The ballad of a Thin Man

Phil Lynott, the first true Irish rock star, a rocker with a poet’s heart and the man who made paddy cool

It’s not just that Phil Lynott was the first black Irish rock star; he was the first Irish rock star full stop. Before him, Van was a roots man who regarded the smoke bombs and mirror shades of rock ’n’ roll with utter contempt. Rory Gallagher always played the unassuming blues craftsman. Horslips were – well nobody knew what Horslips were exactly, a glam-trad carnival sideshow maybe, a hall of mirrors in which you could choose your own reflection. But Lynott was the closest thing to a Crumlin Keith Richards. From the beat group days of 1960s Dublin, he was the first native rock icon to prove that the terms ‘Paddy’ and ‘cool’ didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, a local legend on a par with Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly. And when Thin Lizzy appeared on Top Of The Pops doing ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ in 1972, it proved to a generation reared on the blackthorn shtick that the twin personas of traditional folk rake and gypsy-ringed rocker were first cousins.

But if he could carry off Keef’s louche-limbed swagger with ease, he also had Jagger’s chameleon instincts. Early Lizzy were a confused but beguiling hodge-podge of influences, from Hendrix-style acid rock to prog folk to romantic balladry to amped up trad ballads. Even in his band’s decline – and especially on his often overlooked solo albums – Lynott could make a credible fist of anything from lounge jazz (‘Fats’), New Romantic electronica (‘Yellow Pearl’ with Midge Ure) and keening folk (‘Tribute To Sandy Denny’ with Clann Eadair).

But then, Phil Lynott was always miscast as a hard rocker. In actuality, he was an accomplished songwriter with ambitions towards lyric poetry, ambitions he might eventually have fulfilled had he beaten his own addictions. As early as ‘Randolph’s Tango’ and ‘Shades Of A Blue Orphanage’, the singer betrayed more of an affiliation with narrative-driven storytellers like Van, Dylan and Springsteen than his hard rock contemporaries.

Yet no matter how Lizzy fluctuated on record, their live shows were always akin to tribal gatherings, especially in Ireland. This writer caught them on the 1983 farewell tour, and while it was obvious Lynott was in bad shape, bloated and blunted, his effortless rapport with his crowd still made it special – he could charm the knickers off a nun.

The famous video for ‘Old Town’ perfectly captured that charm: Phil striding down Grafton Street flashing that rapacious grin, teeth and earrings gleaming, afro over one eye, waltzing with the girls and all but high-fiving the pedestrians – a warm portrait of a hometown hero soaking up the vibe. Lynott was every bit the star, but streetwise with it, and it was these street smarts that enabled him to survive the punk upheavals that threatened the credibility of the heavy rock dinosaurs. While Rod and The Stones and Led Zep were off in tax exile, Lynott was associating with Nick Kent and Steve Jones and Paul Cook and Rat Scabies and Johnny Thunders. Mind you, given that crowd’s proclivity for heroin chic, it mightn’t have been as good for his health as it was for his cred.

So, Phil Lynott was a rock star, and that’s what killed him. He could never peel off those leather trousers. As the ’80s wore on, the singer found himself too comfortable in a straightjacket, rehashing the old Lizzy sound with his last band Grand Slam rather than exploring the many root streams of music that may have carried him through menopause with dignity. His last years found him snarled in a mid-life identity crisis, caught up in the rotten glamour of drug addiction when the wilier of his contemporaries were figuring out how they could grow old with the music.

Philo died in January 1986, of drug-related causes, with much left to do. One can only speculate as to how the soul man in him might have absorbed the latest R’n’B boom, or what the rocker would have done with nu-metal, or how his ever-restless black gene may have ingested and modified the rhythms of hip-hop to his own specifications.

We’ll never know, and it’s our loss.

Post Scripts

Most significant moment

On the downside, the bout of hepatitis that forced Lizzy to cancel their American tour just as ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ was taking off, thus cheating them of a US breakthrough.

On the upside, the heroes’ return to Dalymount in August 1977.

Most memorable saying

“Is there anyone out there with any Irish in them?

Are there any of the girls who’d like a little more Irish in them?”(from the intro to ‘Emerald’, Live And Dangerous)

View from the sidelines

Bob Geldof fronted the reformed Thin Lizzy at Self Aid in 1986, singing ‘The Cowboy Song’: “I sang it ’cos I just thought it was a lovely tune, y’know, ‘The starry night/The campfire light’. I just like that whole ending, it’s so imminent in my mind, the last pay-off line: ‘The cowboy’s life/Is the life for me’.

“And maybe more than anything on that day it reminded me of him, there was a certain pathos with the slow opening, the panoramic view.”

What’s happening now

A reformed Thin Lizzy are currently touring the US, featuring Scott Gorham, John Sykes, Darren Wharton and veteran hard rockers Tommy Aldridge and Marc Mendoza. Sykes and Gorham are reportedly writing material for a “new” Thin Lizzy album, due for release in 2003.

Five key tracks

‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ (1976)

The closest thing Lizzy ever had to a US hit, this was a pocket sized rock ‘n’ roll myth all unto itself. Greil Marcus described it in terms of pure tribalism, as a fertility ritual, a song about the renewing of the land and the deposing of ageing chiefs.

‘Whiskey In the Jar’ (1972)

Recorded for a laugh and originally intended as a B-side, this souped-up version of the traditional ballad gave Lizzy their first British hit and crystallised Lynott’s roguish persona. Eric Bell provides one of the most whistle-able guitar breaks in pop history.

‘Dancing In The Moonlight

(It’s Caught Me In Its Spotlight)’ (1977)

A giddy, cheeky, finger-snapping hymn to the joys of being 16 and in lust. It’s all in the details: “Now we go steady to the pictures/I always get chocolate stains on my pants”. Live, Phil tended to omit the word “chocolate”.

‘Still In Love With You’ (1974)

Always the great weepie in the Lizzy canon, this tune inherited even greater resonance on the farewell tour. Check out the Live And Dangerous version for definitive guitar solo action from Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson.

‘Old Town’ (1982)

An immaculately crafted pop gem. The verses were classic Lynott third person observation, but the chorus gave away more than he might’ve liked to admit: “This boy is crackin’ up/This boy has broke down”.

The key album

Live And Dangerous (1978)

Although there are those who hold that the only bona fide “live” element of this album is the kick drum, that’s a moot point. Overdubbed or not, it remains the definitive Lizzy recording, from the twin guitar duelling of ‘Emerald’ to a blistering take on Bob Seger’s ‘Rosalie’ to the hair-raising ‘Cowboy Song’/‘Boys Are Back In Town’ segue. On its release, Nick Kent called it “a near perfect statement of intent by what is now the best hard rock band in the world”.

 

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