- 06 Jul 20
1995: After Rory’s funeral, Niall Stokes took a very personal journey back through the music and memories of a friendship with a man he was proud to have known.
The drive to Cork was a lonely one. Ry Cooder on the deck, that sweet slide guitar shooting off tracers: the memories, stacked up like a vast rack of on-line CDs, kept slipping in and out of the engagement slot. No need ever to press the play button. Now and then I had to hold back the tears as the music of past friendship flooded the car and, with it, a terrible awareness of all the things that might have, but hadn’t, been done.
Van came on, whispering about the ancient highway and I was hurtling east from Kerry, alive to the rivets and joints of the flimsy piece of metal I was sealed into: the rattle of the steering wheel, the hum of the rubber on tarmac like a rumbling in the distance and all around me the earth, the road and the rough hills scorning the transience of our passing through, passing through, passing through.
So many years on this road, that road and the other road. Near death experiences in light planes heading from date to date in the United States. Thrown from the stage by one of the loveliest men you could meet, somewhere in Europe, and the fans howling for more. Duckwalking on the boards in Italy and plunging through a hole near the edge – you hanging from a metal bar like Tarzan, the feedback screeching to high heaven for someone to rescue you, rescue you, rescue you, and they howled then too, as you broke the freefall and then hauled yourself back from the abyss scrambling up onto the stage to the sound of five thousand – or was it ten thousand? – voices screaming their appreciation, one of the most electric, one of the most addictive sounds in the world.
Ah, but you could laugh about that later and you did, relishing the craziness of it all, a life lived that no one else would ever truly get the shape and measure of but always lived to the full, lived to the full, lived to the full. The cat had nine lives. He was smart and straight and tough. But sometimes even nine lives just isn’t enough.
No it isn’t.
Ancient highway. Macroom almost took me by surprise, In it before I realised how far I’d travelled. And then it did take me by surprise, a prettier town than I’d remembered. Like some sweet little spot you might find in Brittany, the brightness with which it carried on about its business full of strangeness in the journey I was making back, back to the place where it had all started, and beyond.
I had expected to recognise some landmark sooner and a feeling of disorientation set in momentarily. Then the castle walls loomed and the image from the poster for the first ever open-air rock festival in Ireland that I’d carried around like a psychic talisman all those years slipped into focus. There they were, the partly ruined stately walls and, inside, what for that fantastic day became a field of dreams.
* * * * * * *
1977. The month of June. The Macroom Mountain Dew Festival. Ireland’s first ever open-air rock extravaganza. It was right that it should have happened in a town that had the feel of a place of pilgrimage. They came from the four corners of Ireland to be part of something that some of them at least had an intuition was bigger than a rock festival – though that in itself was a source of wonder and excitement, enough to make the pulse race. But it was more than that too. It was a watershed, a moment which more than any other marked the changing of the guard.
It’s no surprise now to hear that a 15-year-old who would later trade under the name of The Edge was there that day, the event sparking his own dream of finding the keys to some future rock ‘n’ roll kingdom, a gift handed across the great divide from stage to audience, that would echo and resound through thousands of clubs and theatres and halls and stadia spanning the globe during the next 18 years and more.
We were there too. We’d come in force, driving down from Dublin in a convoy, me in a rusting Mirafiori, Ry Cooder on the deck – the tape deck – then too, the boot weighed down with thousands of copies of a baby magazine to sell or to give away, we didn’t know which. When we pulled into Macroom we were feeling about half past dead for sure, but the buzz about the place, the sense of palpable excitement was as good as any shot of cocaine whooshing through the central nervous system and telling the brain, hey there’s more sweet energy in this bag of bones than you ever imagined. It was a momentous occasion: you could feel it not just in your marrow, but in your blood.
HOT PRESS. Launched In June of 1977, and he was on the first cover, a lithe figure with a guitar, towering above a Sgt. Pepper-style collage of reprobates from Irish politics and international rock, Liam Cosgrave at the bottom centre of it all and around him a bizarre and motley crew that would run the gamut from Conor Cruise O’Brien and Paddy Donegan across to Keef Richards and Patti Smith.
That cover was stitched together in a frenzy of all-night activity, the last piece of finished artwork pasted down just as the final touches were being applied to the remaining few pages at 8am on an early summer’s morning of naked tiredness and blind optimism.
It was a black and white cover because the pages had to be with the printers in Cavan at 9 o’clock, and we were too late to get even a reverse print of the flaming HOT PRESS logo printed to give it a dash of spot colour. But it is luminous in the memory now all the same.
Some are mathematicians, others are carpenters’ wives. We had people on board then who would later become actors, acclaimed writers, TV directors, radio producers, recording artistes and certified crazies but everyone mucked in on the HOT PRESS stand and, as the support bands blasted through their allotted time, we introduced ourselves and Ireland‘s first ever rock ‘n‘ roll newspaper to the crowd that packed the festival site.
The musical build-up was solid rather than spectacular but the place began to shake when Status Quo rolled on to play a friendly, impressive set of their inimitable, happy, poppy rock ‘n’ boogie. You couldn’t help but smile.
I remember a brown Aston Martin pulling up on the dirt track that ran over behind the stage and a figure moving swiftly into the recesses of the back stage area. Quo ended their set and there was the customary wait as the gear was shifted around and the stage set for the headlining act. The crowd pushed to the front, amid an electric sense of expectation.
He’s coming. Here he is. That’s him. Maybe not. Over there. Is it? Shadows visible behind the drum risers. The roadies final scurrying movements out front. Freeeeeeph. Wurrrrrrrr. Yaaaaaah. Freeeeeeph. Roar-eeeeee. Roar-eeeeee. Roar-eeeeee. Freeeeeeph. And then another figure darting to the main microphone centre-stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Would you welcome please... Mr Rory Gallagher!"
A figure races to the centre of the stage brandishing a guitar like a machine gun. A roar envelopes the audience. And then over it a voice. “Did you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your mind?” Pandemonium.
Sheer fucking pandemonium.
* * * * * * *
It’s all so long ago that I don’t ever remember approaching Cork from this angle before. As I pass through Ballincollig and take a roundabout, the hearse is leaving O’Connor’s funeral parlour, a familiar battered Strat lying like an ineffably poignant still-life behind the polished wood of the coffin. I drive on down Model Farm Road uncertain of my bearings. Eventually I catch sight of a church spire, back from the roadside, in on the right. I pull on up to Dennehy’s Cross anyway to be certain and then turn in and watch the Saturday afternoon shoppers go about their mundane business.
I execute a U-turn and slip back up to the side entrance into the churchyard where a parking space waits. By the time I’ve walked around to the front of the church and scanned the gathering crowd for familiar faces, the hearse is leading the cortege up along Patrick Street, Cork’s main artery.
There, the people of Rory Gallagher’s adopted city line the pavement on both sides of the street and as the black vehicles seem to float by, there begins a ripple that turns into the at once staccato and yet solid, solid sound of what must be thousands of people clapping: one final, last tribute to a lost Cork hero. Standing in the crowd, as the spontaneous round of applause breaks out, it’s almost impossible not to cry at the sad and lovely human warmth reflected in that dignified expression of a deep, collective affection.
How then must it feel, sitting in the first solemn limousine, for Donal Gallagher, Rory’s brother and manager and minder and friend who’s been at his side through thick and thin for over forty years now, twenty-five of them, it must be, working together, sometimes pushing wildly against the grain, in the crazy, upside-down world of rock ‘n’ roll? And for Tom O’Driscoll, who’s been at Rory’s side for twenty-five years also, and who’s lived through every scrape and close shave the man ever asked for and got a few more besides, and who could never, ever claim that he came through it all unscathed but who loved every minute of it too when you could afford to stand back and laugh, but who loved it mostly because he loved the man he’d dedicated his life’s work to (and, yes, thrown off the stage once in Nottingham, in a fit of enthusiasm which had already been written into Irish rock folklore)?
And for Donal’s wife Cecelia and his children Eoin, Hugh, Katherine and Daniel, who loved Rory not just because he was Donal’s brother, but because he was a hero to them as well, a great musician and a star whose legend, they knew, cast a huge and comforting shadow over Irish rock history and over the recent history of the blues.
And for Rory’s mother, Monica, who had borne him in her womb and brought him into the world in Ballyshannon in Donegal in 1948, all of 47 years ago, and had seen him hit the road at the age of 15 with the Impact Showband who transmutated into the Fontana (or was it the other way around?) and had wondered even then where would it all end, where would it all end, where would it all end? And had watched when he had taken the plunge into the great unknown with Taste, and moved to Belfast, away from her and from the security of home and family to begin life – to begin his life – properly as a musician?
It’s a hard life. What it did to Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf and Skip James and Memphis Slim and Muddy Waters. What it did to Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. What it did to Keef Richards and John Lennon and Lowel George and Jimi Hendrix (and later Philip Lynott). The kind of men, most of them, who Rory looked up to and emulated and then, some of them at least, left trailing.
That’s the kind of company Rory deserves to be seen in. That’s the kind of company he was in when he did the London Sessions with Muddy Waters and with Jerry Lee Lewis and played so good that, at times, it was scary even for established greats like them to contemplate.
The kind of company he was seen in also when he spearheaded Rockpalast, the first pan-European televised rock event that was beamed into 190 million homes, alongside the great Little Feat and in the process consolidated the European fan-base that made him one of the biggest live draws bar none on the entire continent over the next ten years at least. And when, way back in ‘70, he did the Isle of Wight with Jimi Hendrix and later rubbed shoulders, and traded licks and stories – whichever – with Albert King and Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Van Morrison and Lonnie Donegan and Philip Lynott and people whom he loved and respected like The Dubliners and even, if memory serves me, members of U2 at the Hot Press fifth birthday bash at Punchestown back in 1982.
She had always known it would be a hard life that would test his stamina and endurance and his powers of recovery as much as it would his sheer ability as a songwriter and a musician. But it was a good life too as success followed success and his popularity grew and his record sales began to move upwards past one, then two, then three, then five, then ten million. A lot of records. She was a fan through all those years, during which he gave her so much to be proud of. She could see what most women of her age could never see – the magnificent electric power and excitement of it all. She was proud of him.
Heartbreaking. That final round of applause on Patrick Street that echoed all of the other ovations that he’d been given – been given, remember – by the millions of people who’d been privileged to see him playing live over the 32 years since he first strapped on an electric guitar and stepped out onto a stage semi-professionally. Jesus, if you took all that applause and added it up and replayed it back-to-back one more time with feeling (one more time with feeling), it wouldn’t stop for a whole month. Instead, it took just a few minutes for the cortège to pass through Patrick Street, and for that beautiful moving last standing ovation to build, sustain, hold steady and subside.
The way in the end everything does. The way in the end everything does. Everything. But everything. Everything does.
* * * * * * *
They open the doors and step out onto the concrete space in front of the church. Everyone pauses while one of the attendants opens the rear door of the hearse. The battered Strat is taken out and Donal Gallagher hands it to Tom O‘Driscoll. A photographer steals around to get a picture as they lift out the coffin. The following day a photograph will appear in the Sunday Tribune with six men bearing the coffin aloft, Tom O‘Driscoll on the left of the frame holding the guitar and in the distance created by the wide-angle lens, Cecelia and her children waiting silently for the next step in a ritual that has the capacity to break you up at any time.
Inside the church, the prayers have that monotonous, predictable quality that makes it easy to follow the movie clips that are showing inside your head. Re-running conversations with Rory about Russian cinema, about Citizen Kane, about Orson Welles, about Humphrey Bogart, about Raymond Chandler, about Dashiel Hammett. He knew his thriller writers and he particularly liked the hard-boiled school.
His knowledge of culture may have been underestimated by those who didn’t know him, but he loved talking about books and about writers. And he loved talking about the blues, which had turned him on to music, listening to American Forces Network radio during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge not just of the music but of the lore.
He was a folk fan too and always insisted on paying in to gigs by Martin Carthy when other rock stars would have had themselves put on the guest list – a simple but profound mark of respect from one great guitar player to another which encapsulated the most important quality which Rory brought to his life and his work. It was the music that mattered first, last and always. The money and the success, they either came with the territory, like the booze, or they didn’t.
But what mattered, what truly mattered, was the gorgeous, potent, unforgettable sound that emerged when a player who knew how to, slapped the bottleneck against the strings and slid up to high G and back down again making all sorts of little detours and. inflections via F and Bb and other points in-between along the way, the fluid keening movements done with an awareness of the customary 4/4 beat pulsing away underneath even when it’s not there, or at least you can’t hear that it’s there. The blues comes calling with its calling card. Rory Gallagher intuitively understood.
Maybe Irish people have an affinity with the blues, the music of another oppressed people. But Rory had an affinity with Irish music too, that he never lost. On the contrary, the longer he stayed away, the more he loved not just the music but the country itself in all its manifest contradictions. He regularly bought the latest albums by Sharon Shannon, Clannad, Altan and Jimmy MacCarthy, a fellow songwriter from Cork whom he always held in the highest regard. And he kept in touch with what was going on through the Sunday newspapers and through HOT PRESS.
The last time we interviewed Rory, for one of our 15th anniversary special editions in 1992, he talked about moving back to Ireland, maybe taking a place in Donegal to get some space and put some shape on his life in a way that the grind of being on the road for almost 30 years hadn’t allowed. I remember reading that at the time and thinking – in the middle of feeling that here was a piece that genuinely did justice to the scale of the Gallagher legend – that this was what he really should do.
And hearing the voice of the maestro say it in his own words too. Thinking about, going back home. Going back home. Going back home. One of the ghosts that haunts me, sitting in the church, confronted by his coffin in the centre aisle – there, just in front of the altar – is that I’m probably one of a dozen people who were concerned enough to think that they should hop on a plane to London and help to do whatever might have been necessary to get him to take that first crucial step but who, in the way of these feelings, didn’t because the grind of your own life goes on and there’s a paper to produce and children to get to school, and all the rest of those things that root us to where we are and lock us into the here and now take precedence.
* * * * * * *
More than most people, I know that there is little point in regret. I am well aware that Dónal did as much as any one person can do to change the course of Rory’s life in a way that might have ensured that he would do a Muddy Waters and stay alive and play the blues well into his sixties at least. And that, either way, Rory had his own plans, that no one has a right to stand in judgement on.
But today, I’m full of regrets anyway. Chiefly, I suppose, that I never took the chance when it was there to tell Rory, face to face, the extent to which I appreciated everything he’d done for Irish rock as a pioneer and an inspiration. And also for his practical generosity and willingness to support the cause when he was asked.
In 1982, when we needed people to play a benefit gig for HOT PRESS to keep the paper from closing down, the first person I called was Dónal Gallagher. Within 24 hours, Rory had agreed to play. Within a week we had put an extraordinarily strong bill together that in all the right circumstances might have brought 50,000 people to Punchestown, where the gig was to be held, and assured the future of the paper indefinitely.
It wasn’t too long before elements of the bill began to unravel. Those whose managers agreed were pulled by their agents. Those who had agreed themselves were pulled by their managers. Some people just didn’t turn up on the day.
I felt betrayed on half-a-dozen counts because these things are like a house of cards: if one piece goes, the rest tend to follow. Through it all, Rory never wavered and for anyone who was there the gig turned out to be one of the most memorable in Irish rock history with Rory Gallagher and his band, Philip Lynott, members of U2 and Paul Brady ending up on stage together in a spontaneous, celebratory end to a great day’s rock ‘n’ roll that had none of the contrived we-are-the-worldness of the Self Aid finale about it.
The gig didn’t make money but if it hadn’t happened HOT PRESS wouldn‘t exist now because it gave us something to focus on over a vital period of two months, and a way of publicising our problems in a positive light. And ultimately it gave us a launching pad for keeping the show on the road and going forward. And, for the most part, we owe that to Rory Gallagher.
* * * * * * *
Ancient highway. The road goes on forever. It’s hard to explain at times to the young bucks coming through, convinced that they’re going to kick out the jams, bury the traces and change the world with their first album, but most of what happens grows directly out of what’s already been. The space that exists for rock in Ireland and the opportunities and the facilities which allow music to flourish in the way that it does right now, were carved out by people like Rory Gallagher.
But time does allow us the distance and objectivity to identify seminal figures, those without whom history might have taken an entirely different course. Without a shadow of doubt, Rory Gallagher was one. The ‘70s was a time of musical darkness in Ireland but Rory blazed a trail through it, illuminating the possibilities that rock ‘n’ roll could offer for thousands of young Irish fans who knew in their hearts that what was being offered by showband singers and cabaret artistes was as much a tragedy as it certainly was a farce.
Music can’t change the world, I’ve heard it said, but it can and does change our relationship to it. If we’re lucky it changes it absolutely. As one great writer who made the annual pilgrimage from the midlands to see Rory at the Stadium in the mid ‘70s said: “I would never look at the world in the same way again.”
The values that Rory espoused too were of the kind that remain crucial: honesty, integrity and a complete commitment to the craft of being a musician, songwriter and performer. A lot of successful ‘70s stars turned Tory. Rory stayed on the side of the underdog, the outsider, the dispossessed. He stayed true to the music. He stayed true to the blues. He stayed true to himself. True to himself. True to himself.
The prayers are over. Walking across the front of the church to offer condolences, it’s hard to go beyond those old words of comfort but you try. And then circle around to the side to where the coffin now rests. Standing there, paying your last respects, and signing the book of condolences, there is just an aching sense of futility. There is so much to say but this is neither the time nor the place.
Ancient highway. The road goes on forever. No one knew that better than Rory Gallagher. His spirit will guide us on our way, guide us on our way, guide us on our way.
On our way.
The special Rory Gallagher 25th Anniversary Issue of Hot Press is out now – featuring reflections on Rory's legacy from President Michael D. Higgins, Imelda May, Johnny Marr, Mumford & Sons, Mick Fleetwood, Steve Van Zandt, Slash and many more. Pick up your copy in shops now, or order online below: