Perfect Sound Forever


Tribute by Brian F. Cousins
(February 2024)

The iconic NME cover from '89 featuring Shane MacGowan, Mark E. Smith and Nick Cave with a round table discussion, acted as a canonization of three of the most original and influential voices in the Anglo-centric music world. Strangely, Morrissey was not included as a fourth but perhaps he declined the invitation to this "summit meeting."

Who would have thought then, that of the three only Nick Cave would endure by 2023. Nick Cave sang both at Shane's funeral in rural Ireland and at a 60th birthday event at the NCH in Dublin that served both to honor and celebrate his work and life, with Bono acting as the informal MC for the evening.

And Shane in his final years was lauded as a great songwriter by no lesser talents than Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, none of whom are prone to faint praise or insincerity and each of whom would visit him in his final years in Ireland. Tom Waits also broke his silence to pay his respects.

And Shane's huge talent is there for all to see and hear. His songwriting will certainly endure and remain the force that invigorated and dragged the Irish diaspora firmly into the 1980's with its welding of traditional folk themes with the energy and attitude of punk.

In the big '80's with its emphasis on surface and sheen, Shane's band the Pogues along with arguably the Smiths, provided a brilliant counter balance, a reminder that musical skill, an uncompromising lyric-based point of view along with an instantly recognizable voice could overcome all the over-processed and shallow music of the time.

The Pogues, and in particular Shane's songwriting, were a breath of fresh air not only in contemporary music but also an updating of the clash between the dominant English narrative of Anglo-Irish history and by extension, of all of the Anglo-Colonial narratives, with a brash defiance and assertion of the underdog perspective.

Shane's lyrics and themes served to re-examine the Anglo-Irish conflict while the "Troubles" - the sectarian war of attrition, raged on both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland. It has to be remembered that the IRA nearly succeeded in killing the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher after having assassinated Lord Mountbatten, a key member of the British Royal family, so this was a particularly tense time.

The Pogues were able to tap into the frustrations that most Irish people felt with regard to the political conflict and the ongoing violence and destruction. Shane was addressing the social aspects of the conflict, the resentment and anger that many Irish people felt towards, in particular, the English and the fear and suspicion that lead the British public in general to view all Irish people as a threat.

Until 1989, any Irish or UK citizen could be detained and questioned for up to seven days under 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act while in the UK. Therefore, any Irish citizen could be detained "under suspicion" of involvement in terrorist activities without legal representation or notification to family members. This draconian measure firmly established a division and a "second class" system where the Irish in the UK simply did not have the same rights as U.K. citizens and were treated with prejudice under British law.

The one time Shane addressed these issues directly in song with "The Birmingham Six," there was a huge public outcry with the song being banned by the BBC under the law that was responsible for the ban of the broadcasting of direct interviews with members of Sinn Fein and other "proscribed" organizations. His lyrics were untypical in their directness.

There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there's four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they're still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time

His own upbringing and life story gave him a unique perspective and insight in this conflict and quagmire. Born in Kent, England to Irish immigrant parents, Shane spend several years of his childhood in the family house in rural Ireland, a house reported not to have running water. Even for early 1960's Ireland, this was extreme poverty. Shane always regarded these years as blissful and considered this part of Tipperary his home and would retreat to it over the years to rest and reflect. By age eleven he was reading Dostoevsky and Joyce, by thirteen he won a literary contest and then went on to win a scholarship to one of the most prestigious schools in London, Westminster School. Recent graduates had included Andrew Lloyd Weber and Peter Ustinov as well as historical figures Ben Johnson and Christopher Wren. In effect Shane was propelled from a rural backwater into one of the most elitist and privileged schools in the world on the basis of what must have been his formable intelligence and talent.

This experiences had to have given him a truly unique perspective to view Anglo-Irish history and conflict. Not one to be won over by this opportunity for social advancement. Shane was expelled for drug use and dealing.

At seventeen, he spend six months in the notorious Bethlehem/Bedlam hospital in London under psychiatric care following his prodigious alcohol and drug consumption. With perfect timing he was then primed to find his clan within the London Punk scene, going by Shane O'Hooligan and forming the punk band the Nips (originally the Nipple Erectors).

The Pogues were formed in '82 after the initial creative spark of punk was long gone and most of the credible bands had either moved on musically or broken up. While the Clash had visited Belfast and used it merely as a photo opportunity and Northern Ireland had produced several great bands addressing the realities there, notably the Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers, by the time Pogues released their first album in '84, political bands were more focused on the British Miner's strike and anti-Thatcher sentiment. U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was suitably vague and only the London-based MicroDisney seemed interested in Irish identity issues.

As if often the case, a stereotype can only be dismantled once it is embraced by those it is used to demean. The Pogues did this to great effect, embodying the drunken Irish loutish behavior that had been a staple of the English media from the Potato Famine onwards, by exaggerating and parodying it. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, the effect was the same, they rendered the drunken Paddy stereotype null and void by dint of the intelligence and artistic ability on display. Shane's voice and lyrics symbolically dispelled so much of negative images of the Irish diaspora around the world that they became the rallying point of a new perspective. While the drunken stereotype that the Pogues projected may not have been welcomed by all Irish people at the time, it's pretty clear now that they had a huge liberating effect and essentially elevated those who had felt belittled and demeaned.

And Shane's life story seemed to equip him not only with a sense of history and drama but also great understanding of life's unfortunates. Nick Cave writing in the Guardian (Dec 21/23) of Shane's songwriting says " I don't think I could have written a lyric like "the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old" (from "Fairytale of New York"). It speaks volumes. You can feel the wind and the ice in the air but also the sense of learned empathy and compassion Shane had for people."

Shane's run of great songwriting really only lasted through the 80's. By the final album he made with the Pogues, 1990's Hell's Ditch he seemed to have run out of memorial songs.

After been forced out of the band he formed, he seemed to give himself over completely to a chaotic life, as Nick Cave put it: "Shane saw it as his solemn duty to be permanently fucked up and, for most of his life, he was happy to be the way he was... There were times when he was so reduced he was barely functioning and, as a friend, that was heartbreaking to see."

They sang together on a cover of "What a Wonderful World" in '92 that was devoid of any irony and each sang one of the others song with Nick covering "A Rainy Night in Soho." Thirty plus years late he would sing the same song at Shane's funeral.

I was fortunate to see the Pogues play live three times, the first time an intense and chaotic show just before Christmas in Dublin in '87 that served as a homecoming of sorts for them, returning as conquering heroes. Again in New York in '91 with Joe Strummer filling in for Shane as possibly the only person that could really fill his shoes. And seeing the band a third time after Shane rejoined as a frail shadow of his former self, which seemed to cast him as a character from one of his own songs.

What will always be celebrated is his great songwriting delivered in a voice that added grit and gravity to the stories told. "A Pair of Brown Eyes" "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" "The Old Main Drag," "A Rainy Night in Soho," "Haunted (By the Ghost of Your Love)" and "Fairytale of New York" being the most celebrated ones.

However Shane's true legacy may be the sense of pride that he gave to his fans and how he lifted and solidified the huge Irish diaspora worldwide in the 1980's and beyond. The sense of community and collectivity that he forged could be seen in the video for "Fairytale of New York" featuring the NYPD band and for no other reason that he was a fan and symbol of Irish-American success, Matt Dillon making a cameo appearance. This sense of community was seen again at his funeral which far from being a solemn occasion was a true celebration of his creativity and passion. A broad slice of humanity was represented there, ranging from Irish President and poet Michael D. O'Higgins to Johnny Depp as a coffin bearer, with former members of the Pogues and many others preforming during the funeral mass. There were unscheduled and spontaneous displays of emotion and joy and the whole affair seemed capable of devolving into chaos at any point.

The funeral in Tipperary was preceded by a horse-drawn carriage driven through the streets of Dublin for hours the previous day, where crowds of people came out to pay their respects. In many ways, this served an impromptu State Funeral, one that was spontaneous and somewhat unrehearsed but entirely appropriate. Having made Dublin his home for decades, there were so many Dubliners that felt connected to him and wanted to express the esteem which they held him in, that the procession lingered and meandered.

Like his fellow traveler and friend Sinead O'Connor, he had added greatly to the definition and expression of "Irishness," to include so many that had felt maligned or neglected, and for that he should be truly remembered and thanked.

Also see our previous article on the Pogues

And see Brian Cousin's Hollander & Lexer website

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