Saturday 24 September 2016

Books: The boy who broke down - biography of Phil Lynott

Biography: The Cowboy Song, Graeme Thomson, Constable, hdbk, €18.99

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Long-legged black 'orphan': Lynott on stage in 1984, two years before his death at the age of 36.
Long-legged black 'orphan': Lynott on stage in 1984, two years before his death at the age of 36.
Cowboy Song

John Spain on the authorised biography of Ireland's first global rock star, Philip Lynott.

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Anyone old enough to have been around Dublin in the late 1960s will remember seeing Phil Lynott loping down Grafton Street on Saturday afternoons, the rocker flaneur. Whenever the boys were back in town, Philo would be there, meeting the Skid Row fans, chatting up the girls. Well before Thin Lizzy, he was already a star, with a stroll half way between a saunter and a swagger.

Those were the days before Dublin became the multi-cultural city it is today and Philip was an exotic figure. As Graeme Thomson puts it in his biography, the long, lean, coffee-skinned boy became a celebrity simply by existing.

Of course, there was the odd racial 'joke', but mainly he was met with an admiring curiosity and it was like that here from the beginning. Sent back by his mother from England to live with his grandparents in Crumlin when he was seven, Philip went to the local Christian Brothers where, on his first day, the kids gathered round to touch his hair. Then, and later, he capitalised on being different. "Automatically, he was like a peacock," remembers one friend from the Skid Row days.

It's an early indication of how good this biography is that even though the author is Scottish, he perfectly captures the atmosphere in Dublin in the 60s and 70s. But then Thomson is one of the UK's best music writers who has already done acclaimed biographies of Kate Bush and George Harrison. There have been other books on Philip but this is the definitive biography, authorised by the Lynott estate, and it is an outstanding piece of work.

Thomson grounds the book in Philip's childhood, the difficult early days in Britain with his young single mother (two younger siblings were given up for adoption) and his boyhood in Crumlin. He may have been, as Thomson puts it, black, illegitimate and born in England, with a Guyanese father who he rarely saw, but once here, he came to regard himself completely as Irish. "He was totally Irish, in every sense. He couldn't be more Irish," Bob Geldof says.

Yet, as Thomson suggests, he was marked by his difference and his early experiences. He had a deep-rooted sense of abandonment and loss that is evident in his many of his songs (it's no accident that one of the bands he formed was called Orphanage).

As one would expect from a music writer of Thomson's calibre, this book is excellent on Philip's journey in rock, from the early days and influences that shaped him to international stardom and the excesses that undermined him. But it's more about him than the music.

Thomson rightly points out that although Philip was Ireland's first global rock star - "a Dionysian study in leather trousers, studded wristband, clenched fist and gypsy earring" - he was more than that. Too often he was labelled heavy metal when his music and song writing were gentle and poetic as well as powerful. "Amid the swagger, there was always a lightness of touch," Thomson writes.

Thomson is good on Philip's involvement with the arts scene in Dublin at the time and with friends like the poet Peter Fallon and the artist Jim Fitzpatrick, an awareness that gave a Celtic feel to much of his writing. This was explicit in 'Whiskey in the Jar', the traditional standard that had become hackneyed from being belted out every night in the folk pubs. Philip had started messing around with it as a joke but Thomson says the song appealed to him because of its fatalistic account of the marauding highwayman. He was, however, more interested in developing a new Celtic sound than in the tired old ballads.

Thomson says that even if Philip had never written songs, his smoky voice, off-beat phrasing and melancholic undertone, which were closer to folk and jazz than rock, would have marked him out.

But of course it was his explosive rocker performances that brought international success. Exactly how that came about and how the great albums were created is explored in great detail in this book. It's not only a fascinating insight into Philip's musical progression but a behind-the-scenes look at the music business at the time.

It also reveals a lot about the kind of man Philip was and much of what emerges does not show him in a good light. He wasn't deliberately mean but he was obsessed with the music and driven to succeed, and that meant he was often careless with people. And there were always large quantities of drink and dope around. On tour it was chaotic and at home he was surrounded by mates and people who were just crashing in his place, whether it was in London or Dublin.

Philip was a man who could not bear to be alone, his neighbour in Howth, Jim Fitzpatrick, remembers. And this is echoed in the rather sad afterword to the book written by Philip's widow, Caroline. They could have had an idyllic life together in the fairy tale house on the beach in Howth but she says that "they spent so little time alone. Invariably one of his male friends/employees/coterie would be there too."

He seemed to yearn for normality, going to church, walking the dog, joining in the life of the fishing village, but a lot of it was superficial. Caroline writes that "he was such a mass of contradictions - a man who loved to seduce women but seemed afraid of intimacy."

Even at the height of his career, his inner demons were always there to haunt him and more than once in America, just when they were on the verge of success, he blew the chance. Thomson does not minimise this destructive downside and the disabling toll of the drugs and the booze, nor does he dodge the reality that, as well as being generous and sensitive, Philip was not just difficult but at times cruel to those around him, including those who cared the most.

The final, tragic decline in his house in Kew outside London makes difficult reading. By then he was bloated, ill and frequently spent days in bed. The house was usually full of hangers-on, groupies and druggies (he was injecting heroin). As Thomson says, Philip would pass people on the stairs and have no idea who they were.

Jim Fitzpatrick - one of several old friends who tried to talk him round -remembers "a scene of squalor in a very beautiful house". On one visit to London, he found a young woman lying comatose on the sofa, a cigarette burning her hand. She had been smoking heroin with Philip and they had just had sex. Apparently she had been living on the couch for several months.

The end, when it came on January 4, 1986, was by then predictable. Thomson writes tersely about the sequence of events at Kew that last Christmas and does not speculate about whether Philip might have been saved if he had been brought to hospital earlier. Given the way his system was shutting down, destroyed by years of abuse, it seems unlikely. He was just 36.

This book marks the 30th anniversary of his death. The long-legged black 'orphan' is gone but the glorious songs like 'The Boys are Back in Town' and 'Dancing in the Moonlight' will raise a sad smile forever.

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