Rory Gallagher was headstrong from start to finish. Headstrong, driven, stubborn and reluctant to take advice, even from his brother Donal, who managed his affairs. The qualities which helped to make him a musician of such renown, one of the world’s leading blues guitarists, were the same qualities which contributed to his premature death three years ago, on June 14 1995, at the age of 47.
The Republic’s first rock star, who blazed a trail for Thin Lizzy, the Boomtown Rats and U2, who sold 14 million records in his 30-year career, who beat Eric Clapton in critics’ polls when Clapton was at his peak, Gallagher was not only respected, but also universally liked as a gentle and dignified man. To those on the outside of his deeply private life, it seemed that he could go on making music for another 30 years. An underrated songwriter, he could perhaps have become the redefining force, which he recognized that the blues needed. He died, however, at an age when blues musicians are often just getting into their stride. Gallagher’s stride, having begun so confidently in his teenage years, – first with the Fontana Showband in Cork, to which his family moved from his native Donegal, then with two incarnations of the trio Taste, had faltered when the 1970s market for rootsy music gave way to the fickleness of the 1980s. Gallagher made some of his best music in that decade but it was largely ignored, fueling his anxiety and depression, making him push himself harder, exposing an already vulnerable man to the quick fix quackery which his brother blames for his death.
“It always concerned me that he was so driven and that because of the demands on his time, he felt things could be solved by a doctor’s prescription. That was his undoing,” says Donal Gallagher, speaking for the first time about the events which led to his brother’s death, which he says is analogous to that of Elvis Presley. “There were people who should have taken better care of Rory…”
Rory Gallagher lived a solitary life, isolated by the white heat of his talent, by his self-reliance, determination and overwhelming diffidence. “He was like two completely different people on stage and off” says Donal. “I remember Eric Clapton remarking to me in 1969, during an American tour, on how reserved Rory was. It was strange to have someone that exuberant on stage and so deeply private and introverted offstage.” Brendan O’Neill, Rory’s drummer from 1981 to 1991, recalls: “He thought very deeply. He read a lot. He was into detective novels. I think that was actually part of his make-up. He loved to be undercover, never showing his hand too readily, and would work out his thoughts before anyone could penetrate them.”
The singular determination and extreme sensitivity, which shaped his entire career, were evident from the age of 11. Having got his first guitar at the age of nine and taught himself to play, by the age of 11 he was looking for audiences to entertain, so he entered talent contests. An incident in one such contest in the Christian Brothers school he attended, in which some Brothers reacted with hostility to him performing a Cliff Richard hit, Livin’ Doll, had a marked and lasting effect on him, turning him in on himself according to Donal. “It was a strange experience having Rory as your older brother, because at a very early age he realized what he was destined for,” he says. “He was a man with a mission, and either you supported him totally or he was not interested. There was no halfway house.”
His mother recognized Rory’s prodigious talent immediately, and fully supported his fledgling career. When he joined the Fontana Showband at the age of 15, she arranged for him to transfer from the authoritarian Christian Brothers to a school, which understood he was now a working musician and did not complain if he arrived late. He worked throughout his teenage years, first on the showband circuit around Munster, later building a following in Belfast, where there was a flourishing beat-music scent The consequence was that he did not allow himself the chance to blossom into adulthood. “He didn’t socialize,” says Donal “He just wasn’t interested. He performed at parties and dances but he didn’t mix I didn’t quite understand his driven quality. He was thinking about his place in music history rather than living a regular adolescence.”
He changed the Fontana into a rhythm and blues band, renaming it The Impact, but he outgrew the band quickly and left to form his own outfit, Taste. Gallagher’s working methods in the studio, which were to become a problem later, caused no difficulties in the two incarnations of Taste, which he led from 1966 to 1970. Tight budgets, in any case, did not permit the agonizing and indecision, which were a feature of his later career. Gallagher had firm opinions on how Taste’s career should be advancing in the US, and friction between him and the band’s equally headstrong manager resulted in disbandment, with Gallagher feeling let down He considered giving up music altogether but was steered back to work by Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, who offered his services. Gallagher declined and instead his brother evolved from Taste’s tour manager to manager of Rory’s new trio, and carried on working for his brother thereafter “I managed his affairs but never claimed to give him direction,” says Donal. “Nobody did. He was not one for debating band policy. He was the boss and that was the end of it. I did try to get him to impose discipline on himself. He never learned how to delegate and that caused problems, particularly in the studio. I held the view that what he did was just a job. He never saw it like that. Physically he always seemed able to handle the workload, but it concerned me, even in the days of Taste, that his work had such an effect on him emotionally.” When the going was good – and it was good throughout the 1970’s, with Gallagher prolific and successful – his punishing work rate was sustained by sheer momentum. “The best years were early to mid-1970s,” says Gerry McAvoy, Gallagher’s bassist for 20 years “It was fun then, because obviously it was fresh and everyone was younger. Rory was 100 per cent sold to music. It took over his life, maybe to his detriment. It almost became an obsession as well as great love)’
When Gallagher’s career slackened, various problems such as insomnia and a fear of flying – not ordinarily of overwhelming gravity – assumed greater proportions. “Rory was performer, producer, manager in a way, songwriter,” says Donal “The physical exhaustion took its toll, as did the pressure to bring out albums, as did being ignored by the media. He withdrew into himself He didn’t go to as many gigs or buy as many albums “When be was off the road he didn’t know what to do with himself and this made him depressed and disoriented, he didn’t have the ability to relax or unwind. Even when he went back to Ireland he was uneasy. He felt people were fickle and mightn’t like him any more.”
Gallagher himself recognized that his life lacked balance. He had relationships, but none lasted. Those close to him hoped he would meet someone who could make him happy but it did not happen. He got satisfaction from his job, but there seemed to be little else which gave him pleasure. “Even after the last time he played Dublin, in 1992, one of the best shows I saw him play, he was quietly satisfied rather than particularly happy,” says Donal.
On that last trip to Dublin, in uncharacteristically unguarded mode, the guitarist spoke about his predicament: “The things I wanted when I was younger I have achieved. It would be more than enough for most people. I should be happy.”
It says much about Rory Gallagher’s need for privacy that the person to whom he was closest, his only sibling, knew little of whatever distress he experienced. “Whatever he was feeling, good or bad, he kept very much to himself,” says Donal. “I can’t say that we ever had an in-depth personal conversation. There wasn’t a lot said between us. There was a kind of telepathy between us, though.
“I’d say he was extremely lonely, but it was hard to tell because he was so private. He was tremendously melancholic and he was never satisfied with anything he did.”
Gallagher’s melancholia deepened suddenly during the making of his 1987 album, Defender. He later said that in the course of several nights in the studio, something unpleasant and even threatening came over him. He gave up his trademark check shirts in favour of plain dark clothes, and gradually his health deteriorated, his weight ballooning at times, the result of a fluid retention problem exacerbated by steroid treatment and the cocktail of other prescribed drugs which he was latterly consuming. Keyboardist Lou Martin, who played with Rory in the 1970s, remembers: “He was up and down in those later years. I saw him and he was puffy around the neck, and looked bloated. But the last time I saw him, at a concert in Cork, he looked fine. He was off whiskey and drinking pints and white wine.”
“Donal Gallagher became alarmed at his brother’s state of health in the middle of 1994, a year before he died. “I felt he was giving up. His physical exhaustion had led to mental exhaustion. I think, with hindsight, that the poor man had had a series of nervous breakdowns that were not visible to other people. When I saw how serious the situation had become, I reckoned it was better for him to go out and work, he had been under strain during his time off the road in London, trying to create new music. It had become counter-productive.
“Rory’s natural cure was to tour, do what he did best, get his adrenaline going and use his energy productively. But that was the dilemma. The thing which made him better also made him worse through exhaustion.”
After touring for the latter half of 1994, Rory’s health deteriorated dramatically in the first two months of 1995. A short tour of Holland in late January was canceled halfway through when he became ill. “When he started having abdominal pains, which, with hindsight was probably the first sign of his liver trouble – he was prescribed paracetamol, which, where a liver is damaged, can cause more damage. I wish more checks had been made at the time.”
Gallagher was admitted to King’s College hospital in London in March 1995, and it was only then that the extent of his ill health became apparent: his liver was failing and a transplant was required.
“It was only then that he got the medical care he needed,” says Donal. “The surgeon who performed the operation was staggered that such a young man needed a new liver. This damage was compounded by drink, though Rory was not the heavy drinker he was rumored to be.”
After spending 13 weeks in intensive care, Gallagher was waiting to be transferred to a convalescent hospital when he contracted an infection. “I didn’t believe he would die,” says Donal. “Or I didn’t want to. He deteriorated rapidly in the end because his immune system was exhausted. They pumped him full of antibiotics but it was no use.
“With hindsight I would have done some things differently. But I don’t blame myself. You can’t change someone if they don’t want to change. Rory had a stubborn streak. He wasn’t going to change for anybody.”