Thursday, May 08, 2014

Rory Gallagher - Sinner Boy

I've been listening to a lot of Rory Gallagher recently. Before you start sniggering at the back there, this has (possibly) more to do with another conversation I recently had with a music producer/friend about the nature of 'true art'. Both of us agreed on one of the definitions as being that which is produced with NO thought for either fashion or even a prospective audience. In other words, something that comes directly from what may be termed 'the soul'. The boy from County Donegal, for whom a 'sense of style' amounted to a flannel shirt and baseball boots, had this in spades.

Yet, before we explore WHY Rory remains important, especially in this age of cookie-cutter 'authenticity', it's a good idea to begin by defining exactly what William Rory Gallagher wasn't. Aways regarded, even by detractors, as some kind of analogy for integrity, Gallagher - once you do a little bit of digging (both research-wise and  aurally) - turns out to be so much more. On the surface Rory's brand of integrity tends to be, well... dull. The world is full of 'purists', especially in the world of blues (however you define that). And how dull they are. Have a look at Rory's Wikipedia entry and there it is: 'an Irish blues-rock multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and bandleader.' Gee... three chords and the truth.

Like everything on Wikipedia this tells a fraction of the story and the irony is that had Rory lived until the present day I think he'd now be expanding his audience through more collaborations and musical diversions. He just never had the chance. 

If there's one overriding reason why Gallagher's name is consigned to a cabal of blues-worshippers and not celebrated beyond is that his main body of work resided in the live arena - honed by night after night of doing what he was always most happy doing - playing to sweaty crowds. This is not to say that all of his recorded output is a failure. But the dedication to life on the road and a strange refusal (possibly born of his early dedication to his own, singular artistic path) to work with other producers means that if you want to really appreciate the man, you have to see him on stage.

Luckily we now have the treasure trove of Youtube to allow us to fully appreciate how special his talent for performing was. There are literally hundreds of hours of Rory on video - a cursory trawl resulted in the playlist below: all pre-1980 shows and each with its merits.

Of all of these concerts the most 'poetic' would be Tony Palmer's long-forgotten Irish Tour '74, immortalised on the brilliant live album of the same name (although strangely missing from his IMDb entry). On the accompanying record Rory explodes out of the traps on the opener, 'Cradle Rock' - it has to be one of the most visceral expressions of filthy, dirty rock ever recorded. But in the film - ostensibly a straightforward 'on the road' documentary of Gallagher on his home turf - Palmer starts with an almost genius stroke of an opening sequence, where the crashing waves off the rocky coastline of Western Ireland are slowly replaced by Gallagher's exquisite soloing on the middle section of 'Walk On Hot Coals': delicate, folksy arpeggios drenched in sweat, demonstrating his astonishing range from the off.

While there's a sense that maybe something darker drove Rory to endlessly tour (I well remember how in the mid-'70s the NME yearly reader's polls always half-jokingly gave him the 'Vasco Da Gama touring award' for sheer hard work on the road), not only did he almost single-handedly pave the way for Ireland's modern gigging circuit, but it's also possible that many a student union would have had far less to show if he hadn't been prepared to play over and over again. I myself only saw him once (in 1981 at Reading University, to a small faithful crowd - by then his star was well into the descendant), but he still gave it 110%.

In real life Rory did appear to be almost monomaniacal in his pursuit of the adrenaline rush that accompanied live playing - in one interview he explains how itchy he got when working at home or in the studio, undoubtedly explaining why many of his studio albums have a rather rushed two-dimensional feel. In a life filled with irony, the ultimate one was that this inability to lead a settled existence finally led to his death. Alcoholism combined with medication to combat a fear of flying led to unforeseen liver damage that seems inexcusable less than 20 years later.

To believers, the cliche is that Gallagher was far more influential than he's given credit for, but the cliche turns out to actually have a solid grounding. The evidence is pretty clear, especially for someone like me,whose years as a guitar beginner were indelibly marked by his work. As a youngster I only owned two Gallagher albums - Tattoo (bought on cassette in a W H Smith sale in Coventry) and Live in Europe. Actually I don't think I knew anyone at that time who didn't own Live in Europe. It was, after all, the first of his albums to truly capture the essence of what he stood for and a template for aspiring guitarists. Brian May is on record as saying that his own signature 'toppy' sound was derived from Gallagher's advice after a show on the use of treble boosters etc. In fact, Rory was renowned for taking the time to explain his techniques with young fans, so there are probably a whole lot more examples out there. Simply put, Rory was a giant among the players who defined what a 'rock guitarist' could be.

His early choice to work in the showbands that toured the clubs of his native Ireland in the '60s was regarded as a cop-out, until everyone realised that he was merely learning his stagecraft (as Jon Anderson would have it - ho ho). Not only that but (a little like Van Morrison) he was also getting a grounding in far more than rhythm and blues. By the late '60s he'd become the coolest kid on the block with the longest hair and the hottest licks. In Ireland at this point it almost equated to avant garde behaviour. His first band, Taste, were also far more than the usual Cream-alike power trio. Their repertoire included gutsy blues primitivism, folk, prog and even a fair amount of jazz. Check out their performance on Beat Club in 1970, and see Rory wail on the sax! He kept up the habit well into the '70s, as well.

By the band's legendary appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in the same year this was, in all but name, a solo act. Again, Rory's eyes-on-the-prize drive that led to a successful launch of a solo career the following year belies any simplistic take on the man and his muse.

Myth had it (when I was younger) that Rory was not the brightest bulb in the box - unconcerned with financial success as long as his brother/manager kept him in Guinness and enough money for strings and petrol for his car. I'm pretty sure that a huge quantity of this mythology stems from good old-fashioned racism. The fact is, if you watch the (rather excellent, if you ignore The Edge and Bob Geldof) documentary, Ghost Blues, you'll hear the story of a man who, from an early age just knew exactly what he wanted to do: play guitar and lead a band. If that single-mindedness led to Rory being branded stupid it was because people often mistake focus and dedication with a lack of imagination. It's true that in the biographies you do begin to sense that the interviewees - unable to expand on the man's personality other than he was 'generous' 'sweet' or 'nice' - are running out of synonyms for 'boring'. And this view has undoubtedly tainted the man's reputation. 

However, back in the early '70s this was a man who was touring the States as a support for every major act around (and regularly blowing them off stage), playing equally easily to stadium crowds as well as tiny clubs. When he began touring under his own name he was important enough to audition (and reject) Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell for his new trio: a fact worth noting if you happen to (wrongly) believe that his eventual choices (Gerry McAvoy on bass and Wilgar Campbell) were 'hacks' as some journalists remarked at the time. Rory was never anything but driven and knew just what suited his style. 

Following the smoother approach of his eponymous debut album, Gallagher quickly realised that he needed to somehow bottle the live energy in a studio format. Deuce, the follow-up was rawer (and pretty close to the best he ever got in studio confines) yet, as stated, it wasn't until later that year that Live In Europe really set his star alight. So much so that, when Mick Taylor left the Stones, Rory was one of the guitarists auditioned to replace him. But Rory was a born leader, not follower, and he was wise enough to pass.

The replacement of Campbell by the less versatile Rod de'Ath on drums led to his trio expanding to a four-piece, with Lou Martin on keyboards to fill out the sound. To my ears Martin's rinky-dink electric piano always detracted from Gallagher's already top-end dynamic, and while he was undoubtedly accomplished one can only speculate how things may have gone if he'd found a more sonically compatible keyboardist. Still, the live shows of this period (as captured on Irish Tour '74) were blistering. With a voice that was both sweet and growling, and a brace of more than adequate songs, Rory was in his element: slaying the crowd, night after night after night... 

Another irony of his (supposed) back-to basics approach was the iconic effect it had on him and his image; or lack of it. Rory truly hated the idea of stardom and had no use for recognition or validation, yet the business (and his fans) kept trying to smother him in it. 

For starters, there's his legendary guitar. I'm aware that the fetishisation of axes amongst the more obsessive six-string enthusiasts can run amok, given the chance. Read any of the thousands of guitar magazines and you'll hear references to legendary instruments referred to by soubriquets that seem to approach the level of naming of weaponry in cheap sword and sorcery novels: Billy Gibbons' 'Miss Pearly Gates', BB King's 'Lucille' (of which there were apparently many), Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' and 'The Fool', Neil Young's 'Old Black' and even Willie Nelson's 'Trigger'. But visit the Rory Gallagher website and you can buy a POSTER of his guitar. A poster! Rory's '61 Strat was bought secondhand for £100 in 1963 (another indicator that Rory knew exactly what he wanted at an extremely early age) and, along with its pre-CBS buyout status, is most famous for being the most beaten up instrument on the rock stage at any time, before or since. The way in which the patina had worn was allegedly down to Rory's rare blood type which gave his sweat a high alkaline content that literally ate away at the varnish. 

Equally iconic was his lack of 'devices'. Despite the aforementioned treble booster, Rory was well known for eschewing the technical trappings of rock stardom. Not for him any wah-wah, fuzz or volume pedals that afflicted the post-Hendrix generation: he learned to use just tone and volume controls to achieve these effects along with a startling dexterity with harmonics. He even used an old aspirin bottle as a slide. The only downside of using less to achieve more is that his later work sounds horribly artificial as he finally started to use flangers and effects racks in the '80s.

People at the time equated this lack of flummery as a 'workmanlike' approach to his craft, yet if you watch his shows he frequently dazzles in a way that perhaps only Jeff Beck replicates, demonstrating a tonal mastery over the six strings that uses the guitar for its own ends. Yet, unlike Beck, his guitar isn't wielded like some phallic extension, but seems more like a third limb: no wonder his old Strat became so legendary, it was as much a part of him as his arms. But the same applies to his 1930s National Steel. Ragtime, country, etc etc. Rory really could play 'em all.

And on the  dodgy subject of rock and sexuality, it always seems fascinating that when he died tragically young at 47 he left no (acknowledged) partner or children. His style packs a masculine aggression born of years treading the boards in the roughest drinking establishments and yet how did such a handsome boy avoid the snares of the heart? A cursory glance at forums reveals the usual sexual stereotyping that comes with 'rock', desperate to disparage any hint of being gay in favour of the adages of 'life on the road' negating any long-term relationships, or even that he had a mysterious American girlfriend. In the end, who really cares? The fact remains that the musical seam he mined had more to do with hardship and bad luck than the pursuance of getting his rocks off. He's far more believable when singing of his time in Sing Sing on 'In Your Town' or despairing of the destructive power of sex vs spirituality on 'I Could've Had Religion'. He loved the mythology and the symbolism of the blues ('you're just born with it' he tells a German interviewer in one of the attached clips), and that included the hard-drinking lifestyle that was to be his downfall.

But above all Rory has, for me, become a symbol of artistic integrity that transcends genre or technical ability. On the second point it has to be stated that if you watch any of the videos on the playlist below you'll quickly surmise that Gallagher was an astounding guitarist who simply preferred to work within the more basic framework of the blues. Taste's earlier explorations in jazz (along with tracks such as 'They Don't Make Them Like You Anymore' on Tattoo) show that those years in a show band had given Rory the chops to deal with most other genres. What's more, his distinctive phrasing contains a huge dollop of Irish folk in its trills and flourishes. And in many ways that's what Rory's biggest legacy has been: putting Irish music on the world stage. 

Anyway - spend some time with Rory - and marvel again at the world's most self-effacing, genuine guitarist. Whatever that entails...


milo said...

Well said, Chris!

Chris Jones said...

Thanks, Milo!

Unknown said...

Chris that was by far the most descriptive and 'to the point' piece of writing about Rory I've ever read. Great stuff and thank you.
Mike Goonan, Aberdeen

Chris Jones said...

Many thanks for reading Mike - Rory was pretty much the most 'to the point' guitarist I ever saw!

Unknown said...

Mr. Jones, you in a few excellent paragraphs, distilled Rory's greatness where others would take pages and pages to accomplish. Well done Sir.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, you really caught what Rory was.

Shylotus said...

Chris, thank you. You eloquently said everything I try to say when talking about my favorite musician.

Chris Jones said...

Many, many thanks for the kind words.

bobchewie said...

Live in Europe. All the way. Best album I've ever bought
Rory at Greyhound Croydon
Rory at Sundown Edmonton
Rory at Dominion Tottenham Court Road ( ten years later)

Derek said...

Excellent article and on the button. A good insight to Rory. Thanks so much. Derek

chris big man robelou said...

Superb article!

Chris Jones said...

Thanks for the kind comments, guys. And keep listening to Rory, of course...

Anonymous said...

Great great article!

Still I have to disagree about his "horribly artificial" sound in the eighties.

Did you mean in the studio or live?
Cos' apart from his (to me) abusive use of the Octavider in the Nineties, I really love his live sound through the eighties. Not artificial to my ears at all.

And I absolutely love Jinx and Defender. Songs and sound equally!

Anyway, I'd love to know what you meant by sayin that ;)

Again, congratulations for such an accurate insight of the man!!


Unknown said...

Rory was sitting down at a table at first when we met him. He was wearing a check shirt , denim/ cord cream jacket and black jeans , long hair and I mean, he was beautiful and in his prime. To this day I remember my encounter with Rory Gallagher, it was unforgettable really got to see the man everyone wants to know , as crystal clear as ever these memories have remained , clearly he had a big impact on me at the time.

I still have his autograph he gave me to this day , the signed concert ticket . I remember distinctly now him asking me my name , and repeating it in full with a smile on his face with his bright shining eyes, looking straight at me as he said it ( what a charmer) !! Rory was rather shy in real life , but really approachable. My older sister and I, met him after standing in the , after gig autograph queue with many others , he must have attended thousands of times, at his concerts , meeting millions of people in his career as an after concert ritual I expect , we were the last ones to see him in the queue that night .. .. and when everyone had gone and we were more or less alone with Rory, out of nowhere Donal, his brother and manager ; appeared and instantly started chatting …...engaging with us to stay around a lot longer ….and asking us outright to join them for a drink ?

All these years have past , and still I remember that night. My first 'gig' too, it was small and an intimate venue, 'NO DRINK OR DANCE HALL' , they played at . The audience was politely sitting down as Rory came out on stage , he fiddled with the tunings for a few seconds as we all looked on , for what would happen next. Then he hit the first cord on his guitar as the room exploded into 'Cradle Rock'!!

I spontaneously stood up in shock ! looked around and the whole audience had done the same thing , then all the audience simultaneously leapt out of their seats and like a tsunami we made our way through to the stage and there we stayed all night , dancing non stop for almost 3 hours, was more than magic at York University .. The bouncers gave up in the end , there was no chance that anyone was going back to their seats , we were totally in the moment listening to Rory's Band performing in the power of three. Rory took the path of resistance in all aspects of his career , he was not there for the money or fame , just wanted to create and play music and get the respect. This challenged his musical skills and he became the best guitarist' in the world!! even eclipsing his song writing. His live performances can not be captured, on film or tape sadly , being there was something else , the likes of which we will never see again .

Unknown said...

Continued : When my sister and I , found ourselves in the company of Rory and Donal Gallagher they to me were the same coin , but , the opposite sides, one extroverted the other introverted but speaking the same voice, interestingly they could read each other without saying a word such as; their close bond was . I can hardly believe it myself how that evening unfolded , however, I think I am more star struct now than I was then !! … Rory was a private person, however he was charming and polite and really fascinating and Donal, had the gift of the gab, and if we had gone out with them Rory would have opened up an awful lot more .. saying that , I was almost 17, I was painfully shy too and given chance I would have relaxed more in their company as the night progressed .

I was ignorant of much of this fact of Rory Gallagher's international fame at that time , although I had seen him on TV shows such as The Old Grey Whistle Test and I had heard some of his albums.

Meeting Rory in a friendly setting was insightful , there was no security , no promoters , no bouncers , no barriers at all between us and him. He certainly had star dust, but , I was not rendered helpless in the moment because he was so human, and he did nothing to exploit his status, it was as if we were speaking to 'the boys next door feeling and we could have potentially become great friends.

Rory was shy, which is well documented but , I had no access to this information at the time so , these words I say are my observations of that night: as Donal did most of the talking as Rory chose to stand close to me at my side . He was so close to me I could touch him , I was made aware of this fact how close indeed he was , when he spoke as I turned to look at him , seeing he was in my personal space. We must have been with them both for over an hour .

My sister and Donal were chatting, anyway Rory chipped in occasionally, and I turned to look directly at him as he spoke as he was stood at my side throughout , and I was captivated by his good looks, he looked younger in real life, he was stunningly beautiful . This verbal interaction I have discovered recently was normal for the two brothers; Donal did a lot of chat and Rory was reserved; before and after gigs , coming back to life later after the adrenalin had stopped kicking in.

However , they must have liked our company because then we were invited back to where they were .

Unknown said...

Continued : I mean, all this misinformation released after Rory's death , that he did not like women falls on it's face don't it ? everywhere it is written that he did not want a relationship , not saying that is what they wanted, it was most likely that they welcomed a bit of female company and friendship in the respect , of something to do , after the 'gig' , in one lonely city for one night , we will never know now because my older sister bottled-out , and I had no choice but to go along with her in the pre booked Taxi, that took ages to arrive ; As the two brothers remained in our company and waited and stayed with us as a duty of care. And hard as I try , I can not remember everything that was discussed and we never took photos either so I have no proof of this amazing and surreal encounter .

I am no expert , I would never claim to be , but it has to be said because I did get up close, I gained an essence of Rory through his performance on stage and then our meeting soon afterwards, and his close relationship with his brother too , as a family dynamic which, was essential for the Rory Gallagher music success.

This myth around Rory created in the media , that he did not have access to women by choice, in actual fact, it is clear he just never discussed his desires and experiences publicly with anyone, keeping his private life, 'private'!

And if we had gone on to spend quality time that evening, in their company, I would not disclose a thing … Does not take a lot of imagination to understand this beautiful boy , just read his lyrics of his songs , you will see Rory was no stranger to love and heart break and he was also an incurable romantic poet , displayed for all to see in his songs.

Both brothers, that night wanted to spend time with us, not as groupies but, as friends, granted , doing the asking for us to change our minds and not leave, was Donal , Rory's right hand man, they clearly worked together to try to convince us to stay in the most charming way, before we left homeward bound … It is really sad I think now, we had no excuse to leave ..and I had no confidence or alternative means to challenge my sister, as I did not live in the City because I was a visitor, staying over with her. My verdict now ?? we were insane , we should have taken up the offer to spend the evening with them ..I mean what could have happened ? What a regret !! ..

WE could have had a great time going out being their tour guides around the city to find the best food, after having a drink with them, I was in pubs all the time , I did not have to drink alcohol , how could us girls refuse ??

But , it was NOT to be.

Unknown said...

Continued : Meeting Rory Gallagher was a privilege and humbling , he still had the time for people after playing like a maniac all night. Difficult one really what a dilemma, I wanted to socialize with them, for nothing more than I liked them. I felt safe in their company. We were not a risk at all from these two gentlemen . And we made a mistake leaving.. as Donal went with us to the car asking us one last time to change our minds ….as Rory looked on , I gave a final wave of regret. Which haunts me to this day , cause Rory did look disappointed to see us leave as any young man would do, witnessing unattainable girls depart, says everything about this sensitive romantic soul. I never saw them again as I got older , I never had chance to give my side of the story and apologize .

Rory seemed younger in real life , and his eyes were soulful , thoughtful , he spoke economically he seemed to communicate with Donal telepathically they were indeed very close . I was also mesmerized by the brothers Irish accent and choice of words they used as they reverted back to Southern Irish twang in their conversations which , is rarely shown in interviews , a beautiful 'accent' from Cork, almost singing as they spoke , totally different it was, to the Yorkshire Dialect I was accustomed too.

Rory Gallagher touring the world over 25 years as a solo act after leaving TASTE, for most nights , he must have met thousands of girls and women, one can only imagine how many were invited to spend time with them both? , all left with a very lovely impression of a beautiful man and family . Makes him special indeed and what a loss ……. I still feel bereft

However, what struck me then and now ; the overriding memory of that night , is the brother's close bond. They took to us being sisters and them being brother's , my sister and I remember this above everything else , this was innocent stuff, which is a lovely memory for us both to keep from our time with them ....very human indeed!

Unknown said...

continued: Wish I could turn the clock back and do it all again. It is a special memory to carry through my life meeting Rory and Donal Gallagher and I have only recently thought about it in detail because of the many ;You Tube links online now , and there is so much limited information available about him personally as much of this kind of thing has been over looked or lost.

I am no expert , Rory up close was indeed private so I only got an impression of his personality, much has been written about his hedonistic ( no drugs ) Alcohol lads nights out , or his excessive later in life drinking alone , even questions have been raised if he was autistic , gay , anti- women? because he did not flaunt his relationships. All these comments are really cruel and unproven, so I feel really strongly about it all enough to blow my cover and tell the truth.

What I did witness I liked and awful lot , Rory was everything and more than can be imagined . He had like a warm center to his being , that could be defined I suppose as star dust.. He was a religious man I believe , going to mass every week too.. so he maintained a kind of personal dignity with his God. It is believed , cause I have no proof of this . However, all this video information takes me right back which has got me thinking , and recently I spoke to my sister to help jog the memories just in case I had dreamt them up, to find out it is all real!! it was a few years ago , and it all happened spontaneously and without warning we were literally swept off our feet , we could have so easily rolled with the punches that night .. Sadly , so much negative stuff is being written now about Rory , people want all the dirt on Rory, which is insulting as he was such a private person in life , especially as he is not here to defend himself this makes all this interest about him quite negative as that is what is being push forward as a narrative , when we all should be looking to find the real man he was and respect what he left behind for all to still enjoy now.

Some young people are finding his music for the first time, who never got chance to see him perform in concert , because they were not alive before he died, which , is amazing really how he lives on , and will remain as such, forever …

However, sadly , his friends are betraying him right now , to write trash and there is little out there to balance out the general tabloid version of Rory Gallagher and in time when we are gone , all that will remain is what has been published about him which is really sad , because he will then be lost in time … What is in print now is more than disappointing , much of it maybe even exaggerated stories been written to ride on the crest of the wave of Rory's talent, hard work and success to make a quick buck!! Very sad , as Gerry McAvoy , who I did meet that night , has written a book , I have not read , that is worth between £500/1000 new online ..these books are rare, and very much in demand .

McAvoy signed with his other band mate the ticket I have too, they did it before Rory as they all sat in a different place. to Rory in that Entrance Hall at the University after the gig had finished that night .. but , when we got to meet Rory , don't know how long we were speaking to him? everyone had packed up and gone, we were alone in the Hall … when we turned around there was just Donal there .. which to me speaks volumes , this means Rory did not mix with his Band mates socially , after the gig was over.

Unknown said...

The last part ...Rory was single minded , he was with his brother, who sorted him out after the concerts , for down time .. Rory was not a cheap-man he treated women with respect and so did Donal .. an old fashioned ' respect' that is rare to experience at the best of times, if ever these days .. In a time of excess and temptation , Rory stood next to a young innocent lady by choice says everything about him , that he rejected the trash culture laid on a plate for him as he toured the world , however , he had no allies much in the end as he took to self-medication to cope .. that is what I 'regret' ,we could have been his friend , but , his fame and my sister's fear got in the way when it should have not.. Lets face it the back drop of the time was IRA in the UK , and pop stars using girls . So her concerns were valid in some respects , but Rory and Donal broke the mold they were totally none threatening in reality .

So I feel compelled to share a glimpse of lovely quiet and gentle man Rory Gallagher I met . To show he was really a decent gentle and kind man , during all the fame stuff swirling around him .. indeed, passionate about his craft, the top of his game , still the best guitarist in the world to this day , no one is better , all these gifts he had no ego and did not play the corporate music industry game (and he would never have betrayed his mates for a quick buck! . If Rory had 'sold out' to THE Big Corporate Music Industry they would indeed have made him a huge star , but he did not want that, he did not want to divert from the path of being an authentic artist , one with integrity , he wanted to remain free of the burden and the trappings of vacuous fame.
He could have been a pinup boy too .. I mean, can you imagine that ? but he stood his ground , because his music was worth more than that , so he shunned fame to live a life he could , keeping his principles , and now he has produced timeless music that is relevant today as it was then .
Rory is a Guitar Legend that should never be forgotten , a normal man too, with vulnerabilities just like any other man when with women for the first time. Rory Gallagher was first and foremost a total gentleman and a wonderful human . in my company anyway, he was.
I do feel sad I did not get to know him more because so much was unsaid , even though a lot was communicated between us through body-language and silences too , we could have had a lot more to say ……given the chance .
Thank for writing such a great article .. You captured something special .