Monday 21 January 2019

Shane's night for all the survivors

The singer's tribe gathered last week to honour him - and it was a defiant statement of survival, writes Brendan O'Connor

Shane is presented with a lifetime achievement award by President Michael D Higgins, flanked by Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Carl Barrat, Johnny Depp and Bono
Shane is presented with a lifetime achievement award by President Michael D Higgins, flanked by Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Carl Barrat, Johnny Depp and Bono
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Damien Dempsey walks out on stage in an unfussy, workmanlike fashion. He's a guy turning up to do a job. He's almost half sheepish. He dedicates the song to all the people who said Shane MacGowan would be dead by the time he was 30, 40, 50 and now 60.

The crowd packed into the National Concert Hall for this raucous evening to celebrate Shane's 60th birthday appreciate it. Because there is a sense that tonight is about survival. And the announcement, earlier in the day, about the death of Dolores O'Riordan, seems to have made that mood even more defiant.

You look at them lined up behind him at the end, this small community of people who have collectively and individually been through so much, you see them gathered around to celebrate one of their tribe, and you see the triumph of survival.

Before you even get to Shane in his wheelchair, there's Nick Cave, who survived addiction and his band the Birthday Party - and just when he thought he'd got through the other side reasonably unscathed, his 15-year-old son experimented with LSD and died after he fell off a cliff near his house.

In an interview last year, Cave eloquently described grief thus: "The whole grief thing, there's nothing good about it whatsoever… it's like a f***ing disease. A contagion that not only affects you but everybody around you. And it's cunning. And you can feel good and you can be getting on with things, and then it just comes up and sort of punches you in the back of the head."

Just before this line-up on the stage, we had seen an extraordinarily tender Cave call his friend Shane out on stage, and when Victoria Mary Clarke, Shane's muse and the love of his life, pushed Shane out, Cave lovingly sat down next to Shane, settled him, and gently exhorted him to sing the second verse of Summer in Siam, one of Shane's more beautiful and elegiac songs. The descending piano that precedes each verse of the song seemed to last for ever, and the crowd waited expectantly, willing him on.

Johnny Depp, Steve Wickham and Bono onstage
Johnny Depp, Steve Wickham and Bono onstage

Shane had said he was nervous about singing at this gig because there were so many other good singers there. And then he did it, in all his gruff cracked beauty, he sang his verse.

Sinead O'Connor was up in that line-up too, beaming, looking like a woman delighted to be home, among her own. Earlier on, Sinead had begun the second half of the show with a beautiful rendition of Shane's song You're The One, accompanied on just piano and flugelhorn. Sinead was in fine voice but the image that will stay with us, from a night when there were so many images that will stay with us, is of when she first wandered on the stage, without introduction, and the crowd erupted in a sustained roar of delight, and somehow, solidarity. She beamed back at us, her recent troubles looking far behind her.

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream stood in that line up too. Gillespie, like Cave, has survived the full rock and roll madness too. Primal Scream were renowned as rock's last great hedonists, keeping the party going through the ecstasy-fuelled days of acid house and on to the downer period afterwards, when things, and the drugs, got heavier. Earlier, we had seen the surreal sight of Gillespie, the man who fronted the seminal acid-house psychedelic masterpiece Screamadelica now fronting a band of more or less The Pogues and friends, to sing A Pair of Brown Eyes.

Bono stood in the line-up too. We don't know the half of what he has survived. But in recent years there have been catastrophic accidents, mis-steps and brushes with mortality. Bono had sung everyone's favourite Pogues song A Rainy Night In Soho accompanied by Johnny Depp on guitar and John Sheehan, another survivor, on fiddle.

There was an extra poignancy, reflecting on Shane's 60 years, in those lyrics:

"I've been loving you a long time

Down all the years, down all the days

And I've cried for all your troubles

Smiled at your funny little ways

We watched our friends grow up together

And we saw them as they fell

Some of them fell into Heaven

Some of them fell into Hell

And then...

"Still there's a light I hold before me.

You're the measure of my dreams

The measure of my dreams."

Has there been a more beautiful declaration of scarred love?

Everyone up there was a testament to survival in an industry and a vocation that takes its toll - Carl Barat was there, originally of The Libertines, a band as well remembered for drugs, death and destruction as for their music. Cerys Mathews is there too, a woman who seemed for a while destined to become another rock and roll casualty, with the wild drinking and the tabloid-documented public spiralling. She too has survived. And tonight she sang The Broad Majestic Shannon which our MC for the evening, John Kelly, dedicated to Dolores on behalf of the whole company.

This was only one of two explicit references to Dolores. Bono had finished up A Rainy Night In Soho softly, repeatedly keening the word "linger". Clearly, last Monday was about Shane, and it was about joy. And they couldn't turn around and make it about Dolores at the last minute. But her death was there, in the air. And how do we know joy if sorrow is not loitering around in the background somewhere?

And of course behind the line-up of guests, there were four of the Pogues as part of the house band. Standing there to support the man they had to kick out of the band for bad behaviour and general unreliability (to which his answer was apparently: "What took you so long?").

But friendship and love and respect are survivors too. And they were here for him. Cait O'Riordan, another survivor of rock and roll, sober now, an academic no less, but still the best buzz you could have in a band, bopping around at the back like a teenager with a huge grin of delighted disbelief on her face, driving everything, and holding the whole show together with the basslines. Cait had sung Haunted, a song that would become famous as a duet between Shane and Sinead O'Connor but which was originally sung by Cait. She reclaimed it beautifully here.

The evening finished off with Shane fighting Michael D Higgins for a National Concert Hall lifetime achievement award, but before that, he sang his solo contribution to the evening. He sang Wild Mountain Thyme aka Will You Go Lassie Go? And in this night, such a roller coaster of emotions, it was so sad and yet joyful and beautiful and plaintive.

And it felt telling that Shane had not sung one of his own songs, but had gone home to Tipp and the songs he learnt then, at the start of his extraordinary 60 years and counting, one of the songs that started him on his journey to becoming one of the greatest songwriters and poets of his era.

And you thought back to A Rainy Night In Soho:

"Whatever happened to that old song?

To all those little girls and boys."

And you knew the answer. One of them was here, and he had survived, and his tribe had gathered around him to honour and revere him. Because they know that in rock and roll, to survive is to triumph.

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