Thursday 22 March 2018

Guitar legend had taste and knew what was goin' on

For the anniversary of the passing of a world-class Irish musician, Joseph O'Connor remembers Rory Gallagher

SPOTLIGHT: Rory Gallagher wowed a generation of music-mad teenagers in the Seventies
SPOTLIGHT: Rory Gallagher wowed a generation of music-mad teenagers in the Seventies

When I think of him, I see a dancehall in Seventies Ireland. Somewhere like Ballyshannon, the place where he was born, or somewhere in Cork, the city of his childhood, the town he loved so well. I see a sign in the window for the local ceilidh band or a raffle to send parishioners to Lourdes.

Inside, I see the faces I can only have seen for real in the film that was made of his 1974 Irish tour. Pallid teenage boys and their cheesecloth-wearing girls. A statue of the Sacred Heart smiling inscrutably down from a plinth in the upstairs balcony wall. The wooden floor so badly warped that it dips several inches in the middle. On the rickety stage, the band's amplifiers and drum kit have been set up. A pony-tailed roadie tuning a battered electric guitar. Many of the audience have never seen an electric guitar in the flesh. You could take bites out of the excitement as the room fills up. There might be a revolving mirror-ball sending spangles of light across the faces. There might a sign on the wall reading "No Jiving".

Well, what happens next? Someone makes an announcement over the speakers. The concert will begin in five minutes' time. The roar is like the sound of a jet taking off. Last chance to buy a mineral from the bar down the back, the wall of which features a photograph signed by Big Tom and the Mainliners or a poster assuring the clientele who are usually on the premises that there's really no show like a Joe show. But tonight there's no Big Tom, no Joe Dolan, no showband, skilled though those acts might be. Tonight it's the greatest Irish virtuoso ever to work in rock music. The audience are chanting his name.

At nine on the dot, the house lights flicker out. A couple of red and yellow stage-lamps illuminate the drums as the crowd began surging towards the stage. A cherub-faced, slightly awkward looking youngfella with long shaggy hair ambles out from the wings in a lumberjack's tartan shirt and waves a brief moment to the crowd. The frenzied applause seems to embarrass him. The crazed howl makes him smile. He picks up and dons the guitar, plugs in his amp, bashes out a couple of chords to check the tuning and the volume, and utters something that can't be heard for the cheering. Then he's standing slightly hunched in the single white spotlight, the fingers of his left hand racing up and down the fret-board, his head bobbing from side to side as he closes his eyes, wrenching blues notes from an instrument that looks as though he found it abandoned in a skip or washed-up on a beach like driftwood.

A wail of screeching feedback echoes around the hall, as two long-haired lads in bellbottoms stroll on to the stage, one of them strapping on a bass guitar that thunks so loud it hurts your teeth, the other sitting to the drum-kit and starting to beat it like something that deserves punishment. The song is a Muddy Waters number, Gypsy Woman Blues, and the guitarist is filling the air with shrieks and sparks of beautiful sound, as the 12-bar rhythm is clapped by the audience and bashed on the drummer's cymbals. A boy in a leather jacket, already drunk on the music, runs to the side of the stage where the amplifiers are stacked, wrapping his arms around them as though wanting to kiss them in helpless love, until the roadie manages to persuade him away.

There will be great Irish musicians. There will be great Irish stars. There will be artists more successful at the selling of records, and many of them will always praise his legacy. His extraordinary modesty. The sheer grace of his skill. How he resisted every invitation to sell out on his vision. His respect for the music, his knowledge, his craft. His insistence that the music came first.

He didn't do fashion. He didn't do fad. In his field, he was one of the very best in the world, this self-effacing Irishman with a quiet passion for excellence. Long before the rock stars, there was once Rory Gallagher. For all of us who loved his work, he's still playing.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on RTE One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'. His novel 'Ghost Light' is published by Vintage

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