Cowboy Song, the Phil Lynott biography: joy of the songs, the joylessness of success
Joseph O’Connor finds this well-researched, competent biography of Ireland’s first rock star, Phil Lynott, a dispiriting read, and pays his own trbiute
Bob Geldof has remarked of Philip Lynott that he was the first Irish rock star. Before Philo there came a John the Baptist in a lumberjack shirt, the peerless Rory Gallagher, maestro of the blues, whose particular blend of modesty and nuanced knowledge of his genre, allied to his exquisite musicianship and refusal of compromise, made him a hero to music fans all over the world, the Stones and Deep Purple among them.
Van Morrison’s talismanic genius was to blend the images of a Belfast working-class childhood with the loosey-juicy stylings of Sonny Terry, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, and then to connect a Yeatsian vision with the truths of soul and gospel, as no one else has done, before or since. And Horslips offered a glorious otherworld in which the celestial beauty of Turlough O’Carolan’s planxties might be syncopated to glam, played with wry humour and a sense of the now, melded with the hard-nosed, three-chord trick. An Dearg Doom gave Irishmen permission to dance in public. Without it, we’d all have gone mad.
But Philip was the first Irish person ever to bound onto a stadium stage in leather trousers and bawl to the gods: ‘Are you OUT there?’ At a time when sexual self-esteem was constitutionally illegal in Ireland, except to bishops, certain taoisigh, one or two lady novelists, and married couples in possession of a prescription from their doctors, he believed in rock and roll, its pomps and grandiosities, its amps that went up to 11. He called his fans “supporters”. Lizzy were a team, not a group, a Man United of rock, a way of regarding the world.
U2 are a mightily talented band but they wouldn’t call an album Live and Dangerous. To do so would slightly offend against taste and truth, two qualities which, in an odd way, Philip personified, as a number of Dublin working-class writers have always done. There was a touch of Brendan Behan and Francis Street balladeer Zozimus in his twinkling eye and in his low-lidded, downright dirty acknowledgement that sex was not missionary work but fun. He was cheeky, irreverent and had a feeling for words, an ability to bang them together in ways that produced sparks. Alas, there were other Behanesque parallels, too, and those would prove his undoing.
The opening third of this authorised biography does a solid and interesting job of revealing how the younger Philip Parris Lynott was a great deal more complex, multifaceted and sensitive than the icon he was to become. Born in south-west Birmingham, to an Irish single mother and an Afro-Guyanese father who soon hit the bricks, he moved to Crumlin at the age of eight, where he was raised by relatives who adored him.
His “blackness” was rarely an issue. It made him stand out, but, fascinatingly, there are few instances reported in this book where he was victim of racism in working-class Dublin. Yes, he was sometimes referred to by fellow young musicians as “that spade singer”, which annoyed him, and some of the local children, in their innocence, assumed he was an African, but in general the colour of his skin appears to have been only one of his many colours, part of a Joseph’s coat he was embroidering. For those who believe that “race” is an ideological construct, a concept that no biologist has ever successfully managed to define, the early life of Philip Lynott makes thought-provoking reading. He didn’t get the memo that to be “black” was to know your place.
As a teenager he hung out in the city’s beat clubs, coffee bars and music venues. Flamboyant in dress and angelically handsome, he practised his sleepy come-and- get-me grin in the mirror at home in Leighlin Road, deployed it to wowing effect on his perambulations about the Dandelion Market and was rarely short of female companionship. In his worldview, women were “chicks” and his role was to aspire to roosterdom. It was an antediluvian mindset that he would never quite outgrow, a pity for him, perhaps, certainly a cause of great pain for others. The mask of being Philo was, like all masks, a disguise, but also, you feel, a constriction.
While failing to impress his teachers, he was captivated by the heroic version of Irish history, that penny-dreadful cartoon that the Christian Brothers magazine Our Boys perpetrated on the innocent, and was much taken by Irish poets and poetry. He hung out with the band Doctor Strangely Strange and became one of Dublin’s brave little crew of admirable bohemians, who would gather in a miasma of patchouli oil and hope, reading verses, exchanging ideas and generally getting it on. These seem to have been happy days for him, and happier nights. You come away from this account slightly wishing he’d remained in them. He might be alive today if he had.
Some of the book’s wisest comments come from his friend, the poet and publisher Peter Fallon, who remarks that Philip’s ascent was simultaneously his collapse. Like Jay Gatsby, this shyly funny, smart, Hendrix-loving boy would one day live in a mansion and drunkenly pass strangers on the staircase, wondering why they were there.
There are times when Graeme Thomson’s prose reaches astute heights and stirs recognitions. “It’s not really a rock voice at all,” he writes of Philip’s singing. “The wood-smoke timbre, the high-wire sense of timing and off-beat phrasing position [him] closer to folk and jazz. He was a crooner.”
Unfortunately, there are other passages where the going becomes sticky. Cliches are thrown about like cocaine at an orgy. On page 130, we learn that London was “a breath of fresh air”. Page 140 sees Philip “banging his head against a brick wall”. Soon afterwards, our young Lothario has “his ear to the ground”, before tempting “lightning to strike twice”. On page 187 we meet out old friend “do or die”. Philip’s girlfriend “drove him to distraction”. At such moments, and there are a few too many, the subject disappears, rendered invisible by the second-hand usages. As it stands, this is a solid and in many ways an admirable book, but an editorial currycombing would have improved it.
The story is one of remarkable joylessness. Success brings status anxiety, neurosis about position. This is a world where Queen’s limousine is bigger than yours and a younger, hungrier band is always on your tail. The door you kicked open to make good your escape has been noticed by the Boomtown Rats. You find yourself on Top of the Pops but are depressed because of having to mime. Brian Robertson, Lizzy’s Scottish guitarist, self-medicates on a bottle of whiskey a day. Congratulated on the band’s massive achievements by a member of Horslips, Philip replies, “But I can’t get a buzz, man. I can’t get a buzz.” Even the bounteous sex is cross-hatched with a ruthlessness which sometimes becomes chilling. The book makes being in a world-famous rock band sound about as much fun as getting cocktail sticks stuck in your eyes.
But then, there is the replenishing joy of the songs themselves, that carnival of outlaws, renegades and chancers, tumbling through the sunbursts of his rhymes. From the lonesome cowboy’s prairie to the louche streets of Soho, from the mythic Celtic battlefields over to Dino’s bar and grill, his restless creativity roamed. You could stock a damn good jukebox with only his work, so vivid the eye for detail and so capacious its reach. In the best of the writing, he was a witty and shrewd storyteller, with a good novelist’s ability to nail a truth in one line. There is surely no greater description of teenage love than Dancing in the Moonlight’s self-delighted admission, “My father says I’m going crazy, says I’m living in a trance”.
Certain parts of this book made me feel uneasy. Every biographer of a self-destructive addict must tell the story, of course. But perhaps only in a court-room do we need the whole truth and nothing but. In biography, the subject is surely entitled to a little human dignity, too, a smidgeon of retreating tact. Few of us would like our every lowest moment and stupid decision to be chronicled with such scrupulous thoroughness, either as a warning to others or for the benefit of posterity, that thin-lipped, remorseless, beady-eyed goddess of those who never did anything wrong.
Philip’s drug-fuelled collapse from brilliant and perfectionist songwriter with a phenomenal work-rate into musical irrelevance and allied personal failure is laid out in chilly detail. Here he is, with buds of toilet paper up his nostrils to stanch coke-fuelled bleeding, injecting into his toes when the veins in his arms become too fragile, every grovel, puke, debasement and betrayal preserved for the reader to tut at. You might wonder, in a Lynottian phrase, if it means to justify the ends.
This is a comprehensively researched and competently written account. Through no fault of the author, who clearly loves Philip Lynott’s achievement, it is also a wrenchingly dispiriting read, a reminder, as though we needed one, that fame, like heroin, is a pact only the devil can win. As a Lizzy fan, and an admirer of the unique and playful genius at the heart of the first truly great Dublin band, I’m a bit sorry that I read this admirably thorough book, which is surely the most complete account of the fallibility of its subject we are ever likely to have. The songs will abide. That’s the only consolation. But it’s a real one. Even in the darkest night, you can always hear the king’s call.
Joseph O’Connor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His novel The Thrill of it All is published by Vintage. His radio play, The Vampyre Man, about the friendship between Bram Stoker and the actor Henry Irving, was shortlisted for the BBC Radio Drama Awards