Prune power

The Irish Times – Saturday, October 3, 2009

He led an elite group of avant-garde chancers that included Bono and The Edge. A host of stars, including U2, will take the stage in New York to celebrate the former Virgin Prune’s 50th birthday

LYPTON VILLAGE was a little known area in Ballymun, Dublin. It only ever existed for a few years during the 1970s. Its residents included Fionan Hanvey, David Evans, Paul Hewson and Derek Rowan. You could never find it on a map because it was a virtual village – a psychological place of escape for its inhabitants. Lypton Village had its own laws: art, music and weirdness were good, everything else was bad. It had its own language and its members were christened with new names – which is why Fionan Hanvey, David Evans, Paul Hewson and Derek Rowan are better known today as the musicians Gavin Friday, The Edge and Bono and the artist Guggi.

This Sunday night the principal members of this surreal Ballymun enclave will be taking over New York’s Carnegie Hall to host a celebrity-heavy music party to mark Gavin Friday’s 50th birthday.

Apart from all four members of U2 (who are down to do individual performances on the night), the cast also includes Courtney Love, Antony Hegarty (from Antony and The Johnsons), Scarlett Johansson, Rufus Wainwright, Andrea Corr and Shane MacGowan. Billed as “An Evening With Gavin Friday and guests”, the show will also include “Special Guests” who can’t be named in advance.

It’s a typically extravagant and fantastical Lypton Village gesture.Back in Ballymun, these Villagers would think big and dream bigger. For Gavin Friday, who was banned from RTÉ for an early “art performance” by his band The Virgin Prunes on The Late Late Show , who used to get beaten up by skinheads for wearing dresses and makeup around Dublin and who was regularly bottled off stage for his outré behaviour, headlining Carnegie Hall will be a breeze – and also the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.

Asked in an interview years ago what his musical ambition was, he replied that he’d love to play the fabled venue before he was 50. Earlier this year he and Bono had arranged Guggi’s 50th birthday party (the three are all best friends). During the evening, Bono asked Gavin what he had planned for his upcoming 50th. Friday said he was going to run away and hide from the milestone anniversary, but Bono had already made plans for him: “Gavin, you’re playing Carnegie Hall for your birthday.”

While Friday may be a well-known figure in art/music circles (and he does have a considerable reputation in Europe from his Virgin Prunes days) he wouldn’t have the same commercial traction as any of the other musical guests playing on Sunday. What he represents, though, in an Irish cultural sense, is that musically he was avant-garde before there was a “garde” to be “avant” of in this country.

Initially inspired by Bowie and T.Rex, it was only when whisperings of a new movement called punk rock reached Dublin in the mid-1970s that Friday found a license to put into practice his absurdist art-shock musical performances. Dadaism and Krautrock were the aesthetic backdrops for The Virgin Prunes, a band made up of fellow Lypton Villagers including Guggi, Dave-id Busaras, Strongman, Pod, Mary D’Nellon and Haa-Lacka Binttii. Some critics used to acidly note that their names were better than their songs. Dik Evans (The Edge’s brother) was so impressed by the band’s art-punk sound that he actually left U2 to join them – probably not something he needs reminding of.

THE VIRGIN PRUNES were like nothing this country had witnessed before: they dressed as gothic transvestites, adorned the stage with rotting meat carcasses and would specialise in doing a 20-minute version of The Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” – slowing it right down so it would take one minute to get one line of the lyric out. They came across like a northside of Dublin version of Throbbing Gristle and Devo.

For Friday, The Prunes were a reaction to the banal cultural wasteland of Dublin in the 1970s. “We were like a Third World country,” he has said. “If you go back to parts of the Eastern bloc of Europe now, that’s what Dublin was like in the ’60s and ’70s. Grey, dull, mass unemployment and complete poverty. Music became a lifeline to escape for kids. Punk gave you a licence to form a band with just an attitude. I turned 16 when punk kicked in and had plenty of attitude.”

If The Prunes came into being in order to épater la bourgeoisie , they soon developed a sizeable cult following. Signed to the coolest independent record label of the time, Rough Trade, they were one of the first punk era Irish bands to build up a fanbase outside this country – with Germany and Scandinavia at the top of the list.

As they toured their avant-garde travelling roadshow around Europe – shocking and surprising at most every turn (they were banned from many a venue for various sexual and scatological stunts) – the other, and at the time lesser known Lypton Village band, U2, were perfecting a very different music and type of performance as they warmed up for global superstardom. The links between the two bands are indivisible – both bands started playing together in Dublin’s Dandelion Market under the banner “U2 Can Be A Virgin Prune”; both bands had a member of the Evans family in their ranks (The Edge and Dik) and Guggi’s younger brother, Peter Rowan, is the child featured on the cover of the U2 albums Boy and War. Despite The Prunes having the early upper hand on U2, there has never been any rivalry between them. To this day, both bands see themselves as different sides of the same Lypton Village coin.

The Prunes stuttered to a halt in the mid-1980’s and Friday has been a freelance bohemian ever since. He’s had an exhibition of his paintings, I Didn’t Come Up The Liffey In A Bubble , in Dublin’s Hendricks Gallery; curated a series of cabaret nights called Blue Jaysus at the National Stadium and, alongside Jim Sheridan and Bono, he opened the short-lived Mr Pussy’s Café De Lux in Suffolk Street.

AS A SO LO ARTIST he has released three albums – Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, Adam ‘n’ Eve and Shag Tobacco – frequent collaborators including Maurice Seezer and the novelist Patrick McCabe. With Bono, he worked on the soundtrack for the Jim Sheridan film In The Name Of The Father , starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Acting wise, he turned in a very creditable performance as the glam rock singer Billy Hatchet in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto . He has narrated a version of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf and toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He was last seen on a Dublin stage two years ago with his “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” show which was a personal tribute show about his lifelong passion for German music, art, literature and film.

As a sideline he has also been an “aesthetic midwife” on every U2 tour since The Joshua Tree . He gave Bono his “MacPhisto” character for the Zoo TV tour and says of his tour consultant role: “I look at all the things that they can’t see because they’re on stage. I’m their eyes and ears in the audience, noting down this, noting down that to improve the performance. I understand the four of them very well because I’ve known them for 30 years or more. We speak the same language and I don’t blow smoke up their ass.” He’s leaving the new U2 tour behind shortly to get back to Dublin to begin work on a new studio album – and there are also further art, theatre and literary projects in the pipeline.

This punk renaissance man now lives in Killiney, is an avid swimmer and is only seen these days on his regular Friday night city-centre drinking sessions with Bono and Guggi. The mainstream was never his friend; he is happiest on the artistic margins and along the way he has become a bit of a pop culture polymath.

It has been suggested that with his background in and knowledge of both the French chanson and the German lieder tradition, he would be an ideal, if eccentric, Irish choice for the next Eurovision Song Contest. We’ve had a turkey (in fact, quite a few turkeys) over the last few years – maybe it’s time for a Virgin Prune.

Back in the Lypton Village days, Bono and Guggi awarded him the title of “Being in charge of being in charge”. This Sunday night at the Carnegie Hall he will be just that.