Remembering the late Bernie Tormé, not many people could play like Randy Rhoads. Bernie was one of them. It’s 5 pm on a Sunday evening, and I find myself speaking to Mik Gaffney from his hotel room in Budapest. Mik’s vast and varied career has seen him play, manage and tech around the world.
Interview: Paul Hutchings
Tonight, Mik is two weeks into the Alter Bridge European tour, where he is drum technician for Wolfgang van Halen’s band. Two weeks into the tour, things are going well. “He’s going down an absolute storm with the crowds because he’s never brought Mammoth to Europe, so it’s all new for him,” Mik says.
Mik remains a writer for Powerplay magazine, which I used to write for, but his roles are much more varied than just a reviewer. He’s been a drum tech for over 15 years, a tour manager/PR and a musician for many years.
“I’m a drummer anyway. But I started as a tech about 15-16 years ago, full-time. I had worked for bands like Free Kitchen Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I’ve always been a drummer and have been pretty fortunate since I left school. I’ve worked in music-related jobs, whether it’s magazines, record shops, or record labels. All that kind of stuff. I’ve never been one of those people that chases money. I’d rather be happy in what I do. My wife might have different things to say about that, though!”
Of course, we’re getting together to discuss the new live album Final Fling, the posthumous release from Irish guitarist Bernie Tormé. Bernie first appeared on my radar when he played with Gillan, the band formed by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan in 1978. Bernie played on four Gillan albums before leaving in 1981 and then was thrust into the limelight with Ozzy Osbourne for a very short spell after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads.
“Yeah, the same as you, I think,” Mik says. “I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops with Gillian, and I always thought he looked cool. He just had something about him. Great guitar player, obviously, but there was always something very cool about Bernie. The first time I met him was in the late ’80s when he produced a demo for a band I was in called Gunslinger. And he was hilarious.”
“When I joined his band years later, I reminded him of that early meeting. I had this big 20-inch China cymbal. Every time I hit it, I could see him wince. About two or three minutes later, the talkback went on, and in his wonderful Irish brogue, in my ear, he went, ‘it’s not very fucking rock ‘n’ roll, is it?’ So, the China was put to one side, and I went back to just crash cymbals up after that.
“But I reminded him of it, and he said, ‘I was a bit of a wanker back then.’ He was very singular in what he liked and how he liked things. It was always the thing I liked about him because he never minced his words. You know, if he wanted something to happen or you did something, and he wasn’t happy with it, he would say, ‘yeah, let’s go again and try that’. And I always liked that about him. If you were part of the C*** club with Bernie, then you’d done well.”
Having decided not to pursue this further, I asked Mik to continue. “He wasn’t like that on stage. He didn’t swear or do anything like that on stage. It’s just in rehearsals and stuff. He was famously irascible. Our only cross words came about because I’m a fan of Scotch, and he’s obviously a fan of Irish Whiskey, so while it never got heated, it could get het up because his thing was Jameson. But yeah, he was quite something to work with, to be fair.”
Having spent time with Tormé in Gunslinger, Mik kept in touch with Bernie and various other band members who were friends with him. This included Chris Jones, his drummer and bass player JJ, whom Mik plays with in a punk band with Lars Frederiksen from Rancid. “I had always kept tabs with Bernie because I knew all the guys in his band. But I moved away. I lived in London for years. I then went into touring as a tech and all that, and it just happened.
“His bass player from the last lineup called me up one day and said, ‘are you back from tour? Do you fancy coming and auditioning for Bernie? We’re looking for a drummer.’ So, they sent me a bunch of tracks to learn, and I learnt ten. I went in there and reminisced with Bernie as you do. We played Wild West, and he looked over and smiled at me, and we continued playing. Then we had a little tea break, and he started telling me about all the dates coming up and rehearsal plans. To this day, he never actually asked me to join the band. It was just like this one of these things.”
From what Mik tells me, Bernie liked to play it loud, which comes across in his playing. There’s a sort of distortion that he creates, which can only be delivered with huge amplification. “You’ve seen Bernie play,” Mik elaborates, “so you know how loud he has his Marshalls. It’s not until you sit next to that and play drums that you realise just how loud he played. The one time I remember him ever getting really pissed off when a tech went up to his amp and said, ‘you must turn this down,’ and went to turn it down.
“He just went, ‘don’t you touch my fucking amp!’ It was part of his sound. It’s what drove his sound, the volume he played at, and it was never ridiculous, but it was always loud. So, by default, I ended up in the band. I was never actually asked to join.”
Mik was able to tour with Bernie before the band recorded the last studio album, the excellent Shadowland. Bernie was a musician who had plenty in the vault. “He had a ton written,” Mik says. “He had a vast collection of song ideas that he partially demoed. We had a lot of songs. So, we toured first because he had this bunch of dates in the UK. He enjoyed the trio format anyway, but the three of us worked so well together. Bernie said, ‘you know I want to make a new record. Are you up for playing on it?’ I was like, yeah, absolutely. He was one of those guys that if he asked, you just went, ‘yep’. You didn’t even think about it. It was just such a thrill to play with him.”
It’s fair to say that the Bernie Tormé crowd tended to consist of diehard fans who had grown up with him in the ’70s and early ’80s. “There was always a very small element of people who’d never seen him before,” Mik says, “but knew of him, knew his playing. But, for the most part, it was people who had been with him since the late ’70s and had just grown up loving his playing because he was an utterly unique guitar player.
“He just had this way about his style. It was mostly diehards, especially on the last few tours. He just had this great fan base. People that always bought into what he was going to release. The pledge turned into a disaster in the end, but he always had a loyal fan base.”
What’s sobering to think of is what would have happened to Bernie if he’d been a guitarist in the modern age, fighting to get exposure with a million virtuoso guitarists on YouTube and Spotify and everything else.
Of course, Bernie came to attention back in the day because he was playing with Gillan, who featured in the music press like Kerrang and Sounds and then with Ozzy. He had a profile, and we knew of him because of who he was playing with before we’d even heard him play.
“Yeah, exactly,” continues Mik. “When he passed away, many big magazines contacted us because of his history. Rolling Stone magazine in the US emailed me very quickly and said, would you mind giving us some sound bites? The Ozzy time, although very short, he’s still remembered for that.
“But this was a massive thing in his career. When we played Sweden Rock, we played the same day as Ozzy, and we managed to get them to meet again afterwards. Bernie was thrilled because Ozzy was so pleased to see him. Zakk [Wylde] did the whole ‘we’re not worthy’ thing when he saw him because Zakk saw Bernie play with Ozzy at Madison Square Garden when he was a kid. And he’d been a fan of Bernie ever since.”
“They hadn’t seen each other in 30 years at that point. So, the Ozzy thing, although a very short period of his life, was still very prominent. People always wanted to talk to him about that, and he was always happy to talk about his time back then. He always had a positive outlook. He had just signed with Virgin for a new solo deal, so he had that in his back pocket should the Ozzy thing not work out.”
“I mean, that’s not an easy gig to walk into, you know. Firstly, because Randy hadn’t been dead that long, and secondly, it’s Randy Rhoads. Not many people on this planet can play like Randy Rhoads. I mean, kids today, that’s their benchmark. They start learning to play like Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai, and all those guys. But back then, there weren’t many people who could play like Randy. Bernie was one of them. He added his style to it without a shadow of a doubt. But, he could certainly do it, and you know, that’s why he got the call. It was an interesting time for him for sure”.
Final Fling is due out on 25 November 2022, and ironically, given what happened in 2020, it’s the first live album recorded with no audience. It was recorded at the end of the band’s tour, and as Mik tells me, Bernie wasn’t well when it was recorded.
Mik said that the tour had gone so well, and although it was billed as the Final Fling, it wasn’t the end, merely a scaling down. “He was just going to stop touring because he was getting older,” Mik said, “and it would take him weeks to recover from it all. The years dropped off him as soon as he walked on a stage and started playing. You’d never guess he was a guy approaching 70 years old. I don’t mean there was never a possibility he would ever have completely stopped playing live.”
“We went in and did the live album, and it was purely because the tour went so well. The shows were so great, and Eric, his son, a talented producer, said it’s a shame we didn’t record any of it. We went in and set up as live and just played through the set. I even had to do my drum solo, which I hate doing. When I joined the band, Bernie said you’ll need to do a drum solo. I’m not a big fan of solos, but Bernie said, ‘well, I need a Jameson’s break, so you’re doing a drum solo.’
“I played in a Thin Lizzy tribute band years ago, so I used to do the Brian Downey solo from Live and Dangerous. I will happily admit there are little bits in there that I’ve just cribbed from other drummers. But it went down well.
“It was nice to have something from that run. It was still fresh in our minds and all that. And it’s nice to have that final thing, and Eric’s done an incredible job piecing it together. It must have been tough for Eric, listening to his dad for hours and hours and hours while he was working on mixing, mastering, and order production. He’s made it sound superb. It’s a good track listing.”
Having been fortunate enough to listen to the album ahead of release, I’m happy to confirm it’s a good career retrospective with some of Bernie’s best playing. As Mik says, Bernie always picked the right musicians for the time, and that’s the same on Final Fling.
“I know from talking to Eric and from talking to Lisa, our tour manager and Bernie’s wife, that he really enjoyed that period with me and Sy playing,” Mik says. “It’s a great collection of his best-known tunes and obviously classics from his Gillan and Ozzy days as well.”
One of the things about being in a trio is that the band must be on form, as there’s no hiding place or opportunity to drop out. “I agree,” says Mik. “I mean, when you listen to the live records when he drops into the solo, ordinarily, that lack of rhythm guitar makes everything sound thin, but we always made sure that the rhythm section was thick and heavy sounding to kind of make up for it. And it worked. It works well, and Sy can sing well. So, he does all the backing vocals, and I do some backup vocals here and there. And Sy sings the Ozzy songs.”
It wasn’t that long after Final Fling was recorded that Bernie passed away. Mik had mentioned that Bernie was unwell but was it a shock? “He had pneumonia, but on top of that, there was all the stress with the pledge system going down,” he says. “I’ve got to be careful what I say here, but they owed Bernie a lot of money. And in typical Bernie style, one of the main things he was concerned about was the fact that he couldn’t pay us for the tour and then for the record. And that was the mark of him.
“He wasn’t concerned about himself. He was concerned he was letting other people down. Lisa kept us informed. And she said, you know, he’s not doing well, and then we get a message saying, ‘he’s been taken in the hospital, and now it’s double pneumonia’.
“I was on tour with Alex Skolnick, his jazz trio. We’re in Germany. I was having breakfast when I got the message from Lisa saying that Bernie had passed away. I don’t mind telling you it hit me so hard. None of us expected it.
“You always think he’s going to battle for it. He’d always been a fighter. So, it was a real shock. I just sat there in the hotel.
“We’ve all kept in touch, and that’s the important thing, to keep Bernie’s memory alive because the worst thing that can happen is that people forget about him. The guy had so much talent and so many good songs. And you know, I miss him. I know the rest of the guys miss him terribly.”
Bernie died the day before his 67th birthday. I reflected that in the past few weeks, I had seen Deep Purple, Blue Öyster Cult and Uriah Heep, all with members well into their seventies, and was off to see Saxon the night after the interview who feature at least two band members older than Bernie. It feels like 66 wasn’t that old an age.
“He had always seemed invincible to us,” Mik says. “Even after he died, there was still that feeling at the back of your mind that you’re just waiting to get the call. They will announce some more dates, and we’ll do some festivals. As you say, these guys are still going. Doug Pinnick from Kings X is what, 76,77? Incredibly, they’re still going strong. Ian Hunter is in his 80s. And in all honestly, I think Bernie would have carried on. We might have moved it to warmer times to tour or just done festivals.”
Although Mik is away for the next few weeks, he’ll be fully aware of the release of Final Fling. There are some special packages available, including the exclusive bundle with a t-shirt and a CD and a patch. Unfortunately, no special events, but there is likely to be another single out online.
There is also the full footage of the band’s show at the Sweden Rock Festival, so it’s not the end of the Bernie archives.
That would have been a travesty for Bernie Tormé, a guitarist whose legacy needs to live on.
Bernie Tormé’s Final Fling, is can be pre-ordered from https://bernietorme.bandcamp.com/merch/final-fling-limited-edition-pre-order-bundle