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Shane's Addiction 

Documentarian Sarah Share delivers the man, the music, the myth: MacGowan

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
Shane MacGowan drinks a lot of alcohol and sings about it. Although the iconic rocker once declared himself "the anti-Morrissey," this self-appraisal now seems highly inaccurate. Both Shane and Steven hail from the Irish diaspora amid English friction, both suffer huge crushes on America, both steal liberally from literature and cinema, and both quickly grew too big for their britches, resulting in the ruination of two of the most affecting bands of the 1980s, the Smiths (in Moz's case) and the Pogues (in MacGowan's). One plays a pussy and the other a mad dog, but from the same font of post-punk poetry they spring. If you've never heard of MacGowan, it might be more illustrative to define him as, say, "the anti-Manilow," but in the documentary If I Should Fall From Grace, you can observe him firsthand discussing his formula. Here's a quote:

"All I did was take extremely old-fashioned Irish music ... proper Irish music ... people's Ir -- old-fashioned, y'know, in terms of people like Horslips and Planxty and De Danann and [sloppy masturbatory gesture accompanied by wet sound effect] -- I was, yeah, right, and like, uh, y'know, like, y'know, y'know, er, the music, y'know, the ceili music, and, y'know, jigs, reels, like, lyrics about drinking, fucking, fighting, y'know, right, and, y'know, romantic lyrics about love and fucking and rebellion and whatever, y'know, yeh?"

This informative outpouring is not presented here in mockery, but rather to offer an accurate taste of MacGowan in his element -- his element, of course, being cups. Director Sarah Share, late of Euro-Irish expat Bob Geldof's production company, was approached by folk-punk madman MacGowan with the intent of him finally becoming the star of his own movie. The result is a booze-soaked, rousing, engaging portrait, funnier and weirder than the bogus folkumentary A Mighty Wind and as touching as the Sex Pistols pic The Filth and the Fury. If you want Shane, here he is.

Well, mostly. Although the project is stuffed with intriguing new interviews and superb archival footage, it opens awkwardly. We commence with Mr. MacGowan and his fine latter-day band the Popes playing "Paddy Public Enemy No. 1" live at Christmastime 2000, but the man in front looks and sounds like a hopelessly stoned Elvis impersonator (that'd be Presley). Several cutaways to the dewy Dublin crowd are intended to convey "excitement," but they feel like second-unit excerpts nicked from somebody else's concert. Again, like Morrissey, this is a man ill-advised to dance and much better heard than seen. To have one's long-established illusions of the rollicking scalawag obliterated up front proves a disconcerting choice.

Fortunately, the project shambles into gear thereafter, with an energetic montage set to the Pogues' title track and the barely comprehensible MacGowan -- who literally never stops drinking and smoking -- announcing to his long-term squeeze Victoria Clarke and some friends that he's been declared clinically insane in seven countries. Testifying otherwise, the apparently sweet-tempered Clarke later recounts her first swoon for Shane: "One day I just looked at him and saw beauty where before I'd seen hideous arrogance." (Prince, there's hope.)

Into the mix Share also adds MacGowan's affectionate parents, Maurice and Therese, who take turns accentuating Shane's own tales of his drug-addled, misspent youth and his choice to make punked-out Irish music his raison d'être -- a bold move when U2 has spent most of its career trying to sound American. A few Pogues appear to discuss, variously, alcoholism and alcoholism. Slick Nick Cave then shows up to praise his pal's elegant songwriting and to announce that "he has the right to do whatever he wants, and to believe whatever he wants." Nick Cave for president! Or at least governor of California.

The work is properly peppered with music videos and live performances, and those who'll shriek at the absurdly bad break dancing and scary near-nudity in "Streams of Whiskey" or shed a tear seeing the late Kirsty MacColl in the magnificent "Fairytale of New York" will not be disappointed. Clips of Shane's first band, the Nips (aka the Nipple Erectors), are blended with a ridiculously foppish Elvis Costello producing the Pogues' Rum Sodomy & the Lash, moody Sinead O'Connor dueting with Shane on "Haunted," and Johnny Depp pantomiming through "That Woman's Got Me Drinking." Old fans and new recruits may find enjoyment, though why Costello left Pogues former bassist Cait O'Riordan for a Barbie doll remains unclear.

Front and center -- where he desperately needs to be -- is a gibbering, hissing man who laughs exactly like Sesame Street's Ernie. From spotty, obnoxious punk -- with reasonable teeth! -- to the leering, glassy-eyed poet laureate of sozzledness, we get a fairly full portrait. It's sadly a bit lacking in MacGowan's trademark nastiness, but all the other tics are here. The impression it leaves, surprisingly, is that MacGowan's a man addicted not to alcohol, but to living an authentic life. Cheers to that.

About The Author

Gregory Weinkauf


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