play for today, tomorrow you die
Rory rocks back to a supersonic reception in California. Harry Doherty is there….
"Ladies and gentlemen,
welcome one of the true greats- Rory Gallagher!"
San Francisco November 11, 1975
"Let's hear a little noise please for the world's greatest rock and roll band, Rory Gallagher!” Santa Monica, Los Angeles November 12, 1975.
Such acclaim is commonplace on Rory Gallagher’s current tour of America. At last, the Irish guitarist is reaping the benefit of years of hard slogging and, in the process, is acquiring the respect usually reserved for legendary figures. Gigs – this time around, it's the three, four, five thousand seaters – have been selling out fast as kids are anxious to see and hear one of the few guitar heroes left. Gallagher’s grassroots’ appeal has captured the imagination of thousands of young Americans seeking an escape from the glam-rock monster.
Rory Gallagher with his checked shirt, denims, training shoes and worn Fender Stratocaster (but without a speck of make-up) is on his way to becoming the Greatest American Alternative.
Despite it all, though, he's just doing what comes naturally – walking on stage, plugging in and playing. His on the road logic is simple, play for today, for tomorrow you die.
San Francisco: dark has fallen on this lukewarm Thursday evening and the Rory Gallagher band has just arrived in town from Portland, Ohio. The tour has been exhausting, but the band has a few days off before the next gig.
Gallagher and his cohorts, bass player, Gerry McAvoy, keyboard man, Lou Martin and drummer, Rod DeAth head for the bar of the fashionable Japanese Miako Hotel. Rory’s man Friday, brother Donal, has managed miraculously in such company- to stay off the drink for some months now and sips Seven-Up.
Gallagher has just signed a contract with Chrysalis Records about whom he enthuses: “Chrysalis seem to have the right kind of people. They're keen. They're small enough to care for all their artists, but big enough to get the distribution right.
“I think things will really start moving in the States. All I expect from them is that the albums get into the shops, that the public knows it is out, and that the radio stations have it to play. It's the music that must do it, no gimmickry. All I expect are the basics.
“Other artists might expect a company to make them a new Sinatra or a big movie star or something like that. I just want the public to have their hands on the records when they want them.
“It's up to me to make good records and do good shows. It's a pretty Simple Simon approach, but that's the way I want it."
He is an artist well aware of promotion, however, and has the people of San Francisco's KSAN radio station buzzing at the prospect of having Rory Gallagher on one of their radio shows. I realize for the first time just how respected he has become in the States as a full half-hour of peak listening time is devoted to him.
He's asked of old and new albums and eventually he picks up the old National acoustic and plays a few numbers.
In minutes, the small studio filled with station employees, applauding passionately as he hits the final chords of “Out on the Western Plain.” The jock enthuses that he's going to keep that live version forever.
Tracks from the new album get played quite regularly on the local San Francisco stations. “Against the Grain” is being noted as Gallagher’s ‘best album to date.’
“I think it's the best studio album as well,” he says. “We've always worked hard to make the live thing work, and obviously it's really clicked on this one. It's worked on bits and pieces of other studio albums.
“If we have cracked that mini jinx, I'm delighted. It got a bit boring people saying that the live albums are exciting and the studio albums are less exciting.
“That's a backhanded compliment to say that it's hard to capture in the studio what we do on stage. I knew we could eventually do something really good in the studio.
“It's two years now since Tattoo, and I sat down and scrutinized all the other records. As well as that, the band is two years older, and much tighter than ever. I don't think that it's a case of a magic wand being waved over the album.
"It was just a matter of time and experience and a bit of luck. On some tracks, I didn't want that live stage sound, but on others; I sweated blood to get it. It's not just down to pure techniques in the studio.
“It's also luck, and I think we had that this time. An artist is free to do things on record that he doesn't have to do in concert, but I like that feeling of being able to play tracks live. Certainly.
“I'll use brass on a couple of tracks and I'm often tempted to add some, but the trouble is I like to freewheel on stage, give one of the boys a nod and change a number halfway through.
“You can't do that with a brass section. I don't like to be too tricky in the studio. It's just a little pride thing I have. Other guys are happy to have four guitar solos crying in the wilderness, but there's no way they're going to do it live. A lot of people go in with a ‘nutty professor’ approach.
“To a certain extent, you've got to use those machines to help you get the best sound. It can be very tempting. Twenty-four tracks, God, look at the tricks you could do. We recorded “Against the Grain” in a 16 track.
‘On earlier albums, we only used 8 tracks. That was when it was only three fellas, though.”
“But, if you really get your stuff together, eight tracks should be fine.
“The title of this album came at the very end. Normally, I have one title and stick with it from the start, but this time I was stuck.
“I had a couple of reasonable ones. We were in the Chrysalis offices in London and people started throwing ideas around. Somebody suggested “Axe” and somebody else said “Fret Work.
“Donal came up with the thing about the grain. It has two meanings - the guitar wood and also the music is against the grain. It clicked.”
On the Saturday, we prepare to leave – for the first California gig at San Jose, about 50 miles outside San Francisco. The gig had sold out earlier in the week, despite the fact that Santana had been playing on the same night at Winterland in San Francisco, where Gallagher was scheduled to headline the next night.
The atmosphere in the auditorium is electrifying. Most of these Americans haven't seen Gallagher in action before, and know him only by reputation, but when he is introduced the place erupts.
The band trots on
first, and then the guitar slinger. He waves a quick hello, and goes straight
into “Messin with the Kid”. The reaction was riotous. Kids jump, shout
and dance. The set lasts
2 ½ hours.
Gallagher is always happiest when playing.
“It's what I'm thinking about most of the time. It's the main reason for living. That's the corny answer. I get a great kick out of playing. It's the most important thing in life for me.
“Somebody estimated that one time that we were touring for nine or ten months of the year.
“I looked forward to the States this year. We kind of had our fill of Europe for while inasmuch as we missed the old American zing, but then when we're here we miss the European zing as well. I feel a bit weary now and then, just from flying, but the playing makes it worthwhile.
“I don't know why I do it. I've been doing it since I was a kid and I know it's always been in me. You get beyond the stage of asking yourself that.
“All I know now is that it's better than being off the road for months on end. I enjoy being off the road, but it takes you quite a few weeks to get adjusted to not touring. It's like a different state of living.
“The problem is that we're not off the road long enough to get into the other way of living. You can overwork, too, if you're not careful. You can become a workaholic.
“I think we strike a balance, but we've been on the road so long that we feel kinda guilty if we're not playing. That's crazy, isn't it?
“If I get a few jam sessions together, it's great. Sometimes, back at home, you can drift into a club and have a really vibrant session.
“I love jamming, but it's becoming harder and harder to find places to do it. Music in Britain is slowly losing that type of intimate immediacy. There has been a type of backlash.
“The pub rock thing was a bit of a backlash. It's great to get away from that big ultra concert circuit. Everything tends to become a definite pattern if you don't.
“We've been lucky, particularly in the States. We've had a fair mixture of gigs. Once you restrict yourself to being a big concert market artist, you end up doing 20 gigs a year in the States in stadiums.
“Then you go back and that's it, that's not for me. If you do nothing but stadiums, it gets boring. I'd miss doing the clubs and colleges. Wanting to keep your feet in couple of different pitches can slow up your success as well.
“I don't really think it's held us back. When I came to the States, I wanted to come up the slow way and make it mean something to me. At the same time, I don't want it to take 50 years, mind you.
“I was prepared to work for a couple of years rather than just appear in one week in all the papers in America. I think the way I've done it means something not only to me, but to the audience.
“We could have had a couple of shortcuts along the way had we wanted. If we had wanted to top at Madison Square Garden, I suppose we could have done it. In a certain amount of time with a lot of push and hype, but then you have to give yourself a cast iron image and live by that and that's it. I don't want to give a definite image to the public.”
After the San Jose gig, kids hang around outside hoping for a word with Rory. One calls to him: “Hey, man, you gotta do something for me – my friend couldn't make it and I want you to sign this for him.” Rory obliges. Others look for plectrums. Rory obliges. They ask for guitar playing advise. He gives it.
His appeal is in being down to earth.
“Gawd, it's great to see a guy just walk on there and play” one youth shouts. Gallagher is prepared to stand and chat to the fans for as long as it takes to tell them what they want to know.
“I get a kick out of talking to fans outside” he says. “I'd hate to be hustled into a limousine and have a big executive telling people: “you can't talk to this guy. He's private property, ‘ and all that.
“Besides, you meet somebody at the back of the hall and you can get a very interesting bit of criticism from them. That's the place to hear what's going on. Artists shouldn't have a superiority complex.
“Just because you're an entertainer doesn't give you any right to look down on people. I'm not into images, but I like watching other artists with images.
“I like watching the whole music scene relative from my standpoint. It leaves enough leeway for me to be the person I want to be as opposed to having to be a certain type of artist.
“I couldn't bear having people come to see me just because I wear checked shirts and jeans. It's what I wear all the time, so it's no really an image. I'd hate to have to wear a space suit just to keep up with the Joneses.
“I suppose people expect me to wear what I wear, but that's only because I've worn it for so long. It goes back to people I admire, people like Muddy Waters.
“It depends on the influence. If I were influenced by, say, Little Richard, I'd probably be into dressing up like him, but people I've always liked don't do that.
“I'm interested in creating excitement with the bare minimum of effects, the music, as opposed to using smoke bombs on time or pressing the button on time or putting the tape machine on on time.
“ I like to create effects by simply playing the music. That's the sort of thing I admire most in musicians. The excitement must be in the music.
"But I refuse to criticize the rest of the music scene. The trouble with the music scene is that people expect you to defend your own stance by criticizing everybody else's.”
Winterland, the scene of the following night's gig, is just down the street from the hotel. The band walks to the sound check. Already punters are queuing up outside. Rory is being supported by two acts tonight – Gary Wright and the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
Gallagher is full of praise for his own band.
“The band can always do with an ounce more credit. I think people who come along see that they are playing an important part. My playing is very much effected by the vibes between us.
“Besides having a separate identity as a guitarist, I like to look on the band as the Gallagher Band because there is so much interplay. The boys played exceptionally well on the new album.”
From the moment the set opens, the only effect the band uses is the music. They can't rely on a light show because the lights’ man is about as fast as a hedgehog. It's all down to the people and the music.
“Tattoo’d Lady an encore number the previous night, is promoted to the middle of the set, and gets a great cheer. There is no planning, no previous calculation to win applause or create atmosphere. It's all spontaneous.
There's no conferring in the dressing room. It all depends on how Gallagher feels that night.
It does the heart good just to perceive how honest the whole act is.
“Some artists will not record live album, but I think they're valid, “ Gallagher will comment. “We've done quite a few. There were two Taste ones, the Isle of Wight gig and Montreux, neither if which had the official papal blessing.
“The tragedy with those was that a live album didn't come out at the height the Taste career. There were just the two tapes of the band at the last two gigs, which certainly aren't the happiest times to recall.”
“I've been really pleased with ‘Live in Europe’ and ‘Irish Tour 74’. I like the live things because it proves you can do it live.
“During the Polydor (his previous company) era, I had two studios and one live, two studios and one live, I think I'll spread that out a bit now and do three or four studios before a live one,
“Some artists do a live album when they can't come up with new stuff, but if you check back on the two live albums we did, at least half the material was previously unrecorded. It wasn't a case of having to get an album out.
“At the moment though, it would be premature to put out another live album. If we continue to get more and more excitement on studio albums, there might be no need to do them.
“We probably still do them because they help capture the band in its live state at whatever period it's recorded. It's also nice for audiences at the live shows because they can remember the shows and relate to them….”
San Francisco conquered; we leave for LA. The gig at the Santa Monica Civic has already sold out, and “Welcome Rory Gallagher “ says a sign outside the Hyatt Continental Hotel, where the band is based for the week.
Within an hour of arriving at the Hyatt, each member of the band, plus Donal, Gallagher's brother, has received a series of phone calls from various ladies wishing to acquire tickets for the show that night.
"Some of these girls think that if you look at them in the bar, they're your best friend" Rory remarks.
Just before going on that night, Gallagher takes off his guitar and pulls away from the rest of the band. He wants a little silence, just to get his thoughts together, he pours himself a drop if whiskey and stands still.
Fingers to his temples, he presses and closes his eyes. It's all to get into the right frame of mind for performing.
Gallagher fever is at its highest in Santa Monica. At the San Francisco gigs, fans showed their appreciation with the traditional lighting of matches after the gig. Here, they're doing it even before the band comes on. "Tattoo" is now the first number on the agenda, and the place goes berserk as Rory produces the first solo of the night.
Midway through the set, however, Rory applies calm as he plays three acoustic numbers.
"It's a nice challenge to be able to play acoustic on stage. I thrive on challenge. I like to play acoustic things if the hall sound is half reasonable. It's very hard to play it sometimes.
"I think people have different roles in a show, rather than have all rock and roll all the way through, I like to create different moods.
"The music, however, isn't that different. The acoustic and electric might appear different, but they're not. It goes to prove that there is a strong connection between rock and blues and folk.
"I'd like to be able to do an acoustic, bluesy things, 1975 style and still be able to throw back a few shadows from that old era. You can get that with that old National guitar. It's a sound that conjures up streets of 40 years ago.
"I've been thinking for a long while about doing an acoustic album. People come up and ask when it's coming out. I'll have to do it some day, maybe next year.
"I've a lot of acoustic stuff that I've written over the years that I've never been able to use onstage. It wouldn't be just a laid-back acoustic album because there are so many types of acoustic feels."
The Gallagher band' popularity in the States becomes evident in each gig. By the time the tour ends (sometime in January - they return after the British tour) they'll be well established there.
Gallagher comments that he'd like to play more in Ireland. "But we're just so busy. We tried to get a festival together there in the summer, but we had problems with the site and we ran out of time.
"Hopefully we'll be playing in Dublin, Cork and Belfast at Christmas.
"I know I could stop for a year completely and come back and still have plenty to do, but then again, I like touring so I don't want to stop.
"Journalists have been using the hard-working Rory thing as a backhanded compliment for years. I hate that tag of being 'the hardest working guy' in the business because it's an easy cop out.
"I'd prefer them to say that they don't like my music, rather than say that. "Hardworking' doesn't mean anything. Our music thrives on touring. It gets slicker. It's that kind of music.
"To me, doing 12 gigs a year is crazy. I couldn't work like that. I'm against musician getting that lazy if they suddenly become successful. You've got to work at what you play.
"It's my hobby; it's
my hobby and has been since I was a kid. I'm too restless and nervous
a person to let the reputation take over. Nothing is a forgone conclusion.
I don't like saying, "We'll sell out tonight, no sweat". THAT is death."
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