This month, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott is 21 years dead, and I have a confession to make: I fell in love with a dream of Ireland long before I fell in love with an Irishman. At the age of 8, I picked up a guitar, but could not play it, except to strum a few raw chords from "Whisky in the Jar ... " But Monty is speaking now; a touch of the drink is in him. Behind his gray-dark eyes, the color of the River Boyne in winter, unfolds a vision that 30-odd years have not dimmed. "As a kid, Lizzy was the circus come to town. Trucks would start arriving with generators at 10 o'clock in the morning. They had such powerful equipment, no venue in Ireland -- except one or two in Dublin, maybe -- could host them."
In America, Thin Lizzy was a blip on the radar. Its only significant U.S. hit, the rollicking rock 'n' roll anthem, "The Boys are Back in Town," has been pimped out to various and sundry television commercials. In their homeland, however, Lizzy, fronted by bass player Phil Lynott, was the watershed for a major tide of Irish artists that followed. Van the Man, who, as a Belfast Protestant, was infinitely more palatable to BBC stations doling out airplay, notwithstanding, Lynott and Lizzy were the first Irish rockers to gain a foothold in the world market. "It was Phil and Rory Gallagher (another Irish rock legend who died too soon and too quiet on the other side of the pond) who gave Irish rock musicians a license to play on the international stage," notes Seamus Kelleher, lead guitar player for the Philly band Blackthorn. Back in the day, Kelleher fronted Lizzy's opening act, a three-piece outfit called the Skulls.
Lynott was indeed an anomaly: a lithe engine poured into skin-tight leather pants, the product of the unlikely union between a white, unmarried middle-class girl and a black Brazilian sailor. "All the odds were against Philo," says Monty. "He was a bastard, he was black and he was Irish." Even so, Lynott was considered a god in a land where gods had walked the earth within living memory.
"At one gig, the promoter didn't pay us," Kelleher recalls. "Phil told me to go around to the Imperial Hotel in Galway City the next morning, and he would sort it out. I met him and his huge entourage at about noon. He took ten pounds out of his pocket, and apologized for the mess up. I knew it came out of his pay. [Then], he said he'd like to buy me a drink, and told me I could pick the place. The two of us headed downtown to the Cellar Bar, where I knew all my buddies would see me walking with 'Jesus.'"
Like Hendrix and Elvis, Lynott succumbed to the excesses of his addictions. He was 35. "I played with Lizzy the night Jimi Hendrix died," Kelleher remembers. "They played 'If Six Were Nine,' and I played 'Hey Joe.' I had just discovered Hendrix, but you could tell that Phil lost a piece of himself. Years later, when I was sitting in a diner in Dublin and I heard that Phil had died, I knew I had just lost a part of my history, as well."
"We thought we owned Philo, y'know, from his regular appearances in the audience at the Universal Folk Club, vibing out to floor singers, often in the company of Skid Row's Brush Shiels, to his appearance in Dalymount Park in 1977, when Lizzy were at their creative and commercial peak," muses Irish music writer, educator and record producer Oliver Sweeny. "The truth is, that for all that he shared with us, Philo was haunted by ghosts that no one could see; ghosts who would in the end, wrap their demonic arms around him and squeeze the last drop of life from him ... What we have, nevertheless, is a body of work, informed by nurture and environment, ranging from pieces like 'Little Girl in Bloom' to 'Whiskey in the Jar,' and so much more ... Black and proud, he walked the streets of Dublin like a boulevardier, stopping to talk to friends and fans alike. He owned our city in a way that no one has -- before or since."
At 25, I broke my foolish heart against the indifference of a callow youth who could have been Phil Lynott's twin, had Philo been white instead of black, a simple trick of geography and skin. "Others because you did not keep that deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine," Yeats wrote. While there's truth in the poetry, I fell in love with a dream of Ireland long before I fell in love with an Irishman, and it's Philo's voice that haunts me ... "I'm still in love with you."
Mandolin player Monty Monaghan can be heard the first and third Sundays of each month with the Acme Ceili Band at Ri-Ra Irish Pub in Charlotte.