- 05 Jul 20
Hard to believe that a quarter of a century has passed since the death of Rory Gallagher. But the values he espoused, and the commitment he invested in his music, remain as important as ever…
So picture this: the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. It’s late December. It’s a steam bath. The walls run with sweat and celebration, the air hangs heavy with dust and smoke, the floor twists and shouts, the rafters ring. And that’s just the band on stage! As for the audience, well…
“I’m getting lonesome, I’m getting blue/ Let me tell you where I’m going to/ Yes, I’m going to my home town/ I don’t care even if I have to walk.”
Rory’s gone twenty five years? How did that happen? Blink and remember: in 1995, the birth of social media was ten years in the future. Doctors and lawyers have now graduated out there who weren’t even born. The Twin Towers still stood tall. But it also feels like yesterday. Time twists and turns. We grow old but our song is always sung: we’re forever young.
The Arcadia rocks and rolls and you marvel. What is it that music does? How is it so central to our very being? And what is it that makes a performer like this, that transforms him – or her – into a shaman who can touch and thrill thousands? Is it a power or a need? Is there some force that connects the great performers to their fans and propels them from the garage and the pub to the wider world?
Here, now, in 2020 there are myriad media and platforms. Too many, it sometimes seems. But the Rory story is rooted in another era, a time of groups and showbands, of little clubs and monster dance-halls, of small expectations and big dreams.
A PRIMAL FORCE
Flashback: a dance hall west of Cork and as the band packed their stuff away a group of elaborately quiffed teddy boys approached the stage. C’mere, can we have a word? Uh-oh, here comes trouble, he thought. But no, their leader just wanted to applaud the band’s Buddy Holly songs. That fella’s name was Tom O’Driscoll and after that he worked with Rory for over thirty years.
Loyalty, that’s a thing. Between performer and fans, between Rory and those he worked with: to his guitar, to the music. To his mother and his brother Dónal. To the work ethic, his marathon gigs most closely reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s. Few performers have worked so hard, played so totally. One compliments footballers’ efforts by saying they left nothing behind them on the pitch. Well, Rory left nothing behind him on the stage. And in the hall? The fans, as exhausted and exhilarated as himself, the old showband work ethic living on: send ‘em home sweating…
While Rory had an encyclopaedic knowledge of styles, performers, songs and instruments and could discuss any and all at length and with great expertise, the bedrock of his music was the blues and what we’d now style Americana. He took it and moulded its myriad forms into a powerful personal performance art.
Americana, I say. And you ask: Why that?
Who knows? Music is a primal force, rhythm too. Some scientists think that humans sang before they spoke. It’s hard-wired in, handed down in our genes and our neural circuits. It’s cultural too. And, inevitably, it’s in families. Rory Gallagher’s parents were themselves musical and no strangers to the stage and they encouraged young Rory and his brother Dónal in their own musical endeavours. Rory got his first guitar when he was nine years old. The rest is history.
EVILS OF RACISM
Then there’s happenstance, like when you hear a sound for the first time. A wave had crashed across cultural levees in the southern United States as young white people began to tune in to radio stations aimed at African Americans.
What they heard was the blues: earthy, raucous, explosive, music that reflected life in all its pain and pleasure, longing and exhilaration, songs about working and loving, drinking and shagging, lascivious and louche, where Pat Boone (one alternative) was shallow and saccharin; and wailingly fervid, where white church radio (another) was wan…
There it was, the seminal intersection of African-American and white American music. The blues had a baby and they named it rock’n’roll. Radio brought it home to Donegal, Derry and Cork, to Ireland: Radio Luxembourg for your pop and rock’n’roll and the American Forces Network (AFN) for your blues and jazz. Rory lapped it up.
And soon enough, he found himself going upriver to the sources, to the National steel guitar-playing of Son House, the devil-haunted agonies of Robert Johnson, the lonesome wails of Hank Williams, the swagger of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker’s snaky groove, the Wolf’s howling, Sonny Boy’s velvet wheedling and, of course, a parade of guitar players, like the Kings, BB, Freddie and Albert. He was as happy talking about Leadbelly or the Mississippi Sheiks as his own singing and playing.
Wednesday 10 June 2020: on RTÉ Lyric’s Blue Of the Night Bernard Clarke plays a set by Clarence Gatemouth Brown.
Flashback: sometime in the 1980s, the same Clarence Gatemouth Brown on stage with Albert Collins in Montreux, Switzerland. And Rory Gallagher on our left shoulder, watching and admiring, murmuring, “Great band. Great band. That’s AC Read on sax. There’s some real legends out there, boy!”
He knew them all too. And he was respected by them, for his art and craft and knowledge. This was special. Rory was one of the elect.
The mutual regard transcended music. He was of a generation that had dreamed with JFK, MLK and RFK only to see them cut down one after the other by the dark forces that are now resurgent in the United States. A thoughtful and intelligent man, he understood the evils of racism and always paid his respects to the African American motherlode of modern music.
We take it for granted nowadays that Irish musicians dine at the top table. Those who later came of age have prospered, and from home too, more often than not. But it was different then: the obstacles were great and the struggles all the more profound. World renown was much harder won.
Less and less of us understand just how hard they had to fight back then, how much respect their achievements deserve. Van was the first in the pantheon, then Rory, then Thin Lizzy. Where they led, others followed.
Rory Gallagher was a multi-instrumentalist, playing mandolin, saxophone, harmonica, banjo, dulcimer, dobro/National steel guitar and bass. But he’s mainly remembered as one of the finest guitar players of all time. He gave us songs and performances full of wildness and wile, longing and loss.
There was humour and sweat and diamond-hard classics of dirty realism, Cold War intrigues and a working man’s tribulations. He did grunge before we knew the name, just as he could play the blues he loved with delicacy and devotion as well as fearsome energy and power.
He’d have enjoyed the last twenty-five years. So much of what happened musically chimed with his values and his virtues. Above all, in ways that resonate with later generations, Rory Gallagher was always true to himself and to his music.
“Well the rain ain’t fussy ‘bout where it falls/ It rains on one just like it rains on all/ But when it falls brother, it’s gonna rain hard/ When the blues come calling with his calling card.”
Couldn’t have spoken a truer word.