Cowboy Song: The Authorized Biography of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott
By Graeme Thomson
Chicago Review Press, 376 pp., $17.99
In the United States, Irish rockers Thin Lizzy are known to the general classic-rock fan for one FM radio staple: “The Boys Are Back in Town.” But the group, under the constant leadership of singer/bassist/songwriter Phil Lynott, has a catalog of music that can certainly stand up to any of their better-known contemporaries.
Lynott died in 1986 at the age of 36 from the effects of near-constant drug and alcohol abuse on his body. And while there have been books on both him and the group, vastly experienced English rock journo Graeme Thomson worked with Lynott's family on a definitive bio now available in the U.S. But Cowboy Song is hardly a whitewash job.
From across the Pond, Thomson — who has written for many music magazines and penned books on George Harrison and Johnny Cash — corresponded with the Houston Press about the book, Lynott’s life and just why Thin Lizzy never really broke in the U.S.
Houston Press: There have been books on Phil and Lizzy before, but yours is authorized. How did you get permission from the family and work with them on this book, and what did that access allow you to get that other biographers didn't?
Graeme Thomson: The first approach came from me. I contacted the estate, because I wanted to write about Lynott and I felt there was a more in-depth, honest and complex book to be written than any that had been published previously. I spoke at length to Caroline, Phil’s former wife, and she discussed it with their two children, Sarah and Cathleen, and she agreed that this was a book that needed to be written, painful as it sometimes might be, and that I would be the right person to write it.
The approval of the estate meant I had access to Caroline. I was also able to use some personal and private material, was granted permission to use Phil’s lyrics, and of course it opened a lot of doors in terms of who agreed to be interviewed — and impacted very positively on people’s willingness to talk freely. I have to say I was very lucky. The estate did not seek — nor would I have allowed — any kind of veto or final say on the text, so I was free to be as honest and accurate as I could be. I think it will be obvious to anyone who has read the book that “authorized” does not mean “sanitized.” It gets to parts of Philip other books simple couldn’t reach.
Here in the U.S., Thin Lizzy is pretty much known by the general classic-rock fan just for “The Boys Are Back in Town” and maybe "Whiskey in the Jar." Why do you think they didn't break bigger in America, and how much did that frustrate Phil?
Much of it was down to momentum — or lack of. Just as “The Boys Are Back in Town” and the Jailbreak album broke, in the summer of 1976, Lynott contracted hepatitis while on tour in the States, and Thin Lizzy had to cancel many significant dates, including their New York debut, and return to the U.K. The rescheduled tour a few months later was also canceled when Brian Robertson damaged his hand.
So they were dogged by bad luck, misfortune and general carelessness — this was not a group which looked after itself terribly well! By the time they did return to the States, in 1977, they couldn’t quite come up with a second breakthrough song or album to build on the success of “Boys,” and so never quite broke through. Persistent lineup changes didn’t help.
I think it frustrated Lynott hugely. He loved the music of America, he drew much inspiration from it, and he was someone who naturally craved to play on as big and exciting a stage as possible. So not to make it in America hurt, and eventually led to a sense of stasis within the group.
What do you think musically the “classic” lineup of the band — Lynott, Downey, Robertson, Gorham — had that the others did not?
Lynott’s initial impetus for having two guitar players was purely pragmatic. Original guitarist Eric Bell bailed halfway through a New Year’s Eve concert in Belfast, leaving Philip and Brian Downey to perform as a duo. Lynott vowed that he would never allow that to happen again, hence two guitar players. Once the dust settled, he recognized that two guitarists would bring opportunities in terms of developing the sound of the band.
He was always very good at recognizing talent and using it — his old friend Gary Moore was in and out of Thin Lizzy, and was a tremendous asset, but Moore was somehow too big and restless a personality to quite fit long-term. Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham, on the other hand, were more committed to the idea of the band, and their contrasting styles and personalities worked so well together (for a while), creating an instantly identifiable cross-stitched guitar style. Once that classic twin-guitar sound was established, Lynott certainly encouraged it. It helped him to think more expansively as a writer.
Of course, that lineup coincided with the period where Lynott was writing his greatest and most accessible songs, which helped. It also followed the period where Lynott and Lizzy had completed their apprenticeship and had found their feet. So there were a few factors, both conscious and serendipitous, in favor of that lineup. And there was that indefinable chemistry that all great bands seem to possess — electric, but also combustible.
If Phil were around today and had drug issues, there would be rehab, therapy, second chances, etc. But that wasn't really the norm back then. Do you think he would have embraced any of those things, or were his addictions beyond help?
I’m not sure there’s much persuasive evidence to suggest that Lynott was a man who was prepared to drop his guard and talk openly about his issues: whether they were family issues — of which there were many — anger issues, or the substance-abuse problems that dogged him in the last few years of his life. He was — outwardly at least — a study in strutting machismo, and his bravado and pride made it difficult for people around him to really get him to open up about his addictions.
There are, as you say, many more opportunities to get help now, and the stigma of addiction is far less of an issue, but it’s still the case that the first step has to be a recognition that the problem exists and a willingness to ask for help. Lynott did attempt rehab at least once, but it never worked out. I wonder in the end whether he was the kind of man who would have willingly sought help, in any era. More likely, he would have seen it as an admission of weakness and a declaration of defeat.
The band is near the top of my list of groups who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but aren't. Why do you think that's the case?
Yes, I agree they should certainly be in there. I think it’s largely a matter of profile, and probably loops back to the “American problem” you mentioned earlier. Although the reputation of Thin Lizzy has grown since the ’80s, they are still best-known among U.S. rock fans for just one song, and perhaps there is a feeling that their wider catalog isn’t well-known enough in the States.
It certainly can’t be down to questions of quality — the 1970s albums in particular are as rich and varied as any music made by a rock band in that decade, while Lynott deserves wider recognition for being an outstanding front man, gifted lyricist and a really beautiful singer.
Finally, what is the most important thing or the thing that made the biggest impression on you about Phil Lynott after you finished the book that you didn't know beforehand?
I wasn't aware before writing the book what an amazing work ethic he had. For most of his life, Phil was extremely organized and very driven — the exact opposite of the wastrel rock star. He thought constantly about the band, the music, the image and the stage persona — and worked hard at it.
And no matter what time he went to bed, and what he had been up to the night before, he was the first up in the morning, and always looked immaculate. The extent to which Thin Lizzy was the most important thing in his life was quite surprising, and revealing. When the band weakened and eventually fell apart, it stripped away a lot of his confidence and identity.