Shane MacGowan dies aged 65: Remembering The Pogues wild Christchurch gig

Shane MacGowan. Photo: Getty Images
Shane MacGowan. Photo: Getty Images
Music fans around the globe - including in New Zealand - are in mourning after legendary Irish musician Shane MacGowan’s death overnight, aged just 65. His former band The Pogues had a huge following here, with some of his wild behaviour captured in his official biography

Amazing songs - and wild times both on and off the stage - were a constant in Shane MacGowan’s music career.

And some of his hell-raising antics while touring New Zealand with the legendary Irish band The Pogues were laid bare in a book on his life, which he gave his approval to, including how a visit here in 1988 first truly highlighted to bandmates that he was on a path to self-destruction.

MacGowan's drug and alcohol abuse had started spiralling out of control prior to the tour, with his reliance on substances, including heroin, leaving him comatose during some gigs.

In the only authorised biography of the music great – Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan, which was released in late 2021 – author Richard Balls charted the highs and lows of the musician’s life.

That includes band members talking about the group’s wild 1988 and 1990 tours to New Zealand; a country where The Pogues had huge chart success and attracted sell-out crowds to their gigs.

Balls wrote in the book of the 1988 tour: “It was amid that Antipodean heat that alarm bells about his sanity rang louder than ever.

"Shane's erratic behaviour was hardly a news story. But it was getting worse.

"Other band members had been patient down the years, but they were being sorely tested, especially when it affected the group's performance. Audience members might not have minded what state Shane was in. In fact, some seemed to turn up wanting to see him wasted."

After one 1988 Christchurch show during the chaotic tour, The Pogues' incensed sound engineer Paul Scully asked whether band members were going to put up with MacGowan's booze and drug use impacting the band.

During the heated dressing room showdown, Scully yelled: "Is this how it's going to be? You're just going to watch the guy die in front of your eyes".

Balls wrote that the band, minus MacGowan, had another crisis meeting at 4am to discuss how they should handle their singer’s addictions, which a growing number of people feared would kill him.

Meanwhile, the singer was holed up in his Christchurch hotel room, on another drug bender, with a paintbrush in his hand.

"He had taken to bringing pots of paint around him on tour and during the early hours of the morning, driven by copious amounts of speed, he went into a creative frenzy," Balls writes in Furious Devotion.

Initially joining him in the Christchurch hotel room were The Pogues' roadie and MacGowan's long-time friend and future personal manager, Joey Cashman.

“We were on the floor and we had all those pens with indelible ink and these huge pads. I said, ‘I’m going to have to get some kip, at least a couple of hours,’ and I f***ed off,” Cashman said.

"I came round in the morning and Shane had painted himself with indelible ink. He'd painted himself blue and the whole room, even the mirror – everything was blue.

"Frank [band manager Frank Murray] said, 'Where's Shane, what's keeping him?', and I said, 'Maybe you should have a look yourself'. He went ballistic. When I see Shane painting himself and the room blue, I go, 'This is quite cool'."

MacGowan later reasoned that the impromptu 1988 artwork in the Christchurch hotel room was inspired both by his drug intake and links that he thought he had with Māori.

"This particular night I started getting a very strong, totally real feeling that the Māoris were talking to me," MacGowan said.

"You see, you talk to yourself in your head when you're speeding and you get turned into two people, who talk to each other in your head."

The Pogues were to return to New Zealand two years later.

No hotel rooms were defaced during the tour, but again the band was plagued by MacGowan's severe addiction issues.

Balls wrote that things had "reached an all-time low", and in a tour of Germany prior to The Pogues' arrival in New Zealand "Shane was so wrecked some nights that the band left him face-down on the dressing room floor and walked on stage without him".

The subsequent tour of New Zealand and Australia was a "disaster", he wrote.

Co-vocalist and tin whistle player Spider Stacy had to take over singing duties on the tour-opening gig in Perth after MacGowan "staggered off" the stage.

"In Wellington, New Zealand, Shane collapsed on stage and then hauled himself up, smashing the microphone stand against the floor," Balls wrote.

"Back in the dressing room, he sat slurring, apparently asking for a cigarette.

"Andrew's [drummer Andrew Rankin] anger got the better of him and he knocked him off the bench he was slumped on and caused him to hit his mouth as he fell. A scuffle broke out. Things were unravelling."

Balls wrote that by the time Rankin unleashed his physical frustrations backstage, MacGowan was well out of control.

"Shane's isolation from the rest of the band had never been so pronounced and his deepening heroin addiction meant things would only deteriorate further," he wrote.

"Not until he and [road manager] Charlie MacLennan had disappeared for a fix could he stagger - or be dragged - on to the stage."

The Pogues' accordion player James Fearnley added: "Charlie would take him into a room and put whatever up his nose was deemed to be necessary to get him through a couple of hours on stage.

"I'm not saying that was a regular thing, but I'm not saying it wasn't either. But it was a routine they had that enabled Shane to get on stage and it involved locking themselves in a room."

MacGowan battled severe ill-health for more than two decades before his death overnight.

That included being confined to a wheelchair after suffering a hip injury. Doctors believed that given the state of his health, if he underwent surgery to repair damage to the joint he would not survive the operation.

Despite the majority of the band members being born in England, The Pogues are regarded as one of Ireland's greatest musical exports.

During their legendary career - which includes a stint when MacGowan was let go due to his alcohol and drug use - their greatest hits included Fairytale of New York, If I Should Fall From Grace From God, A Rainy Night in Soho, The Body of an American, Streams of Whiskey and Dirty Old Town.

By Neil Reid