Rory in the sky

The long-coming canonization of an Irish hero

"Are your Irish friends coming to dinner?"
My mother, stuffing a turkey on a rain-drenched Thanksgiving day in 1976, was wondering if I was bringing Irish blues-rock guitar hero Rory Gallagher and his band home for our family's traditional evening meal. In fact, I wasn't "friends" with Rory. And until an hour or so before, I'd never met him.

Gallagher was in Dallas for a show at the now-defunct Electric Ballroom, and it had occurred to me--a huge fan--to invite the Gallagher band over for supper. It seemed a Thanksgiving kind of thing to do. With a bit of detective work, I found them registering at the downtown Holiday Inn. I went up to the guitarist--one of the most gracious humans ever--introduced myself, and made my offer.

Though he was clearly tired, Gallagher was nonetheless flattered. He thanked me effusively for the offer and referred me to his brother/best friend Donal, who served not only as the band's road manager, but also as Rory's business manager. Donal, equally soft-spoken and polite, explained why dinner would be impossible: They were late and hadn't yet had a sound check. But why didn't I come backstage after the show for drinks? Did I have tickets? How many did I need?

Rory Gallagher died two years ago last summer, on June 14, at age 47. He'd recently undergone a liver transplant; when complications set in, he didn't make it. His passing wasn't much of a big deal in the States; it was weeks before I learned of his death while skimming a guitar magazine. In fact, if you walk into any record store and try to buy albums from his extensive canon, well, good luck. For, despite carving a virtuoso's niche in a style later made popular in the U.S. by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gallagher's legacy has been criminally hard to find.

Yet across Europe, the U.K., Scandinavia, and Japan, Gallagher is saint-like in the truest sense of the phrase. He was a guitarist, writer, and performer of true genius and neon intensity; a generous, humble man who believed passionately in the power of music to heal. As such, his forays into the north of Ireland to play for rock-starved kids during the truly violent early '70s defied logic even as they defined courage.

It's stupid and cruel that an entire generation of American music fans doesn't have the slightest idea who Rory Gallagher is and hasn't had much chance of discovering him. But as we approach Thanksgiving some two decades after his flame-thrower performance at the Electric Ballroom, there is hope.

Donal Gallagher last week completed negotiations for the release of Rory's catalogue after years of record-company chicanery, both here and in Europe. The establishment of Capo Records, Rory and Donal's longtime signature label project, and a distribution arrangement with BMG Records should ensure that a new release program for all of Rory Gallagher's records--both solo and with his definitive late-sixties power trio, Taste--will be in effect by the first of the year.

"The catalog had been distributed by IRS Records," says Donal from his home in London, although IRS went into liquidation some 18 months ago. "It's all very convoluted, but IRS was taken over by Capitol/EMI, [which] has gone through some rather difficult times as well. Recording-wise, we've always been unlucky in America."

That's an understatement.
Gallagher broke up Taste not long after its historic performance at the Isle of Wight festival, then set out on his own. He signed a solo deal with Polydor, and within two years, on the strength of records like Live in Europe and Blueprint, Gallagher established a reputation in his homeland and on the continent for impassioned guitar artistry and steamhammer rock. A handsome, smiling man who favored checked lumberjack shirts and peeling Fender guitars, he mixed an archivist's love of rural American bluesmen with a finger-in-the-light-socket stage presence that bonded with the working class all over Europe.

On 1973's Tattoo, Gallagher--an avid fan of Russian cinema and American hard-boiled detective fiction--began to write tunes that, while still focused on pure energy, imbued a true narrative voice and a heightened sense of melody and wit. Both in performance and global context, the follow-up, Irish Tour '74, opened his singular talents to America.

The album was recorded during a series of shows throughout Ireland--including dates in Belfast that remain the stuff of legend. The tour was filmed for an apocryphal documentary that, until recently, was believed lost in a fire. But a security copy of the footage turned up in a processing lab, and Donal Gallagher has been editing the film, using up-to-the-moment technology to even out the sound quality.

Donal explains: "I looked at the footage, and I knew Rory's concerns with it being brought back into the market. It'd been done in the early '70s, and to bring it back in the '90s, well, he didn't want it to seem like Spinal Tap." But Irish Tour '74 is anything but satire. And the sound quality is uneven for the most dramatic of reasons.

"The numbers that were taped in Cork City were all very good because they were on Ronnie Lane's mobile unit," Donal says. "But other sections and performances which were shot in Belfast, we didn't have the benefit of the mobile. For insurance purposes or whatever, they wouldn't bring it into Dublin or Belfast.

"You've got to remember, when that was shot, the troubles in the whole north of Ireland were really at a peak. It was extremely dangerous for us to go in there. But Rory felt that it wasn't the kids that were the problem, and that the only way you can unify such a situation is to go in and play."

Backstage at the Electric Ballroom, where I'd brought in turkey sandwiches and where both Gallaghers and Rory's most enduring band--bassist Gerry McAvoy, pianist Lou Martin, and drummer Rod D'Ath--were supplying the liquor, I'd asked Rory if it was true they'd played through bombings in Northern Ireland. In his typical modesty, he downplayed the incident, but I remember McAvoy pulling me aside and telling me how truly frightening it had been.

Donal, too, vividly recalls those performances. "That was just Rory's way. I remember playing Queen's University in Belfast for the students' New Year's Eve party, and 11 bombs went off. And he just went on playing. We were all waiting--12 bombs at midnight, you know?--and we sort of made some inquiries and were told, 'Don't worry, the twelfth one won't go off where you are.'

"Rory just liked doing that for the kids," Donal adds. "We went behind the Iron Curtain when nobody was getting in there. We went in and played Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, a lot of the territories of East Germany--at a time when there was no other reason to do it."

Now, a quarter-century after those tours made Rory Gallagher a hero, his brother can at least ensure that the world can see the Irish Tour '74 film. And the album, which broke Rory in the states, remains one of the finest live records ever made.

For the rest of the decade and into the '80s, Rory enjoyed his greatest visibility in the U.S. He made sturdy inroads on headlining theater tours and in support of acts like Yes and ZZ Top in larger arenas. Incredible studio LPs like Against the Grain, Calling Card, Photo Finish, Top Priority, and Jinx continued to bolster his hero's status overseas--he's sold more than 30 million records worldwide. Though the albums sold modestly in America, a shift in U.S. labels from Polydor to Chrysalis kept PR support at a minimum. And despite a core loyalty that mirrored his global popularity in intensity if not in size, Rory never broke through here in a truly big way.

Always an enthusiastic drinker in the fine rock and roll tradition, Rory nonetheless stayed in shape. Donal confirms that his brother never took recreational drugs or so much as smoked a joint or cigarette. But a growing fear of travel and the stress of a touring schedule that kept him on the road up to 250 nights a year exacted a toll. And a deepening sense of depression eventually caused Rory to seek help.

"I would call it melancholy," Donal says. "To be honest, most of the great artists that I've met all have a sort of terribly sad side to them--no matter how successful they are. Rory had that." In a series of medical treatments that Donal contested all along--and over which he may yet take legal action--Rory was prescribed a variety of extremely addictive anti-depressant medications, many of which, says Donal, have since been taken off the market. "I think Rory found himself very much in a terrible, vicious circle. He was being given drugs by his doctor on prescription--as medicine--thinking that he needed them when he really didn't. I believe that he found himself without much energy from these anti-depressants, and the only energy level he could get was a shot of brandy. And I think that's OK for a while, but eventually it catches up with you."

Rory stayed on the road as long as possible despite an obvious and significant decline in health. Donal says he begged Rory's doctor to put his brother on a program to wean him off the anti-depressants and even contacted a lawyer, telling him he thought Rory was being slowly killed by his doctor. The lawyer said there was nothing, legally, Donal could do.

Eventually, Rory slipped into a coma. He was hospitalized at Kings College Hospital in London, where it was discovered he needed a liver transplant. The surgery that followed was successful, and the guitarist seemed to be on the road to a complete recovery when an infection set in. He never left the hospital.

In Germany, the television stations suspended programming for the night, showing nothing but Rory Gallagher concert films--a practice that has endured each June 14, the date of his death. In Paris, the mayor made a proclamation, and within a week, plans were under way to rename a major street in his honor.

Both in England and Ireland, it was as though a national hero had died. Thousands lined the streets of Cork to give him one last standing ovation. The funeral cortege made its way to the services at the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. He was laid to rest in St. Oliver's Cemetery.

The main plaza in Cork City has been renamed in his honor, and a statue of Rory Gallagher graces the central square. On the two anniversaries since his death, huge throngs have attended memorials where dozens of artists perform all-night tributes of such Gallagher originals as "A Million Miles Away," "Shadow Play," "Sinner Boy," "Tattoo'd Lady," "Ghost Blues," and "Walk on Hot Coals," and amazing renditions of "Messin' With the Kid" and Leadbelly's "Out On the Western Plain."

For Donal Gallagher, the maintenance of Rory Gallagher's music and what he stood for will always be a full-time job and a labor of love. And now that he's cleared the business obstacles that so hindered the availability of Rory's substantial body of work, he says he'd like to take the time, at last, to grieve.

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