To A Humble Music Fan | If Music Matters, It’s Mutual
By Cara Gibney
This is a nod to an unassuming music fan. A quiet man, no longer with us, who could be relied upon to be amongst the first to arrive, those last to leave, a photograph and a chat with the singer to round the night off.
And as the musical calendar rolls on, his absence is quietly noted by the community of people who attended those gigs, who will continue to watch live music. So, as Out To Lunch Festival offered up its menu in January there was a quiet figure missing. On the announcement that one of his favourite’s, Mary Gauthier, is returning to Belfast in May, he came to mind again. As our own local talent like Grainne Duffy and Tony Villiers carry on with their careers, there is a space at the table being left by John Rowan for other quiet devotees of music to carry the flame and continue to support the events that are going on out there.
This is a nod to an unassuming music fan, but in ways it might be the story of many people without whom the live music scene here would wither on the vine. For if it wasn’t for the people who buy the tickets, purchase the merch, spread the word, support the crowdfunders, pay the baby-sitters, splash out on the taxis, fill the seats, buy a drink at the bar, drive local and across counties to watch the artists who are performing in pubs, clubs, cafes, and wee weird venues throughout Northern Ireland – then what would become of those performances? Of the performers? What would happen to the venues and the promoters?
I first met John Rowan at the Israel Nash gig in McHugh’s in 2014. I’d seen him at most of the Real Music Club gigs I’d attended but that was the first time I’d met him. As we chatted I had listened with admiration to how this man who was obviously struggling with his health was not going to be stopped when it came to attending gigs throughout Belfast and beyond. Imelda May, Wilko Johnson, Steve Earle, John Cooper Clarke, Alejandro Escovdeo, Chuck Prophet, Ian McLagan, Eleanor McEvoy – that’s just a few. And he would buy the merch – the t-shirts and the albums, and he would collect the hastily nabbed set-lists at the end of the night too. But John would go through phases when the stairs in certain venues became a gauntlet, when the journey to and from the gig wasn’t easy: the thing to remember though is that none of this was going to stop him. “He had declining multiple health problems which were exacerbated in the last few years,” explained his friend and fellow music-head, Gary Galbraith. “But he never had any regrets. He always considered himself very lucky. He would say ‘I’m very lucky to have my music and my friends.’”
There is a small team of them, music heads, that meet in the Cloth Ear of a Thursday. John was central to this weekly meeting of minds. On the day of John’s funeral, they headed back there to raise a glass. “We’ve kept it up ever since,” Gary pointed out. “Sort of in his memory. He was the central point, the rest of us knew each other through John.”
John was an aficionado of Bob Dylan, indeed he had seen him play maybe 40 times. Gary told me stories – of how they’d travelled to Scotland to see Dylan but had somehow lost the tickets. They’d walked the streets of a Glasgow rush hour trying to retrace their steps. Then they came across a white envelope on the footpath. “There were about five footprints where people had walked on it in the rain … well we were standing in the middle of the street and we nearly stopped the traffic: two grown heterosexual men hugging each other in the middle of the city centre …”
There was the story about the time Gary slept in and awoke to find out that John had just had coffee with Leonard Cohen. And then there was the Rory Gallagher story. “So, around 1975 [John] somehow managed to wangle backstage. He was sitting beside Rory’s bass player and the bass player asked him was he a musician. Rory was there as well. John said ‘No, I only know a few chords,’ and Rory just handed him his guitar. So, here’s John sitting backstage, just strumming away on Rory Gallagher’s Strat … just sitting there noodling with Rory Gallagher … I heard that story a thousand times and it drove me up the f****** walls,” Gary laughed. “I wish I could hear it again now.”
John’s last gig was Garry Tallent of the E Street Band at the Errigle Inn. Indeed, John was a huge Springsteen fan. “We never got to meet Bruce, but we got to meet the whole band – Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt.” But, it wasn’t just visitors to these shores whose shows he would attend. “He made a point of being supportive of the local music scene,” Gary explained. “He would go to see music nearly every week and he’d go to a lot of the festivals. He would go and see bands that he had probably never heard of and knew nothing about, just for the sake of going out to enjoy live music.”
And he had his favourites in the local scene too, not least singer songwriter Tony Villiers. A shared love of Bob Dylan aside, the pair got to know each other as John started to attend Tony’s gigs over the years. It’s the type of support that every hard-working artist needs – a fan who gets your music and makes a point of coming to see it.
“Not too long ago I received a compact disc in the post, it was a selection of Fairport Convention songs, it was from John Rowan,” Tony Villiers recalled. “I first met John at a gig in The Sunflower. A great friend of the band, Fran McCloskey, had put him on to us. We got talking about Dylan’s mythical motorcycle crash and about a load of other stuff and about music of course. All kinds of music.”
“If we were gigging in Belfast John would be there,” Tony Villiers recalled of John. “I’d always get a pint and a natter with him, something which I really enjoyed and looked forward to. John got what we’re doing, that’s all that mattered, the music. It’s not about the like or follow or share or download or sell, it’s about the music, that’s the glue in all this. We’re all in this together. Buying albums comes with the territory for music heads, they know it keeps the machine rolling and they know that it won’t cover the bills. But it keeps the machine rolling.”
“We lost the wonderful Kieran McWilliams late last year too, someone just like John but completely different. Kieran got what we’re doing. People like John and Kieran make things happen, they are movements, without them we’d be playing to an empty room. We just do what we do. They are friends, flesh and blood, they make us tick, they’re at the gig and they are listening.”
At every gig he attended, John Rowan was part of the experience unique to each event, and he was sharing it with like-minded people. He was in a position to witness the sweat and the effort that went into the music, so much more than the anonymous download and consumption of the final product. He discovered support acts, heard new material, and the stories about the songs that are just too long to put on the sleeve notes. He made friends, and swopped music, and added to his enormous music collection. And through all that, John Rowan kept the machine rolling. “It’s about the music, that’s the glue in all this. We’re all in this together.” Here’s a nod to an unassuming music fan, a quiet man, who is still with us in his own way.