From the archives: Don’t believe a word – The life and death of Phil Lynott

Originally published in 1986, Fintan O’Toole recalls the Thin Lizzy frontman’s upbringing in Crumlin, the band’s rise to fame, and the final days of the rocker

 

Leighlin, Clonmacnoise, Ferns, Kells, Bangor, Lismore, Clogher. The centre of the corporation estate of Crumlin was started in the year of the Eucharistic Congress and built in the shape of the Eucharistic Cross. The roads were named after the dioceses of the Irish Catholic Church. Out here it was new territory, a kind of Ireland – suburban and working-class – not known before. As if to magic away the uncertainty of what might emerge from these winding rows of pebble-dashed two-up-and-two-downs, the planners gave them the shape and the names of the greatest institution of Irish tradition – the church. Happy homes and happy families, with the huge vaulted church and the granite barracks-like police station to look down and smile, and not a whisper of rock and roll on the distant breezes.

I’m a little black boy

and I don’t know my place,

I’m just a little black boy

I just threw my ace

I’m a little black boy

Recognise my face.

Phil Lynott, Black Boys on the Corner

Phil Lynott was born on August 20th, 1951 and brought up on Leighlin Road, but his happy family was not the kind which the planners dreamed of. His father had never been around. He lived with his grandmother and his two uncles, Peter and Timmy. Timmy worked and kept the family going: not poor, just making ends meet. Granny was the matriarch. But Peter was the dreamer and Peter was the rocker. At Armagh Road CBS primary school, the typical taunt “Ya Baluba!” had an extra cutting edge when aimed at the little black boy, and Philip, though he suffered no serious racism, was more self-conscious, more angular, than the other kids. But with the self-consciousness was a new reason to be proud.

The music that Uncle Peter listened to was soul and rhythm and blues, black music, even if it was sung by whites. Philip grew up with The Yardbirds, The Who, The Animals, led by his hero Eric Burdon, and. beyond that, with the black soul music of the Stax label singers. Later, when his uncle Peter turned down the job of singing with The Black Eagles, the first Crumlin rock band, Philip would take his place.

Forever an orphan

The music never completely filled the gap left by his father. Philip looked for heroes, in books and in the cinema. At the Roxy and the Stella he acquired a taste for stand-up saviours, lone men pitted against the world. In his songs he would again and again return to the figure of the hero, of the Wild West or of Celtic mythology. Thinking of himself as an orphan, he had himself adopted by the heroic loners of his dream world. He called one of his first bands The Orphanage and wrote songs like Shades Of a Blue Orphanage (“...the Roxy and the Stella/whcre film stars starred/that’s where me and Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers got drunk and jarred/and we might have been/the saviours of men/the captured captain in the devil’s demon den.”)

There were times, after he had grown up and become famous, when he went looking for his father. He looked in the big cities of the western world. He even ended up once in Rio, where his father might have come from. In the end, he invented myths about his father, writing him into cosy domestic scenes in his songs, or transporting him into the realm of the legendary heroes. In his 1973 Thin Lizzy album Vagabonds of the Western World he had a song, Legend of the Vagabond, in which a mysterious traveller from afar meets and falls in love with a young girl, fathers a child by her and leaves on the night the child is born. “It is written from that day to this, all male descendants/Of the fatherless child are blessed in the art of love/to win the heart of any, but cursed never to be in love/or they will grow old and wither.” Phil Lynott, the fatherless child, never grew old and withered. But he never stopped thinking of himself as an orphan.

Father and I waved goodbye

As we went to look

Uncle Peter was writing a book

And his mama was starting to cook

And she’s ageing

- Saga of the Ageing Orphan

The boys from back in town

Armagh Road primary school had no secondary school attached. The boys from ambitious families, the ones anxious to take advantage of the new benefits of free education, went on to Drimnagh Castle, a hub of the new meritocracy. The others went to Clogher Road Tech. Philip Lynott went to the Tech and stayed until he was 15. He went on to Tonge and Taggart metal works as an apprentice, going to Bolton Street College of Technology on day release to study mechanical drawing. Except for the music, it was a normal working-class upbringing. But the music was everything. Shortly after he left the Tech, Lynott returned to play a gig in the school hall, making a big splash, putting on the style. He loved the idea of being king in a world where the teachers’ writ didn’t run, where you could make it big without them.

In the mid-1960s, Dublin had a bit of money, a lot of young people and a hunger for the new rock music. Music clubs, where bands played and the audience drank minerals, blossomed. There was the Club A Go-Go, the Five Club, the Moulin Rouge, the Flamingo, the Seventeen Club, the Scene Club. Club Arthur! the Apartment. The clubs were small and the entrance was cheap but there was enough work around to keep a succession of new bands going. The bands played the clubs on a four-week circuit, returning to the same place and pretty much the same audience every month. There were also gigs at tennis clubs outside the city centre, in Templeogue and Terenure, and halls in Fairview, Donnybrook, and Phibsboro.

Phil Lynott’s first band, The Black Eagles, formed in Crumlin in 1968, with a line-up that would soon include the Thin Lizzy drummer Brian Downey. They played in a few of the clubs while Downey and Lynott were still at Clogher Road Tech, as well as finding a place on the bill of the large rock concerts in Crumlin’s Apollo cinema. By the time they left school, the band had split, but Lynott had tasted the tang of rock and roll, and moved on to another local Crumlin band, Kama Sutra. In 1969 he became the singer with Brush Shiels’ Skid Row.

Years on Skid Row

Psychedelia hit Dublin in 1968, and Skid Row were its harbingers. The bands around the clubs until then, bands like The Vampires and The Strangers, still thought that Good Vibrations and The Sloop John B were far-out numbers. Skid Row brought echo chambers, liquid lights, and smoke bombs and Little Mick’s eight millimetre films. Little Mick would film the band in one club and show the movie behind them while they played at the next one. Skid Row were louder, weirder and hipper than anyone had ever dared to be in Dublin before. Lynott was getting into the I Ching, Kafka, and acid before anyone else. He was listening to The Fugs and The Velvet Underground when hardly anyone else in Ireland had even heard of them. Lynott, they said, was really sussed.

By the time he was pushed out of Skid Row – he had tonsillitis and Gary Moore could sing as well as playing lead guitar – he had learned a lot about style, about giving the people something different. He had also learned the peculiar mixture of arty romanticism and macho hardman strutting that would become his image for stardom. By the time he formed Thin Lizzy in 1970 with Brian Downey and the Belfast duo of guitarist Eric Bell and keyboard player Eric Wrixon (Wrixon was let go half way through the band’s first year and subsequently written out of the official biographies – the rock and roll business has no tears for the ones who don’t make it), Lynott had a persona to sell.

I am your main man if you re looking for trouble

I’ll take no lip ‘cause no one’s tougher than me.

If I kicked your face you d be seeing double.

Hey little girl keep your hands off me.

– The Rocker

Macho is an exaggerated masculinity in which an aggressive toughness goes easily with a romantic posture, and Lynott, by the lime he was 20, had adopted the style. He didn’t mind fighting but he liked a stylish fight, one hard punch and walk away. He took on the classic Latin macho image, growing a thin Latin moustache, and wearing toreador outfits, with short jackets coming to the waist, of his own invention. On him, they looked good and he earned extra money doing fashion spreads for women’s magazines. In his songs he would refer often to Rudolph Valentino, and for Lizzy’s follow up single to Whiskey in the Jar, he released a classic Latin fantasy, Randolph’s Tango, full of Latin moonlight and the boys at the ranch and a senorita looking pure as a dove, all in white. “Don’t go my Randolph, slow tango with me.”

Macho confidence

As Thin Lizzy began to be successful, the macho confidence grew. Lynott was the man who could handle anything, drink anyone under the table, get any women he wanted. One of the things he thought he could handle was drugs. In the early 1970s in the Dublin rock scene, there was dope and acid. Smack (heroin) was a distant rumour, cocaine had hardly been heard of. That stuff would come later.

In 1970, Zhivago’s night club opened in Dublin, a new kind of place where you drank alcohol instead of minerals while you danced the night away. The clubs, where the Dublin rock scene had blossomed, fell into sharp decline, and bands like Thin Lizzy were much too heavy for the more sophisticated night clubs, who preferred the control of discos to the wild frenzy of live rock. Lizzy were smart enough to see the change coming and moved out into the still-thriving ballrooms, building themselves a national following in the way that very few rock bands had done. There were “heads” in the country too, and Lizzy, six months into their career, got a run on the ABC ballroom circuit, playing a one-hour set, sandwiched between the showband’s two sets. For this they got £150 a night. In the Dublin clubs, they had been getting about £35.

Particularly after Eric Wrixon had been pushed out, and the band reduced to a three piece, the rock business began to provide a passable, if by no means decent living. In Dublin there were still the larger ballrooms, the TV Club, the Crystal and Ierne, which could attract a crowd of up to 800 for their Teenage Friday Nights. In June 1970, Thin Lizzy did a one-off deal with EMI/Parlophone, who pressed a single The Farmer. Even if it only sold 273 copies, it at least proved that they were a real rock band.

More importantly, they were an Irish rock band. Lynott’s black skin and lithe style had an exotic air and the band’s thunderous sound was like nothing from the Ballroom of Romance, but his accent was unmistakable. In their early days, Lizzy did Jimi Hendrix numbers and a loud, brash, 20-minute version of Dancing in the Streets, the 1960s hit recently re-released by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. The song lists the names of American cities, from Chicago to New Orleans. When Lynott sang it, he shouted an extended litany of Irish towns, from Cork to Ballina, like a country and western singer singing the right song for the locality of the ballroom. If the harsh violent sounds of hard rock were a culture shock to the Irish, Thin Lizzy narrowed the gap and nationalised the music.

And everywhere the band went, there were women. For Lynott, the women were not just an occupational perk, they were in a real sense a part of the business. He had a woman every night and argued that it was good for the band’s business. He brought the women to the gigs, the women brought the men. Sex was a personalised form of PR for the band, a way of building up a loyal following. The macho style became more than a style, it became a part of his way of life. Like the drugs, it was a habit he would never kick.

Don’t believe me if I tell you

Not a word of this is true

Don’t believe me if I tell you

Especially if I tell you that I’m in love with you.

– Don’t Believe A Word

The road to London

London was the place to be for a young rock band, and to get there the band needed management. Their first manager, Terry O’Neill, sold his rights on Thin Lizzy for £150 to Pete Bardon and Brian Tuite, who had connections across the water. The band moved to London to heel up on Granny’s Intentions, the band who, with Skid Row, had found the path for Irish acts into the big time and the big city. They signed up with Decca Records in November 1970 and five months later, released their first album, Thin Lizzy. But the money in London for live bands was considerably lower than the going rates in Ireland and until the beginning of 1973 when Whiskey in the Jar became a freak hit for the band, they survived in England only on the strength of twice yearly Irish tours. At this stage, the band could command £300 a night (about €4,800 today) in the ballrooms of Ireland, which meant that they could make £6,000 (about €95,000 today) in three weeks of hard slogging at home. After everything was paid for, there was enough to subsist in London for the rest of the year.

Even after the success of Whiskey in the Jar, which reached number six in the British charts in February 1973, Phil Lynott wasn’t rich. The money from the record was enough for a decent flat and better band equipment, but it wasn’t until May 1976, when The Boys Are Back in Town made the top 10 in Britain and America, taking the album Jailbreak with it, that Lynott became rich. Within a month he was seriously ill with hepatitis, forcing the cancellation of the band’s crucial American tour. From then until his death, he never broke down again, and even though he was using both heroin and cocaine, his high energy made him believe that he could take it on and beat it, like anything else. He had it sussed.

The wild ones

He had the music business sussed too. When the bloated old rock order was toppled by punk in 1977, Thin Lizzy survived. Lynott helped Bob Geldof, about to sweep into the charts on the coat tails of punk, to get established in London. He turned up at all the wild parties for the young bands who were just about to make it big. He had the stamina to out-party them all. While the others were being written off as boring has-beens, Lynott retained the confidence of the industry. He could still cut it in the wild man stakes. By the end of 1978 he was playing with the enfants terribles of the new wave, The Sex Pistols, in a pick-up band called The Greedy Bastards, in both Dublin and London. While the others were retiring to their country mansions to play the family man, Lynott was riding the new energy and taking care of the business. He had been doing it a lot longer than any of the young pretenders and he wasn’t going to stop.

Bands on tour have contracts. There’s the money, of course, by now around £20,000 (roughly €150,000 today) for the services of Phil Lynott, but there’s also the extras. The little bands get a crate of beer in the dressing room. Further up the scale it’s beer, and a bottle of brandy, a bottle of tequila and a bottle of white wine, chilled. Thin Lizzy reached the heights where it could be six dozen bottles of German pils, a case of champagne, a bottle of the best cognac, and what’s a few hundred quid on drink out of a gig that’s costing £20,000?

Cocaine keeps you sober. It boosts your energy and keeps you from falling apart, even if you’re drinking most of the night and getting out on the road again early the next morning. It also hides the debilitating effects of heroin. And it keeps you going in a world of lonesome heroes who take on the world and beat it. It’s okay so long as you can handle it, so long as you have it sussed.

Now I’ve been messing with the heavy stuff

And for a lime I couldn’t get enough

But I’m waking up and it’s wearing off.

Junk don’t take you far.

Tell my mama I’m coming home

And in my youth I’m getting older

And I think it’s lost control.

Mama, I’m coming home

Got to give it up

Give it up

Got to give it up, that stuff

Got to give it up.

– Got To Give It Up

On Sunday January 5th, 1986, Heavy Metal Heather cashed in her chips. She told her story to the Mirror and for the next two days it ran under the banner “The private hell of my rock hero”. She wasn’t called Heavy Metal Heather, which was the name she went by in the rock world, but “Heather Mitson, the housewife who shared the life of doomed rock star Phil Lynott.

“Housewife Heather Mitson had everything anyone could wish for – a loving husband, a pleasant home and all the comforts money can buy. But, like millions of other suburban housewives she dreamed and longed for the excitement and glamour that was missing in her respectable life.” When Phil Lynott died, Mitson got in first with her story of life with the tragic star. Dozens of other women could have told the same story, but Mitson got in first and had two days of fame as his “ex-girlfriend”. It was the last star turn for Phil Lynott, the final bow to the public for whom he had played at being a hero. “All I’ve done,” Mitson told the Mirror on the Monday after his death “is to write his epitaph”.

Dear Lord take the time

1 believed your story now you believe mine

Give me dignity

Restore my sanity

My vanity is killing me.

– Dear Lord

All lyrics quoted are from A Collected Works of Philip Lynott, published in 1983. Originally published in Magill magazine, January 1986

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