IN 1989 Liam Fay, a journalist from the Irish music magazine Hot Press, travelled to the Marble Arch area of London where, on the top floor of a three-storey Georgian building, he found Shane MacGowan in a room with a couple of single beds, a small black and white telly, and cardboard boxes full of records, including The Doors, Public Enemy and Irish folk duo Makem and Clancy.

What really caught the writer’s attention, however, was the thing that always caught journalists’ attention when they talked to the lead singer of the Pogues back then (and ever since, for that matter).

“The most notable feature of the room,” Fay wrote, “has to be the vast phalanx of bottles (empty and full) that form a sort of centrepiece. Whatever you're having yourself, it's here: brandy, gin, vodka, wine, port, all sorts of mixers, not to mention two plastic shopping bags loaded with cans of Budweiser. The place literally smells like a brewery.”

At this point in time the story of the Pogues was still a relatively new one. The band’s first album, Red Roses for Me, came out in 1984. Fay was meeting MacGowan on the eve of the release of their fourth, Peace and Love. Within those five years MacGowan had already been framed by many as a man who was drinking himself to death.

“Do you worry about the long-term effects of heavy drinking?” Fay asked MacGowan at one point. “Ultimately, it can kill you.”

“Having to stay off drink for a week nearly f****** killed me, so which is worse?” MacGowan replied.

Now, it’s more than 30 years later, and MacGowan is still with us. And, as even the most cursory viewing of Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, Julien Temple’s new film about the man, will reveal, still drinking. So MacGowan might feel that he has had the last laugh.

That laugh. It can be heard all the way through Crock of Gold. A snickering hiss of a thing that has been variously described as “a cross between a rattlesnake's hiss and a portable toilet being flushed” (according to the Daily Mirror), or “an asthmatic gargling gravel,” according to the late Word Magazine, is one of the main MacGowan signifiers. That and his teeth. Once twisted, black and missing, Now, a row of perfection sitting in a body that is far from that.

But the real signifier, of course, is the music he has written. It’s the reason, after all, any of us care. It’s the reason why Temple has made a movie.

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The film doesn’t exactly find MacGowan in rude health. He is in a wheelchair, slanted to one side (partly a result of a pelvic injury). His words are subtitled for those who can’t get their ear around his slurry voice. And yet here he is, defiantly not dead.

Crock of Gold is an attempt to tell the man’s story. It is a story of drink, yes, and other addictions too. It’s a story of laughter and fall-outs. And it’s a story of a band who reinvented Irish traditional music and added several songs to the canon as well.


Shane MacGowan in 1985. Photograph Andrew Catlin

"The great thing about the Pogues,” Billy Bragg once told the BBC, “was that, instead of coming at folk music like Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention with respect, they came at it, got hold of it by the lapels, and threw it down the stairs.”

“The idea,” MacGowan himself says in Temple’s movie, “was to give the tradition a kick in the arse.”

“It’s not the easiest thing to make a film about Shane MacGowan,” Temple admits in the film’s production notes. In lieu of a proper interview, the director films MacGowan in conversations of varying degrees of enlightenment with Johnny Depp, his wife Victoria, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams (if you ever wanted to hear Adams sing the Beatles then this is the film for you) and others.

MacGowan seems to enjoy sharing a drink and needling banter with Depp (who takes it all in good grace). But you have to feel sorry for Bobby Gillespie who gets short shrift when he asks a banal question only to have it thrown back in his face. “Oh, don’t start interrogating me.”

When he’s not nodding out, MacGowan never feels more than a sip away from a surly outburst. Even now he hasn’t lost the anger that propelled him into punk and beyond. Nor, it should be said, the sly humour.

The first time I saw the Pogues was in 1984, supporting Elvis Costello at the Edinburgh Playhouse. They were wild, thrilling and something of a challenge. I am from Plantation stock. A student, I’d come from Northern Ireland two years before, happy to leave my homeland behind – the Troubles, the Orange and the Green, the music I grew up with and all it stood for. I wanted synths and the future, not the past. And here I was being confronted with it again, but sounding disturbingly fresh and vibrant.

More than this, MacGowan never hid his Irish republicanism. In the film he despairs that he didn’t have the courage to join the IRA.

Temple paints MacGowan’s political beliefs in broad, rather romantic strokes. The perfidy of the Black and Tans, the 1916 rising, the war of independence are all present and correct, but the civil war doesn’t get a look in.

To its credit, though, Temple also places MacGowan’s politics in a wider context. It folds it into his biography and shows how MacGowan’s Irishness was both part of his identity but also a form of protection.

The key line in the film may well be the one his sister Siobhan offers up to explain her brother. “We all cover up our vulnerability in whatever way we do it. His is masked by a kind of aggression.”

And despite the odd snarling word, it’s the vulnerability that emerges from the film. Here is a portrait of a young Irish boy who, after growing up in Tipperary, finds himself in England where the motto “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish” was not an idle one.

Damage was done. At school MacGowan was bullied until he himself became a bully. As a teenager he started sniffing glue and selling drugs to his schoolmates at Westminster School where he had won a scholarship. He was kicked out and working in a supermarket by the age of 14.

His parents were splitting up and he was suffering from anxiety. Soon, he was nicking his mother’s pills for her depression, earning money as a rent boy and taking acid. It didn’t take long before he was committed to the drug ward in Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital).

The Sex Pistols were first band he saw after being discharged. It was punk that saved him, he says. Or at least gave him some kind of direction. “Going to see the Sex Pistols changed my f***** life.” Anger, it turns out, is indeed an energy.

MacGowan had found his tribe. He renamed himself Shane O’Hooligan and joined a band called The Nipple Erectors.

When punk faded and synths and world music took over, he retreated back to the music he grew up with. And then gave it a reboot.

There are two sides to the Pogues. The one that made them famous was the wild raucous, rebel party music – a kind of punky take on the traditional. “My crusade is to make Irish music hip again,” as MacGowan says at one point in the film.

But his romanticism also manifested itself in bruised, hungover love songs, the most successful of which was Fairytale of New York in 1987. “It was our Bohemian Rhapsody,” MacGowan suggests.

It was the band’s high point and the beginning of the end. The Pogues spent the following year touring and MacGowan was soon lost to his addictions. “He went away and didn’t come back,” his sister suggests. “It blew his brain away,” his father adds.

“I’m a big boy. I know what I’m doing,” was MacGowan’s defence. But by now heroin was a problem. He was self-destructive. Fellow Pogue Terry Woods once had to talk him out of playing Russian Roulette.

The band carried on despite everything. And there were still new songs. Summer in Siam, released in 1990, was a woozy, dope-smudged, beautiful drift of a thing. But a parting of the ways was coming. MacGowan left the band a year later after falling out of a van in Japan. He formed a new band Shane MacGowan and The Popes in 1992. They toured extensively and recorded a couple of albums. The Pogues reformed in the 21st century to tour but no new music has emerged.

Does it matter? The fact is, surly, damaged old bugger that he is, MacGowan is loved by family and friends and his name is attached to a catalogue of songs, some loud and noisy, some beautifully tender.

My own favourite is Rainy Night in Soho, the most perfect of love songs. Imagine being able to say to anyone, “You’re the measure of my dreams.”

For a while there I was. It was the line I’d always sing to my late wife. Rainy Night … is one of the many songs that can make me cry for what I’ve lost.

You could see Crock of Gold as a catalogue of loss too, I suppose. The loss of the muse, the loss of a unique, difficult, beautiful talent. Maybe you could say the drink did win in the end, even if it hasn’t killed him.

But that’s to swap what might have been for what is and was. It’s not about what Shane MacGowan might have done, it’s about what he did. The songs he wrote will play on and on down the years, loving assaults on the tradition that have become themselves part of it. That’s a legacy you can raise a glass to.

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan is in selected cinemas now. It comes out on Digital and DVD on Monday