With his work on the soundtrack to In The Name Of The Father bringing him into the full glare of media attention Gavin Friday takes this opportunity to put to rest any accusations of riding on U2’s coat-tails. Confident and brimming with ideas for his solo career, The Spotlight Kid gives the lowdown to an eager BILL GRAHAM.
As someone who’s never been shy of the spotlight, you wouldn’t think Gavin Friday has a problem with profile. Yet he has. The musician and artist regularly get hidden behind the other roles the media has allotted him.
Instead he’s The Guy Who Knows Bono, The Wan Who Used To Be In The Virgin Prunes, Mr. Cabaret And Crossdressing. Consequently, he can get caricatured as a shaper not a maker, Dublin’s leading social accessory, a courtier when he has both the ambition and the ability to play the prince himself.
Furthermore, he’s almost rather lost in his generation, a man long gone from the indie scene whose sense of the alternative derives more from the cosmopolitan scenes of New York and Europe not the latest guitar roustabouts in the rock circus. Toasted Heretic are the only younger Irish artists anywhere near to him.
But then, he’s always proudly declined to follow approved rock routes. “Rock’n’roll is a pussycat, dead and buried in the U.S.A,” he insisted on ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’, the most treasurable track on his last album, Adam’n’Eve and Gav was never one to have his precious rebellion prescribed or media-scripted.
Take this as a species of dandyism that considers any cliché the worst possible manners. Oscar Wilde wouldn’t let his own originality be impaired and Gavin was never going to be stifled in any rock straightjacket. Of course, this elitism could lead to pretension but if you’re going to make mistakes, make them matter. As a result, he learnt lessons closed to those without the sense to flirt and gamble with folly.
Consequently the music of Friday and Maurice Seezer has never sounded as if it’s been salvaged from the recycling bin. Even their pastiches have a knowing twist, their rationale never opportunist or dictated by marketing desperation.
And yet recently, they’ve been moving in from the margins. That last album was far more mistimed than inaccessible as they stripped away the cabaret motley. But while everyone else continued to harvest the Reed seeds, they were pitching to the Cale scales. As grunge was restoring the reign of the guitar, Gavin and Maurice were expressing their own idealised pop sensibility with a record that could sometimes sound like the answer to the question of what the original Roxy Music might have done if they’d disbanded after their first two albums and stayed mute till a ’92 comeback.
It was glam that danced not to platform boots but to a tango dancer’s stiletto heels, a record dedicated to Bowie, Roxy and punk’s proposition that the most complete recreation of self was only natural. But Gavin had a problem : he knew history and therefore, wasn’t condemned to repeat it, an inadmissible sin in the market of recycled culture.
The solution came by taking evasive action. Suddenly Gavin became a collaborator, a consultant and a maker of movie soundtracks, bringing his gifts into the film business where his sense of history and appetite for drama were welcomed. As he says himself, it’s how Tom Waits paid his bills and sustained his profile to allow himself the freedom to make his own albums without interference. Why shouldn’t Gavin Friday adopt the same plan?
At first sight, the trio involved in In The Name Of The Father seems inevitable – yet it wasn’t. For instance, at the start of her Ensign career, Sinead O’Connor questioned U2’s integrity, culminating her campaign in a notorious NME interview with Barry Egan in ’86 that attacked their stewardship of Mother. Eventually a truce was called but it didn’t lead to any sudden warming of relationships. In ’89 when Sonic Youth played McGonagle’s, I recall Bono still speaking warily of her. Only last year, when Sinead based herself in Dublin, did communications really reopen.
Similarly, a collaboration between Gavin and Bono wasn’t guaranteed. Artistically, Gavin had previously kept his distance from the overshadowing profile of Bono and U2. Personally, their brotherhood might have endured but U2 and the Virgin Prunes had courted virtually incompatible audiences. Even when Gavin joined U2 on Island, the cabaret impresario of Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves and the American explorers of Rattle And Hum were still circling different solar systems.
But gradually, they’ve moved into the same orbit. As Gavin rediscovered his love for experimental pop, U2 regrouped in Europe to make irony and alienation their new weapons. Even their songs began to sound the same. If U2 could be considered capable of covering songs like ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’ from ‘Adam’n’Eve’, a song like ‘Love Is Blindness’ was certainly marked by Gavin’s fingerprints.
Sitting in the Clarence Hotel, Gavin’s now sufficiently relaxed to acknowledge this new artistic convergence. “The Eighties,” he says, “is the decade we’d all probably like to forget. I remember having conversations with Bono when 1990 arrived and we were both going ‘well, fuck this, thank God, it’s over’. And in a weird way, it was almost like the last ten years were over and we were twenty again. We were seeing a lot more of each other and it was almost like we were back in Cedarwood Road again. And there was a lot in the Eighties that I wanted to get away from and he wanted to get away from.”
Did you have at least a small steering role in the Achtung Baby/Zooropa turnaround?
“I think we’ve always steered each other a bit over the years” he responds.” I think the idea that we’re like chalk and cheese is a bit redundant now. I think we’re both chalky and cheesy. I’ll never be a backseat driver but I’ll be a frontseat passenger now and again.”
But there’d be times on tour when you’d tell him what you thought worked and what didn’t ?
“Sure but he’d say that to me too. He’d come up to me and say ‘you’re shooting yourself in the foot’ and I’d go ‘ whaaat?’. It’s a bit like a clan, you look after each other’s asses. And we challenge the fuck out of each other. It’s just a rapport that’s going back over twenty years . . . Of course, if I walk into a studio, I’m not going to shut up. And if he walks into a studio, he’s not going to sit there going ‘Great Gav, let’s go for a pint’. There’s debates, discussions, a vibe and that’s how it works.”
The soundtrack partially happened because Jim Sheridan was also a link to the past and the Cedarwood days. In 1979 as chairman of the Project Arts Centre, he presided over Dark Space, a weekend all-nighter event of Dublin and Belfast post-punk music that included both the Prunes and U2. Ever since, the trio had kept in touch.
But the two musicians had responded tepidly to the soundtracks of Sheridan’s two earlier films. The director tapped both for advice as work proceeded on In The Name Of The Father but since Bono was touring Zoo TV, Gavin gradually emerged as the more regular consultant.
“At this point” says Gavin, “the opening hadn’t been shot, though the idea of the bombing of the Guildford pub was in the back of his head. It was really then that as a musical consultant, I started taking over. Basically he was asking me about Trevor Jones and I was telling him to listen to Angel Heart.”
Come September, Bono re-entered the story. Taking a break from Planet Zoo, he could, according to Gavin “have had a month of limbo and become a human being and go on a holiday like the rest of us or keep the momentum up. So basically, myself and Maurice held the ship while he kept coming and going.”
The title track with its interlocking of the bodhran and Lambeg drums came, he claims, from the pair of them “trying to imagine the bombing . . . It all came quite spontaneously from the concepts of tribalism, Celts and Middle Eastern melodies.”
But how was Sinead recruited? Well, Jim Sheridan wanted a powerful closing song on the father/son theme but , says Gavin,
“ we steered away from direct narrative because they usually come across very ham in the movies.
“The idea of a murder ballad came up because Bono had this theory of old Irish ballads of the 14th century where the mother kills her child or a woman kills her lover to keep him. So we had this analogy of Ireland being a mother. So I sang it first and then Bono sang it and we just went it’s Sinead. She just came into our head and then Bono went ‘you can ring her’.”
I don’t know if those quotes are useful to the NUU post-grad student now diligently researching a thesis on Sinead O’Connor and gender roles. Still, read on.
Again Jim Sheridan was the bridge. Gavin: “Jim has a good rapport with her and I think he’d shown her the movie a few times. So I rang her up and she said she was big time into the film.”
So he told her about the song, immediately sent it to her and she accepted it with equal speed and says Gavin “came in and sang like an angel.”
Gavin didn’t really know her but was so enthused by the experience he’d now love to work again with the woman he describes as “the Irish Edith Piaf.” They even did an improvisation
‘The Father And His Wife, The Spirit’ which was an added track on the single of which Gavin says: “It was basically me saying the Our Father and she saying the Hail Mary in Gaelic with a lot of a whining, moaning, sean-nos vibe.”
The networking becomes even more elaborate through the participation of The Invaders Of The Heart’s Jah Wobble and John Reynolds. The latter of course, was Sinead’s former lover and father of their son, Jake. Sinead sang on the Invaders’ last Virgin album. Now the Invaders have moved camp to Island, Gavin is one of the guest singers on their next album together with Sinead, Bjork and Dolores O’Riordan. Reynolds and Wobble both play on ‘Thief . . .’ and the third original, ‘Billy Boola’.
It all just might amount to some strange new Celtic/Arab convergence, electrifying and customising the melodies and rhythms of both cultures. But ‘Billy Boola’ adopts another Seventies tradition, Philly disco and tracks like The Tramps’
‘Disco Inferno’. But Gavin, surely this is the stuff you once hated in your own youth?
“It’s sort of like a guy aged 17 going to London and he’s just bought ‘Let’s Stick Together’ by Bryan Ferry. It’s a Dublin/London, Belfast/London, Paddy in the big smoke vibe. He arrives there, walking down the street with a Bryan Ferry swagger but, actually, is a wanker.”
There’s also a more intimate if typically incongruous Cedarwood connection. Lypton Village legends never die for as Gavin explains, Billy Boola was a dog ‘a mad mongrel on a rope’ – once owned by his cousin:
“They used to go up and look for the moolah. Like, give us your money or I’ll fuckin’ set Boola on you. I think it was half-alsatian and in a fight, it got a hatchet in the back of its head. The animal wasn’t brought to the vet. Instead, he stitched it up himself so the dog had the huge big hole in the back of its head and, I think developed brain damage. So when he came along with Billy Boola looking for your moolah, nobody said No.
“So that became an analogy for that element in the movie where Gerry Conlan is hanging out with Paul Hill and the prostitutes. And it’s also an analogy for that little man who lives in your underpants.”
Unlike Bono, Gavin Friday has rarely ventured into the political arena since he’s the sort of character who finds that realm too literal and dogmatic. So could he identify with the Guildford 4 and the other victims of judicial blindness?
“ I marched for the Guildford 4. I see it totally as a human rights issue. I remember the night they were freed in 1989, myself and Rene went out and got pissed. There was also the fact that outside Britain and Ireland, not many people knew of the story. It made the news for a day and then passed over.”
That’s how he justifies the factual changes in Sheridan’s version. “I’d read Christy Brown’s My Left Foot and I’d seen Jim’s My Left Foot and it was still the Christy Brown character despite a lot of artistic licenses taken there which we never heard about.”
He argues that “the bigger issue is the fact that the Maguires, the Conlans and the Guildford 4 did spend fifteen years in prison wrongfully and these police have never been brought to trial. It sort of makes me sad to think that the British are looking at the Irish fighting amongst each other. Ultimately, it is a movie and Jim Sheridan is a storyteller and an entertainer so I just go ‘fuck it, so what.”
The Brits certainly haven’t been kind to Sinead’s song. Despite success in Holland, Spain and Sweden, it’s dawdled around the lower reaches of the UK charts, falling back last week from 42 to 55. The video was apparently deemed too violent for The Chart Show since it included scenes from the film which had an over-15 certification. Nor according to Island did the record get much support from the film’s UK distributors, UIP, who made Schindler’s List their priority.
But then despite the film’s factual and populist impurities, the equation of Sinead and Irish controversies may have been deemed negative by the gatemen and guardians of the UK media.
Even if ‘Thief Of Your Heart’ is her best track since ‘Nothing Compares To You’, UK radio was essentially apathetic.
We switch to another woman of regular controversy, Naomi Campbell. When schedules permit, Gavin and Maurice have been helping her with her debut album. It’s easy to slate this assignment as the latest example of elite incest and the old pals act but Gavin demurs:
“She doesn’t want to make a typical record,” he insists. “She wouldn’t drag me in and I wouldn’t go into the studio just for the sake of it. She comes from a background where she was trained as a dancer and a singer, one of those Shirley Temple backgrounds, and then happened to be picked up as a model when she was 15. I think her first big break was when she danced and sang at a Boy George concert and then she was on his ‘I Tumble 4 Ya’ video when she was about 13.”
I don’t know; I’ve never met her or her supermodel friends on their Dublin forays. Still I wouldn’t be so foolish as to judge her on the slanted evidence of tabloid tattle and gossip column sniping. As for Gavin, he relates:
“I just got to know Naomi as a friend,” Gavin says. “We go out and get drunk together when she’s in Dublin. I brought her Northside to show her there’s different areas besides Killiney and Rathfarnham. ‘Cos she’s a Brixton girl and we just have a good rapport and she wanted to do a cover version of ‘I Want To Live’.”
Gavin and Maurice have also written an original for her, ‘Baby Woman’ and, with Tim Simenon, are also helping her with a Lenny Kravitz song. I like it: Gavin Friday, the missing link between Aidan Walshe and Naomi Campbell.
And Sandra Bernhard who’s far more than Madonna’s VBF in an earlier photo-call. Barbra Streisand filtered through Andy Warhol is only a partial description of her one-woman comedy show. Another woman with Friday on her mind, she wants to do ‘The King Of Trash’ in a Shirley Basseyish way, according to Gavin. And she’s also invited Gavin and Maurice together with Hal Willner to contribute songs to her debut Sony album.
Gavin once dismissed Ireland’s journeymen rockers as “painters and decorators”. But now, I tease him, it looks that he’s become a superior decorator, himself.
“No, a tailor,” he retorts. “I came from a family of painters and decorators so I got into the tailoring business. It’s a little bit more skilled.”
All these welcome distractions, he concedes are making 1994 “a pretty fuckin’ schizo year.” After all , he still has his own third album to do. Will he continue to move away from overt cabaret styles?
“I don’t know”, he concedes. “Maybe we might science-fiction our cabaret a bit. One of the main songs on the next album is written about a very famous guest of this nation, Mr. Pussy so the sexual cabaret thing is coming more to the front. I can see us getting more into the underground transsexual thing, almost like them becoming the pom-pom girls for the end of the century. So I can see it becoming more burlesque in many ways but maybe we’ll be putting Kurt Weill in the background for a bit.
“I am not the missing link between Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Mark Almond,” he wants everyone to know and I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a few steps along the rhythmic road recently plotted by Bjork.
One telling reason for any switch of direction may be his American tour from November ‘92 till June ‘93. As he concedes “I could have set up a nice European niche for myself – but it opened up a door in America which was strange.
“It was the time of the whole grunge explosion and I was going along with a bass clarinet and an accordion and a cello and very expensive suits to grunge clubs. I suddenly felt this is like me playing Trinity college in 1978 doing ten-minute versions of ‘Art Fuck’ to Boomtown Rats fans. It was like these poor kids are only experiencing punk for the first time. It actually did loosen me up because in America, they’ll go ‘where are you at?’
“It definitely challenged me as a performer,” he continues “ and I definitely made a lot of grunge people think and give them the confidence for a bit of eye-liner and earrings, here and there”.
More significantly he was playing Middle America not the coasts, New York and California, which would have been more amenable to his antics. Take Denver where they played their version of Dylan’s ‘Death Is Not The End’.
“We totally salvation-armied it. We leave the stage, walk into the audience with percussion and a cello and I have a kazoo to play the melody. Then, there’s a break where I go ‘God bless America, may she rest in peace and just remember death is not the end’. And that did not go down too well. As I was walking around God-blessing America, I got a whack on the back of the head from very large man with a cowboy hat.”
Ages ago, there used to be Hot Press office-jokes that the Virgin Prunes who seemed to be forever swanning off to Zurich and Amsterdam , would never be successful till they rid themselves of preciousness and really courted infamy by playing country toilets like the El Ruedo in Carlow. And do you know, maybe Gavin Friday found the lost spirit of the El Ruedo in Denver.
The result could be the quality of attention he’s long earned but rarely gained. Finally in ’94, Ireland just might see beyond all the flummery and motley and finally catch on to Gavin Friday as a man and musician in his own write. And in his own right.