Monday 20 November 2017

The guitar king who said it all through his music

For Irish rock fans of a certain age there were certain concerts that were almost a compulsory rite of passage. Back in the dim and distant days of the early 1970s, when events in the North conspired to keep most touring acts away from the country, you had Horslips bringing a dash of colour to far-flung outposts, Thin Lizzy popping back on a regular basis as Phil Lynott's determined drive for stardom slowly but surely gained momentum, and then there was Rory Gallagher.

The return of the lumberjack-shirted guitar king was an annual event around the Christmas/New Year period and a 'must see' gig. In Dublin, these celebrations usually took place in the National Stadium, with the occasional switch to the Carlton, and they had a significance beyond just being great nights out in themselves. With the country not in the best of shape -- and that's putting it mildly -- the fact that we could boast a musician who was making inroads on the world stage acted as a source of immense pride and that clearly comes across in the early stages of Marcus Connaughton's book.

The Donegal-born, Cork-reared Rory was determined to be a musician from his earliest days, and when he eventually bought his trademark Fender Stratocaster from Crowley's Music Centre on Merchants Quay in Cork at the age of 15, he was set on a path which saw him rated among the elite exponents of the instrument. In His Life and Times we get the chronological trajectory of Gallagher's career but very little insight into the man himself.

Granted, there are biographers who'll analyse their subject beyond the point of parody and, mercifully, Marcus Connaughton isn't one of that gang, but there's the feeling that a bit of heft might not have gone amiss and made for a more absorbing read.

That said, Rory Gallagher was a very private individual and even in Riding Shotgun, the memoir from long-time bassist Gerry McAvoy which appeared a couple of years ago, we learned little or nothing about what he was really like. When even his brother and manager Donal can admit -- "Whatever he was feeling, good or bad, he kept very much to himself. I can't say that we ever had an in-depth personal conversation. There wasn't a lot said between us" -- you're at the more impenetrable end of the enigma scale.

The book is at its best in capturing the heady swirl of Gallagher's early days. Going from playing with showbands, travelling to Hamburg and eventually forming Taste, where his abiding love of blues was allowed free rein, there's a palpable energy to reading about this period of his life. From 1967 to 1970 his star was in the ascendant, to the point that when Jimi Hendrix was asked what it felt like to be the best guitarist in the world he replied: "I don't know, ask Rory Gallagher."

Taste's messy split is glossed over somewhat and we're onto the solo career which, it has to be said, makes for rather repetitive reading after a while. The peaks of the Live in Europe album and Irish Tour '74 film are dealt with well but potted biographies of the bluesmen whose songs were covered by Rory feels like padding, especially given that His Life and Times is only 165 pages long with plenty of full-page photographs.

The circumstances leading to Rory's death in 1995 at the age of 47, due to complications following a liver transplant, don't really feature in the text, probably due to the fact that Gallagher himself wasn't letting anyone know what was up with him.

His demeanour may have been shy but his music told us more than enough. Whether we remember him as the driven young tyro of the early '70s, all bravado and blazing solos, or the more contemplative blues and folk aficionado of latter years, the music is still there to be explored and enjoyed and His Life and Times certainly inspired a couple of trips to the CD rack.

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