The 12 Steps

Are you an alcoholic?
Do you lose time from work due to drinking?
A quavering apprehension creeps into the voice of Shane MacGowan's publicist: “You want to do a phoner? Well, I can try to set something up … but I feel like I should warn you that so far the interviews have had a habit of …”

“Not happening?” I ask.
“Yes. I'll see what I can do, though.”
The Big Question dangles before us. I don't ask it, though, and the publicist, equally aware of its presence, doesn't offer an answer. She doesn't have to: The silence speaks volumes, practically whispering, “He drinks, you know.”

“Please do,” I say.
“I'll let you know if it comes through.”
Even before I hang up the phone, I know that it won't. And it doesn't. An in-person interview, the publicist says, might work. MacGowan doesn't move as fast as he used to, and once cornered, he'd probably resign himself to sitting down and chatting for a spell, provided the whiskey was flowing freely. Tracking him down for a phone call, though, might prove to be tricky. After all, it's always happy hour somewhere.

I'm in good company, at least: MacGowan has a history of shining his Bay Area appointments. In 1989, his former band, the Pogues, was poised to fill the opening slot on the California leg of Bob Dylan's fall tour. True to their word, the Pogues touched down in San Francisco — sans their vocalist, MacGowan, who had collapsed in a besotted heap at Heathrow Airport and was subsequently denied a seat on the plane. The hangover must have been a doozy; he didn't make it to the States until some two weeks later, after his bandmates had fulfilled the dates without him.

Has drinking affected your reputation?
Is drinking jeopardizing your job or business?
Such folly is normally the stuff that sackings are made of. Fortunately, the Pogues knew which side their bread was buttered on. MacGowan was, for the most part, a functional alcoholic, distilling a dead-on if bleary-eyed vision from the dregs of his benders. If his piss-and-vinegar lyrical observations and rambunctious delivery didn't completely define the Pogues' appeal, they were certainly the better part of it. On the rare occasions that MacGowan stumbled away from the mike, the band usually faltered, falling back on maudlin ballads and homogeneous sham-rock — the regrettable Waiting for Herb, the Pogues' 1993 post-MacGowan effort, for example.

Part genius, part case study, part accident-waiting-to-happen, MacGowan added a voyeuristic thrill to the Pogues experience. Audiences watched his antics like a rowdy crowd at a boxing match, wondering just how long the punch-drunk pug could stay on his feet. Besides, when a party starts to lose steam, someone's got to don the lampshade, and MacGowan's jug-eared head was always a perfect — and willing — fit. Clearly, MacGowan's drinking didn't just affect his reputation — it enhanced it. For a while, anyway.

Has your ambition decreased since drinking?
“I have no ambition,” MacGowan once told Rolling Stone. “I used to have ambitions, but I have none anymore.” Nonetheless, his body of work has always contradicted that claim. If anything, The Snake, MacGowan's first album since his 1991, er, “parting” with the Pogues, only serves to show that even after a four-year layoff, the singing sot can still get his Irish up and take to the ring (or the bar) for another round.

While not as boisterous as his best (read: earlier) work with the Pogues, The Snake finds MacGowan and his backing band — the Popes (hmmm …) — rollicking through a spirited collection of tunes, divided almost evenly between MacGowan's skewered takes on traditional Irish music and more contemporary rockist pieces. The opening “Church of the Holy Spook” finds MacGowan spewing copious globs of vitriol, railing “rock 'n' roll, you crucified me.” Delusions of martyrdom? Maybe, but he's got a point.

In 12-step parlance, rock was MacGowan's enabler, providing him with a supportive environment for his sozzled roguery, then leaving him high and dry when the lampshade act got tedious. “I never should have turned my back on the old folks back at home,” he goes on to lament, but that's probably a tad overstated, too; if rock crucified him, it's also resurrected his haggard half-corpse beyond all reasonable expectations.

But through it all, MacGowan never lost his caustic eye for detail: “Hands of the barmaid, bringing off a baldheaded monk,” he observes in “I'll Be Your Handbag,” “All this and more for just one line of junk.” He's still a barfly on the wall, soaking the scenery in along with the pints.

Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
If The Snake displays a revived MacGowan, though, it sure as hell doesn't indicate any signs of repentance (talk about getting the best of both worlds). Just take a look at the album's packaging: There's a tousle-haired MacGowan on the front cover, one eye glued shut against the glare of daylight (or reality). On the back, he's only slightly better off — hunched over in bed, a tellingly glazed expression on his face.

The music only elaborates on those first impressions. Again in “I'll Be Your Handbag,” MacGowan sings that he's “recovering from a nine-day drunk,” while “Nancy Whiskey” is a paean to lushery. On “That Woman's Got Me Drinking,” he gleefully enumerates the bottles of gin he intends to imbibe (10, to be exact). He may mourn the departure of the woman who left him (“Victoria”), but he only toys with the idea of chasing her down; there are pipes and pints to empty in the meantime.

In Gerry Rafferty's “Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway,” it's hard to fault the proud papa for recoiling at the thought of rotten-toothed MacGowan, corsage in one hand and bottle in the other, calling on his daughter — especially when MacGowan details his love-'em-and-leave-em peccadillos next in “Donegal Express.” “I might have fucked your missus but I never fucked your daughter,” he sings. Now that's honor amongst rogues.

MacGowan's still a lout, but that's probably as much a function of his savvy as his impenitence. After all, would fickle fame welcome him back as anything else?

Do you turn to lower companions and an inferior environment when drinking?
The Snake isn't all humping and highballs, though. Also featured is a duet with the terminally upright Sinead O'Connor in a reprise of the Pogues' “Haunted.” MacGowan sounds lost and awkward there amid the sustained power chords, twittery synths, and O'Connor's dulcet tones, and if he wasn't lit up for this session, then I'm your Aunt Tillie. If the suits were looking for the Big Crossover, this ain't it, and MacGowan probably knew it all along. Who could stay sober in the face of such lush power balladry?

If you answered YES to any one of these questions, there is a definite warning that you may be an alcoholic. If you have answered YES to any two, the chances are that you are an alcoholic.

It's probably better that MacGowan doesn't enter the annals of superstardom just yet. There's no telling what kind of trouble he could get himself into with unlimited resources and time at his disposal. The relatively low-key Snake affords him the opportunity to test the waters without drowning in the drink and to piece his career back together at a merciful pace. Perhaps one day he'll even take the oath.

And who knows? He may even make it to San Francisco this time around.
Shane MacGowan and the Popes play Wed-Thurs, Aug. 23-24, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

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