It's an obvious joke that I'm writing this from a rather jaundiced point of view: obvious, that is, if you know that I ended up this four-day junket with Rory Gallagher & company lying in a hospital bed with hepatitis aggravated by heavy abuse of chemicals and spirits. But that's no fault of Rory's....though the liquor and stout flowed quite freely during the whole trip, nobody was exactly forcing a funnel down your intrepid reporter's throat and if Rory Gallagher uses any chemicals, they probably come in bottles sealed by Bayer. I'm just gonna call this story like I saw it, remembering with some amusements how my toes curled up in a cringe when the Chrysalis representatives laid out graphically how they would never trust a story on one of their artists to a certain writer who also happens to be my best friend and something of a mentor. Me, I just sat as cool as Dr. Thompson on the Tom Snyder Show: my baggage had made it through customs..."Uh, scuse me, I gotta go back to my room for a minute...."
Scratch Thursday, I guess, because Rory didn't show up due to work permit hassles- he was still in Canada. Also, because I spent the night as far away from the airport hotel as one could get by cab: first at CBGB's in the lower intestines of Manhattan, where I got drunk ( drunker, actually) with John Cale and found myself dancing to a band I didn't even like, with a chick in black leather who split my lip with her fist during one of our more intricately improvised courting rituals ( OK, 'cause I got one of her dog chains off and whipped her with it). There's more, but suffice it to say that I blew my first rendezvous with my subject by taking a pre-dawn taxi back to the Sheraton La Guardia and laying comatose until 3 p.m. Shucks, and it was a free lunch at the St. Moritz....
Which puts us halfway through Friday, up to my first meeting with Rory Gallagher. Immediate impression of a really good guy in the old sense: relaxed, friendly, diffident, cooperative with our ace photographer....the exact polar opposite of yours truly, who only through the graces of modern science and Smirnoff's was maintaining social attitudes. Rory even let me play some on his ancient, beautifully weathered Stratocaster. Most rock guitarists, even on your local bar band level, throw squirm fits if you even go near their precious Les Paul's ( let alone when you are visibly close to either nodding and dropping the axe to the floor, or grinning like an idiot and methodically pulling each string off while explaining concepts of atonality and absurd uselessness of unpleasant distractions like strings). Most rock guitarists have beasts referred to as " roadies," usually two-hundred-plus creatures who've exchanged bike colors for band T-shirts and sometimes enjoy snapping your arm at the elbow as you tentatively begin to lift the guitar from its case.... but like I said, Rory's a nice guy. Even listened with some mixture of attentiveness and puzzlement while I dashed off several ineffectual runs.
CUT TO LIMOUSINES
We are heading to Shea Stadium, not far from the hotel. It's raining. The sort of ugly yellow NY summer rain that can he depressing by itself, and makes the prospect of an outdoor concert about as attractive as a shower at Auschwitz. Rory seems very up about the show anyway. This tour is to be his first American exposure on big stages. Anybody who's followed Gallagher knows that his prime spot is in a small club, where he and the band can really cook over a set about two hours long, mixing acoustic bits on mandolin, steel bodied guitar and harp with the punchy, solidly executed blues rock Rory’s made a staple of. In fact, he's one of the few people who can still attack that supposedly embalmed genre with any life, the main reason I'm here, when I usually prefer listening to my Eno cassettes or getting drunk with John Cale. But tonight will be a forty minute set, in front of a small crowd who're waiting most likely for Robin Trower and (if it can be believed) Jethro Tull. Stadium concerts are the path to The Big Time . . ask Aerosmith, ask the Beach Boys. Never mind that they're one short cut above "rock festivals" which are the absolute dumps ... this ain't the summer of love.
There is no press box. Only a damp dressing room somewhere below the bleachers with a refrigerator full of Guinness, a fifth of Jameson’s Irish and a plate of cold cuts that looks absolutely botulin. Rory works on the Jameson’s pretty steadily while changing strings and warming up with bassist Gerry McAvoy. A Chrysalis rep comes and goes nervously, sheltering his L.A. tan under a yellow rain slicker, and one realizes that everybody is nervous.., this is Shea Stadium after all - . .there are footprints in that muddy field out there. I confess that I spent the most part of Rory’s set in the “press bar” which, for some stupid reason, neither faced nor had video viewers of the stage. I’d been introduced to Rory’s cousin, a plain-looking man in his middle forties who'd grown up with the Gallagher family back in County Cork. He'd agreed with me after trying to see and hear two numbers from the soggy bleachers that Rory had been much better at the Bottom Line,” and the proverbial free lunch drew us up to the bar.
Rory probably wouldn't remember this,” he confides. “but once when he was just little—oh, about seven—I uncapped a bottle of soda pop and poured vinegar into it. You should've seen his face when he came in and took a long drink of that!” A touching anecdote, I think, and slowly through the mud and gathering fog in the brain it starts to come through to me that THERE MAY NOT BE MUCH OF A STORY HERE AT ALL BECAUSE RORY GALLAGHER IS VERY, VERY NORMAL. Sure, he plays the hell out of the guitar, he rocks down audiences everywhere he goes, he knows the blues line right down from Charlie Patton to Kokomo Arnold to Hound Dog Taylor, he even shares my appreciation of one of the great overlooked blues-men of all time., John Hammond Jr. He knows JAZZ too; Coleman, pre-Coleman, post-Coltrane, even digs Cecil Taylor. . - uh . . . uh . . - and he's totally professional, with years of credentials and experience on the road to back it up. Example: backstage at Shea, he changed strings on his Stratocaster thirty minutes before showtime. Now anyone with a little guitar background knows that (a) this tends to cause out-of-tuneness that is hell to cope with, but (b) On a Strat, even with a locked bridge—no Hendrix twang-bar phalluses for Rory—the breakage of one string is enough to throw the whole guitar off about 3 /4 of a step, and in non musician patois that means it sounds like turtlepuke. However, Rory knows, as Hendrix knew, that a really good musician can actually get up and play a full set with his guitar completely out of tune. It's a matter of skill and intonation. Django Rheinhardt knew this; he had an axe handmade by his gypsy godfather that NO ONE ELSE could play because no two positions on the thing were in tune with each other . . . and all the stuff for the first ten minutes of those Ravi Shankar sides you waited through for the Owsley to hit: that was just TUNING UP!!!
All this great praiseful stuff is true about
Rory Gallagher, including the quite human touch that I'm pretty sure he
lost his Jameson’s (although those could be fightin’ words) after the show
because he emerged from the water-closet with a mortuary pallor on his face, picked up the fifth and explained hoarsely, "This ... has been the first meal I've had in two days,” then slumped against the wall and was not heard from for the rest of the night. So his cousin drove me back to the hotel and we closed the bar to the tune of some Jamaican lounge act who didn't play reggae. By this time I was up to extra dry Bombay martinis... which should have been a sign to myself in the bar mirror that there was trouble due, but a little sign in the back of my head kept flashing “AMPHETAMINE” and I thought for a moment, "If Rory hasn't eaten in two days. maybe he's being just like Lou Reed whenever I'm around and bogarting all his speed or cocaine “‘Then I glanced back at the smiling, if ever blurrier, countenance of his cousin, and realized nothing of the sort was going on. To bed. Goodnight.
Up early. Plane to catch. With a deathwish hangover I find myself stumbling around the lobby, packed and ready, first in line. And the goddamn bar is closed. The breakfast S-H-O-P-P-E was unspeakable. When I am hungover, I either want (a) Lots of Valium and more sleep: (b) More to drink, or (c) Something like anchovy paste on melba toast with steak tartare and two raw eggs drowned in Tabasco sauce. I found a pharmacy and washed down 30 mgs. of Valium with half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. One of Jethro Tull's roadies is sitting on the fake leather couches playing a Muddy Waters cassette at full blast. I try to settle into the low thump-thump-thump of the music. but two minutes after the desk clerk comes over and tells the guy to turn it down (it did conflict slightly with the Muzak). the entourage is pouring out of the elevators, all full of pep and ready to hit the skies to Toronto.
Rory and I get to settle down and talk They do serve beer on the plane. and Gallagher buys me one (I grabbed two, one of which I was still working on while passing through Canadian customs... nobody seemed to notice) What did we talk about? We talked musician's talk: that peculiarly tired old rap that goes down whenever two guitar players with the same relative interest or background get thrown together. It's like shop talk .. . only the most dedicated groupie (a notable absence of that species on the whole trip) would stick around for more than ten minutes of bullshit about switch positions on Stratocaster's, the relative merits of various age and species: Fender amplifiers, how many Ornette Coleman records A has that B doesn't and other related trivia, all of which was engrossing (at least to your reporter) but in the hour; worth of air time, nearly succeeded in putting the Chrysalis rep off to nodland. Believe me, it would you too, which is why I don't waste cassettes on talk like this. But I did find out that yes, Rory was ‘sort of” asked to join the Stones on Mick Taylor's departure (he went to Germany and did some playing with them): and no, the Stratocaster isn't one that used to belong to Buddy Holly which is the most persistent Rory Gallagher story I've ever encountered. For the rest of this sort of thing, ask Alexis Korner next time you run into him: both he and Rory are equally great guys, but Alexis has been around since Christ last came to Newcastle arid knows more good stories.
Jesus. here we are in Toronto, Ontario which must be one of the most sanitarily entertaining cities to walk the streets of in all the northern hemisphere, and this hotel is so big. so decked. and the rooms (and room service) so fine, that I just sit back with a cold Molson's. the air-con roaring, watching sailboats and tourist steamers float by on the blue bay under that sweet blue Canadian sky .. but just as one gets into some heavy perusal of the menu (Beluga caviar ... filet mignon...Perrier water to mix with Glen Grant's unblended malt scotch . . . (the phone rings over my cassette blasting the Stooges and it's Mr. Chrysalis and Concert Time.
TORONTO EXHIBITION GROUNDS AND STADIUM
A horse of an altogether different shade: this is almost as nice as the hotel. Not only is there cold Molson's in abundance, there's not a cloud in the sky. A cool breeze is whipping around, but the sun is in that ‘‘I don't wanna go down" focus that always stokes a mid-summer Saturday night up with whatever passes for “good vibes” these days. In the house trailer-dressing room, Rory is jamming away and really sounds hot. Everybody looks like the weather, the cold cuts are varied and quite edible, and you just know the concert is going to work. The bill tonight goes: Rory, Henry Gross (big hit about a dead dog), Derringer (ohmygodfiashback: “This guy opened to the Stones at the second rock concert I ever saw in ‘66!!). and Aerosmith (8 track cartridge mentality). Ah, normalcy. Tonight I am going to politely elbow my way up to the very front row of kids sitting on the protective tarp spread over the playing field, plop myself down, and really enjoy Rory Gallagher playing the paint off his Strat....I may even stick around for Derringer, y'know, for old times sake, although during Henry Gross's set I think I'm going to find that fifth of Jack Daniels - and check out the cassette Talking Heads gave me way back in the jungle.
Looking over the audience, they seem so calm (there s an estimated 50000 of 'em). Canada always hits me this way--- the people. the architecture, the TV shows. (the idea of the Olympics. even). Normalcy. Completely outside the stench of American grease, NYC speedsweat and hustle, LA amyl nitrate fistfucks, Cleveland tuinol consciousness. These kids in Toronto are going to BOOGIE NORMALLY. I'm in a foreign country, humming to myself; I don't need a press box. Just a pair of shades and a beer and I can walk OUT THERE without fear of getting trampled, knifed, dosed with horse tranquilizer .... a big good-vibes grin starts to spread over the face. I'm grinning at Lou Martin, the keyboard player, at Rod deAth, drummer, at Gerry McAvoy, the bass player and at Rory Gallagher as we pass the Jack Daniels bottle.
Whaddya want, a review? Rory got a standing ovation just for walking onstage. Aerosmith didn't get one when they went on. The PA. system was as crisp as the air. Rory closed with “Souped Up Ford” from his latest LP, Against The Grain, a pure hotrod bottleneck raver that owes a lot to Little Feat's “Tripe Face Boogie.” and he got another standing ovation. Derringer sounded better with the McCoy's, but then again, I wasn't waiting for the Stones in Toronto Or Aerosmith either.
Back to the hotel lounge, where we swapped Jerry Lee Lewis stories and many more drinks. The girl at the piano must have felt really appreciated that night. She didn't know ‘‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ but we applauded the hell out of everything else she oozed out. Rory showed me some really arcane Gaelic guitar tunings, for which I tried to swap him the secret Holy Modal Rounders’ tuning and positioning for “My Mind Capsized", but I think you have to be a speedfreak to appreciate the peculiar warped beauty of that piece. Then we closed the night with a normal hamburger in the normal coffee shop (no "e" on the end).
So the junket was almost over. Sunday, waking up, my body was beginning to give off advance warning signals, which I ignored. Instead of confirming my flight back to Cleveland ( home base),. I perversely changed the reservation to go to Detroit, for a night on the town with that ‘‘certain other writer" .. If you're going to burn the candle at both ends, use a blowtorch in the middle. Two days later I was in the hospital ....that's another story. Who do I think I am. Louis Ferdinand Celine?
WE LEAVE YOU
Poolside at the luxury motel. Molson's still in our hands (Sunday afternoon in Canada you also
have to get a "sandwhich” with each drink . . . the food looked like Hohner blues harps made out of bread and chicken salad. Rory played quite an impressive solo on one): we are doing that most normal of things: swapping Polack Jokes (these are apparently as indigenous to the UK as to Cleveland): “If a nigger and a Polack fall out of an airplane at the same time, who hits the ground first? A: Who cares?” But I cracked them up with one I got from Lou Reed (‘Cept he tells ‘em because he really hates Poles): “Didja hear the one about the Polish ballerina who did the splits and stuck to the floor?”
My parting shot to the best Normal Guitar Player
around was cut short by the call for my airport limo, but here it is. I
got it from John Cale. Seems there was this Irishman who got a pair of
water skis for Christmas. He spent all the next year looking for a lake
with a slope.
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