Gavin Friday: ‘You can’t be what you were’
How do you move on from being Dublin’s rock’n’roll Lucifer? By becoming U2’s ‘aesthetic midwife’, outdressing 50 Cent and roping in the Salvation Army for your latest album. Mike Atkinson meets Gavin Friday.
His public profile might be low – after all, it has been 15 years since his last album – but Gavin Friday is a remarkably well-connected man. In October 2009, four days ahead of his 50th birthday, he was the subject of a tribute concert staged in Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring an impressive array of friends, fans and collaborators. All four members of U2 performed in Friday’s honour, along with the likes of Lou Reed, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shane MacGowan, Andrea Corr, Lady Gaga, Scarlett Johansson and Laurie Anderson. Joel Grey reprised his Oscar-winning role as the master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Patrick McCabe read from his novel Breakfast On Pluto. (In the 2005 film adaptation, Friday played glam-rocker Billy Hatchett.)
To the delight of his loyal fanbase, founder members of Friday’s first band, the Virgin Prunes, also reunited for a couple of songs. Before they took to the stage, Courtney Love paid fond and fervent tribute (“I wasn’t asked to do this show; I demanded to do this show”), citing the “swagger, charisma, shamanism and fury” of their early Dublin gigs. “I had never seen so much sex, snarl, poetry, evil, restraint, grace, filth, raw power and the very essence of rock and roll,” she testified, casting the Prunes as “Lucifer: arch and cunning to U2’s Gabriel: angelic and gorgeous. U2 gave me lashes of love and inspiration, and a few nights later the Virgin Prunes fucked – me – up.”
“It’s quite a mouthful,” says Friday, five months later. “It’s quite great, actually. She gave it to me framed. I have it over my toilet pot – fittingly.”
Love and Friday first met in 1997 at the Las Vegas opening of U2’s PopMart tour. Friday was there to advise his friends on staging and performance. He has been similarly employed on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree, describing himself as their “aesthetic midwife”.
“I have a fond memory of sitting in one of the dressing rooms, talking about Ireland in the 80s, and her showing me as many of her shamrock tattoos as possible. We reminisced about the early days of punk: her from an American point of view, and me from Ireland and Britain. We got on very well. And then I didn’t see her for years.”
The pair met again in the early 2000s. “She was hanging out a lot with Winona Ryder. I think they were having a bit of a wild girl moment. I saw her perform in the Russian Tea Rooms in New York. It was some sort of strange benefit event. She was playing very improvised abstract stuff on guitar, and Winona was reading poetry. They’re really grandiose, beautiful, art deco, very wealthy rooms. And they were like two demons from hell, vomiting all over the china.”
At the Carnegie Hall show, Love and Friday duetted on a cover of Magazine’s The Light Pours Out of Me. The song was “very fitting for me and Courtney”, says Friday. “We didn’t shy away from the lyric at all. When we were rehearsing, this guttural energy just came up from the floorboards. It was electric and vibrant. It wasn’t like we were going through any motions.”
“It was the same when I did the Virgin Prunes songs,” he says. “I was able to dig deep in there and in some way become a young Gavin Friday again – for a moment.”
Did he feel Lucifer rising once more? “Well, it’s odd. You can’t be what you were. You can’t go back to what London was like in the early 80s. We’re going through a recession now, but the recession we had then, with the steel claw of Maggie Thatcher bashing anything that moved, was a very different environment. With revolutionary bands that were run by angst, or anger, or kicking against the so-called pricks, you can’t suddenly reinvent that. And the Virgin Prunes were not like a conventional rock’n’roll band. We were avant-garde, experimental, visual. It had as much to do with performance art as it did with rock’n’roll or punk.”
Having in effect disbanded the Prunes in 1986, Friday released his first solo album (Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves) three years later. Drawing on European influences such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, it marked a complete break from his musical past. The Lydon-influenced wailing of the Prunes days was gone, as Friday discovered his lower register. “I’m a late developer, so maybe my balls dropped later. My tone got lower – and higher – as I got older.”
Two more albums followed, before a sequence of misfortunes – the termination of his contract with Island Records (“They basically turned into the Sugababes label”), the death of his father, the break-up of his marriage, a period of depression (“I went a bit arseways in my own life, didn’t know who I was”), major back surgery (“I couldn’t fucking do anything for about a year and a half”) – conspired to place Friday’s solo recording career on indefinite hiatus.
“And then you’re in your early 40s, and you’re going: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ And everything’s changing taste-wise: in some ways for the better, in most ways for the worse. And you’re going, ‘Wow, do I even fit in here? Or do I want to fit in here?'”
Although he never stopped stock-piling new songs, Friday turned his attention to other projects. “I ended up going underground, and learning more about film scores, and getting lost in that crazy world of Hollywood.” A string of commissions followed, including an unlikely collaboration with Quincy Jones and 50 Cent on the soundtrack for Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent’s movie vehicle.
“I got on really well with them, which is a strange thing. I have a fear of grown men in short trousers. And those hip-hop guys, they all have about 10 managers and 10 assistants, all with the BlackBerrys. And they all wear these ridiculously short trousers, even in the middle of winter. We met in Canada, and I wore a three-piece suit, a cravat, my hair tied back, and earrings. If you dress well, these guys will respect you. At that first meeting, my suit did all the talking.”
And what of Jones? “Quincy was quite brilliant. My dad had just died, and he was born on the very same day, in the very same year. My father had turned into a black emperor. Hey, you motherfucking crazy Friday! Taliban Friday! That’s what he was calling me. It was like: my dad’s not dead, he’s living in Quincy Jones again.”
For the album he is now in the middle of recording, Friday made a strategic decision to go it alone. “I could have called up Antony and said: ‘Will you do a song with me?’ I will always have certain names tagged on to me, simply because of my birthright.” (Friday and Bono famously grew up on the same Dublin street.) “But I didn’t want any of the ‘famous fuck’, as I call it. I don’t want any celebrity on my album.”
Hooking up with producer Ken Thomas and his son Jolyon, Friday recorded his new songs in the Yorkshire town of Castleford. “It’s a cross between the smell of stew and cigarettes,” he says. “The people are so beautiful and so down to earth. It felt like I was in Dublin in the 80s again. It looks like you’re in a scene from that Hovis ad – like a shrine to the past – but it was just devastated in the 80s by Thatcher.”
As evidence of this new-found fondness, the album features a guest appearance from a local Salvation Army band. Their presence reminded Friday of an old situationist stunt from the Virgin Prunes days. “When we were going up to northern England, we used to loop the theme of Coronation Street and play it for 45 minutes before we went on stage. The fucking audience were banging their heads against the wall. It was actually more hardcore than white noise. But you listen to the music and it has this maudlin depression and beauty at the same time.”
Covering the “usual” themes of “life, love and death”, and said to reference both his past problems and his efforts to overcome them, Friday’s new album could be his most personal, revealing collection to date. And yet he remains an intensely private man, who maintains a wary distance from “this whole Twitter/Facebook thing. I can’t run with it seriously. When I was a kid, I never had fucking penpals. ‘Hello. It’s raining in Ireland. How are you? I’m 18.’ For fuck’s sake!”
“I like mystique,” he concludes. “Why does everyone have to show their tits, so quickly? Mystique is much nicer. I’m not McDonald’s. I’m a Chablis, or a very fine red wine.”