It was a bleak night, shrouded by freezing drizzle and knife-like gusts of wind, that clawed at your clothes like black gutter rats. On O'Malley Street there was only one light still working. The only sound that met our ears was the clump, clumping of our boots on the cobbles.
Then, as we turned the corner into Blackway Lane, a dazzling searchlight wobbled up the road, and turned its glare upon us. It was a British armoured car. "Where are you going, and where have you come from"? asked a soldier. "We've come from the guest house on O'Malley, and we're going to The Feathers for a drink." Satisfied, the searchlight wobbled onwards.
The Feathers was built like an ironclad; its windows, except for one, bricked in; the door solid, and locked. We knocked. A minute passed, and then the lock was turned, the door opened, and a gust of cigarette smoke curled out accompanied by the sound of boozy voices. The landlord cast an eye over us, and then broke out into a toothless smile. "Bejesus Rory, get yerself in here, you lads look starved."
If you're thinking that his scene is taking place at 3 in the morning in a poorly written espionage novel you're dead wrong. It is 8 o'clock in the evening, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, New Year's Eve, 1971-1972.
People often ask me when I was most moved by rock and roll music. I mean, there must have been a time when you got down on your little old knees, and thanked God for rock and roll. Indeed there was, I tell them indeed there was.
I take these people into a corner, and proceed to tell them this extraordinary tale. A few are slightly familiar with this story, but the majority-due to the glamour-come-first attitude of the rock press - were never told. You see it's not set in Los Angeles, or New York, or London, or Paris. It doesn't concern the greatest star living; it's not all high jinks and boogie, and God appearing on stage with a golden Gibson. Nay. It's a damp, drizzly and dark tale, but one so moving that I shall remember it for the rest of my life.
Shortly after Christmas Day, of 1971, the telephone rang. It cut through my head like a pair of scissors-being confined to bed with the Johnny Walker Black Label syndrome. My tongue felt like a piece of raw fish thrust down my neck, but somehow I struggled for the receiver, and croaked a shark-like greeting down the instrument.
When I put the phone down, I lay prone in my bed, staring at my feet. "They must be joking", I thought, and turned to enter another coma. Something stopped me, and instead I shakily dialed the number of my dear traveling companion, Barrie "Dancer" Wentzell. The old lad was suffering from a serious bout of Old Highland Scotch. "Do you fancy going to Belfast for the New Year?", I asked. "Belfast, you must be bloody joking. How about Vietnam?."
This was what was happening. Rory Gallagher was touring Ireland, and on the date-sheet lay "The Ulster Hall, Belfast, Jan.1, 1972". It went without saying that Belfast dates were always scrapped-the city being reduced to rubble by bombs; troops on every corner; killings without meaning. There hadn't been a rock concert in two years; public transportation stopped at 8 p.m. It was a city in turmoil.
But Gallagher had waved this all aside. Like any other city, Belfast had kids, and if kids could live there, why shouldn't a rock band go there? Gallagher was a long-standing friend of Wentzell and myself, and had invited us to meet him in Belfast.
We twiddled our thumbs over drinks in London. After several we smiled at each other. I picked up the phone, and rang Polydor Records. "Get us on a plane to Belfast for December 30." We went back to the apartment, and prepared ourselves for war. I can assure you, we were both scared as shit - but something other than ourselves was telling us to go.
Heathrow Airport, London, December 30, 6 a.m.: "I'm sorry sir, but all flights to Belfast have been canceled, The Army has taken temporary control over the airport there." "Can you fly us to Dublin then?" "I'll see sir......Yes, we can get you to Dublin, but all return flights from Dublin are fully booked for the next two weeks." "We have to be back in London on January 2." "Well sir, we could get you a flight from Cork, County Cork, to Glasgow, Scotland, but then you'd have to fly to Liverpool." "Would it be any easier to fly us via New York?" "I don't see why you have to joke sir, we're doing our best, you know about the trouble in Ireland."
"It looks like a one way ticket to disaster", moaned Wentzell. "I think the Gods are trying to tell us something", I added. "Excuse me sir, but we can fly you back via Limerick-as far as Liverpool." "Stuff it, that'll do. To the bar." "How are we going to get to Limerick" asked Wentzell. "We'll get a bloody horse if needs be. Southern Comfort? Certainly, make it two very stiff ones we're going to Belfast." "I'd rather go to Vietnam sir, if you don't mind me saying so, that'll be 80 pence." "Two more please barman." "Well I wish you the best of luck sir, keep your head down." "Thank you, keep the change."
It was a dreadful flight to Dublin on Aer Lingus. I think we did it upside down, and landed in what appeared to be a cattle field. We staggered down the steps off the plane, were frisked for guns, and made our way to the Airport Bar, and two pints of lush, foaming black Guinness. Frantic telephone calls. We had to fly to Dublin Don (Rory's brother). Do ye worry, keep drinkin' and oi'll have a car there for yer."
An enormous Irishman fists as big as footballs, approached us at the bar. "Er, a Mista Hollywort and Wentzell, oi have the car fer ye, I'll be drivin' you ta Belfast, but I'll have a glass first if you don't mind." "That's okay with us mate, we'll join you." "Well, let me see, it's about a hundret and fifty moiles, but der's been some trouble at de border, but don't worry yerselves about that, there's a way I know round it."
We were about three miles from the heavily patrolled border, with rain spitting down, and the clouds as low as buggary, when our driver turned off the road into a dirt track that curled its way into the hills. We arrived at a run-down, sodden farm and stopped. The driver lumbered out. "Now I won't be a minute, we're over the border now. I just have to drop off sometin' at this friend of mine." He opened the car's trunk, and lifted a huge bundle, which he carried into the farm house. I think they're guns Barrie. Shut up, I don't want to think about this. Huge black hills surrounded us, the rain continued. The dampness seeped through to our bones.
Belfast, grey, cold city. It hadn't been but a year ago when I was last there, but the bombing had increased. Every now and then, along a line of houses was a plot of bare, scorched earth. It's where the pubs used to be, they blew them up. These gaps in the lines of houses-like missing teeth in an old man's mouth. Cobblestone streets, troops with fixed bayonets walking in twos. Night falling, few lights to be seen. Poor sods who live here.
Rory and the band were staying at a small, but cosy little guest house (bed and breakfast 30 shillings). Wiser to stay there-they blew up another hotel the day before. Rory, quiet and smiling. Unmoved, in the television room. Handshakes, laughter. How about a Guinness?
We trudge out into the bleak streets, nobody about. We walk for maybe a quarter of a mile, and enter a dimly lit alley. Half-way down is a pub, with bricked-up windows, and a little lantern over the door. We enter, warm as toast here, full of young people; juke box, somebody playing a guitar too. They all recognize Rory. Thanks for coming Rory, we're going to the concert. It's good of you to come, you didn't forget us. They say the IRA have given the concert the go-ahead. They'll be no trouble. Who'd want to bomb 2,000 kids? There's idiots about. Rory smiles, orders Guinness and Irish whiskey. Wet boots on the bar rail, we drink ourselves warm. Bless these kids here, bless them. I think we all felt embarrassed. Embarrassed that just over the water in England we could do anything we wanted to at night. See a couple of concerts a night if we wished. Here there was just the pubs - and they're blown up at the rate of a couple a week.
New Year's Eve. We were up at this college, where there was a bit of a drink-up, and Rory decided to play. Just before midnight we were sitting in the dressing room when there was a sickening explosion that shook the windows. Then another "Booooom......... Rattle". The bombs were exploding about a half-mile away. The IRA's salute to the New Year-12 bombs at midnight - an empty cinema, and a lot of shops. Gallagher tuned up. We were all a bit shaken.
The conversation has taken on nervous tones. Gallagher reaches down into his traveling bag, pulls out a small bottle, passes it around. It's an illegal brew called Potcheen. It's over-proof, and tastes like gasoline, but wraps your body in a steel case, and numbs your head to anything except bliss. Happy New Year.
New Year's Day. Breakfast at the guest house, about 14 cups of tea, half a pound of fried bacon, fried tomatoes, fried eggy-weggies, fried bread, and then down into the city centre, for a Guinness lunch and a look at the ruins. There's a buzz about town. Kids are crawling in from the suburbs; best clothes on. Walking in groups, laughing. There's a rock and roll concert today. Can you believe there's a concert to see. And it's Gallagher too!
The kids are outside the Ulster Hall hours before the doors are opened. It's a proud building is the Ulster Hall, surrounded by bombed out houses, streets barricaded off. But the old hall still stands upright. Inside the equipment is being set up, and the chairs put in order--they haven't been used for a while.
In Rory's dressing room is a case of Guinness, and three bottles of Jameson's whiskey. At the bottle again. The sound of a bomb going off. But it's only a gentle thud, and must be a mile off. Still tightens the stomach muscles mind. Oh don't you worry now, says the girl. You have to get used to it, and besides, you won't be able to hear a thing when Rory plugs in. Good of him to come isn't it?
By 2pm the hall is packed to the ceiling, and there is this indescribable vibration coming from the place. Despite everything that's going on outside-the bombing, the shooting, and ceaseless trouble, we have, right in here, a hall full of kids and a rock and roll band, and we could be a million miles from anywhere. Shaking hands with total strangers, smiles, laughs, and the bottle is passed, and the joke goes round, and they wished it was like this every day.
The lights dim, Gallagher walks onto the stage in checked shirt and Levis, plugs in, twists around, and blams out a boogie. Just three seconds pass, and the whole hall is up on its feet. Not just the front rows, but the whole place is thundering away; stomping feet, smacking hands together; singing. Goddamit, I've seen wild audiences, but the electricity this one is generating is unbelievable. Like feeding raw meat to starving wolves. They've been starved of entertainment for two years. Can you imagine just how much they're enjoying this? Their joy and emotion takes over my whole body. I swear a tear falls from my eye,. I want to meet them all, every last one of them, and shake their hand, and say "you're bloody great. Do you know that?"
Gallagher passes over the two hour mark. They don't want to let him go. He has the feeling too. He doesn't want to go. The emotion grows like some garden of flowers tearing out of the ruins. "If I'd have missed this I would have kicked myself black and blue" says Wentzell. "We're stood, looking around us--this hall full of beauty. Godammit Barrie, break loose the Jameson's. This is the best day of my life. And we're in the middle of bloody Belfast. Why isn't the world here to see this?
6 p.m. The Hall is empty, except for the ushers who are sweeping the floor. It's quiet again now. We walk out slowly, take a last look at the stage, and wonder how long it will be before somebody walks on it again.
Outside it's dark. There are a few groups of kids hanging around--but most have had to rush to catch the last bus home. We stop into a bar. It's full of rock and rollers who live in the neighborhood. Godblessyou, Rory. Will you come again? Yes. Tell those other damned groups to come too, will you do that?
We drove back to Dublin that night, flushed with a feeling one gets after witnessing something strangely charismatic. Something good. Something almost religious.
Past the border into the South of Ireland, and the night sky becomes clean, and clearer. The storm clouds persist over The North imprisoning the youth we left behind. Here we are, winging our way back to brighter places-leaving the Belfast kids with their televisions, and maybe a couple of visits to the pub-if it's still there. You did them proud Rory. It was a gig, he replies.
Hours later our plane lands in London. Bright winter sunshine, a thousand and one things to do. Cinemas, a load of concerts on tonight. Clean streets, no rubble. No tension. But our minds are still back in Belfast. With Jean and Duffy, and Michael, and all the friends we made in a few mad hours.
Gallagher played Belfast, other bands began to travel across The Irish
Sea. In fits and starts some sort of regular live scene came into
But then the bombing became even worse, and entertainment died again.
one, I remember-between the bombs there was rock and roll.
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