“Are there are girls out there with any Irish in them?"
"Are there any girls out there who’d like a little more Irish in them?”
And in that quote, from Thin Lizzy’s live album, lies the charm of Phil Lynott. Phil Lynott was the quintessential rock star — the quote above had the girls in the audience clapping and screaming, while the boyfriends next to them pumped their fists and hooted right along with them. One need look no further than that cover of Live and Dangerous to see the perfected look, style and attitude of Lynott, “Rock Star.”
And while “The Boys Are Back In Town” is an anthem for the ages, it doesn’t begin to expound on the lead singer’s musical and lyrical complexities. Lynott was an incredibly talented songwriter, equal parts romantic, street tough, your mate at at the pub and the wide-eyed Irish bohemian. If, however, you do need more proof of the dichotomies of Phil Lynott, Graeme Thomson’s Cowboy Song: The Authorized Biography of Phil Lynott offers up plenty.
Thomson digs into Lynott’s personal history just enough to sketch out his complicated racial issues to give some insight into being a black man in Ireland. But, surprisingly, it was the Irishness that seemed to define and guide Lynott, particularly as a musician. In 1983, he stated “I’ve always wanted to write contemporary Irish songs,” and Thomson guides the reader though the Irish storytelling, oral histories and fresh myths in Lynott’s early songwriting. The author also points out, via the singer’s friends and musical accomplices that, while Lynott was a natural star, he was also hard at work at his craft, ever curious and constantly growing.
Thin Lizzy is equal parts famous for shooting themselves in the foot and having a bit of a revolving door for guitar players. Separately, Eric Bell and Gary Moore helped develop that Lizzy sound before the classic lineup of Scott Gotham and Brian Robertson took hold. But, as Thomson writes, that twin guitar sound came solely from a pragmatic decision by Lynott after being abandoned at a gig by then-guitarist Eric Bell. Left to perform as a duo with longtime drummer Brian Downey, Lynott decided going forward to carry two guitar players so “that would never happen again.” It would prove a career-changing decision by the pragmatic and resilient bandleader.
And then, of course, there are the songs; Thin Lizzy was always a bit smarter, to my ears, than given credit for. A fresh take on the Irish classic “Whiskey In The Jar” set them up, but Lynott would experiment early with a more poetic style that reflected Van Morrison and an early Bruce Springsteen. The rock anthems would come — “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back In Town" are stone classics — but take a listen to “Cowboy Song” and “Southbound” for another look into Lynott’s skill and growth as a songwriter. “Dancing In The Moonlight,” with it’s killer, risqué “chocolate sauce” double-entendre, and “Still in Love With You” are equally as moving and, in the case of the latter, devastating. Thomson provides thoughtful insight into each album, its songs and the recording process, as well as some of the bands epic live moments — both good and bad. He also follow Lynott down the unfortunate drug path that would eventually claim him, as it had many others. Knowing where it ends doesn't make it any easier to read.
Lynott’s combination of rock star and everyman was part of his appeal, and Thomson’s book reflects the bass player’s natural warmth and likability. It can certainly be argued that his “way with people” contributed to his downward slide and the inability of those close to him to pull him out of his abyss. Charm, it would appear, cuts both ways. Lynott was one of a kind — the “Black Rose of Dublin,” himself perhaps — and Thomson has provided a book as warm, complex and engaging as his subject.
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