When you see footage of British football hooligans from the 1970s, the almost unbelievable carnage on the terraces, Thin Lizzy were, more than any band, the noise in the background; three minutes of attack, withdraw, scream and attack
Songs For While I’m Away
Mercury Digital Documentary
Some things don’t travel well or they arrive in a different shape to when they left. American punk rock, for instance, left New York wrapped in glammed up, thrift shop streetwalkers’ togs and arrived in the UK as a tired junky. Thin Lizzy also had two lives. In the UK, they were punk rock scouts, giving some noise and meaning to working class (mainly) lads who couldn’t quite identify with the Norse gods of Led Zep getting it together in a Welsh cottage or Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower that were the kind of dominant images for rock music lovers in that weird period between glam and punk. There was a mood, a need, in the cities and the towns, for something unspoken, for bands that looked like gangs and sweaty, straight-talking soundtracks to pubs and football and chatting up or smashing up.
Jailbreak and Johnny The Fox were the two albums most of us guitar-loving teenage boys could agree on. If Dr Feelgood were just too psychotic, Wishbone Ash too meandering, and Eddy and the Hotrods didn’t yet have any killer songs, Thin Lizzy had the songs and invented backstory and, in Phil Lynott, a reluctantly charismatic gang leader to identify with. Even if occasionally some tracks would linger a little too long on another guitar solo, most of Lizzy’s tunes were to the point, generally not hanging around long enough to make you wonder if you should skip it on. When you see footage of British football hooligans from the 1970s, the almost unbelievable carnage on the terraces, Thin Lizzy were, more than any band, the noise in the background; three minutes of attack, withdraw, scream and attack. Or run. Nervy lads from Walsall, zit-ridden youth from West Ham, preternaturally hairy oiks from Leeds, clattering about in platform shoes, trousers flapping, blood pumping. Not glamour. Not cool. A frizz of dandruff hair and the great smell of Brut.
Crossing the Atlantic, Thin Lizzy became something else, perhaps the something that killed Phil Lynott. The drugged up rock beast, criss-crossing dusty plains, endless highways, the America of Ireland’s dreaming. The difference back then must have been devastating, Ireland and the UK dark and damp, small violence hanging around like a fart in a car in The Sweeney. But the USA… from Kojak on the east coast to Crosby and all the endlessly snorting long hairs on the west. Real cowboys in Texas. Casually magnificent views of the Rockies from the tour bus, floating at the end of huge fields of wheat, blown by the wind. This was the reason Lynott got into rocknroll. And rocknroll got its American needle into Phil.
The film more than gives Phil Lynott his due and it’s actually difficult to see the real man through the soft, romantic haze that suffuses. Or perhaps the ‘real man’ disappeared into the projection after the second or third American tour. He wouldn’t be the first. What he and Thin Lizzy meant to their Irish and UK fans doesn’t really feature, which is a shame as that was the rocket fuel that originally took the band up into space. That the spaceship resembles, on the inside, a smelly backstage dressing room, littered with empty bottles and socks and populated by those strange Americans who get some kind of vampiric energy from being in the presence of leather trouser wearing, low self-esteem fellas from across the pond kind of pokes through. But not enough to upset the spotlight, steadily separating Phil Lynott out from the flock, pinning him to the stage. Lonely.
The ‘reality’ is provided by some candid interviews that give a flavour of the petty jealousies and perpetual let downs of the moderately successful musicians who were part of Thin Lizzy’s journey. And the story of Lynott’s early life as one of very few Black people in an Ireland still ruled as a theocratic state, who’s youth looked longingly at the mythical Carnaby Street freedoms across the sea or the unfathomable riches of an American coca-cola life. Almost despite itself, you get the feeling of constriction. Phil was a big man. He needed the endless prairie, the crystaline blue skies as seen from a jet window in order to feel free. And, of course, that would never be enough. It seems Phil Lynott took the ‘small’ with him - hard to shake it off and success is never the success you dream of. That big full stop of death by recreational drug use, if really investigated, would tarnish the sparkle from this tale. Unlike, say, Kurt Cobain, there was never an attempt to bring the sordid into his invented, glammed up life. Despite his image, Phil Lynott was never rebellious enough to totally embrace the lifestyle, become a William Burroughs outlaw. It was a dirty secret, his drug use and the film keeps it that way.
If it’s not a seriously dirty doc, Songs For While I’m Away, does bring a sense of the two hour rocknroll concert alive. And maybe, more than anything else, while Lynott lived for those moments he was actually in the dream and we could join him, momentarily.
rocknroll west side story personified...
PHIL LYNOTT SONGS FOR WHILE I’M AWAY RELEASED ON DIGITAL FORMATS ON NOVEMBER 5, 2021