Tuesday 23 April 2019

I'll show Simon Cowell how to do a real charity single

Shane MacGowan is on a mission to help Haiti, he tells John Meagher

John Meagher

John Meagher

It was the moment when Shane MacGowan decided he could not sit back and do nothing. He had to rush out a single to raise money for victims of the Haiti earthquake when he first heard what Simon Cowell's hand-picked starlets had done with REM's 'Everybody Hurts'.

"When I heard that shite, I thought 'f*** it', let's show him how it's done' and that's how we came to do our version of 'I Put A Spell On You'. That's what a charity single should sound like, Tree Trunk Neck."

His partner, Victoria Mary Clarke, and good friend and former Pogues bandmate, Cait O'Riordan, collapse with laughter. "Tree Trunk Neck!" O'Riordan repeats. "I love it. That's the best description of Simon Cowell I've ever heard."

I'm sitting with the three in a Donnybrook restaurant, on the street where MacGowan and Clarke share a home, and when they are not maligning the X Factor and American Idol judge, they're talking about how they took Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 1956 classic and made something new and special.

"'I Put A Spell On You' is so uplifting, so energetic," Clarke says. "We wanted to release something that would be worth buying in its own right, and not just for a very good cause. We're not saying that you shouldn't buy the Cowell single -- just don't listen to it."

It was Clarke who assembled some of music's greatest names to make the record at short notice. "We've got Nick Cave, (Sex Pistol's) Glen Matlock, (Primal Scream's) Bobby Gillespie, Johnny Depp on it -- and loads more," she says. "Cait plays bass on it."

It is a measure of MacGowan's standing in the rock world that such names can be summoned so readily. "They adore Shane," Clarke says. "Bono was going to do it as well, but he then thought it might be overkill as he's doing something similar himself."

MacGowan is looking every inch the rock star today. He's dressed all in black and wears motorcycle gloves and dark glasses. His dyed black hair is swept into a rockabilly quiff.

Initially, he comes across as truculent -- "you're a journalist so you can put all this on f***ing expenses," he snarls -- but then he mellows, particularly if a conversation subject arouses his attention.

A conversation with Shane MacGowan invariably lurches into unexpected territory. I ask him how difficult it is to retain creativity and he launches into a rant about his diminishing sex life. "It's f***ing miserable."

The strangest things animate him. Jedward, for instance. "I think they're f***ing great," he says. And he admits to liking Ronan Keating's much-derided version of MacGowan's masterful song, 'Fairytale of New York'. "He's a good singer," he says. I search his face for irony, but there is none. "No, honestly he is."

He's not nearly as pleased with Elvis Costello, citing his production on The Pogues' famous song, 'A Rainy Night in Soho', as something that irritates him. "He f***ing murdered it."

Perhaps his criticism of Costello is for O'Riordan's benefit. She and Costello had a relationship, having met in 1985, and they went on to have a 16-year relationship. It ended badly in 2002. "I don't see him any more," she says. "It's better that way."

She corrects the common perception that they were married. "There would have been alimony if we were," she says half-ruefully.

O'Riordan spent time in the celebrity rehab of choice, The Priory -- "at a thousand quid a day" -- and hasn't had a drink in three years. "I've never felt better," this very youthful 45-year-old says, and talks with enthusiasm about an academic prize she is to receive from UCD. "College has given me the sort of structure my life badly needed."

I ask MacGowan if he would consider drying out. "Why would I do that?" he says, genuinely surprised. "I don't drink as much as I used to. I can handle it."

He appears to be telling the truth. I interviewed him five years ago and he drank three pints of Guinness and three whiskies in an hour. This time, he sips just two glasses of Prosecco and doesn't demand a refill.

He's more coherent than last time, but he struggles to articulate his thoughts clearly. The lack of teeth makes his speech difficult to follow and when he laughs, it's with the sort of wheeze an espresso machine makes.

Clarke treats him gently, almost maternally. They have been together for 25 years. "We're soul mates," she says. He grunts, but I can see he's pleased.

Some time ago, Clarke suggested the pair would get married, but now she's not so sure. "What is marriage, anyway? My mother wasn't married. Maybe we'll do it; maybe we won't."

I ask him if he is working on new songs. "I'm always working. I want to work with Cait."

She looks surprised at this. "I'm always up for that," says Cait. "In college, I wanted to put together a band but there wasn't enough interest.

"People would say 'I kinda play the guitar'. It's so ineffectual to say that -- you either play the f***ing guitar, or you don't."

'I Put A Spell On You' is released on Monday. All proceeds go to Concern's Haiti fund.

Irish Independent

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