‘Whatever Makes You Happy Is Worth Pursuing’: Pogues Frontman Shane MacGowan on Finally Showing His Private Illustrations
We caught up with the legendary singer as he released a new book of his drawings and lyrics, edited by his longtime partner, Victoria Mary Clarke.
One morning in London in the early ‘90s, Shane MacGowan was unconsciously perched on a chair in the flat he shared with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Victoria Mary Clarke. The fabled Irish singer had just been sacked from the Pogues and had recently formed a new band called Shane MacGowan and the Popes.
“I was walking to the kitchen and I must have had an instinct that something was wrong because I banged him on the chest and he woke up,” Clarke told me. “He says that from what he can remember, he felt like he had been resuscitated and he is convinced that I saved his life.”
Fast forward more than 30 years later to Dublin, where I drank white wine while Clarke sipped a gin and tonic in the backroom of the stately Intercontinental Hotel dining room. We met that Thursday evening to thumb through the manuscript of The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold, a limited-edition hardcover, edited by Clarke, that’s filled to the brim with illustrations and associated anecdotes by her husband, now 64, who was confined to a wheelchair that night in the nearby flat he shares with Clarke.
“I am stuck here,” MacGowan told me via email.
Ranging from crude depictions of sex to tender love notes to song lyrics, the idea for the 504-page hardcover, which features an introduction by art critic Waldemar Januszczak, came as Clarke’s mother was moving out of her home and found a box of MacGowan’s drawings that Victoria had been storing for decades. Clarke spent considerable time sifting through the material, which conjured wistful yet complicated memories.
“It was all very heartwarming. But of course, it brought me back to a lot of very difficult times,” Clarke said. “Seeing this material in retrospect helped me to understand what Shane was going through at the time. It was very, very revealing, and very obvious sometimes. There were written lyrics that would just trail off into scribble. You could tell that the heroin was kicking in.”
On the flip side, the book offers a glimpse at MacGowan’s intellect, sense of humor, and fervent curiosity about entities ranging from the Catholicism to sex.
“He’s interested in what you might say is the darker side of life.” Clarke said.
MacGowan’s reputation as a hell-raiser sometimes overshadowed his musical contributions as the former frontman of the Pogues, the Celtic punk band he co-founded in 1982. In 1987, he achieved wide critical and commercial success with “Fairytale of New York,” which, according to the UK music licensing company PPL, became the most played Christmas song of the 21st century. After forming Shane MacGowan and the Popes, he rejoined the Pogues for a sold-out tour in 2001. Clarke said MacGowan now plans to release a new album in the fall, which will feature, among others, his close friend Johnny Depp.
Peppered throughout the book are love notes, often dark and funny, to Victoria. One reads: “Hallo Darling Victoria I love you… When you awake from your pill-crazed slumber take another half of vali and turn your radio UP!”
“Victoria is the best thing that ever happened to me,” MacGowan later told me. “We met in December 1982. She was a proper dark-haired Irish beauty, with a stare that was terrifying and unforgettable. She has kept me alive.”
According to Victoria, their chemistry was instant and felt predestined. “I tried to snog him the first night we met,” she said. “I think love is an evolving thing, where eventually you end up completely accepting the person without any kind of judgment. But it’s a process. The stuff you judge in someone else is quite often just stuff you don’t really look at in yourself.”
MacGowan’s visual art and musical pursuits have often run parallel. When I ask him about his drawings in retrospect, he avoids regarding them or his artistry with any sort of preciousness. “I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, I was just doing it because I felt like it and it was spewing out of me. So I am not trying to say anything. Whatever you take from it is up to you, and I am glad if people like it, but that’s not the point of doing it.”
Alternately, Victoria intentionally spends her days painting angels in the back bedroom in their Dublin flat. “I meditate and look at trees, and I’m choosing to go to nice places, and then bring back what I can and share, rather than go to my really horrible places and bring that back.” Through painting, she seeks to materialize the benevolent forces that she explains as metaphysical protectors, both for herself and others. “I think Victoria’s angels are brilliant,” MacGowan said. “She doesn’t push herself enough, but it’s just a lack of confidence.”
Clarke started painting in 2019 after a trip to Johnny Depp’s house in the South of France. “Johnny gave some paints to Shane, because he had just been in the hospital and he thought it might help him,” Clarke said. “Shane didn’t really bother with them so I took them and started.”
Depp, who sang a cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” at MacGowan and Clarke’s 2019 wedding in Copenhagen, has been a friend of the couple for decades. “I’ve known Johnny for a long time,” MacGowan said. “He is going to play on my new record. He’s very intelligent and a really good laugh and I love him like a brother.”
The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold paints the picture of MacGowan’s creative life, with glimpses that range from moments of turbulence to incoherence to violence to pure love. Clarke’s curation showcases this spectrum of experience, with etchings evocative of a “devil may care” nihilism to a sometimes deferential reverence towards catholicism.
“Of course the Catholic church has done some horrific things,” MacGowan told me via email. “But there are a lot of good things too, and Jesus forgives everyone and we need to practice forgiveness as much as we can.”
In the 2019 documentary title Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, directed by Julian Temple, an archival clip quotes MacGowan saying: “I didn’t think I’d go to hell… because I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Drinking isn’t a sin. Smoking isn’t a sin. So I was going to heaven as far as I was concerned.”
In my last question to MacGowan, I asked if, by his estimation, there is one thing worth pursuing in life.
His response was simple: “Whatever makes you happy is worth pursuing.”
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