Rory Gallagher died ten years ago this month. The last time I wrote anything about him, I was 14 years old. I had just been to see him play with his band at the Savoy in Limerick. To say I was starstruck would be something of an understatement; I was just learning to play the electric guitar, and I worshipped the man. After the concert, I managed to find an unguarded stage door, and crept in backstage. From the wings, I caught my breath as I watched the man himself gently placing his battered old Fender Stratocaster in its case. He was twenty-four years old and at the peak of his career. For me, he was a god.
He was the first Irish rock star, long before U2 or anyone else. He played the blues. For kids like us, living in the west of Ireland, he was the blues. We’d never heard anyone else play like that. On stage, he was stunning.
If we ever felt ashamed at the poor quality of Irish rock (and it was pretty dire, back then), we could always draw comfort from the fact that Rory was up there with the best of them. Known and respected all over Europe, even if they did keep mispronouncing his name. And he was one of us, from the sticks - a Corkman, not even a Dubliner. If he could do it, so could we. Or so we thought, anyway.
I watched him carry the guitar up a set of stairs and through a door into the band’s dressing-room. I followed in the darkness, and stood outside the door for a long time before I summoned up enough courage to knock. It was opened by a member of the band, an Englishman. “Want to come in, son?”
The articles I had read about the rock and roll scene talked of scenes of drug-taking and debauchery in the dressing-rooms. Not so with Rory’s band. They sat around, smoking and joking, and talking about the concert. “I’d love a pint of Murphys right now,” mused Rory. “Listen to the Irishman – a pint of Murphys!” jeered the others.
Anyone who ever met Rory personally testifies to his modesty and kindness. Let me add my tribute here; it’s absolutely true. He had no superstar airs about him whatsoever. He was a decent Cork lad who took the time to talk to a starstruck kid who happened to walk into his dressing-room. He listened patiently to me while I talked about my plans to form a band, and how hard it was to find a drummer. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Keep trying.”
Then I had to go, or I’d miss the last bus home - I lived twenty miles away. When I got home I wrote down everything he’d said in my notebook; don’t give up, don’t give up.
I couldn’t afford to buy his records, but I borrowed them from friends, and taped his music from the radio. I learned to play just about every solo he’d ever recorded. I got a job as a teaboy on a building site and bought a denim jacket and a lumberjack shirt with my first week’s wages, much to my mother’s disgust. I practised his songs, and played them at school concerts to a bemused audience of parents. Other kids talked about education and careers, but the only thing I wanted to be was Rory Gallagher.
Trying to start a rock band in the west of Ireland in those days was a bit like trying to fly by sheer willpower. Eventually I found a couple of guys to play with, but we had no money and no transport. We used to travel to gigs by bus, instruments and amplifiers under our arms. We made a demo recording at which I played through an adapted record player, and the drummer played on a borrowed snare drum, which he broke. It could be the start of a romantic story about a struggling band if it ever led to anything, but deep inside we knew we weren’t going anywhere.
Eventually, when I was as old as Rory had been when I met him, I did become a professional musician - of sorts. For years, I made a living playing rock and roll in the pubs of Copenhagen. I’d throw in the odd Rory Gallagher number from time to time, mainly out of patriotism because no-one in the audience knew them. When the whole bar scene was getting me down I’d remind myself of how Rory had spent years playing in Irish showbands, probably playing to crowds like this.
What I didn’t know was that Rory was playing to crowds like this. His career had hit the skids; he was drinking too much, taking pills to control anxiety, and playing to small and restive audiences. The blues were passé. It was time for the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. Rory who?
I, on the other hand, had never been famous, and at this stage it was not likely that I ever would be. When I turned thirty, I decided that, on balance, I did not want to be standing on a stage in some seedy dive at the age of forty, playing to people half my age. I started studying during the daytime, and eventually, I quit the music business. I got married, had children, settled down. It had been a long time since I’d heard anything about Rory Gallagher.
Then, suddenly, he was back in the news. The once-famous Irish guitarist had died of liver failure. He was 47 years old. He had never married or had children, and he was still a working musician.
In an obituary, “Guitar Magazine” wrote: “Consistently eschewing commercialization, musical and stage gimmickry, and the trappings of rock-stardom, he took simplicity as the key in his total commitment to making authentic, high quality music. Frequently described as a shy, friendly, modest man, Rory Gallagher was the antithesis of the blazing persona that he projected as a live performer. His grit and integrity earned him the respect and affectionate admiration of many. Performing at his best on stage in front of a live audience, he was widely acknowledged as one of the finest blues musicians treading the boards. The first Irish rock 'n' roller and a unique blues guitar voice rolled into one. Missed by everyone."
Amen to that. When that plectrum fell out of my pocket I picked up my guitar from the corner, blew the dust off it, and played one of his songs, experimentally. It still sounded good.
Someone once told me that a dream is like a train; it can take you to lots of interesting places, but sooner or later you have to get off. My dream gave me some fantastic experiences, and took me to amazing places. I’m glad, on the whole, that I got off the train in time; that I stopped trying to be Rory Gallagher. But I’m not sorry that I took the ride.Billy O’Shea
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