Gavin Friday: ‘I don’t eat children for breakfast’ – interview

Walking around Dublin in their dresses and make-up in 1977, Gavin Friday and his pal Guggi were not so much Dressed to Kill as Dressed to Get Killed.

“But you wouldn’t have wanted to start on us,” he laughs, 25 years later. In those dark days, wearing an earring was enough to be classified as a nancy boy by the bootboys. And Gavin Friday was wearing eyeliner, full make-up, Doc Martens, and a frock his mother Anne, a dressmaker, had secretly run up for him on her sewing machine.

Friday was the heterosexual Quentin Crisp of Ballymun a Resident Alien in Dublin north. In hindsight, Gavin thinks leaving the house looking like, by his own admission, “Rasputin on acid”, probably broke his father’s heart. But his mum made his clothes …

The 17-year-old had thrilled to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops. He and Guggi both Bowie fans used his style as a launching pad for their own theatre on Dublin’s mean streets. Guggi was “quite androgynous-looking” people didn’t know whether he was a boy or a girl. The local bootboys would soon realise, however, that Guggi was “the f**ker who would bate the shite out of you in a nanosecond”, remembers Gavin.

Gavin grew up near Guggi and Bono on Cedarwood Road, Ballymun. Gavin lived in a cul de sac. Behind it was a looney bin (“in inverted commas”) for mentally disturbed adults. As kids, Gavin, Guggi et al used to sit on the wall and look at these poor unfortunates whom, with the dispassion of youth, they nicknamed the “Virgin Prunes”.

In time, Gavin and his friends formed a secret community called Lypton Village. Fionan Hanvey became Gavin Friday. Paul Hewson was Bono Vox. Derek Rowen was Guggi. The Virgin Prunes were the official band of Lypton Village (followed closely by U2).

The advent of punk in 1976 gave Gavin and Guggi the licence to form a band. Prior to that, they used to think that you almost had to “go to university to form a band”, says Gavin. “Everything was very progressive rock and ‘muso’. Punk changed all that.” Instantly reviled by the media, the Virgin Prunes played their first gig in late 1977.

Friday did his Leaving Cert when he was 16. He worked for nine months in a slaughterhouse as a purchasing and stock-control clerk for Dublin Meat Packers in Swords, Co Dublin. And make no mistake: young Gavin Friday son of Paschal, painter and decorator, and dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáil conservative was the weirdest purchasing and stock-control clerk they’d ever seen.

“I would go in with the hair, and the earrings and the eye-liner, whatever.” He got on great with the farmers. They used to ask for the young fella with the make-up and the jewellery. It helped him save money for equipment for the band. But he was sacked because of the way he dressed.

Looking back, Gavin’s career in the abattoir was a “subliminally great influence” on the Virgin Prunes. A performance off-shoot of the band, called the Pig Children, had Guggi and Gavin appearing on stage with pigs’ heads between their crotches, stripping naked and throwing offal at each other.

Some years later, the butcher boy met The Butcher Boy. Friday and Patrick McCabe, who wrote the novel, are firm friends. They collaborated on a radio play, Emerald Germs, for RTÉ, and have several projects on the go, all mischievous. “When Patrick and I go out and have a few drinks and we’re locked, we’re talking absolute shite and we’re writing radio plays and whatever takes us. Plotting. When we have a few bevvies on us, our tongues move a little faster.”

Gavin Friday married Renee in 1993. He separated from her in 2000. Last year, he began an intimate friendship with the actress Anna Friel. Their relationship ended early this year. On Friday’s website, he commented that his ex-girlfriend had “gone to Mars”.

“It was a joke,” Friday says now. “Anna is a great girl. We were very close mates. She is just very young, and dealing with success. And when you’re not dealing with it well, you go to Mars. She’s a good person, deep down. It’s hard. A couple of girls I know that are quite famous have had it tough.”

You don’t have to be a member of Mensa to realise that he is referring to his close friend Naomi Campbell. He met her for the first time in 1991. Two years later, Friday produced three songs on the supermodel’s solo album Babywoman, and wrote a song with the same title for her. (“I got slagged to f**k for even working with her that time, but people were too biased towards it,” he says. “If Kylie Minogue had done it, it would have been number one.”)

“Naomi became an icon at 17, but that’s f**king hard going,” he says. “She’s a great, great girl, a real f**king scuzzer. She eats fish and chips from her hands. She’s a very smart woman. You don’t last that long and be stupid, do you know what I mean? She’s actually great crack.”

The man who used to wear pigs’ heads as stage props had a brief encounter with Bill Clinton one night not so long ago in the Clarence Hotel (ironically, it was in the Clarencethat Friday, aged 10, gave his first public performance: at an aunt’s wedding party, he sang Dana’s All Kinds of Everything).

Anyway, he was sitting in the Clarencewith Bono and Guggi drinking pints at two in the morning and along comes Bill. Bono ordered a load of chips and sausages. Bono, Gavin and Guggi started eating with their hands. Gavin looked at the former president to see whether he would join them. “He was eating with his hands and was chatting away. We were sort of like: ‘Yeah, he’s from the Northside! There’s no bullshit here.”‘

Gavin suggested that since the night was but a pup at 2am, Northside Bill should retire to a nightclub with him, Bono and Guggi.

“Yeah, sounds good,” the erstwhile leader of the free world smiled. “What nightclub?”

“Lillies Bordello,” Gavin replied.

“Lillies Bordello?”Bill said thoughtfully. “I don’t think that would look good on the CV.”

Viewed in full perspective, Gavin Friday’s life reads like a Beat novel: hopping from continent to continent in search of the muse. He worked on an Edgar Allen Poe project with Allen Ginsberg, and helped Poetry Ireland bring the writer to Dublin in 1996.

Like a character from one of Ginsberg’s poems, Gavin Friday has survived and prospered, and met a lot of interesting people along the way (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Salman Rushdie). He met the late Quentin Crisp by accident on a rain-sodden New York street corner in 1993, and gave him a copy of one of his CDs.

“Thank you, young man,” Quentin said, explaining that he didn’t own such a thing as a CD-player. “I’ll put it on my mantelpiece.”

Meeting Gavin’s own hero, David Bowie, was something of a let-down. They argued about music. The Thin White Duke nonetheless has a great presence: “When he walked in, he looked like he had a spotlight on him.” Mick Jagger is similarly charismatic.

Gavin notes that Bowie and Jagger have two different voices: a rough cockney for meeting the public (“Oi! Geezer! Mick fawking Jagger here!”) and a private one which is refined and country squire-ish for meeting their own species (“Nice to meet you, Mr Bono. I am Mr David Bow-ie.”)

Clearly, Gavin Friday is not the kind of man you meet every day. Warm and witty, he is a complex human being far from the pretentious prat in the hat you might have been expecting.

“I’m actually quite straightforward and I think that a lot of people are actually shocked when they find that I don’t eat children forbreakfast, and spit at the fact that I am a gentleman. I’m not a punk any more. I’m quite traditional in some areas,” he continues. “I like reading. I love kids.”

He has two godchildren (Guggi and Sybilla’s son Moses, and Bono and Ali’s daughter Eve). “It’s like Star Trek: The Next Generation” with so many little versions of all his friends. As to having kids himself, Gavin isn’t sure. He realises you abandon an awful lot when you have a child and there is so much more he wants to do.

At 41, Gavin Friday seems to have found his centre. But his is a life not untouched by death. Whenhis good mate the Diceman was dying, Gavin would “babysit him, basically, because he lived near us. I had never seen a person die of Aids, but it affected me.”

The death of his friend Damon when Gavin was 16 is still a traumatic memory. He was killed in a motorbike accident. “There are a few other incidents that are quite personal, but I don’t talk about very personal things. I never have done. I’ll talk about my career.”

His last album, Shag Tobacco, in 1996, is basically all about being in love with Renee. Is it difficult to listen to now they’ve separated?

“I don’t play my own stuff that much,” he says quietly. “It’s nearly five years since that came out. But yes, it is difficult.” There is a significant pause. “It is. But if you hear Angel [one of the tracks on the album] on the radio, I think it is a very healing song. There’s nothing better than, if you’re really sad, to put on the right record and have a good cry. The older I get, I’m finding that classical music is better than rock for that. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is great for a good bawl. Crying is not a negative thing … ”

Once the Virgin Prunes gathered momentum, they were like an Irish Sex Pistols (“but more much complex”). Enemies of cant, they shocked Ireland with a controversial performance on the Late Late Show in 1979 (“The same week that the Pope was here,” remembers Gavin with particular relish).

Cut to late ’85: the Virgin Prunes split (“a slow death”). Guggi and Gavin painted for two years. It was healing to paint. I askif he painted when he broke up with his wife. He nods in the affirmative.

What sort of stuff didhe paint?

“Ice creams 99 cornets.”

Didhis first date with Renee involve a 99 cornet?

“No it was one of the greatest things as a child going down to Dollymount Strand, getting a 99.

“I painted 99 cones for all my friends,” he says. “It was coming into 1999. It was a millennium present. I wanted to make it something that just spontaneously happened.”

An innovator, Friday has contributed to many top Hollywood film soundtracks (Moulin Rouge, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and Romeo and Juliet) as well as releasing three albums with his musical partner Maurice Roycroft, aka Maurice Seezer.

It could be argued that the “Bono’s Best Friend” tag has not only overshadowed what he has done in his own career but has held him back more than it helped him. Indeed, it could be said that Bono perhaps got more out of the relationship than Friday ever did.

While Friday received endless criticism, Bono got the devil MacPhisto an obvious (in my opinion) Friday creation on the Zooropa Tour.

I ask him straight: was MacPhisto his creation? “Let’s say I put the horns on Bono’s head,” he says.

Does he think the public friendship has helped or hindered his own career? Does the Bono’s Best Friend bit annoy him?

Yes and no, he smiles. “We’re talking about someone who is the one of the most famous men in the world. So it is sort of obvious that someone who has known him 30 years and is a close friend it’s just media. It sells papers. It doesn’t really bother me.

“Bono and me?” he muses. “We are one but not the same. Sometimes we pick up the phone and people don’t know who is who. We sound like each other vocally at times when we’re tired.”

IN Boyband Ireland 2001, Friday represents that rare breed of Irish creative icon where the standards are self-regulated rather than based on a need to satisfy market demographics. Inscrutable, defensive, edgy, at first he seems reluctant to step from behind the veil. He soon warms up. He is an arthouse Brendan Behan in a dandy’s body waiting for the opportunity to tell you to jump in the Liffey. He doesn’t.

This charming man is full of memories of Eighties Ireland. It was very conservative and depressing, he says. As to whether 21st-century Ireland has changed for the better, Friday says he will make his judgement in a few years.

“Let’s see how we react when we get a kick in the balls as a country which is probably happening as we speak.” Yuppies banging on that they just can’t get parking in the city tends to make Mr Friday blow a fuse. “Then don’t bring your f**king car! Get a f**king taxi! Bum a lift! Walk! I do,” he barks, entertainingly.

In 1981, a striking fifty-something was in the middle of a pogoing throng at one of the Virgin Prunes’ concerts. Striking because, amid all the gobbing and the ripped leather, she was a vision of bizarre refinement with a feather boa and a cigarette holder. After the show, she came backstage and announced in a posh Anglo-German Marlene Dietrich drawl: “Darling, you should come out for tea.”

The following day at one o’clock, the Prunes joined Agnes Bernelle for tea at her house in Sandymount. Afterwards, Bernelle played Gavin Kurt Weill and informed him that this “was real cabaret”. It was. (Gavin and Agnes remained close friends until she died in 1999. He and Maurice performed at her funeral.)

And Gavin, along with Maurice, will soon perform the Kurt Weill songs Agnes Bernelle gave him 20 years ago at the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. Ich Liebe Dich promises to be one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Kurt Weill, Gavin says, is Freud meets punk rock.

“The majority of the songs we’ll be doing will be from the Weimar era, with the rest coming from the Broadway era,” Friday says. “It will be a sit-down-and-civilised night, with tables and chairs. I’m too old to be standing in crummy f**king pubs,” he sniffs like a tres hip Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave.

* Ich Liebe Dich runs at the Tivoli Theatre from October 8 to October 14 (no show October 10)

From: The Independent