Philip Parris Lynott changed the face of Irish music forever. James Martin met the late star’s mother Philomena to get her insight on the life of the influential Thin Lizzy frontman
One cannot call themselves truly Irish without being familiar with the music of Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy. Hailed as Ireland’s first rock star, Phil changed the face of music with his fresh sound and attitude.
Born on 20th August 1949 to an unmarried Catholic mother and an Afro-Brazilian father who left his mother three weeks after giving birth, Phil’s life was always bound to be different. Ireland in the 1950s was not quite as diverse as it is today, and a black child in Dublin was the rarest thing going. The young rockstar-to-be, however, loved the attention. “He was always the centre of attention,” Philomena remembers. “As a young boy, Women would be asking him, ‘Oh, give us a curl’. And he’d pretend to take a curl out of his hair and give it to them. Even when he was a youngster he loved fashions and style. I lived in England and my mother was raising him in Dublin. I would bring back all the latest fashions and he loved it.”
His charisma and appearance soon grabbed the attention of a neighbour, Joe Smith, who was putting together a band with his two sons. They asked Phil to be the lead singer. Philomena recalls Phil’s first gig with the Black Eagles. “He came out and he had a long lady’s satin evening glove on, and he was giving it all these moves like Adam Ant. I thought, ‘Oh, great little performer there.’ All the girls started screaming just because he was different.” From there, Phil joined many different bands with many different line-ups until finally, with long time friend Brian Downey and northern guitarist Eric Bell, Thin Lizzy was formed.
“The first break they got,” Philomena remembers, “was ‘Whiskey in the Jar’. That wasn’t supposed to be released as an A-side. He rocked up that old tune and people loved it. I had a juke box in my hotel in Manchester, and I put it on and it was played morning noon and night. Georgie Best used to be in my hotel – he almost lived there for seven years – and whenever he came in it was nothing but ‘Whiskey in the Jar’!”
Thin Lizzy soon grew into their own sound, though seeing a constant change of guitarists (John Sykes was replaced by Gary Moore, Scott Gorham and Snowy White). The band honed a twin guitar technique that they became famous for, and many of Phil’s lyrics were inspired by the ancient legends of Celtic Ireland. Phil had a great love for Ireland and its culture.
According to his mother, Phil had always shown artistic talent: “There was no musical business in my family, and certainly not in his father’s. So I reckon it was just an out and out gift from God. If you were driving down a big highway in America with him, he’d see all these big posters. He always kept a jotter in his hand and a pencil. If he saw an advertisement with a cowboy on it or something he would jot it down and they would give him [ideas] for writing songs.”
Everyone knows hits such as ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Jailbreak’. Thin Lizzy’s commercial success, though, brought with it the darker side of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The band began to experiment with heavy drugs and Phil became addicted to heroin. This ultimately had an effect on the frontman’s performance, and relationships within the band became strained. Thin Lizzy found themselves in debt and Lynott found himself even more dependant on drugs.
On Saturday 4th January 1986, at the age of just 36, Phil Lynott was pronounced dead. His mother, to this day, claims she never knew of her son’s heavy dependancy. “I found out later, that when he was on heavy drugs he made sure nobody ever let me know. And I used to say ‘Phil, don’t ever go on heavy drugs.’ He said ‘Ah, Ma, everybody tries everything’, and he brushed me off. I didn’t find out until he was in the hospital that Phil was an addict. That is how much it was kept from me. Now when I look at old photographs, I can see how it aged him.” Lynott had kept his addiction from his mother by injecting himself between his toes so as to hide his track marks.
The fact that Phil Lynott died so young contributed to his solidification as a cult icon. Fans still come from all over the world to the Irishman’s grave and to the “Vibe For Philo” concerts that are run every year on the anniversary of his death. Philomena receives hundreds of letters of support from fans on her birthday and for Christmas.
I ask Philomena what is it about her son that makes him such an icon. “I thought that as a frontman, musician, poet, composer… he just had everything that a band needs. And besides all that side of him, he was a character. He was full of fun and was a cheeky devil! We all know it was the drugs that changed him and killed him, but he was a wonderful son, and great friend to everybody. He loved animals and music! But listen,” she reminds me with a smile, “this is mother talk!”