Tuesday 24 April 2018

Damian Corless on the last interview with Phil Lynnot before his tragic death

Our reporter on the last interview the rock legend gave before his premature and tragic death 30 years ago

The Lizzy frontman in his 1970s pomp:
The Lizzy frontman in his 1970s pomp: "His reputation is enhanced with each passing year."

Damian Corless

Thirty years ago this week, in December 1985, I conducted what would turn out to be Phil Lynott's last interview. It was a measure of how far his stock has slumped that the assignment had been passed down the line to me, the office junior. Five or six years earlier a Phil Lynott interview would have been fought over as sure-fire cover material. I was told to keep the piece short.

In the event, short was all it deserved. Some of it was unusable. There were wild mood swings between euphoria and rage. A couple of innocent questions triggered terrifying outbursts. A jokey remark about his wealth brought an angry yelled threat to terminate the session.

Two weeks later on Christmas Day he collapsed at his home in Kew. After a brief rally, he died on January 4, 1986 of pneumonia and heart failure due to septicaemia, which had in turn been brought on by years of hard living. Irieland's much loved Black Pearl was only 36.

Phil Lynott in the weeks and months before his death was a broken man. Years of heroin, cocaine and alcohol abuse had wrecked his body. The same self-destructive regime had toppled his band Thin Lizzy from the dizzy heights. Phil had been briefly restored to the Top 10 a few months earlier, but this time playing second fiddle to his one-time junior sidekick, guitarist Gary Moore. He'd been talking of reforming Lizzy in the summer of 1985, as other disbanded acts regrouped specially for Bob Geldof's Live Aid. When the invite never came Phil took it hard. On the day of the global spectacular he fetched up in the Montrose Live Aid studio. His appearance, bloated and punch drunk, was truly shocking.

It was shocking because just a few years earlier Phil Lynott had been the charismatic, lean, sex god leader of one of the most treasured and admired outfits on the planet. Twenty years after his death Rolling Stone hit the nail on the head with its judgement that: "The melancholy tear in Phil Lynott's rich voice sets Thin Lizzy far apart from the braying mid 70s metal pack. Projecting a dissolute sensitivity above duelling lead guitars, this black-Irish bass player chiseled out a distinct, lyrical hard-rock niche for his band."

Thin Lizzy hit their creative and commercial stride in the mid 70s and were the only established hard rock group approved and embraced by the coming generation during the pop purges of Punk and New Wave. The Boys Are Back In Town and its parent album Jailbreak cracked the US charts in 1976 and fully-fledged superstardom beckoned, but Lizzy always seemed jinxed.

Not one, but two US tours to capitalise on the chart success were cancelled in quick succession, when Lynott fell ill with drug-induced hepatitis and guitarist Brian Robinson injured his hand in a bar-room brawl.

As the substance abuse took a mounting toll, the band disintegrated in terms of health, creativity and togetherness, hitting a nadir with the dumb, offensive 'Killer On The Loose' hit in 1980. Displaying an addled sense of judgement, Lynott somehow felt it was appropriate to release a single penned from the point of view of Jack The Ripper at the height of the manhunt for the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe.

By 1982 Lizzy were on their last legs, with members coming and going almost by the week. Long time co-manager Chris O'Donnell quit, later lamenting: "A once brilliant band was turning to crap before my very eyes."

Lynott built a new band, Grand Slam, which was met with dull mass apathy. He binned Grand Slam, signed a solo deal, and gave his last interview upon the release of the unworthy 45 'Nineteen'. He knew it wasn't up to scratch, but said: "I did it to show I'm alive. I've landed on my feet after all the troubles of the past two years and I'm still hard 'n' heavy."

He continued about how he was making the most of the lull in his career to spend more time with his family and to reacquaint himself with Irish traditional music. His Sunday morning routine involved taking his two small children to Mass and then to the Pier House in Howth for lunch and a trad session by local group Clann Eadair.

He planned to produce Clann Eadair's debut album, experiment with the new scratch-mix fad and try his hand at movie soundtracks. He signed off on a high: "I'm back and I'm beautiful!" Two weeks later, on Christmas Day, he collapsed. He died 11 days later as his frail body surrendered to years of abuse. In denial about his own creative decline, in that final interview he insisted his banishment to the wilderness was down to the fact that: "Fashion changed. All of a sudden you got all these people wearing dresses and lipstick." And he did die out of favour with the world, but the passage of time has proven Coco Chanel's adage that while fashion passes, style remains.

Today Phil Lynott is acknowledged as a rock music great. 'The Boys Are Back In Town' blares endlessly from sports stadia around the world, while 'Old Town' has been adopted by popular acclaim as the ultra-cool anthem of Ireland's capital city.

The author of three acclaimed books on Thin Lizzy, including the new album-by-album guide Are You Ready?, Corkman Alan Byrne reflects: "Phil Lynott's reputation is enhanced with each passing year. The range of his songwriting was so broad. Fresh generations keep discovering him and falling in love. Lizzy fall into that special category of coming-of-age bands. It's like a rite of passage.

I've seldom met a casual Thin Lizzy fan. Once you've found them you're hooked."

Are You Ready by Alan Byrne is published by Soundcheck Books

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