This well-researched book is about the rocker’s furious devotion to Victoria, as much as it is about drink or drugs
The publication of a weighty book like this would usually coincide with, say, a significant anniversary of a death. But Shane MacGowan is very much alive. Despite reports to the contrary over the last 30 years.
Richard Balls – whose previous books have included Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Life of Ian Dury and Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story – does a remarkable job on what can’t have been the easiest of subjects. He talks to everyone – Shane’s close family, friends, ex-girlfriends, his old English teacher... he even finds an undertaker, one Philly Ryan, who gave MacGowan some work in a cemetery in Co Tipperary in the mid 1990s, having met the former Pogues’ singer in a pub in Nenagh at two in the morning.
“I said, ‘Shane, will you give me a hand?’ He says, ‘What’ll we do?’
“‘A bit of undertaking,’ I says.
“‘Oh Jesus, no bother,’ he says. So down to Terryglass we went, in the middle of the night. We had all these rolls of carpet and we dressed the grave together! Well, he f**king loved that.”
This is the most in-depth and well-written book about the singer to date. Before this, we had A Drink with Shane MacGowan (2001), an entertaining series of long interviews by his future wife Victoria Mary Clarke; Rake at the Gates of Hell (2011) by Robert Mamrak saw the singer placed in a cultural and political context; and 2012’s Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues by founding member and accordion player James Fearnley, was more about the band than MacGowan.
Now A Furious Devotion gives a deeper insight into how MacGowan became one of the most controversial and feted Irish songwriters in living memory.
Balls tells us that in August 1957 Maurice and Therese MacGowan (from Dublin and Tipperary respectively) emigrated to England. Four months later, on Christmas Day, Shane was born in Kent. In 1964, he was enrolled at Holmewood House in Langton Green, a fee-paying public school.
“My mother dragged me in,” says Shane in the book.
“She wanted me to mix with the f**king English middle-class who were trying to be upper-class, like the nouveau riche, trying to get there. But most of them were too thick.”
Shane was anything but thick. He excelled at Holmewood. Tom Simpson, the school’s English teacher, believed the essays he wrote aged eight-and-a-half marked him out as some sort of literary prodigy. In January 1972, when the MacGowans moved to London, he started at Westminster, an upper-class public school.
“Westminster was awful – they were such wankers,” he says.
Soon Shane was taking acid. At 15, he was arrested for having amphetamine, acid and cannabis in his possession. In his second year at Westminster, he was expelled on Good Friday for dealing drugs in the school. His father wasn’t sad to see him leave.
Maurice MacGowan tells Balls: “The headmaster Dr John Rae said he couldn’t possibly keep Shane in the school – which I was quite pleased about, as I knew Shane had no need of whatever they had to teach. It was all within him.”
In September 1974, he went to Hammersmith College of Further Education. His mental health was challenged from the acid and other pills he was taking on top of alcohol. In 1975, aged 17, he was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital and was kept in for six months.
He was expelled from school in Hammersmith when the principal told him: “You come in here off your head. Get out now and never come back!”
Surfing the wave of punk, he formed The Nipple Erectors with his then-girlfriend Shanne Bradley and they played their first gig in early 1977. They also almost got married later that year, but his parents intervened.
In the summer of 1984, he took another girlfriend, Merrill Heatley, to meet his mother’s family in Ireland. On the ferry over from Holyhead, he serenaded her by “constantly” singing Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’. Upon arrival in Tipperary, he told her that she couldn’t sleep with him at the family house “because of the local scandal it would cause”.
By this stage, he was causing scandal aplenty with The Pogues who played an anarchic mutant of punk and Irish music. But by 1988 his mental health was deteriorating. On tour in New Zealand, Shane took 20 tablets of acid and was convinced he was communicating with Maori ghosts.
In Dublin that year he painted his face black and white and tried to jump out of a moving car. His sister Siobhan called the doctors and had him committed to St John of God, the psychiatric hospital in Stillorgan, saying: “Look, Shane, I’m doing what Phil Lynott’s sister wishes she had done.”
Three years later, while on tour in Japan and after one too many misdemeanour, The Pogues finally sacked him. He and his girlfriend Victoria moved into Bono’s converted Martello tower in Bray. He would say good morning from his window to his neighbour, singer Mary Coughlan, in typically delinquent manner.
“By waving my donger at her,” he recalls to Balls.
In 2000, not long after her coming out of the Priory where she was treated for depression, Victoria ended the relationship with Shane. In an TV interview in late 2004, he said: “I had a 20-year relationship with a young lady and I’d like to patch it up.”
In 2007 they appeared on The Late Late Show and Victoria showed host Pat Kenny her engagement ring. But it wasn’t until November 2018 that the couple – together, on and off, for over 30 years – finally wed, with their friend Johnny Depp in attendance.
Victoria comments that she doesn’t consider her husband to be an alcoholic. “He probably isn’t. I think if they gave him a different drug and said, ‘This drug is going to actually do the same thing,’ he would probably take that. It’s whatever drug is going to make him feel normal.”
This book is about Shane’s furious devotion to Victoria, as much as it is to drink or drugs.