COLIN HARPER PAYS TRIBUTE TO THE IRISH GUITARIST WHO DIED IN JUNE
With the passing of Rory Gallagher, on June 14th 1995, aged 47, the second of Irish rock music's three great pioneers has been lost before his time. In the wake of U2, it's difficult to imagine a time when Ireland was not only a non-player in the world of rock’n’roll, but actively scorned and patronized home-grown original talent in favour of showband imitations.
Gallagher's contribution to music is impressive enough, but in professional terms he should be remembered along with Van Morrison and the late Phil Lynott as an artist who broke through the confines of his place and time to succeed massively and consistently on an international level, offering inspiration to thousands who came after.
On a personal level,
will be remembered by those who knew him as one of
the real gentlemen in the business. U2’s office was quick to back this up in statements to the
press, Bono referring to Gallagher as “one of the top 10 guitar players of all time, but more
importantly one of the top 10 good guys”. Adam Clayton and The Edge were among thousands who attended Gallagher's funeral in his Cork hometown, on the southern tip of Ireland — The Edge was quoted as saying it was “the saddest day of my life”. Messages of sympathy were received from dozens of the music world’s biggest names — among them Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, John Mayall, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Dubliner Ronnie Drew read the lesson from ‘The Book Of Wisdom’, and carried the coffin with Gallagher's brother and manager Donal.
are par for the course with the loss of the famous, but the sheer
and warmth of the tributes paid to Rory since his death of liver failure reveals a man who was genuinely loved and respected by his peers, for his down-to-earth manners, personality and integrity in a profession too often dominated by the shallow and self-righteous.
Eric Wrixon, a founder member of both Them and Thin Lizzy, and someone familiar with the German blues circuit where Rory remained a demi-God to the end, summed it up perfectly: “The only important thing as far as I'm concerned was how he was as a person: he was a nice guy 30 years ago and he didn't change. He's a loss as a human being, and that's more important than his music.” Even Van Morrison responded willingly to the request for a statement, saying that “Rory was a close personal friend, and it's a tragic and premature loss to everyone involved in music.”
On a musical level, aside from the man's personal qualities, Gallagher's contribution to rock history has been immense. But sadly, until the shock of his passing, he had become a marginalized figure, certainly within the British Isles. He still played fairly regularly on the continent, where he was a five-figure drawing power at festivals, but his final concert in Ireland took place in 1992, as had his last London show — a now infamous gig at the Town & Country Club where he was rendered incapable of finishing more than a few numbers by what was described as a reaction of prescribed medication with a single whiskey he'd taken to loosen up his voice before the show.
Alan Robinson, now press officer at Demon Records (who've issued several of Rory’s albums on CD), promoted that show: “The next night,” he recalls, “the T&C opened their venue in Leeds and Rory was the headline act. There were worries that he wasn't going to make it. In fact, the next day, I had to book Dr. Feelgood in — had them on the way up to Leeds within half-an-hour — but as it turned out, Rory was fine. I don't think he managed his normal, full set but he did an hour plus, which was great. It's just a shame that a lot of people's last memories will be from that gig the night before — a real drag."
One of the things that marked Rory out from the crowd in his 70s heyday was his focus on the music and not the excesses associated with it. Eric Wrixon recalls Rory fondly as someone who “drank cokes on stage, didn't womanize, didn't touch drugs and would get happy after two glasses of wine”. Likewise, Henry McCullough — one of Rory’s contemporaries who went on to fame with Joe Cocker and Wings — recalls the man's prudence: “I think Rory liked a pint alright,” he says, “but the sort of rock’n’roll lifestyle that went along with, say, Thin Lizzy, would have been unknown in my day and Rory’s day. Anything to excess was just something you read about, like in the context of jazz musicians.”
Unfortunately, there had, in recent times, been stories of Rory having an alcohol problem, always denied by his family. Friends agree, off the record, that while there was a brief period in the 80s where there was a problem, it was a temporary situation brought on by the stresses of business problems haunting him from the days of Taste in the late-60s, and his dealings with a previous manager. Bootlegs had started to swamp the European CD market, Taste royalties were being paid by Polygram — but not to any ex-members of the band — and so on. One source estimated that 70% of Gallagher's income in recent years was used up in fighting court cases.
Joe Jackson, writing in ‘The Irish Times during the week of his death, offered revealing indications of Rory’s philosophy on all this, taken from one of his final interviews. He quoted Rory as saying “the idea that you can't play the blues unless you're an alcoholic is nonsense and, potentially a lethal notion to be selling to young musicians . . . But blues or no blues, there is a strong Celtic, pagan element within the Irish which I don't think we've ever completely shaken off. So, as a superstitious Catholic, I never really was tempted to try those excesses. Sure, I drink, but not to excess. And the key reason was the absolute fear of the darkness taking over. . . You have to step over a certain line, not necessarily to connect with evil, but to take yourself as close to the brink as you can to give your music that essential edge. It's a dangerous balance you have to try to maintain..."
Gallagher maintained that balance with amazing success for years — keeping his feet on the ground while still producing some of rock's most exhilarating music. His pastoral, Catholic background may be some explanation. He was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, in 1947 and brought up in rural West Cork, where he heard Elvis and Leadbelly on the radio, consequently, and in a manner very similar to many other future pioneers of his generation, he became besotted with the guitar.
The whole era and culture of Ireland in the 60s was simply miles away and light years removed from the rarefied atmosphere of rock’n’roll in America or even England. After years of domination by clean-cut showbands, with suits and brass sections, Ireland only really started to catch up with the advances in popular music towards the end of the decade. “At that stage in Dublin,” says Pat Egan, a promoter and manager then writing a beat group column in Ireland's ‘Spotlight’ magazine, “it was Henry McCullough and the People (later Eire Apparent). Henry would have been the main opposition to Rory at that stage —the other guitar player. It was all a good bit before Thin Lizzy and only much later that Gary Moore came into the picture.”
“Well, that would be true alright,” says McCullough, “but Rory went on to do more his own thing than I did. I think I was probably in showbands longer than Rory — he was probably the first to get out of all that. Even when I was in the People, we were still playing covers of Wilson Pickett and so on. Rory, by that time, had got himself on the first rung of the rock’n’roll ladder with Taste and consequently went on to much better things.”
Rory joined the Fontana Showband at 16, simply to be out playing, but formed his first blues-based three-piece in 1965. Mark Prendergast, in his excellent book ‘Irish Rock’, describes how the very idea of a three-piece in the beat era — let alone Ireland — was so bizarre that a friend had to pose with a Vox Continental organ in publicity photos in order for the group to get a Hamburg residency.
The original trio fizzled out in a fit of poverty in 1966, but Rory tried to resurrect the idea that year with Eric Kitteringham and Norman D’Amery from the Axles Showband. This was the first real version of Taste, which even at the height of the beat boom, was still making only a fiver a night in Ireland.
Best reactions were always in Belfast, where the group enjoyed a residency at the Maritime Club — counting Van Morrison as one of their regular fans — and where they were taken under the wing of manager Eddie Kennedy, who secured Taste a deal with Polydor on the proviso that the rhythm section be changed. John Wilson and Richie McCracken, two more showband survivors, were brought in and the group relocated to England in May ‘68, where a career, as brief but as dynamic as Cream's — with whom they were often compared — ensued, peaking with the pyrrhic heights of the August 1970 Isle Of Wight festival. The group were, literally, falling apart on stage, with personality conflicts exacerbated by business situations and the sheer burn-out stress of constant gigging. A live album was recorded at the festival and issued without the group's knowledge, though by that time, they'd already split.
All four Taste albums — two low quality concert sets and two excellent studio offerings— are available on CD. 1969’s “Taste”, which includes “Born On The Wrong Side Of Town” and “Blister On The Moon”, stands up well to the Cream comparisons, but it's 1970’s “On The Boards” which remains definitive. Displaying all the maturity, variety and power of early Led Zeppelin, it shows the breadth of Gallagher's capabilities, from open-tuned acoustic material to blistering hard-rock anthems and slide-drenched heavy blues. A further title, “In The Beginning”, made up of lo-fi recordings made by the early version of Taste during their Belfast days in July 1967, appeared semi-legally in 1974.
Gallagher remained with Polydor as a solo artist (with bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Wilgar Campbell — later replaced by Rod De’Ath — in support), and between 1971 and 1974, he released six solo albums of enduring quality — “Rory Gallagher”, “Deuce”, “Live In Europe”, “Blueprint” ,“Tattoo” and “Irish Tour ‘74 — all featuring a wider variety of musical expression than some may have given him credit for. “Can't Believe It's True”, on his 1971 self-titled solo debut, features the guitarist playing alto sax, in musical territory closer to Van Morrison and the jazzier aspects of Ten Years After. Other tracks from this era reflect his interest in acoustic music and open tunings, particularly the work of Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy; and the relationship between the modal scales found in Irish traditional music and blues scales.
What was probably his last television performance, on a 1994 Ulster TV documentary on Northern Irish music called ‘Rock'n The North’, focused on his exploration of the blues/Irish crossover. It featured Gallagher filmed in his London home explaining his style and his fond memories of Belfast to interviewer Terri Hooley, and performing a suitably cross-cultural rendition of “That's All Right, Mama”.
well-known by this stage, although he appeared forthcoming and in
health on the programme. “Rory canceled the interview at short
says Hooley, best known as the Godfather of Irish punk and founder of
Good Vibrations label “But we tracked him down. It was very
us to have Rory in the programme. I always thought he was a very shy
wonderful guy —definitely a big hero of mine.”
From 1975 to 1982, Gallagher released a series of albums with Chrysalis, after which he fell silent until 1988’s “Defender” and “Fresh Evidence” two years later, issued on his own Capo label via Demon and Castle respectively. This was the period of Gallagher's health and business problems at their worst, and Alan Robinson recalls that after suffering the consequences of bad deals, he now preferred the option of one-off arrangements while retaining ownership of the work himself. Various back catalogue titles were also acquired and licensed to Demon.
Throughout the ‘quiet years’, however, Gallagher had happily been contributing as a guest guitarist to all manner of relatively low-key albums by Irish artists — including easy listening pianist Phil Coulter, folk group the Dubliners, and a particularly memorable contribution to “Out Of The Air” (1988) by jazz/rock/traditional uillean piper, Davy Spillane. The record featured a particularly mesmerizing instrumental tribute to Phil Lynott, which in itself stands as a tribute to Gallagher. “It was really good of him to take part, and I was fond of him,” says Spillane. “He was very good to me. I didn't know him particularly well, but he was a very generous, personable man and I greatly enjoyed his company.
Although they never recorded together, Andy Irvine — a man who had a parallel degree of influence on the direction of Irish music, coming from the traditional standpoint, with bands like Sweeney’s Men and Planxty — echoes these sentiments: “I only met him twice, I think, but I remember the first time in London, about 12, 15 years ago. He was just sitting there, and I had to look at him three times and think, ‘that's not Rory Gallagher, is it?’ I mean, there was absolutely no kind of ‘I am Rory Gallagher’ vibe out of him. He came over and got talking to me, and I was incredibly flattered that he knew who I was and knew my music. And I just thought he was like an ordinary bloke. There's no reason why people who are big stars shouldn't be like that, but very often they're not. He was a really nice guy and when I heard he'd died, I just couldn't believe it — I didn't even know he was ill.”
The ups and downs of Gallagher's health had been largely kept from the press in recent years, although he was still playing occasional gigs in Europe and regularly turning up on other people's albums. Aside from his contributions to a forthcoming Peter Green tribute album, the last of these, released only recently, was by Irish blues artist Samuel Eddy, and by coincidence also features Jan Akkerman, former guitarist with Dutch progressive outfit, Focus, and a man with whom Gallagher regularly rubbed shoulders in the ‘Best Guitarist’ category of early 70s popularity polls. Both were also united by the fact that they were outsiders in the British/American-dominated world of music at that time.
“Yeah, you may have a point there,” says Akkerman. “I think we had that in common. If there's anything chauvinistic it's the British music press trying to protect their marketplace like nobody else. But we always passed each other like ships in the night. We played at the same festivals all the time, particularly in the ‘70s. I never had the pleasure to meet him, but I know his style of playing and I admired it. I think he stayed true to his beliefs. He was the king of the white blues players as far as I was concerned.”
Many others would
with this, although there is a feeling that he should have
— could have — been bigger than he was. The story persists that he turned down the chance to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones, but then the same story is told of Ry Cooder too, and he's always denied it. Even if it were true, Rory was simply too good a player to be lumbering around with Keith Richards’ riffs. ‘It’s hard to know, really, whether he went for the big time and never achieved it,” says Pat Egan, ‘or whether he was just happy to stick with the blues thing. He did go over to the States and tried really hard for a while, in the mid-70s, playing long tours. And at that stage, he really appeared to be trying to break bigger ground.”
Others remain of the opinion that he was happy with what he had: “I think he had the amount of success that he really wanted and then rode the rest of it out,” says Henry McCullough. Dave Pegg, bass player with Jethro Tull and an old friend of the guitarist, recalls a perfect illustration of this when he, Gallagher and various other musicians, including Ric Parfitt of Status Quo, were chatting at an after-show party in Germany a few years ago: ‘Ric was praising Rory and offering to write and produce a hit single for him,” says Pegg. ‘Gallagher politely replied, ‘What would I be wanting one of those for?’ Ric then said, ‘Well, alright — how would you like to meet Charles and Di?’ The look on Rory’s face said it all — and so did his music.” He'll be greatly missed.
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