The Message: When I Was A Cowboy...

Sunday June 14 marks the 20th anniversary of the legendary Rory Gallagher's tragic death. While the world has changed in many ways, the trail-blazing guitarist's impact is still keenly felt...

Twenty years. It hardly seems believable that two decades have passed since the death of Rory Gallagher. But the calendar doesn’t lie. It is just that: twenty long years since the grim news came through on June 14, 1995. We are all older now, except, of course for the ones that weren’t even born back then – the Leaving Cert students and younger school kids who shuffled onto this mortal coil after that desolate Wednesday, when, in King’s College Hospital, London, the G-man slipped beyond the reach of those who had tried to save him.

So much has changed over those intervening years that the world might seem unrecognisable to Rory now. And yet and yet – in so many ways, the song remains the same.

In the first six months of 1995 alone, there were momentous events that would in their different ways reshape the world. The year began with Sweden, Finland and Austria joining the European Union. In January, over 6,400 people were killed in an earthquake in Japan. The OJ Simpson trial began in Los Angeles. On February 1, Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers went missing from a hotel in Bayswater, London, never to be found. And in an early foreshadowing of the Edward Snowden case, on the morning after Valentine’s Day, the hacker Kevin Mitnick was charged with violating some of the most secure computer systems in the United States. Almost a fortnight later, Barings Bank collapsed, after Nick Leeson lost $1.4 billion of the UK bank’s money speculating on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Ah yes. The more things change the more they remain the same – only sometimes worse. As it happens, Nick is a decent skin; he went on to become CEO at Galway United...

The day before St. Patrick’s Day that year, Mississippi became the final U.S. State to abolish slavery. You read that right: it was just twenty years ago that the ‘right’ to own another human being was finally extinguished forever (we hope) in the United States of America: hard to believe indeed. But then, there are slaves now in Qatar. Four days later, members of the Japanese Shinrikyo religious cult released sarin gas on five subway trains in Tokyo, injuring 5,510 and killing 13. In Northern Ireland, there were signs of progress towards the Belfast Agreement: in March, for the first time in 20 years, there were no British army patrols on the streets of Belfast.

Elsewhere, bloodshed was a familiar stock- in-trade. In Gaza, in April, an explosion killed eight people. The conflagration in the Balkans raged on. The first Chechen war broke out in the remains of the USSR. And in the biggest ever US domestic terrorist atrocity, 168 people were killed in the infamous Oklahoma bombing; Timothy McVeigh, who drove the truck in which the bomb was carried to the scene, was arrested, charged and, much later executed. And, as recorded by Wikipedia, on April 30, the US government ceased funding NSFNET, making the internet a “wholly privatised system.”

In May, former Superman, Christopher Reeves, was paralysed from the neck down after falling off his horse. In June, the most volatile hurricane season in 62 years began: clearly, extreme weather events are nothing new. Capital punishment was outlawed in South Africa. And towards the end of the month in Seoul, in South Korea, a department store collapsed, killing 531 people and injuring almost a thousand. And we thought Irish builders were bad...

In July, Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, edged closer to the brink, amid new accusations in relation to the country’s biological and nuclear weapons programmes. Mobile phones existed, of course, but only just. And as for ‘social media’? Somehow, I don’t think Rory Gallagher would have taken to Twitter...


For music fans in Ireland, Rory’s death, just a week before the longest day, dwarfed all of these events in terms of emotional impact.

The legendary Cork guitarist was hugely loved. Not just because he was an extraordinary musician and a brilliant live performer. No, there was more to the relationship than that.

Go back now and listen to the early albums, beginning with Taste’s eponymous debut in 1969 and you immediately get a sense of Gallagher’s unique power. ‘Blister On The Moon’ from the album Taste; the Jimi Hendrix influenced ‘Same Old Story’, with its magnificent blues soloing and clever key changes; his fine, eminently musical version of Hank Snow’s classic ‘I’m Moving On’; the primal riffing and brilliantly varied soloing of ‘What’s Going On’ on Taste’s second album On The Boards; the raw blues meets boogie pop of ‘If I Don’t Sing I’ll Cry’, replete with harmonica shadings: it was all powerful, original stuff.

Up to that point Ireland’s impact on creative modern music had been negligible. Only Van Morrison – first with Them and then on his own – had made any lasting impact. Philip Lynott would follow with Thin Lizzy the following year, but Rory was a pioneer. He blazed a trail, which ultimately opened the doors for everyone, from U2 through to Hozier.The importance of his contribution can never be overstated. He was seminal.

And he did it against a particularly daunting backdrop. Rory was unique in that he insisted on playing north and south of the border throughout the Troubles – doing Belfast every year even when the city was on its knees as a result of the conflict. He was loved in a very special way by Irish fans as a result. His instincts were to shun the trappings of stardom and to walk and talk and act and look like the ordinary citizens, whose lives, loves and travails were celebrated in his blues-based music. As anyone who knew him will attest, despite his extraordinary talent, he was shy, modest and sensitive. But when he hit the stage, he was transformed.

A virtuoso guitar player, he truly was one of the great live performers. The footage is out there, on YouTube, of him on stage, giving his all. Track it down and you’ll see his explosive energy. But that can only ever give a hint of what it was like to be in a room, with Rory on stage. He played thousands of gigs all over the world and never gave less than his very best. He was a huge draw in Germany, Greece, Italy, France, Scandinavia and of course the UK and Ireland. And he was revered among the great rock’n’roll and blues performers, playing at various stages with Muddy Waters, Albert King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert Collins and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, and also performing and recording with The Dubliners, Davy Spillane, The Fureys and many more...

Check out the documentary Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher.

In it, a procession of musicians and commentators, including Bob Geldof, underline just how pivotal he was. His guitar playing has been acknowledged as a major influence by The Edge of U2, Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, virtuoso hard rocker Joe Bonamassa, Brian May of Queen and many more. Last week, he was name-checked in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix by the punk poet Patti Smith, who performed her seminal Horses album at the RHK. He regularly appears in lists of “Greatest Guitar Players of All Time”, including in Rolling Stone.

The Taste experiment done, he released fourteen original albums as Rory Gallagher. Seven were gold albums and seven were silver on the basis of their sales in the UK alone.

Rory was also a very fine songwriter, who was influenced not just by Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Bronzy, Lead Belly, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan and his own biggest hero Muddy Waters, but also by writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. This fascination was celebrated in the release in 2013 of Kickback City, a fresh compilation of Rory’s crime noir songs, which came complete with a specially written new story by the acclaimed Scottish writer Ian Rankin, who is a fan of Rory’s – and who featured Rory’s work in his best-selling Inspector Rebus novels. In all, Rory sold well over 30 million albums. And had fate not intervened so cruelly that tally would have been doubled by now.

We take so much for granted. And we bitch and moan to beat the band. But in so many ways Ireland is very lucky to be where it is today: a place where creativity is valued and musicians really have a chance to flourish. Of course, the tide of history was pushing us in certain ways. But it took the courage of David Norris to take on the State and win in the battle to decriminalise homosexuality. Without him, gay marriage would not be legal here now.

In a similar if less dramatic way, the courage that was required of the early rock pioneers – and especially of Rory Gallagher – that saw them refuse to stay within the showband straitjacket and carve out their own path against appalling odds was immense. They hadn’t a shred of support from the State for their artistic endeavours. They had to emigrate to follow their calling. And in London, they were outsiders looking in, Paddies who were often less than welcome at the party.

But they stuck with it. They worked at their craft till they could stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best and take anyone on in a scrap. They showed that the Irish had the musical chops. They showed that we had the songs. They showed that we were contenders.

Every fledgling act that steps out on the boards in 2015, with the kind of dreams of global success that Irish musicians are more than entitled to carry in their hearts now, owes an enormous debt to Rory for his trailblazing contribution. Without him, we’d be elsewhere. And who knows how grim and musically undernourished that place would be?

Rory Gallagher, thank you. We'll never forget the G-man...

 

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