Saturday 19 October 2019

The legend of a folk musician trapped in a rock world


Guitar mastery: Gallagher in action in Manchester in the late 1970s Picture by Steve Smith
Guitar mastery: Gallagher in action in Manchester in the late 1970s Picture by Steve Smith
Just the smile: Rory Gallagher was in his element on stage
John Meagher

John Meagher

The year was 1977 and a new magazine was shaking up the then fusty Irish media. Hot Press had arrived - and at a perfect time, too, considering punk was sweeping all before it - and among its writers was a young journalist called Julian Vignoles.

Among his early assignments was being sent to Macroom, Co Cork, where one of the country's first open-air rock music festivals was being staged. Some 20,000 souls descend on the town for the second year of Macroom Mountain Dew - and for its headliner Rory Gallagher.

"I'd heard of him, of course, but I'd never really connected with his music before that," Vignoles recalls today. "He had a remarkable stage presence and his band were amazing. I think anyone who was there would have been transfixed by the way he played. And once I became a fan, I never lost it - to the extent that a few years later, when myself and my wife started having kids, our second son was called after him." Rory Vignoles is 26 now, and a Gallagher fan.

More than 40 years later and Vignoles has written a book on the musician that he hopes will be definitive. Rory Gallagher: The Man Behind the Guitar, tells the story of Gallagher's early upbringing in Donegal and Derry, his formative years in Cork and his showband apprenticeship as well as a breathtaking career that took in the blues rock of his acclaimed band, Taste, his own solo prowess and guitar mastery and the ups and downs of a life on the road that ended abruptly with Gallagher's untimely death at just 47 in 1995.

As its subtitle suggests, Vignoles' book seeks to uncover detail of a private man who did his talking through his music and, specifically through his guitar. Some will be intrigued to learn that Gallagher was a devout Catholic who placed great importance on attending Mass and he was obsessed by detective fiction. He was also plagued with demons, including that of one who is thrust into the limelight at an early age but struggles to reclaim past glories in his 30s and 40s. He had struggles with alcohol and it was complications arising from a liver transplant that claimed his life so early.

Vignoles is unequivocal about his importance. "The electric guitar is the great instrument of the second half of the 20th century," he says, "and Rory was one of the great exponents of it. He was certainly the greatest Irish achiever of the art."

Scores of world-famous guitarists, including the Edge and Brian May, have sung the praises of Gallagher's mastery of the instrument, but as Vignoles insists, he was also a great songwriter. "That's sometimes forgotten, simply because he was such an extraordinary guitarist," he says, "but he could be a fantastic songwriter and a really fabulous singer. Not towards the end of his life, granted, but in his heyday, he could combine this incredible guitar work with great showmanship and singing and writing.

Vignoles worked in RTÉ for 30 years, usually in a variety of production roles, including Eurovision (intriguingly, another ex-RTÉ producer, Marcus Connaughton, has also written a book on Gallagher: it, too, is published by The Collins Press). But even while embracing the sonic horrors of the long-running song contest - and writing a book on it - Vignoles never lost his fascination with Rory Gallagher, the man and musician. It wasn't always easy, though.

"Rory went quiet in the 1980s," he says. "He scrapped albums. [Comeback album] Defender eventually did appear, but a lot of people who had loved his stuff before had moved on. He wanted to be on stage, and when the gigs weren't happening, he retreated. Other people have different things going on in their life. This was it for Rory."

The two-and-a-half years that Vignoles spent interviewing, researching and writing the book has made him approach Gallagher's work in a more forensic manner. He has a new-found appreciation for Taste, the band Gallagher founded immediately after his years with the showband Fontana. "On the Boards [Taste's second album, released in 1970] is a wonderful album, and one of the best things Rory every did," he says.

Vignoles also believes the Irish Tour '74 live album - also the subject of an absorbing film from the English documentary-maker Tony Palmer - is a standout release in the Gallagher canon. "He was really in his element on stage," he says. "He always ran on to the stage. He couldn't wait to be up there. He gave everything. He smiled. The delight was in his eyes as soon as he reached the microphone. You had a sense that he was totally on your side.

"The songs had a great dynamic in them," he adds. "He'd cut to the chase. It would be straight in. In terms of musicality, he had it all - look at 'Tattoo'd Lady'. It's straight in major to minor, minor to major."

Today, Gallagher's legacy lives on in places like Ballyshannon - his Donegal hometown - where there's a festival in his honour every year, and there are Rory statues in Belfast and Dublin. The latter, a bronze replica of his trademark Fender Stratocaster guitar, is to be found in a small pocket of Temple Bar known as Rory Gallagher Corner.

His brother and former manager Donal is the custodian of his estate and has been responsible for reissuing Gallagher music and boxsets over the past 23 years. Donal Gallagher declined to cooperate with Vignoles for his book. "You could argue that he's overprotective and Donal should see a book like this as an opportunity rather than a threat," Vignoles says. "He's going to sell more records. Rory is in the newspapers again and online. Donal has talked about writing his own book - but we've been waiting a long time."

And yet, some of the most revealing aspects of Gallagher's life and times are courtesy of his brother and the numerous interviews given over the years that Vignoles has ransacked.

If devotees of blues rock need no introduction to the music of Rory Gallagher, it's also fair to suggest that there is a large cohort of Irish rock lovers who don't really know his work at all. His songs have fallen through the cracks in a way that those of 1970s contemporaries Thin Lizzy and Horslips have not.

And, towards the end of his life, Gallagher himself seems to have been painfully aware that his stock had fallen. In interviews at the time, he lamented the fact that having been off the zeitgeist for so long, he had slipped off the radar for a new generation of music fans.

"As he said himself, he achieved in the rock world but he never felt he really belonged in it," Vignoles says. "He said to Hot Press once that 'I'm a folk musician in a rock world'. There was a great humility to him, but also a steeliness. He didn't believe in any of the excesses of rock. There's a picture in the book of his [London] apartment - and it was very frugal. He must have made quite a bit of money, but the materialistic trappings did nothing for him.

"Cliché it may be, but it was all about the music for Rory - and what incredible music he left us with."

Vignoles suggests he was never really content being the iconic rock star.

'Rory Gallagher: The Man Behind the Guitar' (The Collins Press) by Julian Vignoles is out now

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