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It all comes down to drink, sex, drugs, fighting and dancing

Shane MacGowan spills his secrets to Bob Flynn

It is 6pm and Shane MacGowan has just got out of bed. He has greeted what remains of the day with a pint of Baileys Irish Cream, sipped through a straw. Now rather portly, the Pogues former frontman looks almost Dickensian with his long sideburns, his dark, multi-stained jacket and waistcoat, and his pristine white shirt. He squares up to the solid part of breakfast — pté dressed with runny red berries — head bobbing away like one of those nodding-dog toys.

“Fire away,” he says before tucking in, apparently untroubled by his lack of front teeth. What has he been up to? “The usual,” he grumbles, without looking up. What would that be? “Writing.”

There is a long, long pause as MacGowan works the food to the back of his mouth, where he can chew. The berry juice begins to spill; the white shirt is spattered red with every mouthful. “My stuff comes out of the past, yknow wha I mean?” he says, as if finally tuning into his own thoughts. “And its always going to be about drink and doomed romance. London and Tipperary. God and the devil. Heaven and hell. Sex, drugs, fighting and dancing.

“Im an old-fashioned Irish person, yknow. People think I did something new but all I did was get the guts back into the music. Ive never been a rocker — Im an Irish dance band man, just another cog in the wheel, part of the grand design of Irish music.”

On Christmas day Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan will be 44 — no mean achievement for a man who began drinking and drug-taking at the age of 12. Most newspapers must have had obituaries poised to run for over a decade, but he is keen to remind his detractors that he is not in hells ditch yet. “Im writing a lot now. The usual, yknow — 90% crap, 10% really good. But at least I can tell the difference, unlike a lot of people.”

As film-maker Sarah Share says, he has brains to burn. “Shane had a brilliant mind,” his father Maurice declares in If I Should Fall from Grace, Shares new documentary about MacGowan. “Still does, even two billion brain cells later.” Meanwhile, Nick Cave, a former heroin addict, comes over as a condescending headteacher. “You must make a choice between being an artist or an addict,” Cave intones imperiously.

“Nick Cave can fucking say what he likes,” MacGowan says now, “but Ive cut down the drink, Im not a junkie, Im a lot healthier now. I mean, just look at me.”

Well, look at him. He has gained weight, the skinned rabbit Irish punk long gone. But the eyes are glazed, the teeth are still skewed stumps and he sounds concussed. By now the berry juice is drying like blood on his shirt, and you get the impression that there is an element of performance in all this. MacGowan is happy to hide behind the fog of alcohol while remaining as sharp as a tack.

The vital thing is that he is now living in his grandfathers old cottage in County Tipperary, a move he regards as life-saving. Although he left Ireland at the age of six and returned only a year ago, Irish culture informs his every woozy moment.

“Look, Ive been through the troubled youth thing,” he says. “But Im back in Ireland for good now. As soon as I knew I didnt have to go back to England I felt alive again. And I realised Ive had a phobia about England all along. Ill go back for gigs and that, but thats all.”

Next week MacGowan will return to England when the classic eight-man Pogues line-up take the stage for the first time since 1991. That seems little short of a miracle, given the acrimony of their split in 1991. Whether MacGowan was sacked is still a matter of contention, with Pogues manager Joey Cashman saying he was, and guitarist Phil Chevron saying he wasnt.

With the tour looming, Chevron is philosophical about the past. “It was painful for everybody at the time. We were all in a spiral of too much touring and drinking. And Shane was suffering the most, so when he left it was like putting somebody out of his misery. Maybe this time well bring a molecule of collective wisdom to the proceedings.”

In 1987 the drunken bawlers almost had a number one with a caustic duet between MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, Fairytale of New York. But that success only hastened the break-up. “It was good at the start; it only went bad when I didnt believe in it any more,” says MacGowan, who now leads a band called the Popes. “Wed stopped playing Irish music basically, it was all that fusion shite, and there was no emotion left in the songs. Fucking good band, though.”

He shrugs and stares into the blood-red plate.

He is pleased with If I Should Fall from Grace, which blazes with Pogues music but is essentially a film about an Irish family who went to London and fell apart in a kind of cultural trauma. “I never wanted to emigrate, I never had the choice. I was taken to London when I was six and I was fucked up right away. The whole family was.”

Earlier this year MacGowans partner of 15 years, Victoria Clarke, released the biography A Drink with Shane, which was an Irish bestseller. MacGowan now says much of it was his own half-truths and blarney, although he declares undying love for Clarke. Another long silence, and the watery gaze turns doleful.

“Actually I was hoping to get married,” he says. “But there was a bit of a communication breakdown. If we could get over that my happiness would be complete.”

But the wedding has been indefinitely postponed and Clarke is no longer with him. For now, at least, MacGowan lives on dreams of love and the broken promise of reality. The usual, as he would say.

The Pogues tour begins at Manchester Academy (0161-832 1111) on December 15. If I Should Fall from Grace will be released in the UK next year. Shane MacGowan and the Popes The Rare Oul Stuff will be released on ZTT in January; a live CD, Across the Broad Atlantic, will be released in February.