Phil Lynott: ‘I didn’t know how shy he was, how awkward, and scared of rejection’

Thin Lizzy: Phil Lynott with Brian Downey and Gary Moore in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty
With input from the late Dublin rock star’s close friends and family, Emer Reynolds’s new film, Songs for While I’m Away, puts forward a different narrative about the Thin Lizzy frontman

Most of us have been saying Philip Lynott’s name wrong. Even Emer Reynolds, director of an entertainingly celebratory new film about him, Songs for While I’m Away, struggles with the actual pronunciation.

“I can’t get my brain rewired,” she says. “Me and everyone else in Dublin have called him Phil Linnet forever. Lynott [lie-not] is the correct pronunciation of his name. Philip always corrected everyone. He used to say ‘Why not? Lie-not’ and his grandmother used to say [of their second name] ‘We’re not a family of little birds’. But Dubliners just have their own way of doing things. And he preferred ‘Philip’. He didn’t mind ‘Philo’, I believe, but he didn’t like ‘Phil’. But the band always called him Phil so it stuck.” She laughs. “He was a complicated man even with his name.”

Thin Lizzy: Phil Lynott with guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, backstage in London in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty
Thin Lizzy: Phil Lynott with guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, backstage in London in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty

Reynolds, whose previous work include the Farthest (about the Voyager space program) and Here was Cuba (about the Cuban missile crisis), has loved Lynott and Thin Lizzy for a long time. “My sister and I had two boyfriends from Joey’s in Fairview and they were mad Lizzy fans,” she says.

“They introduced us to Lizzy when I was about 15 or 16. I was a bit of a magpie in terms of music. I was into Chris de Burgh and Steely Dan and Neil Young. I was flitting all over the place. But I had the proper intro to all the albums and I was deconstructing all the lyrics and I then I had the mid-teen obsession with them. I had them stencilled on my school bag. In fact, I went to the last ever at Thin Lizzy gig in Dublin in 1983.”

In her film, band members and friends say that the final Dublin gig was a subdued affair. “But I thought it was incredible,” says Reynolds. “It was very emotional and I couldn’t believe it was the end. It seemed like it would be they would be there forever. I thought maybe they were going break off and do some other stuff and then come back together.

“I feel very privileged that I got that opportunity to see him. I was eating out of the palm of his hand and even as a sub performance by Lizzy, the audience were screaming and crying and there was a lot of joy. But I know they were coming to the end and he was struggling a lot with addiction.”

Lynott died in 1986, tragically young, at the age of 36, and that has overshadowed his story since. “Obviously, when he died, it was immediately connected to his drug use,” says Reynolds.

“It was very sad that that was the narrative, as opposed to the narrative of his amazing rise, of his talent. I like to think that in the years between then and now, we’ve become more mature in society that we have a lot more compassion towards somebody with those kind of issues in their life. We’re not so quick to judge.”

Phil Lynott performing live with Thin Lizzy in Wembley. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns
Phil Lynott performing live with Thin Lizzy in Wembley. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Part of what Reynold is trying to do in her film is gently subvert the rise-and-fall narrative with the input of close friends and relatives, including, for the first time, his daughters. “I wasn’t interested in that kind of terrible, sensationalist, salacious tabloidy narrative of the rock star ripping up the hotel rooms and then having a terrible fall from grace. I was interested in something a bit more nuanced, that would focus on the poet, the songwriter, the man behind the image.”

So her film focuses on his relationships and his craft and how hard he worked at it. (Reynold’s favourite Thin Lizzy album, by the way, is Nightlife.) Why did she want to avoid the more salacious version of the story? “I just think I know it,” she says. “We all know how it goes. And the Phil Lynott narrative fits very neatly into it... This poor, illegitimate son raised by his grandmother, the great climb, a hundred thousand people at the Sydney Opera House, then drugs come in and he loses everything and dies... It’s a story we know, we’ve been told it 100 times.

“It’s a cliche, a macho story, and I think there’s a salacious interest in the fall. I don’t find it interesting. What I find interesting about him is his life, not his death... What made him tick? What made him write the songs he wrote? How did a little mixed-race boy in Dublin in 1950s and 1960s Ireland dream of this life and then forge that path? I think that’s incredible.”

Philip tried to reveal his real self through his songs, but sometimes it was covered by this big noisy rock band. He was deflecting all the time

Did she have preconceptions about Lynott?

“As an idiot fan, I bought a lot of what I was seeing,” she says. “I thought he was superconfident and knew exactly the path he was on. That’s certainly what he exuded on stage. So I didn’t know how shy he was. I didn’t know how awkward he was and how vulnerable, and his fear of rejection. I didn’t understand that he had crafted this rock image, this rock persona, this stagecraft as a means of disguising himself, as a vehicle through which you could engage with the world.

“And I didn’t know that journey that he went on from this shy, poetic boy who was interested in Irish culture and mythology and had these dreams of crafting all that into songs to this other older, ubermasculine, sexy character.”

So where did that come from? “I think some of the story of how he did it was because of how rare he was and also how loved he was,” she says.

“He talks about the love he had from the Lynott family when he came here. He wasn’t separate and odd. He was just absorbed in this huge Crumlin family who adored him. He had to leave his mother and he came here at the age seven... There’s a lot of darkness and sadness in that; certainly the separation from his mother must have ripped a huge hole in in his sense of self and his beliefs. But he came here and was loved. And that’s very clear from all his stories... It wasn’t the multicultural Ireland we know today. But he made himself stand out.

“He stood out anyway. He was interested in clothes. He was interested in style. He was quite happy to be a peacock, strutting and being unique. So he got a lot of confidence from his childhood, I think. Hidden amongst the loss and the separation and the vulnerability there was also great self-belief.”

Phil Lynott in 1979. Photograph: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty
Phil Lynott in 1979. Photograph: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty

Her teenage self didn’t question the public image, she says. “He was so beautiful and expressive [and] literally embodied to me sex appeal on wheels... I didn’t really see that there might have been other pieces to it. Adam Clayton talks about how every pop star or rock star needs some armour to go onstage... Philip tried to reveal his real self through his songs, but sometimes it was covered by this big noisy rock band. He was deflecting all the time. But I love that he was hiding in plain sight.

“He talks about how it was much easier for him to say, ‘I’ll knock your block off’ than it was to say ‘I love you’, to reveal the sensitive, vulnerable person. He created a vehicle through which he could engage with the world. I think Midge Ure says in the film that that was the Philip that he had in his mind, that was the Philip who he wanted to be.”

He also unhesitatingly embraced his Irishness, which she thinks was hugely important to his reputation in Ireland.

“When he came to Ireland, he had a very big strong Birmingham accent, but very quickly, in school, he lost that accent and adopted this very coherent Dublin identity... He didn’t try to rub his accent out. He was determined to stay connected to here, always toured here and kept Ireland very close, and they always described themselves as an Irish band, even though, for most of it, Irish people were a minority or only 50 per cent of the band.”

Thin Lizzy: Phil Lynott with Brian Downey and Gary Moore in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty
Thin Lizzy: Phil Lynott with Brian Downey and Gary Moore in 1974. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty

What is his legacy? “They get credited with kicking the door in for Irish bands. And it’s hard to overestimate seeing Thin Lizzy on Top of the Pops in 1972. Bands like the Boomtown Rats and U2 know the debt they owe Thin Lizzy. But they don’t just stand as an intro to U2. His musical legacy stands for itself. What’s interesting about him is that kind of inspirational legacy, that humanity legacy.

“In his story there’s so much room for us to reflect on who we were as a society then and who we are now. How hard it must have been for a little mixed-race kid from an underprivileged part of Dublin to do what he did... A few weeks ago there was an issue of Hot Press about the black African Irish music scene... A direct connection hasn’t been made [between that scene and Lynott], but there should be. He was a black Dubliner that made it on the world stage at a time when Irish people just didn’t do that. That wasn’t our narrative. Philip made it our narrative. He made it possible for us all.”

Emer Reynolds: ‘I really felt as a fan and as a Dubliner that I needed to do [Lynott] proud’
Emer Reynolds: ‘I really felt as a fan and as a Dubliner that I needed to do [Lynott] proud’

How was making this different from her previous documentaries? “I really felt as a fan and as a Dubliner that I needed to do him proud,” she says. “Adam Clayton actually said to me, very gently and kindly, ‘You have a lot of responsibility, you know?’ And I knew. The sense of responsibility, that was the difference. I was choosing what parts of his personality and life to focus on. And I’m very aware of my role in it. I’m cherry picking, [but] I’m trying to be as open and as honest and all embracing of the truth as I can.”

It’s kind of like unpacking a holy icon. She laughs. “It’s terrifying.”

If Lynott hadn’t died what does she think might have happened?

“I’d like to think that, had he lived, Lizzy would have got another round and he would be touring like all the rockers who are out there now in their 60s and 70s ripping up stadiums. I’d love to think that that would have been a journey he would have gone on.

“He was a very, very experimental and interested character... I think had he gotten clean and stayed alive – in some other universe, wouldn’t that have been just amazing? – I think he would have done some really nuanced, interesting work. I think he would have really surprised us.”

Songs for While I’m Away is in cinemas from today