- 03 Jul 20
On Wednesday November 8, 1995, a Commemoration Service was held at Brompton Oratory in London. The ceremony ended with a tribute, which was delivered by Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press. This is the full text of what Niall said on what was a sad and moving occasion...
I do not know whether there is a heaven and I’m pretty certain that there is no hell. But the metaphor of the afterlife, on which religions have been founded, in truth is more than just a metaphor. In a very real and tangible way, what we do in this life lives on after we’ve gone – which is one reason why every minute counts, and why there is an onus on us always to try to do the best – the very best – that we can.
What we do matters even in small ways – every act of love or generosity has the capacity to add to the sum of human happiness and well-being just as the opposite can contribute to suffering, alienation and unhappiness. And the reverberations of these actions carry on into the future, tilting things, however marginally, in the direction of harmony or towards conflict, in the eternal flux and play of opposites that runs like a seam through human affairs.
If this is true of ordinary people like me and you, then it is all the more true of artists and writers and musicians – from William Shakespeare through Samuel Beckett to Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher. That there is an afterlife is confirmed by what the great poets and writers left as their legacy, and what the great musicians have bequeathed to us after they’ve gone.
It isn’t just in the work itself. It is possible for individuals to change irrevocably the context in which all artists and writers work. In the normal course of events, time allows us the distance and the objectivity to identify seminal figures – those without whom history might have taken an entirely different course. I have no hesitation in saying that we do not need that time in relation to Rory – without a shadow of doubt, he was one of the chosen few who wield that kind of influence.
He was a pioneer. The 70s was a time of musical darkness in Ireland but Rory blazed a trail through it, illuminating the magical electrifying possibilites that rock ‘n’ roll could offer, for thousands upon thousands of young Irish fans.
Music cannot 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 in the National Stadium in Dublin in the mid-70s said: “I would never look at the world in the same way again.”
He was not alone. Whether he was playing London, Hamburg, Athens, Buffalo or a small town like Rhyl in North Wales, Rory had that kind of impact. He was a shy man and that was the first impression he made on most people who met him. But he was also enormously charming, with a great knowledge of and curiosity about films, about books, about politics … about life.
On stage, that curiosity and that knowledge were transformed into something magical and inspiring. A Rory Gallagher gig was an amazing thing, celebratory, visceral, heart-stopping, brilliant – he brought to everyone’s home town the blues, electric and magnificent and shot through with a wild Irish sensibility. Up on the boards, hair flying, lumberjack shirt soaked with inspiration as well as perspiration, duckwalking across the stage and squeezing every last drop of emotion and excitement out of his Fender Strat – if you had what Robbie Robertson called the fever yourself, you couldn’t but be enthralled by Rory. And if you didn’t have it, then a Rory Gallagher live performance was more likely to give it to you than just about any other experience in the world or rock ‘n’ roll.
The values that Rory espoused too, in his life and in his music, 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 rock 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.
He also stayed true to what he often called ‘the mainland’ – to Ireland, that is, this place that gave him birth, that he loved and left to realise his dream of becoming a musician without frontiers… and that he loved always, no matter how long he’d been away or how far the road he’d travelled.
So many years on this road, that road, and the other road – long days and crazy nights spent in the cause of bringing the music to the people and of learning the ways and wiles of the performer. Away from the arc lights, it’s a tough, demanding, often cruel way to live, as anyone who’s been there will confirm. Life on the road is as hard on friendship as it is on the body and soul. Like an old-time circus performer, or carnie, or travelling player, for a great working musician like Rory, home is where you find it – and often times you can’t. When you’re off the road, it can be hard to settle. And once the roar of the crowd has faded and the roadies have dismantled the production, the giving can seem like one-way traffic. When trouble or illness strikes, too late you discover that the tank is empty. And sometimes, tragically, no matter how much love and care they lavish on you there is no going back.
So much remains undone. Yes. He still had so much to give. Yes. The awareness of what might have been is a burden, which all those who grieve for him must carry to one degree or another. But in truth there is little point in that. Much better to celebrate the magnitude of what he did achieve in his tragically short but wonderfully productive life. Much better to acknowledge the immensity of what he gave us – the music, the friendship, the generosity, the honesty, the humour… And the memories, the wonderful memories.
I do not know whether there is a heaven and I’m pretty certain that there is no hell – but most assuredly I can say that we do live on in the hearts and minds of those we touched and those who were touched by us. In Rory’s case, that means in the hearts and minds and souls of legions and legions of people, all over the world. Because Rory Gallagher truly was one of the greats.
“The sky is crying, look at the tears fall down like rain,” Elmore James sang. But the time for crying is over. He may be gone but his music will live on forever.
And ever. Amen.
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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: