A requiem for fallen heroes

Gavin Friday’s album Catholic pays tribute to those killed between 1916 and 1922 who might have built a better nation, says Alan O’Riordan

GAVIN Friday is online buying a gold coin issued by the Central Bank to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Michael Collins’s death. “They’re a memento,” he says. “Part of history.”

Friday is a collector — “you’d get a fright walking into my house” — but he has been enamoured of the image of Collins for some time. By dying young, the ‘Big Fella’ became a symbol of lost potential, the free Ireland that might have been, rather than the dull, timid and religious backwater it became. Collins became a blank slate for generations of artists and politicians: those who demonised him; those who, like Fine Gael ministers at Béal na Blá commemorations, present him as a thwarted moderniser; and those, like Neil Jordan, who portray him as a flawless hero.

For Friday, a professional chameleon for decades, the allure of Collins is obvious. The album Friday is touring, Catholic, takes its cover from John Lavery’s portrait of Collins lying in state. Love of Ireland is its biting, satirical title. The implication is “this is what it will get you”.

Yet Friday’s choice of cover was serendipitous. “I was at Passion and Politics, an exhibition of John Lavery’s work at the Hugh Lane Gallery . . . I turned around and saw this remarkable picture of Collins, and went ‘Jesus. That’s it’. This was the same day the IMF were in town [in 2010].”

For Friday, Lavery’s portrait chimed with the album’s themes of love and loss. It was also the political culture of his own background, which he had rejected as a young man. “The Proclamation was the first thing you’d see when you came into my house. My dad was a serious republican, and my real name — Fionán — and brothers’ names were all as Gaeilge. As a kid, you reject all that, especially growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, when it was all negative in the North.”

Friday says age brings perspective. “That period from 1916 to our independence, it’s a very important and tragic time. A lot of the great people, with great brains, were killed by the British or ourselves. We would have been a very different country if that intelligentsia of great men hadn’t gone.” The cover of Catholic, then, is Friday “tipping my hat to them, the Collinses, the Pearses and the Connollys, Roger Casement, another genius, who was almost like Oscar Wilde. What he could have added to the country was phenomenal.”

There’s little Wildean about Collins, the archetypal man of action, but for Friday, his passion for his country shines through, “even when you see something as simple as a Hollywood movie”. It’s a love that Friday had forgotten during the boom, but, ironically, hard times have “reinstated my love of what was great about Ireland and still is. When the thing went bang, it brought home that I really didn’t enjoy the Celtic Tiger years.”

Back on the road, Friday says it “felt like the Virgin Prunes again, nothing but recession anywhere.” There, the similarities with the 1970s end. Catholic is Friday’s first album in 15 years, and while he was honing his skills as a soundtrack composer, the music industry was falling apart. “I was dropped by Island Records in 1998, the same week as Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful and Tricky. The next week, they signed the Sugababes, so I don’t feel too bad. The spirit of Simon Cowell is still suffocating everything. The way it is now, everything is castrated and categorised.

“The industry has changed hugely. I don’t know what it is anymore. The technology is incredible, but it’s like a vampire out of control. You can make music much cheaper now, but musicians aren’t getting paid. It’s almost like what it was like in the industrial revolution. What the fuck is happening? Old trades are dying, new ones coming in. It’s extraordinary, but very scary. I guess I’m rolling with the changes and sticking to me guns,” he says. After an acclaimed gig last year, Friday returns to the main stage of the Electric Picnic at the end of the month, on the same night as Sigur Ros — the two acts share a producer in Ken Thomas. “I was nervy of that, when first offered it,” says Friday. “But I think there is an ambience about them that’s like the feeling on Catholic — cinematic and dream-like. It’s a good coincidence.”

Friday’s show won’t inspire lighters-in-the-air moments. “I’m a big, old school performer,” he says. “I want to drag the audience in, smack them on the head and then give them a big kiss. I don’t like that putting up your cellphones and have a karaoke match, like 99% of festivals have turned into. And the worst thing is a lot of bands are going along with that, changing their songs to fit that karaoke thing. There’s something gone wrong there.

“I was a full-on teenager with the Prunes, torturing audiences. I’m not doing that anymore, but I do want something meaty and pleasurable in a performance. It’s all getting too light. You can’t have white without black, happy without sad. One of the beauties of music is that someone can express anything in it. As a kid that’s a lifeline, finding that, discovering ‘I’m not the only out there feeling this’. That is one of the true, brilliant things music does. It’s not karaoke. That’s grand if you’re pissed at a wedding. We seem to be swamped by all this pop, and all this ‘how do we get a new handbag?’ and ‘is Victoria Beckham coming?’.”

* Gavin Friday plays the Electric Picnic on Aug 31. See: www.electricpicnic.ie


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