Rory Gallagher changes out of his striped T-shirt, folds it neatly and places it in his zipper case, exchanging it for an equally familiar lumberjack shirt.
Two seats away, his new drummer Rod de’Ath looks embarrassed, ducking behind a couple of guitar cases as he changes from one pair of leather-patched Levi’s into another sweaty pair of jeans. His skinny arms are covered in an orange T-shirt and they look like they’re never going to be able to keep the beat going during tonight’s show.
Two hours earlier, Rory had been sitting in the same Maidstone technical college dressing room re-stringing his Fender guitar from a pile of crumpled guitar string packets, while the guitarist from one of the support bands had sat tuning and gently playing to himself through a small practice amp.
Now that same guitarist offers Rory the use of the amp, as he stands up against tile wall tuning his battered old Fender and blowing in a harp. Rory declines, with thanks, explaining that he’s been doing it that way since he came to Britain from Ireland a few years back to launch Taste, and he’s not going to change his ways now. It’s the same old Rory. Affable, easy-going, the one rock’n’roller in Britain with a right to be called the people’s guitarist.
In a nearby pub, people are tucking away pints while the little support band blows away. Many make their way over to Rory, offer him the customary pint of Guinness, perhaps ask him to play one of their favourite numbers. Some hand him scruffy pieces of paper for his autograph.
He sits down at a table and talks about the problems in Ulster in his slow, friendly Irish accent, often turning down the offer of a pint, but more often getting it anyway to add to the tidy collection of jars on the windowsill.
Back in the dressing room, Rory is ready to go on; guitars in tune, Gerry McAvoy slicked up in green trews, t-shirt and patch leather waistcoat, his bass slung over his shoulder with an old leather belt. A great cheer breaks the air as Gerry and Rod dart through the doors and scramble their way through the packed hall towards the makeshift stage. Rory follows on behind, gets up on stage, quickly retunes to make up for the intense heat that has altered pitching, and lurches into Used To Be.
Gallagher and his band work hard on an audience, playing blues in the tradition of the music as entertainment rather than an art form. Rory is not much interested in being flash and showy, but just in laying it down the line and turning people on; playing his Fender guitar to the best of his ability. His stage strength is that he knows he can play as well as the best, and the people know it too. They don’t go along to watch the speed he plays the notes, and they certainly don’t go along to see him because of his stage gear.
“This is a working band,” says Rory. You just know exactly what he means, watching him standing on stage, sweating and playing, hardly taking a break from song to song unless it is to get the guitar back into tune as the heat stretches the strings.
The audience are enjoying themselves. Around the stage a hard-core of fans stands clapping along with the beat, but a far larger crew dance, wildly flapping across the floor in temperatures more fitted to a fiesta in Mexico.
The showstopper in the act is definitely the mandolin stomper Going To My Home Town, a number which is stabbed home by Gerry and Rod beating one hell of a rhythm. It could almost be a Ray Dorset Mungo Jerry tune, and if Rory was to cut it down to three minutes and release it as a single he would have a hit on his hands. But although Polydor in Germany have asked him to release it as a single, he is adamant and won’t do it.
Later in the car on the way home, he explained that although a hit single would bring him a whole new audience, having to compete to get into the singles charts with all the other three-minute ditties is not really his scene. Anyway, he doesn’t need a hit single to make him more popular, for he and promoters know that Rory is always going to sell out a hall by pure hard graft.
The following night in one of the bars in the beer-orientated entertainment complex at Dagenham’s Village Roundhouse, Rory stands at the bar explaining what he means by port wine to the barmaid while he signs autographs and declines numerous pints of Guinness. Kids crowd around him.
We retire to a smaller public bar to chat, but people still try to talk to him. One reminds him that they were at the same school together, offers him a pint and asks if he may sit with us to listen to the interview.
Gallagher’s music is mostly blues-based but, he says, “I’ve never pigeon-holed myself into blues. I don’t consider all my material is blues. Let’s say I’m a blend of blues, rock and folk music. The blues has its influence on me: some nights I’ll feel more of a jazz thing. For the last few months I’ve been into blues. Blues is simple music but complex soul-wise. I like a lot of the old rock’n’roll things, but while Cochran is simple, it doesn’t have that same complexity in the feeling.
“I’ve done things that might get me classified as a folk singer. It doesn’t really worry me what I’m playing, it’s just the emotional hold the blues has. Then I can get the same thing off a white folk singer like Jack Elliott.”
What about the set structures of the blues. Maybe he found limitations in the music?
“Occasionally, if I happen to be listening to something that uses orchestras, it’s only very occasionally I get that feeling, but there would be something wrong with me if trying something with an orchestra had never occurred to me,” he says. “I used to listen to people like Fats Domino and people with small groups; occasionally they came up with things with orchestras for the commercial market. At the time I resented them doing it. I think it was The Beatles who were the first people to do things that I enjoyed with strings.
“I wouldn’t mind experimenting with things like that on the next album, perhaps some brass or strings.”
It’s been said that Rory picked Gerry and drummer Wilgar Campbell, now replaced by Rod de’Ath, because they were not that good as musicians, so Rory’s own talent would shine through. But after watching them on numerous occasions it obvious they both compliment Rory’s playing perfectly. But how much, say, do they have in the band’s musical policy, and how replaceable are they to him?
“They’re definitely indispensable,” he says. “They’re very important. How can I confirm that? Just listen to the way they affect my playing. I don’t play acoustic guitar on my own throughout the set so the musicians affect on me. If they’re enjoying themselves I can feel it. People are always saying to me that I could have any sidemen, but Buddy Holly needed the Crickets more than anybody. Musicians aren’t cartridges you plug in.”
- Gary Moore: the story of Still Got The Blues
- 10 of the best rock bands from Ireland
- Rory Gallagher statue set to be unveiled in Belfast
- How Rory Gallagher Inspired Author Ian Rankin
Gallagher is probably of the few artists in Britain at the top of the pile who continues working all the time, going back to the little Village Roundhouse rather than concentrating on concert halls.
He says he wouldn’t be satisfied with just playing a few concerts every so often or doing two British tours a year. His music needs smoky rooms and poky little dressing rooms to get over that working man’s feel that is so important.
“Sometimes I feel like taking a break for a while, maybe just stopping and taking it easy for a couple of months. Sometimes l feel like I just have to stay in bed the next day, but I think in my whole career there have only been a couple of gigs I haven’t turned up for.
“I just like working a lot. Obviously you can’t always keep going like a machine. But the thing is, if you’re sitting at home you pick up an acoustic guitar, if you pick up an electric one it doesn’t mean anything without musicians and people around you.
“Some people seem to think I work 365 days a year, I suppose,” he continues. ‘”Come to think of it, I do work a lot more than some of the other artists in the charts. Perhaps working so much helps to sell my albums. If I wasn’t working and I’m not making singles to keep my name around. I wouldn’t be selling so much.”
Always chewing the fat with people about anything that they happen to want to talk about, it’s rare to pin Gallagher down and get him talking about himself. He’s aware of his image of being a friendly sort of fellow who usually dresses kind of rough.
“I suppose that’s a big obsession with people,” he says. “I wouldn’t really enjoy doing a gig if I was rushed from the car straight into the dressing room. I don’t think it hurts your image to sit at the bar and have a drink. Some people would say that it makes you more of a human.
“Mostly people come up and shake your hand and ask you if you would play a song for them. It means you have an idea of how people are reacting to certain songs. If you hear how things are going down first hand it’s better than having a manager telling you how you’re going to go down in Dagenham.”
Back in the dressing room, gig over, Rory, Gerry and especially Rod look completely wasted. Outside in the hall the last of the people are slowly going home, talking about the set. They’re dripping with sweat, too, from dancing and clapping. One group on the route through to the bar to get a cool beer were singing along with Going To My Hometown.
They know every word, every chord, right to the way he phrases it. Rory notices that too, little batches of people standing by the stage singing every word with him, and then throwing themselves completely when he changes the way he sings a word.
Tonight it’s hot, even hotter than the night before. Rod sits in the corner saying that he’s certain he’s lost two stone, wringing his T-shirt until the sweat drips off it onto the floor. The tap doesn’t work and everybody could do with a good wash down.
Never mind, the next night they’re off again and playing in France.
Rod de’Ath - mystery solved!
In 2012, Peter Makowski tracked down Rory’s elusive drummer to put some rumours to bed…
In 1987, Rod de’Ath seemed to vanish. Obituaries appeared in European magazines, followed by rumours which had him getting mugged and being involved in a drug deal gone badly wrong. All the stories ended up with Rod waking up in hospital, only to realise that he’d lost the sight in one eye and could not remember who he was or how he got there. “I didn’t know my name when I woke up in intensive care. I looked at the tag on my wrist and it said de’Ath. I thought, ‘So this is what it’s like,’” de’Ath said when we finally tracked him down supping a pint in his local north London hostelry.
Wearing an eye patch (“I didn’t lose my eye, it’s to prevent double vision”) and holding himself steady with an ornate cane, de’Ath looks less rock’n’roll and more like a hybrid of Alan Moore and Terry Pratchett.
“There were rumours as to how I had my accident. Riding a high-powered motorbike, driving a fast car, flying. All these stories had one thing in common: that I was out of my tree. Which is total bullshit!”
So what really happened?
“I was running down some steps to catch a train, lost my balance, tripped and went down on my head.”
When he finally came to in hospital, he had completely lost his memory.
“It took a long time before things started coming back. One day I was talking to someone, and suddenly I realised I had a house in Oregon!
“I was told by my surgeons I had four years maximum to live,” he went on, still distraught by the memory. “That was difficult. What’s the point of contacting these people and saying, ‘Hi, it’s me, I’m back! By the way I’m dying next year.’?”
Fortunately, that prognosis was given 19 years ago. It was after a few years Rod decided that enough was enough and decided to make a comeback, starting with Gallagher’s memorial. “I couldn’t go to the funeral. Everybody thought I was dead. It would have ended up with a couple more dead bodies from the shock of seeing me.”
Nowadays, Rod seems much more accepting of his situation and is full of gratitude for the surgeons that helped him get his memory and life back.
As Rod gets ready to leave, I comment on his stylish eye patch. “Funnily enough, I first met Rory when he came to see Wilgar and me at a Killing Floor show and I was wearing an eye patch,” he chuckled, draining his pint glass. ”I had been in a car accident and had double vision, and that’s exactly why I have to wear one now.”
De’Ath died in August 2014, aged 64