John Waters pays tribute to the musician who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of Irish kids

Nobody did it better

Last Saturday, at the Fleadh in London's Finsbury Park, I ran into Donal Gallagher. It had been a few years since I'd met either him or his brother, both of whom I'd known from my Hot Press
days, when I'd had the pleasure of being paid to talk to Rory Gallagher and watch him play. After a minute or two, I casually asked after Rory. Donal said that his brother was seriously ill. I got the impression that it was grievous, probably terminal. And so it proved: we awoke on Thursday morning to the news that Rory Gallagher, one of the finest blues guitarists the world has seen, had died.

People assume you're exaggerating when you say things like " rock 'n' roll changed my life", but I know I wouldn't be doing any of the things I'm doing had it not been for artists like Gallagher giving me - us- inspiration to change, and the soundtrack to do it to.

That he was Irish was, at first, a little unbelievable, but it was a different sense of unbelief to that which greeted the arrival of Horslips in the ballrooms, or Thin Lizzy on Top of the Pops. The thing about Rory was not that just that he was one of the first Irish rock stars, but that he was the best guitar player in the world. That was our view of Rory, and I don't believe that our unassailable pride in him led us far astray. Those deluded graffiti scribblers who scrawled "Clapton is God" on walls during the 1970's couldn't have had either the manners or the time to listen to 30 seconds of Rory Gallagher. Sure, Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page, or Ron Wood could play a bit, but Rory put them all in the shade. Only Jimi Hendrix could remotely have been considered his peer. And from an Irish point of view, this was an exhilarating and radical notion - that - one of us could not just mix it up with the big shots, but wipe the floor with them and leave a shine you could eat your dinner off.

Given the huge success stories of recent years, it's easy to forget what it might have meant in leaner times when the word went out that the Rolling Stones were interested in getting Rory to join. It was the kind of notion that used to inflame the old national inferiority complex. But we at home all knew - and this is the important part - the Rory Gallagher was too good for the Rolling Stones. That was a powerful knowledge to let loose among a generation just coming around to the idea that anything might be possible after all. There can be no telling how much of the recent success of Irish artists has been due in some measure to the slipstream of confidence created by Gallagher.

Rory was an original. There were others who did it before him, and a legion who tried to do it after him, but there was nobody who did it better. His music was rooted in the blues, but his playing had qualities of distinctiveness, energy, colour, passion and tenderness that set it apart from any player I've ever heard. Yes, he was a brilliant technical guitarist, but he also had soul in the way other guitarists have hard neck. He filled his own space in the rock 'n' roll pantheon. He didn't make statements or take public stances. But he was nonetheless a profoundly influential and meaningful figure in European pop culture. The integrity of his music and being radiated from the quality of his playing and the music he created to give it a voice.

Songs like Bullfrog Blues and Messin' with the Kid were essential aspects of the formative background radiation for a vast hardcore of his followers. His songs were sensitive, funny, dark and sweet, a strange mix of blues and his own idiosyncrasies and obsessions. His music was the work of a deeply intelligent and sensitive man, who thought profoundly about the world - and who also, incidentally, loved his native country and never lost touch with what he called "the mainland".

His great tragedy was that his form was ultimately too small a vehicle for his genius. There was a strong sense that he had no space in which to continue to grow. But in performance, his integrity and sheer brilliance as an artist continued to confound all-comers.

A couple of years back, he was due to play an open-air gig at College Green in Dublin. My girlfriend, being somewhat younger than I, was skeptical of my enthusiasm: her generation's perception of Rory Gallagher was of a dry, old blueser, a pyrotechnician, without soul. I worried a little, I confess, that my memory and enthusiasm were playing tricks. Rory had the capacity to bring out in those who had seen him play responses which sounded like hyperbole to those who hadn't.

But on the night Gallagher was, if possible, even better than I remembered. He captivated the huge crowd - half curious bystanders, half now-greying lumberjackshirted hordes - like the angel he was. My girlfriend, like everybody else, was transfixed, and understood at last that it was possible to walk away from a Rory Gallagher concert believing it to have been the best you had ever seen, I believed then that it could only be a matter of time before, once again Rory gallagher received acclaim that was rightly his. I cannot say how sad it makes me feel to know that this is not now going to happen.

There is a whole generation out there feeling sad today for all these reasons. God bless, Rory. Hope you enjoyed yourself. Thanks a million. Thank you.

This article comes from the June 17, 1995 issue of the Irish Times.
Thanks to Barry McCabe (BMC) for passing it along.
Reformatted by roryfan.
The background is a capture by donman from a May '94 UTV interview, mutated by roryfan.

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