Gavin Friday: 20th-Century Vaudeville Man

As a longtime bosom buddy of U2’s and as the driving force behind Ireland’s Virgin Prunes, Gavin Friday has long been known by the company he keeps. But beginning with Adam ‘N’ Eve (Island), his 1992 solo debut, and continuing with Shag Tobacco, his brand-new follow-up, he has begun to emerge as a formidable performer in his own right, one intent on reconnecting pop music to its long-neglected past, even if he has to singlehandedly lead the postmodern vaudeville revival he believes the world needs in order to draw new nourishment from old roots.

“For me, albums are like little movies or books,” Friday explains. “They bring people into a world. And in that world there’s the possibility of many different characters. Those characters could be raving transvestites hanging out in New York, as in the song ‘Dolls,’ or they could be the demented, lonely, suburban housewife in ‘Kitchen Sink Drama.’ Onstage, I even become those characters, surreally if not literally. And although I dread the words ‘concept’ and ‘concept albums’–I think we left them behind in the ’70s with Pink Floyd–I do like to create a world when I make a record.”

The world of Shag Tobacco begins not with a bang but with a whisper, an unhinged voice-over not unlike the one in Madonna’s “Justify My Love.” It turns out to belong to the title cut’s erotically neurotic narrator, a white-collar man who numbers among his “ordinary addictions” working long hours at the office and imbuing routine behavior, like drinking coffee and watching his wife undress, with the excitement of intrigue.

The plot thickens with the introduction in the second song, of a disenchanted time traveler who hears in the scratchy, eighty-year-old recordings of Enrico Caruso the sound of rushing waters that might yet irrigate the desert that late-twentieth-century culture has become. It’s a character with whom Friday turns out to have a lot in common.

“When I was eighteen or nineteen, I was in a second-hand record shop, and I picked up a Caruso album and realized, ‘My Uncle Paddy used to play this!’ He used to play me Caruso and John McCormack when I was ten. So with the song ‘Caruso’ on the new album that’s all coming back.”

What also comes through on “Caruso” is Friday’s conviction that, in its ignorance of music before Lollapalooza, today’s teenage wastelanders are missing out on more than mere history.

“I can’t believe how much young people are starved,” he observes. “It’s crazy. Like, when I play live, I have a big picture of Caruso onstage, and I talk to them about him. I say, ‘Open your eyes! He was the first real pop star of the twentieth century. There were Kurt Cobains and David Bowies before Kurt Cobain and David Bowie. This guy Caruso was a motherfucker.’ Then I tell them the story of his being caught with a sixteen-year-old in a monkeyhouse in Rome.”

Friday can’t help laughing at the memory. “Basically, I just turn him into a rock ‘n’ roll icon. And I get kids screaming, ‘Enrico!’ I’m a bit of a traditionalist, you know?”

For a traditionalist, though, Friday can be pretty untraditional. Take, for instance, Shag Tobacco’s music. Despite the cabaret ghosts that haunt most every track, the melodies and instrumentation are recognizably pop, with songs like “Little Black Dress” and “You, Me, And World War Three” boasting sleeker hooks and singing than were dreamt of in Jacques Brel’s philosophy.

On the other hand, for a traditionalist Friday can also be pretty traditional. “I’m sick of fucking grunge, to tell the truth. There’s a lack of melody and chord changes and lyrics in the music. Actually, it was around six or seven years ago that I got completely bored with what contemporary music was offering and decided that something must have happened before the ’50s. And a lot did, everything from the European music of Brel and Kurt Weill to American jazz.

“Shag Tobacco gave me the chance to look back, and not just to the ’60s and ’70s. I started by looking back to the 1910s, sampling Caruso. Then I dabbled in the vaudevillian, cabaret experiences of the Germany and Europe of the ’20s and ’30s, in the chansons of the ’40s and ’50s, in ’60s cinematic influences, and in punk influences. We’re hopping across the twentieth century.”

By “we,” incidentally, Friday means himself, the multi-instrumentalists Maurice Seezer and Renaud Pion, the bassist Erik Sanko, and Tim Simeonon, the album’s producer. As for what Friday means by “cabaret experiences,” no song captures that better than “Mr. Pussy,” a tribute to a real-life, sixty-year-old female impersonator featuring a cameo by the female impersonator himself.

“When I was about twelve,” Friday remembers, “my mom used to go out with her friends to this cabaret pub. I’d say, ‘Where are you going?’ And she’d say, ‘I’m going to see Mr. Pussy.’ I had no idea what his name meant then. I thought, ‘What is he, an impersonator of cats?,’ But I met him about four years ago, and he would tell me stories of when he first came to Ireland in the ’70s. I thought, ‘Jesus! How subversive this man must’ve been!’

“Imagine your grandmother on acid,” Friday laughs. “That’s what he’s like–ever so prim and proper, but pretty out there, too. Then, since he’s from London, I asked him what he did before he came to Ireland, and he told me stories of working with Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland and of hanging out with Johnny Ray. He’s not like a transvestite or a RuPaul. He’s far more English and old school, something that’s gone, really. Real vaudeville. He cried when I played him the song.”

Female impersonators, raving transvestites, demented housewives, Caruso as “motherfucker”–one might be forgiven for hearing Shag Tobacco as a comment on decadence. Friday himself, however, bristles at the word.

“It’s a very dangerous word. I’ll tell you who I think is decadent: Gloria Estefan. She’s singing happy songs in a hell hole called Miami. I think Baywatch is extremely decadent. Oprah Winfrey–‘Let’s talk about a woman who married a man who loves cucumbers’–all that shit. Michael Jackson’s decadent. All these fun-loving, Frankenstein-nightmare-vampire people. I don’t think I’m decadent at all.”

Neither, apparently, do the clubs in major American cities that’ve signed up to host Friday’s ’96 tour, a tour that, if one can trust the responses of the European audiences who’ve already experienced it, may turn hopping across the twentieth century into a bonafide underground craze.