As sad as death almost always is, there’s something about this one that especially hurts. Impossibly talented songwriter Shane MacGowan has died at age 65, following years of health problems. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, his immense talents often overshadowed by decades of substance-use issues. As gold-standard as his songbook is, it’s also hard not to think there’s so much more he could have done.
The singer and songwriter passed on Thursday surrounded by family and friends in a Dublin hospital, his death tied into complications related to a viral encephalitis diagnosis last year. A statement from his family read, “It is with the deepest sorrow and heaviest hearts that we announce the passing of Shane MacGowan. Shane died peacefully at 3am this morning (30 November, 2023) with his wife Victoria and family by his side.”
As musicians go, the former Pogues frontman was nothing short of revolutionary, fusing the energy of first-wave English punk with traditional Irish music. In Julien Temple’s 2020 documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, the singer and songwriter acknowledged that he was on a mission, noting, “The idea was to give the tradition a kick in the ass.”
The Pogues would do exactly that with albums like 1994’s Red Roses for Me and 1985’s essential Rum Sodomy & the Lash. The band single-handedly invented the genre known as Celtic-punk with tracks like the dead-perfect “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn”. In the years that followed, MacGowan perfected a template that’s inspired endless waves of bands—the Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, the Men They Couldn’t Hang—while also pushing himself as an artist.
The 1988 high-water mark If I Should Fall from Grace with God found the band injecting its amphetamined take on Irish folk with everything from Mexican mariachi to Middle Eastern world music. The album also gave the world what’s become a modern Christmas classic, “Fairytale of New York”, for which MacGowan told CBC in 2014: “We knew we were going to try and do a Christmas song that wasn’t going to be sentimental crap.”
Through it all, The Pogues were famous for their alcohol-flooded live shows, the band’s members often as loaded as those in the mosh pit. It was that lifestyle that would eventually catch up with MacGowan, whose love of drinking started in childhood. At the age of five he already has a taste for Guinness, once noting, “I was smoking and drinking and gambling before I could talk.”
As The Pogues rose to prominence, MacGowan seemingly became sidetracked creatively. Drinking and drug-taking eventually seemed to consume him, with live shows often erratic, and his recorded output limited to a couple of ’90s solo albums after The Pogues disbanded.
But focussing on the glory years, good lord, what a legacy.
MacGowan was there right from the birth of punk in the clubs of London—he can be seen front-and-centre on the dance floor at early Sex Pistols gigs. That determination to, in the original spirit of punk, write his own rules would fuel work with The Pogues, the singer once noting that, for every fan, there was a traditionalist convinced the band was murdering Irish music.
One of the true measures of his genius was the artists who admired him as a genius, the short list including everyone from Nick Cave to U2 to Johnny Depp.
After his death today, Irish President Michael D. Higgins issued this statement: “Shane will be remembered as one of music’s greatest lyricists. So many of his songs would be perfectly crafted poems, if that would not have deprived us of the opportunity to hear him sing them. The genius of Shane’s contribution includes the fact that his songs capture within them, as Shane would put it, the measure of our dreams—of so many worlds, and particularly those of love, of the emigrant experience and of facing the challenges of that experience with authenticity and courage, and of living and seeing the sides of life that so many turn away from.”
In the mainstream, MacGowan is probably best remembered by most as the man who wrote “Fairytale of New York”. But that’s just the tip of an incredible legacy. So instead let’s remember him today with the impossibly raw and beautiful “A Pair of Brown Eyes” from Rum Sodomy & the Lash. This one indeed hurts—not just because of what we’ve lost, but also what could have been.