Rory Gallagher threw every fibre of his being into his music. Scrappy, unabashed, and bluesy to the core, he was a sublime guitarist and compelling singer. His live and studio recordings, especially during the 1970s, deliver strength, wisdom, and inspiration. Personally, I count him among my favorite guitarists. I seldom travel without his music and sometimes listen to him for weeks on end.
During my decades as an editor for Guitar Player magazine, Rory was high on my wish-list for interviews. The trouble was, after the 1970s, he only played the San Francisco Bay area three times. I was on the road during his 1982 and 1985 appearances. Then, after a six-year hiatus, it was announced that Rory was coming back to the United States to promote a new album, Fresh Evidence. His brother and manager, Donal Gallagher, sent word that Rory would be happy to speak with me.
We met backstage at the Catalyst Club in Santa Cruz, California, on the afternoon of March 15, 1991. I quickly discovered that Rory was charming and enthusiastic and highly intelligent. Here, for the first time, is a complete transcript of that interview.
You’ve stayed true to the music that inspired you in the beginning.
Yeah, I think that you have to recognize the kind of source point that you have. Even though you develop as a player over the years and you get influenced by different things, you have to keep to the heart of what you started with, that kind of initial vision of music, you know? Obviously, it’s taken me this amount of time to learn a lot of different things about music and playing and so on, but I think I’m getting there slowly. [Laughs.]
You seem to gravitate toward roots American music.
Yeah. Even though I grew up in Ireland, where there’s a lot of folk music and traditional music is very close at hand, it didn’t initially appeal to me, even though I can see traces of it creeping in over the years in my songwriting and some chord patterns and some kinds of solos I do. But I wasn’t really turned on until I heard American music via Lonnie Donegan. You know, I heard him doing Woody Guthrie songs, Lead Belly songs. And of course, I heard Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochrane, the early rockers, Chuck Berry. So it was a mixture of folk, blues, and rock from America. I was only six, seven, eight, nine, at that age, and then I just followed it through and learned about all these artists. And I’m still discovering undiscovered people and learning. But it took me about a good ten or fifteen years to find out who was who in the whole spectrum of things – who were the originators or the prime movers, and who were the followers and copyists.
Are there records you’d recommend for young players who aren’t acquainted with Son House and other early bluesmen?
Well, I mean, everyone is stating the obvious Robert Johnson connection. He seems to be the virtuoso of that era, of that point, but Son House would be very important inasmuch as he gave lessons, I believe, to Robert Johnson. He probably wrote “Walkin’ Blues,” for instance. And Muddy Waters also claims that Son House was important at the time.
It depends. You see, it’s very hard to dictate to some youngster who might listen to Albert King and immediately see themselves in that lineage. I think all young rock and blues players should dig deeper, back beyond the obvious big blues stars like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, who are all great. I’m very interested also in the country blues and the “electrified country blues,” as I would call it – Big Joe Williams and things like that. I also like all the slide players from Earl Hooker through Muddy Waters, obviously. Robert Nighthawk is a favorite of mine, and I eventually discovered Tampa Red kind of late on, and he’s very smooth-playing. Like that lick that Muddy Waters is known for – we all thought that was an original Muddy Waters thing, but he got it from Tampa Red. So this folk music tradition of passing on and picking up and stealing goes on like mad, you know.
But in my own style, being a European very influenced by American music and so on, I try to find a way that if I’m doing a blues number, I can do it very traditional if I want to. I can also add my own element or my own twists to it and have it be a rock song with a blues thing in it. I try to be adventurous and progressive in some material, in others I try to be as downhome and ethnic as possible.
We hear that on your performance of Son House’s “Empire State Express.”
Yeah. That was as close to . . . I did that in one take, on purpose. I did that on St. Patrick’s night, oddly enough, just last year. It was the last track on the album [Fresh Evidence], and I loved the song. I’d lost the [Son House] album that I had, so I had to remember it. Luckily I had written the lyrics down. I do it close enough to Son House’s style. To sing it in the tempo I was doing, I had to slightly adjust the rhythm a bit, but I thought it was great song. I thought it was a very overlooked song, you know? Al Wilson of Canned Heat played a National guitar on one or two tracks of that particular album.
That’s Son House’s Death Letter album?
That’s right – with “Pearline” and “John the Revelator”— that’s another great song on that. And then “Ghost Blues” [on Fresh Evidence] – that’s quite traditional in its approach with the National. The mood also on – what do you call it? “Middle Name” – the guitar on that is more like a Slim Harpo record. So it happens, all kinds of references all over the place. There are a couple of rock tracks alright – “Kid Gloves, “Slumming Angel,” and “Walking Wounded.” The rest are very much in the blues field, I think. “The King of Zydeco,” even though it’s about Clifton Chenier, it’s almost countryish more than zydeco in the feel, but by the time the accordion comes in and the maracas, it is . . . . We did try the washboard on it to see if it gets it – you know, his brother’s “rub board,” as they call it – but it didn’t work in that song. We laid down another track, called “Never Asked You for Nothin’,” which nearly made it to the album, but it’s one of those fifteenth songs that could crop up again, you know. And we were lucky enough to find this guy, Geraint Watkins, who’s an enthusiast of Cajun music and zydeco music and plays great boogie-woogie piano and rock and roll piano. He’s played a lot with Dave Edmunds and he’s played piano with the Stray Cats and so on, and he has his own group called the Balham Alligators. Balham is an area in South London, so it’s a bit of a funny name, really, just a ludicrous name. That’s the way he is.
Also, production-wise, I was very keen on the album before, which was called Defender, which had a lot of blues elements in it as well, but it’s more of a rock production, whereas this [Fresh Evidence] is kind of – not mellow, but we didn’t overdo the compression and we didn’t overdo the cleaning up and the noise gates and things like that. We left it fairly wooly and casual, which is the way I think suits the songs, you know? I hope people catch up on Defender, because that’s an album that’s still quite current in the set, even though we move the repertoire around every night.
What year was Defender?
Two years ago.
It was released in England?
Released in England and all over Europe. It will be released here in two weeks’ time, in fact, so it will be running concurrently with this new album. But obviously the emphasis is on Fresh Evidence. Defender has some rock songs, some tough songs like “Kickback City” and “Road to Hell,” but there are some blues songs. Like, one of the numbers we do is called “Continental Op,” which was influenced by Dashiell Hammett – that’s one of his characters. Even though it’s a rock boogie feel, it’s very much a John Lee Hooker chording, with suspended fourths and things like that. It also had a song called “Loanshark Blues,” which was there again a bit like a Slim Harpo “Shake Your Hips” type of feel, but it had some nice lyrics about a down-and-out guy in debt to the loan shark – very fast, alliteration-type lyrics. There’s a song called “Ain’t No Saint,” which is very much an Albert Collins-Albert King feel. I’d like to get to the point where it will be a Rory Gallagher feel rather than . . . . But you have to refer to all these inspirers or influences, you know.
Although there is definitely a Rory Gallagher feel. For example, there’s a continuum between songs like “Slumming Angel” and “Living Like a Trucker.”
“Living Like a Trucker” – I remember that one quite well because we had the clavinet with the wah-wah. I was so straight-laced then, I wouldn’t play a wah-wah pedal myself. It’s like somebody joked to me the other night – they were disappointed to hear certain equipment I was using. They didn’t even want me to use electricity. Some people have this image of you as so purist that you wouldn’t even use . . . you know [laughs].
They’ve obviously never heard Taste at the Isle of Wight.
Right. But this is the way it goes. But “Living Like a Trucker,” I like that track myself. All those albums will come out in the next year or two on IRS on CD, with lyric sheets. And some will be slightly remixed and EQ’d for CD. With this absence behind me, it’ll be great to have all my old material out again and people can look at it and see if it’s held up in court or if it’s not. I think it hasn’t dated too badly.
When you’re recording solos, what do you expect from yourself? What should a Rory Gallagher solo be about?
I try to split the difference between being fairly clever and technical, and still primitive. Because I think if it’s just a technical exercise, that’s all very well. Even if a solo has to lean towards the primitive, so be it. It depends on the song, if you have to play very calculated or if you’re overdubbing the solo sometimes. You know, I used to always go for live leads, mistakes and all, just for feel. But now if a certain song needs a very sort of melodic type of solo, I’m prepared to work on it over and over. But I try not to get in the habit of dropping in [punching in notes] because it’s very tempting to get the perfect solo. I have been guilty of it once or twice, but only just to save it if you’re on a great direction. But as a rule I try to keep a grip on technology, so it doesn’t take the human factor out of it and you get too lazy about things, you know.
Has technology impacted the way you make records? Was recording the new album different than, say, recording Blueprint or Tattoo?
A little bit different, yeah. Of course, we’ve got the 24-track. Both of these albums were 8-track. When we went 16-track, I thought that was the year 2000! In fact, on this album we brought in tape echoes, spring reverb. We tried to use more vintage equipment. We did use, obviously, certain modern EQ’s. I’m not that mad about digital equipment, and obviously if you had to clean up something, you would use a noise gate – you know, very subtly. But performance-wise, I don’t think there’s that much difference, except that we probably were a bit more rigid in those days about getting it. We still try to get it in the first take. I would repair something now if I thought it was a great performance, whereas in the early days, just because of a repair we could have saved some tracks, but we were very keen with getting it as-was, even with the Telecaster whistling and everything. It was ridiculous, that kind of attitude, but that’s the way I thought. We needn’t have been so strict with ourselves, but that’s the way we were. I had the same attitude to echo, as well. I was very conservative in that area, which probably was a mistake. But you learn as you go along. It also depends on the engineer that you’re working with and the confidence you have in him and the whole sound and feel. I still think the approach for performance isn’t that different from the early records, but we’re probably a little more aware of what’s sonically possible now and what we can do. And also all those early albums were done in three to six weeks, whereas albums now take six months, nearly, like with this album, between remixes and retakes and what have you.
Did you try to avoid layering tracks and go for live as much as possible?
Yes, in general. I also went for a strong rhythm guitar part in tracks like “Middle Name” and “King of Zydeco” and “Walkin’ Wounded.” Instead of the Strat, for instance, I’ve got this small Chet Atkins Gretsch which is great for rhythm with fairly heavy strings – not the Eddie Cochrane model, the Les Paul-shaped one, the little orange one. That was great for rhythm. And I used a Les Paul Junior on the rhythm part of “Kid Gloves” and also the rhythm part of “Walkin’ Wounded.” Even though I’m identified with the Strat and I like the Strat, I think if you have Strat rhythm and Strat lead, except in a Hendrix situation, it can be a little bit one-dimensional. So it’s nice to have an alternative guitar to broaden the sounds. Even a Telecaster sounds good for rhythm and then Strat for lead, depending on the track.
Do you still have the old Stratocaster that you used on the early records?
Yes. It’s super-glued together.
Like Albert King’s Flying V guitar – it recently fell into a river and had to be super-glued back together.
I always like the out-of-phase sound Albert had, but he would never give you any information about his tuning or anything. Also, he was one of the few bluesmen that I know that was using Acoustic transistor amps, solid state, which had a distortion control on them. Steve Winwood used to use one alright when he was with Blind Faith. And I think on the Gary Moore album, when Albert was working on it, he was actually playing through a Roland JC-120, which is a transistor. So obviously he’s at home with them. But then the pickups on the Flying V’s are very full and warm, and they can take the match-up with the solid state.
When Albert sent the guitar back to the guy who built it, Dan Erlewine, he put it in a burlap sack without a case, wrapped some rope around it, and shipped it by Greyhound bus.
Dan asked Albert why he did it, and Albert told him it was too good a case to risk having anything happen to it.
[Laughs.] That’s funny. That’s strange.
It’s like the story of Mike Bloomfield showing up to record with Bob Dylan with the Telecaster without a case, in a zipper bag. That casual thing is great, you know. Everything’s gone into flight cases now. But we still have a few funky areas left in terms of cases. But the more you travel around the world, you really have to be cautious of your instruments, because it’s only when they stolen or get broken that you really miss them at that particular show.
Have you lost instruments?
I did actually have the Stratocaster stolen in Dublin in the ’60s, and I got it back after two weeks because they had a police program on TV and they put it on there. I lost a Telecaster at the same time – somebody broke into the van and stole the Strat and a Telecaster, which was only on loan to me. That never came back. I got the Strat back, though. It was found over a ditch, with a few extra scratches from the brambles and things. It had been out in the rain, as well. So I swore I’d never sell it or paint it after that. I had to borrow a guitar to get me through that fortnight. I had given of hope in getting it back, and I really couldn’t afford another Strat at that time. I was playing a Burns which a roadie had leant me. But that’s the way it goes. But the Strat is playing well. Obviously, machine heads, frets, pots, and things have been changed over the years, but it’s still the same.
Do you know the year it was made?
It’s November ’61, and I got it in August of ’63. So it was second-hand. It was the first Stratocaster in Ireland, apparently, but the guy who ordered it wanted a red one, like Hank Marvin, and they sent him a sunburst one instead. So he had to wait for a year-and-a-half or whatever to get the red one, and then he sold this one through the shop. So I got it. Prior to that, I had loan of a guitar. I had one electric Solid 7, which was an Italian, very flimsy guitar, which used to distort and everything through this four-watt Little Giant amplifier I had. I wish I had it now as a tune-up amp, because it was like a Pignose type of sound. In those days, you were trying to get the clean sound of Hank Marvin and the Ventures, or whatever. Buddy Holly. But when I got the Strat, I was set.
It must have been a happy day for you.
Oh, it was. I mean, for weeks, every morning I would wake up, I’d go over and look at the guitar in the case, and treat it like a living being or some kind of magical thing. Even the smell of the case – I mean, I was really standing on my head at that time.
Do you still travel with it?
Oh, I do, yeah. I don’t necessarily carry it myself on the plane, but we’ve got it taken care of. We watch it. Luckily, I have a ’57 as well, which is in great condition. I got that from a guitar player named Robert Johnson, of all people, who was based in Memphis at the time and worked with John Entwistle. And it’s a great guitar. I use that on the albums when I don’t use the old Strat. It’s more a Fifties sound – it’s more of a clean, rockabilly, Buddy Holly sound. It has a maple neck, and it’s good if you want a really zingy sound. Because my old Strat is a classic Strat, I suppose. Because of the age and sweat in it and everything else, the tone is a lot dirtier, raunchier, than your standard Strat. It borders on the sound of an SG almost, sometimes, or a real raw Tele, which suits me. But the ’57 is nice. All I’ve done to that was put the big frets on – I like the jumbo frets. And I also disconnect the middle control, which is the tone pot for the rhythm pickup. So on both Strats I have the lower tone pot as a master tone. I like that on a Telecaster you can adjust the tone on the lead pickup. But I think the idea that Fender had was that in those days you played rhythm on the rhythm pickup and then you clicked into the “Peggy Sue” position and went for it. In the early days, you see, some bands didn’t have bass or bass guitar, as you know. The same with the Telecasters – in the rhythm position, that big capacitor creates big, boomy bass lines. In fact, Muddy Waters, up until a couple of years before he died, he left his guitar in that style, so he could great that real boomy rhythm thing, you know.
Muddy played that Tele to the very end, as far as I know.
The red Tele. Apparently the neck was a replacement neck. The guitar was originally blonde, and Fender of Chicago – there must have been a branch there – gave him a neck with an extra-thick back to it, so that’s what happened there. But Muddy had a great feel. Even when he wasn’t playing slide, the figures he would play – particularly with Jimmy Rogers and, of course, Sam Lawhorn, who just passed away fairly lately.
You were lucky to have worked on The London Muddy Waters Sessions.
Yeah, I was. Haunted. Originally Al Kooper was going to produce that album, and he made the call. They changed producers then, and the project was back on. But I was obviously delighted. It was three nights. I was playing every night, gigs, at the same time, and they would hold up the session till midnight till I got there. And he was sitting there tuning his guitar, a glass of sparkling wine in his hand. He handed it to me, treating a 23-year-old youngster. But, I mean, it was serious business, because he had half his own band there, and then he had Mitch Mitchell on drums, Steve Winwood on piano. So we had a good time. They remixed it back in Chicago, I think. They brought a few spare tracks from it out on some of these compilations or best-of series.
What was it like working with Albert King on his Live LP?
The situation was, he showed up in Montreal and it was all arranged to be recorded. His second guitarist left him on the day, so he asked me himself, would I stand in? I said no, because his material is quite arranged – it’s not loose like Muddy’s, you know? He’s a more intense guy than Muddy, I thought, not as friendly. I hate to say it, but I was forced to sit in and just fill out as best I could. There was no rehearsing, no nothing. You just had to guess what chord, what key he was in. Any time I’d ask him what key it was, he’d say “B natural,” and he’s playing in minors. His tuning is like Em6 or Em7, as far as I know, back to front, so I just had to busk it. But it was an experience! [Laughs.] I got over it.
Mike Bloomfield once mentioned being onstage in a cutting contest with Hendrix, and he said Jimi just pulled out all the stops. He said something like, “All I could think was, I wish to God that I were Albert King!”
Yeah. If Albert wants to nail you to the wall, he’s got that amazing attack. He just hits that one-single-note-type syndrome. I was a Hendrix fan and a Bloomfield fan. I met Mike once – we did a TV show, Midnight Special, when the Electric Flag reformed. And he was a very nice, modest guy, and a beautiful player. A really soulful player. I could see him in a situation with Hendrix where he wouldn’t go into that trickery, really. But it’s a compliment to Mike if Jimi was that scared, because normally Hendrix was quite prepared to lay back and even play bass on these jam sessions.
Had you met Jimi?
I never met him. I saw him playing two times, but three shows. I was in the Speakeasy Club in London once, and he was sitting a couple of tables away, talking to someone. I hadn’t the guts to go over and annoy him. That’s happened to me a few times. And you regret it later – I mean, all you got to do is shake their hand and make contact. Because these people pass through this world and you don’t get to say hello to them, you know.
If you could transcend time to see any musicians play, who would be tops on your list?
Oh, there’s a whole glut. I’d like to have seen Django Reinhart live – I believe that was scary. Obviously I’d like to see Robert Johnson – who wouldn’t? I’d like to have seen the first Sonny Boy Williamson. There are so many people. I’d like to have seen Buddy Holly live, for that matter. I didn’t see Son House live, but I was lucky enough in the ’60s to have seen a lot of the main people. I saw Muddy, I saw John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams. I saw T-Bone Walker. And we were lucky enough touring the States we played with Freddie King, we played with Juke Boy Bonner. I’d like to have seen Blind Boy Fuller live, mind you, although he was in the line of Blind Boy Blake. And I saw Gary Davis. I’m pretty lucky, really. But certainly some of the early people I’d like to have seen.
With “Step It Up and Go” on it?
Yes, and “Three Ball Blues.” Oh, he was great. And Scrapper Blackwell I liked a lot, particularly when he recorded when he was about 71 or something like that. And he was in great form. In fact, when I went back and listened to the original recordings with Leroy Carr, I was slightly disappointed because he had actually improved, to my ears, as a player. But then the early records were recorded very dull – you couldn’t hear the guitar that well. That was a surprising thing about that blues revival, that Furry Lewis, John Hurt – a lot of them – had improved as opposed to going the other way. It was fantastic. There a lot of people still alive. I hope now that John Lee Hooker has this big hit and that Albert Collins and Albert King are doing well, and B.B. King, that it will draw in some of the more less-known guys, like John Littlejohn and Johnny Shines, Johnny Young. They’re not the classic players, but they all have nice rough sounds, you know.
Do you use open tunings?
Yeah. I use the DADGAD tuning on “Out on the Western Plain,” the Lead Belly song. That’s one of my favorite tunings. That was supposed to be discovered by Davy Graham, a Scottish guitarist, and then it was used a lot by Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy, all great players in their different ways. I’ve been messing around with dropped D lately, which is taking down the bottom E and the top E. It’s quite nice. Open A is related to open G, and I use that a lot as well, putting on the capo.
What tunings did you use on the record for the slide tunes?
Let me see. Open G. Even though “Ghost Blues” is in A, the guitar was tuned to G. The slide on “Walkin’ Wounded” is just in standard tuning, which I can do. “Empire State Express” is open G. I think any other slide parts are in standard tuning, in the same way in which Earl Hooker could play chords and then go into the solo.
Muddy once said that Earl Hooker was the best slide player.
He used to play great single-string guitar too, particularly on the early Junior Wells records. On the original “Messing with the Kid,” he plays great snerfy Stratocaster sounds, before he went off to the Danelectro. And then he went off to that Gibson.
His slide on songs like “Anna Lee” is just out of this world.
“Anna Lee” and “Sweet Black Angel” are both, as you know, Robert Nighthawk songs. But he was the first guy, aside from Hendrix, that I could accept the wah-wah pedal from [laughs].
I had trouble with Earl’s wah-wah – sometimes he went overboard.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think what turned a lot of people was the Howlin’ Wolf record where they added so much wah-wah pedal – remember that one that came out around the time as Electric Mud? [The Howlin’ Wolf Album, on Chess]
The one with Pete Cosey on it.
Yeah. I can’t remember who else was on the album. The liner notes were funny. They even put on the front “Howlin’ Wolf doesn’t like this record, but then he didn’t like his electric guitar …”
Howlin’ Wolf’s main guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, was seriously underrated.
Absolutely, yeah. It’s a shame. How is his health? Is he okay?
I’ve heard he’s feeling good lately.
He’s made some records that I’ve got since the Wolf days, but he’s either produced the wrong way or the material’s not there or he misses Wolf or all the chemistry that went on.
Instead of cutting with house bands provided by labels, he’d probably be better off if he could pick his own band and material and do it his own way.
It’s important. Well, a lot of people think they know best, once they get this producer mentality. I know it’s an important job, but some people can be extremely unsympathetic to what’s right, you know what I mean? But then as the years move on and on, everything becomes tighter in terms of budgets, P.R., pressure, and all these other factors. Hubert’s a guy who deserves his hour in the sun, really, because he played some amazing stuff, both on the Les Paul and on the Strat. You never knew which guitar he was playing on the records – he’s got a great sound. And then he showed up in England with this tigerskin-type Strat. I saw a photograph of it on one of those Kent albums of Memphis blues – all that Joe Hill Louis type era. But there’s a photograph of the guitar, and I have a vague idea it’s an African guitar. Somebody told me it’s a Zanzibar or something like that. If you ever see him, ask him. Particularly with all this interest in pawnshop specials, this one has never cropped up – unless he painted it himself or something.
When you’re playing slide, do you use a guitar pick?
Yeah, pick and fingers, you know. I also vary the slide. Sometimes I use a Coricidin bottle on my ring finger, sometimes on my small finger. Then sometimes I use a brass slide if I’m playing the National. But if I’m playing the straight electric, I use a steel bottleneck.
Do you hear a difference in tones between the various materials?
I do, actually, yeah. The glass is obviously more – I won’t say Hawaiian – but more smooth and sweet. The brass or copper is very harsh, if you want to get that Son House sort of attack. It’s almost too harsh all the time. Steel is a good compromise. It depends on the guitar you are playing.
Do you use a socket wrench like Muddy, or a steel slide?
A steel slide. I have a socket wrench because John Hammond told me he was using a socket wrench, and then Lowell George, who we played with, had one as well. They’re fantastic, but you really need very heavy strings for them. I don’t know which one I have – a 5/8th or 7/8th or whatever it is. They’re fantastic, but if you’re playing more than a couple of numbers, they do wear your small finger down. They’re very heavy, but they’re ideal for slide. That’s my one complaint – not that I like light slides, but you don’t want them to be tiring your hand.
Do you set up your action different if you’re going to play slide, or do you have a special guitar for it?
I have a Gretsch Corvette which is in open G or open A, depending on the song, and that’s got strings from like .013 to .050, something like that – medium. My regular strings would be like .010 to .044, something like that, and the action is quite high. So it’s okay for slide. But to play real open-tuning slide, you need the heavier strings. But I can cope with both, you know. I try to, anyway.
What is your favorite amp?
Good question! It’s a battle between the Vox AC30, which is my first amp, and the 4×10 Bassman Fender, although I love the little Deluxe Fender, which is nice as well. But I have played Ampeg VT-44s, which are very nice. Over the years I’ve used Marshall 50-watt combos in conjunction with a Fender or a Vox, and they’re very good for volume and bite. But the warmth of the Fenders and the character of the Vox are pretty hard to beat, so it’s somewhere in there.
What do we hear on the new album?
On the rhythm tracks it would be a combination of Vox and Marshall. Nearly all the lead parts were done with the Fender 1955 Bassman. We took the back off it and put mikes in the back as well as the front, so we got all kinds of variations. That was pretty much the way – I mean, not every track was laid down as a rhythm track, but I’d say 80% of the tracks were like that – Vox and Marshall for rhythm, left and right, and then the Fender Bassman for leads.
Your fans in America have been waiting a long time for you to tour. What’s been the delay?
I don’t know. We just went back to Europe after the last American tour, in ’85, and we just got stuck in Europe, recording and touring. We played Yugoslavia and Hungary, and so on. And then we were trying to sort out the right record deal in America. I don’t know where the years went.
We’d see ads in N.M.E. that you were playing over there.
We just got irritated too. We were on a couple of big nationwide tours with these big, stadium-type rock bands. We’d do that in order to get to America, to pay for the flights and also to give us some free time to play clubs and colleges. But doing these others gigs, you’d go home feeling dissatisfied, because you’d be badly treated in some cases with monitors and amount of stage room, lights and stuff.
American audiences aren’t always kind to opening acts, especially if it’s a different genre.
Indeed! And that was the problem. It wasn’t so bad when we were on the same bill with, say, ZZ Top or somebody in that line. But then we happened to be on a couple of bills that were totally alien to our kind of stuff. We weren’t booed or anything, but you felt you’d wasted a couple of weeks of your life when you could be playing clubs or small theaters. I regret we didn’t come back in the meantime, but it gave us a chance to reassess what we were doing and we got very busy in Europe and so on. And then I developed a flying problem, to make matters worse.
Fear of flying?
Yeah. I had a couple of bad flights and I got my Buddy Holly complex. It got so bad, I couldn’t even fly to Ireland, which is only an hour away [from London]. Then to play on the Continent, I would have to fly out the night before so I’d be okay on the date. It was not so much a fear of death thing, but a mixture of claustrophobia and a few other things.
This is a miracle – I flew from London to Tokyo, Japan to Australia, Australia to L.A., L.A. to San Francisco, and so on. We’d have to make our way cross country and then back to London. So far, so good. My prayers have been answered, then. To beat that flying phobia was quite an ordeal for me, I can tell you, because it’s the last thing I needed after all those years of touring and flying two times a day. So that compounded my problems of not being able to get to the States.
Do you have advice for keeping your sanity or staying centered while on tour? It’s such an unusual life.
It is, indeed. There’s also a terrible danger – between travel and other things and getting to the gigs and so on, you get little time to play on your own in the hotel, and you can get lazy about playing. So I make a point of playing every day in the hotel room and bring a little cassette player and record what I’m doing, and try and write songs as well, just as a by-product of that. But to keep your sanity, I don’t know, it takes you about twenty years to find out. You know what all the ABC’s are to begin with, but there’s an awful lot of time to wear down the nerves of a musician. It’s just your attitude, really, in terms of traveling and flying, for hotels, for remembering where you are, and trying to keep all that group feeling every night to try to put on a good show. I mean, every musician has to go through that. You just have to develop a sense of humor and patience and just keep it cool, you know. I think the old cliché of deal with tonight’s gig and not worry about the one next Tuesday or the end of the tour. It’s a classic, but it’s true.
If people who knew you from your records heard what you play in the hotel room, would they be surprised?
Are you a closet country player or a bluegrass guy or a flamenco player?
Flamenco, definitely. No, I do actually do some country licks. I’m quite keen on the playing of Roy Nichols, who used to be on Merle Haggard’s records, and some of the players that have worked with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck. I don’t like this commercial country. I can’t really play flamenco that well – I can fake it, but just for my own ears. I do a little bits of jazz things and ragtime – anything that will loosen you up. Also it’s good for your mental health – not necessarily to do what you play onstage. And also even if you’re playing cassettes in your room. I play a lot of folk things, like Martin Carthy and some Irish music and some Django and things. Particularly if you’re doing a very long tour, it’s quite hard to listen to similar kind of music in your room then, I find. So it’s good to play something slightly different. And country and folk is quite a departure. That’s not to say I don’t play blues in the hotel room – I do. It depends what phase you’re going through and what year it is and what mood you’re in and all those other things.
Particularly this recent interest in it. I was despondent in the late ’70s up until the mid ’80s – I thought we’d gone right into the age of technology, and that was the end of it. Drum machines, techno pop. So there’s this interest in the blues now in the early ’90s, thanks to Stevie Ray and all the people who kept playing it, like Albert Collins and Thorogood and all those people, to this peak that’s happening at the moment with this interest in Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker and so on. And Bonnie Raitt’s come back, if you like. Who would have predicted that? So that makes me very optimistic for the ’90s. I mean, if it gets better and better. Maybe it’ll fade away again, but I don’t think so. I think there’s going to be a nice, serious interest in the years to come, which would be great, you know?
A lot of people are interested in zydeco as well, and African music. And of course the whole world music thing is fresh for the ears, because people have had enough of mainstream pop. A lot of teenagers will surprise you. They say, “Oh, we love real drums. We love real bass guitars.” They get fed up with all that space-invaders machine music. That’s all it was, to my ears anyway. Because all that metronomic heartbeat stuff – I have a theory that’s bad for you. It’s like ticker tape, it’s like tele text. Because the heartbeat and the mind and everything doesn’t work digitally.
It’s more like reggae.
[Laughs.] Something like that, yeah. That’s a good way to put it, yeah. Somebody ought to check that out and see. It’s like some people have that theory about digital echoes – even though it’s in time, it’s different. You get tape echo that’s not entirely to the second. I don’t know – somebody had a ridiculous theory, but I kind of believe it.
I believe the time is coming when music will be used more to physically heal.
That it can do. Music can heal. It can cool down the savage breast, as they say. It does have that power. All kinds of power. By the time you subtract the music business and all of the good and bad things that go with it, you’re left with a piece of music and the player, and it’s important that that should remain fairly – not precious, but organic and true.
What do you like to hear at the end of a show?
Our shows tend to become very rocky some nights – people jump around the place and all that. I can accept that, as long as they’ve listened to the slow blues and the acoustic and the blend. I like it to be fairly up at the end. You can’t pick and choose, but I don’t want it to be a recital where people politely clap. You have to create an atmosphere. But at any one show, I like, if I can, to hit about two or three different bases, in terms of reaction and performance. We try and create dynamics in the set, so it’s not just too predictable. “Oh, that’s going to be another number like that.”
You change the set around from night to night?
Oh, we do, yes. We rarely use a set list – only if it’s gone to the airtime on a TV program, where they have to have cameras ready for whatever. We never use a set list. Occasionally, at a big festival where your time is limited, it doesn’t hurt to have a list just to guide you a bit. But nine times out of ten, I just work off of the top of my head, and we move from album to album. Particularly on this tour, because we’ve been away so long, we’re not just only playing the new songs, we’re doing some old ones as well, just to refresh people’s memories.
Yeah. The bass player since ’71 – Gerry McAvoy. Drummer since about 1980 – that’s Brendan O’Neil. The harmonica player for about six or seven years, Mark Feltham.
Not to make you self-conscious, but if someone were to put together a compact disc collection called “The Essential Rory Gallagher,” are there tracks you feel should be included?
I suppose so. If I were to do a best-of from the old days, things like “Cradle Rock,” “Million Miles Away,” “Tattoo’d Lady.” There’s lots of songs that I’d like to re-do and remix, things like “Race the Breeze” I was very fond of myself. I’d like to re-record that, and try to get a Staples Singers-type gospel feel to it.
Pops Staples is another underrated guitar player.
Indeed! Particularly on the early records, with that tremolo on that Jazzmaster, you know. To record a guitar like that, there’s so much room for it to breathe, you know.
Back to the record.
“Loanshark Blues” is a song I like a lot – that’s a track from the new one. It’s very hard for me. I mean, if we’re going to do a box set or something like that later this year or if not early next year, that will be the real testing point of going back and seeing what’s there and what wasn’t released. So that will be interesting.
What’s the scope of your current tour?
In America, we started in the West Coast. We worked all around San Diego, two or three dates, and we played the Roxy in L.A. And then we’re playing in this area, Santa Cruz. We played Oakland last night, we’re playing San Francisco tomorrow night. We’re playing San Jose. And then we’re moving across to Minneanapolis – I can never pronounce that name!
Prince’s home town.
Yeah. We’ll do “Purple Rain” for him there. Actually, he plays good guitar, I think. He’s a very underrated player. And he’s clever to have that old Hofner Tele copy – they were good, and no one spotted them except one guitarist in Nashville who uses one. I think it was the guy who played on Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.”
Was it Reggie Young?
I think it was Reggie Young. They have reissued these copies, but they’re not as good. But I must keep my eye out for one.
We’re doing, obviously, New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago. We’re going into Canada to do Toronto. We’re missing out on Washington, Dallas, and all the Southern area, but we’re hoping to come back in two or three months and cover that. We have commitments in Europe after Easter, so we have to go back. Ideally, we should stay here for two or three months, but given that we were in Australia and Japan before this – and this is a fairly hard month’s work – we’ll be glad to get back and get a week off.
Where’s your home?
Well, I’m based in London at the moment.
Do you get back to Cork?
Oh, I do. Because of the flying, I haven’t been there for a while, but if that’s over, I’ll go back as it was for a while. I’d go back every third weekend or every second month. At one stage I was nearly commuting, which was great, because I like to keep my Irish connection. London’s a good town to work out of, but naturally it’s not home, you know what I mean? But all the musicians live there and the studios and so on. But now since the Irish rock thing has boomed, it’s quite feasible to record and do things in Dublin. It’s become quite a rock and roll city.
Is that because of U2?
Well, U2 ultimately, yeah, but it was building up before they because of Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown rats and so on. The music industry took Irish musicians more seriously, whereas in the early days of Van Morrison and when we came out, it was quite hard to cut through the image. Everyone thought you were like the Clancy Brothers or just a dance band. There were very few serious rhythm and blues or rock people from Ireland at that stage. So it was hard to cut through, initially, but it’s great now. I’m half tempted to record the next album in Dublin, just to see. I did three tracks on a Davy Spillane album – he’s a uilleann pipe player – and I enjoyed working in the Dublin studios. But for an Irishman, with the exception of the Irish Tour Live album, I’ve never recorded in Ireland. It might be the X-factor, you know. Whatever that is.
Rory’s long, stellar set that evening at the Catalyst included many of the songs and artists we’d talked about during the interview – his own “Continental Op,” “Tattoo’d Lady,” “Kid Gloves,” and “Million Miles Away,” as well as covers of Robert Nighthawk’s “Going Down to Eli’s,” Lead Belly’s “Out on the Western Plain,” Son House and Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” Blind Boy Fuller’s “Pistol Slapper Blues,” and Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid.”
Fresh Evidence was the last album Rory completed, and 1991 marked his final tour of America. On June 14, 1995, he died of complications following a liver transplant. He is buried in Saint Oliver’s Cemetery on Model Farm Road in Cork, Ireland. I gave the master tape of our interview to his brother, Donal Gallagher, who featured portions of it in the BBC’s 2005 radio documentary on Rory’s life.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.