by David Sinclair
The schedule-shredding microchip music business of the `90s has left him plodding in its wake. After 25 years with a battered Strat proclaiming man's inalienable right to boogie, Rory Gallagher is struggling to preserve his self-confidence and resist the relentless march of technology. Chin up, says David Sinclair... The show must go on!
At the start of 1970 the world was Rory Gallagher's oyster. Cream had split up towards the end of 1968 and Hendrix, having dissolved the Experience, had spent most of 1969 faffing around in a haze of dissolute disorganisation. The group that looked tailor made to step into vacuum was Taste, an Irish blues-based trio which boasted in Gallagher a musician who looked more than capable of claiming a place alongside the likes of Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore in the second wave of rock guitar virtuosos.
In February l970 Taste's second album, On The Boards, began a rapid ascent of the chart. It was a bold pioneering collection which minted fresh coin from the hard currency of the blues. The title track was a striking amalgam of rock and jazz-noir which featured Gallagher blowing a fair saxophone solo, something of a first among "guitar hero" accomplishments. But it all went wrong and in less than a year Taste had fallen apart. As a solo act, Gallagher subsequently went on to greater success, but retreated from the cutting edge. Forever decked out in his checked shirt, jeans and plimsolls (the ancestors of trainers), he carved a niche for himself as a no-frills, no-nonsense man of the people. A perennial live favourite, he hauled his battered Stratocaster, a bass player, drummer and minimal road crew round the European arena and festival circuit without remit, achieving widespread popularity and acclaim during the '70s. His image solidified around the time of his most successful album, Live! In Europe (1972), a high energy proclamation of man's inalienable right to boogie, which featured standards like Messin' With The Kid and Bullfrog Blues that have lodged in his set ever since.
In America, where he is less well known, Gallagher has mounted no less than 25 full-scale college and theatre tours over the years. In England he has played the Reading Festival more times than any other act, ditto the Montreux Festival, and he's proud of it. While his fans have been loyal, many other people assume that Gallagher died the death some time after punk, and with only three new albums released since 1979 - Stage Struck (another live recording in 1980), Jinx (1982) and Defender (1987) - the '80s were indeed remarkably quiet, even by the low-key standards of this retiring performer.
"I'm not the most organised guy in the world", Gallagher comments equably, a feature that has been evident in the weeks leading up to this interview, during which a warm-up gig in Hamburg, the recording of a German TV show in Baden Baden, a gig in Cologne, and two proposed meetings in London have all fallen through. He eventually appears in a quiet Chelsea bar where the staff treat him as a familiar and valued customer, reserving a quiet table in the corner, and supplying lagers and whisky chasers throughout.
He is in poor shape. Rheumy eyes peer from a face that looks as if it has been pumped up like a football. His hair is a virulent shade of dark henna red, but grey roots push up along the crease of a ragged centre parting. What can do this to a man? He explains that many sleepless nights, bad diet and much lack of exercise and fresh air have been the upshot of a prolonged stretch in the recording studio. He has just finished work on his new album, Fresh Evidence, and the fact is that in stark contrast to his happy-go-lucky, have-guitar will-travel image, Gallagher is both a painstaking perfectionist and a sufferer of extreme angst when it comes to the recording studio. "If you produce, write and play on an album, you lose all perspective. I get terrible doubts. The predecessor of Defender, an album called Torch, was put in the bin. The recordings went on and on and eventually I just turned against it. This happened before. We did a complete album in San Francisco in the '70s and then scrapped it. That was the album before Photo-Finish. This is the constant danger. If you're working for months on end in the studio you lose the joy of it and in the end you turn against it. I've just got this one finished in time. I'm happy enough with it now."
He looks, none too certainly, at an advance tape of Fresh Evidence sitting on the table. It is the cause of all the recent disruptions to his schedule, since the album has had to be fully mixed at least twice and then cut three times before reaching a standard that he will accept as satisfactory. "Knowing my temperament I have to watch myself. You start going home and playing albums by your favourite artists and then you put your own record on and you can go from being excited about what you do to being very depressed about what you do - which is probably a healthy thing, but it's not healthy in terms of planning and touring and so on."
"If you were getting a lot of nice critical acclaim all the time, you might think, Gosh, gee whizz, I'm not that bad, I do pretty good things. But the route I'm on I don't get that much coverage and an awful lot of it is left to my own judgement. I'm probably over-critical of myself so you have to boost yourself back up. The best thing for that is to go to a couple of concerts. You see somebody who's supposed to he a genius and then you go home and say, Gee whizz, God Almighty, I'm not too bad after all. "You could neuter yourself if you didn't have some self-esteem. My next plan is to go out and do some extreme touring, which is the best therapy of all. Every night you get a chance to prove yourself and you can't be overdubbing it a million times."
Gallagher's neurotic attention to detail has paid off and Fresh Evidence is a considered and varied collection without an ounce of spare flesh on its wiry frame. On two tracks in particular-- Middle Name and Heaven's Gate - he solos with whiplash severity and taut economy against smouldering, minimalist backdrops that belie the long months of effort that went into the making of the finished article. The album emerges too at a time when blues-based rock is suddenly as fashionable as it has been at any time since the '60s. Bonnie Raitt has just topped the American chart; John Lee Hooker is more successful than he's been for several decades; Gary Moore is in the chart with Albert King; Larry McCray is racing to pick up the Robert Cray baton; and even mainstream veteran Eric Clapton peppered this year's Albert Hall residency with several nostalgic Blues Nights. Gallagher has, of course, occupied the one fixed point all along and smiles at the thought of everyone else once more coming round to his way of thinking.
"The compass has come round again all right. It's not that nice when you're out there in the cold. You always have fans who will follow you through thick and thin, but the temperature feels good again now. Even so, I want to avoid the AOR element that some of the blues artists are getting into now. I still like to have a street feel to it, because that's the way Chicago blues is. I can be as technical as I want to, but I still want it to be a little bit crazy. I'm serious about the blues and I study it. But I would prefer to be a little bit rowdy as opposed to too sophisticated."
The mystery of how a man born in Ballyshannon on the northwest tip of Ireland on March 2, 1948 and brought up during the '50s in the town of Cork should have come to make a study of the blues his life's work is unravelled in the first instance by reference to the much underrated skiffle star Lonnie Donegan. "I found Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie through Lonnie Donegan; with the exception of the BBC jazz programmes and American Forces Network who would play the odd Muddy Waters track, Lonnie was the only source for getting to hear of material like that."
From there Gallagher found his way to the likes of Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Jimmy Reed. The subsequent emergence across the water of The Rolling Stones and Alexis Korner didn't hurt either. "You'd see in Melody Maker photographs of the Chris Barber Band touring with Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. I got books out of the library that had photographs of Blind Blake and people like that. I was just fascinated by the blues. The strange thing is I can't play jigs or reels or any of that traditional Irish stuff as well as I ought to, whereas I think I have got a good ear for blues, the tonality of it and so on."
Gallagher got his first guitar when he was nine and taught himself to play, using tutorial books. When he was l5 he bought the sunburst Fender Stratocaster which he uses to this day: "It's a 1961 model. I got it second-hand. It was [[sterling]]100, which was an absolute fortune at the time. It was in good condition then, but it's got so battered now it's got a kind of tattoo quality about it. There's now a theory that the less paint or varnish on a guitar, acoustic or electric, the better. The wood breathes more. But it's all psychological. I just like the sound of it. It's also a good luck thing. It was stolen one time and it came back. It's kind of a lucky charm."
Gallagher admits to being extremely superstitious, a man who is tempted to stay in on Friday the 13th. "I'm trying to cure it. If I throw a shirt on the couch and I should tidy up... I might look at it and think, No, I'll leave that. Even the position of a piece of paper at home, or where you leave your shoes... It's actually dangerous to get that psychotic about it, but I am. "I'm also into the zodiac, unfortunately. I try to avoid it because that's bad luck. Numbers and stuff. I think it may be an Irish thing. It's a Druidic, pre-Celtic thing that creeps into Irish Christianity. It's something that you have to conquer because it is very unhealthy mentally. It can control your mind."
Gallagher's late father played accordion in a traditional Irish band and his mother is still possessed of a fine singing voice, so although Gallagher junior rebelled against Irish music, it seemed a natural step for him to make a living by joining The Fontana Showband when he left school. "It's great fun in a showband, whatever you say, although it can be frustrating too. You'll get a great jazz saxophonist having to play The Twist by Chubby Checker, and you'll get a drummer who really wants to be playing in a ceilidh band or you'll get someone like me who just wants to play Chuck Berry and R&B. But you do it for a laugh at a certain point. Some of the bands have quite a serious attitude. They spend a lot of time getting good uniforms and hoping to make it in Las Vegas. I had a uniform, God forbid. I actually wore the jacket with Taste for a bit. It had double buttons, kind of like a Beatle jacket. But I knew from Day One that I was only passing through."
As the beat boom overtook the British Isles, and even Cork played host to bands like The Rolling Stones ("1963 they came, with Brian Jones. It was the first time I'd seen anyone playing the slide guitar - a very underrated musician"), The Fontana Showband changed its name to The Impact in a half-hearted attempt to keep up with the times. It didn't work. The band split up and in 1965 Gallagher was asked by the manager to put a band together to honour some outstanding dates in Hamburg. With bassist Richard McCracken and drummer John Wilson, Gallagher formed Taste and the trio went off to cut its teeth through the time-honoured rigours of the Hamburg night-club scene. "The whole atmosphere was still very Beatlesesque. The beauty of it was that, aside from playing six 45-minute sets a night, you could play as much Chuck Berry as you wanted, and do as much jamming as you wanted. You still had to play a couple of pop hits every so often to keep the dancers happy and avoid the beer bottles."
Although nowadays there is a thriving Irish rock scene, in the '60s there was virtually no one else apart from Van Morrison and Them. Taste found it extremely hard to get established on the mainland, but persistence paid off. They moved to the penury of bedsit land in London and criss-crossed the country touring with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (Mick Taylor line-up) and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, among others. Together with Yes, they supported Cream on their Albert Hall farewell concerts in 1968, toured America with the ill-fated Blind Faith and following the success of On The Boards, were well on their way to much wider acclaim .
Twenty years later, Gallagher is still extremely touchy about the subject of Taste. At the time of the break-up, drummer John Wilson laid the blame at Gallagher's door, complaining to the music press that the guitarist had been taking all the money and short-changing the rest of the group. "I hate talking about ancient history all the time", Gallagher says with a visibly pained expression. "In some respects I regret the group breaking up when it did, but I don't think it would have lasted more than a few months longer in any event. I remember playing the Isle Of Wight Festival (August 1970) and we weren't talking to each other then. We took the ferry across, and we put on a reasonable show and got a great reaction, but musically it was all over between us. Other things were happening which shouldn't have been happening, but they were not my fault. Richard and John know the truth. I was made out to be the villain but they know it's simply not true. I got very badly burned there. I've been through the Taste story so many times and I'm sick of it."
Besides resembling a man having his teeth pulled when the subject of Taste is broached, Gallagher scrupulously avoids naming names, but according to his younger brother, Donal, who was at that time Rory's road manager, the financial problem stemmed from bad management practices, with money being withheld from Wilson and McCracken who were then told it had been paid to Gallagher. It was, says Donal, a classic case of management divide and rule, and it left Rory scarred for life. "He still won't accept the very idea of having manager" says Donal (41) who now takes care of all Rory's management needs. "I've never been fully appointed to the job, and I'm constanty reminded of it," he adds a shade wistfully.
"It's no mini-empire," says Rory when asked about the close-knit, almost cottage industry nature of the present operation. "By nature I'm not a business-like type of person. I'm not that organised. But I want anything that I'm doing to be under control, and I want the final say on things and I don't want things to get out of hand like they did before. I don't think in terms of power levels really, unless there's a clash or something like that. I like to think I'm anti-organisation and anti-establishment and anti-setups, but you do have to have some kind of plan so that three or four musicians show up at the same time at the same gig or the same airport. It's something I'll always have a problem with, but once you get things rolling on a tour, that side of it becomes unimportant."
Gallagher, who has never married, now lives in Chelsea, where he keeps his radio tuned into the Irish station RTE and continues to take an Irish newspaper. He is hardly what you would call a superstar. For one thing he is too shy. "I was in the same plane as John Lennon once," he reminisces, "and I thought I'd better go and say hello to him, but I hadn't the guts to do it. I regret it to this day. I'm useless at that. I have trouble going up to unknown bands and saying hello. I did the same thing with Hendrix. It was at the Speakeasy club and I was sitting two tables away from him. I could have said hello. There weren't too many people there. Same again with Brian Jones at Blaizes. I didn't say hello and lived to regret it. But sometimes people should be left alone. I wouldn't bring up the subject, except that all these people seem to drift and fade away... I did shake Howlin' Wolf's hand. I'm a terrible cheap fan really."
On the other side of the coin, he has avoided the pub rock obscurity that has claimed so many of his peers from the '60s blues boom, and continues to ply a good trade doing what he does. He has not made enough to retire and one wonders if he intends to carry on like the old blues stars he so much admired in the first place. "That was my plan and my ambition, but over these last four or five years I've wondered if I can keep it going. I think if I can get over the next couple of months when the album comes out, and I can get back out touring, I'll go for about 60. That would be a fair time to retire. That would be my dream. You reach the point in your life where you have to make a commitment. It's not as easy as when you're 19 or 25 or 30. It's not the live part so much that's difficult, it's the recording. I find the gypsy part of it easy enough. But working with a set piece of music in the studio... well, I agonise too much. The best thing I can do right now is rehearse and go on the road and play. It's better than retiring to Buckinghamshire and getting a mansion and six corgi dogs and writing the next rock opera."
Permission to reproduce this article on the Rory Gallagher Home Page granted by Q magazine in October 1995.
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