10 Reasons to watch Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
For those who grew up listening to the Pogues, ‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan’ offers a storytelling triumph of a legendary and mysterious singer/songwriter who fused punk and Irish folk to thrill millions.
For those that missed Shane MacGowan’s career, you are in for a wild ride with a genuine pioneer through a unique period of music history.
Here are 10 reasons to watch Crock of Gold:
- The shaping forces of an Innovator
Behind every musical innovator are strong cultural forces that create an environment ripe for change. In McGowan’s case there are two – his childhood in rural Ireland and his time as an Irish outcast in London.
The film starts on the family farm in Tipperary, and flanked by his bohemian parents, MacGowan wrestles with the farm animals and brings in the hay in an idyllic rural fairyland.
Through cool animation, McGowan is linked as a descendent of the great Irish mythological heroes, a bold statement that gains traction over time.
He is introduced to alcohol at five by an aunt and “every night is Christmas” in his village ‘The Commons’, with pubs, living rooms and kitchens overflowing with singing, dancing, drinking, accordion playing, smoking and gambling.
According to MacGowan, he was the heavenly anointed one: “God said I’m the little boy that’s going to save Irish music.” His parents didn’t share that view and he was lined up for the priesthood in the Catholic Church.
Uprooted to London in a “horrific change of life”, MacGowan suffered loneliness, racism and bullying for being a “Paddy” but his talent prevailed and bizarrely around the time of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Belfast, he wins a literary scholarship to the prestigious ‘Toff’ Westminster School.
Sadly, the great social experiment is curtailed when he got expelled for dealing drugs when he mistakenly supplied some students with barbiturates instead of speed and they fell asleep in an exam.
MacGowan became embittered at the English class system, and although his father had a good job, McGowan shares the reality: “If you were Irish you couldn’t become middle class.”
He moved between odd jobs and his personal life suffered through his self hatred, manifested through drug abuse and erratic self-sabotage. He landed in a mental health facility where serendipitously he first picked up a guitar, which led him to punk rock and the launch pad for a new era for Irish and British music.
- Shane MacGowan’s friendship with Johnny Depp
The friendship between the musical outcast and the acting outcast is equal parts cool and uncomfortable. What can be gleaned is that MacGowan is more comfortable with Depp than any other ‘interviewer’, their deep understanding and banter captured in a long drinking session in a dimly lit room.
Depp was so keen to ensure that MacGowan’s legacy was properly captured that he funded the film and seems to enjoy the ribbing from MacGowan who at one stage shares with Depp that he is: “so cute you make me sick.”
By the end of the film their unlikely friendship makes complete sense.
- A wonderful lesson in Irish history and psyche
Beyond the story of MacGowan and the Pogues, Crock of Gold is a rollicking journey through Ireland’s glorious rebellious history, rich in dramatic moments and broad in sweep, spanning poverty, starvation, uprising and emigration leading to glory, heartache and new hybrid cultures in promised lands.
The distinct Irish culture is infused throughout the story with MacGowan explaining his guiding cultural principles: I’m just following the Irish way of life. Cram as much pleasure as you can in your life and rile against the pain that you have to suffer as a result and then wait for it to be taken away with beautiful pleasure.”
In one telling scene, MacGowan rattles off the heroes of his tradition: “I admire all creative piss artists – Flann O’Brien, Paddy Kavanagh, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce.”
Special reverence is held for Irish writer Brendan Behan, whose obnoxious, intelligent and untamable personality, lifestyle and drinking habit provided MacGowan with the ultimate role model to identify with.
- Punk to Pogues – A London Irish music revolution
Restless in London as a teenager, MacGowan dived headlong into punk, quickly becoming a pioneering UK punk celebrity saying: “Punk is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
When the movement faltered and MacGowan was left with ‘broken dreams’ he had an epiphany that would change the music world forever.
In London, world music from Africa and South America began to fill the vacuum left by punk, and MacGowan saw his opportunity: “If people are being ethnic, I might as well be my own ethnic, we’ve got our own indigenous ethnic folk music in our doorstep.”
It was at this moment that MacGowan’s life mission became evident: “My crusade was to make Irish music hip again. To build Irish culture. And to let the world know what an incredible wealth of culture we’ve contributed for such a small nation.”
Rehashing existing Irish songs wasn’t enough for MacGowan to kickstart a cultural revolution, noting defiantly: “You cant carry on the tradition just playing the old songs. You’ve got to give the tradition a kick in the arse.”
MacGowan shares his rationale for the fusion: “Irish music is like punk, it’s earthy, it’s human.”
He began to experiment merging Gaelic folk styles with punk’s frenetic, aggressive energy, both combining as cultural underlay for his songwriting genius – his ability to tell stories of the Irish and London Irish experience.
Seething at the treatment of the London Irish community as second class citizens and psychologically crushed under stereotypes, he decided to reclaim the narrative ownership of the Irish community snarling: “You want Paddy, I’ll give you Paddy!”
So the band Pogues Mahone (Kiss my arse in Gaelic) was born, later to be shortened to ‘The Pogues”. And their first song ‘Streams of Whiskey’ was a statement of intention that alcohol was a major part of theirs and wider London Irish culture.
- The IRA and Gerry Adams
MacGowan is a natural product of IRA rebel country with the war of Independence starting in his home county Tipperary. His Republican pedigree is made clear – his village was an IRA safehouse, his Uncle Mick was a commandant and the town’s real holy book was ‘My fight for Irish Freedom by Dan Breen’.
MacGowan is interviewed at length by former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and shows a high level of respect and reverence for the former political leader. It is partly explained by MacGowan’s guilt at never taking up arms: “I always felt guilty that I didn’t lay down my life for Ireland and I felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA. The Pogues was my way of overcoming that.”
The pair discuss key moments in Irish history like the ‘coffin ships to America’ and in the exchange of it is clear that Adams has great respect for MacGowan’s non-violent contribution.
Concrete evidence of MacGowan’s achievement and leadership for the IRA cause is provided by Paddy Hill from the wrongfully imprisoned Birmingham 6 who is grateful for MacGowan’s rebel song ‘Birmingham6’, that was penned to bring awareness to their plight. Hill notes: “The last thing they wanted was people like McGowan educating the public about the Birmingham 6. I couldn’t thank him enough.”
- Julien Temple – Witness a masterclass in filmmaking
Julien Temple is one of the great music documentary makers, famed for taking on music’s toughest subjects including punk royalty Sex Pistols and the Clash.
Temple was the right man to tell the story of one of the prickliest characters in music but he had his doubts ahead of the project saying of MacGowan: “He comes with a flashing red light warning, but I know how fascinating people like that can be.”
To add a degree of difficulty, both MacGowan and the members of the Pogues refused to be directly interviewed, so Temple engaged a number of people to chat to MacGowan including Johnny Depp, Gerry Adams and MacGowan’s wife Victoria.
These interviews are mostly conducted with MacGowan slumped at 45 degrees, nursing a beer or whisky, but the familiarity and mostly relaxed atmosphere draws out unique and complex insights. Temple never judges MacGowan and navigates a balanced course between the mythological superstar and the volatile, self-destructive bad boy.
Temple uses all of the storytelling tools of the trade, deftly mixing archival footage, family photos, black and white recreated scenes, clips from classic movies and very cool animations from the legendary Ralph Steadman that lend a hallucinatory, chaotic and frenetic feel that fits perfectly.
MacGowan has publicly stated he won’t watch Crock of Gold but if he did I suspect he would be happy with Temple’s treatment and consider it a worthy celebration.
- The mind of an alcoholic
Alcohol looms large throughout Crock of Gold, anchored by the local drinking wisdom of his early years in Tipperary: “When you give them enough when they’re young, they won’t go overboard on it later on.”
On camera, MacGowan is unable to walk and talks hunched in a wheelchair, slurs to the point of requiring subtitling, is glassy eyed and has a wheezy laugh that in combination, betrays a frailty and a sense that he is deep into his twilight years.
However the audience is jolted often by his street wisdom, sharp mind, the respect he generates and his unchanged and defiant attitude: “There are things that I wish had gone the other way, but there are no regrets,” he says. “I savagely get rid of them.”
When confronted with the question of whether he has a death wish, his response is telling: “If I really wanted to die, I’d be dead already.”
The hard questions are not skirted and the role of alcohol in his creativity as a performer and songwriter is explored, with MacGowan offering a brutally honest self assessment: “It’s true that I am out of it most of the time, but I can write songs when I’m out of it. In fact, it’s easier to write songs when I’m out of it.”
As to the million-dollar question of whether he is in denial over his status as an alcoholic, MacGowan is candidly direct: “I probably am an alcoholic. I’ve been drinking since I was 6.”
Although he has appeared to spiral out of control for most of his career, MacGowan counters the perception: “I’m not out of control. I always seem to pull back from the edge before falling into the abyss. It’s up to me whether I’m destroying myself, but I am not destroying myself.”
It’s a fascinating inside look at the devils bargain between alcohol and success and its impact over time on MacGowan and his relationships.
- Insights into MacGowan’s creative genius
MacGowan’s genius as a songwriter, cultural conductor, poet, musician, storyteller and historian shine throughout the film. He is a pure artist whose authenticity makes him so attractive to fans and the industry and his lack of commercialism across the breadth of his career gives him an unmatched credibility.
He offers a fascinating ‘all-in’ summary of the sacrifice, commitment and relentless drive required to be at the top of the music game: “To make great music you gotta have no interest in houses of any description. You don’t care if you sleep in the street. You gotta have a strong enough urge to be heard. You gotta have this welling up inside of you like wanting to be sick. You gotta scream it out. A good musician has to put music before everything and that’s what I’ve always done when I’ve made good music.”
MacGowan’s creative process is infused with a Celtic magic that was in him from his childhood, enveloped in his own world in the ancient Irish countryside where he could: “Hear the colours.”
And as to the source of his song writing inspiration, MacGowan lives and breathes the ways of the ancient mystic: “Songs are just floating around in the air. That’s why we call tunes ‘airs’. All we have to do is reach out and grab them.”
Flicking the switch to comedy MacGowan adds: “That’s why I’m always grabbing them, because if I don’t reach out and grab it myself, it’ll go on and get to Paul Simon.”
- The Pogues Music
Crock of Gold is beautifully paced by the music of the Pogues, brilliantly crafted songs featuring lyrical poetry, wit and laced with tenderness, history, sadness and longing.
The music is the narrative spine of the film and so clearly illustrates the freshness and innovation of MacGowan and the Pogues that it is a character in its own right.
All of the Pogues classics feature in the soundtrack, and they cleanly map the different phases as MacGowan moves through career. The track list includes:
- Sally MacLennane
- The Wild Rover
- The Old Main Drag
- Streams of Whiskey
- Dark Streets Of London
- And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
- A Rainy Night In Soho
- Fairytale Of New York (feat. Kirsty MacColl)
- Birmingham Six
- Dirty Old Town
- Summer in Siam
- Learn the Legacy of a unique man
Examining and concluding on where MacGowan’s legacy lands depends on the lens, but the Crock of Gold overwhelmingly leans towards the positive.
Clearly MacGowan has left a long shadow and enduring legacy as a visionary impacting multiple music genres including rock, punk, Irish folk and world music.
As a role model he was flawed, messy, rambling and self-destructive but he also inspired millions
As an Irish patriot, he used his talents to help the IRA cause and states: “I did what I did for Ireland.”
As the first global star of the London Irish community he gave expression and articulated their story and what it meant to be a people trapped between cultures. He offered the community a new hybrid template they could follow and be proud of.
Gerry Adams is clear on MacGowan’s contribution as a cultural pioneer, telling the singer: “The more I listen to your songs I think it broadened our sense of ourselves, broadened our sense of Irishness, it deepened our culture. You made us sad, you made us happy, you made us laugh, you made us reflect, because the songs are songs of redemption, songs of sorrow, the ordinary persons story.”
For MacGowan, legacy is for others to decide. His only yardstick lies in the grassroots longevity: “If people who get up in pubs start singing your songs then you have become part of tradition. So I have achieved something which gives me a great deal of personal pride.”
He’s an authentic man of the people and for the people and Crock of Gold is a balanced and nuanced portrayal that tells his story both fairly and beautifully.
See it exclusively in Australia at the online Irish Film Festival.
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Image source: Irish Film Festival Australia