Tuesday 16 October 2018

My extraordinary brother, Rory . . .

On the 15th anniversary of the rock legend's death, Donal Gallagher recalls the fabulous highs and the devastating lows of his famous sibling

There's a story, apparently a true one, that after Jimi Hendrix came off stage at the legendary Woodstock festival, he was asked what it was like to be the greatest guitar player in the world. "I don't know," he answered. "Ask Rory Gallagher."

This week, fans travelled from all corners of the globe to honour the rock icon at the unveiling of a new statue in the Donegal town of Ballyshannon, where he was born in 1948, and to attend the annual Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival.

Gallagher was the guitarist's guitarist. As a youngster, Brian May of Queen approached Rory and asked how he achieved his wonderfully dirty sound. A gentle and gracious man, he shared his trade secrets with the novice and, as May revealed: "That's how I got my sound."

Others who have cited Gallagher as a big influence include The Edge, Slash from Guns N' Roses and Johnny Marr from The Smiths.

Next Thursday, RTE will air a new documentary about the guitarist with contributions from The Edge, Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and other stars. The programme marks the 15th anniversary of Gallagher's death in 1995 at the wastefully early age of 47.

It's a little-known fact that Gallagher almost joined Wyman in the Rolling Stones after the band's guitarist Mick Taylor walked out following a series of blow-ups with Keith Richards.

Rory's brother Donal, who was also his manager, explains: "It was January 1975. We'd just finished a tour and we got home to Cork. We got a phone call late at night from a man with a funny accent. He gave his name as Ian Stewart (the Stones' pianist and road manager) and asked if Rory would like to join the band.

"Rory wouldn't take the call. He thought it was a prank. So Ian rang back a second time and asked if Rory would go to Rotterdam to record the album that became Black And Blue.

"So Rory went over and played some sessions, but he was scheduled to go on a Japanese tour and it wasn't easy to pull out. He stayed for a few days and he was asked to go to Keith's hotel room for a chat about joining the band.

"Unfortunately Keith was comatose and Rory spent the night trying to revive him. Morning came and there were none of the other Stones around, so Rory just went to the airport and flew out to Japan."

Rory Gallagher sold millions of records but the real foundation for his strong international fanbase was his powerhouse live delivery. He cut his teeth as a schoolboy playing pop covers with showbands but as his passion for the blues developed he struck out on his own.

He perfected a distorted, gritty sound, combining screeching slide guitar with a rich growl of a voice. In an era when flamboyant hippy chic was all the rage, Gallagher remained resolutely anti-fashion. He rarely took to the stage without his trademark check lumberjack shirt.

He formed his own band, Taste, in the mid-1960s. They gave a storming performance at the legendary 1970 Isle of Wight festival where 600,000 fans overwhelmed the sleepy island for a stellar bill that Taste shared with Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Who and The Doors.

With his reputation soaring, Rory revamped himself as the solo star of his band. The 1970s were a prolific decade when he made the time to record 10 albums in between lengthy tours. One exhausting trek took in 100 shows across 12 countries in just 16 weeks. In 1971, the readers of Melody Maker voted him Top International Musician Of The Year, ahead of Eric Clapton.

The tide turned against Gallagher towards the end of that decade when his marathon virtuoso jams were snubbed by a new generation of music fans devoted to rudimentary three-minute ditties.

Donal, who today runs his own music label in London, reflects: "In Ireland at that time he was taken for granted. People thought Rory was like a number 11 bus -- there will be another one along in five minutes. But there wasn't another Rory. He was unique. But when that new wave of bands came along, like The Boomtown Rats and U2, he was by-passed. No one cited Rory. It was a low point for him."

Gallagher's low points could plunge him into an abyss. He once remarked: "I agonise too much." He nursed a sense of foreboding about his own mortality. The death of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott at the age of 35 in 1986 shocked and dismayed him.

Turning 40, he reflected on the wear and tear he inflicted on himself over decades of living what he called his "gypsy" rock'n'roll lifestyle. Forever a driven and restless perfectionist, he told one interviewer: "I'd rather go crazy on the road than off it, because it's one or the other.

"If I could only be the relaxed type of musician I would be much healthier because then I could switch off for a night or go off for a holiday. I don't take holidays in the sun because so many prospects get delayed. I'm still trying to get over the workaholic thing because it is bad for you. I don't take vitamin pills and all that stuff but I got through (his relatively lean years)."

Rory Gallagher wasn't taking vitamin pills, but towards the end he was taking a cocktail of more sinister pills and at the age of 40 he knew that he was burning the candle dangerously at both ends. He reflected: "My dream would be to be fit and healthy at 65 and still playing, but that's asking too much of the man upstairs, it really is."

His brother Donal says: "Yeah, he knew he was never going to be John Lee Hooker (the blues legend who was still gigging into his eighties).

"I think the medications various doctors gave him were psychotic. His drinking didn't help. He went into a spiral of depression. A lot of his later tracks were doom-laden. He had fallen into a state of mind where it was hard to get him out of it.

"On one of the later tours, I broke into his dressing room and took a plastic bag of pills. I took them to a doctor who said you wouldn't be allowed to take all these medications even under supervision."

Despite his deteriorating health, he continued to tour. By the time of his final gig in early 1995 he was visibly unwell. A liver transplant some months later failed to take, and he died in June 1995.

The lyrics of Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi' could apply to Rory Gallagher: "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone." His stature has grown since his passing.

Today he is commemorated with statues in Temple Bar's Rory Gallagher Corner and Cork's Rory Gallagher Place. Ballyshannon has its Rory Gallagher Exhibition and Festival.

Paris has its Rue Rory Gallagher, while the French town of Bedoin has a street named Impasse Rory Gallagher. He has even featured on a postage stamp.

There won't be another one along in five minutes.

Featuring contributions from The Edge, Slash, Bob Geldof and Bill Wyman, the documentary Rory Gallagher -- Ghost Blues marks the 15th anniversary of the guitarist's death. The hour-long programme goes out next Thursday on RTE 1 at 10.15. Ian Thuillier directs.

Irish Independent

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