It’s two days late because I’m still having various computer issues. Late, but no less sincere in its feeling…
Sometimes – but rarely – music comes along that changes your life. Sometimes – even more rarely – a musician comes along who changes the whole way you look at life, the world and everything. Even I, who can lay claim to several phases of serious musical obsession, must admit that the latter of these two is as rare as a shooting star who turns out to be Claire Danes.
The first for me was probably John Lennon, as I expect he was for many people. While I had loved and adored Elvis and Buddy Holly from the youngest days of my consciousness, they touched my soul but they didn’t change it. John turned a few things upside down, whether I wanted him to or not. I suppose Jim ‘him again’ Morrison did the same, given that he helped change my attitude towards myself in particular. It wasn’t solely the music, but their attitudes (in public, at least) and their thoughts and opinions as presented to the world.
Now, I love Thin Lizzy, I truly do. Philip gave me back Ireland and gave me music to make me feel alive, but I’m not sure he changed how I see the universe. More than anything, I learned empathy – at long last – for those people whose lives are blighted by drug addiction.
There are others I love dearly, but while they’ve helped me become who I am, they haven’t changed how I see the rest of the world. Other Irishmen such as the Dubliners. George Harrison, Dean Martin, the other usual suspects. Bill Hicks didn’t change me so much as he provided universal tools (i.e. Hicks Quotes) for me to articulate how I already felt. He did, however, finally help me find empathy for smokers.
But Rory… Going back on LJArchive, there are posts I made back in September and October 2008 that basically went along the lines of ‘listening to Rory Gallagher a lot. Can’t afford to get obsessed again’. Well, we know how that turned out.
The thing is, to describe him as the defining influence on me doesn’t just ignore other important influences (see all above), it understates his power over me (currently). I can’t be objective at the moment, try though I might. I’m still in the grip of that initial, all-consuming obsession and therefore prone to hyperbole and unable to place Rory in the wider context of the continuum of my life. It may not be that he is the greatest, or defining influence, merely the most recent.
However, Rory has been a catalyst for my own musical work. He fills this role in a way even Philip Lynott and Jim Morrison have not. It’s not a competition – they’re crucial to me in other ways. Rory, though, more than any other single human being (dead or alive and including even myself), is the one to make me feel that my place is up on a stage. No, that’s not quite right… I already knew where I felt I belonged. Rory merely pointed the way and seemed to say ‘Of course you can do it. Get up there. You belong there too. What are you waiting for?’
That’s not to say that I compare myself to him, which would be ludicrous, pointless and an unnecessary kicking to my fragile little ego. It’s more that he cleared a path that I would wish to follow, while still remaining utterly and absolutely myself. There’s no sense of copy-catting, more the knowledge that a great hero passed this way before me and since he dropped the flag, I want to pick it up for him and carry on down the road. I’d rather he was there on the road ahead of me, but we can’t have everything we want, can we?
The fact of Rory’s death, fifteen years ago on 14th June, leaves me in deepest sorrow. I have felt this way about others (travellers to my strange world know their names already, everyone else; see above) and so it’s not a new feeling… but it’s fifteen years since he stepped two rooms away and I feel that he is so far away that it might as well have been fifty or one hundred years. As with the others (a cavalcade of others fit for a Berkeley musical) my sorrow is rooted in the loss of new music, the loss of potential. It is also, for Rory, rooted in a feeling that had he lived, he might have at last felt the warmth of increased attention to his music, something of a new renaissance. Or at the very least, I could have looked him in the eye and thanked him for his music. It’s always selfish at the core you see, like most (not all) fan actions.
I recall writing on the 19th anniversary of Philip Lynott’s death:
“Losing one person is too many and nineteen years too long to be without them.”
I repeat the same now, with small amendments: losing another person is too many – far too many – and fifteen years much too long to be without them.
I was furious back in January 2005, five and a half years ago, now. I was furious with the prankster some of us called God, and even with Philip himself. I’m not so angry these days. I don’t really believe that, even if I were to be sent back in time by said prankster (as I so often joke about), I could change a single fucking thing. This isn’t Goodnight Sweetheart. I’m not so angry these day, and I’m not angry with or at Rory. I understand it better now, this weakness that lurks in the hearts of humans. Five and a half years ago, I was still clinging to the notion that trying can make a difference. Sometimes it just can’t, and that’s the great tragedy of humanity, which may be the truest reason for the deep well of sorrow I live with every day.
There’s a funny thing about Rory that I’ve noticed: I don’t think you can be a casual fan of someone like him. It’s an all or nothing scenario, without compromise. It’s about dedication as well: exactly like his attitude towards the music. Fitting and appropriate, you might say.
I used to wonder why Rory was so against releasing singles. I even questioned the wisdom of the policy. I’m sure it’s at the root of why he isn’t better known. Well, I think I understand better now. It would’ve been a slippery slope… first a single… then two… then the record company start really marketing you and packaging you… until the next thing you know, you’re stood in a room full of strangers and the most unrecognisable person is yourself. The music (and therefore, oneself) becomes defined by what’s chosen as a single, regardless of what else you has to offer… and the next thing you know, you’re Donny Fucking Osmond, or Vanilla Ice, or you end up in the same self-congratulatory, legend-building but creatively bereft rut the Rolling Stones have been in since 1971.
While many people can, have and will make that choice, if Rory had done I’m not sure he could’ve looked himself in the eye again. How ludicrous is it to suggest he mightn’t have really been able to live with it? I’m not sure it’s so ludicrous… and I see that he made exactly the choice he needed to. Were other choices as wise? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know.
I observe now that I haven’t really spoken much about the music itself yet. There are a few reasons for this, chief amongst which is my belief that there is nothing I can say that the music doesn’t demonstrate much better. Also, it’s not for me to tell you how to listen or what to take from the music. That’s between you and Rory, just as it’s between Rory and Me.
I will say one thing: sometimes, it’s very easy to tell that something (doesn’t even have to be music) is one of the best examples by one of the best practitioners. It’s why I find the paintings of Raphael, Michaelangelo and Botticelli so moving and also why I love the Aston Martin DB9. These are creations of brilliance by brilliant creators, and they validate human existence. I get that feeling listening to the Beatles, reading the poetry of WB Yeats and watching Singin’ In The Rain. Of course, I also get that feeling from Rory’s music. There has been a debate about The World’s Greatest Guitarist for decades… but listening to Rory renders it unimportant. He is simply stupendous, truly, shockingly talented. The question of ‘who’s best’ doesn’t matter, because what do rankings matter when the music is so accomplished, so life-alteringly excellent? If the Usual Suspects who generally make up the short-list for World’s Best Guitarist were lesser musicians, maybe it would matter more. Great music, and I’m not just talking about Rory, is so extraordinary that the notion of ranking is laughable – unless you’d also rank the Pyramids, Macchu Picchu and Petra in order of ‘best’?
The best stuff changes your life. The best people change the way you view that life. I was left changed the first time I saw Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Chair’, and I was changed when I first properly heard Buddy Holly (I was three or four). Rory is part of a very, very exclusive group of people who have changed both me and the way I see the rest of the world.
It is fifteen years. It feels like nothing and forever. It might as well be forever, for all the good it does. In death, Rory as a real human being has become as distant as Valentino or Flynn, Morrison or Lennon… but like them, he was generous enough to leave behind a body of work so great that the inescapable fact of mortality has been cut down. In the music he is forever, and so long as the music plays… he lives.
Clare, 14 June 2010.
Some youtube clips to illuminate/demonstrate the whole damned point: