Tangled up in Blues
Interview by Liam Fay
The Rory Gallagher Story - a star studded saga of music, magic, mayhem, merriment and the highs and lows of the long and winding road.
He suffered a lot. His health was bad. He had a problem with drink. His relationships with women were all messed up because of his work. And he got a lot of hassle from the authorities and the establishment. But still, he stayed true to what he wanted to do and he laid down the definitive rules for what's become known as the hard-boiled school of writing."
Rory Gallagher is talking about his great personal hero, Dashiell Hammett, but there is a strong sense in which he is also talking about himself. At forty-four, Gallagher is not a man without regrets. "I've toured more than any other artist in Europe" he says ruefully, "I've toured too much for my own good. It hasn't left time for very much else, unfortunately. You don't develop any family life or anything like that and it makes all your relationships very difficult. There's always a certain percentage missing from your life. As a human being, you only have so much to give, not just in terms of your physical body but in how you deal with people."
It's Rory's physical body, however, which bears the most visible effects. No longer the lean-looking guitar-slinger of yore, he nowadays favours dark sunglasses, not as a fashion affectation, but because light, any kind of light, hurts his eyes. Over the years, he has also developed what he calls a "ragbag" of neuroses. For example, he has become an obsessive painting straightner and cannot stand to be in a room where there are pictures hanging at even the slightest slant.
"The blues is bad for your health," he says with a shrug. "It's as simple as that. Look at the list, Jimmy Reed was epileptic, Howlin' Wolf ended up on a kidney machine, most of all the other big names were alcoholics. Muddy Waters was one of the few guys that got that under control. People like Skip James never could. And when Howlin' was on dialysis and he stopped drinking, it affected his performance, strangely enough. So drink and the blues are closely linked, one feed off the other. It goes with the territory."
photo by Charlie Gili at the Lonestar Cafe NY
Rory is on a roll now. We're sitting in one of his favourite London haunts, a small Chelsea wine-bar where the waitresses buzz about their most famous regular customer with a maternal and protective air, relaying phone messages for him and playing his favourite tapes on the bar sound system. Rory is taking alternate sips of cappuccino and white wine, and literally rubbing his hands together with glee as he talks about people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed.
"It's a hoary old cliché but I still live and breathe the blues," he admits. "I'm still fascinated with it and with the people who make it. It's my life. Even when I'm not touring or writing, I listen to it all the time. I don't watch television. I might watch the odd bit of tennis, or boxing or football but since the Tories won the last election, I've given up on television altogether. The only newspapers that I read are the Irish Sunday papers, just to keep up with what's happening on the mainland (laughs). I still like thrillers, Hammett, Chandler, Patricia Highsmith. But apart from that, music is all I do. I listen to a lot but keep going back to the big guys, the all-time blues greats.
He's far too unassuming and modest to ever say it, or probably even think it, but Rory Gallagher himself is now one of the all-time blues greats. His popularity has ribboned the globe and the esteem, and indeed awe, in which he is held by most of his peers, is unquestioned. From Muddy Waters to The Rolling Stones to Jerry Lee Lewis, he has also received the personal imprimaturs of most of rock's truly great legends.
It's also worth noting for the record that, in Irish terms, Rory Gallagher's contribution is immense. Long before Thin Lizzy, U2, Sinead O'Connor et al were ever even heard of, Gallagher was making inroads into international markets and putting Ireland on the world's musical map. He was, quite simply, the first ever Irish rock star.
Born on March 2nd, 1948, Rory Gallagher was originally christened Liam Gallagher but, unforgivably, decided to jettison that excellent first name at an early stage and adopt the infinitely more banal 'Rory'. "There was no saint Rory and I liked the idea of not having a saint's name. Anyway, I think my mother preferred 'Rory' to 'Liam', he says in a flimsy defense of his actions.
He grew up in West Cork and was enthralled by music from an early age, especially the traditional music which his parents and their friends would play in the Gallagher household at weekends. At the age of nine, he acquired his first acoustic guitar and it was around that time too that he developed what was to become a life-long love of twiddling radio knobs. "We didn't have a record player when I was growing up," he recalls. "So I spent a lot of time tuning into Radio Luxembourg, BBC and the AFN (Armed Forces Network) from Germany. The first electric blues I heard was Muddy Waters on AFN. It was very late one night and it came across real clear. He was playing a slide Telecaster and that really hit me. So the following weekend, I went into the library in Cork and I got books out on the origins of blues. Then I started getting into Lonnie Donnegan and Ledbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. And then Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and all the rock 'n' rollers. The more I heard the more I got addicted.
Having spent several years touring Ireland and England and playing Jim Reeves covers with The Fontana Showband (who were also known as Impact), Rory Gallagher formed his own band in 1966. They had numerous false starts and setbacks - the fact that they were a guitar-based blues trio initially made them very unattractive to most club owners who favoured four-piece 'beat' combos at the time - but the group eventually established itself and after numerous name-changes finally settled on the moniker of Taste.
With Richard "Charlie" McCracken on Bass and John Wilson on drums, Taste gigged extensively throughout Europe and quickly earned a legendary reputation as the hardest working band on the blues circuit. Albums like "Taste" ('69), "On The Boards" ('70), "Live" ('70) and the posthumous classic "Live At The Isle Of Wight" ('71) won them huge acclaim, with Rory's incendiary axing already being described as one of the most distinctive sounds in rock.
Against the backdrop of the death of Jimi Hendrix in September 1970 and Eric Clapton's ongoing descent into parody Gallagher seemed perfectly poised to become the world's top international guitar hero. Unfortunately, severe managerial problems and the realisation that they had been mercilessly ripped off by a variety of parties brought about the premature demise of Taste in October 1970.
Rory Gallagher is reluctant to go back over what he describes as "ancient history" but his rage is still palpable when he recalls how ruthlessly he was exploited during The Taste days.
"Yeah, I feel very angry about all of that," he says. "I don't like to think about it that often because it upsets me. I always believe that what I do should be outlaw music. My attitude in a funny kind of way was always a punk attitude. I think all the best artists are outside of the system so I was never into being all wise and clued-up on the financial side of things. But I obviously ignored it too much and allowed people to rip me off.
"I don't want to get wound up about this. I don't hold grudges and some of the people involved are actually dead since (pause). But, contrary to popular opinion, I never made a penny out of The Taste. There's been legal things going on until this year so it has actually cost me money. The whole thing has made me very wary of music business people. I don't give a damn about the money. It's people who let you down that bothers me most."
Signs on it. For most of his solo career, Rory Gallagher has been managed by his younger brother, Donal. "He's a superb character, a gift from God," says Rory. "I don't think I'd have stuck with it so long if it wasn't for Donal. I'm so suspicious of people and I don't think a different manager would put up with my whims. It's not that I'm difficult - I find myself very easy to understand (laughs) - but the business side, you know, really bugs me. I'd love to move out of London. I'd like to go back to Ireland. It'd be great to live in Dublin and let all the business stuff just tick over in London.
As for the oft-suggested prospect of a Taste reunion?
"Well, I've recently re-established a friendly atmosphere with the guys," says Rory. "They want to do a reunion but I don't know. I think Taste is not something that will ever happen again. I don't like going back. I just want to go forward and try to stretch myself.
During the early seventies, Rory Gallagher's numerous sorties into America, coupled with his fast-swelling reputation brought him into contact with the blues pioneers whom he had grown up listening to, people like Freddie King, Howlin' Wolf, Albert King and, of course, Muddy Waters.
In small, smoky acoustic clubs across the continent, he would sit and watch his heroes play and, on occasion, would even be called onstage for a jamming session. It was in this way that he made contacts which eventually led to his being asked to play on Muddy Waters' historic "London Sessions" alongside such notables as Stevie Winwood, Georgie Fame and Mitch Mitchell in 1972. The very mention of that period now is enough to light up Rory's face.
"It was a real honour," he recalls with a smile. "The whole thing has stuck in my memory like a video. I can plug it in at any time and replay it in my head. I only wish I could do it again with my experience now because Muddy taught me an awful lot during those sessions and I came out a much better player than I went in.
"I used to have to play gigs in different parts of the country in the evenings and then, afterwards, I'd drive up to London for those recordings, and they'd hold up the sessions 'till I arrived. So I'd finish in, say, Birmingham at 10.30 p.m. and then I'd jump in the car and drive like the devil to get there as soon as I could. Muddy'd give me a glass of red wine when I'd arrive and we'd start playing at midnight or 1 am which is my time of the day. Just watching him tuning his guitar or doing something like "Walkin' Blues" was wonderful for me. And the great thing about that album was that it wasn't just a token black 'legend' with a load of Europeans. He had his own musicians as well. He had Carey Bell on harp and Sammie Lowe, lately deceased, God rest him, on guitar. They were magical nights.
"Muddy Waters had great strength of character," continues Rory. "He was always very polite but he could also be very powerful if he didn't like something. He could do it with the click of his fingers, without causing an argument or ruining the vibe. He'd just quietly say to the drummer 'pick it up a wee bit there' and it happened.
"He had a lovely Buddha-like countenance, great authority. You knew he was in charge of things but you could also make suggestions to him. Georgie Fame suggested a few things and so did I and he always listened. This was the early seventies and he still had a few years to live but it was after the crash and his back was bad. He was often in great pain but he never got nasty. That wasn't his nature at all."
To this day, Rory has kept a special momento of those sessions.
"After the recordings, I drove him back to his hotel a few times," he explains. "I've kept that car ever since as a sort of shrine because Muddy sat in it. It's an old Ford Executive, a real Hawaii 5-0 car with stars and stripes down the side, and it's sitting at home in front of our house in Cork. It's falling apart at the seams but I refuse to scrap it or anything. I can still see Muddy in the front seat, smoking these cigars with a big plastic tip on them.
"I only wish I'd had a Super 8 camera to capture all that stuff. I know one of the guys from Chicago took some shots and I'd love to get them for my grandchildren, if I ever have grandchildren. It's a beautiful memory for me."
Throughout the seventies, Rory Gallagher's services as a guitar-slinger for hire were in premium demand. He played on a vast array of seminal seventies blues albums including Mike Vernon'' "Bring It Back Home", Lonnie Donnegan's "Puttin' On The Style" and Mike Batt's "Tarot Suite". In 1973 he also appeared alongside Peter Frampton, among others, on Jerry Lee Lewis' infamous "London Sessions".
Rory does not recall those recordings with the fondness of the Muddy Waters sessions but he says he did find it intriguing to work in close proximity to such a volatile character as The Killer.
"There was a strange sense of violence and madness around whenever Jerry Lee was in the room," he says. "Whenever anyone annoyed him, he'd immediately pull up his left trouser leg and go for his sock as if he had a gun in it. I never actually saw him with a gun in the studio but I'm sure if he'd had, he'd have shot somebody. There was always a borderline of danger about him which I think is necessary for real rock 'n' roll."
A year or so after the release of those "London Sessions", Rory and a few friends were invited to a special Jerry Lee Lewis showcase gig at the Roxy club in Los Angeles. The concert began equably enough and the audience was really starting to get into it when who should walk in but one John Lennon.
"Lennon was going through his LA phase at the time and his hair was really short but everyone still recognised him and they all turned around to look at him as he took his seat in the balcony," recalls Rory. "Needless to say, the fact that he was being upstaged drove Jerry Lee wild. He started to do the "Jerry Lee Rag" but everybody was still looking up at Lennon and whispering about him. All of a sudden, Jerry Lee stopped and started on about how The Beatles were shit and The Stones were shit and there ain't nobody could play real rock 'n' roll the way Jerry Lee could. Lennon loved this. He had his boot up on the balcony and he started egging Jerry Lee on, shouting (adopts convincing Lennon voice) 'yeah, you're right there man, The Beatles are shit!' People started laughing but Jerry Lee thought that Lennon was shouting abuse at him so he freaked out altogether. He just pushed the piano across the stage and stormed off."
The atmosphere in The Roxy was understandably tense. Most people left, fearing that Jerry Lee might go on the rampage with one of the firearms that everyone knew he always carried with him. Others stuck around hoping to witness just such an eventuality. As it happened, Rory Gallagher had a backstage pass and wanted to go in to Jerry Lee's dressing room to try and cheer him up and calm him down. Rory's brother and manager, Donal, warned against this and argued that he would be risking his life to enter such a fearsome lion's den at a time like this. Enter, at this delicate juncture, Tom O'Driscoll.
O'Driscoll is a brick-shithouse of a man from Scull, Co. Cork. A fisherman by trade, he has acted as Rory's unofficial bodyguard for almost two decades and still travels most places with him today. Donal Gallagher agreed that Rory could go backstage provided that O'Driscoll went with him. "I wasn't too afraid of Jerry Lee because I had worked on the sessions with him," says Rory. "But everybody else was obviously very scared because there was nobody else in the dressing room when Tom and I went in."
It took considerable diplomacy and tact on Gallagher's part but gradually he managed to coax Jerry Lee out of his sulk. "We actually got to the point where we were just chatting away, reminiscing about the sessions and that kind of thing." Rory recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, the door opened and in walked Lennon. There was dead silence for a couple of seconds. I just stared at Jerry Lee to see how he was going to react. But Tom O'Driscoll couldn't resist this opportunity. He was a huge Beatles fan and he just went over to Lennon, dropped down on his knees, kissed his hand and said 'I've been waiting twenty years to get the autograph of the king of rock 'n' roll'!
photo by Hans Ivarsson
"Of course, this drove Jerry Lee completely wild. He went for his sock, thinking that he had a gun in it and then he started looking around for something to throw or break. Lennon could see all this so he quickly signed Tom's piece of paper and then, to diffuse the situation, he took the pen and another piece of paper from Tom and went across the room to Jerry Lee. He did exactly what Tom had done to him. He went down on his knees, kissed Jerry Lee's hand and said 'I've been waiting twenty years to get the autograph of the real king of rock 'n' roll'. Jerry Lee was delighted. He signed the scrap of paper and they started talking then and everything was fine. It was a wonderful moment."
Despite possessing an extensive canon of stories as eminently quotable as the foregoing, Rory Gallagher is not someone who drops names lightly. In fact you'd need something resembling a crow bar to prise some recollections from him. For example, he is particular reticent about recalling the time when he almost became a fully paid-up member of The Rolling Stones. When I ask about it, he just shrugs and gives me a sure-t'was-nothin' grin.
"Well it was before Ronnie Wood joined and they were auditioning lots of players," he concedes. "I did a little stint with them and I think Mick Jagger liked me and wanted me to join. But Keith was in a pretty bad way at that time so I wasn't sure if they were going to get it together at all. There was a lot of uncertainty. Then, I'd been booked to do some gigs in Japan so I headed off and that was the last I heard. It just wasn't to be I guess."
Rory is equally understated about another close encounter with yet another rock legend, which happened after a gig in The Shrine Auditorium in LA in late 1978. Gallagher had played a stormer of a show and the capacity crowd had loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, the jet lag and the general rigours of touring were catching up with him and he was too exhausted for any post-show meeting and greeting. Conscious of this, Donal positioned himself outside Rory's dressing room and proceeded to turn all visitors away.
Most of the well-wishers understood the situation and left without any hassle but there was one strange-looking guy with straggly hair and a scarf around his face who wanted to talk to Rory and just wouldn't take no for an answer. When he became too insistent, Donal started to get more forceful and told him in no uncertain terms that Rory wanted to be left alone. Eventually, this over zealous fan relented and turned to leave but not before telling Donal that he was a musician himself and that he was impressed with Donal's resolve and dedication to 'looking after the man'. It was several minutes later that somebody pointed out to Donal that the person he had just chased away was actually Bob Dylan.
"This threw poor old Donal into a panic 'cause he knew I was a huge Dylan fan." laughs Rory. "So he ran out after him and looked everywhere for this fella with the scarf. Eventually he found him and put out his hand to shake Dylan's hand. Then, he literally grabbed him and dragged him back to the dressing room. Dylan was very nice. He said he liked the show and all the rest and we talked a bit about the blues and that. I'm usually not starstruck by any of these people but it really was great to meet Dylan. He's one of my all-time heroes.
Given the number of collaborative ventures in which Rory Gallagher has been involved over the years, it would seem a little odd that he never got around to working with that other titan of Irish rock, Van Morrison. It appears, however, that the two were actually scheduled to record together on at least one occasion, during the making of Morrison's 1978 album "Wavelengths".
photo by Charlie Gili at the Lonestar Cafe NY
A date was arranged, studio space was booked and Rory turned up at the appointed place and time, rarin' to go. Unfortunately, Van proved only too true to type and lived up to his reputation for being, shall we say, unpredictable. While Gallagher and the other session musicians waited around the studio and played pool to pass the time, Van flitted nervously about the premises for awhile and then disappeared altogether. As evening and then night arrived, he was still totally unlocatable and the session was eventually aborted in the early hours of the morning.
"We won't go into all that," says Rory with characteristic tact. "Let's just say I was kept waiting so I left. We're still relatively good friends and we get on well when we meet. He's older than me, not that that matters, but if we do work together, it can't be under Van's conditions all the time. I've always been very proud that if someone books me and expects certain things, I turn up on time and give them what they want. It's a principle. I'd love to have done the "Wavelengths" tracks 'cause Dr. John was producing and it could've been very good. But Van and me, it's like the meeting of the waters, we'll have to work together sometime. Maybe if he reads this we can get together soon. But it can't be just on Van's terms."
Like Rory Gallagher says, playing the blues is probably hazardous for your health but if you talk to him about his three decades of globe-trotting and ask where is the most dangerous place he's ever been, he'll answer without hesitation. "On stage," he says emphatically. "I've almost been killed on numerous occasions. I've had so many close shaves, especially in the early days, that it's made me quite nervous about the whole thing."
There was a gig in Turin, Italy in the early seventies, for example, when Rory fell off the stage and the crowd actually applauded, thinking it was part of his act.
"On the left side of the stage, there was this big hollow pit which I didn't see," he recalls with a shiver. "It was obviously for lifting gear up and so on but I never even noticed it. I was just running across the stage when all of a sudden I began to feel myself falling. I put my hands out to stop myself and I grabbed on to this metal bar and was swinging from it like Tarzan. Of course my guitar started to feedback and, all of a sudden, I realised that the crowd were clapping. They were going wild. They loved it. And there I was, in serious danger of death! Eventually, after several minutes, I closed my eyes and swung up on the stage again. Immediately, I got another round of applause. So I ran across the stage again and played another couple of notes (laughs). I got great reviews, great praise for my 'acrobatic' performance.
Then there was the gig in Nottingham during the early seventies when the stage was invaded. Immediately, the bold Tom O'Driscoll leapt into action and start chuck the invaders back into the crowd. In the melee, however, he also wound up throwing the star of the show, guitar and all, off the stage and into the heaving masses.
"That was a stage-dive and a half, I'll tell ya," says Rory. "It was one of Tom's first gigs with me and it was a real baptism of fire for him. The crowd was going bananas but I landed among them on my feet so I played a couple of bars and scrambled back onstage before anyone knew what happened. Strange to say, Tom O'Driscoll still works with me (laughs).
A rather more serious incident took place a little later at a football stadium gig in Athens, Greece when Rory and his band found themselves at centre of a mass riot.
"It was just after the Greek coup and they were having the first free elections they'd had for a while," he explains, "A short while into the show, I started to see all these flames, way at the back of the stadium. They were burning down restaurants and shops on the streets outside the gig. I think they wouldn't let enough people into the stadium or else they let too many in but, anyway, the police arrived and started to fire CS gas at us. It was the most frightening gig I've ever done. That CS gas is dangerous stuff. It messes up your eyes and you can't see where you're going or anything.
When we eventually got backstage, there was so much confusion that we couldn't be sure who was going to protect us and who might attack us. There were those semi-militia guys walking around and they looked very threatening. So we just jumped into a car and tried to head back to the hotel. Then, on the way, we ran out of petrol so we had to walk. And there was so much going on, it was a nightmare. We were soaking wet and our eyes were watering and we were all literally trembling. The gig itself had been great by the way. But it was very frightening. I just didn't want to die in a football pitch in Greece, not even knowing what was happening."
On a more mundane but equally dangerous level, the greatest constant threat to a musician's safety, especially during the sixties and seventies was the perennial problem of faulty onstage wiring.
"I knew Les Harvey, Alex Harvey's brother and he was electrocuted by bad wiring," says Rory. "That left a terrible mark on me. It's such a stupid, futile way to go. Like, if you're going to go, go in a revolution or something. Get shot by a firing squad for doing something worthwhile but don't get killed by an electric shock. I'm very nervous about all that. I've been electrocuted several times myself. The worst time was in a studio in Cork with the showband in the early days and I nearly hit the roof. It takes a hell of a long time to get over something like that. I don't think you ever do.
Of course, what keeps people like Rory Gallagher going are the great gigs, the shows when everything clicks into place and the person onstage can literally do no wrong.
I've got so many favourite gigs," he enthuses. One of the best has to be a show we did in Belfast in 1973. It was at the height of the troubles and we just didn't know how it was going to go. There was a lot of trouble out on the streets but the atmosphere inside was electric, it was a real we-shall-overcome kinda night. With all due respect to audiences we've had in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, there was something really special about the crowd in Belfast that night. A gig we did in Cork where we recorded most of the "Irish Tour" album in 1974 was fantastic too. I also remember Hamburg… I probably sound like Marlene Dietrich but there have been some really great moments. Great memories."
The last cup of cappuccino that Rory ordered an hour ago remains untouched on the table, cold and congealed. The white wine, however, is flowing in torrents. And Rory's starting to get a little sentimental, honing in on his twin obsessions, Ireland and the blues, and how much they both mean to him.
He admits to feeling particularly homesick at the moment. A recent brief stint recording in London with his old friends The Dubliners (adding guitar, harmonica and vocals to a couple of tracks on their soon-to-be-released anniversary album) has only heightened his sense of longing for the auld sod.
I loved meeting Ronnie and the lads again," he says. I've always had a soft spot for The Dubliners since I first met them in the sixties. We were playing a show with Dickie Rock and The Miami Showband in the Savoy in Cork. And because we were way down the bill, we weren't even allowed to change in the dressing room. So we were out in the hall changing when Ronnie opened the door - The Dubliners were second on the bill so they had a room to themselves - and he said come on in and use our room with us. Luke was there and Ciaran Burke and all the rest and they were very nice. It was a small gesture but I'll never forget it. So I loved meeting them and playing with them again this week. And they're still nice lads. Ronnie gave me a present of a book of little short stories, "The Irish Bedside Book" it's called. And all of this has made me feel really homesick.
I'd love to go back and live there if I could get myself together," he adds. If I can get organised enough to get out of here, I will be back. I'm constantly thinking mentally of Ireland. I listen to RTE radio most nights on my little gadget, a drum machine cum radio cassette that I take everywhere. In Europe you can pick up RTE as far south as Munich. I was in Paris one night during the last general election and it was great to be able to pick up John Bowman doing his broadcasting. Like I say, I get the Irish papers, especially the Sundays - tell Liam Mackey. I read his soccer column in the Sunday Press and I don't agree with him. (laughs).
"I also try to keep up with Irish albums. I just got Sharon Shannon's and Maire Ní Braonain's new albums and I'm looking forward to them. All that stuff is very important to me. I'd really love to go back. It could be good for me. I have one or two friends in Ireland and I'd like to get up to Donegal as well and get me old mind sorted out. It's probably what I really need right now.
In the meantime, however, Rory Gallagher's profile as an artist is set to step up a gear or two over the coming months. This week, for example, sees the release of Edged in Blue", an eleven track retrospective of some of Rory's own favourite songs from his back catalogue. A box set of bootleg material is also planned for later this year ("Next to Dylan and The Stones, I have the privilege of being the most bootlegged artist in Western Europe," says Rory). At this moment, he is also toying with the idea of recruiting some new musicians to give himself a fresher sound for his next studio album which he fervently hopes will be recorded within the next couple of months. Offers of tours are also flooding in from everywhere from Moscow to New York - and don't be too surprised if there is a rare and welcome Dublin appearance before too long too.
But it's all in the future. Right now we're draining our glasses and, as a parting shot, I'm asking Rory why he isn't wearing his trademark lumberjack's shirt. Curiously, it's a throwaway question, which appears to disconcert him more than any other single subject.
"At the moment, I just can't wear them to be honest with you," he says mournfully. "I know it's peculiar but it's just a psychological thing. That denim jacket and check shirt have become like a stigmata to me. I never treated it as a uniform but that's what it has become over the years, a uniform that I just don't want to wear anymore. Lately, I wear an ordinary black shirt and a black jacket when I'm on stage. Right now, I feel a lot happier in black."
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