Donal Gallagher: Kicking Back & Rocking On!

By Jeb Wright

It was a dark and stormy night...suddenly a guitar note rang out…Nothing and no one is ever safe in Kickback City…

Okay, so that’s not how it starts out…but it would have been cool if it did!  What, you ask, is Kickback City and why do I appear to be Sam Spade? That’s easy…Kickback City is the latest release from Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher, a release shrouded in mystery, mayhem and really good rock and roll.  The project was put together by Donal and Donald Gallagher with the help of a couple of legends of crime novellas.

Donal Gallagher has dedicated his life to making sure his brother, Irish guitarist extraordinaire Rory Gallagher, is remembered for his passion for, dedication to, and overall love of music.  The iconic guitarist passed away nearly two decades ago, but his legacy, thanks to Donal, continues to grow.

Rory was much more than just a musician.  He had a passion for life and he had many activities which he enjoyed, one of which was reading crime novellas.  Now, Donal and his son, Rory’s nephew, have released Kickback City, a crime story that is supplemented by the music of Rory Gallagher…and/or vice versa.

The Gallagher’s enlisted help from writer Ian Rankin and illustrator Timothy Truman in the creation of Kickback City, resulting in a one of a kind release of mixed genres, all centered on the team’s love of Rory Gallagher and his music.

In the interview that follows, Donal describes in detail how the project was given life and grew into the epic release and testament to Rory’s talents that still live today!

Jeb: As a longtime fan of Rory’s, I admire the dedication you have put into keeping his art and his legacy alive. Why, other than the obvious of him being your brother, is this so important to you?

Donal: Having witnessed my brother's dedication to his music back since we were young kids, the efforts that he put into his recording, writing and touring, not least of what he achieved for the Irish rock music scene, I feel perhaps Rory deserved better recognition for his art and it's my continued mission to try and see that he does.

Jeb: When I was 13 years old, I was home alone on a Friday night watching the television show Night Flight on the USA channel. This night they featured a concert by Rory. I had never heard of him. When he played ‘Western Plains” I was awe-struck. Then, during a number that was a rocker, he dragged his now iconic Strat, still plugged into the amp, across the stage. Even with a tiny 17 inch TV speaker, I was blown away at the sounds that I heard. I ended up becoming a fan by the end of the concert and now own just about every major release he has done.

Donal: That's delightful… for Rory that was the desired effect - sounds like it was a performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, perhaps in 1977.

Jeb: As much of a music fan as I am of Rory’s, I didn’t know he was a crime story buff.

Donal: My brother was always a great reader; I think his fondness for crime fiction came through his love of the old gangster movies.

Jeb: How did you end up teaming up with Ian Rankin and Timothy Truman?

Donal: After I came across Ian Rankin's novel A Question of Blood, it made me aware that Ian's detective John Rebus was into Rory’s music. I wrote to Ian, via his publisher, to thank Rankin and mentioned my brother's admiration for the crime-fiction genre and the inspiration it gave Rory for some of his compositions. In his response, Ian asked for more information as to the crime songs, etc.  I burned Ian discs of the crime influenced songs, sent it to him with a post-script to say that if one day I put a Rory crime album together, might he consider writing some sleeve notes, Rankin's reply was positive.

Around that time I was made aware of a U.S. First comic "Grim Jack". In an episode, the super-hero prevents an assassination attempt on his guitarist buddy, a battered Strat playing guy called Jim Lanyon, who was drawn in Rory's likeness. Contacting the comic’s artist Timothy Truman, who is noted for Hex and work with the Grateful Dead, soon confirmed Rory was Truman's guitar hero - Timothy being a fine player himself.

In a meeting at Sony Music, I mentioned the crime album with Rankin’s notes and the personnel there were very receptive. At the meeting, my son Dan suggested to ask Rankin if he would pen something more than notes, as I had the notion to compose a storyline based on the Rory tracks myself.

Getting back in touch with Ian, who was then writing Standing in a Dead Man’s Grave, I travelled to Edinburgh to propose the idea of a Rankin short-story which would thread a storyline together through Rory’s song lyrics, and then have Truman illustrate the work.

Rankin duly delivered his short-story The Lie Factory. With that, Dan and I headed to the States to meet with Timothy Truman and brief him on the concept.

On re-reading the story Ian had written together with Tim’s drawings that were coming through, I realized the whole scenario was more elaborate that I first thought and so, as to convey the plot, felt that it would make a great audio disc. To that end, we approached actor Aidan Quinn and he agreed to narrate Rankin's work. This brought the arts of music, writing, drawing and drama together.

Jeb: Are you surprised there are still people, both in the industry and out, that have such respect for Rory, considering he always struggled to make it in America?

Donal: It's gratifying to know, nonetheless, given the 110% he put into his work, all the ground he covered… Rory left his 'calling card' as it were.

Jeb: Tell me the process of choosing the songs to go with the book.

Donal: Initially, I selected some 30+ of 'crime' tracks that I felt would be material to weave a story through; the track selection was finally dictated by Ian's story, though. It was Dan's idea to include the live set as a bonus disc.

Jeb: Tell me about your take on the deluxe hardback finished product. What was your reaction the first time you saw it… ?

Donal: I was blown-away! Credit here goes to art designer Mark Jessett, who has worked on all the cover artwork in more recent times, he got the concept straight off, Mark knew what I was after, Jessett coordinated well with Timothy Truman, as the detail in the drawings had to reflect Rankin's characters. All Timothy's drawings were in black and white and Mark added the coloring too.

Jeb: What would Rory think about this project?

Donal: I'd like to think he would approve. Also, I know how much he put into Defender & Fresh Evidence; so, Rory would be pleased to see the tracks for his last works get a little more attention.

Jeb: How much freedom did you give Ian in the writing of the story? Was it collaboration? Or did he just run with it?

Donal: Ian is the master, so, the story is entirely down to him. For Ian, it seems he always wanted to write in another voice and in an American accent.

Jeb: Also, Timothy is well known with his work with the Grateful Dead. What was he like to work with?

Donal: Timothy was a gentleman and a joy to work with. It turned out that we had met many years earlier when he came to see Rory play at the Bottom Line in New York. In addition, I was overwhelmed by Truman's take on Rory in his Grim Jack comic episode - it was a real joy for me to read.

Jeb: You also have a CD with the audio of the book read by actor Aidan Quinn. How did that come about?

Donal: In an effort to catch up on Ian Rankin's amazing writing output, I utilized audio books and enjoyed the delivery of the story by the spoken word. When all the elements for Kickback were coming together, I thought it would be a great way to get Ian's story across - not everyone is a reader and the short story is quite complex too.

Jeb: I love this quote: “This could be weird. If this album ends up in Rebus’s record collection I could end up writing a story in which Rebus takes out this album and sits reading an Ian Rankin story whilst listening to a Rory Gallagher album!” - Ian Rankin

Donal: Yes it's quite the Black Hole concept. Ian was responding to the question Dan had posed; Would Ian's detective John Rebus, who likes his rock music, have Kickback City in his collection?

Jeb: You own Rory’s guitar. Joe Bonamassa told me in an interview how much it meant to him to play it on a live performance of “Cradle Rock.” When you see guys like Joe embrace Rory’s legacy, how special is that to you?

Donal: Joe's a special guy for me. Like my brother, Bonamassa is a great student of his craft, turned master. His cover of “Cradle Rock” made me overjoyed. Then when Joe opened with the song, and on Rory's Stratocaster, that was very emotional for me - I'm so grateful to the man.

Jeb: What else can Rory’s fans expect to come out in the future? Is there anything in the vault? More cool stuff like Kickback City floating around in your head?

Donal: At present I haven't got a follow up concept to Kickback in mind, maybe it's a one-off. In the archive we still have quite a bit of some live material, with the odd studio track turning up. For the future, we hope to do something special for Irish Tour’s' 40th anniversary; beyond that, we will sadly have to mark Rory's 20th anniversary.

Jeb: Last one: Share one of your favorite memories of Rory…make it two…one about growing up with him that not a lot of people know and then from the time he was a rocker.

Donal: I'll never forget the joy of seeing him win a talent competition, to see him rewarded for all the practice time he had put in. At the time I thought, “That's it; now he can get back to playing football with

I remember after his gig at the De Montfort Hall, in Leicester, '71, driving him at high speed to London, 100 plus miles, to start his first night on the Muddy Waters London Sessions. Rory was nervous that he'd kept his hero waiting; however, when we got into the studio, Muddy was standing at the door with a glass of champagne in his hand for my brother and told him to chill.