by Bill Holdship
Six IRA bombs went off in Belfast the day of Rory Gallagher's second sold-out show at Ulster Hall, including one in the middle of the city's main shopping center. Add to this the numerous bomb threats and explosive dismantled beneath the car of a newly-appointed Irish high court judge, and you realize that- although it's truly a beautiful country- Ireland isn't exactly the safest place to visit these days.
The morning newspapers greet you with the heading: "MURDER-If you know anything about terrorist activities, murders. threats or explosives, please speak now to the Belfast Confidential Telephone, " and the stories of how "children in Northern Ireland ghettos have ben adversely affected by the violence they grew up with, becoming less friendly and more aggressive to each other." There are security posts throughout the city where citizens are frisked and searched ( the same takes place at the airport, and no part is left untouched), not to mention the helicopters overhead and numerous military trucks patrolling the city with machine guns protruding from the back.
If this isn't enough for one country to endure, Ireland is currently in a state of economic collapse with as much as 40 percent unemployment. There is a heroin epidemic (plus the crime that goes with it) as well, with more registered addicts in Dublin than in the whole of New York City. And although the Irish are some of the kindest and most compassionate people I've ever met, I'm informed that the British view them in much the same way that Americans might tell Polish jokes or ridicule Canadians. It's all extremely sad.
Also sad for Irish youth is that following the Christmas season IRA bombing of Harrods, a London department store where six people were killed, most rock bands have refused to tour Ireland. An occasional band might pass through, but they play only the major cities ( the Clash were scheduled to play both Belfast and Dublin when I was there), totally missing the rural areas. As a result, Irish kids are starved for rock n' roll.
This was Rory Gallagher's first Irish tour in four years. His Christmas tours were once an annual Irish event ('73-'74's one resulted in both a live album and a documentary film by Tony Palmer), but recording schedules and other tours have interfered over the last several years. Rory returned in '84, providing a valuable service by playing those rural areas ( I saw him do one show in a room that resembled an American wedding reception hall) as well as the major venues. Just how much of a service can't be fully appreciated until you hear the story of how, following a New Year's Eve concert in Galway, there was a black-out in the band's hotel, and everyone was certain that it was going to be an assassination attempt on Irish President Patrick Hillery, who was hosting a ball in the same hotel. ( it turned out to be a power failure,) Or how everyone's heart seemed to momentarily stop, mine included- when three men came out of the woods pointing double -barrel shotguns, shortly after the band drove across the Southern Irish border. (They turned out to be hunters)
As Phil McDonnell, Rory's very likable road manager, told me : "There's an Irish saying that goes " First there was Jesus Christ, and then there was Rory Gallagher." He's a national hero here because he's out there playing for the farmers and people who don't normally get to here live rock music." So it's little wonder that Rory has often been dubbed " the people's guitarist", playing up to three hours night after night (never the same show twice- which totally befuddled the cue-minded BBC crew filming the Belfast concerts for a a TV special) in his lumberjack shirt, faded jeans and battered '61 Stratoccaster, his primary guitar since 1963.
Not only that, but Rory never distances himself from his fans. There's no " superstar" garbage backstage, and it takes someone approaching him in a bar for an autograph or a custom official recognizing him at the border to remember that he is a rock star. A nice guy himself, he surrounds himself with only the nicest. How nice? Following an alcohol induced brawl at a concert in Sligo, one victim discovered he was missing a contact lens. Rory's brother-manager, Donal, was immediately out in the lobby with a flashlight helping the kid look for his lens. I mean can you imagine Colonel Tom Parker, Peter Grant, Jake Riviera, etc. on their hands and knees looking for a fans lost contact lens? Like I said, nice-very nice.
Still, Rory doesn't see what he's doing in Ireland as any kind of "service."
" The press about
going on over here has frightened people, " he explains,
"and I suppose if I was English or American, I'd think twice about coming here. The sad fact is that there are new rock fans fans growing up, and they need to hear live stuff. So I suppose you could call it a service in a very small way, but I feel it's the least you could do if you grew up playing in theses areas and you have a sort of following here. You can't ostracize them all of a sudden because of this or that."
Rory first gained fame in Ireland at the age of 17 when he formed the blues-based trio Taste in 1965. He has spent time at Marquee in London, watching acts like the Yardbirds and the Spencer Davis Group, and when he took Taste to London in 1969, they became along with Cream- one of the pioneer power blues trios. Taste toured America with Blind Faith in 1970, before disbanding the following year. He soon formed his own band with bassist Gerry McAvoy, who's presently still at his side, and today, with Clapton transformed into J.J Cale, Beck off into his jazz tangents and Page in semi retirement- Rory Gallagher is probably the last of the great British blues guitarists still going strong.
No less a blues critic than Ed Ward has called him one of the the best: a traditionalist at heart, Gallagher cites as primary influences Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells ( R.G'.s a great harpist as well), John Hammond, Hubert Sumlin, Rudy Johnson (the latter two guitarists with Howlin' Wolf), Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Link Wray. They should build a statue to that man-you can hear the roots of the Who and the Kinks in all his early recordings"), Chuck Berry, Elvis ("Even when he was terrible, he was still the greatest") and Lonnie Mack.
He's a walking encyclopedia of rock n' roll (not to mention an expert film buff) and, with his time and experience in the " business, " could fill a book with hilarious personal anecdotes about people like Ginger Baker, Janis Joplin, Roxy Music, T-Rex, Captain Beefheart ("a psychedelic Howlin' Wolf ), David Crosby & the Byrds, Elvis P ( brother Donal has a strong theory the the King was actually assassinated) and Bob Dylan. ( Regarding the latter, he says he'd love to see Zimmy record Highway 61 for the 80's and let him recreate the Michael Bloomfield role). He was on of the top contenders to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. He's recorded sessions with Muddy Waters ( "That was the Holy Grail"), Lonnie Donegan ( the skiffle star who was a major influence on the early British Invasion) and Jerry Lee Lewis ( he taught the Killer the words and music to " Satisfaction" and the unreleased track is hiding in a record company vault somewhere ). And just so you don't think he's some old fogey, it should be noted that amid his tapes of James Brown, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Stones, Johnny Paycheck(?!) and Chuck Berry, he found time to also play Big Country and Elvis Costello, the latter who he lists as the contemporary artist he most admires. He can discuss the Clash or " new music " with the best of them.
In fact, part of Rory's Irish audience wear punk haircuts and wear Clash T-shirts, but most of those chanting "RO-RY" ( reminiscent of those chanting "BROOCE" in America) are your typical heavy metal army in spiked wristbands, leather or denim and the archetypal devil/demon T-shirts. Rory- who resembles a softer Richie Blackmore or harder Jimmy Page onstage- works those kids into a frenzy: I never really understood the term " headbanging" until I saw this crew. It looks like they're about to whip their heads out of their sockets, They play air guitars, they dance manically together in what resembles some tribal ritual of male bonding, and even lie on the floor, rolling and convulsing. Actually, the Rory Gallagher concerts I saw reminded me of the melodic, blues-based "heavy metal" I liked when I was younger, and it gave me a new respect and appreciation for hard rock again- although Rory is one of the few ( ZZ Top also immediately come to mind) playing the real stuff.
" Well, that's a very tender spot with me, " says Rory. " I'm terrified of becoming a heavy metal act. I don't ever want to be that. By the same token, I don't mind HM fans coming to our shows because I'd rather listen to metal than disco or pop. At least there's some connection with the organic nut case element of rock n' roll. I suppose that between Hendrix, Cream, Mountain, Vanilla Fudge and the Yardbirds- they sort of set rock on the road to heavy metal, but I thinks it's nice if it stops somewhere around ultra hard rock. It wasn't leather and chains, all that sort of uniform of heavy metal, which all sounds the same to me. I still regard myself as a blues player - rock n' roll cum R&Bish. It just so happens that - even going back to Taste- we've always rocked hard on the rock numbers. I'd rather be known as an R&B player, but if you play with a lot of drive and grit, it's very hard not to attract some heavy metal fans. I'm sure that Eddie Cochran or Chuck Berry wouldn't have kicked them out of the hall because they liked metal."
What makes Rory unique
as a guitarist is not only his knowledge of the blues and the fact that
he's one of the greatest slide players alive, but that he also refrains
" excess is best" garbage that most of today's soloists love to play. He creates incredible sounds with no special effects except for feedback.
"The trouble with a lot of rock players is all they listen to is rock, " he explains. "They should listen to a little jazz and folk music as well. Not that there's any rule, but it's fun to play a solo that's actually more like a jig or jazz phrasing. And no rock fan in the front row is going to say " What's this? Jazz?!? Too many guys just play on the beat, on the bar, straight on the line - and that's all they do. You have to have a sense of rhythm - not rhythm as in bash, bash- but rhythm as in fooling around with it, playing against the time, in independent time, or in mandolin strokes.
" I love to play rhythm guitar as well as lead guitar in the same way as Mick Green, who used to play with the Pirates. I think a lot of today's lead guitarists just get off on playing a lot of notes over the other players, whereas I love to play with them as well. The solo should primarily bleed out of the rhythm parts, like Townsend or Hendrix used to do. There's plenty of guys who can play a lot of lead fills, but they can't be interesting in a rhythmic way. Someone like Keith Richards is really more of a rhythm player than a lead. I love playing chords and inversions and checking around, even when the solo is going on. That's the interesting part."
A little known fact is that Rory is also a big Ornette Coleman fan, and an accomplished horn player. He played saxophone on some of his earlier LP's, but the horn hasn't been heard in awhile.
" I just got lazy with it, and concentrated more on other things. The trouble with saxophone is if you don't practice every day - literally every day - you get very rusty. And that's more or less what happened. I still drag it out now and then and kind of blast on it, so it might resurrect itself again. At one point in my life, Ornette Coleman was like my hero. I just admire his free spirit, his sound and his ideas. You can apply some of it to the guitar to an extent. James Blood Ulmer does some of that. And the Byrds, of course, used a Coltrane riff for "Eight Miles High". Chris Hillman used to play Coltrane on a mandolin, and I guess McGuinn took it and wrote the song from that. That sort of thing's crept into a lot of rock, but Coltrane was really more of an influence on rock than Ornette Coleman.
Considering his extraordinary talents, it's hard to understand why Rory isn't huge in America. Song's like "Shadow Play", "Philby", "Bad Penny", and " Moonchild" are terrific rock compositions, although they may be too melodic for your standard American hard rock fan. Rory says the band is planning to " make America our natural habitat for awhile"
" I think we're going to have to commit ourselves to America at this point because we'd probably have done better there if we hadn't concentrated on Europe, Australia and Japan so much. With the exception of certain Irish roots attitudes, American music is pretty much all my main influence. So I'd like to get something going over there, rather than just going in and out on a tour. It would be good to do a couple of nine month tours, and just get around to every corner"
"We're not looking for insane success in America. We just want to be a proud act going around, doing it mainly for the fun of it. Well, I guess it would be masochistic not to want to be as big as Springsteen or Seger. They come to mind because they still have credibility and success didn't ruin them. It just amplified what they've been doing. And they're still pretty much bar bands, which is my highest compliment. Rock n' roll should remain not too far from a bar band element - because I don't like what you might call Hollywood rock. Some players just don't want to be involved in this hyped, supermarket attitude of rock n' roll, where it becomes a product. So I wouldn't say no to that kind of success, although whether I want to cope with the pressure or not is another story."
Would he consider the video route?
"We'll do a video, but the only videos we've done have been live performances, and that's just fine. I'm not into this giving rock musicians the excuse to fantasize some Disney-like thing, falling into swimming pools and play acting. So much of it is just gaudy excess, and it has nothing to do with, say, Little Richard or Eddie Cochran."
I think part of the problem regarding Rory's lack of American success may be that his self produced records fail to capture the excitement and intensity of his live performances, Dave DiMartino has pointed out that a good producer like " Mutt" Lange can take Def Leppard, a band that previously recorded sludge, and give them a distinctive, unique sound, so I ask Rory if he's ever considered working with an outside producer.
"Yes, I would if the right accident occurred. If I bumped into someone. I wouldn't mind working with Dave Edmonds. I admire him a lot. We've never worked together, but it could really be a good merger at some point. Or Nick Lowe. Maybe Glyn Johns. I'm not anti producer. It's just when I worked with a few producers, it's been counter-productive in the end. We end up locking heads, not over egos or anything like that. It's usually over the feel. I'd like to have someone with ideas that co-exist with mine."
Ireland is a country where politics seem to underlie almost everything, so it seems a bit surprising that Rory doesn't deal more with politics or the Irish issue in his music.
"I think it's alright, but it shouldn't be a thing to write whole albums about. It depends on how it's done. I greatly admire Woody Guthrie, but I suppose his politicizing would seem fairly naive and simplistic in this day and age. Maybe an odd song that sort of fires up a new angle or something is acceptable, but it's not that easy. And it's even worse the more you read and check into things. I think it really takes a special kind of talent. Otherwise, it's just songs like a newspaper headline. It doesn't mean if you don't do that kind of thing that you're apolitical, but sometimes it's hard to express it musically."
"In the 60'd and 70's, rock n' rollers started reading lot of books, getting very intelligent, getting very Marxist or this and that. That's fine, too, because you can't be a numbskull. But it became very political and very aware, and that can infringe on the music- as well as the spirit and naiveté, which I think is really the first commandment of rock n' roll. Aside from the music, if you listen to the old blues records, they were all fairly right wing performers. Survival was the matter in most of those songs. Now you can have the Clash trying to deal with a capitalist circle on one hand, and still trying to be true red or true blue, which ever you call it. Then again, the Clash have a lot of the French rock n' roll type thing in them - where rock is seen from the continental viewpoint or image. Vince Taylor was an English singer who went to France to live. He influenced Bowie. In fact, he's supposed to be Ziggy Stardust- Vince Taylor & the Playboys. He freaked out one night in France, held out his hands, and told the audience " I am the Lord. I am Jesus Christ, " And he was serious. He vanished for awhile, and when he resurfaced, he was not unlike the old Gene Vincent. A lot of that thing is in the Clash as opposed to American rock n' roll. It's the French continental rock n' roll, almost like that book Rock Dreams. But then it's really hard to stay away from show biz when show biz encourages the whole rock n' roll thing"
I tell him that U2 are viewed as an overtly political band in America.
" Actually, they're almost radically apolitical from an Irish viewpoint. I admire them as a group, musically and so on. But that "white flag' thing - that radical peace sort of thing is troublesome because the whole Irish issue is just so complex. They're all genuine about it. They're into the better nature of humanity and genuinely very nice people. I don't want you to think I'm being catty and talking about them, because I admire them greatly as a group. But I tend to be a bit more gritty about the way things really are over here."
Ireland, like a lot of Europe, is a country that combines established traditions and history with modern lifestyles. It is a combination of the new and old. ( Cattle still have the right of way on Irish roads, and a major newspaper story while I was there concerned a nanny who set fire to her employer's home - and the court had to decide whether she had "paranormal" fire-starting powers or not. Shades of Stephen King!) Rory Gallagher is a part of this traditionalism merged with the modern, and this may be why he never seems to date or age, remaining fresh and vital as he was when he started performing nearly 20 years ago. As an Irish photographer told me at one of his shows: " This reminds me of the old days, when he first started playing with Taste." Yet Rory was overwhelming an audience full of kids who weren't even born when Taste disbanded.
" I wouldn't get away with it if I just went on and said it all ended with the death of Buddy Holly, or something like that, " he explains. " I try to be vital and modern, but put it this way _ certain things have happened in pop that influenced the media to think that it's the new thing, the new order of things. I don't think so. If you go back through funk and soul, back to the blues, there's a certain point where some things just didn't make sense anymore. Certain things were just media fodder controlled by the producers."
"So I'm a traditionalist, but I hate the word 'traditionalist'. I do think that the less you trick around with certain things, the better. Just because you're standing there in front of three synthesizers doesn't make it any better. I mean, that's so dated already anyway. It's the human factor that keeps coming back into it. So a computer can talk to you or add and subtract. So what? It doesn't have the brilliance of some guy sitting on a street corner playing an instrument. I don't believe in computer glorification the electronic age because, in the end, it's going to be out source of destruction. I don't mean you should go back and be like the Stray Cats, sort of wallowing in the golden age of rock n' roll. I like the Stray Cats- don't get me wrong- but I don't see myself like that. I try to move ahead always. But I'm still studying and working on the roots of all this."
"I'd like to last as
as Muddy Waters. I have great admiration for guys who aren't just in it
for a quick kill. They're basically folk musicians who play electric
and they do it for a lifetime. And the basic grit of the whole thing
I bet the day before Muddy died, he was still foxed over what this
mysterious thing was all about. If you cant' put your finger on it,
when it's really good."
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