Although like Michael D., Bertie, Miriam, Gay and Daniel he’s often referred to in Ireland by his first name only, the implied familiarity here is well out of line with the broader picture: little of substance is really known about the guitarist and songwriter, Rory Gallagher. By a distance the biggest and most influential figure in Cork’s cultural history – and unquestionably one of Ireland’s most interesting and ground-breaking arts exports – much of his story remains, if not entirely untold, then certainly under-cooked. Even back home in the valley of dead cars and squinting widows, where everybody knows your name and, invariably, your business too.
What we do know is well-worn, light on scope and generally easy on the ears. Rory, like another of Cork’s more introspective and quieter exports, the Togher-reared footballer, Denis Irwin, preferred to let his craft do his bidding and, by and large, tended to keep his iron fists out of public view. And its not as if there hasn’t been a sustained effort to commemorate his many remarkable achievements and creative legacies in the popular consciousness. Its just that, with Rory’s estate curated for the most part by his brother and manager, Donal Gallagher, much of that effort tends to centre on the surface only.
A plaza in the centre of Cork city bears his name. He’s been immortalized with a statue in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, where he was born, and he’s even been featured on commemorative stamps and coins. All under-pinned by an enduring dedication, almost exclusively among those of a particular age, to Gallagher’s music, his considerable body of recorded work and a slew of remarkable live shows. Many of which, in Dublin, Cork and particularly in Belfast during the darkest chapters of modern Irish history throughout the 1970s, might well have served as informal inter-state events.
Radio and television producers have bravely taken their chances with him over the years too. The RTÉ archives hold plenty of Gallagher-related material, assembled over the decades, but those documentaries and features are, with the odd exception, well-intentioned but soft and inconsequential affairs.
And there has of course been an amount of written biography and critical analysis, much of which tends to stay on the outer ring-roads, circling the circumference. Hagiography, for the most part. Easily the best of which are ‘Riding Shotgun’, co-written by Gallagher’s long-time bass-player, Gerry McAvoy, and published in 2005 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the guitarist’s premature death and the relevant passages of Dan Muise’s ‘Gallagher, Marriott, Derringer and Trower’, , a music equivalent of George Kimball’s magnificent boxing book, ‘Four Kings’.
Of the mountain of newspaper and magazine archive on Gallagher and his music, much of it Irish, the most enduring and incisive are still, to this mind, landmark pieces by the late Bill Graham in Hot Press and by the Dublin writer and journalist, Michael Ross, in a variety of publications, but especially The Sunday Times.
But the primary difficulty for any documentarian or biographer is with the subject himself, who was notoriously shy and self-effacing. As Donal Gallagher told Ross for a Sunday Times feature twenty years ago: ‘I can’t say that we [Rory and I] ever had an in-depth personal conversation’. And so little exists by way of genuine, close-quarter insight with which to compile a defined photo-fit. In the absence of first person testimony, the gaps have long been filled by rumour, innuendo and speculation.
I never saw Gallagher perform live but, like many others born just as his first rock band, Taste, was releasing its first album, still feel like I’ve sucked in every single note played at The City Hall in Cork, the scene of some of his most spectacular and incendiary live shows. Even if, by the time I’d been roused to the wonder of popular music, Rory was well past his creative and critical peak. There was a world of difference between 1975 – when he was arguably at his apex – and 1985, by which time he was struggling to write and was among the more traditional targets against which an emerging indie set could rail.
One of the great ironies here, of course, is that the shock of that new, led in the early 1980s by The Smiths and driven by Johnny Marr’s remarkable guitar lines, could ultimately be traced back to Gallagher himself who, among others, was a primary formative influence on the young buck of Irish extraction as he grew up in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe a decade earlier. Marr acknowledged as much in Ian Thuillier’s 2010 RTÉ television documentary, ‘Ghost Blues’ even if, one suspects, he was taken far more by Gallagher’s ability as a guitarist – and more specifically his use of the instrument as a weapon – and less so by Rory’s song-writing.
Like seemingly everyone else in Cork, I had my own direct connection to Rory. I attended The North Monastery school on the northside of the city during the mid-1970s from where, a decade earlier, Gallagher had been removed by his mother at a point in his fledgling career when he was playing regularly with the Fontana showband. And although his name features far more overtly now in the history of that fine school, I can’t recall him or his deeds being as wildly celebrated there at that time as those of his more academic or athletic-inclined peers.
We know now, though, that Rory Gallagher certainly was a topic of regular discussion inside the school’s staff-room, at least among some of the younger elements of the teaching team. My second class teacher, Herman Kemp, from Kilrush in County Clare, was the young photographer, film fan and Stoke City supporter who, in 1977, snapped a series of magnificent live shots of Gallagher on-stage at the Macroom Mountain Dew Festival in West Cork, and that surfaced recently on-line. That show was also attended, the internet tells us, by a fifteen year-old Rory fan from Dublin, David Evans, better known known now as The Edge, a guitarist.
At a period in Cork city’s history dominated by poverty, unemployment and social and moral bankruptcy – the centre of town’s pallor was, for fifteen years, deathlike – Gallagher’s international successes and eternal cross-continent touring gave the gawkers back home a rare glimpse, on the surface at least, of something moderately exotic. His was a real jet-set story and, as such, his exploits sat up there alongside that small handful of artisans, athletes and public figures that were distinguishing us beyond the county bounds.
Of course if you stood on Patrick Street long enough, you might have even bumped into him. Gallagher, up until the early 1980s at least, was an accessible figure: at the height of his popularity and, in a distinctive take on the concept of bringing it all back home, he would regularly accompany his mother, Monica, to mass in Douglas when he wasn’t abroad on one of his endless tours of duty.
Indeed there was something slightly disconcerting about how mundane he was, forever dressed down in plaid shirts and rubber dollies, handsome in his absolute ordinariness. Because although his records, his playing and especially his live shows often touched the sky, Gallagher’s feet rarely left the deck. To the loyal support back home, and especially in Cork, he made like he had no notions, and stressed as much routinely. Its almost as if he was afraid of the extraordinary.
Years after I left The North Mon, I fetched up in another classroom, far removed from the northside of Cork, alongside Julian Vignoles, and spent six months in and out of his company as a trainee television producer in RTÉ. I already knew Julian’s name, of course – it’s a distinctive one, hard to forget – and had seen it for years on the radio listings in The RTÉ Guide, where he was credited as a producer on some of the more interesting and lateral Radio 2FM shows. Pat Kenny’s excellent review series, ‘The Outside Track’, among them.
We had music in common from the off: we’d both served our time and cut our teeth, albeit a decade apart, at Hot Press magazine, and had similar views on the importance of quality music programming on radio and television. Music has always been a useful ice-breaker, especially to those of us who struggle to make small-talk in general company, and many of my most enduring friendships have originated in casual, impromptu conversations about albums, singles, live shows and general trivia.
And although Julian’s tastes and mine were varied and rarely in-synch, we could both work up a decent head of steam quickly and, I suspect, there was a quiet respect between us from the get-go.
‘Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ is Vignoles’s third book and is formally launched next week on The Collins Press imprint. Gallagher’s music has long been one of Julian’s primary passions and we’ve discussed and de-constructed Rory and his work at length in the years since we were first thrown together on the grounds of RTÉ back in 1994.
And now, eventually, he’s managed to stand up much of what was once just ad hoc theory, in print, even if the trip to completion has been a long and, I suspect, often arduous one. He’ll get little by way of thanks for it either, of course, but to those of us who appreciate such piddling matters as historical accuracy, archiving and balanced critical analysis, he’s done the history of popular Irish music no little service.
He doesn’t hang around either and, typically, Vignoles is quickly down to business. In the introductory chapter, the singer-songwriter Christy Moore is quoted as follows: ‘He [Rory] was a beautiful man who, I think, died real lonely’. In those eleven words, Moore sets out the book’s primary ambitions. ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ does what it says in the title: it’s a forensic trawl into Gallagher’s modus in an effort to define a fully-formed portrait of a complicated, difficult and still largely unknown artist.
In so doing, Vignoles uncovers an overly-anxious, perennially fearful, sleep deprived, bizarrely superstitious, religiously devout and subsequently alcohol dependent and ultimately lonely writer with a long-standing stubborn streak who, in respect of his music, could be obsessive, impulsive and spontaneous. He shines a considerable torch too onto one of the primary contradictions at the heart of Gallagher’s story: the manner in which he consistently kicked against one stereotype – that of the hell raising, boisterous rock star – while conforming to another, that of the musician who only really comes alive with a guitar in his hand.
‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ has already drawn predictable, and indeed understandable fire from Donal Gallagher. Neither he nor Tom O’Driscoll, Rory’s long-time roadie, or indeed Gerry McAvoy, contributed to the book even if, given the broad breadth of third-party archive material unearthed by the author, their voices are still prominent throughout, albeit from a distance.
Over which Vignoles spoons a fine, full-bodied critical over-view of the writer and performer that doesn’t hold back or pull its punches. Because whereas Gallagher was undoubtedly a gifted player and stage performer, he was never the most instinctive, creative or prodigious writer. And while his career can be parceled into three or four distinctive lyrical phases – for which, Vignoles and his critical right-hand, Dave McHugh, rightly assert he is never properly credited – he struggled manfully, or perhaps just blithely refused, to ever really move on musically.
[Its probably worth noting too that, in relative terms, Gallagher was never a huge seller: ‘Live in Europe’, his 1972 elpee, was his only ever Top Ten success in Britain].
And which is why one of the more recurring critical conclusions in respect of much of Gallagher’s output after his ‘Top Priority’ album  – rightly or wrongly – is that his songs just eventually became vessels for his next long, and often far too-predictable solo.
Given the sensitivity with which Vignoles deals with much of the more speculative aspects of Gallagher’s personal life – he was alcohol dependent for much of his later life, may have been [undiagnosed] on the autism spectrum, certainly suffered from depression from as far back as his teens and endured a long-running series of medical ailments – you feel that Gallagher’s younger brother missed a real opportunity here to contribute to what is a vivid, insightful and important profile.
There’s plenty in ‘The Man Behind The Guitar’ too that’s strictly anorak and technical enough for the musos, even if Gallagher’s influence as a player on the generations that came directly after him – The Edge, Johnny Marr, Slash, Noel Gallagher – isn’t developed. Nor does the author fully attempt to place Rory in the creative pantheon, even in Irish terms: its just assumed, from the off, that he was, ergo he is.
But these are moot points. The author suppresses his fan’s instincts from the get-go and, as is invariably the case in documentary and biography, the most difficult passages are the most riveting. Describing the last decade of Rory’s life after the protracted release of his ‘Defender’ elpee in 1987 – which finally saw the light of day in the shadow of the global emergence of U2, who unveiled ‘The Joshua Tree’ in the same year – Vignoles, on an uncharacteristic bitterness that had started to emerge in some of Gallagher’s interviews, is at his most pointed and perceptive.
‘When the touring is less frequent, when the adulation is less apparent, when your fingers may no longer have the dexterity they had, what do you do if you’re not taken up with family or investments or golf ? How does the sensitive human being ‘come down’ from fame ? With difficulty, perhaps, is the answer’.
‘Rory Gallagher : The Man Behind The Guitar’ by Julian Vignoles is published by The Collins Press and is on sale now.