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article imageGavin Friday: Artist, Irishman, catholic Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Mar 16, 2012 in Entertainment
Dublin - There was a twinkle in Bono's eyes when he sang “The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing” from the stage of Carnegie Hall in October 2009. The song belongs to his friend Gavin Friday, and encapsulates his style: mischief-maker, sexy chanteur, culture vulture.
The Carnegie Hall concert was held to celebrate Friday’s 50th birthday and featured a who’s-who of stars, including Lou Reed, Lady Gaga, Courtney Love, Antony Hegarty, members of U2 and a reunion with former bandmates The Virgin Prunes. It provided the catalyst to get back into the recording studio after a gap of sixteen years. Gavin Friday’s latest album, catholic (Rubyworks), finds him in fine rebel form, if older, wiser, pondering his place and contemplating relationships: with family, country,God, art, and a much younger self. To understand Friday -his fierce artistry, bold romanticism and ravenous cultural curiosity -you need to understand the Ireland he grew up in.
“It was like living in Franco’s Spain,” he says of the super-charged religious atmosphere, “except it didn’t look like that to the rest of the world. (Religion) had such influence on how the country was actually run, on the politics.” Born Fionan Hanvey in 1959, he describes himself as a “hard-brought-up Catholic,” and initially considered a career in the church. “As a little boy, I was fascinated,” he recalls. From communion to confirmation, he “wanted to be a priest, or rather, a monk, a Franciscan, because they liked animals walked around in robes. I loved the drama.”
At the time, Ireland didn’t have many rock stars outside of Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy, but what it lacked in pop culture, it made up for in other areas. “I remember going off to England to see gigs, and you used to feel inept, like the way kids have football cards. They’re all big English players, but we have no successful players of our own,” he remembers. “There was no contemporary stuff until my generation kicked in -the U2s and Sinead O’Connors -but we have James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, the greatest writers of the 20th century. It became a mantle of pride as well as education.”
The one way to rebel against a stifling, repressive society, then, was to use your head. “It was a great thing that was installed in the Irish, which was, we have to be smart or else we don’t have any natural resources other than a beautiful countryside, so you have to use your brain.”
Young Fionan became friends with Protestant neighbours Derek Rowen and Paul Hewson down the street in his North Dublin community; together, they invented a communal mythology to escape the soul-murdering drudgery of their surroundings. Called Lypton Village, the boys thrived on shocking the grey, repressive Dublin they’d grown up in. They invented alternate names that reflected their alternate world view, with Derek Rowen becoming Guggi, Paul Hewson becoming Bono, and Fionan Hanvey christened Gavin Friday.
Inspired by David Bowie and a deep love of the theatrical, Friday’s angst found boisterous expression with The Virgin Prunes in 1978. Part improvisation, part noise, all provocation, the proto-punk, performance art-heavy band featured Friday along with Guggi, Trevor Rowen (aka Strongman), Dave-iD Busarus, and Dik Evans (aka The Edge’s brother). “My saving break was The Virgin Prunes,” he notes. “We toured constantly, and it was through music and performance I was able to escape it and see the world is bigger than the great grey world the church and politicians were painting to us as young kids. If I hadn’t had The Virgin Prunes, I’d be dead or on smack.”
The band found considerable success in Europe, but found it difficult to sustain the intensity that had originally fuelled them. Guggi left to devote himself to painting full-time - indeed, he is an internationally-recognized and respected visual artist in his own right - and Bono, of course, fronts one of Ireland’s biggest exports (Guinness aside). Gavin Friday released his first solo album in 1989, Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, produced by eclectic musicophile Hal Willner. Among original works and collaborations with Maurice Seezer, the album features a snappy version of Jacques Brel’s “Next” as well as a moving excerpt of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, set to music. It was a notable break for a man who’d once stalked around the stages of Europe in full make-up and a pig’s head between his legs.
Amidst a litany of other projects, Friday wrote music for the Oscar-nominated In The Name Of The Father and served as U2’s visual consultant for their mammoth worldwide tours (a position he still holds). He continued his exploration of European styles and modern adult pop, releasing two solo albums in the 1990s, Adam ‘n’ Eve (in 1992) and Shag Tobacco (in 1995). It was while touring the latter that he sensed the music industry was changing, skewing to a much younger demographic and away from the thoughtful, exploratory rock and roll he’d grown up with. Instead of swimming against the tide, Friday decided to “find out more about all the stuff I touched on, properly.” Film scores and soundtracks followed, including the Jim Sheridan movies The Boxer and In America, plus a collaboration with Quincy Jones on the 50 Cent biopic Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. He narrated a stirring version of Peter And The Wolf (for the Irish Hospice Foundation) in 2002, toured sonnets with Gavin Bryars and the Royal Shakespeare Company, performed electrifying cabaret shows, and gave a deliciously sexy performance in the 2005 film adaptation of writer (and friend) Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast On Pluto opposite Cilian Murphy. “It was a huge education,” he says of the era.
Gavin Friday
Gavin Friday
Peter Rowen
These experiences would influence the sounds on catholic, a densely cinematic work co-written with Cork-based producer/musician Herbie Macken, and produced by Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, Cocteau Twins). Inspiration for its material is varied: Ireland’s economic bust, the end of a marriage to his high school sweetheart, Island’s dropping him in 1998, major back surgery, the end of his long-term musical collaboration with Maurice Seezer, and perhaps most poignantly, the death of his father, with whom he’d shared a deeply troubled relationship. The album shows off Friday’s passion for sonic theatricality; there are smoky growls, operatic falsettos, caramel-baritone crooning and fury-filled snarls. Whether it’s saucy dance (“Perfume”), grand opera (“Lord I’m Coming”), gentle lullaby (“It’s All Ahead Of You”) or 21st century guitar psychedelia (“The Sun and The Moon and The Stars”), catholic is a beautiful expression of a full, rich life colored by the passion of youth and the wisdom of maturity. The album has, unsurprisingly, garnered some of the best notices of Friday’s solo career.
“It’s a lot more romantic than people think,” he says. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s dark.’ It’s not dark! They’re not listening.”
So it follows that catholic’s cover image, of him lying dead and wrapped in the Irish flag, isn’t dark, but rather, hopeful. Even though album covers have been reduced to what he describes as “the size of a postage stamp” he hankered after something that would be every bit as iconic as Bowie’s Aladdin Sane or The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead.
In late 2010, Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery hosted an exhibit called Passion And Politics. Among the featured works was a well-known portrait of revolutionary Michael Collins lying in state, by the Irish painter Sir John Lavery. “For The Love Of Ireland” was hung in a room of its own, at the end of the exhibit. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Friday recalls. “I just went, ‘That’s... it.’”
The timing was especially keen. “The same day I came out of that exhibition, the IMF were in Dublin basically saying, ‘You’re broke. You’re bankrupt. Germany and France and England own you.’” Friday was inspired to, as he puts it, “embrace my tricolors”, and he contacted Vogue Italia photographer Perry Ogden to bring his vision to reality. The results were pleasing, as was the Irish public’s reaction.
“People were stopping me, and congratulating me,” he recalls. “There was a real knocking of our own sense at that time -a lack of pride -and everyone saying ‘We’re fucked’ and putting their heads down, but (when they saw the album cover) they were going, ‘Fair play to you!’”
Naming the album catholic (the small “c” is intentional) is, for Friday, a reclamation of the word’s Greek origins, even as it’s a nod to the culture and mindset that played a major role in his personal and artistic development.
“I could feel there was a religiousness and a spiritual-ness to the music,” he observes. “I’m very much a product of old Catholic Ireland. It forms an awful lot of us -you kick against those pricks. The reports (of child abuse) came out around the time I was working on the album. You’re like,‘Hold on, take the word back from them, they don’t own the fuckin’ word, they don’t own us spiritually’ -there’s a little bit of that.”
You realize in speaking with Gavin Friday that he’d make an interesting friend not only because he has a refreshing no-bullshit streak, but because he possesses a dynamic combination of keen curiosity, hard-won experience and wide-ranging knowledge. He’s a genuinely great conversationalist -which may explain his disdain for the contemporary obsession with gadgets.
“We all have our computers, and I have a smart phone, but I turn it off when I’m out for dinner. And when I go to a show or gig, I’m not interconnecting or videoing or sharing on Facebook. But I do embrace technology,” he chuckles, “ I do as much as I can, but I am old-school. I like holding the piece of canvas or smelling the piece of vinyl.”
That sensual experience will be realized this spring, when catholic is released on vinyl, complete with original drawings, instrumental remixes, rehearsals, a DVD on the making of the album, and Irish tricolor discs. Friday sees great value in having something sturdy and real to put on the shelf, especially at a time when music seems so superficial and disposable.
“There are people out there that are over thirty that don’t want pop,” he states firmly. “A lot of media and lot of entertainment and stuff is basically aiming towards the ten-to twenty-five year-olds. What about people from twenty-five to sixty-five? What about them? There’s a lot of them.”
Music, like all art, has a higher purpose, he believes. It’s for “opening gates in your head. If somebody sees the album, it may open a door or window for a kid anywhere in the world. I think music is a great diviner and opener of doors, and of making your head wider.”
Your head, and, in listening to catholic, possibly, your heart too.
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