We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When Shane MacGowan and the Pogues parted ways in late ’91, diehard fans of the sacked, ever-soused singer could take heart: Freedom from what had become the Obligatory Jig could only do him good. After all, it was MacGowan’s unforgettable snarl and poetic tunesmithing that transformed the band’s often bland Irish folk-rock.
The Pogues’ best albums, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace With God, rightfully allowed MacGowan to hog the spotlight. No derivative, misty-brained folkie, he was spurred by a street muse, some sort of glue-sniffing, green-haired Maud Gonne gone punk. He spewed sordid tales of London lowlifes, but these melodic tangles of gutter talk, rebel slogans, and old-fashioned slang were infused with a romantic’s sympathy. MacGowan ballads like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” sounded more authentic and timeless than the tired traditional standards that permeate Irish pubs like the aroma of stale vomit.
But, greedy for the mike, other Pogues marred and eventually overwhelmed the band’s later work with earnest brogues and dull instrumentals; impatient listeners were forced to make MacGowan-only cassette compilations of Pogues albums. Even worse than the band’s democratic coup was the fact that Ol’ Snaggletooth seemed to have lost his spunk, drained hollow as a St. Paddy’s Day party whistle. His swan song, 1990’s Hell’s Ditch, whimpered like a braggart nursing a bad hangover.
The Pogues forged on, even enlisting Joe Strummer for a few tours, but their only post-Shane album, 1993’s Waiting for Herb revealed a generic, alt-shamrock act and proved a dismal failure even on college radio. Meanwhile, instead of launching a solo career, MacGowan went on an endless bender—surfacing only to give advice on the perils of good brandy to the London rock press, which made a sport of tagging along on his epic pub crawls. Except for a flukish, CD-single duet with Nick Cave, MacGowan remained silent, at least on record.
Those years of lost weekends nonetheless provided him with plenty of new material, as evidenced by The Snake, a ramshackle portrait of the artist as middle-aged punk and self-described lout. He’s now 37, and MacGowan’s life is messier than ever, fueling his inspiration and anger. His indomitable voice remains as craggy and ultimately endearing as his broken, stub teeth (even Strummer’s had his fixed by now). And he has a trashy pickup band, the Popes, to take him where the fey Pogues feared to rock.
Now available only as an import (but set for U.S. release this spring), The Snake delves into the urban netherworld that MacGowan first chronicled on his early classic, “The Old Main Drag,” the song that provided a wrenchingly apt coda to the film My Own Private Idaho. The album sports a parental advisory for “explicit lyrics,” a warning more often stamped on metal and hardcore punk records. (This badge of dishonor was earned less for the graphic subject matter than for MacGowan’s liberal—and versatile—use of profanities. Few singers can wring as many dramatic inflections from the word “fuck.”)
And so we have MacGowan rolling down Gin Row once again, with eyes wide open: “Skinheads, coppers, all cocksuckers, punks,” he rails in “I’ll Be Your Handbag,” before confessing, “Me, I’m recovering from a nine-day drunk.” As always, he counts the cost of cheap thrills: “Hands of the barmaid/Bringing off a bald-headed monk/All this and more for just one line of junk.” Like most of The Snake, the song boasts a dirty, garage-guitar riff and a pounding, big beat; the Popes’ raw, stripped-down sound provides a welcome change from the Pogues’ baroque clatter. Nearly two decades after he led his own punk band, the ill-fated (and ill-named) Nipple Erectors, MacGowan is finally getting a chance to rock out again.
Moreover, MacGowan’s storytelling bent gets free rein: Along with some hoodlums named Zombi, Chino, Jimmy, and Chiarakaparos, he splits the loot with a gangster priest at a “Mexican Funeral in Paris.” He travels back in time to the public execution of a 19th-century Irish patriot, who before dying gives MacGowan a freedom ring, “The Snake With Eyes of Garnet.” But even these fantasies pale beside the album’s true-to-life tales of sorrow and partings. In “Victoria,” he wakes up thinking of a green-eyed girl who left him in an “opium euphoria.” Abandoned, he faces another drunkard’s dawn: “The Angel of the East is calling/And with a trembling hand/I open up a can/I can hear a baby bawling.”
Like many another Irish bard, MacGowan obviously gets a perverse satisfaction from wallowing in the troughs of misfortune, but he doesn’t flinch from acknowledging his own role in his debacles. The album’s striking ballad, “The Song With No Name” (the most haunting of all his sad, tin-whistle odes), is awash with regret as he looks back on a youthful love affair that he blames himself for breaking up: “I was brutal, I was ignorant, I was cruel, I was brash/I never gave a damn about the beauty that I smashed.”
Indeed, for such a remarkably decadent work, The Snake still strives for a sense of grace amid the human wreckage and degradation. The album’s single, “The Church of the Holy Spook,” casts MacGowan as the prodigal son, bemoaning his drug-and-drink habits and wayward life: “Rock and roll you crucified me, left me all alone/I never should have turned my back on the old folks back at home.” And yet the sheer relish with which MacGowan rides “Spook” ‘s rollicking guitar attack—even whooping a few Celtic rebel yells—betrays a sinner backsliding before he’s even finished his confession.