He died 25 years ago on January 4th. It's still hard to believe. What a force! What a memory!
He was the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. Even before he “made it,” he cut a figure the length and breadth of Dublin. Phil Lynott was black, beautiful and sported a gurrier accent that could peel the skin off a turnip.
In the early days, Hendrix was his role model but I’m now reminded more of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Loping down O’Connell Street like some psychedelic Pied Piper, he was usually trailed by a bunch of kids. His white teeth gleamed in a perpetual smile and he winked or bade hello to anyone who caught his eye.
I knew him by repute before I ever laid eyes on him - his small triumphs on the Dublin beat scene were trumpeted in Spotlight Magazine. His humiliations were even more public: Skid Row broke up to get rid of him, then reformed without him.
But nothing could stop Philo – within months he’d mastered the bass and formed Thin Lizzy. Soon thereafter, I met him.
On good weeks Pierce Turner and I would treat ourselves to a curry in the Luna Restaurant on O’Connell Street, a popular hangout for showband heads and rockers. To our delight we were given a table right behind Phil and Eric Bell.
Eric who? Oh, you know him well enough – you listen to guitarists ape his lines on Whiskey in the Jar damn near every time you enter an Irish bar.
I can still recall Phil in the Luna declaiming, “we’re goin’ nowhere in Ireland, man!” He was trying to convince a skeptical Eric that they should decamp for England. They did and the rest is history.
Have you any idea of what it was like to first hear Whiskey in the Jar explode out of car radios and cloth covered transistors? Roll over Amhrán na bhFiann, we’d just found our own national anthem – Eric’s overdriven guitar and Phil’s cathartic voice took that old tune to places we’d never dreamed of.
Even now when I play it on SiriusXM I’m struck by its sheer originality. It always raises my spirits and shoots me back to a time when rock & roll was fresh and adventurous and unaware of itself.
A couple of years later Eric quit the band onstage in an orgy of smashed amps and overdriven dreams. I guess he really hadn’t wanted to go to England.
It took two guitarists to replace him but Lizzy stormed on. Phil used his presence, voice and songwriting chops to propel them far beyond his Crumlin roots. Their concerts were riotous mind-bending affairs, pulsing with life and dicing with controlled chaos. You could almost touch the adrenaline – and it wasn’t always natural.
Those were the days when rockers lived on the jittery edge, forever on the road with a costly album to promote, and another to write and record before they’d even unpacked – everything speeded up in a crashing, burning, collapsing cycle. The highs so high - a pity they couldn’t be bottled. And the lows, well, you don’t want to go there.
Phil was so intense onstage it almost hurt to watch him. He was living his dream and he demanded 120% of those around him – 150% from himself. He knew the difference between poise and posture, and dare any of his band-mates indulge themselves. You could catch his curses and exhortations from the side of the stage – never from the front. Every molecule had to be directed at the audience – they’d paid good money, they deserved a show! It was the Dub working class ethic colliding head on with the rock & roll dream.
The band was not at its best the last time I saw him in NYC. New Wave was all the rage, Graham Parker opened and, to the critics - if not the fans - Lizzy seemed a trifle over-baked. Yet, back in the dressing room Phil was as ever polite, welcoming and delighted to meet someone who “knew him back when.”
It was like being hit with a hammer that Christmas Day in 1985 when the news of his collapse spread, but I didn’t shed a tear. By then I’d learned the hard way that you can’t trade tomorrow’s energy for tonight’s performance.
Still, whenever I hear Whiskey in the Jar, I sit back, close my eyes and relive the sheer exhilaration and Paddy pride of those days when Philo’s Dub accent exploded through car radios and cloth-covered transistors like a tricolor siren.