One of the most memorable and disturbing evenings in my extensive concert-going career came in the early 2000s at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles when The Pogues came to L.A. on a reunion tour with Shane MacGowan, the lead singer they’d fired more than a decade earlier for his unreliability and substance abuse. MacGowan was a mess, leaving the stage for stretches of the concert and barely able to croak his way through the songs in what seemed to be an alcohol- or drug-induced haze — and yet the audience responded deliriously to every slurred word and cheered even louder for every stumble and slur.
Was it a concert or a sideshow? Was the audience so besotted with the beautiful-loser myth that it gloried in the damage MacGowan had done to himself and loved him more because he was such a disaster? Or were they on his side, trying to will him to pull himself together rather than finding entertainment in his wreckage?
Whatever the reason for celebrating his chemically-induced ineptitude, the concert was a sad and depressing event for me, even though I loved many of the glorious songs MacGowan had written and sung with The Pogues. And that’s the paradox at the heart of Julien Temple’s playful and moving film about MacGowan, “Crock of Gold” — the singer and songwriter is a wreck, so damaged that he can barely hold his head upright, but he’s a poetic, romantic, astoundingly talented wreck.
Temple, who got his start with the raucous 1980 Sex Pistols mockumentary “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle,” turns out to be the right person to grapple with MacGowan. They’ve both got plenty of punk left in them, and the result is a freewheeling mess of a film, hard to pin down but full of ravaged beauty.
The beautiful loser is a time-honored Irish archetype, of course, with MacGowan’s idol Brendan Behan being a prime example. And it’s an irresistible archetype in music: As singers from Chet Baker to Tom Waits have long proven, there’s something about a gorgeous, romantic melody sung in a diseased croak that makes it more interesting, and in an odd way more beautiful too.
And Shane MacGowan, make no mistake, is very interesting. Now 62, he grew up poor in County Tipperary in Ireland, learning to drink beer by the age of six and putting up with a distinct lack of modern conveniences: “We’d piss out the front door and s— in the field,” he says, though there’s no way to tell how much he’s embellishing his stories (and Temple isn’t interested in being a fact-checker).
To illustrate MacGowan’s early years, which went through an upheaval when the family moved to London when he was six, Temple uses stock footage, old movies, animated sequences and occasional family photos. Most of it doesn’t actually show MacGowan, but the use of so much generic archival material makes this a bigger story — a story about the Irish in England in the middle part of the 20th century. (Much of this is set to the gorgeous, desolate sound of plaintive Irish airs played on uilleann pipes.)
The young MacGowan considered being a priest and rhapsodizes about the Catholic Mass being “one of the most beautiful things human beings can experience,” but his life took a dark turn in London, where he was expelled from school for drugs and wound up in the notorious Bedlam psychiatric hospital. He came out “incredibly angry,” saw an incredibly angry band — the Sex Pistols, naturally — and became a punk. “We all thought punk was very good for Shane,” his sister says.
But as the music morphed into New Wave and then the peacocky New Romantic movement, MacGowan grew bored. He decided to start his own band and draw on traditional Irish music but, at the same time, “give the tradition a kick in the arse.”
That’s exactly what The Pogues did, making a grand racket in the process. And even in a drunken stupor, MacGowan turned out to be a magnificent songwriter, finding a rough-hewn, wild romanticism in songs like “The Broad Majestic Shannon,” “The Old Man Drag,” “Rainy Night in Soho” and, of course, the greatest Christmas song of the last three decades, “Fairytale of New York.”
The problem is that MacGowan went into The Pogues fond of alcohol and drugs, and emerged nearly destroyed by them. Speaking of the band’s 1988 world tour, his sister says, “He went away and he never came back – not the Shane that I knew.” She had him committed to an asylum; at one point a doctor gave him six months to live. He shot so much heroin into his feet that eventually he could no longer walk.
That MacGowan survived to tell this story is shocking; that he tries not to tell it when Temple’s cameras are on is hardly a surprise. Even though the director has recruited a group of MacGowan’s friends to “interview” him — among them, Johnny Depp, Irish republican politician Gerry Adams, singer Bobby Gillespie and MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke — he balks at almost every question and refuses to relate his story in any real way.
So instead, Depp pulls out a tape recorder and plays him the audio from old interviews, and MacGowan listens and comments on what he said in the past. It’s not an interview, exactly, but it adds up to one hell of a story.
Everything MacGowan says, incidentally, is subtitled — not because of a thick accent, but because of his druggy, garbled drawl, punctuated by a wheezy hiss of a laugh. And yet in his boozy reminiscing, there’s real lyricism: He’s a mess, but he’s also a poet and a mystic.
That’s what “Crock of Gold” focuses on. It’s not a glamorous comeback story, but the saga of a gifted, self-destructive loon who somehow didn’t die (which the movie can’t really explain) and who now admits, “I’m not a junkie anymore, but if you handed me a f—ing full syringe I’d pump it straight into my arm. I deserve it for being a good boy for so long.”
The film skims over much of MacGowan’s post-Pogues career and doesn’t include any old bandmates talking about him. It’s not the Shane MacGowan chronology; it’s the Shane MacGowan experience. And that’s a tough, heartbreaking and inspiring experience.
“I don’t feel fragile or broken or anything,” MacGowan says near the end of the film. Few viewers will look at the bent figure croaking out those words and feel the same way, but “Crock of Gold” makes it impossible not to find the glory in his brokenness.