“Put some Motown on now or I don’t say another fucking word,” huffs Shane MacGowan at the start of Crock of Gold. Any journalist who’s ever had the pleasure of interviewing the Irish raconteur will know that with his furious intelligence, cutting wit and undeniable talent comes a scabrous kind of defiance. MacGowan is a man who does things on his own terms and – as this film shows – it’s been the same ever since he was a kid.
Recounting the life and wild times of the poet laureate of punk, alternative-culture documentarian Julien Temple begins by painting a ruggedly romantic picture of MacGowan’s early childhood. Living in rural Ireland with various members of his god-fearing Catholic family, MacGowan explains that they “smoked like troopers”, were “shit hot accordion players” and “died in the dying room under a picture of Jesus”. Using a frenetic barrage of archive footage, black-and-white movie clips, reenactments, family photos and animation that references everything from the Bash Street Kids to William Blake and Ralph Steadman, Temple feverishly pieces together MacGowan’s story over the course of two hours.
In order to get the most out of his star, Temple enlists MacGowan’s mates Gerry Adams, Johnny Depp and Bobby Gillespie as well as wife Victoria Mary Clarke to do the interviewing, but even then it’s sometimes a struggle. When Gillespie asks MacGowan how old he was when he first came to London, he responds with a sigh, hissing: “Oh don’t start interrogating me…”
Yet despite his confrontational manner, this is a tale told with love, compassion and humour. We hear how much MacGowan loved his childhood in Tipperary – even if he was drinking and smoking at six – and his hatred for London, where as a teenager he lived on the 16th floor of the Barbican; now a millionaire’s brutalist playground, then a concrete fortress. Though he scored a scholarship to the posh Westminster School, MacGowan was asked to leave after giving drugs to another student. Cut to Johnny Depp asking about his time as a teenage rentboy. “Just handjobs!” counters MacGowan, before breaking into the distinctive machine gun hiss of a laugh that punctuates the movie.
It was punk that saved the miserable young MacGowan, who picked up a guitar during a spell in the notorious Bedlam psychiatric hospital. As soon as he was discharged he wound up in the front row of a Sex Pistols gig, cut and bleached his long hair and ended up in the pages of the NME when his ear was bitten off at a Clash show. A star was born. “I was the face of ‘77,” says MacGowan, who had his own fanzine (Bondage) and band (The Nipple Erectors).
When New Romantic swept punk aside MacGowan’s next move was to plug into the vital sound of London’s Irish diaspora, forming The Pogues with Jem Finer and Spider Stacy. This would be his masterstroke. “The idea was to give the tradition a kick in the arse,” he said, fusing traditional Gaelic folk with punk’s confrontational energy and – most importantly – his own deeply evocative lyrics.
Crock Of Gold digs deep into MacGowan’s 1980s Pogues career, clambering up from the tatty stages of Kings Cross clubs through to singing rebel songs that supported the Birmingham Six in the wake of deep anti-Irish sentiment as a result of the IRA bombing campaign. Then there was global fame thanks to ‘Fairytale of New York’ but by this point he had become what he hated – a popular rock band. To cope, he added heroin to his cocktail of drugs and booze. Doctors told his sister he had six months to live. That was more than 30 years ago.
What happened in the intervening decades is glossed over in Crock of Gold, suffice to say that MacGowan is still with us, although looking exhausted and confined to a chair. How he’s spent the last quarter of a century is a question that could do with being answered, but instead we jump to MacGowan’s 60th birthday gig – featuring awestruck guest vocalists Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor and Bono – and his wedding to his longtime partner Victoria May Clarke, both in 2018. The last we see of MacGowan is in an interview with Victoria. His final words (which we won’t spoil here) are potent, poetic and a right laugh – three things Shane MacGowan always was, and always will, be.
- Director: Julien Temple
- Starring: Shane MacGowan, Johnny Depp, Siobhan MacGowan
- Release date: December 4 (in cinemas), December 7 (digital)