We recently spoke with author Graeme Thomson, about his new biography of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott Cowboy Song: The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott. Cowboy Song is published by Constable. The paperback will be available on January 26 2017. The book will be published in the US on May 1 2017, by Chicago Review Press. Thomson has also written George Harrison: Behind The Locked Door and Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, as well as several other music books. We asked Graeme "Five Questions" about this book and here's what he had to say!
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COWBOY SONG: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF PHILIP LYNOTT
One of the things that struck me most in your book was how important the ‘Irishness’ was with Lynott, perhaps even more than his ‘blackness’. The latter was a given, but Phil really, really dug Ireland, its history and its culture. Why do you think that was?
This was a boy born illegitimately in 1940s England to a runaway Irish teenager and a father from Guyana in South America, whom he never really knew – and who had recently arrived in England as a stowaway. Lynott spent his first seven years living a transient, deeply unsettled and probably quite disturbed life in the cities of northern England, with no stability, no anchor. Later, he never talked about this time in his life. When Lynott was sent to live with his grandparents, in Crumlin in the south of Dublin, at the age of seven, it was the first safe harbour he had ever known. The Lynott family were steeped in Irishness, and Ireland became hugely important to him as a way of giving shape and purpose to his own very shaky sense of identity. His blackness was much less significant until later in life; early on, it served only to accentuate his Irishness, as though he almost had to be *more* Irish than everyone else to fit in because he looked so different. Then there’s the fact that the whole mythos of Ireland appealed to him: this heroic underdog of a country, suffering centuries of injustice; its remarkable literary legacy; its vast reservoir of stories, storytellers and wild, mythic heroes; its religious piety and macho drinking culture – it all appealed to a boy who had no solid roots of his own, and was seeking to fill the void with as much excitement, drama and colour as he could.
One can certainly hear a sort of Celtic effect, both on the music and melodies, but also the storytelling aspect of the lyrics, especially early on. Agree?
Definitely. The melody, lyricism and underlying melancholy of his greatest songs is very Celtic. You hear it explicitly in things like “Dublin,” “Wild One,” “Emerald,” “Eire,” “Black Rose” and, of course, their version of “Whiskey In The Jar,” but Lynott said he always wanted to write ‘contemporary Irish songs’, and his grasp of the scale and storytelling power of Irish legends and fables infiltrated every part of his own writing. I say in the book that “The Boys Are Back In Town” is as much a song of Ireland as “Emerald” is. His aim as a writer was to create fresh myths, mint new legends; in the end, he has become a kind of mythic, legendary figure itself, with a statue in Dublin. His best songs are defined by a combination of the romantic and the dramatic. He understood that the greatest, most enduring legends aren’t simply created in the doing, but in the retelling. The word ‘remember’ crops up all the time in his writing: “The Boys Are Back In Town,” for example, is a series of remembered events. In that song, he embellishes and layers these tall tales, heightening their exploits to the realm of folklore. It’s a song about storytelling as much as it is a song telling a story, and that’s very Irish. He understands the power of nostalgia and sentiment. That’s also very Irish. It was innate, but also quite knowing. He saw Irishness as a smart way to define Thin Lizzy as a band – the Celtic branding in the art work was vivid and unique, and it really helped them stand out.
Gary Moore had a defining role in the early Thin Lizzy guitar sound — I’m thinking “Still in Love With You” here—that would be adopted, evolved and refined by the twin tandem of Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham. Did Phil have a role in shaping that defining sound, or just excellent taste in guitar players?
His initial impetus for having two guitar players was purely pragmatic. Original guitarist Eric Bell bailed half way through a New Year’s Eve concert in Belfast, leaving Philip and Brian Downey to perform as a duo. Lynott vowed that he would never allow that to happen again, hence two guitar players! But yes, I think once the dust settled he recognized that two guitarists would bring opportunities in terms of developing the sound of the band. At first, it allowed Thin Lizzy to reproduce on stage what they were trying to do in the studio: early trio songs like “Little Girl in Bloom” were too intricate to replicate live.
He was always very good at recognizing talent and using it, but of course, he was fortunate in that he could call on the services of such superb players as Brian Robertson, Scott Gorham and Gary Moore, and that Gorham and Robertson’s contrasting styles worked so well together to create that instantly identifiable cross-stitched guitar style. This sound came about due to a happy accident in the studio, where a rogue delay created this weird harmonic effect which made everybody sit up – and from there they worked hard to develop and hone it. Once it was established, Lynott certainly encouraged it. It helped him to think more expansively as a writer.
What does it say about Phil that after all the rows, breakups and firings, Lynott maintained most of those friendships even as he was slipping away?
That he was, at heart, a good guy, very charming, and that he was hugely loved. This meant that at times he got away with behaving badly, because people generally wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It also meant that some people were reluctant to read him the riot act and tell him to straighten up, when at times a tougher approach may have helped. Towards the end of his life he sorely tested the love and patience of many of his best friends, and although some could no longer bear to see him destroying himself and distanced themselves, none of them ever stopped caring for him, or hoping that he could sort himself out. He was a smart, funny, sociable, professional and very dynamic man – and the path his life took in his final years was not something any of his friends saw coming. Thirty years after his death, I was struck by how raw a lot of people still felt about his passing. It’s an incredibly sad story, in so many ways.
Thin Lizzy certainly had a habit of shooting themselves in the foot, a run of bad luck with illnesses and injuries, cancelled tours, and the timing of punk rock, which they weathered better than many of their contemporaries. It often makes me wonder “What if…?” So I pose the question to you…”What if…?”
They could conceivably have made more of the opportunities presented with the success of “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back in Town” in the US, but I think overall they had a decent run, achieved plenty, and history has been kind to them. I’m not sure that the volatile chemistry of the band favoured the kind of huge, sustained success which always slightly eluded them.
The bigger ‘What If’ concerns Lynott himself, and what he may have achieved had he cleaned up and survived. I harboured a little fantasy, which I almost put at the end of the book but eventually decided to take out. It was an imagining of Lynott today: a funky guy in his mid-sixties, sitting on a stool in some basement club with an acoustic guitar. Wearing an old suede jacket, a couple of scarves, bangles, jeans and boots. Bottle of wine at his side. Playing some jazzy acoustic soul music, his beautiful voice weathered and worn, a little deeper. It’s a nice thought, if hopelessly romantic. I think, in all likelihood, had he survived Lynott would have reformed Thin Lizzy and they would very likely still be playing their back catalogue to good and appreciative crowds. His two solo records are patchy but full of interesting ideas. Had he lived, I hope he would also have taken the time and had the confidence to go somewhere more intimate, to make a record that really showed off the depths of his songwriting and all the nuances of his voice. In the end, he got a little trapped by the rock star persona, but he did plenty to be proud of in his lifetime.
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As a bonus, I wanted to get Graeme's thoughts on a wonderful animated short by Conor Ryan for Why Music Matters. The video is below, followed by Thomson's thoughts.
"There's lots of material out there on Philip, but for a slightly different take, this short animated Music Matters film makes a lovely, warm introduction. He always looked a little like a cartoon character, and the film somehow captures the essence of his personal charm and his charisma as a performer (as well as hinting at his downfall). The final shot where the silhouette of Lynott on stage melts into the statue of Philip that now stands in Dublin is rather moving." — Graeme Thomson
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