Rory Gallagher – ‘Leaving Town Blues’
Rory Gallagher was born March 02, 1948 in Ballyshannon County, Donegal, Ireland.
Growing up in Cork in the 1950’s, the radio introduced him to skiffle players such as Lonnie Donegan and early rock ’n roll stars such as Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Intrigued by what he heard, he later sought out their influences on American Forces radio, discovering the music of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and other American bluesmen.
Receiving his first guitar at the age of nine, he was performing publicly within a year. At twelve he won a local talent competition and by the time he was fifteen he was able to make the first down payment (with his Mother’s help) on a 1961 Sunburst Fender Stratocaster, (just like Buddy Holly’s) the guitar he would play for the next thirty-two years until his untimely passing in 1995.
In 1994, he was among the first to record his contributions (two songs) for a tribute compilation to his contemporary Peter Green, being produced by Pete Brown.
Though they had shared stages (Fleetwood Mac and Taste) more than a few times as they steadily built their reputations, I am not aware that they were ever “friends”, yet Gallagher uses his two songs to open a dialogue with Green.
These are two men who, due to their shared experience, have a bond closer than friendship. Where someone may say, “I know what you mean”, they really don’t; they can’t, unless they have lived it. Gallagher has.
He pays tribute to Green not through imitation but through acknowledgement of inspiration; amplifying and building upon the themes that Green had originally laid out.
The songs that he chose to cover are telling.
Green had recorded ‘Leaving Town Blues’ twice: the first time in December of 1967 during the sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s first LP. This was a naïf’s tale of the glories of the life as an itinerant bluesman set to the loping rhythm of Little Brother Montgomery’s ‘Vicksburg Blues’. That version remained unreleased until 1971.
When Green returned to the number for a BBC broadcast in May of 1970, accompanied only by Nick Pickett on violin, he had transformed it into an elegy for the life (and the band) that he would soon be leaving behind.
Gallagher draws on both versions and puts his own dark spin on the number.
Rory Gallagher: guitars, mandolin, percussion & vocal /
Keyboards: John Cook / Rich Newman: drums /
Spoon: Jews Harp / Everybody: Handclaps
Recorded at the Roundhouse Studios, London England
(probably) May – June 1994
Released, “Rattlesnake Guitar – The Music of Peter Green” (1995)
Leaving Town Blues (P. Green) (6:47)
Gallagher begins with an extended intro on mandolin, the scattered notes evoking leaves blown by the wind. His stomping foot eventually brings things into focus, and he leans into the main theme (doing away with the original’s melody line)
Speaking to a loved one (or lover) Gallagher first tells her that he “may not” be back. When he repeats the line, he admits the truth, he “will not” be back.
Green sang of the blues as almost a haunting presence, an excuse for his leaving, asking that it not follow him when he leaves.
Gallagher changes the lyrics to give the blues an almost physical form (the blues walking like a man – Son House). He speaks of “The Black Mariah” (American slang for the boxy vehicle used by police to transport those under arrest) standing at his door, insisting that he leave now (a prisoner of the blues?).
Holding off, as he is still trying to explain why he has to go, the blues begin “hitting” him (the way that they roughed up Robert Johnson in his ‘Preaching Blues’, “And the blues fell mama’s child, tore me all upside down”) Penitent for the hurt he has caused, he encourages the blows.
Like Green, he too plans to go to Chicago, home of the electrified modern blues, where Gallagher says a man can be free, but then adds under his breath, “somewhat”.
A sly aside to the fact that the Black-American musicians that he and his contemporaries revered and drew inspiration from were (with a few notable exceptions) little known, and struggling to make a living in their home country?
What follows is an extraordinary break; the percussion had come in during the second verse, a driving shuffle mimicking the sound of steel wheels on railway tracks, slowly gaining speed. For the most part Gallagher duets with himself, laying his signature slide over his mandolin to excellent effect, but Brown slyly continues to bring additional instruments into the mix, including another guitar, keyboards and even Jews harp, building a dense, complex soundscape.
Where Green’s original recording consisted of just the two verses already sung, Gallagher extends this version by singing the third verse that Green had added to the 1970 performance and then appending an additional coda of his own.
Gallagher sings the third verse almost exactly as written, but the tone is softened as he asks the person he addresses to accept his fate as he has, and to please not make it any harder than it already is on both of them.
A quick break dries his eyes and stiffens his spine, and having made his peace, knowingly gives himself over, body and soul, to his destiny.
The words in the next verse are difficult to understand, but he has now donned a new persona “Mr. Breeze” (?) one who can be called upon whenever there’s the need.
After another brief break, the mask slips and it is he who makes the call; told that the number has been disconnected, he insists the operator keep trying.
He is left there alone, even as the hand claps of the audience awaiting his return seeps into his consciousness. His conflicting emotions are made audible by the roiling crescendo that brings the number to its close.
In the movie in my mind, I see the payphone receiver swinging from its silver cord and Gallagher, shoulders squared, chest out, stepping out of the stage wing and walking towards the light.
We’ll take a look at Gallagher’s other contribution, ‘Showbiz Blues’ in the next installment.