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Shane MacGowan, the Pogues Frontman and ‘Fairytale of New York’ Singer, Dies at 65

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Shane MacGowan, the singer-songwriter best known as the frontman of Celtic punk band the Pogues who found success with the 1987 song “Fairytale of New York,” died on Thursday. He was 65.

MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, announced the news via the musician’s Instagram account on Thursday. MacGowan was diagnosed with encephalitis in 2022, which is inflammation of the brain, and had been hospitalized for it recently.

“I don’t know how to say this so I am just going to say it,” the post reads. “Shane who will always be the light that I hold before me and the measure of my dreams and the love of my life and the most beautiful soul and beautiful angel and the sun and the moon and the start and end of everything that I hold dear has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese.”

The announcement continues, “I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures. There’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world. Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your presence in this world you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music. You will live in my heart forever.”

Blessed with a harsh, untutored, yet inimitably soulful voice, MacGowan forged a blend of traditional Irish folk music and punk rock that was later mimicked outright by bands the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, and left a clear influence on acts such as Gogol Bordello and Mumford and Sons. Yet he was perhaps most gifted as a lyricist, displaying a knack for vivid, heart-breaking narratives and a highly literate sensibility that belied his gutter-poet image, deftly incorporating esoteric references to James Joyce, Brendan Behan and ancient Irish folklore into his songs.

Born on Christmas Day to Irish parents in Kent, England, MacGowan spent much of his formative years in the rural Tipperary town of Nenagh, where he claimed he had his first taste of alcohol at age 5. (By his early teens, he was regularly drinking whiskey.) Despite a hardscrabble, itinerant youth, MacGowan earned a literature scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School at age 14, though he was expelled a year later for drug possession. After a subsequent stint in a London mental hospital, MacGowan enrolled in, and promptly dropped out of, St. Martin’s Art School.

When the U.K. punk movement began gathering steam, MacGowan found a group of kindred spirits and became a fixture on the scene, even starting his own handwritten fanzine under the nom du plume Shane O’Hooligan. During the height of media hysteria over punk in 1976, MacGowan gained unintentional fame when a woman bit off a chunk of his ear at a Clash concert. An NME photographer captured the bloody, smiling MacGowan afterward and printed the photo with the caption: “Cannibalism at Clash Gig.”

Capitalizing on this notoriety, MacGowan formed pub-punk band the Nipple Erectors (later the Nips) and made the rounds of the local circuit. Meanwhile, he began an anarchic folk trio with fellow Irishmen Peter “Spider” Stacy and Jem Finer, playing as the New Republicans. The Nips broke up in 1981, and MacGowan turned his attentions to the Irish group, gradually adding James Fearnley, Andrew Ranken and bassist-vocalist Cait O’Riordan.

Now calling themselves Pogue Mahone (Irish for “kiss my ass”), the folk-punks self-released a single, “Dark Streets of London,” and toured with the Clash in 1984. Shortening its name to the Pogues after threats of radio boycotts, the group signed to Stiff Records and released debut LP “Red Roses for Me.” The album established the template for future Pogues releases, placing careening renditions of traditional standards alongside MacGowan’s originals, and featuring such decidedly non-punk elements as banjo, tin-whistle and accordion as lead instruments.

At the time, MacGowan explained the group’s idiosyncratic style thusly: “I’d never thought of playing Irish music onstage, but it became obvious that everything that could be done with a standard rock format had been done, usually quite badly. We just wanted to shove music that has roots and is generally stronger and has more real anger and emotion down the throats of a completely pap-orientated pop audience.”

Gaining a reputation as a raucous live act, the group attracted the attention of Elvis Costello, who produced follow-up “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” in 1985. Bolstered by a melancholy cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” the album reached No. 13 on the U.K. album charts.

O’Riordan married Costello and left the band in 1986, and the group released “Poguetry in Motion” the same year, a four-song EP that included one of MacGowan’s finest lyrical achievements — the novelistic “Body of an American” — as well as one of his loveliest ballads, “A Rainy Night in Soho.” A one-off collaboration with Irish folk veterans the Dubliners saw the Pogues notch their first top-10 single, “The Irish Rover,” the next year.

Following that came the group’s magnum opus and commercial peak, 1988’s “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.” Produced by U2 vet Steve Lillywhite, the album saw the group clean up its sound and explore a variety of far-flung world music styles, and it reached No. 3 on the U.K album chart.

The album’s Christmas-themed single “Fairytale of New York,” on which MacGowan dueted with Kristy MacColl, would become the group’s most enduring song. Effortlessly balancing lewd insults with swooning romanticism, it hit No. 2 on the British singles charts upon its release, only to experience frequent yuletide resurgences. To date, the track has reached the U.K. Top 20 six times in six different years, and a 2004 British TV poll voted it the “best Christmas song of all time,” with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” the runner-up.

By the late 1980s, MacGowan’s unyielding alcohol intake had made him something of a folk hero — the band’s 1990 “Saturday Night Live” performance showed the bedraggled singer drinking on camera, clutching a cigarette and clearly struggling to stay upright — but it also made him a difficult bandmate, and his history of missed gigs and blown studio sessions became lengthy. After somehow managing to record 1989’s “Peace and Love” (No. 5 U.K.) and 1990’s “Hell’s Ditch” (No. 12 U.K.), the band finally expelled MacGowan in 1991.

With that, MacGowan entered into a long, erratic period as a solo artist, recording and touring sporadically with Pogues soundalike band the Popes. “The Snake” (1994) featured a lovely duet with Sinead O’Connor, and “The Crock of Gold” followed in 1997, but neither made much chart impact. He also collaborated with Nick Cave and the Jesus & Mary Chain, and appeared on 1997’s No. 1-charting, all-star charity cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

By the late ’90s, MacGowan had begun to look alarmingly ravaged even by his standards, missing most of his teeth and speaking in a nearly incomprehensible growl. In 2001, O’Connor reported MacGowan to police for drug possession as a last-ditch attempt to halt his heroin use.

During the last half of the 2000s, MacGowan — now looking mercifully healthier, if hardly hale — reunited with the Pogues for a string of tours, often playing to substantially larger venues than the group had in its heyday, though they never seriously attempted to record new material. In 2014, MacGowan cowrote the love ballad “For the Dancing and Dreaming” for DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

MacGowan maintained a tumultuous, multi-decade relationship with Dublin journalist Clarke starting in the late ’80s, and the two collaborated on MacGowan’s quasi-memoir, “A Drink With Shane MacGowan.” In 2009, they starred in “Victoria and Shane Grow Their Own,” an Irish reality TV show chronicling the couple’s attempts to maintain a vegetable garden. They married in 2018.

MacGowan is survived by Clarke, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice.

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