In November 1999, the U.K.’s NME reported “A London Metro Police spokesman confirmed that ex-Pogues singer Shane McGowan (sic. NME should have spelled it “Mac”) was arrested on suspicion of a controlled substance or so called ‘Class A drug’ after officers found him unconscious in his flat. And according to a report in The Sun, they were tipped off by Sinead O’Connor. The report in the paper quotes ‘a source’ as saying that Sinead did what she did out of genuine concern for the well being of her friend.”
In the life of Shane MacGowan, at least what we see in “If I Should Fall From Grace,” this debacle is typical. For those who only know him as the ugliest guy in music, Shane MacGowan is a genius torch songwriter. He played Irish music in London clubs at a time when London vehemently hated the Irish for IRA bombings. MacGowan wrote one of the best Christmas tunes of all time “Fairy Tale of New York,” with one of the best opening lines ever written. Pogues frontman and founder outlasted the breakup of his band in 1991, and he survives today in spite of his self destructive habits.
Charles Bukowski said what matters is how well you walk through fire. As the other most public artist cum alcoholic, Bukowski would know. But how well can you walk through fire when you can’t hardly stand up? What’s astonishing about this film is there is not a single sober moment with the subject. It is possible that Shane did some sober interviews during the year of filming, but I don’t know if they appear in the final edit. Yet, in spite of this train wreck in front of us, the narrative stucture is absent judgement and moralizing. What you take away, primarily is a sense of the director’s affection for him.
At first, Sarah Share does seem to be a little under the spell of MacGowan’s personality. By the time we see MacGowan’s mockery of Johnny Rotten snarling “No Future” (interlaced skillfully with live footage of Rotten’s own rendition) you can see for yourself that he’s charming.
But Share sat with him for hours, watching him floating out to sea with his demon alcohol. Is it really plausible that she did nothing about it except film him and talk to him? You know this director lost some sleep over the classic question documentarians face: To intervene or not to intervene?
Imagine it’s your quandary. If your friend had failing health, seemed frail for his age, fingers stained orange from nicotine, and sat in a London flat awash in empty Bombay gin bottles, would you be able to do nothing but film it? Everyone around him, including this director, seemed to learn that MacGowan will always be faithful to his muse, and as long as he thinks booze is tied up in it, no one can dissuade him of this.
MacGowan was situationally disturbed, as he puts it, well before he started using those Class A drugs that made Sinead snitch. From the film, we learn the move from MacGowan’s Irish town near Borrisokane North Tipperary to central London set his life spinning off axis, never to regain balance. The move turned him into a “degenerate, a drunk and a thief,” he slurs in an interview. It’s unclear which move MacGowan meant: away from North Tipperary or back to North Tipperary?
Someone off camera, asks him what makes MacGowan happy. On the verge of alcoholic oblivion, his face is comically stricken as he struggles to focus on the question. Just as you think he won’t speak, he says that he can’t put his answer into words. Then, with disarming candor, MacGowan adds that his native tongue has a larger vocabulary and would make a question like that easier to answer.
People say a lot of things about MacGowan. Fellow songwriter Nick Cave said MacGowan was the “master of opening lines,” MacGowan’s girlfriend Victoria said he “doesn’t think like other people do. He’s not logical. He allows the music to come through.” Of himself, MacGowan says, “All I did was play old fashioned Irish music…Jigs, reels….lyrics about drinking, fuckin, fighting,” snigger, snigger. “Romantic lyrics like ‘I met a damsel both fair and handsome/She took my breath away/’ I mean, it’s not exactly that,” snigger, snigger. It’s a hilarious contradiction to what people seem to believe about him.
My favorite moment is when MacGowan goes from one impulse (altruism) to another (criminalism) in just one city block. Outside a bar, MacGowan hands bills to a homeless guy. A few steps later, he rattles a bike locked to a yard gate. All he needs is a hacksaw to steal it, he says. “This would get a 13£ bag for a junkie,” he says with that slurry snigger that’s totally degenerate and endearing.
Opens at the Roxie Cinema in SF AUGUST 22nd. For city dates in the US and elsewhere, contact Doug Zwick at Poptwist or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.