Generations of Irish, both at home and in the States, have often spun misty-eyed, drunken yarns around the fire of the myth of the Black Irish. For some, this myth seeks to simply explain the age-old (and often disproved) theory about how so many of the native Irish have dark features – dark eyes, dark hair, in many cases, dark skin, and sometimes, more forebodingly, a dark soul. At any rate, sordid tales of the mixing of Spanish blood have been told by more than one Grandparent to a wide-eyed child when asked why they have the dark features they do.
For others, these tales hold a more personal meaning – they seek to explain the often self-destructive ways of a certain people – perhaps a troubled family member or friend – as the Black Irish were often described as ‘black’ not only for their features, but for their psyche – their moods,. Their addictions and their sometimes general bleak outlook on life. They were often said to be sullen and detached. In many ways, they often seem almost other-worldly. Famous playwright Eugene O’Neill was said to be a stereotypical Black Irishman. He could be light and playful one minute, and swing into a dark depression the next. His plays were full of Black Irish characters battling addictions of one variety or the other – some felt that these were the characteristic of the mystical Black Irish.
Whether or not these well-worn legends are true or not isn’t the point. The point is that these myths and preconceived notions live on, true or no, to stand the test of time. In much the same way, one of rock’n’roll’s favorite deceased sons – Thin Lizzy’s frontman, bass player and Black Irishman extraordinaire –Phil Lynott – fits the mold of these clichés to a tee. And like these tall-tales, although he has long since departed this world, his life, legend and influence live on in the canons of rock history.
Rather than give halfhearted history of Thin Lizzy, and run down a basic list of who played for them and when, I’d rather look at the myths and legends of the band and their frontman, Phil Lynott, and how he influenced a generation of bands to follow – how the myth, true or no, has persevered.
Mainly known for their twin-guitar attack (led by a revolving door of talent including Gary Moore, Eric Bell, Brian Roberston, Scott Gorham and John Sykes) and street smart, tough songs, Thin Lizzy pioneered the Irish Rock sound, and later even dabbled in and welcomed the punk influence.
The seminal album Jailbreak, with its “anthem-for-every-buddy-cop-movie-ever-made” “Jailbreak” set the world on it arse. Tough-sounding songs followed, along with successful tours, albums and singles, and also collaborations with Johnny Thunders and members of the Sex Pistols. Thin Lizzy songs could often do what so few could – provide hard and gritty tales, along with the softer, quieter ones – and often in the same song, showcased in such gems as “Cowboy Song.”
The twin guitar attack that propelled Lizzy was one that worked in unison – rather than work against eachother for personal glory, Lizzy’s guitar sound complimented one another perfectly, and Lynott’s bass provided and ever steady and driving backbeat. It takes only a listen to “Jailbreak,” “Fighting My Way Back” or “Bad Reputation” to understand that this band was something special. As a Lynott tribute site notes: “You find testimonies to Lynott in unlikely places, like the approval of hardcore artist Henry Rollins, or in the beautifully sad way that Smashing Pumpkins have interpreted ‘Dancin’ In The Moonlight’. Noel Gallagher from Oasis has paid tribute on his song ‘Step Out’, which echoes Thin Lizzy’s roaring version of ‘Rosalie’. Meanwhile, documentary film, ‘The Rocker’ demonstrates Irish music’s massive debt to Phil’s example. U2 benefited from his advice early on. Bass player Adam Clayton even paid homage by cultivating a well-intentioned Afro hairstyle.”
Phil, it was said, welcomed the punk movement as a kick in the ass to complacent rock’n’roll and, for a short time, formed his own punk outfit, impressed with all the freedoms the genre could offer. Lynott was indeed a free spirit. An impressive artist who had achieved much, but still had so much more to give. The group that could do so much would soon see blackness take root and their careers enveloped in darkness.
As the story so often times goes, success has its downsides, and in the case of Phil Lynott, alcohol and drug abuse would provide a tragic end to a troubled soul. In his prime, Phil Lynott was nearly untouchable. He could combine sentiment with humor and an everyman kind of grace. The emotion he put into his songwriting, singing and bass playing is obviously evident – but he was also had weaknesses. A curse of the Black Irish or just simply an incurable addiction? Those who knew him spoke of his shy and unassuming ways, said he was at heart a family man, but as time wore on and his battles with addiction intensified, he made no bones about his drug use, eventually leaving his cherished family.
In the end, the band disbanded and Phil slipped deeper into addiction. He did attempt to clean-up and he and Gary Moore were set to reunite for a project, and did record a tune called “Out in the Fields” which reminded me of the harder direction Lizzy once took. But the story, as is the case for many of the Black Irish myths, simply couldn’t end happily. Lynott fell ill due to pneumonia and died in January of 1986, the drugs and drink finally taking its toll on his heart.
So, in the end, the man passes into legend, another chapter in rock’n’roll and another example of how life is often times dark for the Black Irish. Thin Lizzy, however, continue to tell their tale with their music, as legions of fans act as modern day storytellers every time they put on a CD or LP. May their tale never be forgotten.
So the story of the black Irish lives and breathes in many ways, but why shouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t our lives be touched by magic, if only in a small way? As Phil himself mused, looking back on his early years and success with a cover of the Clancy Brothers classic “Whiskey in the Jar”: “We figured that people would hear it and say ‘There’s the boys having a good laugh at the Clancy Brothers. I was more of a poser in those days. I used to hang around Grafton Street. I was getting a lot of limelight probably because I was the lead singer and because I’m black. But why shouldn’t there be a black Irishman?”
You were a true Black Irishman, Phil. One of the best. R.I.P.