- 22 Jun 20
The new issue of Hot Press is dedicated to the memory of the great Irish guitar hero, and rock ‘n’ roll luminary, Rory Gallagher. In such deeply disturbing times, it is hard to escape the question: what would Rory have made of it all?
It wasn’t very far from the witching hour when I realised I’d have to sit down and write. Soon. The anniversary was tomorrow, which wasn’t very far away now. A new day would start at midnight and not a lick had been wrought, nor a phrase coined.
Sometimes that’s the way it goes. No matter how long you might seem to have, you end up looking down the barrel of a gun. Do it now or you’re dead, punk.
I could hear Robert Johnson’s voice pleading in my head and that insistent, familiar rhythm rolling underneath: ye olde ‘Walking Blues’ was nagging. It was late but already I was feeling around for my shoes. I like to ramble at night. The quiet streets help, on occasion, when you’re searching for perspective. And so we walked.
I could hear Rory’s voice now. “Some people tell me that/ these old worried old blues ain’t bad,” he sang, after Robert Johnson. “It’s the worst old feelin’/ I most ever had.”
The air was crisp and cool. A breeze blowing. The songs kept making themselves heard, filtering through from somewhere in the recesses of the recesses of the thing that passes for memory. “I’m getting lonesome,” Rory sang in ‘Goin’ To My Hometown’, “I’m getting blue/ I need someone/ To talk to…”
That I’m lucky enough to have avoided that particular heartache only made the song feel more poignant. Mairin and me. We walked on together into the quiet, watching out for other strange creatures of the night. Foxes. Feral cats. The odd human.
“I need someone/ To talk to…” It’s a theme to which Rory kept returning. Loneliness is a killer. Real loneliness that is.
“I’ve been so alone,” he confessed on ‘Barley and Grape Rag’, “I’ve been feeling blue/ I think I need a little drink or two/ Be my friend/ tell me where the place is/ Where the whiskey flows/ And the dices roll till dawn.”
We have all been that soldier, only some are hit harder than others. It feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. There are times when it seems impossible to dodge the simple question: how in the fuck is this possible? But you look around. So much shit is happening it is hard to keep track.
It had been like that all week, only worse.
Seeing that repulsive, irredeemably toxic video of George Floyd being brutally murdered. How can any society have shaped a man, that he is capable of this? Bob Dylan’s gravelly voice wafted across the night sky of the imagination, intoning the phrase: “Murder most foul.” But nothing is adequate to describe it.
Watching the President of the United States using the police in Washington to teargas peaceful protestors so that he could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo op, in which he would hold aloft a bible, on which the words ‘God is love’ were inscribed.
“I just can’t believe what my eyes have seen,” the Right Rev Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, told The Washington Post newspaper. What made it worse was that I could.
Observing the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lying pitifully like a schoolboy, as the truth became clear: that Britain is the very worst in the world when it comes to deaths from Covid-19 per capita.
The Brexiteers have, of course, tried to hide this. We’ve been fed bullshit all the way from Boris. We have had so called game-changers (that failed to arrive), world beating test and trace systems (that don’t exist) and the promise of a vaccine (way off over the horizon at best). And yet the UK government and health authorities are still quoting figures that are flagrantly, absurdly, insultingly wrong.
I know it. So they must know it with knobs on. And yet they go on lying though their teeth and at least half getting away with it. The British Government says that there’ve been 41,736 deaths so far. But the number of excess deaths in the UK as a whole, compared to the five year average for the same period, is 61,000. This, give or take a few hundred is the real toll of Covid-19 in the UK.
That’s well over 900 deaths per million of the population, which puts Britain ahead of the current nominal worst hit, Belgium, where the figure – counting everything that used to move, more or less – stands at 834 per million.
“Well, the devil made me do it,” a voice pleads, “The devil made me trip and fall/ The devil drove me to it/ Till I had no chance at all.”
But there are no excuses really. No way back either for the dead bodies.
I had been ruminating on what Rory Gallagher might make of the world we live in now. Not just of Boris Johnson and his cronies. Of Donald Trump. Brexit. Twitter mobs. Sally Rooney. Billie Eilish. Covid-19. Black Lives Matter.
Rory would have done his homework, that’s for sure. Studied the background. Looked at the issues from different angles. He’d have wanted to see what Hot Press had to say about any and all of these issues. He’d have read Eamonn McCann with particular interest.
And then he’d have followed his instincts, which were fundamentally open, broadminded and generous. But rigorous too. He had his own, unique way of dicing and slicing things.
“They’re getting into the Top 10,” he said of The Boomtown Rats in a Hot Press interview in 1978, “so from their side of Ludo, things are working fine.”
I remember thinking that it was a great phrase: from their side of Ludo. It said something about Rory. He might not have loved what the Rats were doing but he understood that they were looking at the world in a different way. That their approach to the business was to treat it like a board game; that for the Rats it was the winning that counted. And he liked the fact that they were winning.
Sometimes you can kick things around too much. Walking done, there was only one answer and so I sat down. After eleven bells. Fingers on keyboards. A midnight deadline calls. As the man said on a hundred different occasions, but always in service to the one dream, “Let’s go to work…”
For the past six weeks or more, we have been thinking about Rory.
There aren’t many Irish people who are known simply by their first name. There’s Michael D. Sinéad. Nell. Bertie. Glen. Packie. Bosco (okay, that’s a joke, but you see what I mean). Leo is almost there but not quite. Katie is close too. The same with Saoirse. She’ll likely get there in the end, but even as one of Hollywood’s biggest female movie stars, she hasn’t reached that level yet.
Bono is in a different category: he is the only one after all. The same with Hozier. And Philo. Nicknames are a fabrication. They immediately set you apart. That’s their purpose. But to own a proper name is a different matter entirely.
Rory! Rory! Rory!
There is a pretender out there by the name of McIlroy. But that’s what he is and that’s what he will remain. Anyone who was ever at a gig by the great G-man will have heard the chant. They will know the score.
Rory! Rory! Rory! Rory!
Fifty times, they’d scream it. Rory! Rory! Rory! More if they had to. Rory! Rory! Rory! Until he emerged again. Him to the fore, the other musicians in the band following. Rory! Rory! Rory! Up to the microphone. Spotlight shining. The hint of a smile. His right hand raised in salutation. Plectrum at the ready.
Rory! Rory! Rory!
“Did you ever…” Duhn. “Did you ever…” Duhn. “Did you ever…” Duuuuuuhngngngngng.
“Well, did you ever wake up with bullfrogs on your...” And then an explosion. “...mind?”
He owned the name. It was his. Rory! Rory! Rory!
So how did that happen? If you weren’t there at the time it might be hard to fathom. But he was the man. Van was first out of the traps, an extraordinary talent. But he had a cerebral thing going on: mystical, poetic and allusive. Philo came after: he was all limber sexuality, what Dublin girls called a ride. A rock ’n’ roll star.
Rory brought something else to the table, something unique. Something extraordinary. He was a guitar genius. He could play like a demon, wringing sounds from the instrument that he wasn’t entitled to. He was fast. But he was also musical. He could make that battered Fender Stratocaster talk and sing and dance and wink. No one handled a six-string better.
That might have – would have – been enough to seal his reputation. But there was more. And it was of extraordinary import. A gift that is only offered once in a very blue moon.
Success, money, image, acclaim: none of these things really mattered to Rory Gallagher. He dressed in exactly the same way as his audience. Check shirt. Jeans. Boots. On occasion a T-shirt. Nothing fancy. And he carried the same ethos into everything he did. He was one of us. He could have been a member of the audience. Except for one thing. Well, one thing encompassing many.
He was a guitar wizard. A one-off. A fucking phenomenon. He… was… the… man.
Those nimble fingers. That razor sharp intuition. Finding the right notes. Bending them. Twisting and shaping a melody on the hoof. Sticking with the pattern. Then taking off and rolling with the flow. Finding a new groove. Repeating phrases. Going off on one. A surprise inflection. An unexpected run. Racing to the front of the stage. A man possessed now. Head shaking from side to side. That smile widening. Another flourish. High up. Down low.
Magic in every position, in every mode. Ineluctable. Mercurial. Sensational. Awe-inspiring. From the heart.
How do we understand this connection between a brain that is processing something and the sound that is emerging from the guitar, the amp, the speakers?
In the end, understanding just isn’t the right word when what happens is – for a start – about feel. About flow. About following an inner pathway that is defining itself only as it happens. It is a neural event, but of the best possible kind. It is being inexplicably but incontrovertibly in the now, in the moment; separate but connected, sending out into the universe noises that represent nothing less than art incarnate.
Rory! Rory! Rory!
He owned it because, in the most literal sense, he was peerless. In a class of his own. A druid. A musical seer. A visionary. An explorer. A troubadour whose instrument spoke in tongues. An embodiment of the very idea of being a musician. He was Rory.
Digging back, remembering warm greetings and huddled meetings along the ancient highway, it all comes flooding back. We have been on the road again with Rory Gallagher these past few weeks and tears have been shed. Listening again to the music. Hearing other musicians talk. Harkening to their stories. Tuning in to their tributes.
It has been a beautiful journey. But, as it took shape, it also felt important. Stirring. Inspiring.
And so, on this, the anniversary of his ineffably sad and desperately premature death, we raise a glass in his memory.
Rory! Rory! Rory!
He was a man we loved. A musician we revered. A songwriter we doffed our hats to a thousand times.
A cup of strong coffee beside us we chase a melody through the honeycomb of memory. “Ain’t it strange that I feel like Philby/ There’s a stranger in my soul/ Lost in transit in a lonesome city/ I can’t come in from the cold.”
Know the feeling. Been there. Still not sure that there really is a way back.
On Thursday June 18, we publish a Rory Gallagher 25th Anniversary Special Issue of Hot Press. We think you’ll love it.
We’ve been talking to and hearing from some of the greats. Johnny Marr. Steve Van Zandt. Imelda May. Slash. Mick Fleetwood. Mary Stokes. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons. And a whole load more besides. Our own writers have been delving into their unique, personal memories. Pat Carty. Dermot Stokes. Paul Charles. Eamonn McCann.
There was a moment during the week when, suddenly, the weight of it all hit home. And the depth of the emotional river into which we had dived. We wanted to do the memory of Rory justice. And as the tributes and the stories came flooding in, we knew that we had hit a seam. There was gold here.
But then, there always was with Rory. And so the tributes on hotpress.com start today: keep your eyes peeled as anniversary progresses. And on Thursday, fans will open their copies of Hot Press and read stuff about Rory that will have the tears falling down like rain. We know that feeling too. It is called the blues.
What you gave us will live forever, my friend – its lustre undiminished, its value imperishable.
Rory! Rory! Rory!
Shine on you crazy diamond. Now and forever. World without end.
Four days later. Another deadline. It feels almost like travelling back to that first issue of Hot Press in June 1977 with Rory on the front. Except it is 2020 now.
What would Rory have thought?
Of seven Traveller sisters finally stepping forward on the RTÉ 9 o’clock news to denounce their father for having raped and abused each and every one of them over a period not far off 50 years.
Mother of fucking Christ.
It was a desperately sad and moving scene, the sisters kissing and crying and holding one another with the cameras looking on, before encouraging women – not just traveller women, but every woman – not to be afraid. To step forward. To tell the truth about being abused.
“Tears fall down like rain.”
I think he’d have wanted to read about that in Hot Press. About Black Lives Matter (we don’t need to ask). And about the new coalition deal between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens.
I imagine a wry smile.
And then there is the brutal impact of Covid-19 on music. Gigs cancelled. Bands sidelined. Musicians out of work. Venues that may never open again.
Sounds cascading. Images rushing. Of those wild nights of carefree abandon, people crushing to the front, Rory wired and screaming, sweat raining down, the whole joint convulsed in terrific celebration of just being there in the moment and hearing. That guitar. That voice. That rush. That togetherness. That communal joy in something that transcends time, place and circumstance. Over. Done, till we don’t know when.
An alien world. Will we ever get back to where we once belonged? The smile fades.
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:
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