Shane MacGowan live onstage in 1988. ANDREW CATLIN/PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
By Mike Houlihan
Christmas 2020 will hit in a few weeks and I can’t think of any Christmas song more perfect for this year of horror, death and dystopian nightmare than “Fairy Tale of New York,” by Shane MacGowan of the Pogues and featuring the late Kirstie MacColl. The tune tells a haunting story with its lyrics of despair from the New York City drunk tank one Christmas Eve and yet still manages to kindle the seasonal love and hope and promise of a new year. You’ll be singing the chorus yourselves sometime this season — you know you will. The song’s been called the best Christmas song of all time by various UK and Ireland polls and no doubt you’ve seen the video hundreds of times.
That video was my first introduction to Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, maybe the most unlikely male torch singer I’ve ever laid eyes on. Pretty, he ain’t.
But the guy is so damned committed to the music and the poetry and the craic, you can’t take your eyes off him. Soul, he has in abundance. And this holiday season we’re all about to be treated to a hilarious, and ultimately sad documentary film about this man who lit a stick of dynamite with a lifestyle and passion that appears to have finally taken its toll on his Irish body and soul.
The film is “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” and it’s now available video-on-demand through the Gene Siskel Film Center.
You might want to have a cocktail or two handy when you watch it. Filmmaker Julien Temple finds a variety of ways to tell the story of Shane MacGowan, including animation, historical and archived concert footage, old interviews, and a series of MacGowan’s friends, including Irish politician Gerry Adams and film star Johnny Depp, probing him for details of his deliciously defiant life of performing traditional Irish music through drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I found myself laughing out loud at the comic absurdity of Shane’s antics until falling under the spell of his poetry and staring into the abyss by his side. It’s a wild ride.
Shane tells us God chose him as a little boy to be the one who saves Irish music, because of course, “God is Irish.”. Being born on Christmas Day has its perks, “I was born lucky.”
The film takes you on the journey of Shane’s life over 60 years starting idyllically in Tipperary where he would visit relatives in the summers and started drinking and smoking at the age of six.
We follow him and his family growing up in London, meet his mom and dad, his sister, friends, and girlfriends, all through the prism of Shane’s whacked-out psyche. There’s plenty of Irish mythology and poetry and pints and whiskey, acid, and heroin to keep things interesting.
The tragedy of Shane MacGowan is the tragedy of all the great Irish bards like Behan, Joyce, Flann O’Brien and plenty of others who dared to kiss the sky. We all ultimately share the same fate as Icarus. The film is packed with Irish history, politics, mythology, religion, and plenty of soul.
Adams reminds Shane of one of his own favorite “Fairy Tale of New York” lyrics. “I could have been someone.” And of course, the retort, “Well so could anyone!”
Do yourself a favor and watch “Crock of Gold, A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan.”Just like Shane, it’s a masterpiece.