Forget Joyce and Yeats. You Want Irish Literature, Listen to Thin Lizzy.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
May 28 2013 8:00 AM

Guess Who Just Got Back Today?

The triumph of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.
Phil Lynott playing bass for Thin Lizzy in 1978.

Courtesy of Mirrorpix/Everett Collection

Ah, Dublin, where the very air is verbal. Rolling Liffeys of language, self-propelling, self-delighting: riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay (Joyce). Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal/ Pouring redemption for me (Kavanagh). She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs (Yeats). Drink will flow and blood will spill, and if the boys wanna fight you better let ’em (Lynott). Yes, Dublin, Dublin, words, words ... But hold on now just a minute—what was that last one?

Philip Lynott, 1949–1986, singer-bassist, long of leg, long of jaw, singular smoky eye peeping piratically from beneath a lopsided Afro, is not generally counted among the top literary men of his city. Fans of his band Thin Lizzy are attuned to his gifts, no doubt, and in his lifetime his lyrics were solemnly published in two slim volumes—like, you know, poetry—but the average reader, when she thinks of Philip at all, thinks of him as the fellow who sings that song about people being dressed to kill down at Dino’s Bar and Grill, tum ti tum. Which is exactly my point, because if he’d done nothing else but write and perform “The Boys Are Back in Town,” Philip Lynott—born out of wedlock to an Irish mother and an Afro-Guyanese father (who then disappeared), raised in chalky-white Crumlin by his maternal grandmother—would still merit installation in Dublin’s grandest authorial company.

I’m feeling Philipocentric this week because of the release of All Hell Breaks Loose by Black Star Riders. Who, you ask? Some background is necessary here, because with this lot we are at a rather advanced stage of post-rock dementia. So: Since 1996 a Phil-less entity trading under the name Thin Lizzy has been coming and going, playing shows of all-Lizzy material, with various original Lizzy members rotating hazily through the lineup. In 2012 it was announced that the current version was recording new material, albeit with the “classic Thin Lizzy sound.” A decision was subsequently taken—by two fat lawyers?— that this material should be released under a different name. Hence, the very 2013 proposition that is Black Star Riders: a Thin Lizzy tribute band containing one historic Lizzyite (Scott Gorham, guitar), performing its own sub- or pseudo-Lizzy songs.

Which are not—astonishingly—absolutely goddamn terrible. The title track rocks like metallicized Bob Seger, and “Bound for Glory” could almost be Thin Lizzy, with the guitars charging in tandem and the rhythmic punch. Somewhere behind singer Ricky Warwick, too, you can hear the sorrowful push of Philip’s voice. I must say however that the thing as a whole is too heavy. It thumps, it crunches. For all Philip’s machismo, and the guitar-thunder, etc., Thin Lizzy the musical unit was more Steely Dan than Iron Maiden—nifty, mobile, slenderly groovy. Soft rock played hard. And it was led by one of the greatest prosodists in rock’n’roll. Mister, fill me another/ ’Til I go crazy and it turns my mind around/ Just pass that bottle one more time/ I’m slowly slippin’ down ... (“Borderline”) Seven syllables and three stresses in the first line, 12 syllables and four stresses in the second—aren’t these the very rhythms of boozed-out soliloquy, the depressive ponderousness and the lunges in thought? The heart of Thin Lizzy was a duet between Philip and drummer Brian Downey, his childhood friend and miraculous musical partner. Listen to 1973’s “The Rocker,” to Philip scatting ecstatically through the verses while Downey explodes in beatnik syncopations: Down at the juke joint me and the boys are stompin’/ Bippin’ and boppin’ and tellin’ a dirty joke or two ... And here we see the amazing and sanguinary “boys”— finger-poppin’ daddies, masters of the spoken word—making their entrance into Philip’s fantasia. They will return again, of course, in triumph, in 1976’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Philip was all about the outsider hero. Half-cartoon himself, he populated the Lizzyscape with a spray-can cast of lonesome cowboys, gangland Casanovas, junkie pistoleros, sci-fi ass-kickers, and doomed Celtic swordsmen. Last rides were his particular thing, and tricky situations: Five to four they blast him away/ Three to one he’s gonna live. But “The Boys Are Back in Town” is a glorious reunion with reality, a homecoming. The boys have been away (prison? a war? a “job”?), they’re back now, and Philip exults in their sharpness and vitality—their presence. In a Shakespearean touch, they’re even improving the weather. That jukebox in the corner blasting out my favorite song/ The nights are getting warmer, it won’t be long/ Won’t be long ’til summer comes/ Now that the boys are here again ... The metrical elasticity of these lines, and their easy sensation of transport, poetic lift-off, has a lot to do with Van Morrison. For Philip, as for Bruce Springsteen (from whose “Kitty’s Back” the guitar riff of “The Boys Are Back in Town” was apparently nicked or adapted), Van’s Astral Weeks was a wellspring, and his street-bardic gabble a pure energy. “The Boys Are Back in Town” shares a three-in-a-row rhyme scheme with “Madame George”—you could put Van’s lines, actually, right into Philip’s song without disturbing the meter or even (much) the meaning: And outside they’re making all the stops/ The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops/ Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops ...

Is “The Boys Are Back in Town” the happiest song in the Lizzy canon? Possibly. “Angel From the Coast” is daredevil-euphoric (Lady Luck has got me covered ...) and with “My Sarah” Philip tenderly celebrated the birth of his first daughter, but there’s just something about those boys, bippin’ and boppin’ and kicking the shit out of everybody down at Dino’s. Half-hidden by the languorous precision of Philip’s delivery, throbbing under it, is an extraordinary, an unsustainable excitement. It may be that he peaked here. His band, certainly, were about to enter a decline: After Thin Lizzy’s annus mirabilis of 1976 (Jailbreak and then Johnny The Fox) the full-tilt lifestyle would begin to do them all in. Philip’s last great song was 1977’s tolling, elegaic “Southbound”: Driftin’ like a drover/ Chasin’ my career ... Straight from the flaw in his heart.

Rock star extraordinaire, Philip was not granted an abrupt rock’n’roll cessation. Deserted by his muse, worn out by competing addictions, he collapsed on Christmas Day, 1986, and lingered painfully in hospital for a further 10 days before passing on. At which point, the gang of hometown immortals he had hailed in “Roisin Dubh”—It was a joy that Joyce brought to me ... Ah sure, Brendan, where have you Behan?—opened up their arms and let him in: a poet, a rocker, and a Dubliner.

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