Arts feature

‘I came, I saw, I scribbled’: Shane MacGowan on Bob Dylan, angels and his lifelong love of art

Graeme Thomson talks to former Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan about his first art folio

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

We join Shane MacGowan, much like a character from one of his songs, in a world where prosaic, often harsh realities vie with feverish flights of fancy. The former Pogue conducts this interview remotely, ‘sitting on a vastly uncomfortable lime green leather chair, within reach of a grey bucket, in a small but surprisingly unspeakable room. In a corner, Jimi Hendrix is repairing some broken guitar strings, while in the kitchen behind me, Bono is loading the dishwasher and a leprechaun with a gold earring is rolling what he says is a cigarette. On the walls are a selection of my wife’s multidimensional angel paintings and one or two of my drawings. Clint Eastwood is on the telly and Maggie Barry is on the record player.’

MacGowan, 64, lives in a flat in Dublin with his long-term partner, Victoria Mary Clarke. Fêted by the likes of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, he was the lead singer and main songwriter in the Pogues between 1982 and 1991 – and again, more sporadically, between 2001 and 2014, when the band reformed purely as a touring act. Having suffered long spells of drug addiction, poor mental health and alcoholism, following a fall in 2015 in which he fractured his pelvis, MacGowan has been confined to a wheelchair and has since struggled to write, record or perform.

The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Goldis his first art folio, a roughhouse visual carnival containing sketches, paintings, self-portraits, handwritten lyrics, stories, photographs and ephemera spanning six decades. The collection was not so much curated as disinterred. ‘I think Victoria had them stashed away in boxes,’ he says. ‘She’s good at keeping things. I was out of it all the time and we were on the road all the time and everything was all over the place, mainly in plastic carrier bags, so God knows how she did it.’

Art, it transpires, has been a lifelong love. ‘I came, I saw and I scribbled. Before I could speak, when I wasn’t reading Ulyssesand My Fight For Irish Freedom, I was writing stories and drawing cartoons, usually involving hurlers and IRA men, but also farmers and geese and penises and enormous tits and anything else I could think of.

‘I’ve always liked Dali the best, because he was such a magnificent character, and his stuff reminds me of being on acid. I think he was a Carlist, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with his art. I like his imagination. I like most of Picasso’s work, especially “Guernica” and the cubist stuff, again maybe because it’s so trippy. Cézanne, Monet, Manet, all the obvious impressionists. I love Caravaggio and a lot of the Italian Renaissance painters and the Irish greats like Jack Yeats – so much more important than W.B.’ Who else? He mentions Orpen, Lavery, Bridget Riley and Mick Mulcahy. Francis Bacon. ‘And, of course, Victoria! She paints angels that look like her.’

In the book, critic Waldemar Januszczak praises the ‘wild, fascinating, scabrous’ energy of MacGowan’s art. Many of his best songs are fuelled by the same spirit. ‘I think creativity just spews itself out in whatever way you let it,’ he explains. ‘I don’t think of myself as a visual artist because I’m more interested in writing songs, but it comes out of every orifice, and while there’s no conscious connection, there’s nothing worthwhile that is conscious, it all comes from the unconscious. I spent a bit of time deliberately drawing mandalas every day because Jung said that when you draw a mandala it’s a portrait of your soul in that moment and I needed to get in touch with my soul. I don’t know if it helps with the songs but it’s another way of bypassing the conscious mind and getting out of your head, which is what you need to do. Obliterate all rational thought.’

The vivid, crude, often nightmarish portrayals of sex, religion, drinking and drug use feel like snapshots from life as a touring musician – a regime which did MacGowan few favours. But perhaps it’s not that simple. ‘I got into sex and drinking and religion and drugs and I had nightmares long before I was a touring musician, although I did start singing when I was three. I think that these things are part of human life, not just musicians. The world is what it is, and it is green fields and motorways, and it is horror and hate and it is peace and love, and the beauty is all of it.’ What does he miss about that lifestyle? ‘Everything and nothing.’

Bob Dylan is another MacGowan fan. In the book, there’s a photo of the pair of them chatting. I ask what they spoke about. ‘We talked about Sam Peckinpah, and about the film Peckinpah directed called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which had Dylan doing some basic acting and all the music. I said I really dug Peckinpah and I said Dylan’s acting and music in it was pretty good. He did the rest of the talking because it was a subject close to his heart. He said he was really pleased to meet me and we got on really well, he liked the fact that I didn’t want to bang on about his music.’

MacGowan loves movies, particularly westerns, noirs and thrillers. At home, he says, ‘mostly I watch films and listen to music, and Victoria likes watching documentaries about the history of the royal family, which is pretty funny so I watch them with her.’ He also reads. Pat McCabe just sent over his latest novel, Poguemahone, ‘and my sister Siobhan wrote a book called The Trial of Lotta Rae, which isn’t out yet but I’m starting it. I got a present called The Atlas of the Irish Revolution, which is so heavy I can’t even hold it, but it looks interesting.’

I wonder about the title of the folio: ‘The Eternal Buzz’ suggests a lifetime of overstimulation, while ‘the Crock of Gold’ implies the creative rewards at the end of that process. A form of Faustian pact. ‘It doesn’t hurt to be stimulated,’ says MacGowan. ‘But the eternal buzz isn’t limited to a drug, it’s a place that we can all go to, it’s where we came from and I believe it’s the place that we go back to when we die. And the paradox of the crock of gold is that you can find it, but you can never keep it.’

He says he enjoys a good relationship with the other Pogues – ‘I love them and I wish them well’ – and is proud of their songs. Any in particular? ‘I like “Summer In Siam”, “Lorca’s Novena” and “Hot Dogs With Everything”. I actually like all the songs!’ Adding to the canon, however, has been a struggle. His last album of original material, recorded with the Popes, was released in 1997. One of the great chroniclers of urban life, MacGowan finds little inspiration in the city these days. ‘Not right now. I’m stuck in a chair so I don’t get out like I used to.’

I ask when he felt at his peak, creatively. ‘I hope that is yet to come.’ He admits that the writing comes much harder now. ‘I was blocked for years and it was hell. Sometimes I get on a roll and I write all day, but not as much as I used to. I would like to think that there is a cure.’ The most recent song he has written is called ‘Bad Detective’. He says he is messed up physically, ‘but I haven’t given up. I plan to finish recording my album and I want to go back to Tangiers.’

For now, a typical day in Dublin is a dialogue between MacGowan’s many earthly trials and a surreal, perhaps ecstatic, form of heavenly contemplation.

‘I wake in a sumptuous hospital bed in the flat. Victoria makes me a cup of tea and lights up my world. I imagine myself dropping 100 tabs of acid and I pray to Jesus and His Holy Mother and all the saints for love and peace in the world and for everyone who is suffering. At some point I take the Holy Communion and have a gin and tonic. Sometimes Victoria tries to persuade me to eat porridge. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I prefer scrambled eggs. I’m not a morning person, but I am glad to be alive, so I’m grateful to wake up. I have beautiful carers who come and get me out of the bed and into the lime green chair. Usually someone tries to get me to do or talk about something. Sometimes people visit, or we go out to dinner, or sometimes I end up in hospital. If I don’t end up in hospital, I thank Jesus and His Holy Mother and all the saints and angels.’

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