LUTON— It’s a dreary town; a dead one, some might say. But even lost little towns like this one, 30 miles off the northwest tip of London, have their events. The event this night is at the local polytechnic college. At the door it was the usual scene: grab the money, pack ‘em in fast and tight.
Throughout the supporting act the impatient shouts rise and fall: “Rory, Rory, Rory.” Rory Gallagher has come to Luton. His name is Scottish, hut he’s the biggest thing to come out of Ireland since Van Morrison. “It’s a strange town, this,” he muses, slowly crinkling his eyes. “Haven’t been here since the early days with the Taste.”
That was more than five years ago. For four years he led Taste, one of the tightest, bluesiest units around, building a solid following in Britain and Europe. Taste’s one visit to the US was as a supporting act for Blind Faith. When Taste split up last year, a lot of people were surprised. But it had to be. “Me and the boys just wanted to play different things. They wanted to write their own music; a kind of Lifetime thing. They formed a group the week after we split. They obviously wanted to do something very quickly. They took the manager. I didn’t, and went out on my own.”
Earlier this year, Gallagher toured the States with two new sidemen. The trip put his name in the big lights, and solidified the new lineup. “It’s a 24-hour music thing while you’re there. Wracks your nerves a bit, but it stirs your energy. It’s just what we needed.”
He’s wary of his surge in popularity. “Imagine being last year’s superstar,” he grimaces. “It seems a waste to me to work and work for years, really gettin’ your music together; then to make it big, as some people do, and just turn into some sort of personality. You play less, you perform less, you circulate less. It becomes something completely different. That young retired musician bit doesn’t interest me.”
Gallagher, 23, is a serious man, some-how older, wiser than his years. He knows his business well, and, not surprisingly, finds it lacking. “The thing is to organize as much as you can yourself, to stay outside the system as much as you can, while still being part enough to organize your gigs and records. Sometimes I’ve waited too long for other people to organize things. Then I’ve had to go ahead and do it anyway.”
On stage Gallagher stomps and shakes and sweats. Suddenly during a number, he’ll leap right up close to his bassman, Gerry McAvoy, or drummer, Wilgar Campbell, and pound his guitar at them, yowling and spitting, urging them on. “It just happens like that. I mean, it’s jungle music, isn’t it? If there’s a beat there, it wasn’t intended so that you’d stand there with a straight face.” Rory’s face muscles twist in time with his guitar. “If I’m doin’ something slow, then I don’t move much. But some nights I get out there and there’s so much excitement I’ve got to move a bit. I wouldn’t like people to hold it against me. I wouldn’t like to get into that showman first, musician second thing.”
Still, he is a showman, good value for the money by any standards. He played for two and a half hours that night in Luton after being booked for one. It cost Rory six broken strings. “I’ve never done that many before,” he says, puzzled. “A strange night.”
He sits backstage, after the show, staring out in front of him. He looks tired. The sweat has dried on his face. He pulls the hair off his face. “I love playing to people. It means a lot to me, the audience.” He talks quietly, but with emphasis. Rory can’t remember what stage-fright means. “I get a little nervy, tense sometimes, but that’s all. I’ve been playin’ in front of people since I was nine, you see. I was playin’ before that even. I mean I had a wooden guitar at nine, but I had a couple of ukuleles before that. Not that I could really play them. But it was a start.”
Gently, he rubs a cloth over his battered guitar, a companion for eight years. He lifts it to his ear, testing the strings.
“You’ve got to respect your audience. I played in Irish showbands years ago; you’d be playing for five hours at a time and never get a clap. It was all dancing. I was 15 when I first started with one. I only joined a showband ‘cause there was no other place to go with an electric guitar. We’d have to play all the Top 20 stuff. You learn a lot of basic stuff. Mostly you learn what sort of music you don’t want to play.”
Rory works hard. He travels a lot and plays a lot of live shows. He’s not the sort to be found lying about in Ibiza. That’s a way of life he can’t understand. “Let’s put it this way. In 50 years’ time, I’d like to be respected the way I dig any of the travelin’ guitar pickers like Leadbelly, or the more recent ones like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jack Elliott. There’s no crap about these guys”
In the car on the road back to London, Rory has mellowed a lot. He has reason for feeling good. He has recorded the first tracks for his live album. He’s in a mood to talk. “There will be one or two standards, maybe, ‘Sinner Boy,’ a lot of current songs, and one or two entirely new ones. So it’ll be about 90 percent unrecorded material.”
Rory has always been known as a bluesman, but nowadays the blues have become basically a stabilizer. “Sometimes I’m much closer to people like Hank Snow or Hank William’s. Basically I’m interested in what used to be known as ‘down-home’ music. Something that’s closer to the ground. Obviously I do it my way, but that’s the kind of feel I’m after.”
For all his respect for the older musicians, Gallagher considers some contemporary figures just as important, maybe more so. “There are the few who are showing where it’s all goin’. I really dig Ry Cooder and John Hammond. They’re much more important than the guitar superstars. They explore much more deeply. And I really liked Al Wilson with Canned Heat. It’s a pity he never did an album of his own. His slide playin’ and his harp playin’ were very special. I met him once. We didn’t talk a lot. But he’s really stuck in my mind. You see, I like people who write songs, and maybe collect them. I’m not too knocked out by a guy who just plays a good guitar, you see. It has to go beyond that.
Until now Rory has probably been best known for his guitar playing, but now his singing and song writing are moving up on a par with his guitar work. “It’s difficult for me to tell, you know, livin’ it all the time. I don’t really stop long enough to compare myself to myself. But I’d like to think it was all getting better and better.
“Some people get all concerned about this fantasy and reality thing, you know, the stage only being the fantasy. I don’t see it like that. It makes things easier if you treat the stage as reality. Reality is doing the thing you’re best at.”
As the car speeds into the heart of London, Rory hunches deeper into his seat. He turns to his driver: “That was a strange town, you know. When did I ever bust six strings in a night before?”