Ever since I posted it, I’ve been trying to write a follow up to my epic post about rock music and girls. You know, thanks to a couple of different things, it’s probably the most widely read thing on my livejournal. I know I’m unread by dozens each time I post and that’s cool. Speaking your mind and being passed by is surely what’s to be expected from blogging?
Anyway, I’ve tried at least seven times to write something and failed each and every time. I got to five pages the last time and then realised that it had dissolved into a compare-and-contrast of Rory Gallagher’s album covers. So, I’m going to try again and hopefully pick out the best bits of that… buckle up, we may be in for a bumpy ride.
Some time ago on a day off, I bought Big Guns: The Very Best of Rory Gallagher on CD from HMV. Didn’t need it really, but it was only £4 and there are some tracks I don’t yet have (can’t afford his whole back catalogue yet), so I bought it. As is my custom, I ripped off the packaging the second I was out of the shop door and pulled the liner notes out to read as I walked. I don’t like to wait, you see. I started laughing out loud in a manner most raucous. It was lunchtime in the City of London: I got plenty of stares. I didn’t care. I actually stopped walking at one point to just laugh, before I reined myself in and continued on my way. But why the hilarity, you may well wonder. I shall tell you.
"Whenever he stepped outside of the studio, Gallagher delivered some of the most thrilling and ferocious live performances in blues-rock history. It didn’t hurt that he looked like a rock star, with his long, flowing locks, groovy side-burns and Greek god visage. But even serious musicians who hated pretty boys couldn’t help but be entranced as Gallagher unleashed raw and beautifully phrased note flurries from a battered-to-all-hell Fender Stratocaster."
I snickered at ‘groovy side-burns‘ but the raucous cackle which earned me glares from the total merchant bankers round here was inspired by ‘Greek god visage‘. Why so? Is the writer having some joke? Did Rory in fact fall out of the ugly tree and land on his face? Actually, the writer isn’t at all wrong, but the reason I laughed is simple: I hadn’t noticed.
The point of this latest discourse is not Rory Gallagher’s aesthetic qualities, although by all means, decide for yourselves. No, the point of this is that I hadn’t noticed.
I hadn’t noticed. Rory’s probably the first musician I’ve definitely heard before I saw him. I could really only judge him on the sound and not the face. I mean, I’ve since realised that there was a long article about him in MOJO magazine years ago that I probably read (or at least skimmed). I’ve known the name Rory Gallagher and understood the deep, broad respect that is attached to it for a long time… but I didn’t know the face and I didn’t know the music. I can tell you the first Rory song I knowingly heard: Born on the Wrong Side of Time. Guess why that title leapt out at me on iTunes? It’s a great song that I think could’ve been written about me by me except for the fact that it’s good… The point is, I heard him first and in this I think he must be unique amongst my boys.
I couldn’t say it about Morrison, could I? His face (and the rest of him) have been plastered around the world since before I was born. For Morrison, the face (and the rest of him) are hard to separate from the music. I can and have managed it – you only hear a voice and what it’s singing when you’re listening to a record, after all – but it’s tough. With Rory it wasn’t difficult at all. I could only go on the sound and what I vaguely, disinterestedly imagined him to look like. I assumed he looked like every other Irishman… or at least like all other Irishmen who went into rock music (with one important and most adored exception). He would, I assumed, be white, skinny, long-haired and possessed of what I call an ‘Irish’ face for lack of better terminology. I didn’t really think about it beyond those terms. He was the guitar pumping through my headphones, not a picture on a wall. That was totally cool with me. I didn’t need the picture, I just needed the sound – because it is such a sound!
Maybe that’s why I was so offended this time round when I was asked if I fancied Rory. It’s been a question I was asked about Jim, and then later about Philip Lynott and even Scott Gorham (not helped by my reaction to meeting the latter in ‘my’ since-closed Starbucks). I’ve probably even been asked about Dean Martin and George Harrison and Robert Plant, too. My friend Phil still occasionally dares to jokingly make such references… and gets away with it only because he is joking. Well, I didn’t ever fancy any of them. The closest I ever came to such pedestrian feelings would be for Percy, and that’s largely because of the novelty of having a hero who was alive. The fact that he was and remains a golden god didn’t hurt… but it wasn’t really that sort of thing when it came down to the business of brass tacks and other clichés.
Anyway when it comes to Rory, I feel strangely protective. Maybe it’s the same as the rock fan/guitarist I know who got offended, truly offended when I dared to wonder if Rory wasn’t actually a total gentleman. We’re protective of him. He’s not famous enough to be a household name. He was famous, but only to a point, and I think he kept it that way himself… so now those of us who get it are trying to keep it true to the man himself. If Rock and Roll is a club, then we’re the guardians of the VIP lounge and you can’t come in unless you get it. A possibly arrogant way of thinking, but that does seem to be how it feels.
Since I made my Epic Post, I have read Gerry McAvoy’s book about his time as Rory’s bass player. I read that actually, Rory was exactly as good a guy as we’ve been told. In fact, if Gerry was telling the truth, Rory’s pretty much the rock star I’d be given half the chance… probably down even to the drinking problem, if I’m brutally honest. The difference between us is twofold: dedication and talent. I have minuscule portions and he had both in spades.
See, I’m getting off the fucking point already! What was my point? Does anyone know? Bueller? Anyone?
I think it’s this: while I cannot say with absolute truth that the beautiful faces of my other heroes have nothing to do with my love for them… I can say it for Rory. I heard him first. I saw him later. I mean, when I bought The Essential Rory Gallagher in HMV Cork City on 18th August 2008, I didn’t even really look at the cover. I glanced at the liner notes but didn’t really notice the slightly-cheesy promo picture in the back. I just thought “Yeah, he looks like all the white Irish boys I’ve known all my bloody life” and moved on with life. It was only after I fell in love with the music that I really bothered to look at his face… and then, it was beautiful. He was no longer just another Irish kid. He was Rory, my hero. I do think he’s beautiful, I really do. Rory was achingly beautiful to me… but that’s because he’s now my hero and I respect his dedication and unyielding ways (in a business built on money-grabbing and compromise for the sake only of compromising), and his music is my dear friend.
Beauty for its own sake is for people who don’t have anything else… Rory was beautiful, but it’s merely garnish, a handy bonus. Did it help him get a record deal? Maybe, but do you think someone as accomplished as him wouldn’t get signed? If it’s only about beauty, how come the likes of Van Morrison, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple or The Kinks made it? Rock is full of ugly faces that happen to be attached to great musicians.
Is there a word in any language for non-blind hero worship? The First Commandment says something about worshipping no other god than The Cosmic Sadist (CS Lewis’ words that I’m borrowing). Well, I pretty much started breaking that the first time I heard Buddy Holly, and it started to snowball the first time I choreographed dances to Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. I was probably four or five years old at the time. I’ve been on this road for a long time. I’ve been here in the all-consuming obsessive stage before as well: Ask the few friends I’ve managed to cling onto.
My poor friends. They must’ve thought I was over it all when I got to a point where I was just listening to the music and letting myself love it. I mean, I even made peace with Morrison after I performed a spliced version of ‘Light My Fire’ at a gig (started as the Julie London cover, complete with flute solo, and then BAM! turned it into The Doors). I wasn’t only thinking about those undeserving dead bastards. I was listening to Dylan a lot, but I’ve largely managed to avoid my non-blind hero worship with him. I can take or leave him, mostly. Man’s mad – have you seen the video for ‘Must Be Santa’ – and I adore his music and his radio show but I can leave him behind. Those people who saw my reaction to getting a ticket to the Roundhouse gig in April might not believe it, but I can really take Dylan or leave him. Love his voice too, more now than ever… but it’s still not the same as it was with Jim, Dino and Philip, or Zeppelin. I was over this, man.
And now I’m down in the rabbit hole again. I have been for awhile. Probably a year at least. I mean, I sang Rory’s ‘Barley & Grape Rag’ at last year’s Christmas gig and ‘Secret Agent’ last week at this year’s. It’s a new rabbit hole, but adjacent to the others. In some ways it’s less sad and in others it’s heartbreaking. I’ve also tried harder than any time before to avoid the rabbit hole. I’m tired of being like this… but it’s what I know. Regular readers of this blog will know how hard I tried to avoid it and how completely I’ve failed. But it is different than before. First off, I’m not nearly so fucking angry. With the others – because they were all bastards – there was always at least a little bit of ‘YOU BASTARD!’ If Rory really was the decent, gentlemanly human being people say he was, then I don’t need to be angry. Heartbroken, but not angry.
I listened to Thin Lizzy the other day. I haven’t listened to them in awhile really, not because I’m all out of love for them, or because I got bored. Simply because I haven’t been able to stop listening to fucking Rory. Honestly, I haven’t listened to anything else much at all. I haven’t listened to Dylan, or the Doors or the Dubliners or Sweeney’s Men or anything else I love because of Rory. Just Rory, man. I put two Tim Buckley records on my iPod months ago and haven’t listened to them at all yet because of Rory.
Listening to Lizzy after a bit of a break gave me a new perspective. I had felt like Lizzy were slipping away from me a little, but then I listened this morning and fell right back down into that rabbit hole. I know it well down there. It used to be an almost permanent home, just as Rory’s rabbit hole currently is. The new perspective helped me to see it differently, in a way I hadn’t quite thought about before. To quote Lynott himself: are you ready? ARE YOU READY?
It’s the music that makes me love them. No, that’s not new… it’s the music that makes them live. Thin Lizzy were slipping away because I couldn’t hear them, and that’s what makes them live. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love the inglorious rock dead so much: I have always had an understanding, no matter how subconscious or half-formed, that it lent them something approaching immortality. As long as I can hear the boys, the boys are not quite dead. They are, as I said in another post awhile back, only two rooms away. As long as I can hear Rory, he lives for me. That’s why right now he’s all I can think about, etc etc. He lives. My boy lives in the music. He is not quite gone.
That’s also why it’s different each time. I love them all differently because the music is different. The music lives, so they live.. It is immortality, you see. I love them differently because the music does different things. I love Philip Lynott and the Lizzy boys in a big, loud way, with that undercurrent of deeper meaning, just like the music. I love Rory uncompromisingly, without any kind of caveat, because that’s how his music is: unrelenting, hard and unapologetic, but with a deeper, softer sense of something that isn’t quite romantic. Fond, perhaps. Just like the music: ‘Cradle Rock’ followed by ’20:20 Vision’ on Tattoo. Led Zeppelin I love simply, but noisily. It’s not complex or even particularly personal, but it is intense. I love Dean with a soft smile and a spring in my step. John and George are in possession of that special part of my soul a young girl gives wholeheartedly when she is young enough to love without question or complication, even though I now know they were also bastards. The Doors (and so Jim) I love in a deep, strong and complicated way, not quite belonging to anything else: dark shadows on a moonlit beach: if the music is your special friend, dance on fire as it intends… until the end.
It makes them live and I’d love to say that it’s enough. Right now I’m listening to Morrison Hotel by the Doors, the first record of theirs beyond a Greatest Hits that I ever owned. For the first time in weeks, Jim lives for me. He is right here with me, crooning and screaming as required. He is not quite out of reach.
It’s not enough for me that they live in the music. Just not enough by half. I want them to live for real. I want them to be real, live human beings with their autonomy and paradoxes and strengths and weaknesses and everything else that real, live human beings are, even if it goes against the way I see them. Even if it would lead them to be people I could not admire or love… even if the act of their living would make them unimportant to me… I’d rather they live. Just live. I want more music, you see. I’m selfish that way. I want them to continue creating, you see. I want to know what Jim would’ve made of Watergate and Reagan and yuppies and the end of the Cold War and everything that’s come since – want it so fucking much – and I want to know how Philip would’ve taken the rise and rise of the champions of mediocrity we call U2, and the Celtic Tiger and indie music and how he could’ve conquered America. I want to know what John would’ve made of yuppies and Reaganism-thatcherism and fucking Oasis. I want to know how Rory could’ve been… it’s nearly fifteen years since he died and for me might as well be fifty. I want to know how he would’ve taken the increasing nostalgia train of £85-a-ticket live shows by musicians of the same generation. I can see that Plant is taking it an interesting way and I want to know how Rory and Jim and Philip would’ve done it. I know how I dream they would, how I hope they would… but even if it’s a nicer answer than reality could provide, it’s not good enough. I don’t want my feeble, hopeful, idealised daydream, I want the real thing. Even if the truth hurts, I want to know. If they break my heart, that’s OK. I mean, they already have and it can’t hurt any more than it already does, right?
Well, of course it can hurt more, but I know the difference between losing what you know you never had, and losing what you did have. The latter hurts like a beast, but it lacks the sharp and bitter ache of the former. I’d rather be disappointed by them than have nothing at all.
Imagine: all that from a few records. That’s what happens, you see, when the music is good enough. I hope you all have or find something that you love as much. There’s not much that can hurt so much, and nothing else in the universe that can bring such pure, uncomplicated, unadulterated wonder and joy.