Pogues’ Troubled Frontman Shane MacGowan Dies at 65
Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, best known for the holiday favorite "Fairytale in New York," has died after a bout with viral encephalitis. He was 65.
His wife Victoria Mary Clarke confirmed the news on Instagram, declaring that "the start and end of everything I hold dear has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese." MacGowan had recently been discharged from the hospital where he had been staying since being diagnosed with the disease.
The Pogues recorded five albums with MacGowan beginning in 1984, brilliantly combining traditional Irish music with punk rock. He was fired in the early '90s during a ferocious bout with alcoholism, but not before the Pogues' duet with Kirsty MacColl on "Fairytale in New York" had become a timeless classic. The single reached No. 1 on the Irish charts, No. 2 in the U.K. and the Top 10 in Norway and New Zealand.
"In Irish pubs where they still sing, 'Fairytale' has become as much a standard as 'Danny Boy' or 'The Fields of Athenry,'" MacGowan once told The Guardian. "So I'm like the writers of all those traditional standards, except I'm not anonymous. Or dead."
MacGowan was diagnosed with viral encephalitis in late 2022, receiving several rounds of medical care while fighting this rare life-threatening condition which causes brain swelling. He'd just joined TikTok. Doctors were initially upbeat, and MacGowan quickly re-emerged in January to wish fans a happy new year. Bruce Springsteen then paid a visit ahead of three sold-out concerts in Dublin.
"He's the man, you know?" Springsteen told popular Irish television host Ryan Tubridy. "I truly believe ... that a hundred years from now, most of us will be forgotten, but I do believe that Shane's music is going to be remembered and sung. It's just deep in the nature of it."
Watch the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale in New York’ Video
When Things Took a Turn for the Worse
MacGowan was re-admitted to the hospital in June. A few months later, his wife Victoria Mary Clarke said she was "feeling really, really grateful that Shane MacGowan is looking so bright today," adding that they were "determined as ever to get home!"
Things took a turn for the worse in November, however, and MacGowan's Pogues bandmates Spider Stacy and Terry Woods rushed to his bedside.
MacGowan had met Stacy in the restroom during a Ramones show in 1977 at the Roundhouse in London. "He's a very strong character and he makes a very strong impression on people," Stacy told The Guardian. "But I took to him straight away and was impressed by his intelligence and erudition; he's very well-read."
They'd co-found the Pogues with others in 1982 and initially called themselves "Pogue Mahone," which translates from Irish Gaelic into "kiss my arse." The Pogues released four consecutive Top 20 gold-selling U.K. hit albums with MacGowan after their 1984 debut Red Roses for Me stalled out at No. 89. Their seven Top 10 Irish hit singles included 1987's "The Irish Rover," which became the first of two straight No. 1 hits in the group's home country, followed by "Fairytale in New York."
But alcohol and drug use was making MacGowan increasingly violent and unreliable. Clarke had begun seeing him just as the Pogues were about to find their biggest successes, and she witnessed it all firsthand. "When I met him, he was very much a hell-raiser who would drink everything that was in front of him, take any drug you could think of and always step out in front of cars," Clarke told The Irish Times. "I think he just thought he was indestructible."
MacGowan claimed to have had his first drink at age five, when a family member offered Guinness beer to help him sleep. (This revelation appeared in 2001's aptly titled A Drink With Shane MacGowan, written with Clarke years before they finally married in 2018.) He was drinking whiskey at 6. "My uncle John who was walking past, looked at me drunk and said 'What the fuck!'" he recalled in the 2020 film Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan. "I was out of my brain. That was the first time I got drunk on whiskey and there's been a few bottles of whiskey since then."
Watch the Pogues Perform ‘Irish Rover’ With the Dubliners
A Reunion Then the Final Split
MacGowan missed the initial dates on the tour in support of the Pogues' 1989 collaboration with producer Joe Strummer, Hell's Ditch. Strummer ended up filling in. The last straw came with a desultory appearance in 1991 at the WOMAD Festival in Japan. Stacy took over as lead vocalist, leading the Pogues to their best-ever stateside showing with 1993's "Tuesday Morning," a No. 11 hit on the alternative rock chart. Waiting for Herb reached the U.K. Top 20, as well, but then the follow-up Pogue Mahone tanked and the Pogues split in 1996.
Their original frontman formed Shane MacGowan and the Popes, while collaborating with the Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave and others. The Pogues reformed in 2001 for a series of Christmas-season dates and occasionally toured through 2014. Then they called it quits for good.
“I don't hate the band at all – they're friends,” MacGowan told Vice in 2015. “I like them a lot. We were friends for years before we joined the band. We just got a bit sick of each other. We're friends as long as we don’t tour together. I’ve done a hell of a lot of touring. I've had enough of it.”
A fall while leaving a Dublin studio that same year led to a fractured pelvis, and MacGowan remained in a wheelchair. But Clarke confirmed in 2016 that he was sober "for the first time in years." She said his sobriety followed a serious case of pneumonia and a long stay in the hospital for this hip injury, which required a "total detox."
In Memoriam: 2023 Deaths
Gallery Credit: UCR Staff