A Furious Devotion: The Story of Shane MacGowan
Richard Balls’ A Furious Devotion: The Story of Shane MacGowan is such a beautifully measured and wildly entertaining story a man who in song is of one of the greatest observers of the human condition at the turn of the century. A Furious Devotion is Richard Balls’ third book after Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story, and Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll: The Life of Ian Dury and a career in UK and Irish newspaper journalism brought him to this point where he has applied all of his immense experience and skill to capture, reveal and unravel the man from the myth that is Shane MacGowan.
We’re such big fans of Shane MacGowan, well... It’s the Irish thing. The Great Majestic Shannon, from the Pogues LP If I Should Fall From Grace With God, oh the melody, the melody and the romance, made me shed tears for my dad - when he was still living. Maybe it was the river association, and how, when I was a child on the school holidays spent back in Tyrone, dad would join us for a bit of the time, from his railway job or his car factory job back in England, and he wanted me to be a regular boy, so, we’d go fishing, dad’s way, down to the Killymoon River outside Cookstown. When the trout bit, maybe they were trout, he’d immediately whip them out of the river over our heads and deep into the field. Maybe he did it to make the children laugh. He later told me that when he’d been younger, when he’d been a kid, he’d see a guy who went on to be one of the Great Train Robbers on the river, plying the water with lime to do his fishing en masse.
All those summers, I remember catching three fish. Maybe dad's technique wasn’t perfect.
If The Broad Majestic Shannon was the only song Shane MacGowan had written I’d be eternally grateful to him, it’s even more poignant to hear now my dad is no longer here.
Of course Shane does more than just tug at the old heartstrings though. He has way more strings to his bow than that. In some ways, he, (and actually on another occasion, Mick Jagger of all the people you can imagine,) really, really reminded me of what charisma is, and why the great ones are the both great and unforgettable. And why at the end of the day, some guys just, just, just want to sing in the band. You know they do. I know I do.
One time I was living (it) up on Sunset in Los Angeles and I went to see Shane Macgowan play at the House of Blues. It was across the street from my French Hill apartment block that some said housed the alleged dalliances between RFK and MM. Oh and the original Steve McQuuen had lived there too. Anyhow Shane and the Popes became merely the Popes for about three hours while Shane was… absent. The band ran through the set, some, familiar Pogues songs and so on. And it was alright. After hours of delay, MacGowan finally came on stage, some said he had flown to the wrong city - myth or man story, for sure. He seemed so fucked up that no airline on earth would let him on board I would hope. He had a broken arm or something, so one suit jacket sleeve flailed wildly, while his other hand clasped onto the microphone as if, for dear life.
People went nuts.
By far the wildest gig I have ever been in the crowd for. Those songs an hour earlier, tepid, came to life with each measured growl. Shane MacGowan is a brilliant entertainer and he didn’t disappoint for one second that night.
I think the only other time I truly felt so intensely like I was in the presence of greatness was when I had to good fortune to hear Norman Mailer read from one of his final books. It was mesmerising as Shane MacGowan was that night at the House of Blues.
Already in 2021 we’ve seen Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, a seriously creatively good rock documentary stretching the genre. With Oscar worthy performances from Johnny Depp and Bobby Gillespie I think you’ll agree. Or you might wonder what they are doing there.
A Furious Devotion (love the title - like something Kevin Rowlands might’ve come up with) covers Shane's childhood trips from Tonbridge Wells to Tipperary - his mother’s home. His Schooldays at Westminster, discovering the Sex Pistols and founding the Nipple Erectors - his pre-Pogues punk band. Shane aside, the book also features extensive interviews with Shane’s wife Victoria Clarke, luminaries Nick Cave, Aidan Gillen, Cillian Murphy, Christy Moore, Sinead O’Connor and Dermot O’Leary, family members, industry folks and many more. There are scores of previously unpublished photos too.
Richard Balls says “I first met Shane when I was writing a book about Stiff Records. His friend Paul Ronan set up that meeting and when I later talked about telling Shane’s story, Paul came with me on visits to Dublin to stay with Shane. That put me in a very privileged position, giving me the opportunity to spend time with Shane in his home and speak to him at his leisure rather than trying to ‘interview’ him, which he hates. His sister Siobhan and his father Maurice were extremely supportive and provided access to other family members.”
He continues, “There are voices in this book that have never been heard before: ex-girlfriends, relatives, close friends, and even his English teacher, who kept some of his schoolwork. I think the book pulls back the curtain on parts of his life that have never been seen and I hope it does justice to this kind, intelligent and generous man."
Although his physical health appears greatly diminished, Shane has apparently spoken about writing and recording again, and like most everyone, here’s hoping it will happen. I wonder whether there is much material in the vault to be released.
A Furious Devotion is a marvelous accomplishment, Richard Balls’ warmth and affection for MacGowan is gently evident on every page, like ink spreading across a blotter. He depicts a man who transcended so many expectations - as a writer, a musician and original thinker. Like a latter day Legend of The Holy Drinker, A Furious Devotion is a poignant, joyful, uplifting and despite all, an optimistic portrait of a seminal artist.
“I think we all see him as a fiercely important artist, one of our most important artists. A writer in the tradition of Behan, who is one of his heroes of course. We see him as an iconoclast. A rebel. And I think we worry about him and have spent the last 30 years as a nation worrying about him, but he keeps proving us wrong.” Cillian Murphy
A Furious Devotion: The Story of Shane MacGowan
Published 7th October on Omnibus Press
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