By Larry Kirwan
They were like two local knights who ventured out from safe havens and inadvertently conquered the world.
One from Belfast, the other from Cork – both womblike and claustrophobic cities – how wrenching it must have been to break free!
One is truculent, as befits his embattled East Side Belfast, the other remained the quiet, mannerly boy from the banks of the Lee.
Regardless, Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher were driven loners who did it in their inimitable way.
Belfast and Cork were very different places in the 1950s when these two aspiring musicians hit the streets.
Van’s father introduced him to the R&B music that would shape his life.
Rory, on the other hand, was a knob twirler who hunted down exotic music in the white noise hiss of old tube driven, cloth-covered wirelesses.
That’s how he found AFN (American Forces Network) and one night was rocked back on his heels to hear Blues courtesy of Muddy Waters on an electric Fender.
Small wonder that Rory would become one of the world’s great Stratocaster players.
Oddly enough, both got their professional starts in that much maligned Irish institution – the Showband.
Van began with The Monarchs, Rory debuted with The Fontana.
Showbands could be soul-killers. You copied whatever was current in the Top Twenty – a set of three swingers, followed by three smooches ad infinitum.
But showbands provided three invaluable foundation stones: stamina, for you played four to six hours every gig. You also learned to wing it in every key because of demanding brass sections. And most importantly, you got paid!
After my first showband gig back in Wexford I was still tingling from the sheer exhilaration of playing a four-hour set.
I would gladly have swept the filthy stage in gratitude. Instead the gaffer handed me a pound note and a bottle of Harp, and with that I became “a professional.”
Van had an advantage. Though from a Belfast backwater he was raised as a son of the British Empire with all the accompanying illusions of superiority.
Rory came of age in the land of de Valera where inferiority was baked into your DNA.
But the Corkman had a dream, kept his head down, and knocked a hole in the wall big enough for many of us to sneak through.
“Business associates” ripped off both of them.
Van made pennies from his early hits including the massive selling “Gloria.” Due to various legal hassles, Rory actually lost money playing with Taste, his highly successful trio.
Neither cared in the least for the trappings of superstardom. To this day Van has an acrimonious relationship with the media and his adoring fans.
Rory, the nice guy, submitted to interviews but took little pleasure talking about himself.
But get him going on Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, and his face would glow with awe and delight.
The one thing they really shared was a vision for their work, and an endless search for innovation that might lead them closer to perfection.
Though friends, they never jammed.
On their only arranged recording date for Van’s Wavelength sessions, “The Man” didn’t show. Rory shrugged it off but even years later it irked the hell out of him.
Their various romantic relationships could be intense and dizzying, but in the end readily discarded, for ultimately the work was all that mattered.
Van is alive and raring to go with his 37th album, “Roll with the Punches.”
Rory departed way too soon – all we have left are the memories of those blazing, sweat-soaked, Strat-man nights when he’d stretch out multiple extended encores rather than go home to four lonely pulsing walls.
Perhaps he sums up both their lives.
“I’ve toured too much for my own good. It hasn’t left time for very much else, unfortunately. You don’t develop any family life or anything like that and it makes all your relationships very difficult.
There’s always a certain percentage missing from your life. As a human being, you only have so much to give, not just in terms of your physical body but in how you deal with people.”
We’re the lucky ones. We gained so much from our two local knights who while battling with their demons lit up our lives with their visions.