ADDER FEW DRINKS
Date: 22nd October 1994
Author: Gavin Martin
Copyright: (c) NME
Inside BBC's Elstree Studios, Top Of The Pops' weekly parade of old
lags, new hopefuls, teen heart-throbs, impossibly long legs, short
skirts and eye- smacking pastel hues is in full swing. All pop life is
A dancer from Reel 2 Real invites some of East 17- newly shaven, kitted
out in black parachute gear, looking like condoms with see-through
helmets - into her dressing room. Bespectacled, with satchel over his
shoulder, his brother Dave well behind him, Kinks front-man Ray Davies
hurries past the young folk; an old boy being honoured with a 30th
Checking in under the flashing light, The Cranberries enter the studio
while Whigfield's dancers go through their paces at the other end of
the corridor. Alongside them, the geezer from 2 Unlimited displays his
formidable pecs. All around, the place is buzzing with portable phones
as pluggers and record company types try to strike deals, conspiring
and conniving to get their charges into a position where entry into the
thinly-disguised parade of sexual titillation we call The Charts is
Upstairs in a smoke-filled dressing room is where we find Shane
MacGowan. After encountering the company downstairs, finding Shane is a
bit like happening upon the proverbial. old aunt in the attic. There
behind the door, amongst the parcel of seasoned rogues and salty
veterans who comprise his backing band The Popes, Shane is a sight
which will surely cause the oestrogen-crazed East 17 fans in the studio
below to reappraise the very idea of beauty.
Heavier set, fuller of face than the last time he was on the nation's
Number One music programme. he's here to perform and promote 'That
Woman's Got Me Drinking', the second hell-for- leather single from his
soon-come album 'The Snake'. It's a record that puts to rest any talk
about him being all washed up. reaffirms his status as a writer of wit,
vision and insight and pairs him with a band that match prime-time
Pogues for bristling, bollock-blasting rock'n'roll and fluently
melodious Irish romanticism.
But changes. rumoured to have turned MacGowan into a fit-for-life,
London Marathon-contending mirror image of his once decrepit self
aren't, perhaps, all they're cracked up to be. Recent talk of Shane
looking 'great', 'good' or even simply 'well' must be tempered with the
fact that we are talking about Shane here - career alcoholic, lifelong
reckless abuser, a man who is only alive because he's been favoured
with the sort of constitution usually reserved for large plough-pulling
Some things haven't changed at all. He's still surly and unpredictable.
still given to long, informed, opinionated rants about everything from
the history of jazz to Eastern philosophy to gangster movies to 19th
Century Irish romantic writers. And he’'s still possessed of a
laugh that sounds like a litter-of-piggies-
The trademark missing-in-action front teeth give him the look of a
shocking apparition - right out of one of his moredemented song
scenarios. Even when he's not laughing, he snorts and cackles a lot -
the application of a brand name inhaler doing little to unblock his
congested nasal passages or clear the constantly rheumy eyes that
sometimes give him a little boy lost on the brink of tears look.
And, naturally, it being 6pm, Shane is well sozzled. The day began with
triple measures around ten, then moved steadily into a lager and
Martini fog- his current favourite way of following a regime where he
cuts back on his drink intake. As someone later points out, this really
is MacGowan's idea of moderation: 'He used to drink Long Island Ice
Teas by the pitcher, not by the glass. Basically that's every white
spirit you can think of with a drop of Coke to colour it. It was...
well, it wasn't funny. He has a lot of problems as a result."
Keen to find something to chase his drink down with, Shane is gobbling headache tablets.
"I have to take something for these headaches that I seem to be getting
more and more frequently," he says, as a member of his road crew
appears at his side, hand outstretched. "Y'see, everybody seems to be
getting them more and more frequently."
Call it cabin fever, MacGowan-itis or simply a case of TOTP-oprophy,
but just beneath the surface calm everyone seems a little shaky. It's
been a long day and after what was the umpteenth and, surely, final
take on The Popes' spendid bedraggled performance the news arrives that
a camera failed and... they have to do it all again. LEANING against
the wall outside the dressing room is the man that presenter Claire
Sturgess will breathlessly introduce as Johnny 'Edward Scissorhands'
Depp, The Popes' special guest star for this evening's performance and
the finest cheekbones of his generation; a genuine, million dollar
Hollywood movie star. Johnny just flew in from LA yesterday and he's
suffering from the state of mind / occupational hazard they call jet
"Every time I was about to fall asleep last night I started hallucinating," he grins.
With supermodel girlfriend Kate Moss (a prime mover in persuading him
that a TOTP rendezvous with Shane would be ultra cool) by his side,
Depp is clad in a spectacularly coloured KC & The Sunshine Band
shirt decorated with gold inlays. He purchased it years ago from a
secondhand shop in Florida when he was a struggling musician fronting a
band called The Kids. He belt-eves it once belonged to a member of the
celebrated Miami-based disco era TOTP regulars, just the thing to
provide some orthodox glitz to sugar the bitter pill when Shane's
let's-frighten-the-kids physiognomy assaults the nation's living rooms.
Depp has been MacGowan's old mucker for a few years now, and a fan for
even longer. Like many actors of his generation, he has a 'holiday'
band (Pee, an outfit he occasionally fronts with Butthole Surfer Gibby
Haynes). He hangs out with the Chili Peppers, with whom he made a
ten-minute private movie called Stuff, which he says aims to "show the
way certain substances take effect".
He had MacGowan and The Popes turn up and play at the opening night of
his infamous LA club/drinking hang-out The Viper Room, a place in the
news earlier this year when River Phoenix expired on the pavement after
a night inside. Depp says, tactfully, that The Viper Room has turned
out different to the underground club he intended but, on the right
night, it's still "a fun place".
Recently he's directed and starred in the video for 'That Woman's Got
Me Drinking', playing a drop-down drunk to MacGowan's sober-as-a-judge
With his roles in Cry Baby, Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert
Grape, Benny and Joon and his new Stateside opener, Ed Wood (Tim
Burton's biopic of the cross-dressing B-movie director who is widely
touted as the worst director who ever lived), Depp has moved from
massive clean-cut success on US teen TV show 21 Jump Street at the end
of the '80s to become freak befriender and an ultra cool icon for the
'90s. He says it was all an accident.
"When I first started doing films, the band was making little money. I
thought of acting as a way to finance my music habit. My whole
upbringing was playing in bars and clubs since I was 14; I still feel
like I'm a musician. There's nothing like being onstage with four or
five guys with a really loud guitar and all the adrenalin, there's
nothing to compare with it.
"It was my friend Nicolas Cage who suggested I should try acting. For
the first two or three years I was in movies I never thought I'd be
doing this as a living. I thought it was a way of making some money and
then I can go back and play in the band. I didn't care if my acting was
good, bad or whatever. I just wanted to get a pay cheque." DRINKING RED
wine, wearing a T- shirt which shows the American map painted red with
the legend 'Indian territory' printed beneath, Johnny has agreed to sit
down for an interview. The idea was for it to take place the night
before with MacGowan. You know, get them together, open a bottle, have
a laugh, see what happens... But Shane was late and Johnny was later.
Depp didn't seem to have been told about the idea, claimed to not want
to take attention from Shane. And MacGowan - who'd been short-tempered,
monosyllabic, paranoid and tetchy throughout the interview that
preceded Depp's arrival - hardly seemed up for more chat.
Depp came into Filthy McNasty's, MacGowan's favourite London drinking
den, with Kate Moss, ten years his junior and, with the finest cheek
bones of her generation, something of a mirror image to the delicately
featured screen star. Someone showed them a cartoon from Private Eye.
In it a supermodel, obviously based on the slimline Moss, is saying,
"It gets on my tits," and a guy with a big question mark above his head
is looking on. Everyone laughed.
"We’ve made the big time" smirked Johnny, "all we need now is a
strip in Bazooka Joe bubblegum and we’ll have it made." Depp and
Moss seemed to have their tongues in each other's mouths as often as
possible. At the door of the photo studio Shane took the 31 -year-old
heart- throb aside and told him how it was going to be.
"This photographer is going to try to get us to put on make-up and do
poses. I don't want that shit I just want to stand with you talking,
smoking and drinking. And he'll just have to work with that."
"Couldn't we have lust a little make- up?" says Johnny, possibly suffering from 'slap withdrawal' after playing Ed Wood.
It wasn't hard to see who wore the trousers in this relationship. As
the session progressed and Shane became increasingly stoic, pissed off,
mouthing obscenities, looking positively stone- faced in his boredom,
Johnny found it hard to keep from cracking up, obviously delighted to
be hanging out with the Byronic genius that is MacShane.
"He's a piece of work, isn't he? The first time I met Shane... he
doesn't remember it. He was on a pool table, guitar in one hand and a
bottle of wine in the other. He was tired... ha ha ha ha.
"Gerry Conlon (wrongly convicted Guildford Four man, subject of the In
The Name Of The Father movie) is my friend, l've travelled round
Ireland with him - don't like being in the States for too long, I like
to stay in transit.
"It wasn't until two years later when I was in Dublin with Gerry that I
met Shane. 1 was always a big fan of The Pogues and l think he's one
oft the fewtrue poets around.
Just hanging out with him was great; when he asked me to come round and
play on his record that was a real honour. Though I guess you could
always cover it in the mix if I was shitty, right?"
He's just finished shooting a movie with Marion Brando, a man who he readily compares to MacGowan.
"These are two guys who are completely true to their vision, non-
conforming, uncompromising. I think Marlon is an incredibly gifted
artist. Beyond the fact that Mariln is considered the most gifted actor
of our time, I think he's an artist in his thoughts, ideas and anything
he does. Shane's the same. They're a couple of guys whose first
instinct is always to go against the grain, it's an admirable trait in
anyone." JOHNNY DEPP may be over-rated asan actor, but he's certainly
modest about his own talents and he seems a decent, even honourable
sort of guy. He treats others with respect and expects the same back.
One time in London he's said to have laid a bloke flat out in a bar
after he'd been persistently bothering some ladies in Depp's company.
Good for him. But here and in America there's a tabloid soap opera made
out of such piffling details as his 'hell-raiser' (he likes a drink)
shock horror reputation, a spectacle of smashed hotel rooms and love
affairs with famous actresses that everyone is obviously desperate to
"Being known is something I won't ever get used to. I don't consider
myself famous. when I hear the word fame I don't think of that as my
arena. I'm known to the public but, for the most part, people are cool.
It's tabloid journalists who give you problems. I don't understand the
fascination with these people who tell lies for a living, is that
really so interesting?
"I tell you what it sometimes almost feels like being a minority in the
'SOS or '605. People think you get special treatment but you get shit
as well. If you have any heat inside you and you're not accustomed to
taking shit, your first instinct is to plant your fist in their face.
But then there's the lawsuit fans, there's always people like that out
Ask MacGowan what he and Depp have in common and he'll tell you,
somewhat disingenuously, that they are "both easy-going guys who want a
peaceful life but can't get one". A PEACEFUL existence wasn't what
MacGowan had in mind the first time I saw him. It was coincidentally
the first time I'd ever been to the NME offices and he'd arrived in the
lobby to demand a meeting with the writer who'd given 'Gabrielle', his
then current single with The Nips, a curt, dismissive review.
Wild-eyed, drunk, obviously speeding, a London Irish public school
drop-out turned minor punk celeb famed for having had his ear bitten
off at a Clash gig months previously, he seemed like a guy with chips
on the chips on both his shoulders. I gave him a wide berth.
A few years later I got to know him. The Nips had split, he was working
in Rocks Off, a mutual friend's secondhand reoord shop in Soho,
amassing a formidable record collection which, despite unconfirmed
reports about him selling off gold discs by The Pogues last year, he
I bumped into him on the top deck of a bus leaving King's Cross one
night in 1981-'82. He told me that his new band were ready to go and I
should come and see them. I got a free sample there and then from his
mate Spider on tin whistle, someone else banging a tin beer tray, Shane
hollering, the whole thing collapsing in liquor-fuelled merriment.
I had my doubts but MacGowan held onto his vision and, throughout the
'80s, unfurled it in a series of compositions that rank with anything
from that decade. Bloodied, scarred and surreal war songs;
heartbreaking snapshots of street-life; bejewelled, tear-stained
unrequited lover's laments; rude leering lambasts; joyous,
spirit-lifting and crowd- igniting anthems. MacGowan seemed to excel at
any form he put his mind to, using his talent to turn bitter
disaffection into galvanising, community bonding art.
But in time The Pogues and the lifestyle he had chosen threatened to
drown him completely. His brilliant idea became a trap and, somewhere
on the high seas, lost in a fog of drink and drugs he jumped ship and
"went to Thailand, I'd been there before and I went again".
We wondered what would become of him. A FEW years after his departure
from The Pogues, word went out that MacGowan was back He'd moved to
Dublin, was hanging out with Van Morrison, living in Bono's house, in
as well as could be expected shape, with reams of good new material,
putting the finishing touches to his new band.
I went to a dinner party where he was among the guests. He was his
usual charming, shy, retiring self. "What a fucking boring dinner
party" he announced during a pregnant pause. And yet when a baby
persisted in crying, MacGowan took the situation in hand, sang a
selection of lullabies to her and, in no time, had the child sleeping
like... a baby, actually. Then, almost as soon as he'd finished, he got
up and fell at a 90 degree angle face down on to the floor.
Motto: you always have to take the rough with the smooth with MacGowan.
At times you have to take the rough with the rough. So it is when he
arrives for the interview in Filthy's. He bangs an impatient tattoo on
the table between gobbling pills from his medicine jar and breaking off
mid-conversation to stare into the middle distance.
"If I'm in a bad mood, or I'm feeling ill or I've gone loopy because of
tour madness it shows. I've done all sorts of ridiculous things
onstage. I've performed with my trousers round my ankles, in various
places. I did a whole tour of Germany wearing no shoes, dressed in
smart suits but wearing no shoes.
"Towards the end of The Pogues I gave up completely, grew a beard,
stopped cutting my hair, went onstage in a leather jacket, trying to
hold on to the microphone to just stand up onstage."
There's the first of several periodic pauses as Shane stares into the
space, gathering his thoughts. Maybe he's manoeuvring over a dead zone
in his alcohol-addled brain, maybe his metabolism is taking a chemical
reading. MAYBE IT'S JUST AN ACT. Whatever, when he starts talking again
he's slurred, stumbling and winded like a bar-room brawler reeling from
the blow the Martini has just delivered to the kidney.
"If I'm... if I.., if I'm in a really bad way there's nothing that can
save the gig. Although with my audience, or the audiences I've played
to, if they see I'mdown, y'know, they're capable of bringing me up.
Even though I go onstage thinking, 'I don't want to do this, I've been
doing this solidly now for eight or nine years every night of my life
and I really do not want to do this'. I know I'm bloody ill, I know
this is never going to end and the only way I'm getting out of this
band is in a box."
At the time MacGowan said he felt like an old whore. "Screwing for a
living, it's only good if you're an amateur or a part- timer. Old
whores don't have much fun." In Dublin he collapsed onstage and was
rushed to hospital suffering from "nervous exhaustion". In England he
was in and out of convalescent homes between tours.
"Waking up there, not able to have a drink frightened the life out of
me," he'd say later. "I had to get out as quickly as possible and get
down the pub."
Did you have a death wish then?
"Does it sound like I had a death wish? I said I knew, I didn't say I
hoped I was getting out in a box. Of course I didn't have a death wish,
the reason I left was because I didn't have a death wish. The reason I
tried to leave loads of times before they were actually kind enough to
throw me out was because I didn't have a death wish. Life is sweet.
What on earth makes you think I've got a death wish? This question
keeps coming up, every journalist I bloody talk to asks it."
Well, it's an option for anyone trapped in that position.
"It's not an option, it's not an option for me.
It was an option for Kurt Cobain. Shane is angry now, furious.
"He didn't have an option. He had two options and they both had the
same outcome. He kicks the smack, goes through the hell of kicking
smack and his kid gets taken away anyway. Or he doesn't kick the smack
and he definitely gets the kid taken away. He hadn't enjoyed performing
for bloody ages, if you believe what he said in that note - and there's
no reason he should lie about anything when he's about to kill himself
- what was there to go on for? I think the thing with Kurt was he'd
taken too much too soon whereas it had taken me years to get as fucked
up as I did."
There's three mentions of hard drugs on your album, it's not something people usually mention in songs.
"So what are you saying - that we should just cover it up, pretend they don't exist?"
You depict them favourably. In 'Victoria' you're in "an opium euphoria", isn't that sending out dodgy signals?"
"No, not at all, the characters in my songs aren't me. Anyway the guy's in Thailand, they're all on opium there (laughter)."
You always tell interviewers that your liver's regenerating. How can it when you still drink so much?
"How do you know how much I drink?"
I've seen you drinking. "So..." That's all you want to say about that?
"Yeah, I like a drink, it's no secret, but I've cut down a lot and my
liver's getting better. End of story." 7"',' '." "How do you know how
much I drink?"
I've seen you drinking.
That's all you want to say about that? "Yeah, I like a drink, it's no
secret, but I've cut down a lot and my liver's getting better. End of
The album title track has the narrator using poitin and laudanum
dispensed by 19th Century Irish republican writer James Mangan to break
the bounds of time and nationhood. it's an astonishing song, based on
the same idea as 'Streams Of Whisky' wherein the narrator met the
blessed Brendan Behan in a dream.
"Yeah, it's one of those ones that I don't know if I was asleep or awake when I wrote it."
Why is the snake used as a symbol of freedom?
"Work it out for yourself!"
What are the effects of poitin?
"It's like an opiate, takes away all the pain. uncertainty,
inhibitions, anything you might be worried about, lifts all the dark
clouds. Fills you with a warm glow. You can see why people in Ireland
are strung out on it. I know a lot of people are strung out on it."
You think all drugs should be legal?
"Yes, but they should make crack so ludicrously expensive that only
people who are rich enough and stupid enough to really want to take it
can get it, whereas now it's completely the other way round. It's
ridiculous, if they really wanted an end to the crack problem they
could do it in one go, legalise everything else, cut out all the hassle
of getting everything else.
"Before crack I would have said the most damaging drug was alcohol and
nicotine but crack, it's... it's... long pause. gazing into distance, a
little drifting) it's foul. I can't express my revulsion towards it.
Sure, if you take one or two hits of crack in an evening it won't do
you any harm, you know what I mean? But you feel just as good with a
couple of double brandies or a line of smack or some really good coke.
But with crack you find yourself chasing your own tail, trying to get
back to your original hit and you can never get back to your original
hit." MACGOWAN SAYS he's happy now, fresh and re-energised. He has no
ambitions, "just to play music and get paid well for what I do. I don't
need to kill myself going all round the world, I get my money from
In the future he'd like to have a go at acting. but first there's a
record to promote. He's looking forward to a forthcoming short tour. So
far the gigs he's played have had the same buzz as good nights with The
"I'll play a certain amount of gigs but if I feel any pressure I'll
automatically stop. I won't subject myself to that 'show must go on
even if you're dying on your feet' shit any more. I'm a solo performer
now, I haven't had this sort of position in a group since the early
days of The Pogues. If anybody starts to give me a pain in the arse
I'll just kick them out."
The limousine from TOTP is speeding through North London to a late
night video shoot. The Depp-directed clip for 'That Woman's Got Me
Drinking' isn’t suitable for children's TV so a back-up is
required. But there will be no guest appearance - Kate has whisked
Johnny away for the night. Shane is talking about Flann O'Brien's
classic of Irish literature, At Swim Two Birds. He says when he read it
as a youth he thought it was very funny, but now that he's older he
knows it's true, life is actually like that. He's convinced that one of
the characters in it is the head of his record company.
Upfront, the girl from the record company is starting to panic. Tired
by the TOTP experience and keen to spend time with Kate before going
off to shoot a movie with Jim Jarmusch and Robert Mitchum, it seems
that Johnny will not only miss the video shoot but also some crucial
radio promotion they hoped he'd do for the Shane single. It may be the
difference between hit list and miss list.
MacGowan has dozed off. He wakes up. says he needs to pick up some
booze. (A 30-minute car journey without a pick-me-up? Unthinkable,
Jeeves, unthinkable). The girl from the record company has some beer,
he can relax.
Joey Cashman, long-time Pogues associate and credited as "album co-
ordinator" on 'The Snake', fills him in on the Depp crisis. MacGowan is
dead against having a manager; he says experience tells him they are
useless, parasitical. "I've never seen a manager do something that I
couldn't do myself" he fumes. He'll phone Johnny. Johnny's a grown
adult, he'll understand what's required if it's explained to him. Joey
won't let him have the portable phone.
"He's my friend, Shane, I won't have him disturbed at this time of night."
"He's my friend, too," says Shane. "He was my friend before he was your friend," insists Joey.
The car stops outside Joey's house, where him and Shane continue their heated negotiations on the street.
Whatever was decided, somebody made the call. Two days later the deed
was done, Depp joined Macgowan for a short radio interview, made
himself available. Before he went back to the silver screen he really
did do all he could to help one of "the few true living poets" get the
exposure he deserved. The way he probably figured it was, better being
a Pope for a few days than a Hollywood schmuck for a life-time.