Long written off by the music industry, Shane MacGowan’s new single “Road to Paradise” has the critics buzzing. Richard Purden reports.
The behemoth of Irish music has repeatedly proven that, despite years of rock-‘n’-roll debauchery, he can still stand up and be counted among every new generation of artists. So it should come as no surprise that when Shane MacGowan releases a new single, many in both the British and Irish media are moved so far as to hail the track his best work since the Pogues.
In this case, the track “Road to Paradise” is on an EP, which aims to raise funds for the Motor Neurone Disease Fund. The Triple A-side also features Jim Kerr from Simple Minds, who sings “Dirty Old Town” with Celtic football legend Jimmy Johnstone, who suffers from Motor Neurone Disease, and Scottish singer-songwriter John McLaughlin (who worked with Westlife and Busted), who provides the self-penned Celtic Football Club’s anthem “Lord of the Wing.”
MacGowan was asked by Glasgow producer Phil Ferns to contribute a song to the album when he was in town in January for the Celtic Connections festival. After his show at the Barrowlands, MacGowan appeared on stage the following night with Primal Scream at the Glasgow Academy. Watching the punk survivor thrash out “Loaded” and Johnny Thunders covers on stage was quite a sight. Naturally, a night of debauchery in the Scream’s hometown followed, but MacGowan managed to make it to the studio on the Sunday night to write and record “Road to Paradise.”
A week later he is still to be found in McGinn’s bar on Hope Street. “I’m off to catch a flight down to London to join Primal Scream in Hammersmith and do it all over again,” he smiles. He then drains his pint and picks up a battered old acoustic guitar that once belonged to Rory Gallagher. “When we get it together I’m going to do a record with Primal Scream. We’re both busy on our own stuff at the minute but the plan is to do some tracks and then go on the road together in Ireland next year.
“Primal Scream is one of the best bands around. People don’t like to see us do well because guys like us are meant to die, take an overdose, or f*** up in some way, and when we don’t people want to know why.”
For Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, the feeling is mutual: “Shane is a classic songwriter, a great person, and I love the guy.”
MacGowan’s new single has reminded many why the Irish songwriter is still so universally revered. The song is an uptempo anthem about leaving starvation and poverty in Ireland and getting on the road to paradise. Paradise is a metaphor for a new beginning in Scotland (it wasn’t, but that is another story).
The Celtic football fans call the home ground Paradise because this is the place where the Irish community’s hopes and dreams were born, and MacGowan has really captured the spirit of the Celtic sport and the romance of the club in the song.
The 1990s were a hazy and dark time for MacGowan, now 46, but the past few years have seen him operating comfortably outside the mainstream, playing live regularly and juicing up the engine of his latent songwriting talent.
And it’s not just the music industry that is re-invigorating MacGowan’s lust for life; he is also venturing tentatively, if he could ever be described so, into a film career. He stars in the forthcoming film The Libertine alongside Johnny Depp.
That aside, there is a string of musical collaborations on the boil, including a project with Bono. He is also reeling from picking up a top Italian songwriting award. How is he managing to take on so much? “I’m trying not to get too big-headed,” he laughs with that familiar devilish hiss. As far as MacGowan is concerned, despite what the media might think, the single doesn’t represent a comeback – he’s been busy all the while. “I’ve been touring, writing. I put out a live record and this is the second double A-side I’ve done with Celtic,” he says.
The first charity single, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” was a charming and ragged Irish ballad depicting his love affair with Glasgow, which went largely unnoticed outside the Celtic football club community. The new single has gathered more impetus for a number of reasons. MacGowan’s motivation to promote the single so doggedly is due to Jimmy Johnstone’s involvement.
Johnstone, who has been suffering from Motor Neurone Disease since 2002, is also the subject of a new movie, Lord of the Wing, which was shown at the Hampton’s Film Festival in New York over the summer. (Word is that actress Cara Seymour was moved to tears when she saw it at a private screening). The event, a fundraiser for MND, also commemorated the life of New York Yankees baseball legend Lou Gehrig, who died of the disease.
“I heard about Jimmy’s illness and I know it can be cured with money,” says MacGowan. “The last time I saw him he seemed fine, but people can seem fine and drop down dead the next day. The reason for doing this record is to raise money and prolong Jimmy’s life, which is as good a reason to do anything. Put it this way: I hope to be having a drink with Jimmy in a few years’ time.”
“Road to Paradise” was originally due for release in May, but was hit by a run of bad luck. First MacGowan was hospitalized by an unprovoked attack on him in London. Then the major record stores in England refused to stock the single on the grounds that it was too much of a “specialist interest” release, and national radio DJs felt unmoved to play it.
Despite no industry support, the track went in at number eight in the independent chart and record shops finally relented. MacGowan recovered from his attack and set up a string of live performances and interviews. He has just finished a promotional tour of Ireland supporting the single. Shane is also accompanied by Scotland’s latest Celtic country star Laura McGhee on backing vocals and fiddle, while the Rolling Stones brass section, the Kick Horns, provide the backbone to MacGowan’s most rousing anthem in years.
Since our last meeting, MacGowan has completed filming The Libertine, described as a 17th-century Hollywood romp. “I’ve finished it now; people are getting it mixed up with Pirates of the Caribbean but it’s nothing like that; it’s funny but in a very black kind of way. It’s basically a true story about the Earl of Rochester who was probably the most paranoid tyrant outside of Stalin and me. John Malkovich plays Charles II, who has just been restored after going on the run around Europe, living on the streets where he developed his earthy tastes and pleasures. I mean he brought back pleasure after Oliver Cromwell (who had signed Charles I’s death warrant). Cromwell had banned dancing, drinking, smoking, and wearing bright clothes. He was hated not just in Ireland but in England as well before he died. King Charles II came back, dug Cromwell up and stuck his head on the same spike that his father’s head had been stuck on.
“After that he was dogged by conspirators who took him for a dummy, and he wasn’t. Johnny Depp plays Rochester, who conspired against him and failed. I play a drunken minstrel. I’ve played a bandit, a terrorist, and now I’m a drunken minstrel.
Long-time friend Depp is another guest on the long-awaited new MacGowan album. “Yeah, Johnny is going to be on it, but he’s not just on there to get his name on the cover; he’s there because he’s actually a great guitarist. Johnny played on The Snake, and this record is going to be a bit more punky in a similar way. He was also in the video for ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’.
News of a studio album, his first in seven years, will appease MacGowan’s fan base. They have a 3,000-strong petition on his official website demanding that his manager Joey Cashman be ousted for not managing his profile correctly.
In fairness to Cashman, nothing goes ahead without MacGowan’s say-so – he won’t be told what to do by anyone.
“The record is going to be out in time for the Christmas rush, we’re going to put another EP out after this single and we’ll be playing some more shows, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve not played in Edinburgh for a long time, but that’s because I had a lazy, unimaginative agent.”
It sounds like being Shane MacGowan is motivation enough for now. ♦