He was a true rock star and one of our own.
An emotionally distraught Roe Butcher struck a chord with family, friends and mourners of the late, great singer-songwriter and guitarist Henry McCullough at a celebration of his extraordinary life.
Speaking at a thanksgiving service in Wade’s funeral home on Saturday morning, Henry’s great friend was choked with sadness as he struggled to find the words for a final goodbye.
Laying bare how each had fought their own demons throughout their lives, both individually and together, Roe said: “He was a rock star. He was the real McCoy, the only one we ever had in this area.
“There’s an old Old Celtic saying which means soul friend,a spiritual friend and that’s what I felt about Henry right from the start, we sort of clicked. It was like meeting someone you knew your whole life and we stayed that way until now. We both had to turn it around and we did that. Henry was a deeply spiritual man. For Henry and for me, spirituality was for people who had been to hell and didn’t want to go back there. It didn’t matter if there was a heaven or not.”
Having met Henry at the late 80s when playing with The Mighty Shamrocks at the Spuds venue in Portstewart, they forged a lasting friendship built on love and respect.
And mourners responded with a warm and loud round of applause when Roe acknowledged how Henry’s partner for 34 years, Josie, had unselfishly cared for Henry from when he suffered a heart attack in November 2012 until his death last Tuesday at the age of 72.
“For the past three and a half years all I’ve seen is an example of true love, devotion, unconditional love, 24/7 nursing, always on the ball, always there, never thinking of herself. Without Josie I don’t know what would have happened. Henry and Josie had love for each other that was...just unbounding really. I want to thank Josie for looking after Henry.”
Independent minister Sam Hanna conducted a memorable musical celebration of Henry’s life interspered with his own music, such as Belfast Train, to performances from many of his friends and inspirational tributes.
And he reminded mourners that although the loss of Henry “opens an enormous gap in the lives of family and friends...to remember everything that came from Henry’s life. So let’s give thanks for all the love, laughter, friendship and inspiration he brought into each of your lives.”
Dave Duncan, who first met Henry in the 60s in his native Enniskillen, described how on one occasion he had the temerity to ask him to teach him a ‘Chuck Berry lick” on his guitar.
“He could have easily said get on your bike, but he didn’t and that was the mark of the man. That was him. He was generous.
“He will always be there for us which is a great thing.
“Henry never changed. I feel very privileged to have known Henry and privileged to have had his friendship.”
And he said that Henry had many, many friends because, like everyone, he was a human being with flaws: “Henry was a real gentleman, he made mistakes, he had regrets. There’s no one in this room who doesn’t have regrets but he would be happy to admit to them. He did say he was lucky to get away with a lot of things...which he was.”
And he finished his eulogy by quoting the words from one of Henry’s songs, Big Old River:
This big old river is wide
This big old river is wide
All my friends are going to
To meet me on the other side.
Another friend, film-maker Mark McAuley, described Henry as “a wonderful guy with many stories and experiences to share.”
“He never once mourned the fact that fame and fortune seemed in other people’s eyes to have passed him by because he never sought that side of life. It was never important to him.
“For Henry it was always about the music, writing songs, picking up his ‘oul piece of wood’, as called his guitar and making a tune.
“He was content and happy with his life with Josie, with his family and his friends. “
He said Henry saw himself as a “cowboy standing with a guitar, kinda yodelling in the horizon and he would disappear off to some adventure, somewhere else. And that was what Henry became, this cowboy with a guitar who was always looking for something else over the horizon.
“A few years back Henry said he had become a great believer in a higher power, that there was something over the horizon that he had yet to see.
“He wasn’t sure exactly what it was and I think no one knows that.
“But I can imagine Henry sat in a corner somewhere, himself and Hank Williams, rattling out a tune. And I can see Henry just looking up and that cheeky smile and we will know that he is in a contented space.”
And when Brendan Quinn performed Take These Chains from My Heart and Set Me Free everyone joined in. It’s exactly as Henry would have wanted it.
In a final tribute, Dave Robinson, who managed Henry in the band Eire Apparent, fought back the tears as he remembered his old pal. He described him as a man of his time: “People may not have met Henry McCullough, but they knew who he was.
“It was back when musicians were our heroes and before it became about tech and money. He was a soldier in the rock ‘n’ roll wars.”
He recalled that Henry had been paid just £300 as the main guitarist in Tim Rice’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar.
“He told me he had been offered a precentage or 300 quid but he was very suspicious of percentages from record company people in those days. Tim Rice sent Josie a message yesterday that the music on that album was built all around Henry and that album sold in many millions. He should have taken the percentage!”
And Dave said that Henry should be remembered as one of music’s greatest guitarists, to be mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Jimi Hendrix.
“He jammed often with Jimi as they were on the same wavelength, two great guitar players,” he added.