Strange delight of raw songs full of magic and loss
1. Gavin Friday
Bob Dylan once said: "Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean, sometimes you have to know what things don't mean."
Gavin Friday, as he stares into the abyss with this record, knows precisely what Bob was getting at. It's 16 years since Gavin Friday last released a record. What went through his head in that time, as his father died, his marriage broke up, his record company terminated his contact and people dubbed him Bono's VBF, is worth considering.
But Catholic was worth the wait. The post-punk maverick and dreamer of sonic ideas this way came last summer with a raw album full of magic and loss -- the loss of his father and his youth, the magic of memory and great times past and to come.
Catholic is a confrontational, nigh-unsettling tour de force. You can tell as soon as you see the CD cover that it won't be anything but unsettling. Perry Ogden photographed the cover, inspired by the John Lavery painting Love of Ireland, of Michael Collins laid in state, which Gavin has creepily reinvented as Collins on deathbed.
The slick booklet that comes with the album features an essay from Gavin's friend, the novelist Patrick McCabe. In Requiem For The Fallen, McCabe writes: "Both now, in tandem, intoning 'mea culpa', in sympathy with the fallen, on broken knees, crouched against the epochal sky -- in the easeful silence it resting upon their tongues, nit like a wound a wound but a lilywhite wafer, lightly bearing upon it that single most colossal word of all: Ave."
Produced by Ken Thomas and recorded in Dublin, Cork and West Yorkshire, Catholic owes as much to heyday, screwed-up, coked-up David Bowie as he does to Jacque Brel. The giant picture in the centre of the booklet of Gavin holding a dog that is rearing up is Bowie's Diamond Dogs with Gavin's stamp all over it.
Gavin's voice, like his songs, is brittle, ghostly, powerful and other-worldly in a way that Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen or Antony Hegarty sing; they are not great singers as such but they convey great emotions and ideas in their songs.
"Don't tell me you love," he sings on Able, "I can feel your rage/Green eyes burning fatal, like a cat in a cage/ You lie like a baby/ licking your wound/ The silence is deadly and our love is doomed."
Elsewhere, on tracks such as It's All Ahead Of You and Lord I'm Comin', the hair on the back of your neck is tingling with a strange, out-of-kilter delight. That is the essence of Gavin Friday. He is a strange, out-of-kilter delight. He is an acquired taste, not everyone's cup of tea. But there is not another artist like him in Ireland. (Possibly he would sell more records if that was less the case but that doesn't take away from the arch neo-Bowie/Brel brilliance of Catholic.)
I often bump into him around the place, and around the world. He is a decent head, not a diva; a chatter with a good heart. When I missed my plane and arrived in Turin in August 2010 five minutes before U2 went on stage -- with a 1,700-word review to write for the next morning -- Gavin gave me an hour of his time to give me quotes about Bono's stagecraft.
You wonder, with good reason, how much of Bono's arthouse imagination on stage is his mate Gavin. Not that it matters now. They are both their own people. With his shaved head, black coat and boots, Gavin looks like someone whom you wouldn't approach easily in the street.
He's actually a pussycat in Docs. And a gentleman pussycat with it. When his former band, the ferociously anti-establishment The Virgin Prunes, (they were regularly banned from the Late Late Show in their day) supported The Fall in Manchester in 1985, Gavin stayed at the drummer's parents' house after the gig. "Gavin sent my mum flowers," remembered Paul Hanley.