Writing the biography of the man best known for marrying traditional Irish music with British punk — a sound once described by concertina player Noel Hill of the band Planxty as a “terrible abortion” of Irish music — was never going to be easy. To further complicate the matter, Shane MacGowan’s hatred of interviews is almost as notorious as his long and sophisticated affair with drugs and alcohol. Such is punk.
When it comes to the story of MacGowan’s life, it has never been about “just the facts.” However, an attempt has now been made. A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by British journalist Richard Balls serves up the most thorough account of the man — and myth — to date. In a nearly 400-page biography, out Nov. 18 in the U.S., Balls has attempted through extensive interviews and research to do what has proved so difficult through the years — to parse where the facts end and the myth begins. “Some of these never get resolved and probably never will be, but I am determined not to give up in my quest to sort the myths from the truths and better understand this shy and complex man,” Balls writes.
The son of Irish émigré parents, MacGowan was born and raised in England and spent childhood summers and holidays in rural County Tipperary, Ireland, with his mother’s extended family of staunch Irish republicans. Now residing in Dublin, he still speaks with an English accent, but maintains that he is Irish, for it was those experiences in Ireland that MacGowan says formed his musical and spiritual core. Some of the first traditionalists to hear the Pogues amalgamations might have been shocked, even appalled, but other icons of traditional Irish music such as the Dubliners and Christy Moore understood the power of MacGowan’s writing early on.
Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.
This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.