Phil Lynott, 30 years after his death
The Thin Lizzy founder – Ireland’s first bona-fide rock star – died on January 4, 1986. Friends recall the man they knew
‘I grew up in a small town called Ballyclare, in Co Antrim,” says Andy Cairns, the lead singer with Therapy?, one of Ireland’s most resilient rock bands. “In 1976 – I was around 11 years of age – the town’s population was about 7,000, and everyone seemed to be wearing Thin Lizzy T-shirts. I mean everybody. The town’s two record shops had the Jailbreak album, and every bar had Thin Lizzy on the jukebox.
“I grew up on punk rock, and so the world of metal didn’t really appeal to me, but when I heard the riff of Jailbreak, and then saw photos of Phil Lynott – not a white bloke with flared trousers singing blues music – I realised it was something different.”
Next week it will be 30 years since Lynott died, his health damaged by heroin and alcohol, on January 4th, 1986. Cairns is clear about how much Thin Lizzy, Lynott’s band, influenced Therapy? “The opening bars of Screamager stops and starts, and that’s completely due to Jailbreak. Another song of ours, Potato Junkie, is influenced by Bad Reputation.”
It’s natural, when an anniversary comes around, for people to accentuate the positive and to draw a veil over any shortcomings. Those who knew Lynott, who had been close friends with him at various points of his career, still pay him plenty of compliments and hold his music in the highest regard – he was something of a pioneer, after all. Some also reveal a different side to him, however.
Into the parlourPat EganSpotlight
“My relationship with Phil would have been more social,” says Egan. “I’d play records in the Five Club, which was at the bottom of Harcourt Street. All the heads would come down to listen and hang out, so over a period of about five years we were pretty close. I’d be playing records at night, sleeping during the day, and he’d come up to my house on Dorset Street. My mother would invite him into the parlour and then come upstairs to shake me awake with the words, ‘That black lad is downstairs looking for you.’ But it was the job in Spotlight that gave me my music focus.”
“I met Philip in about 1972,” says the artist Jim Fitzpatrick. He is best known for creating the iconic two-tone portrait of Che Guevara, but he also designed the covers of most of Thin Lizzy’s studio albums.
“The meeting happened through Frank Murray, who was a football mate of mine, and who would go on to manage The Pogues. We played together in a football team, the name of which you really couldn’t make up: the Energy Reserves, a name coined by the poet Peter Fallon, who was also in the back line.”
Before they were introduced to each other in Neary’s Bar & Lounge, Fitzpatrick says, Lynott was “just another face I’d see walking up and down Grafton Street. We’d be wearing bell-bottoms, platform shoes, and so we’d nod a ‘Howya!’ to each other, as kindred spirits. I’d always want to talk to him, because he looked like a really interesting character.”
Fitzpatrick and Egan recollect Lynott in those days as charismatic with rock-star aspirations. “He was ambitious, but he was never cocky,” Egan says. “He was always polite to everybody, and he was a ladies’ man to a tee.”
“Philip was an immensely charming man,” Fitzpatrick says. “Gregarious, interesting, political, very proud of being Irish. His grandmother Sarah brought him up, and I had a similar background, so we both clicked due to the commonality of experience. I’m not sure that he had met anyone like myself, and I had certainly never met anyone like him. I loved his sense of humour: he was great fun to sit down with, wonderful company. We used to spend all of our time laughing.”
When Thin Lizzy’s second single, Whiskey in the Jar, became a hit, in 1972 – it topped the chart in Ireland and was a top 10 hit in the UK and Germany – Lynott had success in his sights. An appearance on Top of the Pops placed him, he felt, in his rightful position as Ireland’s first bona-fide rock star.
“As a rock star he was the ultimate showman,” says Fitzpatrick. “He loved the attention – even walking from Neary’s to the Bailey. That was his fix before he got into drugs. He’d fly into Dublin Airport, be driven into town, dropped off at the bottom of Grafton Street, and he’d get out and walk around, just to get the vibe. Dublin was his town. It wasn’t that he felt he had conquered it, but he absorbed the energy. And it was such positive energy that I think it kept him alive for a long time.”
It took until 1976, when The Boys Are Back in Town became a hit in Ireland, the UK, Canada and the US, for Thin Lizzy to exchange pints of Guinness for bottles of champagne. Before that they’d had a succession of moderate Ireland-only hits and coverage in niche publications.
In 1973 the close friendship between Lynott and Egan fractured when Egan wrote in his column in Spotlight how disappointed he was with Rudolph’s Tango, the band’s follow-up to Whiskey in the Jar.
“I suppose the song just didn’t do anything for me. A day or two after Spotlight came out I got a phone call from Phil, and I remember his exact words to this very day. He said, ‘What kind of f***in’ shit are you layin’ on me, man? I thought you were my mate . . .’ I wouldn’t have thought he would have been so sensitive to criticism, but it wasn’t really meant as such, more a case of me just not liking the song. That was the end of the friendship, though. I met him about 10 times after that, but he barely nodded to me.”
Thin Lizzy’s success from 1976 to 1983 – the band had nine top 30 singles in the UK between 1976 and 1980 – brought them stardom. It was, Fitzpatrick says, a conflicted time. “The success of Lizzy as a hard-rock act pressurised Philip into having to live up to an image. I think he found that very difficult, very contradictory.”
Fitzpatrick also recalls that the laughter, the camaraderie, dried up from the early 1980s. “Philip got serious and introspective. The drugs were kicking in. It got to the point where he told you what you wanted to hear. He had us fooled, in the sense that none of us knew the seriousness of what he was doing.”
The turning point for Lynott, Fitzpatrick believes, was the death of his grandmother. “When Sarah was alive he didn’t want anything negative to appear in the papers, or for her to be disappointed by him. No disrespect at all to his mother, Philomena, but Sarah and his wife, Caroline” – Crowther, the daughter of the English gameshow host Leslie Crowther – “were the two primary female influences in his life at the time. When Caroline left, their house descended into chaos, and so did his life.”
Fitzpatrick remembers where he was when he heard of Lynott’s death, in England. The singer, who had collapsed after a drink and drug binge, was admitted to hospital on Christmas Day 1985 with a serious kidney and liver infection. He was 36.
“I was with friends sitting in the Bailey, having an after-Christmas drink,” says Fitzpatrick. Someone was reading the Evening Herald, and I saw the headline. It was shock but not a surprise. He had survived everything. He felt himself bulletproof. You couldn’t imagine him dying.”