This past Saturday (4 January) was the 28th anniversary of Phil Lynott‘s death. Unless you’re Irish, grew up in a certain era or have impeccably good taste (I fall in the latter two categories), that may not be the most familiar of names. But for those in the know Phil is a legend, a pioneer, a breaker of boundaries. His band Thin Lizzy was one of the first out of Ireland to gain international stardom back in the 1970’s, and paved the way for many other non-traditional Irish musicians to be taken seriously by the music industry and thrive. Phil’s father was an American soldier of Afro-Caribbean descent; growing up a black man in working-class Dublin gave him a perspective that was distinctly his own and yet universal in that anyone who felt like an outsider totally got his message.
His death (brought on by a long-standing heroin addiction) was sordid, and the fact that some groupie partied with him just before he died and sold her story to the tabloids made things even more so. She was excoriated by many of the (male) rock journalists at the time, yet had it been one of their own snorting his drugs and drinking his booze, would they have acted any differently? Even back then I could smell the hypocrisy, the underlying sense of complicity they must have felt in glorifying a lifestyle that leads to distinctly unglamorous ends.
I read the bad news the week after it happened, in one of the English music papers that I picked up regularly on 8th Street in the Village…Kerrang!, or maybe Sounds. I made a swift detour to Washington Square to sit down and cry my teenaged head off. My friends commiserated, but clearly they were more concerned about me being upset—other than “The Boys Are Back In Town“, most Americans didn’t really know (or care) who Phil Lynott was. Thin Lizzy got a fair amount of lip service in my high school crowd, but I was the only one who had the bloody albums. I even picked up Solo In Soho secondhand at Sounds and enjoyed it—it’s less rocking than his work with Lizzy, but mad props to him for being brave & stretching out musically.
Phil Lynott is one of the artists I remember loving as a child; I first heard Thin Lizzy in the late 70’s on late-night NYC radio. His music, along with Van Morrison‘s, was one of my first exposures to Irish culture…the start of a lifelong love affair! Needless to say, my kid’s concept of what Ireland must be like bore little resemblance to its reality (a very common situation with regards to Ireland and the US!). I grew up in a highly multicultural Lower East Side, and naturally assumed the world was a reflection of what was outside my window. Of course there are nonwhite folk in Ireland, I thought—Phil Lynott’s Irish! He looks just like the guys on the corner, but has a cool accent and plays bass! As I got older, I learned that Ireland is a fascinating yet complicated place with its own problems and pleasures, and a very different history of race relations than that of New York City.
In my early twenties I dated a few Irish guys, and at some point a very clueless remark about black people would pass their lips. This always signaled the end of the relationship, but not before an impassioned “BUT WHAT ABOUT PHIL LYNOTT, YOU ASSHOLE? HE’S BLACK!!!” poured from the depths of my being. The responses were always quite comical (in hindsight), as each and every one of these fellows had to stop, think, and actually realize that Phil was, indeed, a n—- or whatever stupid thing just came out of their mouths. The looks on their faces were priceless! Then the inevitable:
“Ah, well, but he’s IRISH and that’s different!”
“Um…oh he is, isn’t he? I hadn’t actually thought of that.”
“But seriously! Aside from him there aren’t ANY blacks back home! Seriously! At least I don’t recall any…”
“He totally doesn’t count—c’mon he’s Phil! This is PHIL we’re talking about here!”
Clearly these young men of the Irish Diaspora were so accustomed to Phil as a part of their culture that his blackness completely passed over their heads—or they could conveniently ignore it, depending on how charitable one’s perspective is. More poignantly, I can’t help but recall that Phil had already been dead for a good five years or so yet we all consistently and naturally spoke of him in the present tense. In the eyes of his people he was already a legend, even if some of them didn’t look at him too closely.
So now, 28 years gone. Scott Gorham was recently touring with a band called “Thin Lizzy” until smarter heads prevailed (or perhaps Phil’s family had a say in the matter?) and he changed the name to Black Star Riders. There’s a statue of Phil in Dublin, on Grafton Street (right by Brendan Behan‘s old drinking haunt, McDaid‘s). I traveled to Ireland back in 2004 and saw nonwhite folks who clearly weren’t tourists, living and working and making their daily lives throughout Dublin. A new generation of rock musicians are inspired by Phil’s songcraft; the lip service is giving way to genuine recognition and respect. While it sucks that Phil didn’t live to see the fruits of his influence, I’m really thankful that he managed to fill his short life with so much creativity, and brought love, joy and power to so many people.