Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues
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Subject: Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues|
From: Le Scaramouche
Date: 08 Aug 05 - 03:25 PM
Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues
by Anil Prasad
Interview date: March 22, 1991
© Copyright 1991 by Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
June 14, 1995 was a blue day for the blues. On that date, Rory Gallagher, one of the most influential and passionate blues-rock performers of all time, departed from this sphere. At 47, Gallagher was a victim of both liver failure and music industry apathy.
The self-taught musician first came to great acclaim as the leader of Taste, an enormously successful late '60s rock trio. The band was a fixture at London's Marquee Club where it wasn't out of the ordinary to see John Lennon standing in awe with the rest of the enraptured audience. Taste sold several million albums before disbanding in 1970.
The '70s and early '80s saw the Irishman release many remarkable, scorching solo albums including Tattoo, Blueprint and Calling Card. Other highlights included his work on Muddy Waters and Albert King records. He also won Melody Maker's top musician award—dethroning Eric Clapton in the process. And performers including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers regularly cited his rollicking guitarwork and gritty vocals as key influences.
But the mid-to-late '80's weren't kind to Gallagher. Faced with record label disinterest and changing musical tastes, Gallagher's sales and audience declined. But that started to change with the release of 1990's Fresh Evidence. The disc lived up to its name as it delivered an enthralling, uncompromising collection of Gallagher originals full of ripping electric and acoustic workouts. It held great potential to re-establish Gallagher as one of the most potent blues-rock forces in the business. A new record deal with IRS for North America and increasing media coverage seemed to foretell of great things to come. Unfortunately, a decline in his health prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his labor.
News reports stated Gallagher's liver had been damaged over the years by accidental overdoses of prescription medicine. He underwent a liver transplant operation in April of 1995. He never fully recovered from the procedure and died two months later.
Rory Gallagher's body failed him, but his musical soul continues to triumph. The music, memories and magic live on in his many recordings and in the hearts and minds of millions around the world.
This interview was conducted in Toronto during Gallagher's Fresh Evidence tour. The down-to-earth guitarist was in good spirits and offered many insightful observations about his craft and the blues at large.
I can't even begin to tell you how much I dig Fresh Evidence.
Great, thank you. It took enough out of us, I can tell you. It sounds like relatively simple music, but we were trying to get a good vintage, ethnic sound—the production as well as everything else. Some of the songs are quite long and somebody else would have quickly edited it, taking out verses, but I just left it as it was.
I was really fascinated to find out that you take a perfectionist approach to recording. You always struck me as a guy who could put something great down on tape in one take.
Well, the problem is I can usually get the backing track or the feel on the first take or two. That's not the problem, it's just that by the time you start overdubbing or mixing... I think in the mixing area I'm more of a perfection. And we cut the Fresh Evidence master about four times. Because we used a lot of old valve microphones, and tape echo, and old spring reverbs, and things like that, instead of using all the digital equipment. We used a valve compressor as well, which gives a different effect than modern compression. We used a few modern tricks as well, but just enough to help out. In a perfect world I'd like to walk in and just play it once and have it all perfect. You're at the mercy, really, of the engineer, and the sound, and the room, the desk, everything else.
Why is Fresh Evidence is the only record you've been able to release in North America in the last eight years?
Well, we had an album in 1987 called Defender that did quite well in Europe It was on Demon Records. We could get deals over here alright, but there were too many stipulations in them about sleeves, and production, and control and so on.
Were you approached by the big labels?
Yes we were, but by that time it was onto the next album, which was Fresh Evidence and by this point IRS were talking to us. So, and then we moved from Demon in London to Castle and the Capo label through Castle which has the international connection they distribute records as well as videos and everything else. It was a drag really, not having Defender out. because from my point of view it was really quite an important album.
One article mentioned that it's your favorite record to date.
I think that was a misquote. What I meant really was it's the brother or sister of Fresh Evidence, you know what I mean? Even though it's more of a rock production, there's a lot blues on it and what I think are fairly good songs, lyrically and so on. And we do some of the songs on stage so I wouldn't like it to get overlooked if you know what I mean.
I understand IRS is going to release Defender in the USA shortly.
Yes, it'll be out in about 10 days. Then they're going to release all the old catalog as well on CD. All the albums with lyric sheets and some of the albums have been slightly enhanced—not so much remixed but just helped out on the new cut, the digital cut.
Did you tinker with the albums in any way?
No, we didn't. They're all left as was. I want to go back. The only two that haven't been worked on yet are Photofinish and Deuce. There's one or two remixes I'd like to do on Photofinish like "The Mississippi Sheiks" and "Cloak and Dagger," but the rest I'd leave alone. On Deuce, that was done in '72 in a reggae studio so it was done with very primitive equipment. so that might need a little more help, but I won't desecrate them in any way.
Has IRS offered you real artistic control?
From the word go it was understood and they obviously had enough confidence to take it just to assume that we knew what we were doing and everything would be okay. Some of the other companies were a bit more cautious because they thought what I was doing was a bit too obscure or too left field or whatever you call it, or wasn't pop enough.
You've recorded two albums that were never released. Tell me about them.
Yes, well in 1978 we recorded a complete album in San Francisco and on the day it was being cut I just turned against it. I still have the acetates of it, but I'm glad we didn't. I mean it was adequate—there was nothing wrong with it I wouldn't call it a bad album. But between the production and the sound and the way it was played, I knew we could do better. In fact, what we did is we went back to Europe and recorded Photofinish. Using some of that material, we recorded Photofinish in about three weeks instead of spending six weeks or more in San Francisco. The other one I recorded was tentatively called Torch that was before Defender. That suffered from the same problems, I was dissatisfied with the sound and the performance and the directions, so sometimes the easiest way out is to just drop the project and to start afresh. Even if you do hold on to some of the songs, it's best to start in a fresh room, new engineer, new attempts at the songs and things like that.
How long did it take you to put Fresh Evidence together?
About six months all told, given little gaps for odd gigs and things like that and remixes and so on, but about six months which is quite a long time really. But then we recorded about fifteen songs, so a lot of those were left to one side for the moment. but it was quite hard in the end to pick down to nine, you know?
Well, you sure know how to pick 'em.
I hope so. I think the ones we left off, even at this distance... now I know we picked the right ones.
Your live profile in North America has been pretty low-key lately. And I hear you took a couple of opening slots with artists that treated you badly.
Well we've toured as guests with various groups going back to Faces and Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac and that was okay. They give you a certain amount of lighting and a certain amount of stage room and monitors and so on but then we toured with other groups, and it's not worth bringing up their names, but they gave us very bad conditions. One tour we actually walked off the tour. They wouldn't let us use monitors and then we got our own monitors and that caused more trouble. That's really going to the bottom, quite often it mightn't be the musicians fault but all the henchmen around them and the managers and so on were afraid of us. In Europe, for instance we give the support band all the freedom and everything. In America it seems... I can see if you are a brand new group where you'd have to accept anything you can get, but if you've got some kind of standing like I feel I have you should be able to have some kind of reasonable conditions to work in. I also find those tours a bit time-wasting because when you're going back to Europe on the plane you don't feel any great musical satisfaction from running through a quick six numbers, you know? So I'm happier playing clubs and colleges and concert halls. Hopefully we'll do bigger shows again, maybe with a more sympathetic co-headliner, whatever, but I'm not worrying about that for the moment.
How have you have changed as an artist and a person over the last 10 years?
I think I've been, with certain gaps and things we're not touring as much, we're not doing eight or nine months of the year so I've got a bit more time to get a perspective from what I do. And I've improved my songwriting. I'm every bit as enthusiastic about playing still and I'm still learning. Naturally, in ten years you change as a person and you learn a lot from your mistakes and things. But I think at source I haven't changed that much. You do learn a lot of things as the years go by time-wasting things and the approach, and the right way to handle things, you know? I suppose it applies to everybody, really.
Recent years have seen a watering down of blues traditions. There are quite a few younger kids out there performing blues-pop numbers and making big names for themselves. What do you make of it all?
I just do my own thing really, but I'd be envious of people who you know have all these doors open to them and they sell a huge amount of records. There's lots of talented young people coming out, but I can only speak for myself really, but it doesn't do to get jealous of anyone, because it gets you nowhere but sometimes you do feel a bit... it seems like a very hard road sometimes to continue to do what you're doing under the right conditions... but some people do appear out of nowhere and the next thing they are superstars but I really don't lose sleep over that because I've got enough to worry about in my own little area. But I certainly would like to have more exposure and higher places in the record charts, I'm not happy to be semi-obscure, but I'm not going to sell-out just for the sake of getting my face on a magazine or anything. It doesn't worry me.
Every bit of media coverage about you seems to mention Eric Clapton as a musical brother. But despite his wealth of talent, he seems to be contributing to the blues-pop movement I just mentioned. Your stuff seems much more potent, driven and worthy of the blues moniker than anything he's done in many years.
I have respect for Eric Clapton from the early days. I'm surprised they always link his name with me. There was a time they could link my name with Michael Bloomfield, and I don't know, but Clapton seems to be the icon of all guitarists including Beck and Page, but I suppose the fact that he is blues based it's not for me to analyze really, but I suppose he's the successful face of what the blues is. And I'm probably the guy on the sidelines, but he's working in a different area from me now. And even in the blues field, I cover different blues tangents than Eric does, to be honest with you. I work in country blues and even though I do some numbers that are in the B.B. King/Albert King area, I work a lot in well as you can hear in the record my blues roots are all over the place, where Eric's tend to be a little narrower, I would think, and he writes different kinds of songs from me. He uses different topics as well, but I can't see the comparison myself, maybe earlier on there might have been more of a comparison, but not at the moment.
The argument we constantly hear is that many current bands are divorced from the roots of their music. Can that change or are we seeing a generation of musicians generally devoid of historical knowledge coming up?
I'm reasonably optimistic for the '90's because John Lee Hooker had a hit last year, Muddy Waters had a hit single, even though it was a jeans ad in Europe.
But John Lee Hooker's album [The Healer], was very much a record label creation. You know "Let's stick as many superstar players on there as possible and see if it floats in the marketplace."
It obviously isn't 100 percent pure John Lee Hooker, its kind of a combined effort, but in 1991 I suppose you just have to accept that. There's still a few guys around who are still playing pure I'm a cross between a dyed-in-the-wool purist and I also like to be free enough to play things on the fringes of blues. I don't mind rock and rolling. I don't mind a bit of folk creeping in or a jazz phrase or whatever. I think aside from the music I think a lot of musicians accept the sort of show business avenues as they are. They don't question anything and they're quite happy to follow the establishment. It must be the old Irish in me—we tend to work outside the establishment, historically and otherwise. That said, some of these young guitar players for their age, even though they don't look back that far, they have amazing technical facility, but from my point of view not that much feeling... superb speed and they can play classical on the guitar and everything else, but I'm still fascinated by the rawer element of the music, you know. If you're only 19 years of age, and the first electric guitar player you heard was Eddie Van Halen or something, they might think a blues band might be Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or the very most they might think of Albert King or B.B. King, but they don't even dig back further than that, which I think if you're a real blues player at all you should go back as far as you can and study and absorb what you know.
On a completely different note, it is nice to see other pioneers like Richard Thompson start to get some real notice after all these years. You've worked with him haven't you?
We did three acoustic concerts, in London, Cambridge and Guildlford. That was Richard Thompson, David Lindley, Juan Martin—a Spanish guitarist and myself. It was good, it was under-publicized and unfortunately and it wasn't recorded. But we worked in twos and threes and on our own. Richard Thompson is fantastic, particularly on electric guitar. He's got a fantastic technique. Mark Knopfler has a terrific technique, but when you hear Richard Thompson doing it it's another story. I remember he did a video at Barrymore's over in Ottawa. The trouble with Richard Thompson is he changes labels a lot—from Chrysalis to Hannibal, which is sort of his own label. My favorite album of his is Henry The Human Fly which is going a long way back. If you don't have that album, you really should. It was his first solo album so to speak and he stretched out from that. It was good working with Lindley as well. He's a good eclectic musician. The irritating thing about him is that he does so many things, he refuses to be narrowed down to the lap-steel. He wants to play all kinds of exotic instruments, you know?
Isn't that a healthy thing for him though?
It is, but I think some of his material is more interesting than others, but he's a great player and a very knowledgeable guy.
Why did you choose to cover Son House's "Empire State Express" on Fresh Evidence?
I had the record for years and I just fancied that song because I thought I could interpret it reasonably well. I recorded it in one take, I went into the drum booth and just used the two microphones and did it in one take, live. Mentally I put the gun to my head and said "This is the way it has to be done." It came off fairly well. The strange thing about it, is I lost the record about a week before I was going to record it. Not that I was going to copy the record, but I wanted to listen to it again and check it out. But I had the lyrics written down in a book anyway. So I recorded my own arrangement from memory and it turned out okay.
That situation may have worked out in your favor. There are too many covers that are simply clones of the original.
Yes indeed, if you just ape the old record, then it's a one-dimensional thing. I try to adapt and interpret the songs at the same time. So you get the original feeling, but there's no point in doing it just verbatim, I know certain guys who do that and it doesn't get anywhere. But then some ultra-purists feel you shouldn't tamper with these songs, you shouldn't even attempt them. But I think it's one way of keeping the music alive and bringing it another step forward.
Unfortunately, Son House seems to be regarded as a footnote in the blues for many people. He seems to be acknowledged for the Robert Johnson connection, but not for his own contributions to the form.
It's unfair really, as great as Robert Johnson was, "Walkin' Blues" was written by Son House and "Preaching the Blues" was written by Son House and he gave lessons to Robert Johnson so with this great boost to Robert Johnson maybe they should bring out various other artists who were nearly or equally as important. Robert Johnson has the mystique, the death thing, and the devil connection and all that.
Do you believe in the Robert Johnson mythology?
I think it's possible. I heard the same about John Lennon in Hamburg, that he made some kind of deal. And if you look at his death, if you look at his effect on people and life in general... but then I 'm a little bit superstitious anyway.
Tell me how being superstitious affects your life.
It does. It has affected me very much in the last five or ten years. I get it from my grandmother, she was very superstitious as well. But I'm funny about numbers, everything. It's gotten to a phobia, so I have to watch it, it affects your day a lot.
What does it do to your music?
Well it hasn't affected that, thank God. If you got really bad, you'd say "I'll pick that note instead of that one, or sing this song before that." But even before I go on stage there are certain things I do that are semi-sort of gypsy superstitions, but I'm coping with them.
Are you a religious person?
I suppose deep down I am. I certainly don't think we're on this planet just revolving with nothing out there. And I suppose you can only judge when you're in tight corners that you realize that you have some kind of a belief. I'd say I am, but I don't preach about it and don't make a big thing about it, but I don't think it's a bad thing in the end. I'm too scared not to be, let's put it that way.
What is "Walking Wounded" about?
I liked the title for a start, I had it in my notebook for weeks and then the first couple of lines came to me. Also my health wasn't very good at the time, and it's not written in the first person as such but it's just a general song and you can read it in two different kinds of ways. I suppose it's written from the point of view that if you're at a very low ebb, you still have fighting spirit. I suppose that's the basic message in it. There's a nice riff to it, and it's got a nice bittersweet flavor to it.
Jerry McEvoy [bass] and Brendan O'Neill [drums] have played a key role in your overall sound. Describe your working relationship with those guys.
Jerry's been on bass there since '71 and Brendan O'Neill on drums, from Belfast, he's been there for about 10 years. We have Mark Feltham on harmonica. He's been playing off-and-on for about five or six years with me. That's the touring line up at the moment. Generally, it's good to have a line up for a long time. There's for and against, but on the plus side, you get an ESP going. You can keep the repertoire wide open we don't do the same set every night. They recognize the song, I don't even have to tell them. They recognize the chord almost, so it makes for a very tight show.
You dedicated "King of Zydeco" to Clifton Chenier.
I had a couple of records of his for years, and he's sort of the B.B. King of Zydeco music. He played accordion, which is the lead instrument in that kind of music instead of the guitar. I just liked it, it's kind of blues, but it's sung in French. It's kind of a cross between Cajun folk music and other things and I've liked the records. I liked the slightly sloppy feel to it, and I just wrote the song about somebody getting away from modern city stress into this mystical juke joint somewhere in the South, like a road movie and of course at the end of the journey there would be somebody like Clifton Chenier playing on a small stage the perfect gig, in my mind. That's basically the idea behind it.
Have you seen him perform live?
I did in Switzerland in Montreux, we played the jazz festival there a couple of times and he was on not on the same day, but we saw him anyway.
Did you get to play with him?
I didn't and I didn't get to meet him. He looked hearty. He died quite young really. That's the problem with these shows—you're on the same bill with people and you're either too shy to say hello to them or you say "I'll see them again, surely."
Tell me about the track "Heaven's Gate."
That's close to the idea of "Hellhound On My Trail" by Robert Johnson. It's a man being haunted in a room in a terrible condition. It's a semi-redemption type of song and it's also slightly preaching at people that you can't bribe St. Peter. It's in the blues tradition even though the song is in my own sort of style. The lyrics kind of speak for themselves somebody going through a very bad patch and facing up to mortality and all those sorts of heavy things.
What about "Middle Name?"
That's kind of Slim Harpo-influenced musically. I tried to create that kind of image down around the bible belt, sort of the guy stuck in a situation searching for someone, his wife or whoever before either a big storm or Armageddon or the holocaust or whatever. It's kind of overwrought but I tried to create that vibe in the thing. A bit of a Tennessee Williams type of setting really. Like in any song, I try to keep it from being one-dimensional.
So you adhere to the "interpretation should be up to the listener" policy then?
Well, you see that's the problem. Even though I'm not against film or video as such. If you do a video of something, it tends to make one image stick, one meaning, whereas say in a Bob Dylan song, it can be read in a couple of ways. I'm not saying I go as deep as he does, but it's nice to have an image-and-a-half in a song, at least.
Style versus substance is the perpetual battle faced by those working against the grain of the music industry. What's your take on the industry these days?
I don't think it'll change much. I think in the '90s they'll pay more attention to the music and the substance than the 80's. Image will always be the big issue the way people look and what they say, and what they do, and so on. But it mightn't be so bad in this decade, we hope.
You've been known for having a non-image.
Somebody said that I don't have an image, but ultimately it is an image. They just say "he works forever and he wears plaid shirts" and all this kind of thing, that's the joke. I've even had interviews where they said "he arrived wearing jeans and a plaid shirt" and I remember the day, and I wasn't wearing them!
Q Magazine ran a recent article on you with the headline "25 years in a checkered shirt" attached to it.
I didn't like that article at all. It took them long enough to write about me and then... anyway, you have to put up with it. A lot of it I wasn't keen on, but that's the way it is.
You used to played sax on your tracks occasionally. Is that something you still do now and then?
I do it at home once in a while. The last time was a small bit on Defender one song called "I Ain't No Saint," which is kind of an Albert King-ish kind of blues. I just played three saxes triple-tracked, but I'm kind of rusty on it now. I just got lazy and concentrated on the guitar more. But I still like it and wish I could play it as well as I used to be able to. I also play mandolin and harmonica. I can't really play piano, which is a great pity from my point of view. I can play a lot of stringed instruments, dulcimer a little bit, banjo, those kind of things. My sax is very rusty I'm afraid. Unfortunately I can't read music, and to play by ear is quite difficult, whereas guitar, you can progress without reading music.
You're in the middle of your first North American tour in a very long time. How is it going?
Extremely well. It's been the best tour in a long time. I don't know whether it's just luck or what but at the moment it's going very well. We're getting good audiences and we're playing fairly well but we're working night by night. That's the best way work really.
You've had an incredible career up to this point. What are the highlights to date?
I suppose some of the early gigs at the Marquee club in London were important. Also my first trip to the US and Canada, was obviously important. Playing in Hamburg was good also, some of those big festivals we did the Isle of Wight and things like that. Also recording with Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee were big things for me. Also the last two albums, to get them recorded and released, they were highlights for me, because the eighties weren't really good for me. So, to get into the '90s is a good feeling.
Subject: RE: Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues|
Date: 09 Aug 05 - 04:22 AM
Thanks. I haven't got time to read all that now, but I hope to get back to it. I came across quite a few Irish blokes who had met Rory Gallagher and they always said he was a really decent bloke. He used to drop in for a pint of Guiness at the Tinnef, when he was in Köln. I didn't actually get to meet him though. He actually did one of his record presentations at the Corkonian in Köln in the early nineties. He was a very unpretentious man.
Subject: RE: Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues|
From: Le Scaramouche
Date: 09 Aug 05 - 04:33 AM
On a recent radio program about Rory they told the story of how his battered old strat had been stolen once and two weeks later he was walking along and saw something in a ditch. it was the guitar. The thief must've thought it looked like so much junk and dumped it. Funny thing is, even after hard rain it could still play.
Subject: RE: Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues|
Date: 09 Aug 05 - 06:09 AM
Great Rory Gallagher biography here
Subject: RE: Rory Gallagher: Defender of the Blues|
Date: 09 Aug 05 - 07:31 AM
Thanks for the bio, moo. Mooh.