The world according to Guggi

Sunday Independent – July 13 2003
The world according to Guggi

THE Eden-like splendour of Guggi’s garden in the Dublin suburb of Dundrum is broken by Paddy, a hulking great Irish wolfhound. I am less scared of the snakes – Lucien, Yuna and Imotep – crawling biblically about the kitchen than I am of Paddy, who I keep half-expecting to rear up on me without notice and lick me to death.

Speaking lightheartedly, after a glass of wine, Guggi, it transpires, felt similar emotions about his father Robert. He knew when it would perhaps be wise to keep his distance – like most sons with their fathers. On occasion when he or any of his brothers came in from playing on the road, the first question to whoever answered the door was: “Is Dad in a good humour?” (A common scenario in most households in Ireland.)

On the occasions when their father was in a good humour, the benefits for all were tangible, Bono included.

“Almost always the speakers were from Northern Ireland and they would frighten the children..”

“He used to repair mopeds and small motorcycles in the evening for various different shops. That basically gave him the opportunity to buy mopeds at the right price, which he did. At one point in time, he owned 26 motorcycles in the shed in the back garden. And he would often get the four oldest boys – Clive, Derek, Trevor and Andrew – and our friend Paul Hewson across the road and give us a motorbike each for the afternoon to drive up and down a road that hadn’t been opened yet to the public.

“One of the memories that comes to mind about my father,” continues Guggi, “was when I was about 13 and having to cycle to school every day. My Dad heard that I was saving for a push bike. He asked me how much I had saved and I said I had two shillings and three pence saved.”

Not long after, he took him into MacDonald’s bicycle shop on Wexford Street and bought his young son the best ten-speed racer in the shop.

“I think it was £36,” Guggi says. “A lot of money then.”

The money didn’t come easy. His dad worked hard for every penny he earned. Robert Rowan’s proud workaholic nature ensured that his 10 kids were looked after. He was the first travelling van salesman for Ever Ready batteries in this country. Trying to provide for so many kids couldn’t have been an easy job for Mr Rowan at the best of times. “Yes, he had a lot of bills to pay. It was incredibly hard and he was an incredibly hard worker,” says Guggi, “but he was always stressed out. He could change so quickly. Sure, he lost his temper. But what father didn’t?” he laughs.

“Still, I don’t think having 10 kids is a reason for being a certain way with the kids you have.”

Wanting them to get the most out of life, Robert Rowan was implacably strict with his children. They were expected to conform to his moral and religious requirements unquestioningly. They were brought up Plymouth Brethren after he converted from the Church of Ireland in 1960. He enforced a gruelling routine. (Allow me to quote Confucius here: the father who does not teach his son his duties is equally guilty with the son who neglects them.)

Derek Rowan (or Guggi as Bono would rename him in 1971) and his brothers went to church all day on a Sunday and to various children’s Christian meetings during the week.

He describes the Plymouth Brethren as very Protestant. “Other people would say it is like the Quakers. I suppose they are puritans in that sense but they would very much base their beliefs on the Bible and on the New Testament,” he says.

“There were a lot of serious Old Testament people. People from the North would come and shout really loud and talk about the fires of hell. Almost always the speakers were from Northern Ireland and they would frighten the children.

“I don’t think I’d have a faith if it wasn’t for my upbringing,” he says later. “It wasn’t a negative thing. It was hammered into us a little bit too much, I think, and I think I rebelled against that. I don’t think I ever lost my faith but certainly, up until quite recently, I didn’t go to church. It was really for the sake of the kids that I wanted to go back to church.”

When Guggi turned 17, he moved out of the house with his younger brother Trevor (aka Strongman, 15 at the time).

“My father’s say in my life was completely over at that point,” he says. Between them, Strongman and Guggi got a flat on New Cabra Road. They ran amok and effectively wrecked the place.

“We wrecked so many places that we moved into.”

“We wrecked so many places that we moved into,” he laughs. Somewhere they didn’t need to wreck, however, was a squat in Ballymun flats where the Rowan brothers lived for six months.

The address wasn’t very good, he says, but there was free heating and any amount of hot water. They knocked a door down to get in.

So did the burglars who broke into the flat one night while Guggi and his younger brother Guck (Andrew to his mum) were in the pub. They stole Guggi’s record collection and, heartbreakingly for Guggi, his tank of newts. Every possession he had in the world was gone.

“I had a little fox’s head from my childhood and lots of tiny precious things were stolen as well,” he says. To add insult to injury, his girlfriend had broken it off too. All Guggi had left in the world was his Fiat 900 van.

Not long after the theft, Reggie the Dog, a friend who is still remarkably close , had the perfect way to cheer Guggi up on his 22nd birthday. He turned up in the middle of the night and, as a surprise, wrecked the van. He sprayed on the back window ‘F*** Off!’ and ‘Happy Birthday Gugs, Love Reg’ on the frontwindow.

“That was my birthday treat!” Guggi laughs. “Reg has a great sense of humour. Bono’s very first car, we wallpapered it and broke all the lights for his birthday surprise when he was 19! We used to do this kind of stuff to each other. Another member of U2, we tried to push his car into the Liffey with him lying down in the front of the car!”

As a baby, Guggi loved to draw. His mother Winifred encouraged him right through his teenage years to keep drawing and to keep painting. “She would always look at my work. She would always admire it.”

Derek was the only child out of 10 who went to Plunkett’s Comprehensive School in Whitehall; the other nine went to Mount Temple on Malahide Road. It was singularly one of the biggest mistakes of his life, he says. He went to school with a lot of very rough kids who had a very hard childhood, he says.

“In school, I wanted to draw all the time,” he continues. “I drew all over my copybooks and I got hammered for it, but I couldn’t help it if I had a pencil in my hand. I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to do maths. I just wanted to draw things. It was this compulsive thing that goes right back to my earliest memory. And it is something that I’ve done all my life. I have my mother to thank for that.”

His father was clearly an intriguingly complex man. Guggi claims that he “wasn’t a major inspiration”, but, in my view, he certainly affected his life in a major way. Guggi reacted against him in a variety of ways.

The Virgin Prunes, Ireland’s answer to the Sex Pistols, the group he formed with Gavin Friday in 1976, was a very big reaction to his father. Growing his hair long was another reaction. His father would cut his sons’ hair in the kitchen: a bowl hairstyle was the result.

“Dad was particularly crap at cutting hair and he would leave a hideous ridge,” Guggi roars with laughter. “It was also to do with the fact that the average kid on our street had this normal haircut and so I didn’t want to be like that. I felt so trapped.”

Guggi received his last bowl haircut from his father when he was 16.

As soon as he could, Guggi grew his hair long. It has become his trademark, as distinctive as his paintings. The long hair thing, he says, probably goes back to being made, by his father, wear a suit, shirt and tie with short trousers, as a young boy. It was, in many ways, suffocating. (Again, not an uncommon story for most kids growing up in Ireland. It’s hardly Angela’s Ashes. )

“And when you close the collar, anything touching my neck would freak me out,” he recalls. As a kid, Guggi related to Indians because they were wild and untamed. The vision of the painted, naked wildman on the horse who would kill you if you looked at him represented the ultimate symbol of freedom to young Guggi.

Does the fact that his haircut as a kid resembled a bowl have anything to do with why his paintings now are primarily of bowls?

“Absolutely nothing to do with that!” he laughs. “That’s what I would say. Who knows? I was always very interested in heads and the way people looked. In my first shows at the Kerlin gallery, I was very interested in heads. I was painting a head one day and I got this incredible surface and I thought it looked more like a bowl than a face. And that’s how I came to the bowls. I don’t just paint bowls. I did a series of urns.

“Another kitchen utensil, I know!” he laughs.

GUGGI was two when the Rowan family moved from Walkinstown to a bigger house in Ballymun because his mother was pregnant with Guggi’s younger brother, Trevor.

They moved into number five Cedarwood Road. Across the road, in number 10, lived Paul Hewson; at the end ofthe road, in number 140, lived the incomparable Fionan Hanvey.

Up Fionan’s end of the street was also the mental asylum behind the wall; the three friends would play here – throwing knives at the trees in the grounds. Fionan, Paul and Derek thought the inmates of the asylum were, Guggi says, more interesting than ordinary people. Coincidentally, there is a mental asylum up the road from where Guggi lives now in Dundrum.

“I don’t like to live too far from one,” he laughs. Rowan, Hewson and Hanvey would become lifelong friends. “My dad probably would have encouraged my friendship with Bono because he was Church of Ireland. He probably would have been afraid if I hung around with a Catholic I’d lose the faith or go into a Catholic church.” Fionan, a Roman Catholic, was another story entirely. Seeing his son in a dress and make-up, Guggi’s father’s reaction was to blame his friend from up the road: “That fella Hanvey has led him astray! He’s strange!” he’d lecture, only a tadcomically.

Undeterred, Guggi and Fionan had formed the avant-garde Virgin Prunes with Strongman in 1976. They had their own unique, provocative dress sense: dresses, high-heels and bloody butchers’ aprons were that season’s must-haves.

“We went to a club the far side of Finglas West and we got a half-decent hiding. I would probably have felt safer walking down Grafton Street in my stilettos and my pencil-skirt suit. I think I still have it somewhere,” he laughs.

They created their own imaginary world, Lypton Village. In it, Derek famously gave pal Paul Hewson the name Bono – after the hearing-aid shop. In return, Hewson dubbed Derek Guggi.

“It was about finding a word that sounds like somebody looks,” Guggi explains. “I looked like a Guggi. We discussed each other’s heads in slagging contests. Gavin has a square head and Gavin is a very square-sounding word.

“My sons have never asked me why I am called Guggi,” he says when I ask him. “They wouldn’t differentiate between Guggi or George. It hasn’t struck them that it is a bit of an odd name.”

I point out that Derek is an infinitely odder name.

“I think Derek is a very strange name,” he laughs. “All of our kids have reasonably unique names. They would probably be the only one in their class with that name. I have always liked that, going right back to childhood, the idea of someone having a name where you don’t know three people called Moses or Noah,” he says.

“In the case of my children, they are names that I just love. It probably goes back to my childhood. I know the stories of these people from the Old Testament and what they did and what huge figures they were. Yet nobody calls their kids after them. They are such beautiful names, to my mind.”

Sibylle and Guggi have four amazing sons (all with long blond hair like their father – their mother always threatens to cut their hair if they’re bold, he says): Noah, 11, Eliah, 8, Caleb, 6, and baby Gideon, 21 months. (Guggi has another son, Moses, 15, by a previous relationship.) Their house is a hive of activity when I arrive.

GUGGI is playing with son Gideon. The exquisitely beautiful Sibylle is looking for a snake named Lucien that has disappeared up the sleeve of Noah’s jumper. Eliah is watching intensely with wry amusement; eyeing me with increasing suspicion.

“Eliah loves animals more than people,” says Sibylle.

Once the reptile is discovered, Guggi opens a bottle of wine, cuts some roast beef and puts slices on a plate for everyone. Little Gideon is handed to me to hold.

“Gideon’s a maniac,” says Sibylle. “He’s so spoiled because there is such an age gap between him and the other sons. His father dotes on him because he didn’t think he’d ever have another one.”

There is an unmistakably laid-back atmosphere to the house and its inhabitants. Scattered about the house there is plenty of evidence that Noah, Caleb, Gideon and Eliah have inherited their parents’ love of art. “All of my kids love to sit around and paint and draw,” he says.

As Guggi’s studio is in the grounds of their home, it means that he can spend chunks of the day “hanging out” with his children.

“He has a very close relationship with them,” says Sibylle. “The hero of all those kids is their daddy.”

He has no small admiration for his wife either. Sibylle, in many ways, saved Guggi from himself, he says, “because I probably never knew about relationships in the way that I needed to know.”

He says he is not criticising his father. It is simply that the kind of relationship that he needed, “I didn’t learn at home.” (They say that by the time a man realises that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong. Maybe Guggi will come to this realisation one day.)

Sibylle bore with him for so long and for so much, he remembers. “She really helped me to get my head together and was very unjudgemental. I would have been incredibly judgemental – never when it came to my mates but always when it came to my woman, for whatever reason. That was a side that I really didn’t know anything about. I would have been hard.”

Why were you hard?

“Because it was what I learnt. It was the only thing I knew. That’s what I saw in my upbringing, I guess.”

Your father possibly had a problem showing love?

“Showing love in maybe the way that it is right to show,” he says. “Maybe he was right, but what was right for him was not right for me and what I needed to know I never found. I was too far gone to find it without some serious help.”

It didn’t happen overnight. Sibylle was very understanding with Guggi – “in the way that I could never have been understanding of a woman,” he says. He admits that he had lots of chips on his shoulder and that equally there were lots of emotional areas he simply didn’t know anything about. “And to have the type of wonderful, happy relationship that I have now,” he says, “I needed to know.”

Daughter of a world-famous German architect, Professor OM Ungers, Sibylle was his salvation. “She saved me,” he says. “There is no doubt about that.” It was a time of epiphanic enlightenment, a rebirth or baptism into a new way of thinking for the previously distant-with-women Guggi. Being with Sibylle, he gradually found a new aesthetic in which love and shared emotions were the guiding central principles.

Without her patience and her understanding and her intelligence – “and all these incredible qualities that Sibylle has” – he would have been a disaster, he says. “She is a great woman and a huge influence,” he continues. “She is a very talented painter. She did want children but she has still sacrificed a lot for the children. They are also my children; so therefore she has sacrificed a lot for me. She said: ‘I can attempt to be a great painter or I can attempt to be a great mother but I have no chance of doing both.’ She has always kept her hand in and has always worked on paper and we were looking for a suitable studio. She really wants to paint.”

“He has changed an awful lot since I met him,” says Sibylle. “He’s become gentler. He’s become much more mature. He’s really grown up. I sometimes think I met a boy and I now have a man. Maybe lots of kids do that to you. He’s mellowed. I think I settled him a little bit and focused him.”

Sibylle thinks that perhaps she showed him that it was possible for a man and a woman to be friends. She adds that the fact that their relationship started as a friendship made it a lot easier. He made her laugh a lot. “We are quite complementary like that,” she says. “I’d be more serious. So maybe we took on a little bit of each other’s values.”

Perhaps you helped rebuild Guggi emotionally.

“I tried very hard to do that. You see, I had an incredibly stable childhood,” she says.

“Gugs will often say I’m the sanest person he’s ever met. Because Guggi and I became a unit he was able to maybe leave his father – as much as he loves him – behind him a little bit. Not to forget, but to look beyond his father, to put that time behind him, and heal himself to an extent, because he did, in my opinion, have a hard childhood.”

Guggi and Sibylle will be married 11 years on the last day of July. In 1988, after he left the Virgin Prunes, Guggi rented a tiny studio in the City Arts Centre. There was a young German painter from Cologne in the other, much bigger room. She had a kettle and would offer Guggi the odd cup of tea. In the main, he kept his distance.

“I really didn’t like her when I met her,” he says now. “I thought she was a spoiled, stuck-up little bitch. She was quite cocky. She says now she really didn’t like me. She thought I was an obnoxious little git.”

“I thought there was something creepy about him at first,” Sibylle says. “I thought he was a pain in the ass. I was quite well known at the time and maybe I did have anattitude.”

Things moved forward at a snail’s pace. He worked in a room with a very low ceiling while she had a particularly high ceiling. He was labouring away on the biggest painting that he had done to date. However, to get to the top of the painting he would have to stand on the top of a chair and lower his head.

Seeing this, Sibylle suggested he finish the painting in her room. “I don’t think I ever worked in my room again after that,” he says. He says he wasn’t the romantic type. He never bought her flowers or a box of chocolates. A bowl of soup would have been the most she would have got out of him. “And, in fact, she would have paid for most of the lunches because she was loaded and I was broke.”

For the first year of their relationship, they were only friends. “There was no girl-boy thing at all,” she says. “I think you really get to know each other differently than if you see somebody, fancy them and try to put your best foot forward. It is a very different way to start a relationship,” she says. “I always thought he was my best girlfriend. I really did. I could talk to him about anything. He was so different than anybody I’d met before.”

Guggi was not so unconventional when he came to actually asking Sibylle to marry him. Her recollection of this occasion was that Guggi, the iconoclast outsider, still went “down on one knee”.

“He wooed me by making me laugh all the time. He would make up names for me. He would call me Bridget a lot. Still does. He’d be on for doing something mad.”

Like what?

“One time we were out and we’d had a few drinks and he threw me into a skip off Grafton Street at one in the morning. It was full of mud. I would never have forgiven him except that he jumped in also on top of me. He called it Love In The Mud.”

Guggi has an inspiring honesty about life. He says he remembers as an 11-year-old kid watching the Down Syndrome children on the 19a bus on the way home from school and being in thrall. “They were always trying to get off with each other,” he says. “They were interested sexually in what was going on. I sometimes think that more than they are related to their families, they are related to each other because they all have this incredible similarity, and it looks like a genetic thing,” he says.

“There is a verse in the Bible that says: ‘We will meet angels and we won’t know them.’ And they often look like they are from the same family. They are incredibly special people in that – from the little bit I know and the few that I have known. They never judge you. They are so forgiving and so full of love. I think they are incredible people.”

Guggi brings his own children to the Baptist Church in Grosvenor Road in Rathmines. (They go on most Sunday mornings. He says he doesn’t force his children to attend.) “They know I want them to come and they honour that and they are happy to go.”)

Guggi dreamt about being a painter as a young child. He was seven when his teacher told him one day in school: “That’s not possible. If you really get your act together you might be able to be a commercial artist but you can’t really be a painter in that sense.”

The words went in one ear and out the other. Just as well. The 43-year-old Guggi has been, for some time, one of the most revered Irish artists around the world. He is very serious about his work.

He has sold a lot of work to private collections around the world. He refuses to give names.

He is also refreshingly un-public-relations about not naming the top London gallery that is coming to visit his studio about an exhibition next week.

“I really didn’t expect much,” he says of the time he started painting, “and yet, in another way, I really did believe in my gift. I really did think that the one thing that I have special is my ability to paint. I always believed in that and I always believed that I could have been a great painter even if nobody ever saw my work.”

Perhaps the greatest art of the man formerly known as Derek Rowan is his marriage to Sibylle and their children. In any event, Guggi’s metamorphosis as a man is almost complete.

Barry Egan