Akron Irish: Dancing in the Moonlight
By Lisa O’Rourke
The first time that I heard a Thin Lizzy song, it stopped me in my teenage tracks. The guitar riffs and lyrics combined in pure rock and roll swagger that it still has today. “The Boys are Back in Town “is a bona fide classic to the extent that it is a mandatory tune for boys making an entrance, even if those boys weren’t even a bad thought when the song was released in 1976.
It’s one of those songs that envelopes everything in cool, at least for three minutes and twenty-two seconds. The only thing that could be cooler than the song is the band that brought that song into being, Thin Lizzy, led by Phil Lynott. It was a surprise to me that they were Irish. This was pre-U2, and Ireland was all about traditional music and showbands, especially outside Dublin. For Ireland’s first big rock group to have a black lead singer was another surprise, flying in the face of all the silly Irish stereotypes. That was part of the point; the lead singer, Phil Lynott, was used to being the odd man out.
Phil was born to Philomena Lynott October 22, 1949. Being born to a single Irish mother and a black Caribbean father in Manchester in 1949 was no small thing. In that society, those factors were two strikes against them all. Philomena was a Bohemian spirit well ahead of her time. His father was more of an artistic dandy and was not long on the scene.
Philomena tried to raise her first born son but could not manage it alone. So, Phil was sent to live with what became his mother in practice, his grandmother, Sarah. The Lynott’s lived in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Dublin, Crumlin. He grew up adoring his grandmother.
Phil was a mediocre student but always had an interest in poetry and music. The black people that were in Ireland at the time were primarily students studying at Trinity College in Dublin. He later said that the students in his school were very naïve about black people and were more curious about him and his hair than anything else.
He did run into some prejudice and name calling, but not as much as he may have encountered in other places. What he did was take his difference and make it an asset.
It did not hurt him at all that he was attractive and cultivated a different, arty look. People just assumed that he could sing. In that area, he disappointed some, he was no Smokey Robinson, but he developed his own distinctive style over time.
As he grew into his teenage years, Phil’s interest in music and girls grew simultaneously. Before he turned twenty, he had been in several bands, beginning with one called the Black Eagles. By the time that Thin Lizzy came into being, he had established a few patterns that he never really broke. There were always alcohol fueled complications with girls and bandmates that ended with somebody walking out.
The band walkouts and reunions alone are the stuff that could rival any daytime TV plotline. Guitar players came and went and came back and went again in that band. The two founding members of Thin Lizzy, Phil and former Crumlin neighbor, drummer Brian Downey, had a work ethic and dedication to success for their band that put everything else second. Rather than really being abusive, it seems like there were not too many musicians who could keep pace with their drive.
The style of Thin Lizzy would be classed as hard-edged rock and roll, more bluesy than a lot of the flowery indulgence of the seventies. The lack of flowery pretense was also part of the bands visual appeal.
Phil Lynott looked great on stage and he commanded it. He was a combination of street tough and gypsy. Their songs were economical and full of punch, there were no epics. Thin Lizzy seemed much more working class and everyman than their contemporaries.
The metaphors of Phil Lynott’s lyrics represented a different kind of heroism too. The heroes and imagery that Phil drew upon were Celtic legends and the American television hero cowboys and anti-heroes. “The Boys are Back in Town” has American roots. Phil also had a strong interest in Irish mythology and traditional music.
Both of those themes showed up repeatedly in the music of Thin Lizzy. Their first hit, a rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar,” is the first rock and roll version of an Irish traditional ballad that I know of, and plenty have come along since. Thin Lizzy opened the traditional music genre to reinterpretation for all the Irish bands that have followed, like The Pogues.
Lynott was a man of contradiction. Despite a kind of hard-edge appearance, he brought contemporary vulnerability to his music too. One of my favorite Thin Lizzy songs is “Dancing in the Moonlight”, there is something so Irish and sweet in the lyrics of that song, where he sings about going on a date, getting chocolate on his pants at the movies and staying out too late.
It displays the charm that everyone said that he had in buckets. Musically, it has a kind of doowop, pop flavor, including a saxophone solo, was not the norm at all. His song writing deepened and matured; his interest in poetry and writing became more evident; some of the lyrics that look very simple have another dimension, a timeless quality, when you take a critical look. A different example of his maturity as a song writer is the lovely ballad that he wrote for his daughter, “Sarah”, who was named for his beloved grandmother.
There is a joke that goes, “Why did God invent whisky?” and the answer is, “To keep the Irish from ruling the world.” It applies to Phil Lynott. He died on January 4, 1986 at the ripe old age of thirty-five. His death was not directly from the abuse that he gave his body, but the after affects, pneumonia and heart failure. In 2005, a statue was officially dedicated to him. The ceremony was attended by his mother Philomena, and his former bandmates. That his statue stands outside of a bar, the Bruxelles Pub in Dublin, feels like a memorial and a warning combined. I would have loved to see what he did next.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at email@example.com.
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