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March 31st, 2009

Rory Gallagher's Astronomer

 What do you think of that? 

I'm sleeping down at the laundromat, 

If you should pass by, 

Be sure to drop right in.”


I gave a couple of talks at the Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork, Ireland, over the weekend, a beautifully restored old watchtower/castle built to protect the harbor at Cork against pirates, now the center of a science museum with a telescope, a fabulous interactive computer and lecture hall, and even a suite of offices for graduate students from the Cork Institute of Technology. 


Being a young institute, they wanted to drum up some publicity, so they called in the press for the “Papal astronomer” (technically, yes, I am one of them… as long as it is clear that I am not the only one) and had the Lord Mayor (an honorary position that rotates among the city council members) come and shake my hand. Cool!


And then…


Well, when I knew that I was going to be in Cork, I wrote to the local organizer… with some hesitation… mentioning that, as a matter of fact, I was a fan of a local blues singer. the late Rory Gallagher, who had played for a group called Taste back in the 60s (they opened for Blind Faith in the US, and performed at the Isle of Wight) before going solo. He was one of those hidden blues legends, never “made it” as big as Clapton when it came to money or fame but who was very well known by anyone who knew their music. Clapton himself once said that Gallagher was the reason he started playing the blues again.


I knew there was a square dedicated to Rory in Cork after his death in 1995. I was wondering if there was a moment when I could go visit the square. I figured to take a photo, send it to my friend Mike and my brother, also big Rory and Taste fans. So I asked if they could find a moment for that. Obscure blues singer, of course, but I wanted to do it…


It’s Monday morning; we’re there, as The Lord Mayor arrives at the Observatory. The director of communications/photographer starts talking to me about Rory; and after the photo shoot and some coffee, he brings me into Cork, playing a CD (loud!) in his car and pointing out where he and Rory had gone to school… he pulls onto the sidewalk in front of the library downtown, and we go inside. Everyone waves hello; the director of the library comes out; and we go further inside… to the official Cork music library, tens of thousands of recordings, which is named the Rory Gallagher Music Wing. 


Well I don't have no clothes to clean,
To put inside the machine,
It was the craziest place,
I have ever been.


A replica of his guitar sits in a glass case. More pictures. A visitor’s book is signed. More pictures. Marcus Connaughton of Radio Ireland, who had worked with Polydor records and knew Rory then, shows up and interviews me into a tape machine about my interest in Rory and the blues for the local radio station; he is writing a biography of Rory and has put together a walking tour of Rory Gallagher’s Cork. More photos…


Come 'round and meet my friends,
They'll be there with me,
With me to the end, “


The crowd had grown to a dozen, including the director of the music library, and a fellow who runs the local blues society, and a guy who used to play drums and bass with Rory before he recorded…


All gray-haired, of course… like me.


One gray-haired lady comes up to welcome me, tells me a few stories about going to school with Rory, and the pulls out a cell phone. “Here, it’s Eric, he played bass with Rory in Taste, he’s just had a stroke, it would be good to say hello to him…” This was, of course, the original Taste that broke up before they signed with Polydor…


They say I told you so,
Maybe bad times come and go,
If you don't know that right now,
But then you'll never know.


Leo Enright, perhaps the best-known spokesperson for astronomy in Ireland, shows up with a video camera and follows along as a dozen of us step out in the street, recording in high-def video as Marcus gave an abbreviated version of his tour of Rory’s Cork.


“That’s the movie theatre where the Irish Tour film premiered… that shop used to be a record shop, where Penelope would order any record you wanted; never knew her last name… that’s the Church, St. Peter and Paul, where Rory would take his mother to Mass on Sunday…”


We enter a small square surrounded by trendy shops. To one side is a modern sculpture of a guitar turning into flames, and an inscription of Rory’s name. This is Rory Gallagher square. More photos.


What do you think of that,
I'm on the street like an old stray cat,
If you should look for me,
You'd know exactly where to go.


The group moves down, across a river, up to a hill that features in the 1974 concert film; then right, past the place where he went to school, up to the shop where the band first practiced. Across the street from that shop, we enter a music store.


“This is where Rory bought his famous Fender guitar, the first one in Ireland.” I had seen the replica, with the varnish completely rubbed away. “Here’s the gentleman who sold him that guitar.”


An older man steps away from a customer to shake my hand. Shake *my* hand! “Started working here in 1957….”


Meanwhile, someone appears from the back of the shop, carrying a guitar. It looks just like the replica I had seen; could this be? Or just a replica for sale at some fabulous price?


They hand it to me. I have no idea even how to hold a guitar! More photos. Me holding a Rory guitar. I am, at this point, convinced that I have entered the twilight zone.


“Can you hear that sustain? I mean, it’s not actually playing, but…”


More photos.


We have lunch at a pub in a row of pubs where Rory used to play. We detour through city hall, and the auditorium where he and his band made the floorboards rock, thirty years ago. We finally get back to my talks.


Tuesday morning, a photo of The Pope’s astronomer, jamming on Rory Gallagher’s guitar, appears on page 3 of The Irish Times.


Come 'round and meet my friends
They'll be there with me,
With me to the end,
With me to the end,
With me to the end.”


(Lyrics: Laundromat, Rory Gallagher)



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