A portrait either in self-destruction or the indomitable spirit of someone whose demeanour suggests a hangover come to life, “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan,” now on iTunes, is a vivid look at the life of the man best known as the lead singer of The Pogues. “He just doesn’t enjoy life without a drink.”
Most music bios focus on follow a standard rags-to-riches format but director Julien Temple applies his trademark visual and narrative density to MacGowan’s story, creating a movie that is as much a cultural history as it is a biopic.
Temple spends half the movie detailing MacGowan’s youth, from his birth on Christmas Day, 1957, to his early childhood in County Tipperary, Ireland. Illustrated with stock footage of rural life and re-enactments, it paints a rosy picture of a hard scrabble life, where hard work and even harder drinking are the norm. Life on the farm, with a Guinness in his hand at the age of six, gave MacGowan a deeply rooted sense of Irish pride, a sentiment that fuelled his greatest successes.
Less romantic is the move to England as a youngster. Poverty, drinking, drugs, anti-Irish racism and punk rock led to MacGowan’s first taste of fame, a blow to the head at a 1976 Clash concert that earned him notoriety as the jug-eared face of London punk.
Cut to 1982. Several failed bands and thousands of pints later, he formed The Pogues and married the spirit of punk with traditional Irish music. Feisty and furious songs about Irish nationalism, history, and experiences made MacGowan and the band wildly successful, but a tune the singer calls “Our ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” was their undoing. The release of “Fairytale of New York” set them on a never-ending tour with only a handful of days off in the coming year, leading to MacGowan’s descent into a walking, talking cautionary tale after a psychotic break while performing in New Zealand.
The story continues, covering his post-Pogues time with bands like The Popes, but it is the portrait of MacGowan as a poet who grabs songs out of the ether—“That’s why they’re called airs,” he explains—and a nationalist whose Irish identity energized his work that lingers. “I always felt guilty that I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland,” he says before adding, that at least “I participated in the revolution as a musician.”
Ultimately, culture and politics aside, “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan” is a story of a man with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for drink and drugs. Recent footage shows the ravages of a life lived hard as he mumbles his way through recent interviews with the kind of befuddled intensity that can only be found at the bottom of a bottle. His angels, a way with words and melody, robbed from him, he bemoans his inability to write new songs even as he washes down those words with a swig of wine or whiskey. It’s hard to believe him when he slurs, “I have no self-destructive impulses whatsoever,” but it completes the portrait of a complicated artist whose best work stemmed from his worst behaviour.