- 11 Jun 15
DERMOT STOKES takes a browse round the gallery of styles that made Rory Gallagher one of the great bluesmen. (From the 1995 Hot Press Rory Gallagher tribute issue)
THE GREAT, and long forgotten blues guitarist and singer Blind Willie Johnson once recorded a blues lament, a stark, bleak lean piece with no words called 'Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground'. Just Blind Willie's keening slide guitar, and his voice intoning sounds of deepest sorrow. Ry Gooder re-recorded it in the '70s, and used it as the basis for the soundtrack of Paris, Texas. That bleak and lonely sound filled my head when I heard of the death of Rory Gallagher.
Rory would know what I mean. More than any other modem bluesman, with the exception of the late Al Wilson of Canned Heat, he went back to the roots, and then back further, back to the Delta (that shines like a National guitar) to meet the Mississippi Sheiks, Sam Chattman, Jack Owens. He stood side by side with Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee, and he absorbed everything, from Leadbelly to Skip James, from Howlin Wolf to Freddie King, from Son House to Hendrix.
The man was an encyclopaedia of the blues and of the guitar, a gentle, humorous master, who wore his expertise with the unassuming nonchalance that marks the great.
We knew this, didn't we? And yet, as with so many things, you had to see him somewhere else, where he wasn't one of their own and had won his acclaim from ground zero, to actually feel the man's measure.
I remember ... Ah, yes, I remember ...
Montreux, Essen, Ghent. Two summers on the road through Europe, the first in the early days of HOT PRESS, the second some years later. An heroic progress in good company, Rory, Gerry, Donal, Tom O'Driscoll (roadie of roadies) Joe O'Herlihy. An odyssey full of memories.
Like standing at the side of the stage watching Albert Collins storming through the blues, and turning to find Rory beside me, lost in the groove.
"That's AC Reed on the sax there", he said. "You've got some real legends there, boy! Real legends." And off the top of his head he recalled their albums, and recent reissues on Rounder and Alligator, nodding affirmatively at each milestone recalled.
Later, he talked his way through a gallery of styles. "Now, this is how Albert Collins would do it and he'd fit a capo high up on the neck, and sure enough, Collins' stinging searing notes surged out of Rory's AC30.
"But Muddy would do it like this," and yes, there it was. It went on for hours, an extraordinary, brilliant, loving evocation, the room filling with the ghosts of many then departed, and the spirits of many still alive.
That's how I'll remember him. A music man to his very marrow. One minute passionately defending Elvis against Albert Goldman, discussing the persuasions of the Bible belt the next. Or the knowledgability of the Irish workman. Or the novels of Dashiell Hammett. Or B-movies.
As I said in HOT PRESS many times, Rory was his fans. All that history, all that technical brilliance, was funnelled through a wild Irish sensibility. A Rory Gallagher gig was an amazing thing, celebrative, visceral, wild, brilliant. And honest. He was one of the few of his kind to garner unquestioned respect from the punk and new wave bands of 1976/7. They might not have wanted to play his music, nor to woo his fans, but they recognised an energy and commitment and honesty and integrity that was close to their own.
Well, he's gone now. Of course, the music remains, and the memories, the records, the T-shirts, the tickets. But they're not the same. To be honest, I can't really believe it yet. We sat in the church and heard the words. We walked through the graveyard and buried him. We drank pints of stout and bottles of whisky and sang songs. Blind Willie lamented in my head. As always, we reinvented our departed friend with our recollections.
And still, it doesn't seem possible, and it certainly doesn't seem fair. I know. I know. Life wasn't intended to be fair. And behind the pulsating performer, Rory was a shy and, I think, lonely man. Life on the road is hard on friendship as well as the body and soul. Like an old-time circus performer or carnie or travelling player, home is where you find it, and oftentimes you can't. You find it hard to settle. And the giving is one-way traffic. When trouble or illness strikes, the tank is empty.
It used to be said that he could heal the sick. I remember the crutches waving in the air at the front of the stage in the Stadium. But when the thunderbolt struck, when (as Robert Johnson might have said) the devil came knocking on his door, he couldn't heal himself.
Ah yes, cried Blind Willie, Ah Lord Lord.
We are all so much the poorer. So much remains undone. He had so much still to give. Words don't do much justice to the sense of pain and loss. Only the blues offer some kind of vocabulary. Go listen to Son House's 'Death Letter'.
It's a mean old world, Little Walter sang.
The sky is crying, sang Elmore James, Look at the tears fall down like rain.
Look at the tears fall down like rain.
And so, dear friend, goodbye.
This article was taken from Volume 19 Issue 13