HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT/PHIL LYNOTT, THIN LIZZY, AND AMERICA
Anyone who spends ten or fifteen minutes on Google can find out some of the underlying reasons. Phil contracts hepatitis in the middle of a US tour supporting the 1976 breakout, Jailbreak, forcing the band’s first headlining stateside run to be cancelled. Guitarist Brian Robertson slices open his hand in a bar fight on the eve of the attempted followup tour, for the same year’s Johnny The Fox album. After a successful 36 show run opening arenas for Queen in 1977, Robertson’s replacement (and predecessor) Gary Moore quits the band in the middle of the US run supporting the excellent Black Rose: A Rock Legend. One mishap and false start after another, tiring US agents and promoters of the unpredictability of this international band of rogues, relegating the band to huge star status in Europe and elsewhere while never breaking through in America, as so many of their contemporaries managed to do. In 2023 however, none of this really accounts for why Thin Lizzy, and in particular the songwriting legacy of Phil Lynott, have never found a home in the internal psyche and emotional core of music lovers throughout North America.
Thin Lizzy are hiding in plain sight. While American radio listeners might be familiar with “The Boys Are Back In Town”, “Jailbreak”, and to a lesser extent their version of the Irish trad, “Whisky In The Jar” (and only then due to Metallica’s cover version of the Lizzy arrangement), far too many are unaware of the treasure trove of immaculate, expressive, raw, piercing, indeed visceral and exciting songwriting of one of the ’70’s and ’80’s most truly gifted writers and performers, Philip Parris Lynott.
It is well known that Phil Lynott came of age immersed in the rich literary traditions of his native Ireland, and it is true that this Celtic thread is on display throughout much of Lynott’s work. Yet it would be very hard to make the case that his work is so quirkily Irish as to be inaccessible to American listeners, in the way that perhaps Ray Davies with The Kinks, or Paul Weller with The Jam, might have been just a little too quirkily English to fully land here, or Gord Downie’s Tragically Hip just a little too quirkily Canadian to connect en masse with an American public. No, Phil writes beautifully accessible stories about life – his life – in a way that any rock and roller, or musician, or fan of life itself, can easily relate to. Take a song like, “Don’t Believe A Word”, the lead single from 1976’s Johnny The Fox. This was an album written and recorded in rushed fashion due to the aforementioned hepatitis preventing them from being on tour to support their breakthrough, but which manages to take all of Jailbreak’s power to a more raw and deep extreme (and is even more treasured by many hardcore fans than its predecessor). In the hands of, say, a Bon Jovi, one might expect a song like this to read, “Don’t believe a word…she’s just a liar…don’t be fooled..” A perfectly accessible premise for a pop song, sure. Phil’s lyrics read:
Don’t believe a word / Words can tell lies
And lies are no comfort when there’re tears in your eyes
Don’t believe a word that I wrote this song for you
Don’t believe me if I tell you – especially if I tell you that I’m in love with you
When you listen to this song in the context of Phil’s life and body of work, it’s impossible not to absorb it as, “Don’t believe a word.. I’m the liar. I know who I am – I contain good and bad, and on any given day I can’t help myself from following my instincts and urges, but in truth I’m no better than you, or anyone else, and you owe it to yourself not to believe me…I’m looking out for number one, and so should you”. In “Baby Please Don’t Go”, a seriously hard rocking track from 1983’s seriously hard rocking, Thunder And Lightning – an album that may well be the reason so many folks seem to think of Thin Lizzy as some sort of ’80’s hair metal band if asked (indeed it features future Whitesnake castaway John Sykes on guitar) – the lyrics are sparse, and it’s up to the listener to read between lines such as, “I tried to warn you baby, I tried to tell you when I was down…You would not listen baby…Baby please don’t go, oh no no no no no..” This is part of why people love Phil – there’s a vulnerability he’s unafraid to expose so plainly. Look at me baby, I’m a hard rocker living a dangerous rock and roll life…there’s a dark side to me and frankly I’m scared of the thought of being left alone to face it because I don’t know that I can survive…There may be collateral damage that I know you don’t want, either. I have demons that I’m scared to face. Three years later, Phil would be gone as a result of these demons.
It’s not just these types of songs. These are just the teeth that so deeply sink into existing devotees who have already gone clear. You want irresistible sugar laden pop rock? Give me some Dancing In The Moonlight, Southbound, or My Sarah (a tender paean to his first newborn). Songs that inspire one to put another foot in front of the other, see another day and live your best life? How about Fighting’s “Freedom Song”, or the hidden outtake gem from the same album, “Try A Little Harder” (When all those dark days came rolling in / I didn’t know whether to stop or begin / Try a little harder / Just to see what it can do / Try a little harder / You know it’s something you can do). Soulful inspiration? Try on Jailbreak’s “Fight Or Fall”, Bad Reputation’s “Downtown Sundown”, or “Showdown” off Nightlife. Perfect – and I mean picture perfect – FM ready singles? I’ll raise you 1979’s “Waiting For An Alibi” b/w 1977’s “Southbound”. Whisky soaked barstool laments you say? Hit me with 1976’s “Borderline” please, and a chaser of 1980’s “Fats”.
With “Borderline”, Phil even somehow foresaw the advent of early ’80’s commercial country balladry. This song could have leapt out of the grooves of a 1980’s Gary Stewart or Garth Brooks record. Late night tempo, reverb, pleading, resignation.. Guitarist Brian Robertson had a lot to do with the authorship of this song, but it makes clear another of the truly underrated facets of Phil Lynott – the ability to channel a myriad of styles though his own unique prism, releasing them unto the world all in a manner that is unmistakably his own. An un-xeroxable original, as one might say of a Joni Mitchell, John Prine, or Lemmy.
Yet for whatever reasons, Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy continue to hide in plain sight. “The Boys Are Back In Town” and “Jailbreak” are still on the radio. Both great songs, not even as exhaustingly overplayed as “Smoke On The Water” or “Sledgehammer” to tire listers out. Sure, people don’t dig deep into The Troggs, Them, Argent, or other one and two hit wonders of American radio, but those bands don’t boast a catalog as deep and rich as Thin Lizzy. People do live inside the catalogs of AC/DC, Deep Purple, Queen etc, but Lizzy’s body of work is arguably more consistent, and the high points equally great, or even superior. Let’s not even get started on the epic twin guitars, or Phil’s voice – itself emotionally triggering to “Lizzy supporters” (Lynott’s term) in the same way as a Jeff Buckley or John Lennon is to so many…while Thin Lizzy was a rock band, Phil Lynott was not a screamer. His melodies and vocal range might have had more in common with Gordon Lightfoot or Van Morrison than with Bruce Dickinson or Bon Scott. No, for some reason, it all just is. It’s not a matter of justice for Lizzy. Thin Lizzy have a lot of fans, a lot of fans in America even. They don’t need us. The thing that’s always sat uncomfortably is that, frankly, we need them! Their catalog of work is the gift that keeps on giving. One day perhaps there will be more American hard rock fans who find the subtle beauty in a major 7 chord thrust in the middle of dominant chord breakdown a la “Warriors”, or more Leonard Cohen disciples who connect with the intimate and innocent poetry of 1970’s “Dublin”. Mellotron fans who hear, “Honesty Is No Excuse”, lost loves looking for that comfort and melody you can only sink into via songs like “Old Flame”. “Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed” might take its rightful place in the pantheon of greasy street poetry classics alongside “Superfly” and “Theme From Shaft”. Maybe. Until then we will all just have to wait.
There was an alternate third verse for “The Boys Are Back In Town”, revealed in the deluxe edition release of Jailbreak. These four lines contain almost the whole story of the work of Phil and Thin Lizzy – theater, contrast, awareness, aspiration, emotion…freedom:
It was wild the night you came home drunk / Billy got up and he punched that punk He said we don’t need that kind of junk / Not around heroes anyway See my lady luck its still standing / Keeping a watchful eye over me Oh, the boys are always so undemanding / They just set me free
IT HURTS TO BE ALONE
Sept 11, 2021
Today is the day where everyone used to recall their story of where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Then after another while everyone seemed to stop. I guess because why tell the same story every year for 20 years. I myself haven’t thought about that day and those weeks much in recent years. With all the coverage and news stations re-airing their broadcasts of that day, it’s a little impossible not to now.
As it’s faded more and more into the rearview though, the overwhelming thing I remember most about 9/11 is Jenna. I met a girl that summer who lived in West Belmar. Not having a car, I used to take the 7 train three stops from my LIC apt to Port Authority, one stop down on the 1 or 9 to Penn Station, and take the Amtrak out to Belmar to see her. I did it a lot that late summer and fall. The morning of 9/11, she had a court appearance over some kind of custody battle for her sweet son “John” (not his real name), and was very worried about how it was going to go. I stayed on the phone with her until about 5 or 6 am before I finally went to sleep. A few hours later, my own mother called me frantic, telling me about terrorists hitting the WTC. You know that place you’re in after 2 or 3 hours sleep, where someone could wake you up and tell you that terrorists just crashed into the World Trade Centers and you just roll over and go back to sleep? That was me. Then my dad called probably a half hour later. As I recall he told me he’d been trying to call for awhile but couldn’t get through. Are you OK? Yes, Mom called, something about terrorists. Yes, obviously terrorists. That’s all I remember. Zzzzz.. I’m only about 5 miles from the buildings. Sometime around 11 something clicked in my head. What, terrorists? The World Trade Centers? By the time I turned on the TV both towers are down, the phones aren’t working, none of my newly purchased dialup internet is functional.. The rest of the afternoon and early evening is a blur. Lots of panic and fear. My roommate Aron comes home on his bike. He’d been down there for some reason and is covered in the white, but OK. I’m feeling lost. And I’m thinking about Jenna, who I can’t call because the phones are down. I wrote some emails to my friends and family back home in Toronto telling them I loved them, hoping they’d eventually get sent in some miracle dialup connection breakthrough.
Jenna was bipolar, and this whole thing wouldn’t help the matter for quite some time. In fact, it seemed to me this all kind of set her spiraling in a way that took several years and several medication attempts to level off. She got so much better and with her mom’s help raised that beautiful boy so well. Every year on this day I think about her a lot, and I miss her, miss her being with us. Much later in the day the tunnels and subways opened up, I somehow got through to her on the phone, and we decided I’d try to make my way down to Belmar. I got to Penn Station and the Amtrak guy says, “It’s been a rough day today. This one’s on us.” So many passengers are covered head to toe in the white. People were really, really kind to one another. Jenna picks me up at the station and we went to a bar, and there was a band called Khantra. The guy in Khantra says this next song is dedicated to not only everyone who died today, but everyone who’s gonna die in whatever is to come. I stayed out there for 3 or 4 days. I don’t remember a lot of it.. watching a bit of the telethon at her brother’s house maybe. My band and I cancelling our 9/12 (Manitoba’s – open only to neighborhood foot traffic as the city was closed below 14th St.) out of respect.. I don’t even remember where we stayed. A motel…camping…something. But I do remember going to the house Jenna had shared with John’s dad up until not long before after she had left a pretty rough situation – respectfully – where she’d been granted (on 9/11) 24 or 48 hours or something like that to collect all of her and John’s belongings to take to wherever they were going to live. And she put in a tape as we’re in this place – the last time she would be there – and this song came on that felt to me like it could have been a Tarantino placement. It was the most beautiful and communal and sad song I’d ever heard, and as we packed up size 1 shoes, toys and whatever else together, it feels now like we listened to this song – “It Hurts To Be Alone” by The Wailers – 500 times even though it was probably just one or two. Out there in New Jersey, collecting belongings from a house full of all shattered memories (trashed from violence), after the planes and death..I felt like I was in another world.
After 3 or 4 days we take her car (Khantra stickers on the dashboard now) back up to the city, and see the smoke rising out of lower Manhatten all the way up to The Bronx. My mom said I guess you’ll want to leave now right. But no – all I felt was fierce love for my city at that time. I’d been there 8 years and loved every piece of it. From Coney Island up to the top of The Bronx, from Jamaica Queens down to Battery City, from the grimiest LES rock club to Central Park West. The antiquated subway system that was the cause of so much daily stress. My neighborhood, the Amtrak, and my alternate reality universe in West Belmar NJ. And I loved Jenna. And she fell deeper into her disease, and after awhile I was her friend, supporting her and letting go of the truly unrealistic dreams. All for the best in the end, but heavy at the time, as it usually is.
I always think of her on 9/11, how hard she fought to be stable for her son, how close they were, how she started having her art pieces commissioned…and how we stayed close all through the years, even when we didn’t talk for 1 or 2 at a time. We always cared. We always went through the second half of 2001 together, through her down and back up, and on into the coming years in a long distance friendship. Maybe if it hadn’t have been such a heavy time all around it wouldn’t still be so piercing a memory, I’ll never know. The last time we talked I had to go because my beautiful 2 year old was inside at a play date and I had to get in there. I had no clue in the world it would be the last time. She fought through so much and then got cancer. Fate can be cruel.
After 9/11 I remember everyone being so unified, so giving and caring to one another, especially where I was in NY. That seemed to last for about 6 weeks, then there was a noticeable split. It feels sometimes like it’s carried on now for 20 years minus 6 weeks. When things seem really hard I often put on “It Hurts To Be Alone”. It makes me think of that time, how important everything felt, how much I learned about family, and what knowing Jenna taught me. And I know she didn’t go alone. She was surrounded by everyone in her family, who all loved her. Still, it hurts.
In the summer of 1993 I went to New York for the first time and joined a band. One of my first days there I was walking around the village and found Electric Ladyland studios. I tried to “get in” but failed (“Hi, can I come in and look around?” … “No.”). I crossed the street, walked into a record store, and saw an ad looking for a guitar player. I forgot who it said the influences were, but it seemed right to me. I had a dream of being a great songwriter but to that point I only had a handful of songs in my pocket, all bad. So I called the number and by far the best songwriter I’d ever known answered the phone.
“I must have put that ad up 6 months ago” he said, “I forgot all about that”. “Right on…so…do you want to meet?” I took the 7 train out and met Altogether Steve. I don’t remember what we talked about beyond the fact that we both loved Bob Dylan. I remember he looked cool to me. He had a ratty ass rehearsal room under his apartment and we’d go down there with his drummer Steve and play Dylan and Stones songs for hours. He was the only other guy I knew at the time who loved Hard Rain like I did, and we’d jam out the Hard Rain versions of all these Dylan songs. Total fanatics. Then he gave me his cassettes. He already had 5 or 6 complete albums under his belt (all tapes). I took them back home with me to Toronto that summer and fall and listened to them obsessively. He had so many great songs, I couldn’t get over it it. They felt like classics the first time I heard them, with titles like “If I Stay Here All Night”, “Both Sides Of The Ditch”, “Closer To The Light”… I went back and joined his band, The Mercenaries. We recorded a few albums (cassettes), and one or two CD’s. We played a lot of clubs. Once we opened for The Smithereens. We never actually toured because…I guess because we didn’t make any money or have any wheels. We should have thought to. He showed me around New York, took me to all the happening clubs and shitty dive bars. For awhile we lived in the same 12×12 room. Looking back, I don’t know why he sort of took me in like that, but he did.
The point is, all the while I never saw him writing, but he always had these great songs in his pocket. We hung out a lot, and outside of when we’d go out (almost every night) all I’d ever see him do were things like watch Saturday Night Live, read Weekly World News, eat Hungryman dinners, listen to Dylan/Replacements/Guided By Voices/tapes…but I never saw him work on his songs. Then he’d say, “Hey I’ve got 5 new songs for you to learn this week”, and they’d all be fucking great. Like really, really good. And deep. I realized that between the cracks of daily life, that must be all this guy focused on.
I’d say it pushed me to up my game, but the truth is it pushed me to get in the game. I kept trying to write songs even half as good as his. For some reason he’d let me get the odd one into our setlist and he’d play sideman for 3 minutes. Until then I just kind of wrote songs on the side, as if that was somehow going to be good enough. I got depressed. Who was I? Within a couple of years I’d dedicated my life to being a songwriter, regimenting myself to spending hours every day, every goddamn day, working on my songs in the same ratty basement we used to rehearse in. Because how else are you going to give yourself a shot to be great? 7 days a week, year after year. Songs. If I was still depressed, at least I had a ball of fire inside, centering me – an endless one, because there are always more songs to write. Eventually I left The Mercenaries because I needed to do my own thing, but we stayed good friends, and we still are to this day. The Mercenaries had some records out on Brooklyn based Spare Me Records, and Steve still puts out albums to this day…and they’re still full of A1 songs (last time I saw him he gave me a box set!). I never realized what it took until I met him and got to know his work.
Anyway, we often don’t get our tributes out for people who influenced our lives in some way until after they’re gone. I just wanted to give a shout out to one who’s still still very much alive and rockin’. My life took a turn in so many ways the day I answered that ad. I guess I have the intercom person at Electric Ladyland to thank.