A life centred on music left room for little else

Marcus Connaughton’s new biography of Rory Gallagher is a labour of love. Pat Ahern on a single-minded but lonely hero from another century

Rory Gallagher His Life and Times

Marcus Connaughton,

Collins Press, €19.99; adobe ebook, €15.28

IT WAS another century. It might as well have been another planet. Hundreds of jostling schoolboys are packed into the Capitol Cinema on Cork’s Grand Parade, glad to be free from class for a couple of hours and willing to tolerate the ‘entertainment’ at the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association’s concert as payment for their freedom. They sit without reaction through a succession of piano accordion players, jugglers, and anodyne folk groups.

Then, The Taste are announced and the stage explodes. Either the PTAA didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for, or someone within that organisation had a great sense of humour, but this outfit were beyond anyone’s experience. It was loud, it was exciting, it filled the space with static. The long-haired, guitarist-frontman sprayed notes like flashes of light and squeezed chords till they howled like a demented choir. Wow! The walk back to school was full of question and rumour. Who is he? From Cork? He couldn’t be. One of our own? Hardly.

A few years later, at his City Hall Christmas gigs, Cork showed how much it cared. Rory Gallagher generated enough energy to keep his audience warm into the New Year. The crowd reflected the power back towards the stage. “Same Old Story, Rory,” they bellowed and, when he obliged, they responded by pushing the decibel level beyond the limits of science.

Gallagher had left Cork and made his name in the big-bad world of rock. He was a constant in the music press, which, at that time, was much more influential than it is today. He was at, or near the top, of every list of the great world guitarists. He was playing with some of the best-known rock-and-blues musicians of the day. And yet, he came home to his people every Christmas and gave the youth of Cork the opportunity to share a little of the glory. Marcus Connaughton has produced a chronicle of Gallagher’s musical life, from his early guitars through his various career changes, to his untimely death in 1995.

The trips to Crowley’s Music Shop (then on Merchant’s Quay, now on MacCurtain Street), and the purchase of his beloved Strat, are described, as are the moves from showband through beat group to Taste.

We learn of the background machinations that shut down the first Taste line-up, and of the tensions, played out in the music press, that led to the demise of Taste 2. The Isle of Wight Festival is there, the European and American tours trundle down a seemingly endless musical highway. Through it all, like a golden thread, runs a developing recording career.

There is a wealth of detail, meticulously assembled as a mosaic that develops into a complete portrait as the pages turn. Much of it is familiar, at least to Gallagher aficionados, but there are some brilliant anecdotes. Prime among these is a crazy, tension-filled episode that involved Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon, Gallagher and his long-time roadie/minder, Tom O’Driscoll, in the King of Rock’n’Roll’s dressing room in The Roxy in Los Angeles.

Throughout, Connaughton paints a picture of a man driven by an uncompromising, permanently dissatisfied muse.

Unlike many other performers, before and since, Gallagher never had any interest in fame. Others have made the same claim, but usually its bogus, fabricated to enhance the claimant’s street cred. In Rory’s case, it was genuine. His focus was on the music. He needed to perform like he needed to breathe; he needed an audience like he needed oxygen. Long after others had hung up their axes or retired to the studio, Rory kept up a busy touring schedule.

When others had gone for the efficiencies of scale provided by stadium gigs, Rory preferred smaller venues and the intimate audience-connection that they offered.

Readers expecting voyeuristic insight into Gallagher’s private life will be disappointed. There is precious little detail here. There has been speculation over the years but, tellingly, no evidence. Perhaps there was no private life. In an existence so resolutely centred on music, there may have been no room for anything beyond its boundaries.

Even his brother, Donal, who acted as his manager throughout most of his career and as keeper of the flame since his death, says: “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. There was a kind of telepathy between us, though. I’d say he was extremely lonely, but it was hard to tell because he was so private. He was tremendously melancholic and he was never satisfied with anything he did.”

Connaughton’s words tell part of the story. The photographs, some of which are nothing short of magnificent, tell the rest. From the schooldays snaps to the showband publicity shots, and on to the later performance portraits, the pictorial record plays out in parallel to the writing. In particular, some of Fin Costello’s shots capture the fierce intensity of Gallagher’s playing, so that the scream of the guitar notes is almost audible.

Gallagher’s death, at the relatively early age of 47, came as a great shock, even though word had been coming through for several weeks that his health was failing. We expected that he would last, if not forever, then at least into comfortable old age, his talent maturing like the Blues greats of old.

There is little real musical analysis, but the book may be all the better for it.

What is often presented as such analysis is pretentious gibberish. Here, we read a good deal about Gallagher’s influences, stretching back to the birth of the Blues and beyond, and about his interest in Irish folk music. We learn that he added his own accent to the music that he had absorbed, but we are not told exactly how. We hear about style, but details of the features that made his playing so recognisable remain scarce. It may well be that words alone cannot provide adequate descriptions. We may need to go back to the sources — to the recordings of Gallagher, and those of his mentors — to answer those questions.

Yes, there are some minor irritations, the routine misuse of the term “machine head” being one example. But these are trivial when set against the breadth and depth of information contained within these covers. The text, the photos, the comprehensive discography, even the feel of the paper itself, all contribute to the impression of quality. A must for Gallagher fans and musical nostalgists of every hue.

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