Book review: Cowboy Song: The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott

PHIL LYNOTT died 30 years ago, aged 36, his demise undeniably hastened by the alcohol and heroin dependencies that characterised the last five years of his life. 

Book review: Cowboy Song: The Authorised Biography of Philip Lynott

Graeme Thomson

Constable Press, €16

In the interim, he has become Ireland’s most eulogised musician; perhaps only Rory Gallagher and Luke Kelly come close.

He is certainly the only Irish musician with a statue and a day dedicated to him.

So to write a biography of such a figure three decades after his death presents several challenges, the first of which is to archaeologically brush away the layers of mythologising and beatification, to find the truth behind the legends that grow with every telling.

The second, and this is contingent on success in the first instance, is justifying why this story needs to be told again.

Failure in either instance risks making the project look like a tawdry cash-in on a significant anniversary.

Graeme Thomson’s Cowboy Song proclaims to be the ‘authorised biography’, and is the first to be written with the co-operation of the Lynott Estate.

As such, one would expect Philomena Lynott, who has been front and centre in securing her son’s legacy, to feature heavily.

However, she is largely and surprisingly absent — after all, she told her story in 1995’s My Boy — and instead the voices of those who knew Lynott in various stages of his life are given space.

Not one of these voices belongs to a shrinking violet, either, resulting in a ribald, authentic, entertaining tale.

While this multi-voiced narrative is Cowboy Song’s greatest strength, it is occasionally also a weakness.

Thomson spends significant time on Lynott’s sense of bilocation, of otherness, and various characters are rolled out to present these two sides to his character — the brash womaniser and the abandoned waif, the Celtic poet and the macho rocker — and, for the most part, these multiple sources are elegantly juggled.

On some occasions, though — and this must be a pitfall of any biography whose subject is long since buried, and the truth with him — they are just contradictory, and no insight is gained from the juxtaposition.

To wit: Lizzy drummer Brian Downey’s and photographer Chalkie Davies’ wildly differing accounts of the night Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen visited Lynott’s London home.

Nonetheless, Cowboy Song is at its most intriguing when it explores Lynott’s childhood and first, faltering steps as a rock star.

Carol Stephen, an early girlfriend and mother of Lynott’s first child, soon given up for adoption, reveals that, at that stage of his life, he walked with a perpetual stoop, as if trying to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Not long after, we hear how Lynott eschewed playing football, fighting, and working in a factory for fear of damaging his looks and clothes, image creation being a major concern of both the abandoned child and the emerging rock star.

Indeed, one of the highlights of Cowboy Song, particularly for anyone with an interest in Irish rock history, is how Thomson interweaves the birth of Phil Lynott the rock star and the (albeit late) arrival of the Swinging Sixties in Dublin.

Now-veteran scenesters pop up in Lynott’s story almost organically — Brush Shiels, Smiley Bolger, Robert Ballagh — at the same time as tourists and hippies finally arrive in Dublin, and with them, room for Lynott to express himself.

There is no better illustration of the passing of the torch than Lynott and his gang drinking in the Bailey on Duke St, up until then the favoured haunt of Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, and JP Donleavy.

Thomson treats Lynott without reverence, though, and Cowboy Song is the better for it.

He pulls no punches when discussing the mis-steps of Thin Lizzy’s awkward rise to fame, or how Lynott’s addictions ruined his creativity, or how his insecurities drove away friends and band members.

This is no eulogy, but an honest, often painful account of the price of star power.

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