M J Steel Collins takes a look at the legend that is Phil Lynott.
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As most keen music fans will tell you, the 4th of January 1986 was a sad day as it saw the passing of Phil Lynott at the age of 36. It’s unfortunately the case with the early and unexpected death of a significant figure in anything from music to television to film that a lot of attention winds up being paid to the details of the cause of death, the last days, and moments – any juicy titbit is up for grabs and a public going over by the vulture-like tabloid press. To me, it’s a process that dehumanises and reduces the individual concerned to nothing more than a cypher. They deserve more than that. So, to that end, we’ll be having a look a Phil Lynott’s life, talent, and legacy. He is nothing short of a legend, vehemently loved by fans to this day. I’m new to him as a fan and can’t provide anything definitive, but what I can provide is a personal appreciation of the man.
Philip Parris Lynott was born in West Bromwich on the 20th of August 1949 to Philomena Lynott and Cecil Parris. At the time, Philomena endured much prejudice and bigotry as an unmarried mother to a mixed-race baby, which she recounted in her book My Boy: The Phillip Lynott Story, which I highly recommend. When he was seven, the young Phil went to live with his maternal grandparents in Leighlin Road, Crumlin, Dublin. He became involved in music in his early teens, his first band being The Black Eagles, who became popular, playing shows around the local area. When they needed a new drummer, a schoolmate of Phil’s, Brian Downey, stepped in.
Phil gained a range of experience from not only performing in The Black Eagles and later acts, but he also learned a lot from speaking to the residents of the Clifton Grange Hotel, also known as “The Showbiz” or “Biz,” a hotel owned by Philomena and her partner Denis in Manchester. It was a place where several musicians stayed while on the road and was certainly a hotel with a difference, being run to the routine of the guests, rather than the guests adhering to one pre-set by the hotel. Back home in Dublin, the young Phil worked hard as a musician, and cultivating his own tastes in what were seen as unusual fashions at the time. He was the lead singer in Brush Sheils’ Skid Row, where he first met a young Gary Moore, who was brought in as guitarist at the age of 16. Unfortunately, a bout of tonsil troubles was affecting Phil’s ability to sing, so he went to Manchester for a tonsillectomy under the care of Philomena. However, while Phil was recovering, Brush decided to take over vocals himself and make the band a three-piece, though he taught Phil how to play bass to help give him something to boost his music career.
Phil formed a new group Orphanage, with Brian Downey and other Dublin musicians, though Phil kept to rhythm guitar and lead vocals as he was still learning bass. One night, during an Orphanage show, Eric Bell appeared backstage saying he was looking to form his own group and needed a drummer and bassist. Phil was very keen but stipulated that he played bass and they also used his own songs. And thus, Thin Lizzy was born. As the group’s history is very well documented in numerous books and documentaries, we’ll leave them at this point and get back to the main man himself.
Whilst working the music scene, Phil was also busy writing. He carried a notebook around with him in which he was often writing. As well as lyrics, he also wrote a lot of poems. His influences came from several places – in the recent documentary Songs For While I’m Away, a short interview snippet with Phil states that the inspiration was there but he didn’t want to go further than that – not to give too much away. His songs created something of a fictional world with a cast of characters, Johnny being one recurring figure. They provided something many people could relate to in many ways – from the alpha male gang coming back to their old haunts in ‘The Boys Are Back In Town,’ frustrated prisoners busting out of the joint in ‘Jailbreak’. The swaggering notion of a rock musician can be found in ‘The Rocker’ and the issues of young love and dodging parental curfews and frustration in ‘Dancing In The Moonlight,’ which perhaps has its roots in Phil’s own youthful days of staying out late and defying his Uncle Timothy’s set time to be home by.
Phil was also heavily influenced by Irish history and folklore in his lyrics, from ‘Emerald,’ ‘Eire’ and ‘Roisin Dubh,’ the final track on Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose album. Being Irish was a core part of Phil’s identity. He read a lot of Irish history and folklore. In particular, he was extremely attached to Dublin, the subject of one of his most enduring songs, ‘Dublin’. He once said that when he was in England, he said he was from Ireland, if he was in Ireland, he was from Dublin, if he was in Dublin, he was from the Crumlin and if in Crumlin, he was from Leighlin Road. Any interviewers making mistakes or jokes about Ireland soon found the interview turned into a serious talk about Ireland!
Family and the people around him also impacted Phil’s writing, with songs including ‘Philomena,’ ‘The Saga Of An Ageing Orphan,’ ‘Clifton Grange Hotel’ and two separate songs entitled ‘Sarah’ – one for his grandmother and the other about his eldest daughter. His solo work also includes ‘Cathleen,’ written about his youngest daughter. Frankly, his output and inspirations are immense and wide-ranging. As well as his wide body of songs, Phil also released two books of poetry.
While the young Phil was growing up in the Crumlin, Philomena remained in England where she worked hard and regularly sent money to support him. She would visit a few times a year, the fact they lived apart not doing anything to diminish their relationship. It’s said that she was more like a sister than a parent to him. Or a best friend. Philomena was an incredibly strong person, described as a wild spirit, which is something her son took from her. She was also no nonsense. A couple of incidents spring to mind. In the early days of Thin Lizzy, the group were due to appear on TV in Manchester and stayed at Clifton Grange. Phil had a hat that was full of holes. Philomena was full of horrors at her son appearing on TV wearing it. She sent the band off to get cleaned up and took the hat, mending the holes. However, once Phil was performing on-stage and being filmed, she noticed that the holes had somehow reappeared and he was wearing it on TV to her great chagrin. Another incident is when Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson found himself getting his hair scrubbed by Philomena before another TV show! He described Philomena as ‘everyone’s mum rolled into one.’
Following Phil’s death, Philomena worked hard at protecting his legacy. She was open to fans, who regularly wrote to her and even got a cup of tea and shown a room of Phil’s memorabilia when they went to her house. She sadly passed away in 2019 and is held in high regard by both Thin Lizzy band members and fans alike.
Phil Lynott in the 21st Century
Nowadays, Phil Lynott’s influence burns strong. He has a statue in Dublin and his grave is regularly visited by fans leaving flowers and other tributes. His wife, Caroline, said in Songs For While I’m Away, that “This is a man that will take you years to get to know” and she is not wrong. He is a complicated figure – grand, loud, and there onstage, more retiring and a family man offstage, there are many facets. But one thing that is instantly apparent is the love he inspires, his influence on later generations and the timeless body of music he leaves.