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Damn Right I Got The Blues
Arriving in Dublin in the last sixties as a 16 year old guitar wunderkind, Belfast born Gary Moore embarked on a musical career that has seen him go through several metamorphoses and achieve numerous notable success in the process.
Liam Fay, 19 May 1993
*I DON'T think people like me very much in Ireland," says Gary Moore with a nervous chuckle that betrays both bewilderment and annoyance.
"If people don't like your music than that's fair enough," he continues. "But if they don't like you personally and they've never met you then it becomes a bit of a joke.
"I just don't understand it and I've gotten to the stage now where I realise it's useless trying to change people's minds when they're so firmly made up."
Gary Moore insists that these days he is happier than he's ever been before. He says he feels calmer, more relaxed and in control of things. He and his wife dote on their four-year-old son and are eagerly anticipating the arrival of their second child sometime next month.
Musically, Moore is at the height of his powers. His transformation from hard rock axeman to respected blues singer/songwriter has been a complete success and has provided him with his two biggest selling albums to date. "Blues Alive", his brand new double live album recorded during last year's world tour, is, he believes, one of the highlights of his career.
Nevertheless, there's still this nagging insect of irritation which he regularly feels compelled to try and swat. On more than one occasion during the course of sixty minute interview in London, and completely unprompted by me, Moore himself raised the question of how he is viewed back in Ireland.
"It's not something that I think about a lot," he says rather disingenuously at one point, "but I do find it all a little strange."
When I suggest that perhaps this perceived Irish antipathy towards him is just something that has taken root in his imagination and developed a life of its own, he replies in the transparently eloquent language of record sales figures.
"Commercially speaking 'Still Got The Blues' was my biggest selling record ever," he avers. "It was my first gold record in America - my previous record had sold 60,000 in the States but this one did 600,000. There was a big, big escalation in sales everywhere but in Ireland it went the other way and 'Still Got The Blues' was my least successful album ever there.
"That's why I didn't play Ireland on the last tour, I just thought nobody was really interested," he adds. "But maybe that's just the way it is with Ireland. Maybe people over there are really cynical about me and felt that I was just jumping on a bandwagon with the blues thing. Maybe it's just that thing they say about a prophet in his own island or whatever! In a way, I suppose, it's kinda nice 'cause it means I can go back and see my friends and not get hassled (laughs)."
In reality, however, Moore's links with his home country are more than a little tenuous these days. Apart from when he's touring, he both lives and works in London. Of his immediate family, only his father remains in his native Belfast (his mother and all his brothers and sisters are based in Britain) and the elder Moore always travels to London to see his son rather than vice versa. And as Gary Moore himself readily admits, there's really only a handful of people left in Dublin whom he could describe as close friends. Nevertheless, the city still obviously occupies a special place in his thoughts.
"Yeah, I love goin' back to Dublin," he says. "I love the vibe there and you always get the feeling that there's loads of things goin' on. Looking back now, I'd say that Dublin is probably one of my favourite places to live. But I don't go back very often. Four years ago when I was making the 'After The War' record I spent about three months in Dublin - in fact I wrote most of that record there. It was nice being back. I really enjoyed it.
"One of the things I did find strange was going back to places like Slattery's which I used to play when I was in Skid Row and seeing the same guys on the same stage playing the same songs, all of twenty years later. But then that's all I'm doing myself really. I'm still playing 'Walkin' By Myself' and 'Stop Messin' Around', stuff like that."
The same songs maybe, but certainly on a different scale. And perhaps the rub lies therein. Does Gary Moore believe that the attitudes of some Irish people towards him are fuelled by good old-fashioned begrudgery?
"Yeah, maybe all those guys hate me and who could blame them?,' he laughs. "But, you know, I don't feel that way about other people. I think it's nice if your friends do well. I even think it's nice if people you don't like do well in this business because it's so hard to do well. Only a tiny percentage of people who start out in music ever get anywhere. It all comes down to luck. And you can't hate someone because of luck, can you?"
Gary Moore The Bluesman, who sits before me today, is a persona that has only latterly blazed forth from tinder that had been drying for years.
Moore's career has been long and often impossibly circuitous, but the gist goes something like this: sixteen-year-old boy wonder with a head full of Clapton riffs drifts down from Belfast to Dublin during the late sixties and winds up playing guitar with a newly born Skid Row. During the early seventies, he forms the short-lived Gary Moore Band and when that fizzles out he begins his intermittent membership of Thin Lizzy - an involvement which is regularly disrupted over the following decade by his "personality clashes" with Phil Lynott. Along the way, there are also stints with jazz/rock dinosaurs Colosseum II and another crack at establishing his own band in the shape of the Los Angeles based G-Force . . .
It wasn't until the early eighties, however, that Moore began to find his feet as a solo artist, and started to record the string of hard rock albums which his mercurial playing transformed from vinyl to gold. But while his songwriting was widely acclaimed for its lyricism and maturity, he never really managed to appeal to audiences outside of the heavy metal camp. And pretty soon the genuine innovator was beginning to feel suffocated by the H.M. formula.
As far back as June '85, Moore was telling Bill Graham in a Hot Press interview that "(heavy metal bands) are all playing the same riffs at the same speed and they're all playing with the same screaming vocal over the top and all the guitarists sound like Eddie Van Halen or Angus Young and nobody's trying to do anything new . . . What I've got to do now is branch out from that. The challenge to me is to write songs that are ore contemporary, songs that are more accessible".
However, being aware of the stagnation and the pitfalls obviously wasn't enough and Moore now says that, despite his best efforts, he eventually began to feel himself becoming a heavy metal animal.
"The whole thing is a circus and if you don't get out sooner or later you wind up becoming just another circus act," he insists. "When I was writing songs I was starting to become more concerned with arrangements and big pyrotechnic studio tricks than with the songs themselves. In spite of myself, my guitar playing was becoming more formularised. I was practising too often, getting too flashy. I even had one or two guitars custom built for this kind of thing.
"Then, I looked around and swat this music had lost its edge. It wasn't dangerous anymore. The people who were being successful in that field were playing it very safe and stale, and I wanted out."
So does Gary Moore believe that heavy metal is inherently sterile or is it just that the people who play it aren't very imaginative?
"When that music began, it wasn't called 'Heavy Metal', it was just rock," he replies. "Led Zeppelin were rock, Credence were progressive rock, that was the way it was. The whole cartoon thing that has become known as Heavy Metal didn't come along until Kiss and Iron Maiden and bands like that. And because of them the whole cartoon, sci-fi side of it started to take over from the music. The big productions came along, the exploding haunted heads on the stage, that whole thing. It got out of control and the music lost out.
"Bands started relying on producers and the visuals for their impact. It all became very empty and gimmick-laden, and that's never been what attracted me to music. Like the guy said, there's only two types of music, good and bad, but it had gotten to the point where I could no longer see any good in heavy metal. I just couldn't make another one of those albums. It's got nothing to do with me as a person anymore."
What does he make of a band like Guns 'N' Roses?
"I don't mind them," he says. "At least, there's a bit of danger to them. They've brought back a bit of the bad boy thing which is nice. It's not my favourite music but at least they've brought back a bit of rebelliousness which is something that's been sadly lacking. I mean, when you see bands like Def Leppard claiming to be a rock band then there's something wrong.
"Def Leppard are a pop group. They've never been a rock group. The records they make have absolutely no edge to them, there's no danger whatsoever. When you get to the point of recording one string of a guitar at a time then it's all gone too far. It's certainly not rock'n'roll.
"I like Nirvana and the whole grunge thing. It's almost like a second generation Black Sabbath approach. I like the venom in that music. At least it's honest and it wasn't created in a studio by a producer and it doesn't take three years to make a record. Again it's not my favourite music but I'd much rather hear something like that on the radio than something as pasteurised as contemporary heavy metal. I can't bear to listen to that stuff much less try to get up and play it."
For Gary Moore, salvation was to be found in the blues. "When I first started playin' guitar, when I was about ten, I was into The Shadows and stuff like that," he explains. "But within a year or two I had become a huge blues fan through trying to play along with Clapton and Mayall, and being really into the whole British blues boom at the time.
"What I still love about the blues is that it's different every time you play it. It's so expressive and spontaneous. You play however you feel at the time. It's played for the moment. And having gone through the whole heavy metal circus, I realise that the blues was the kind of music that I wanted to
play. That's where my heart is and when I'd finished that 'After The War' record and tour, I decided that that was what I was going to play, whether people liked it or not."
Fortunately for Moore, however, people did like it and his two blues "repatriation" albums ('89's "Still Got The Blues" and '92's "After Hours") turned out to be his most commercially successful to date. And the fact that he was able to enlist the services of such esteemed henchmen as Albert Collins, Albert King and B.B. King on the latter of those records greatly helped ease his entry into the notoriously snobbish blues world.
"If the 'Still Got The Blues' album hadn't sold then nobody would've paid any attention to me," he says. "But it did sell and that got some people's backs up a bit. At first, I wasn't taken very seriously but when all those great musicians agreed to play on 'After Hours' it was like a personal endorsement and that has really sorta established me.
"B.B. King was a real gentleman, nobody could but get on with him, and the same goes for Albert Collins. But Albert King was a little bit more difficult. As far as he was concerned, everybody has ripped him off and he was pretty embittered by all that. He's never had the commercial acclaim of someone like B.B. so he had a pretty bitter taste in his mouth so he wasn't always very friendly and sociable.
"It's a bit of the Chuck Berry syndrome. He's no longer with us, of course, but before he died I at least got the chance to tell him I'd never stolen anything from him except three licks. He laughed when I said that and
it was a bit of an achievement to make Albert laugh, I can tell you."
In the context of other blues guitarists with whom Moore would like to work, one name leaps quickly to his mind, that of fellow Irishman Rory Gallagher.
"Before I ever left Belfast, Rory and I used to play in the Club Rado quite a lot," he recalls. "I was still in school then but I used to support him with my little three piece band. I remember we used to plug our two amps into each other so that we'd have enough power. And we'd each leave our guitars on stage for the other because we didn't have enough strings (laughs). But our paths drifted apart after that.
"The last time I actually saw him was at the Self Aid thing but I love his playing and think he's a great talent. I'd really love to get together with him soon and do something together. It'd be a nice rounding of the circle."
As a trailer-single for the "Blues Alive" album, Moore recently released a version of the classic "Parisienne Walkways", the original of which was a top ten hit back in May '79 and, of course, featured his old pal and sparring partner, Philip Lynott, on vocals. Mention of which obviously brings us to the question of Philo's grim demise and the circumstances surrounding it.
Moore admits that he had known for quite some time about the extent of Lynott's drug problem and his perilous state of health, but says that news of his death still came as a major shock.
"It was the old Keith Richards syndrome," he explains. "I kept thinking he's gonna be next, he's gonna be next but you never believe it until it happens and I never thought he was actually gonna die. He'd been bad before and he always pulled through.
"I could see that he was going downhill, that had been happening for years. The Phil Lynott that I knew when I first met him was this guy who used to get up before everybody in the mornings and be out around the flea markets of Dublin. He was so full of energy in those days and it was awful to see him go through all those horrible changes over the years. There were times when he wasn't able to get out of bed. He was listless, half awake and he just wasn't on top of it anymore.
"I think when Lizzy fell apart, that was like losing his family to him," continues Moore. "He lost all the camaraderie which had been so important to him and he sorta felt that he didn't fit anywhere anymore. When he actually died I was away, I was on holiday, and I remember my wife picking up the paper and by the look on her face I could tell that it had happened because we'd already heard that he was ill. It just broke my heart. I think it broke a lot of people's hearts."
Relations between Gary and Phil weren't always rosy, however, and there were often lengthy periods of acrimony between the two, but Moore is obviously grateful that they managed to resolve their differences before Lynott's death and even work together again as they did on the 1985 anti-war single, "Out In The Fields".
"We hadn't actually spoken before that for about four years," he recalls. "There was a lot of bad feeling there for a while but we managed to put all that behind us. And the shame of it is that we both had plans to do other things together which I reckon would've been quite successful and that's exactly what Phil needed at that point. It could've saved him. But I could tell while I was working with him then that he was barely holding on.
"He needed really some professional help. He needed to just go somewhere and get cleaned up and get it all out of his system. But he would never have done that 'cause he was a very proud guy and that would've been an admission of weakness.
"And anyway even if he'd gotten straight there's no guarantee that he would've stayed that way", he adds. "Phil always loved the partying that went with the music business and he would've found it very hard to deny himself that. When you go so far down the line it's very, very, difficult to stop, especially with the hard stuff."
As to the suggestion that some of those close to Lynott during his final days only exacerbated the situation and served to hasten his eventual decline, Moore simply shakes his head and says "Oh man, you don't wanna get into all that. I wouldn't give them the attention".
Almost miraculously, given the impressionable age at which he first entered the music business and given some of the people he subsequently worked with, Moore testifies that he has avoided the drug-abuse trap.
"I did all my drug taking between the ages of sixteen and eighteen," he states. "Probably for about six months when I was sixteen was when I did most of it. In those days, we used take pills all the time. You'd take speed before you'd go on stage and then think you were brilliant. We smoked a lot of dope too and swallowed anything that would make you see funny colours (laughs). But that was it. Once I hit twenty, I had no interest in drugs. I stayed away from the hard stuff because half of me felt that I'd probably like it and that it would end up killing me.
"I still drank a lot though. I still drink now but not anything like I used to (laughs). You know, we're all from the same place. You're not going to come from Ireland and say you don't drink. That's not the way it works (laughs)."
These days, Moore says he limits himself to the occasional ("not that occasional") blow-out and never drinks while he's touring.
"Having a heavy night before you go and play a gig is just not on," he explains. "It's letting yourself down. You have to be disciplined otherwise you're just flaunting the fact that you don't care. The party after the show starts becoming more important than the show and if that happens it's time to forget it. The bottom line is that people are paying to see you and if you go on stage in a less than good condition you're just letting everybody down, especially yourself.
"Also, you have to set an example to the musicians in the band. You can't be hanging out in the bar with the guys after the show till four in the morning. You get up the next day and you can't talk because you've been laughing and shouting so much. There's all that you have to think about, your voice and all that crap but in the old days I blew a couple of gigs because I had drunk so much the day before and I just wound up hating myself and being pissed off about it. I avoid all that like the plague now."
What about the theory that alcoholism and the blues go hand in hand?
"There is a sort of self-destructive element alright but I don't believe that it has to be that way," he insists. "B.B. King doesn't drink, I never saw Albert King with a drink - probably they did drink before but not now. You take a more recent example like Stevie Ray Vaughan, he gave it all up and played great. There's a kind of romantic myth that says these guys are all out of it when they go on stage but you'll find that they wouldn't be able to perform to that standard if they were pissed.
"You just wouldn't have the co-ordination. You can't think straight when you're drunk so how can you expect to play music?'
Gary Moore's profile on this side of the world may not have always been the highest but for many years now he has had that very rock'n'roll distinction of very Big In Japan. Since the early eighties, his albums have rarely been out of the Japanese charts and he enjoys something akin to rock idol status among large swathes of that nation's youth. Well, maybe 'enjoys' is not exactly the right word.
"Japan is a bit of a nightmare, to be honest with you," he says. "There were times when I was touring there and I literally couldn't go out of my hotel room. There were all these little Japanese girls hanging around the corridor and banging on my door all night. It sounds like a lot of fun but I can tell you it isn't. It was just really annoying.
"You'd leave the hotel to get one of the bullet-trains to go to the gig and the same kids who were hanging around in the hotel would be in the station before you got there! Don't ask me how. Or you'd get on a plane and they'd be sitting behind you. And as soon as the plane would take off they'd start hassling you and grabbing at you. It was really out of control and you just can't talk to them. It's really frightening.
"There was one girl, she was about eighteen and I don't know where she got the money from but she followed me from Japan and went to every single show in Europe. And if I said hello to her, just to be friendly, she'd immediately burst into tears. So I stopped saying hello to her. But she'd still turn up on the crew bus from time to time and she followed me all over the States as well. It's a bit disturbing to be the subject of that kind of fanaticism. You wonder to yourself how is it going to end."
And it's not only the fans either. Moore also found the Japanese music press to be obsessively fanatical.
"Over here, I might do an interview with a musicians' magazine and be asked a couple of technical questions but in Japan they used to send photographers along to my gigs to take pictures of my pedals," he says. "They'd also be taking pictures of the amps and they'd have these big zoom lenses for close-up shots of my finger movements, as if all this stuff is going to make them play like we do. It's insane.
"They're just so hungry to duplicate everything Western that they become totally obsessive. But they're never going to be able to play this music because it's just not their heritage, the same way that we're never going to be able to play kyoto or real Japanese music. I've had all these conversations where they ask me what I think of Japanese rock bands and I say 'you know, you're just copying American bands and it's all being done parrot fashion'. They don't really know why they're singing these things and it just doesn't make any sense."
Then there's Japan, the place. "I'm not very fond of that either," he says. "Tokyo is a real nightmare. It's like New York, Paris and London rolled into one. It takes ages to get anywhere. You just sit in smog-filled traffic jams breathing fumes all the time. The people live in really terrible cramped, dirty conditions. I remember seeing a guy fishing with his kid under the freeway 'cause there were all these trucks belching fumes all over them - you see a lot of things like that and it's really sad.
"Another weird thing is that if you go from one city to another, say Tokyo to Osaka, you never hit countryside. It's all city even between the cities. The only green you se are all these golf practice runs. They're fanatical about golf now because they think that's how all the western businessmen do all their big deals. It's a really strange place."
Gary Moore's hate-hate relationship with Japan finally came to a head when he toured there in 1989 and suffered some sort of Japandread nervous breakdown.
"I'd already been there about five times and I'd done all the big tours," he explains. "And I'd had all the idolatry thing and everything but I always hated the place. But it really got to me this time round. I got really sick. I didn't sleep for about a week and I was in a real state. I actually thought I was going to die and I had to have a doctor several times.
"It was some sort of nervous exhaustion coupled with the claustrophobia of Japan and this burning desire not to be there. We'd just had my first little boy at the time and I just felt that I didn't want to be that far away from him. All of those things combined to really fuck me up and I didn't even want to play. I just wanted to go home.
"I haven't had the desire to go back to Japan since that. I reckon if I went back I'd get sick all over again - the place has that effect on me (laughs). I'm not saying I'd never go back but I think I've had my fill of Japan to last me for some years to come."
Later, as the interview winds down, the conversation turns once again to the subject of Ireland. Moore is full of questions about the current Irish music scene and what bands, if any, he should watch out for.
He also talks about the forthcoming Peace Together concerts. Apparently, he was approached about participating some months ago and agreed to do so because logistics would prevent him from assembling his ten-piece backing band on the date in question.
"There's talk of me doing something in Ireland, later this year," he reveals. "Maybe something outdoor. I'd really love to do it. Maybe it'd show me once and for all what you guys make of me (laughs)."
As I rise to take my leave, Gary asks for one parting favour. "If you see Brush, ask him to give me a call some time," he says. "We haven't spoken for a while. I think I may have lost his number."