“It’s alright to lose your heart/ but never lose your head.”
— “Johnny” (1976)
Like most Generation-X rockphiles who discovered the ‘70s while in college in the ‘90s, my first exposure to Thin Lizzy came by way of several awesome covers. Sometime around 1997, I heard the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” as a B-side to “Disarm”. I fell in love with their version and even after I heard the original, I still found myself going back to the Pumpkins’ treatment. Then there was Metallica’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar”, off 1998’s Garage, Inc., which I am sure was the gateway to Thin Lizzy for millions of other people too. And lastly, I loved the soundtrack to the 1999 film Detroit Rock City, which included an unlikely cover of “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Everclear, as well as Thin Lizzy’’s original version of “Jailbreak”.
There are so many musical artists to whom we give the moniker “underrated”. Every discussion of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame omissions should reference artists like William Bell, Delaney and Bonnie, Harry Nilsson, the Cars, Badfinger, Warren Zevon, Iron Maiden, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But I am convinced that the most influential of the underrated artists is still Thin Lizzy, and their signature sound was from an unlikely instrument — their lead singer and bassist, Philip Lynott.
Over 30 years since Lynott’s demise, Thin Lizzy’s influence is felt all over music, and even by artists who don’t even realize they are wading in his shadow. Much has been written about Thin Lizzy and Lynott since his drug-related death in 1986, but as journalist Graeme Thomson puts it, “Very few artists, particularly those who never quite made it to the top of the ladder or, conversely, are not endowed with the enduring cool of cult status, have enjoyed such a potent afterlife.”
Cowboy Song: The Authorized Biography of Thin Lizzy’s Philip Lynott is not, of course, the first biography of Thin Lizzy and/or Lynott, but like Thomson’s gorgeous 2010 work on Kate Bush (Under the Ivy), it is profoundly well-researched. This is a fan’s biography — almost 400 pages of the best liner notes you’ve ever seen, but written objectively and with the highest level of journalistic integrity.
Through five years of research, Thomson not only culled past works, but interviewed all the studio personnel, every member of Thin Lizzy, and a rich set of people who were available to give perspective on every aspect of Lynott’s life in Ireland, England, and elsewhere. Cowboy Song is the story of Lynott, but also of the band, who would become Ireland’s first, great musical export. From 1970 to 1983, they opened for and toured with dozens of bands including the Faces, Journey, Rainbow, David Bowe, Queen, Graham Parker, Blue Öyster Cult, Canned Heat, Uriah Heep, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Bob Seger. In that almost 15-year span, they developed a sound that was Irish and global, soft and hard, controlled and disorganized, and oftentimes more American than those artists in North America they were trying to emulate. That Bruce Springsteen’s early songwriting was compared to Lynott’s is ample evidence of how influential this bad really was.
Lynott’s complicated childhood sets the stage for his rise to prominence and it’s impossible not to buy in to Thomson’s suggestion, that everyone knew that Lynott was going to be someone. Growing up of mixed-race parentage in the ’50s gave him not necessarily a chip on his shoulder, but more an excuse to be different. However, it was Irish nationalism and pride that formed the bedrock of his identity. According to Bob Geldof, “He was totally Irish, in every sense. He couldn’t be more Irish.”
With simple, yet elegiac prose (and the occasional Celtic turn of phrase like “feyness”, “craic”, “tatterdemalion”, and “bodhran”), Thomson covers the breadth of Lynott’s life from childhood and adolescence to his brief tenure as an adult. Along the way, the author offers a rich depiction of the development and construction of an Irish rock star had a vision of a particular sound and the conflicts that occurred when that vision jarred with those around him. But, Thin Lizzy was more than just Lynott and in this regard, Thomson shines as a rock critic and biographer, giving the other members of the band their voices as well, and offering track-by-track opinions on basically the entire Thin Lizzy catalog including the now classics like Fighting (1975), Jailbreak (1976), Johnny the Fox (1976), and Live and Dangerous (1978).
Along the way, Thomson documents every hit (the unlikely success of Thin Lizzy’s version of “Whiskey in a Jar”, built almost single-handedly on Eric Bell’s distinct guitar work and Lynott’s gravely rendition); every miss (the awful Chinatown record); and every opportunity that never happened (like Baby Face, a hypothetical super group featuring Lynott, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, and Paul Rodgers of Free). Bell’s departure from the band after a 1973 New Year’s Eve show resulted in a fundamental change in the band’s sound for two reasons. Not only was Bell replaced by Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham who would build TH’s “twin-guitar” sound, but “certain qualities were lost in the change. There was a tenderness, a starry-eyed innocence and adventurism that did not wholly survive.”
Thomson notes that a 1977 tour of the United States with Queen began a serious friendship between Lynott and Freddie Mercury. While Queen was touring in support of A Day at the Races, Thin Lizzy was trying to build support for Johnny the Fox. While Lynott was genuinely in awe of Mercury’s ability to command a stage as well as Queen’s rock theatricality, Mercury was said to have been blown away by how good Lizzy was on stage. I wasn’t really surprised to read this because I have always felt that Thin Lizzy and Queen occupied a similar space in popular music: posturing and commanding front men, fan favorites for their live shows, able to move easily between musical styles, early contributors to what would become the hard rock genre, and too often reduced to a few hit songs played incessantly on the radio.
But, Thomson soberly notes that the 1977 Queen tour was the beginning of Lynott’s serious drug addiction and a “transitioning from dabbler to enthusiast.” This would only be exacerbated by his friendship with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and a 1978 tour of the US with Blue Öyster Cult. According to Thomson:
“During a break in his set they all took cocaine in the toilets. Later, Lynott cruised to the Greenwich Village apartment of Willy DeVille; shortly after arriving. Lynott’s limo was dispatched to Harlem to score hundreds of dollars’ worth of Dilaudid, pharmaceutical morphine in pill form. The capsules were later melted down and injected.”
Lynott’s drug use would have multiple ramifications. It would not only change the dynamics of the band, leading to its eventual break-up, but it would change Lynott’s personality. The man who was idolized by every Irish rock group of the time and often regarded as an early mentor for Geldof and the Boomtown Rats, as well as the Hype (later U2) could not stand to be upstaged by the newer acts. When they started becoming successful, Lynott the mentor became Lynott the crybaby. In the words of Geldof, “He was very jealous and suddenly he wasn’t so helpful.”
Reading part three, titled “Sun Goes Down”, it is even more difficult not to acknowledge that Cowboy Song might be one of the best rock biographies of all time. The painstaking detail of much of the book doesn’t seem so intensive anymore; Thomson is etching the slow suicide and the final chapters of Lynott’s life with such perception that it’s almost painful to read because we know what’s on the horizon. As I saw Lynott slip away in front of me, I thought of that perfect line from Steppenwolf’s 1970 cover of Hoyt Axton’s “Snowblind Friend”: “He said he wanted heaven/ but praying was too slow/ so he bought a one-way ticket/ on an airline made of snow.”
Cowboy Song: The Authorized Biography of Thin Lizzy’s Philip Lynott ends with an absolutely heartbreaking afterword by Lynott’s former wife, Caroline. In it, she writes, “But drugs have a way of spoiling everything, even while they’re telling you they’re going to make it all better. As life became crazier and crazier, I managed to pull myself out of there and start over. For Philip that was not possible. Which remains an enduring sadness for me.” I thought it would be fitting then to end this review with the words of another Thin Lizzy acolyte, Def Leppard, whose 1993 song “From the Inside” offers a bleak look at addiction, accompanied fittingly, by the Irish instrumentation of the Hothouse Flowers: “I am bad/ I am evil/ I am winter/ I am pain/ I’ll mess up your life/ I’ll beat up your wife/ I’ll lose all your friends/ and I’ll win in the end.”