Shane MacGowan, the brilliant but chaotic songwriter who as frontman for the Pogues reinvigorated interest in Irish music in the 1980s by harnessing it to the propulsive power of punk rock, died Thursday. He was 65.
MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, said the cause was pneumonia but did not say where he died.
MacGowan emerged from London’s punk scene in the late 1970s and spent nine tumultuous years with the initial incarnation of the Pogues. Rising from North London pubs, the band was performing in stadiums by the late 1980s, before MacGowan’s drug and alcohol problems and his mental and physical deterioration forced the band to fire him. He later founded Shane MacGowan & the Popes, with whom he recorded and toured in the 1990s.
Along the way, MacGowan earned twin reputations as a titanically destructive personality and a master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life. His best-known are the opening lines of his biggest hit, an alcoholics’ lament turned unlikely Christmas classic entitled “Fairytale of New York”:
“It was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank/An old man said to me, won’t see another one.”
“I was good at writing,” MacGowan told Richard Balls, who wrote his authorized biography, “A Furious Devotion” (2021). “I can write, I can spell, I can make it flow, and when I mixed it with music, it was perfect.”
Bruce Springsteen, Bono and others agreed with his self-assessment. But his boozy sketches of rakish immigrant life — delivered with a London punk sneer — initially provoked disgust from the public and the musical establishment in Ireland.
Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, 1957, in a hospital near the English town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, to parents who had left Ireland just a few months earlier.
His father, Maurice, a Dubliner, worked for a chain of clothing retailers. His mother, Therese, a former secretary and model, was from rural Tipperary. MacGowan spent his early years in the middle-class suburb of Tunbridge Wells, southeast of London, though the family regularly returned to Ireland for visits.
His parents had high expectations for their literary-minded son, who as a boy had read James Joyce and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They sent him to prestigious fee-paying institutions rather than state schools. When the family moved to London, he earned a scholarship to the Westminster School, situated on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, which had educated several British prime ministers.
But MacGowan spent his summers far from this seat of the English establishment, staying for weeks at a time with relatives at the Commons, his mother’s family’s rustic homestead near Nenagh, in County Tipperary.
The house was a well-known local destination for marathon bouts of music, dancing and drinking. “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the door was open all night, and it would be a place to go for a session,” MacGowan told Balls, his biographer. “I would be put upon the table from the earliest days I can remember and told to sing what songs I knew.”
MacGowan would also claim it was in Tipperary where he first acquired his lifelong drinking habit. In “A Drink With Shane MacGowan,” the 2001 memoir he wrote with Clarke, he recalled that his uncle would bring him home two bottles of Guinness from a pub to drink each night starting when he was 5.
Back in London, MacGowan also began taking and selling drugs, resulting in his expulsion from the Westminster School and the first of what would be a series of addiction-driven personal crises.
At 17, he was institutionalized for months; he spent his 18th birthday in London’s famous Bethlem psychiatric hospital, sometimes known as Bedlam.
After he was discharged, he was drawn into the emerging London punk scene. In 1976, the New Music Express, a music newspaper, featured his picture, ear trailing blood, under the blaring headline “Cannibalism at Clash Gig.” While he and a girl had been biting each other, MacGowan said, his ear had actually been cut by a bottle.
The notoriety of that image helped establish his identity in punk circles, where he was known by the alias Shane O’Hooligan. The next year, he was fronting the Nipple Erectors (later shortened to the Nips).
But by the early 1980s the energy had largely drained from the punk movement, giving way to the synthesizers, eyeliner and bouffants of so-called new romantic bands such as Duran Duran and Adam and the Ants.
Punk refugees found themselves migrating into a growing world music scene in London, where British bands would try their hand at African, Latin American or Greek music. Tapping into Irish music seemed an obvious choice.
Along with tin whistle player Spider Stacy and banjoist Jem Finer, both British, MacGowan formed a band called the New Republicans, the name an Irish political joke aimed at the dandified new romantic scene. In 1982, the band reemerged under the name Pogue Mahone, an Irish-language phrase meaning “kiss my ass” that was later shortened to the Pogues.
By 1984, their raucous live shows had earned the Pogues a loyal following. The band signed to the independent label Stiff Records, home of Elvis Costello, Madness and the Damned.
The two albums the band recorded for Stiff showcased MacGowan’s gift for storytelling. His subject matter — from picaresque rambles to confessions of regret written from the perspective of someone far from home — marked him as an inheritor of a boisterous Irish tradition of irreverent poetry and song that developed in the 19th century — “songs of hard labor and hard living, of wandering and exile, resentment and loss,” Joseph Cleary, a professor of Irish literature at Yale University, wrote in The Irish Times in 2018.
MacGowan’s song “Dark Streets of London” follows an immigrant’s life in London, from the initial exhilaration of freedom to poverty and homelessness:
“And I’m buggered to damnation/And I haven’t got a penny/To wander the dark streets of London.”
By the late 1980s, the band was touring extensively, first in continental Europe and then worldwide, including along the heavily Irish American communities of the eastern United States, where it developed a following. In 1987, the Pogues were the opening act for U2 concerts, performing in massive venues such as Wembley Stadium in London and Croke Park in Dublin.
That November, the band reached the pinnacle of its commercial success with the release of “Fairytale of New York.”
That song — co-written with Finer and featuring vocals by English songwriter Kirsty MacColl — reached No. 2 on the British charts that year; it reliably appears on the charts every holiday season.
The Pogues would keep up their energetic recording and touring pace for several more years, even though MacGowan had become addicted to heroin in addition to his long-standing alcohol problems. Shows were missed. He was repeatedly injured in falls and struck by moving vehicles. His bandmates ultimately decided to dismiss him before a concert in Yokohama, Japan, in August 1991.
But MacGowan continued to write and record, issuing two albums with his group Shane MacGowan & the Popes that enjoyed modest critical and commercial success. He left the group in the late 1990s and performed sporadically with the reformed Pogues from 2001 to 2014, when the band again dissolved.
MacGowan remained an object of public interest in Britain and Ireland. In 2015, a documentary about the surgical replacement of his famously rotten teeth was shown on British television. That same year, however, he fractured his pelvis in a fall and never fully recovered.
MacGowan never gave up alcohol, but his drinking and behavior mellowed. In 2018, he married Clarke, his longtime girlfriend. In addition to her, he is survived by his sister, Siobhan, and his father. His mother died in 2017.
In January 2018, MacGowan was feted for his 60th birthday with a tribute concert in Dublin that included Bono and Sinead O’Connor. During the event, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
It was perhaps the culmination of MacGowan’s complex relationship with his ancestral home. The Pogues’ emergence had generated a backlash from musical traditionalists in Ireland. The great Irish singer Tommy Makem called the band “the greatest disaster ever to hit Irish music.”
But MacGowan’s lyrical talent ultimately won him admirers throughout Ireland, where he relocated with his wife after his time with the Pogues, and well beyond.
Springsteen, in an appearance on Ireland’s “Late Late Show” in October 2020, called MacGowan “a master.”
“I truly believe that a hundred years from now most of us will be forgotten,” Springsteen said. “But I do believe that Shane’s music is going to be remembered and sung.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.