Paul Simon recalls friendship with Shane MacGowan

Friend of the late Shane MacGowan, the legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, paid tribute to him on RTÉ’s Liveline.

Speaking to Joe Duffy, the American musician said that they had known each for around ten or 12 years, having first met when Simon invited MacGowan to one of his own concerts through a mutual friend.

“We met in Dublin. I went to visit him and Victoria after a concert I was doing. We spent three or four hours in conversation – it was a very interesting conversation, as you can imagine,” he recalled. “That was our first meeting.”

“I already liked what I heard of him, and I had seen several interviews that he did. I was prepared for the rhythm of how he spoke and how he looked… well, sort of prepared.”

Saying that while MacGowan was not in bad health when they met, he was mostly seated during their initial meeting. “He was smoking and having a drink at the same time. The telly was on – no sound. The conversation… may have taken a little while to get up to speed. There could be long pauses with Shane but I didn’t find that uncomfortable anyway.”

He continued, “The funny thing would be, we’d be talking and I’d ask a question about something he said or his opinion about something, and he could sit there for a minute, just staring into space, and then he would answer in the most lucid way, often quite insightful or funny. So once I got used to that, then the exchange of information was always interesting.”

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“Given the way he led his life, had it not been for Victoria, I don’t think he would have been there that afternoon to have the conversation. It was Victoria – she’s amazing.”

He added that MacGowan played some “interesting music” for him on his old record player. After MacGowan confirmed that was how he always listened to music, the next day Simon got him speakers that he could attach to his computer.

Simon said that MacGowan and Clarke sent him a letter after the visit. “They’re so sweet… they both wrote me a letter – I framed it,” he said.

He then quoted from the letter. In it, MacGowan thanked him for the “friendly visit… it was great” and described how the “lovely speaker” had made a difference to their music “listening pleasure.”

He signed off, “Hope you see you again, your loving friend Shane.”

Simon said that although they didn’t often see each other, they were friends and agreed when Duffy suggested that there was a serenity and tranquillity between them.

Paul Simon said MacGowan “needed to burn very brightly and intensely”

Simon said that subsequently, the Rainy Night in Soho singer would occasionally come to his concerts to catch up and how MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, would keep him posted on MacGowan’s health.

The last update came only a few days ago, when The Pogues frontman was released from hospital.

Saying that the pair mainly spoke about music, Simon recalled that they had also discussed poet Seamus Heaney. Simon had used one of Heaney’s poems to craft a song that Simon sang at the poet’s memorial, which MacGowan had also attended.

He also revealed that the pair were planning on recording a duet. “At one point, when he was going back into the studio for a bit, we were going to do a duet.

He said, “Our exchange was sweet… as you can tell from my memory, it was a very striking day in my life when I met him.”

“But then he fell getting out of the car and that project went away – I don’t think he ever came back to finish it.”

He said that one of his strongest memories of MacGowan was his distinctive laugh “before he got his teeth.”

“It isn’t just the laugh… it is how often that laugh occurred. He liked to laugh; he thought things were funny and I like to kid around too and once you get up to a level where you can feel free enough to tease each other, then things are funny.”

Recalling the last time they met, in 2018, Simon said, “He was all dressed up and sitting in his wheelchair… he said I had gotten older!”

Laughing, he said, “He was drinking a glass of wine, and I said ‘I thought you were detoxing’, and he said, ‘I am… but not from wine.’”

“People always say ‘I wish I knew him longer and better’. We never talked at length about songwriting for example, but he seemed to be – and I think this why I was attracted to his music and his performance – he was charismatic in a way that sort of reminded me of Borstal Boy. It was my American vision of what Ireland was, of course, at a certain time.”

Simon recalled as a child, he saw Ewan McColl at his club and had met Ewan’s daughter Kirsty McColl, who later went on to duet with MacGowan on Fairytale of New York. Simon mused, “We were, in some strange way… connected before we met.”

“It’s a terrible loss… when you lost someone whose work you value and whose art you respect, especially if you know them at all.”

Simon said that texted MacGowan’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, right after he heard of the musician’s death, asking if the news was true. “We texted a brief conversation and I saw her statement [announcing the death] and it was lovely.”

Simon said that, “In the last year, there’s been quite a few of my friends who have passed away.

“In fact, yesterday another one of my friends died as well – it’s that time of life.”

Referring to MacGowan, he said, “He was that kind of artist that needed to burn very brightly and intensely.

“Some artists are like that. They produce work that we treasure but they pay for it with their health – their bodily health and their mental health. That was Shane.”

“It’s always a surprise to hear about someone [dying], even when I hear how so-and-so is sick, and then they pass, you’re still surprised, and it throws you into a strange sort of place,” he said.

“It’s not that you get used to it, but there’s a regularity of passing that we accept. For a moment or so you think about yourself, and denial kicks in and you move away from that.

“The truth is, I thought more about Victoria than about Shane,” he said.

Simon finished the interview by saying that, “I’m sure somewhere Shane understands that we all love him.”

Reporting by Cathy Lee, Audrey Donohue and Sarah McIntyre

Liveline, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays 1.45pm – 3pm

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