Gavin and Me by Pat McCabe

Pat McCabe

If, as has been suggested in other quarters, Dublin in 1980 was a city the colour of claret with red-brick Georgian mansions boasting fine doors, fanlights and little iron balconies standing back from the road in well-bred reticence, then I’m afraid as a recently arrived resident from the midlands town of Longford I didn’t see much sign of it.

In fact, if anything, it looked like Dodge City after the Hole-In-The-Wall gang had shot it up, or maybe Atlanta in the aftermath of the fire – with its own share of smooth-talking sharp-suited amoralists, our very own homegrown carpetbaggers, who were already in the process of slyly rezoning enormous swathes of it, these smug wolves, these ballad-singing ‘common-touch’ men of the people.

About whom enough already – we know where they led us, and we also know where we followed them, with our faces stuffed with burgers and ice cream and with not so much as a moral backbone to be found about the place, no more than you’d be likely to locate between the head and the tail of a pantechnicon-flattened iguana.

The first time I saw Gavin he was standing outside Burgerland on O’Connell Street – that blazing emporium where Radio Nova (“Broadcasting in the Bay Area”, no less) chewed incessantly on its Wrigley’s, snapping its fingers, urging everybody to say goodbye to Paddy, his wellingtons and the bog.

As I made my way past yet another new outlet, Baskin-Robbins’s ice-cream parlour (150 flavours!), along the Avenue of the Three Adulterers, as the main thoroughfare was christened by James Joyce’s father, I remember I was carrying a teacher’s briefcase and, at 25, with the burden of responsibility for which I was ill-prepared and to which I was ill-suited, was already feeling superfluous – superannuated. “All the hippies are dead,” a friend had only recently said to me, “our time is over.”

Gavin’s hands were nearly as big as his hair, I noticed, and he tended to wave them about, gesturing effusively.

As I passed him by, I couldn’t help overhearing him discussing the Beatles’ Taxman. He was comparing it to a current release by Paul Weller and The Jam. Which I thought was impressive – his knowing about it, I mean – for he seemed to me much younger than I was. Five years can mean a lot at that age – as I say, I was 25.

I spotted him about here and there after that – I had seen his band the Virgin Prunes a couple of times. Back in those abortion-obsessed days of the Eighties when Ireland seemed to have little to do but argue itself blue in the face about ectopic pregnancies as its infrastructure fell to bits around it.

An image returns, hysterically burlesque and simultaneously heartbreaking in its maddening innocence. As a punter whistles while upending a hopelessly buckled telephone-kiosk door, clambering in under it as if it were then most natural thing in the world, with sophisticated insouciance proceeding to make his call. Before crawling back out again like a squirrel and taking time to dust down his suit.

But there were good things too – Jim and Peter Sheridan’s Dark Space at the Project theatre – where U2 and the Prunes had played. Gavin’s screeching of The Walls of Jericho was good, as were the stage antics, much of which he’d learned from immersing himself in the performance art of Agnes Bernelle and Nigel Rolfe in the Project.

I didn’t see him for a long time after that – in the Nineties when I was living in London, in fact when he was recording In the Name of the Father.

We started to spend some time together – a lot of time, actually. That he liked disco music I was pleasantly surprised to hear – and his Behanesque combination of sensitivity and pugnaciousness was something to which I found I willingly responded – in the same way as I would, later on, to Shane MacGowan’s Pogues – delighting in their appropriation of the builder’s labourer’s dark Sunday suit as a garb of defiance.

I met a lot of his friends – and it was refreshing to observer that, no matter what the company, his views and attitude were rarely seen to change.

I approached himself and Maurice Seezer, his collaborator, about creating a tone-poem series for RTE. It was a blast. Based on my book Emerald Germs of Ireland, a quirky parody of old-time Irish music books which was a total and utter critical and commercial failure -we delivered what, I think, was an extraordinary work, a 10-part radio series, produced by the great Anne Walsh, and repeated three times by RTE at the time.

We used to like eating in the Alpha Café off Grafton Street – for ‘Mammy’ food as Gavin likes to call it. We wandered all around Dublin acting the maggot. One night I heard him experimenting with a riff, practically talking in tongues, and began to understand the instinctive source of his art. Irish folk and traditional were now entering the mix, with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill attracting his attention.

"like Laurence Harvey in space"

I wrote some words too for his album Shag Tobacco, which I thought great then and think even better now. On it he looks like Laurence Harvey in space, louchely and mischievously smoking cigarettes.

It’s a defiant and humorous album, full of love and not yet middle-aged zest. catholic is different. Mature is not a word I like, and I certainly wouldn’t want to wish maturity on this artist.

But I suppose in the Eighties our parents were alive. The fight seemed worth it, there was someone to blame – and in Ireland the Catholic church has always been an easy target. The problem is even Irish atheists tend to betray small hints of their Catholicism. Ah for Jesus’s sake, how could God exist? It’s not the same in the UK. “What are you all fighting about over there?” the Cockney taximan routinely says – or used to.

For Friday it was a war between restraint and excess – Rococo in the ring belting it out with Protestant continence. Growing up on the border, I have always been intrigued by this particular set of tensions. It is no accident that Guggi and Bono, fellow musicians and long-time associates, are both non-Catholics.

But I never disowned my DNA – Catholic, Irish, Gaelic, call it what you will. And neither did Friday.

We were as Irish as anybody except we didn’t play Gaelic football and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of saying it either. Aside from this anyway, its cultural wealth was there at our disposal and we wanted it.

With the result that anyone expecting all the usual Pavlovian responses to Irish Catholicism will be deeply disappointed with this newly compiled work over which there hangs the evocative fragrance of incense swirling throughout the ages. If we could mix up the epochs and recruit James Joyce and John McCormack for a session, I’d have O’Riada call up the Pope – then we could perform this opera in the Sistine Chapel. I don’t know what to say about catholic.

If Shag Tobacco wasn’t 100 per cent a masterpiece, it might have been because Gavin was too young to surrender. This time that tendency has come full circle and the ghosts of James Joyce’s short story Grace, these lay theologians who are so much a part of this Dubliner’s inheritance, have become more defined. Debating ethics and the secrets of consciousness, through yellow-brick streets carrying leather-bound missals and copies of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, emerging like blinking hermits out of the shadows of history, as they part the curtain of a grey Liffeyside fog. Forming a small hunted knot of the devout, swinging a censer by the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery.

“Catholic,” they croak, wreathed in sin and shame and glory, redolent of blood, elevation and suffering.

catholic. With a small ‘c’. Reverently, on its knees, this new album has released an inner Monteverdi, and along with it a tidal wave of emotional complexity.


About Pat McCabe

The author Patrick McCabe was born in 1955 in Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland. He is the author of several novels including The Butcher Boy (1992), which won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction; The Dead School (1995), and Breakfast on Pluto (1998), the disturbing tale of a transvestite prostitute who becomes involved with Republican terrorists. The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto (which McCabe dedicated to Gavin Friday) were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and made into films by director Neil Jordan. His latest novels are The Holy City (2008) and The Stray Sod Country (2010).

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