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Three decades on from his tragic death, the debt rock world still owes Thin Lizzy's iconic frontman

Published 02/01/2016

Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott
Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott
Musical partners: Gary Moore with Phil
Devoted dad: Phil with his family
Phil with his daughter Sarah
Thin Lizzy
Mum Philomena at Lynott’s funeral
Philomena at the unveiling of Phil's statue in Dublin’s Harry Street

Thirty years ago on Monday Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott died at the age of just 36. Paul Hopkins looks back at his incredible talent, his collaboration with Belfast's Gary Moore and how his tough upbringing shaped him as a music star.

For every universally celebrated song, not least the infectious Whiskey In The Jar, known to all and played repeatedly on radio stations everywhere, there are countless hidden masterpieces - album cuts that, for one reason or another, somehow missed their date with immortality.

Take Parisienne Walkways, by Phil Lynott and Gary Moore. A masterpiece with its haunting guitar riffs that made mere momentary waves upon its original release in 1978, and ultimately fell short of achieving its rightful stature as a true standard of rock balladry.

Any music connoisseur worth their salt has it among their vinyl countdown.

For years leading up to the song's recording, the Dublin rock rebel and the Dundonald blues boy had both played and sparred together like twin siblings separated at birth, continually trying to align their agendas musically before falling out for one reason or another, only to be drawn inevitably back to one another time and again.

Their partnership had begun way back in the late Sixties, when the pair first shared inglorious pub stages on both sides of the then very visible border as members of one of Ireland's first notable blues-rock bands, Skid Row.

Phil Lynott was ousted from the band and Moore, too, eventually moved on. Then, in 1974, Thin Lizzy found themselves in need of a new six-stringer to replace departed founding member Eric Bell, and Moore (who was going nowhere fast with his first and only Gary Moore Band album) seemed perfect for the album, Nightlife.

Once again, though, Lynott and Moore were soon locking horns and the only vestige of the latter's numerous but uncredited contributions to the album was a scintillating solo on Still In Love With You, which new Lizzy guitar recruits Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham saw no hope of improving upon.

A year before Lynott's early exit at 36 from the world stage, 30 years ago on Monday, January 4, the duo dallied one more time to record Out In The Fields, a song about the Troubles. The song is reminiscent of the sound of their band and is influenced by both artists' wide musical palettes. It performed well, reaching No. 3 in the Irish charts and No. 5 in the UK - the highest positions either of the two would reach in their solo careers.

"It doesn't matter if you're wrong or if you're right," go the lyrics. "It makes no difference if you're black or if you're white, All men are equal till the victory is won, No colour or religion ever stopped a bullet from a gun,

"Out in the fields, the fighting has begun, Out on the streets, they're falling one by one …"

For someone who had been at the receiving end of intolerance and discrimination, growing up a black kid in the Catholic Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, the Troubles struck more than a familiar chord with Lynott.

Asked at the time by Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show about the song's significance and his thoughts on the Troubles, Lynott said: "It was tough growing up a kid in the Catholic working class Dublin of the '50s, but it was tougher still being the only black kid.

"I don't like violence. It is never justified. I don't like violence in myself, but it's in me, it's in us all. I have been violent and I don't like it."

Would he welcome a 32-county republic?

"Yeah, I'd like Ireland to become one nation, but then we are. We all seem to be Irish when we're away from Ireland.

"When I'm in Ireland, I say I'm from Dublin. When I'm in Dublin, I say I'm from Crumlin. When I'm in Crumlin, I say I'm from Leighlin Road and when I'm in Leighlin Road, I say I'm a Lynott. So it's that type of attitude …"

Asked by Byrne what he thought of Gerry Adams, he replied: "I haven't heard too much of him."

Gary Moore was to garner acclaim more so in Europe than in the US, or indeed on his own home ground, before his death at 58 in 2001. For Irish people, though, Lynott has become a talisman. With his mixed race and his admitted pride in his heritage, he was a glimpse of a future version of the country - multicultural, yet confident in its Irishness.

"Phil was so proud of being Irish," says Lizzy's Scott Gorham. "No matter where he went in the world, if we were talking to a journalist and they got something wrong about Ireland, he'd give the guy a history lesson.

"That Irishness bled into the music, more soulful and melancholy than hard rock is normally permitted to be."

The Dublin south suburb of Crumlin in the years after the Second World War saw a small village spiral into a sprawling concrete jungle as a post-war building boom took off, against the growth of a fledgling civil service and increased access to basic education under the tutelage of Taoiseach Eamon de Valera.

Crumlin was a tough, gritty urban landscape where the majority of kids were educated in the school of hard knocks, but it was a closely-knit community with an abiding sense of self-worth and family values - ideals that within a mile or so radius had over time given birth to such future celebrities as Brendan Behan, Christy Brown, Shay Elliott, Paul McGrath and, later still, Conor McGregor.

Into that estate, six years before footballer McGrath was born, arrived Philomena Lynott, a young Dublin-born woman just turned 24, home from England to her mother's house, with a four-year-old son in tow.

Young Philip's father, Cecil Parris, was from what is now Guyana in the Caribbean and, while the boy would bear the traits of his mother's Irish charm and wit, he had inherited his father's dark looks.

His mother left the child to be reared by his grandmother and returned to Manchester where she ran a small hotel with another man, who was to be a lifelong partner until he died in 2010. Parris had declared his love for Philomena, but his proposal of marriage was declined, though he honoured his commitment to financially support his child as best he could.

Meantime, young Philip, by some accounts, settled into his new home quickly despite the curiosity his colour attracted. As a child, he got used to the attention, there was nothing shy about him: he loved the fame, he once said

His mother, however, as perhaps a mother does, remembers it differently and recalls a "lot of prejudice" towards her son. "He felt different - even special," says Philomena. "In a way, it made him the perfect rock star. But he suffered as a child."

He was not her only child, though; she gave two more up for adoption following his birth.

"I had hidden them from the world because to have one child out of wedlock is bad, but three? I was the fallen woman, the sinner. So, I waited till my mother had passed away, because I didn't want her to think I was going from one man to another over there in England. I also needed to tell the truth, for my children's sake. And now, we are in contact all the time."

In her book, My Boy (Hot Press, £19.99), she talks about her struggle to keep Lynott in a Catholic Ireland when she was being urged to give him up for adoption. Of the two half-siblings, Phil Lynott was never to learn he had a brother, but did learn of his sister after she made contact with his mother.

Had he survived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, Phil Lynott would be celebrating his 67th birthday next August, probably attempting to squeeze into his trademark leather trousers and strapping on a guitar: the Dubliner was an inveterate rocker, for whom loud, raucous music was a way of life.

But, of course, he didn't make it. At the time, it is believed he was at a low point, creatively. Thin Lizzy had broken up and their legacy back then was not wearing well. People seemed in a hurry to forget - which was perhaps why Lynott's attempts at a solo career and a new group were not going anywhere. In the heyday of the New Romantics, Lynott was seen as a yesterday, especially on the fickle UK music scene. And that was to be the case for about 15 years after the band broke up.

However, in the last 15 years or so, Thin Lizzy's stock has soared. Bands as diverse as Metallica and The Cardigans have proclaimed themselves admirers, the former even had a hit with a respectful cover of Whiskey In The Jar. Lynott, meanwhile, has joined the ranks of Irish iconhood - the burnished statue of the singer off Grafton Street in Dublin confirms his membership of the club of secular Irish saints.

"He would love it - he'd be amazed," says Philomena. "He would be delighted about the statue - and wonder, 'How the heck did I manage that'?"

At one level, Thin Lizzy's present popularity is merely part of rock's incessant ebb and flow. Disparaged through the '80s and '90s as one-dimensional head-bangers, it was to be expected their legacy would be eventually due for reassessment.

In Dublin in the 1960s, Lynott fronted several bands as a lead vocalist, before Skid Row and then Thin Lizzy in 1969. He said once that his musical influences were Dylan, our own Van Morrision, but, more than any, Jimi Hendrix and indeed, musical comparison aside, the pair could have passed for twins when spied from afar.

The accomplishments of Hendrix as a black musician were a huge inspiration to Lynott, indicative of the potential success he could have with his own career. Hendrix's influence is further felt within Lynott's musical output and vocal stylings. He remembered Jimi on the 10th anniversary of his death in 1980 with Song For Jimi, a relative rarity featuring former Lizzy bandmates Eric Bell and Brian Downey. At the time of his death, it was rumoured that Lynott was in line to potentially portray Hendrix in a planned movie.

From the year the band formed until the early '80s, Thin Lizzy were one of the hardest acts on the rock scene and one of the most acclaimed. After initial success with Whiskey In the Jar - ironically a song Lynott thought too "Oirish" to release, but his record bosses thought otherwise - the band found strong commercial success in the mid-1970s with hits such as The Boys Are Back In Town, Jailbreak, Dancing In The Moonlight and Waiting For An Alibi and became a huge live attraction due to Lynott's vocal and songwriting skills and the use of dual lead guitars.

Lynott had his solo composition, Yellow Peril, chosen as the new theme song for TV's Top Of The Pops from 1981 until 1986. No doubt, the regular royalty checks for that gig were probably nice. He could growl and swivel his hips as good as the best, but beneath the bravura was a sensitive writer, with lots to say. Consider Sarah, the homage to his newborn daughter by Caroline Crowther, daughter of TV host Leslie - he never approved of their marriage in 1980 and was estranged for some time from the couple and their two daughters, the younger named Cathleen - so delicate and raw it can be hard to listen to, knowing Lynott didn't get to watch his daughters grow up.

While his excesses with alcohol and drugs were well known in music circles, nonetheless Lynott's passing - he became ill on Christmas Day 1986 - came as a shock, especially to his former bandmates.

"When I heard Phil had died, I could not believe it," Scott Gorham says. "I mean, this was Phil Lynott. He could take more drugs, screw more chicks, stay up more days in a row than anyone else. He was the guy. He'd had hepatitis and come through with flying colours. I found out he had a heart attack and was in a really bad way. Then he died. And I was thinking … man, what the hell just happened?"

Remembers Philomena: "We used to have our little chats and he would say that as he got older and the band finished, he would go into producing and managing young groups. He would have continued writing as well. He wrote some great songs."

Her remarks brought me back to a day sometime in early 1985 and I was walking through the grounds of Dublin's Trinity College. There was no mistaking the figure ahead of me. I caught up with him, introduced myself and asked for an interview. He said he'd get back to me.

Then, an elderly man ahead of us, probably a lecturer, appeared to lose his footing on the cobbled stones and Phil went to his assistance before the man could steady himself.

Thanks received, we walked on.

Thinking of something to say, I said: "Terrible thing to get old …"

And in that rasping Dub accent, he said to me: "I'd like to think that at a certain age I'd have written a book, have a nice little place in Howth and on Sundays I go down the pub and play with the local jazz band, y'know? And my two exuberant daughters, one an athlete with a gold medal …"

And then he was gone, off up towards his beloved Grafton Street.

Where now stands his burnished statue.

Phil’s son gets acknowledged

Galway-based sculptor Macdaragh Lambe made newspaper headlines in 2003 when he was revealed as Phil Lynott's only son.

However, until 2010, his existence had never been publicly acknowledged by Lynott's mother, Philomena.

But in an interview with a Sunday newspaper, Philomena broke her seven-year silence.

"I can answer you straightforward. Yes, he is Philip's son. Oh yeah, without a doubt. He has the same thumbs, like Philip used to slam the bass guitar, and eyes," she said.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Gavin said: "This is the first public acknowledgement the Lynott family have given me. I'm delighted, but more so for my own son. It's going to be a lot easier for him now to say who he is."

Gavin Lambe was born in Dublin in 1968 as a result of a relationship between his mother and Lynott.

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