Oct 01 2012

The Dark Side of the Sun — by Garth Cartwright

Published by at 2:48 pm under articles

Garth Cartwright

Garth Cartwright is a London-based, music and arts journalist with three books under his belt and regular contributions to various UK publications such as The Guardian, Telegraph, and Sunday Times. In 1995 he won the Guardian Music Writing Award. In his latest article for the Sunday Times, “The Dark Side of the Sun,” Garth talks with Donal Gallagher, brother to the late, great blues and rock guitarist Rory Gallagher. For those unable to get their hands on the latest issue of the Sunday Times I’ve posted the full article below. Many thanks to Garth for allowing me to post it to my blog. And be sure to check out his website at garthcartwright.com!

The Dark Side of the Sun


(Garth Cartwright meets the brother for whom Rory Gallagher’s death is still raw)


photo by Erica Echenberg
© Erica Echenberg

Cork City has the blues. An air of deprivation lingering across the city’s Celtic Tiger-era edifices may explain why Cork strongly embraces the memory of Rory Gallagher, its most famous son and a bluesman of extraordinary talent.

Rory Gallagher (1948-1995) was the Irish Republic’s first rock star. With his blazing guitar and beatific smile Gallagher was the Gaelic guitar hero. And in his humble manner very much a musician of the people. Yet by the 90s Rory was a reclusive paranoid, his torso swollen by steroids. When he died (from complications following a liver transplant) an outpouring of grief followed: Van Morrison, U2, Johnny Marr, Brian May and Slash all saluted Rory’s musical brilliance and personal generosity. Now, with a comprehensive reissue of his solo albums underway, Gallagher’s legacy is finally being celebrated. Thus I’m walking the streets of Cork with the man who knew Rory best – his brother Donal Gallagher.

“Talking about Rory can get a bit heated,” says Donal, noting how football fans in Cork and Donegal recently clashed over which team “owned” Rory’s allegiance. Such are the tribulations surrounding a local legend. “I’m constantly encountering fans from all around the world,” he adds. “And they’re often youngsters. You-Tube’s introduced Rory to a new generation.”

Donal and Rory grew up sharing the same bedroom above a Cork pub. A year Rory’s junior, Donal became Rory’s roadie. Then tour manager. Then manager. And now he looks after the estate. He truly is his brother’s keeper. Fortuitously, Rory owned his solo recordings and Donal and his son Daniel are overseeing the reissue of Rory’s first eleven solo albums (1971-82). Listen to the young gun – strong songs, warm vocals and the guitar playing . . . the guitar playing is just in-cred-i-ble. Outside of Jimi Hendrix and Peter Green no other rock guitarist has managed to convey such warmth, finesse and wild excitement. Yet like Hendrix and Green, Gallagher’s talent could not protect him from the storms of life.

“Rory could build a guitar but he couldn’t boil an egg,” says Donal. “Music was everything to him. Once he started playing guitar as a boy he ignored everything else. Just stayed in his room practicing and practicing.”

Thus Rory’s social skills remained underdeveloped.

“Rory found it impossible to form lasting bonds with people,” notes Donal. “He was his own worst enemy. Playing music was his all. Off the road he didn’t know what to do with himself.”

Rory showed a propensity and passion for music as a child. In his early teens he convinced his mother to buy him a second-hand Fender Stratocaster on hire purchase. Aged 15 he joined the Fontana Showband, working dances across Ireland and England before heading out to Hamburg’s Star Club. The pimps, prostitutes and merchant seamen who frequented the Star hailed Rory as the most exciting rocker since The Beatles learnt their trade there. Forming Taste, he based himself in Belfast. Word quickly spread of the teenage prodigy. Management, a contract with Polydor and the inevitable shift to London followed.

Taste lit up London – John Lennon described them as “the only band worth seeing” while Eric Clapton invited Taste to support Cream’s Royal Albert Hall farewell – and their two albums proved international hits. Yet after playing 1970’s Isle Of Wight Festival Rory quit: the band’s manager had him on £15 a week wages and Gallagher chose to walk away rather than fight.

“We were living in Earls Court bedsits,” recalls Donal. “Taste were in the charts, headlining major festivals, but not seeing the proceeds. Later, when I became Rory’s manager, I insisted we go to court to get the royalties. Even then Rory was reluctant. He didn’t like conflict.”

Rory’s gentle nature made him an icon of peace and goodwill in a divided Ireland. As The Troubles worsened Rory became the only major musician willing to tour Northern Ireland, his concerts cathartic events where Catholics and Protestants could gather in a conflict-free arena.

“Rory emphasized that he would not take sides in the dispute,” says Donal. “He insisted we tour there because he believed in the positive power of music. While Tony Palmer filmed his 1974 Irish tour he tried to push Rory into taking a stance but Rory refused. He was there to bring joy not politics.”

Palmer’s film Irish Tour ’74 remains one of the great concert movies while the resulting live album captured Rory at his most exciting and inspired. No wonder The Rolling Stones, then searching for a guitarist to replace Mick Taylor, invited Rory to join.

“Rory flew to their base in Holland and stayed three days,” says Donal. “But Keith was too stoned to play and Rory had a Japanese tour lined up. He left without even a ‘goodbye’. At the time Rory was outselling the Stones across Europe so it’s not like he needed the gig. But, in retrospect, I wish he had communicated more with them as it could have worked. He and Charlie Watts would have got on very well – both being consummate musicians and jazz fans.”

Rory certainly didn’t need The Stones for money: he sold over thirty million albums and innumerable concert tickets. Yet perhaps the camaraderie of playing in The Stones would have helped calm his anxieties. A fear of flying fed phobias that developed, in the 80s, into hypochondria. Amoral GPs wrote him prescription after prescription. Addicted to pills and liking a drink, Rory’s health collapsed.

“Rory wouldn’t smoke a joint,” says Donal, “but he self-medicated with prescription pills. And that caused so much damage. On tour I once went through his baggage and found a hornet’s nest of pills. I checked with a German pharmacist who said ‘if he’s mixing these with alcohol it’s the devil’s brew’.”

Donal’s had a long time to deal with losing Rory but his frustration and grief remain palpable.

“Rory got more and more paranoid. He played Montreux Jazz Festival with Bob Dylan in 1994 and Dylan, who had always been a fan, came up after the show and said how he would love to record with Rory. I thought ‘manna from heaven!’ and that this would be the fresh start we needed. That night Rory locked himself in the hotel’s penthouse and wouldn’t come out for three days.”

Donal swapped Rory’s prescription pills for homeopathic placebos. He confronted the GPs. He confronted Rory. He sent Rory home to mum in Cork. Too late: a liver transplant in early-1995 appeared successful but Rory’s rare blood type and shattered immune system lead to rejection. Like George Best, another Irish genius of the same generation, Rory Gallagher would die before his time.

“My wife wonders if Rory was autistic. That’s a possibility,” says Donal. “Anyway, what Rory achieved can’t be taken away. People love his music. Across the USA they’re rediscovering Rory for the first time since the 70s. In Paris there’s a Rue Rory Gallagher, Hamburg has a plaque, Dublin and Ballyshannon have statues. Fender’s Rory signature guitar is one of their best sellers. There’s a biopic in the works. It’s a bit like those old black bluesmen Rory loved so dearly – he’s more appreciated now than when he was alive.”

Garth Cartwright — garthcartwright.com

(published in the Sunday Times, September 30, 2012)

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13 responses so far

13 Responses to “The Dark Side of the Sun — by Garth Cartwright”

  1. Gerry Monahanon 01 Oct 2012 at 3:14 pm

    The greatest live act i have ever seen

  2. Loretta Killianon 01 Oct 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Funny, I’ve often wondered if maybe Rory had a mild version of Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. It was amazing to read that Donal’s wife also thought that.

  3. R. Mullenon 01 Oct 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you, Donal for your own gutsy honesty. No one’s life is all wine and roses, and the journey to taking Rory as he was is the best gift a fan can give. We do.

  4. Sistina (dollerosa)on 01 Oct 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Great interview – thank you Milo for posting and Donal for the psychological analysis !
    Even though Rory seems to be a bit “eccentric” , he wasn’t an autistic person .(IMHO)

  5. roryfan (John G)on 02 Oct 2012 at 12:27 am

    Thanks for posting the great interview Milo!

    I’m with Sistina on this. A certain shyness and eccentricity.

  6. R. Mullenon 02 Oct 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Fair enough: Asperger’s Symdrome is far more likely than full-blown autism. From the [ way ] outside, even, there were so many signs, but the understanding of what it is, is so recent. Lots of people are diagnosed bipolar or depressed, when they are really travelling along the Asperger’s Spectrum.

    There is NO shame in it, whether true or not. So many highly functioning Aspies (a term of endearment: Bill Gates comes to mind), that had Rory been dealing with this, it would explain a LOT. But that’s all it would do,–it changes nothing other than giving us a potentially deeper understanding of who he was and how it supported the wonderful music.

  7. Joe Bernardon 02 Oct 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Another good find, Milo, thank you. I don’t know about the Asperger thing, I just don’t know. Joe

  8. Conor Cunneen irishmanSpeakson 22 Oct 2012 at 5:10 am

    One minor quibble with Donal Gallagher’s comments. “he’s more appreciated now than when he was alive.”
    Not so. The man was loved, adored by most everyone who saw him. My first ever concert was Taste’s final Cork concert in the Savoy. More than twenty years later, when he played Dublin for (maybe) the lat time at the Olympia, + 100lbs heavier, he was still awesome.
    A lot of people cried when he left us.
    As the Irish would say;
    Ar dheis de go raibh a anam.

  9. leemjvdon 14 Nov 2012 at 11:02 am

    For me this is quite a heavy interview. One of the first times the real Rory appears. Was about time. But he will never shrink, only grow. Rory On !

  10. Chrissy Wardon 30 Jan 2013 at 9:37 pm

    I just learned about Rory last month after turning 44 (yes, in the USA) even though I went to music school, am huge Jimmy Page fan and my extended family is in Donegal.

    Stumbled upon Rory on Netflix “Ghost Blues” “Montreux 91” “Out of Ireland”….couldn’t believe how good he was. I basically have started acquiring his albums and watching youtube footage. I will certainly spread the gospel to my musical guitar-playing nephews.

    And yes…he should be in the Hall of Fame.

  11. June O'Reillyon 18 Sep 2014 at 2:34 am

    Having now read everything I could get my hands on, and talked to numerous people who met him, even his own brother stated that he never had a serious emotional conversation with him, they never shared like that and that he was painfully shy, Gerry who traveled with him for nearly 25 years said the same thing, there is only one label Rory deserves and that is Genius of the Guitar. The Spirit of Music chose to speak to him at such a young age that there was no time for exploring all the social things, the Spirit and Rory had lots to share, and at 16 was off travelling everywhere, living the free Gypsy Music Rover life he loved. All I can say is I’m grateful Rory heard the call, gave it his all, and once more I am reminded it is not how long we live but how we live. Rory’s passion and purpose lives on.

  12. bob swallowon 13 Jul 2016 at 1:03 pm

    best guitarist i have ever heard…………..nothing else to say, exept i met him in the bar at sheffield city hall before a gig in 1971. managed to get into the dressing room and messed about on his famous strat. perfect gentleman he was, and sorely missed………..rip rory, you were the best.

  13. KMGon 05 May 2022 at 7:34 pm

    I just read this article even though it’s over 6 years ago. Rory reminds me a lot like Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. It’s interesting that Rory really admired him.

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