RORY GALLAGHER: THE RETURN OF
THE WORLD'S BEST NORMAL GUITARIST
The Boy Next Door the Funny Accent
by Susan Whitall
This article is from CREEM Magazine, March 1979 editionTHE BROTHER-(AND SISTER-) HOOD
Simon Frith wrote in a recent Melody Maker, that he reckoned rock's best moments were live, not recorded: The lowliest band can, on the right night, achieve the impossible.” Probably the best way to introduce someone to Rory Gallagher would be to handcuff them, haul (their) ass to wherever in the world he's playing and sit back—Rory’ll do all the work, and then some. Failing that, you'll have to bear with me as I try to coax description out of words (troublesome) and images (subjective).
It's not to denigrate his recorded product, but something happens between Rory and an audience that makes the live dates magic. The audience seems to pick up immediately that he's not holding back, which in turn induces Wild In The Streets up and down the auditorium aisles. As Rory remarked, “If I was a punk, I’d kill myself.” No doubt sometimes he comes close. I watched him do a Chuck Berry duckwalk clean into an amp at the Bottom Line without serious repercussions, and I don't think Guinness is a general anesthetic. A serious student of Rory’s (and friend of Gerry McAvoy’s) I met in Toronto told me about the time he saw Rory do a backwards duckwalk onstage in Montreal, slip on some mystery fluid (extrait de amp cord?) and lay himself out flat on his back. What is strange is that he doesn't always remember afterwards, not the New York crash, anyway. Tom from Toronto theorized that he almost puts himself into a trance ... Look how macho he is onstage,”—we were watching Rory pace the stage like a thing possessed at the El Mocambo “and then look at how gentle he is offstage. Typical Pisces"... Wait a minute, I'm a Virgo. and we don't believe in astrology. Tough enough to stave off mysticism when you've got that to deal with.
THE CELTIC BOND
OK, so I know I'm Scottish, but I don't think about it every day. Covering Rory, with his Irish bassist, Scottish drummer and roadeyes consisting mostly of one or the other of those persuasions, really drove it home. Dining at the Tiffany just off Gramercy Park in N.Y. with Rory's brother/manager Donal and drummer Ted Mckenna (ex of the Sensational Alex Harvey band and yeah, Alex was some crazy guy), not surprisingly weirdness was the prevailing conversational topic and we covered it all, from occult religions to numerology to just-plain-insanity and back. Nothing like three morbid Celts, and it set me counting tableware and hearing voices for the next few days. Donal of course (being Irish) topped both of us when he related how he'd found himself in L.A. on August 9th. 1969. the day Sharon Tate was killed and his birthday. and he was with a band called Taste (S.Tate. .) OK. so maybe you have to have it in your genes . . . but Rory wasn't too interested in such things. In fact, at first impression it's ah—Donal’s the business brother and Rory’s the wacked-out musician brother. but not so. Rory’s the friendly advice-giving sort. Not eating: bad for you. Canadian beer: Try Labatt’s Blue. He dispensed cold medicine with the authority of the afflicted (the Coricidin bottles he uses later bottlenecks) and dosed himself gamely with honey when his throat gave out. That's offstage. of course. Onstage: wacko nutso.
Donal of course, being a rock n’ roll manager, must deal with the day-to-day problems of a band on the road. Like when some bouncers in Scotland decided that Rory’d played long enough, and they were going to go home. They got up from their chairs and slammed them up onto the stage, enraging Donal, who proceeded to bash one of the offenders over the head with one of the chairs in question, starting a general riot and getting himself banned from that particular Scottish city (no mean trick). One guy Donal bounced unsuccessfully: seems in Los Angeles after a show Rory didn't feel like seeing anybody in the dressing room—nobody. so Donal was put in charge of keeping them all out. This guy comes slinking up, shades just so. hair askew, leather zipped tight against his skinny bod...and Donal thinks “Oh yeah?” Hustles the guy out, in a friendly way, of course, the guy all the while mumbling "I’d just like to see him for a minute.” it isn't until he's turned to leave, in profile, that he is recognized as old Stoneface—Bobby Zimmerman himself. Donal hastens to apologize: Dylan is cool. Donal says OK but do me one favor . . . let me shake your hand. Dylan complies, and is dragged into the dressing room by said hand to a surprised Rory.
WHITE GIRL AT HAMMERSMITH ODEON
I was an unwitting spectator, in London. to the last gig Rory did with the band he'd had for six years: Rod de’Ath on drums. Lou Martin on keyboards. and (the only carryover besides Rory of course, Gerry on bass. Of course, the band didn't know it was their last live date as a unit. As Rory explained it, he simply felt the need for a change, after six years with the same line-up. That change turned out to be a return to the three-piece setup he'd first had with Taste in the late 60’s. As a last gig it was a scorcher, complete with beflanneled boys throwing their bodies against each other for joy. and ripping out their seats as an afterthought.
I made a big hit with everybody by losing our tickets in the haIl bar (kulchur shock: bars in concert halls!) after a scant two drinks, but we only got bounced from the place when the show was almost over.
After Hammersmith the band disappeared, and the most stalwart of Chrysalis pressmen shrugged helplessly in response to queries.
Even when the ‘new” band was beginning to record (having added Ted McKenna after extensive auditions), things didn't go smoothly. Recording in London was abruptly stopped (there was a news flash about Rory having cut a finger), and suddenly they were in a German studio. When I questioned him about it. Rory was sheepish. There'd been too many traffic lights on the way to the studio, he explained, (Neil Young take note!), hastening to add that it was just one small part of the general problem of too many distractions in a London studio. The German studio had a hotel right on the premises: no fooling around.
So as I caught up with the band on the fall/winter part of their ‘78 U.S. tour (a return promised in early spring), Photofinish was finally out, to become the topmost of a formidable stack of discs a kid staggered into Rory’s Toronto dressing room with, hoping for autographs. Kid had every official album. every bootleg you could imagine. every K-Tel rip-off and then some. He got his autographs
HEART OF THE CITY
Although Rory's tour-opening show in Detroit was great—almost on the strength of the sweaty vibes set off by fans starved for years (two, to be exact)—he'd had to overcome several technical mishaps; strings popping and his guitar strap giving out totally and for all time (at least that night). In New York I opined that the Bottom Line shows had been much better, but Rory disagreed, claiming that the Detroit had had its good points. It was an emotional defense, based more on his feeling for Detroit as an “unpretentious city (as opposed to “John Denver cities.” he explained). New York did present Rory with an un-precedented opportunity to play as long as he wanted: a truly mind-boggling proposition to those who know him. Rory first played the same set he'd done in Detroit, mixing songs from the new album with old favorites, ending with “Sea Cruise.” Then the encores.
It struck me, watching from beside the stage, that the Rorymania I saw in New York, in Detroit, in London, and in Toronto was curiously similar to Springsteenmania. Who else puts on 3-hour-plus shows, apologizes to the audience for technical snafus (as opposed to the Todd Rundgren school of thought: Find a roadie and kill him), and generally lays his heart bare for the fans, who repay him in turn with unabashed adoration...
As the audience surged forward for each encore, a strapping brunette sitting in front of my stageside perch would leap to her feet, slam her chair into my midsection and scream “Gerry! Gerry! Over here!” Which -brings me to my “What is it about bass players?” question ... a Circus writer brought his girlfriend backstage because she “thought Gerry was sexy, and wanted to make his acquaintance (awwww). Gerry does, like Rory, become a whirling dervish—well more dervish than whirling—onstage, perfecting Bass Playing as Your Basic Kinda Bliss and all, but also like Rory he's relatively shy offstage. So go figure.
Of course, the New York show was also attended by a well-known or two; after the show I spotted Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye standing with a group of people, looking tall. He'd spoken to Charlie, our art director, right after the set and said of the show (it was the first time he'd seen Rory): “It changed my life.”
A LINEMAN FOR THE COUNTY
My first sight of Toronto's El Mocambo en route to Rory’s show in November made me shudder: people were lined up and down Spadina Street two hours before showtime, and it was an eerie flashback to March ‘77 and the whole Stones melodrama. The wolf packs of people who'd been standing outside, with no hope of getting inside to see the Stones and pretty pissed off. We'd had a verbal promise from Jagger (who'd thought us a likely looking bunch of kids and who knows—maybe one of them even does work for CREEM) —that he'd let us in the front door at 9:30 sharp, but there was no chance in hell of us getting our bodies to the door as not one stalwart Canadian believed us and would make way. (Rory asked me if I really believed Jagger. Wot, me gullible?) Ah well.
You'll hear no Canadian jokes, though, out of me; I’d just as soon hear a band in Toronto, at the El Mocambo, as anywhere. You can't see perfectly from every seat (the Bottom Line's better for that), but the ambiance is pleasantly low-key, much as Rory described Detroit, None of the terminal chic of the big American cities. A lotta hair, though. It was like when we took a visiting Simon Firth to a Detroit punk show—he thought it looked like a Ted Nugent audience, for hair.
And the heavenly Canadian beer, in enormous bottles and yours for the Canadian buck. I had forgotten to eat as usual and was feeling disoriented on a few other counts, so I gratefully sunk my body down at a table, anticipating a good show to drive the mental clouds away.
Which is what happened—fourth show of Rory’s I’d seen in the space of a few weeks, but it was spirit-lifting, and different enough so that I heard new things. (Gerry remarked that he and Ted were often surprised when Rory would start improvising on a set tune.. only thing to do, he said, was try to follow wherever he was going. From some of the looks on Rory’s face, it looked like he was surprising himself.)
The people at the Mocambo were refreshingly hearty, after New York. Two cheerful girls in the ladies room offered me—a stranger and a foreigner to boot—a whiff of their smoke and chatted amiably. “I've never seen Rory," the tall blonde said. “but I hear he puts on a good show. But why’s he only playing one set? We c’d hardly get in here, for the crowd.”
Even the girl from the record company (Capitol, in Canada) was friendly. I remarked that the crowd hadn't donned flannels in homage to Rory—”they dress like this every day,” at which she smacked me on the arm:"You know, you really are a wiseass.”
A member of the sister-hood, wearing a brand spanking new “Rory Gallagher” T-shirt tucked into her jeans, came bouncing up to our table. “Do you know Gerry McAvoy?” she asked everybody and nobody. So do I exaggerate? Guys: pick up a bass guitar and clean up. The thing must be sending out some kind of weird intersexual vibes—enough to make that girl's G-string sing, anyway. Whew.
But (as always) I digress. Without even realizing it, there I sat in the same club, at the same table, with the number one honcho in the Brother-hood. The main guy. His name is John McDermid, and he's seen Rory play 19 or 20 times around the world, from Vancouver to Amsterdam and back again. He's worn out four copies of Tattoo (one of Rory’s best albums for Polydor)—and was currently working on the fifth. He works for Ontario Telephone as a lineman and listens to Rory in his off-hours,
This guy was heavy. He was beyond clapping for songs, and probably even more intense a critic of Rory's shows than R.G. himself, Clapping was too trivial—he was into it.
The handful of acoustic numbers Rory does to give the band a mid-set break was unexpectedly extended that night, due to Gerry McAvoy slipping in a puddle of water and plummeting down a flight of stairs. Donal Gallagher looked white: “I thought he was done in,” But Gerry recovered to take the stage again, if shakily, and even had a patient word or two afterwards for his excitable girl fan, although he sighed a bit longer than usual when she'd gone.
I asked John McDermid just what it was that had hooked him on Rory. He looked at me intensely and smacked his beer on the table. “First, I don't have to pay seven dollars for 15 minutes; Second, he's not gonna come out looking like he came from outerspace"
I dunno—did you look into his eyes tonight? Kind of spacey , , , I ducked. Don't mess with these guys...
The boys—John and a couple of friends—quizzed me on my job (I'm not sure they believed a frail girl could be trusted to write about their Rory), and even told me I shouldn't write the story, as I liked the band. Not objective enough! Purists, all of them.
Back to John's proud “doesn't look like he comes from outer space” comment. It is interesting that Rory has many new wave (no wave?) people numbering among his fans: on a recent tour of France with the English band Penetration, he was bewildered to discover great globs of phlegm winging their way towards him from the crowd. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to get mad or what until somebody assured him it was a sign of respect (albeit disgusting) from the French punks, who, strangely, didn't give the more avant Penetration a very warm reception.
There's no doubt Rory has mastered the fine art of bringing an audience to its knees; what he seems to be pondering now is expanding the audience for his recorded product. He's had a few acknowledged jazz periods (in fact, he played saxophone on Tattoo, “A Million Miles Away”—check me out. I wouldn't lie—and is an intense Ornette Coleman fan which I forgot to ask him about—kill me) you can hear a bit of this on Calling Card, too- Then a record like Against The Grain, heavy on the rave-ups so at my house it's in an ‘advanced state of vinyl rot.
The new album isn't a radical departure from the standard Rory mixture of folk-tinged ballads and rave-ups, except for the elimination of keyboards, but it's obvious Rory’s been thinking change for the past year, and it won't stop at a line-up shuffle.
It's easy to see how punk fans would plug into Rory’s intensity and the sheer wall of sound riffs he's capable of. Peter Laughner was a fan of Rory’s very much into the new wave; in between raving to me about Television over the phone once, he said he'd love to write a story on Rory Gallagher, and the November ‘76 story was the result. I had to break the news to Rory and the band about Peter’s death, which happened the summer after he was on the road with them; difficult when you haven't accepted the fact more than a year afterwards. There couldn't have been anybody more diametrically opposed in personality to Rory than Peter, but Rory liked him (read Peter’s story if you haven't), was visibly distressed when I told him the news, and wondered what could be at the root of such excess.
Which would seem odd considering the ocean of beer, whiskey and other potables that supposedly keeps the band afloat, right? Not really. I was counting drinks consumed one night that started out at the hotel bar, continued to the Johnny Thunders/ Mitch Ryder/Blondie show and ended up at the Abbey Tavern, and I officially ingested one more drink than Rory had—he left his final brandy at the table - And I'm no match for any serious drinker. Rory told me rather bemusedly how, reading a story on himself in the French rock magazine Rock & Folk, he'd found all kinds of foul language coming out of his mouth- Not too startling, except that he really doesn't talk like that. It's like the writer had such a vivid image of Rory as a hard-drinking, hard-living bluesman that he hallucinated him cussing like that. That and the language barrier, I guess.
Not that things aren't colorful enough on the road with the boys. A goodly percentage of Donal’s stories ended up " and then we got drunk and they kicked us out.” The ones that didn't, ended up with Rory missing a plane. New alcoholic vices were forthcoming every day for this writer (No, writers aren't obsessed with drink—this business just forces us into bars for our livelihood); I started the tour on Black Velvets (Guinness and champagne), progressed to a port wine and brandy mixture touted by both brothers, then onto good old Canadian beer and VO -for Toronto.
The El Mocambo had just hosted ‘Elvis Costello a few weeks earlier, hot on his “Wake Up Canada” tour (although a club bouncer, when pressed for a review, solemnly shook his head). Rory perked up when the subject of El’ came up, proclaiming himself a fan. “He's actually the most traditional kind of artist, you know ,“ he said. And the Blondie/Mitch/Johnny Thunders show in NYC: it was Johnny Thunders, the show opener, that Rory was most intent on seeing (forcing him to hustle the rest of the party over there) - his no-holds-barred corny to say it but I found it pleasant to see a musician so interested in other musicians: at one point backstage I counted four guitarists nattering away (not counting Sid Vicious, lurking elsewhere, and Robert Fripp who nobody could find), and the talk was pretty thick, what with Esquire bridge necks and all. (I amused myself making faces at old friend Mitch-)
WRITER PAUSES TO REFLECT
Possibly the difficulty in writing about Rory is, you can write a technical piece to throw musicians into frenzied orgasms over harmonics and arcane tunings, and every cut-of-the-way guitar shop Rory’s found. As Tom in Toronto said, “What it is about Rory - he's intelligent - He's a student of music, not a guitar-twanger.” (And a student of anything else you'd care to discuss with him: I chose movies as he's full of information, general and obscure. You want to talk Polanski? This is your man.)
Or you can try to capture the madness, the crazy rave-up guy who, looking at him onstage in Toronto in a pretty messed up green T-shirt (even for him), spinning around onstage, I didn't recognize at all the person I’d sipped brandy and discussed German decadence with.
But besides being a quiz to journalists, his unpredictability is probably a clue to Rory’s longevity with his fans: he never bores them.
article from Creem 3/79
reformatted by roryfan
Thanks to Michael Young for supplying this article
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