Taste of the blues
The recent death of
Rory Gallagher has robbed us of one of the finest bluesmen of the
age. For many of us growing up in Ireland, Gallagher personified the moment when we
first felt we were no longer living in some cultural backwater.
Like most of my friends
I was infatuated by music from my early teens. The Beatles,
the Stones and Dylan were our heroes, and we despised anything and everything
connected with the Irish record industry.
The Irish scene was
dominated by two strains: the showband, which was normally
made up of ten to 15 young or not so young men dressed in identical suits who did
murderous cover versions of British hit singles, and Country & Irish bands who would sing about geographical locations spanning from 'my old maw in Kentucky' to the closer to home 'road by the river that flows through Raheen'.
The only exception to all this was Them with Van Morrison, but they were from the North and that didn't really count, especially when one of the band was reported to have responded to a question about being Ireland's first rock group by saying, 'We're British.'
Rory was one of ours, born in Donegal, and brought up in our own home town, Cork.
When his first real band, Taste, burst onto the scene in the late 1960s we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. They were not some top ten bubblegum group, but were playing raw hard electric blues, the most hip music of the time.
Gallagher seemed capable of doing anything with a guitar, and with none of the accessories that many of his contemporaries began using. There were no wawa pedals or clever electronic gadgets to make the guitar produce unusual sounds, but still he produced them.
His trademark became a beaten up old Fender Stratocaster, but he also played wonderful acoustic guitar, stunning bottleneck blues, and--a highlight of most of his 1960s and 1970s concerts--an electric mandolin which he played on a song called 'Going to My Home Town' for which there was a clapping routine for his audience, all of whom seemed to know it instinctively.
Gallagher's recordings in that period were probably his best, and there is little doubt that his two finest albums were both live: Live in Europe and Irish Tour 74. This is because, in the great blues tradition, Gallagher was first and foremost a live performer.
His concerts were
almost like family affairs, and we wouldn't dream of going to see him in
anything other than check shirts, denim jackets and jeans, the uniform
of the man himself. Gallagher was also a fine vocalist and a talented songwriter
who eschewed the sort of gimmicks that helped bring fame to others. There
was no setting fire to his
guitar or smashing it against the amps.
Despite international success, there were none of the usual trappings of stardom. I had known him vaguely from childhood and I decided some years later after a few pints at a concert in Brighton that I would attempt to go backstage and remind him of our great friendship.
By the time I got past all the usual obstacles and got to the dressing room door I had sobered up considerably and realised that he probably wouldn't have a clue who I was. I was about to turn tail when the door opened and Gallagher was standing there. To my amazement he said, 'You're from Cork aren't you? Come in.'
I stepped in to what I presumed was going to be a haven of sex, drugs and rock and roll to find four or five guys sitting around surrounded by vast quantities of bottled Guinness. He ended up giving me a lift to London, and an open invitation backstage if ever I was at his concerts.
For three or four years after that, whenever I saw him perform I would take him up on the offer. He could talk all day about music. We shared a passion for Dylan, but his real heroes were the great black blues men of the past. It was to them and their music that he remained loyal even when it became unfashionable to do so.
He never followed the path of Clapton, from blues master to middle of the road crooner, nor did he try to cash in on the loathsome heavy metal revival of his last years. He just carried on doing what he loved, and we loved him for it.
When Mick Taylor left
the Rolling Stones, Gallagher was invited to join. He turned them down,
and told me that he just couldn't see himself as a Stone, leading that
sort of life, where the image and glamour become more important than the
music. After a long gap I went to see him with a friend two or three years
ago. The music was as good as
ever. I don't know why, but I didn't go backstage and therefore never met him again.
I haven't a clue what politics Gallagher had, but his genius combined with his dedication to his art, his lack of airs, graces and pretensions, and his unwillingness to sink into the mire of showbiz, all rightly earned this exceedingly nice man the title 'The People's Guitarist'.
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