things clearly.”

MacGowan’s mother, Therese, a typist, had also worked as a model in Dublin and sang and performed traditional dance, while his father, Maurice, a wages clerk, was literary and interested in writing. They lived in a farmhouse in Puckaun, Ireland, according to the singer’s official bio, until the family, which included Shane’s sister Siobhan, moved to London when MacGowan was 6. By 1972, when MacGowan was around age 14, he was kicked out of school for possessing drugs.

At age 17, he spent half a year in a psychiatric ward following a mental breakdown. Then he found punk rock. Inspired by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, MacGowan created a fanzine called Bondage and became a member of his own punk group called the Nipple Erectors (later, the Nips) within a few years. Their rockabilly-influenced debut single, “King of the Bop,” came out in 1976. The Nips broke up in 1980.

His musical interests changed after he approached a man, Peter “Spider” Stacy, playing the slide tin whistle at a London tube station. After briefly forming a group called the Millwall Chainsaws, they started busking and singing traditional Irish music in pubs around London (occasionally controversially when pub owners mistook them for IRA agents) with former Nips guitarist, Jim Fearnley, using the name Pogue Mahone (Gaelic for “kiss my arse”) in 1982.

MacGowan then started writing songs of his own, the group expanded its lineup, and became a live draw for their shambolic performances, eventually shortening their name to the Pogues. They self-released their first single, “Dark Streets of London,” which features upbeat galloping rhythms and MacGowan’s lyrics about being damned to wander around London, in 1984. Their debut album, Red Roses for Me, came out later that year, and they started opening for the Clash.

“The band couldn’t have worked if it didn’t come from outside Ireland,” filmmaker Julien Temple told Rolling Stone in 2021. “You’ve got to remember that Irish music was very unhip at that point. It was all fiddles and tin whistles. And it felt kind of ‘in the folk museum.’ It didn’t have an epic quality that it should have had, which Shane brought back to it.”

“I had doubts on how good a pop singer I was … and I still do, but I think I’m a good Irish singer,” MacGowan wrote in the book, A Drink With Shane MacGowan. “I’m a bit average as a pop singer. I’ve never worked at it though, and I’ve had no formal music training either. Everything I’ve done is by ear.”

Asked who his heroes were, MacGowan once said: “Hendrix. He came in, did what he had to do, went out. Not a mess, not a fuss. And Jesus. And Carolin [sic].” (Turlough O’Carolan — “the Irish Mozart,” as MacGowan called him — was an 18th century Irish harper — who authored the songs “London, You’re a Lady,” “Ode to Whiskey,” and “The Broad, Majestic Shannon” — died, MacGowan said, after a sip of whiskey.)

Their second album, 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, which Elvis Costello produced, made them international stars, thanks to a cover of the Dubliners’ “Dirty Old Town.” Their 1988 album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, was even more popular since it contained their biggest hit, “Fairytale of New York,” a which featured Kirsty MacColl trading clever verses with MacGowan. When MacGowan sings, “I could have been someone,” she cuts him down perfectly with, “Well, so could anyone.” The song was the perfect mixture of pathos and bile and despite some regrettable epithets, it became something of a holiday staple. The band’s only charting singles in the U.S., though, were 1988’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” which predicted the Britpop explosion with its upbeat, anthemic chorus, and cheery sounding “The Sunnyside of the Street,” off 1990’s Hell’s Ditch, the album that would be MacGowan’s last with the band.

MacGowan’s alcohol consumption became a problem by the end of the decade when he missed multiple tour dates supporting Bob Dylan in 1988. “[I drink] because I’m rich — and I haven’t got enough money to buy a racehorse,” he told Rolling Stone. “I think human beings should be allowed to do what they want as long as they don’t harm another human being.” (Bono once argued that MacGowan’s excessive lifestyle was “a mask, his way of ignoring people he doesn’t want to deal with. Shane is more together than people imagine.”) His bandmates asked him to leave the group in 1991, replacing him with Joe Strummer, formerly of the Clash, for a short period before Stacy took over.

Meanwhile, MacGowan sobered up just enough to record a ragged cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with Nick Cave as well as a Jesus and Mary Chain original, “God Help Me,” for their Stoned & Dethroned album. He started performing again with a new backing band, the Popes, which released a debut album, The Snake, in 1994. The album featured guests including Sinéad O’Connor, Johnny Depp (playing guitar), and even a few Pogues members. Another duet with O’Connor, “Haunted,” was a hit in 1995. MacGowan would release another Popes album, The Crock of Gold, in 1997. But his most mainstream moment in the Nineties came in the form of his performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” featured in a Nike commercial.

MacGowan’s output slowed in the new millennium, as he made only guest appearances on songs by the Mighty Stef, the Priests, and Alabama 3, among others, but did not record any new albums of his own. For MacGowan’s 60th birthday, Bono, Cave, and many others performed a tribute concert to him at Dublin’s National Concert Hall. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Ireland’s then-President Michael D. Higgins there. Footage from the concert featured in filmmaker Julien Temple’s Crock of Golddocumentary in 2020.

“I think his legacy is that he changed the notion of Ireland,” Temple told Rolling Stone. “There’s a horrible cliché, you know, Darby O’Gill, the old Irish leprechaun and all that nonsense — I think he blew that wide apart and made people see Ireland in a new, more relevant contemporary way.”

“The Pogues would never have existed if I wasn’t Irish,” MacGowan said in A Drink With. “Ireland means everything to me. I always felt guilty because I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland; I didn’t join up. Not that I would have helped the situation, probably. But I felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA. And the Pogues was my way of overcoming that guilt. And looking back on it, I think maybe I made the right choice.”

Outside of music, MacGowan had a short-lived acting career, appearing in Eat the Rich (1987), filmmaker Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (also 1987), and an uncredited role in The Libertine (2004). A British TV special, Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn, documented his 2015 surgery to get all new teeth since his had all fallen out by 2008. He released a memoir, cowritten with wife Clarke, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, in 2001, and a book of his art and lyrics, The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold, in 2022.

MacGowan claimed in 2001 that he had children, which he revised to “I only know about one,” a son who was growing up in Scotland. “He knows where to get hold of me,” MacGowan said. “I saw him once, when he was three. He knows I’m his father.”


After a spell of sobriety, he revealed he had returned to drinking occasionally and smoked weed in a 2022 New York Timesinterview. At the time of the article, he had been working on a new album intermittently since 2015 with the band Cronin. When asked about Sinead O’Connor’s claim that he seemed about six months from death, MacGowan said, “If there’s someone who wants a lot more of life, it’s me.”

For decades, all MacGowan wanted was to live a good, unencumbered life, and mostly, he lived it on his terms. “I have no ambitions,” he said in 1989. “I used to have ambitions, but I have none anymore. I just want to enjoy life the way it is and do my best to stop it from becoming hell on earth.”

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