I didn’t even know who Rory Gallagher was until I got a postcard from Ken Bruen.
To my shame, my knowledge of Irish music is limited. I loved the Pogues but didn’t realize Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy came from the Emerald Isle until I should’ve known better. I lived a bizarrely exposed and yet sheltered life. I knew that certain Italian mobsters liked to spend the night with transsexual prostitutes before I had listened to the Beatles other than the White Album.
My grandfather emigrated from Ireland, but thanks to the hip bottle of Jameson he drank every day of his retirement, I could barely understand a word he slurred. I lost that part of my heritage, and we mostly bonded by watching pro wrestling and boxing matches while sitting on the carpet, our backs against the couch, playing with my uptight grandmother’s two Yorkies. I inherited a shillelagh he brought back after a trip “home” to give the family homestead to friends they took in during the Depression. But like many third-generation immigrants in America, I had lost touch with my “roots” and was eager to reacquaint myself, so I was a diehard fan of the Pogues.
If I’d found Rory then, I might not have enjoyed his music so much. He sounds like pure seventies rock ‘n roll. He was one of the few who’d play in Belfast during the Troubles and was much beloved for it. He’s a supreme talent on the guitar, but why am I talking about him for Criminal Element? Because he loved writing crime stories in his songs, that’s why! He’s got a song about Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, for starters. It’s called “The Continental Op.”
And then, there’s “The Last of the Independents,” after the film of the same name—better known in the states as Charley Varrick. His songs are full of energy and heart and don’t flinch from the darkness as they strive toward the light.
But he wrote his own as well. After his death, his brother got together with Scottish crime author Ian Rankin—of the Inspector Rebus series—and illustrator Timothy Truman to create a concept album of his crime-influenced songs called Kickback City, and I could write a two-word review: KICKASS CITY. (If you also loved This is Spinal Tap, yes, that certainly is a joke on the two-word review of their album “Shark Sandwich.”)
It comes in a 3-CD set that looks like a little pulp novel, and also in a big 3-LP vinyl set for you wax aficionados. The first disc collects fourteen songs that play out a story; the second has live versions of seven of them; and the third disc is the spoken word version of Ian Rankin’s short story inspired by these songs, “The Lie Factory.” The story is short and solid classic noir, with bummed-out boxers and femme fatales and dirty politicians and evil crime lords, and it’s great fun reading it while listening to the live album. Unless you read very slowly, you’ll probably finish before all fourteen songs play. The illustrations by Timothy Truman fit the bill nicely, not overly stylized or garish. It’s difficult to decide whether to put this on my bookshelf or among my albums. It’s a unique artifact.
The songs are great fun on their own, too. “Kid Gloves” is the eponymous boxer, and “Slumming Angel” is a nod to every rich girl who loves drinking in dives, a staple of the pulps. One of his best songs, the honkytonk rocker “Tattoo’d Lady” fits in perfectly here. Give it a listen:
The spoken word version of the story is read by actor Aidan Quinn, who also plays Captain Thomas “Tommy” Gregson on Elementary. It’s a great way for completist fans of Ian Rankin to get introduced to Rory Gallagher and vice versa. It’s too bad it’s not a Rebus story, but that would require time travel. Gallagher’s songs would have made a great soundtrack for a period film in the ‘70s or ‘80s, and maybe someday they will.
So, if you love the down & dirty crime films of the ‘70s and want to time travel back to the era of Night Moves and Chinatown, wander down to Kickback City and put Rory on repeat. You won’t be disappointed.
Another band who had a criminal element was AC/DC when Bon Scott had the mic … but I’ll write about that another time. (Soon, because the first Jay Desmarteaux novel isn’t called Bad Boy Boogie for no good reason!)
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.