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Avoiding any mention of alcohol during a chat with Shane MacGowan would be as stupid as neglecting to ask Elizabeth Taylor about marriage, perfume, Michael Jackson or cholesterol. MacGowan--onetime leader of the Pogues, current frontman for Shane MacGowan & the Popes--has a reputation as one of popular music's most aggressive...
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Avoiding any mention of alcohol during a chat with Shane MacGowan would be as stupid as neglecting to ask Elizabeth Taylor about marriage, perfume, Michael Jackson or cholesterol. MacGowan--onetime leader of the Pogues, current frontman for Shane MacGowan & the Popes--has a reputation as one of popular music's most aggressive guzzlers, and his songs are filled with references to intoxicants: witness "Nancy Whiskey" and "That Woman's Got Me Drinking" on the Popes' debut, The Snake. But MacGowan, who during a mid-afternoon conversation already sounds two sheets to the wind, gets his back up at the tiniest mention of potent potables.

"I don't really like talking about drinking in interviews. It's like, everybody asks the same questions all the time," he slurs in a harsh, heavily accented voice. "Everybody goes for the cliche, because it's the easiest thing to do, isn't it? I don't see anything wrong with it, really, but it just gets boring when all anybody wants to talk to me about is drinking.

"I like drinking, you know. I like lots of other things, as well. I do write about drinking a lot, that's true." He hesitates before muttering through the worst teeth in rock and roll, "Sorry, what were you saying?"

MacGowan will ask variations on the question above several more times before this discourse is through. He'll also reply to a query he already answered ten minutes earlier, take two breaks for cigarettes, suffer a severe coughing fit and disappear without explanation on at least one occasion. In short, he'll come across like God's own drunk and a man with a microscopic attention span. But a listen to The Snake confirms that MacGowan isn't simply a prime candidate for the Betty Ford Clinic. No, he's also a sloppy but spirited singer and a gifted, literate songwriter able to juggle humor and pathos better than the vast majority of his more sober peers. Your grandmother would call him "a character," and he will no doubt remain one well after he's joined David Crosby in the Liver Club For Men. Until he does, though, give him a listen. Because he's got some lovely stories to tell.

Although he's always thought of himself as thoroughly Irish, MacGowan was born in England on Christmas Day, 1957, while his parents were visiting relatives. A few months later the MacGowan clan returned to their Tipperary home, but by the time young Shane turned six, they headed back to England again, and this time they stayed there. MacGowan certainly got his share of Celtic musical influences--his mother loved singing traditional Irish airs--but as he approached his teens, he also fell under the sway of Mott the Hoople, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. With this background, it was only natural that MacGowan would be floored by the 1977 punk explosion. He promptly formed a band called the Nipple Erectors, which lasted for two years; its successor, the Millwall Chainsaws, perished after about the same length of time.

By then, it was 1982, and MacGowan's love of Irish music was coming to the fore again. Clearly, he needed an outlet, and with the group Pogue Mahone ("Kiss my arse" in Gaelic), he found it. The combo, featuring Jem Finer, James Fearnley, Andrew Rankin and Cait O'Riordan (the future Mrs. Elvis Costello), released its first single the following year, then signed with Stiff Records. Red Roses for Me, issued in 1984 and credited to the Pogues, was a promising debut album, but it paled in comparison with 1985's Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, one of the best discs of that year. Produced by Costello, Rum was MacGowan's coming-out party, and his delivery of affecting ditties such as "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," "The Old Main Drag" and "The Sick Bed of Cuchulain" made each ring startlingly true. The tunes were tragic, boisterous and booze-soaked, often at the same time. They were also like nothing anyone had heard before, making them an exceedingly tough act to follow. The subsequent Pogues albums--1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God, 1989's Peace and Love and 1990's Hell's Ditch--suffered by comparison with Rum, in part because an increased focus on other bandmembers' contributions diminished MacGowan's level of participation.

When MacGowan left the Pogues in 1991, no one was surprised--and rumors that he was booted out because of an addiction to spirits also made sense. But MacGowan insists that liquor had nothing to do with his departure. "They were wanting to do stuff that I really wasn't wanting to do," he says. "I wanted to do more, like, Irish stuff, and they were moving away from that. They wanted to do heavier stuff. And they were touring too much. I didn't want to be on the road all the time.

"In the end, I think I made some compromises that I didn't want to make. There were just a lot of different people in the band and a lot of different opinions. It was meant to be a democracy, but the problem with a democracy is that it doesn't always work."

The two years that followed MacGowan's declaration of independence were spent rather aimlessly; he occasionally made music with the likes of the Dubliners, Nick Cave and Van Morrison, but mainly he concentrated on hanging out with his mates. Then, in 1993, he assembled the Popes: guitarists Paul McGuinness and Kieran O'Hagan, bassist Bernie France, multi-instrumentalist Tom McAnimal, whistler Colm O'Maonlai and percussionist Tom Pope. Given his latest drummer's last name, the new group's appellation makes sense--but "Popes" is too close to "Pogues" to suggest a coincidence. At first MacGowan denies that he was making a conscious reference: "I just liked the sound of `the Popes,'" he claims. But later, he confesses, "It was kind of a joke in the beginning. And it just stuck."

While writing material for the Popes, MacGowan didn't reject compositions that resembled the Pogues' work. "You can listen to the album and hear what I would have liked to have done before," he notes. "It's my music, and it's my band now. It's like the Popes are all doing what I want to do--which is what they want to do anyway, so it's all right."

The same can be said for The Snake. The first track, "The Church of the Holy Spook," sets the CD's tone: Over a melody that bears a strong resemblance to the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law," MacGowan barks the opening lines--"My Daddy was a sinner/My Mother was a saintly person/But I ruined my life by drinking/Bad wives, taking pills and cursing"--with an enthusiasm that indicates he doesn't regret a thing. However, remorse drips from "The Song With No Name," about a broken romance, "Roddy McCorley," concerning a condemned man, and "Victoria," a jaunty hymn to a vanished lover. There's a certain deja vu about these pieces: MacGowan has plowed such fields before. But his eloquence, his exuberance and his plentiful contradictions keep the platter afloat. All these years later, no one sounds like Shane MacGowan.

From a commercial standpoint, the singularity of MacGowan's style is double-edged: It stands out from the norm at a time when pop-music radio programmers seem most interested in the hegemony of a single, heavy-rock sound. This phenomenon leaves MacGowan feeling more than a little befuddled. "It's one of the weird things about America," he conjectures. "It's like the whole McDonald's-fucking-Kentucky Fried Chicken thing--bringing everything down to no surprises."

"`No surprises,'" he grumbles. "Isn't that the fucking Holiday Inn motto? Yeah, and it's brilliant, because it means you get exactly what you pay for. But it's also shit, because there's no such thing as spontaneity or differences anymore. It's like everything's become one big, homogeneous, bland, fucking nothing. You know what I mean? You go into a McDonald's in China and it'll be exactly what you'll get from a McDonald's in New York or in Europe. They are convenient, but at the same time, America has so much more going for it, as well. So it's up to you guys. You've got to do something about it. You've got to fight it."

In his own small way, MacGowan is involved in this battle, too. But he's got a more immediate gripe with the citizens of the U.S. of A. "On the East Coast," he says, "if you have a glass of wine with your meal, you're a fucking alcoholic. At least the people on the West Coast still like to drink." He pauses. "Where did you say you were calling from?"

Shane McGowan & the Popes, with 16 Horsepower. 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 22, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $15, 322-2308.

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