Remembering Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott on the anniversary of his death

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It was 28 years ago today that Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott, suffering from a kidney and liver infection, died of heart failure and pneumonia at a hospital in England. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken their toll, and he was taken away from all who loved him—and his exhilirating brand of guitar-heavy rock—at the age of 36.

But for hardcore Lizzy fans like myself, he’s never really gone away. His passion and intensity is always as close as that worn-out vinyl copy of Jailbreak. Or Black Rose: A Rock Legend. Or Bad Reputation. Or Fighting.

Dedicated Lynott followers are aware that most people only know him and his band of Les Paul-cranking rowdies for their 1976 hit “The Boys are Back in Town”, or to a lesser degree its followup, “Jailbreak”. But we’re content just immersing ourselves in the huge bounty of killer songs that the group delivered, from its 1972 version of the traditional Irish ballad, “Whiskey in the Jar”—which Metallica saw fit to cover quite nicely—to the pummeling near-metal of 1983’s “Cold Sweat”.

Band members would change now and again—the “classic” guitar team of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson was preceded by Eric Bell, and Robertson’s spot was taken at times by Gary Moore, Snowy White, and John Sykes—but always consistent were Lynott’s powerful voice, his throbbing bass runs, and his knack for adventurous story-songs that would delve into Celtic mythology one moment and youthful abandonment the next.

I never got to meet Phil Lynott in person, or even interview him on the phone, but I came close one time. I saw Thin Lizzy play Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum twice, the first time opening up for Queen on its Day at the Races tour of ’77, I believe it was, and then again when Lizzy warmed up for Styx in October of ’78.

For the ’78 show I worked my way up to the front of the stage and, wearing my prized Bad Reputation t-shirt, rocked out about 10 feet from my heroes. I was a little put off at first that Brian Robertson wasn’t on stage, but the guy replacing him, Gary Moore, was a complete madman on guitar. It was the most thrilling concert experience of my life.

Not being the biggest Styx fan in the world, I was wandering around the Coliseum concourse during their headlining set and who did I spot leaning up against a railing, smoking a Marlboro and watching Styx, but Scott Gorham! We started talking, and he was incredibly friendly. I remember asking him for a Marlboro just so I could have one as a souvenir, and he gave me his last one.

Then he motioned me to follow him, and the next thing you know he’s slapped a green all-access pass on my leg and we’re strolling along backstage together. I noticed Gary Moore walking alone ahead of us, and asked Gorham what happened to Brian Robertson. I’ll never forget his answer: “Oh, this guy’s way better!”

Perhaps realizing by then that I was the ultimate Thin Lizzy fan, Gorham parked me outside the band’s dressing room, told me to wait a minute, and then headed inside. Looking back now I like to think that, in his infinite kindness, he was seeing if it was cool to take me back and meet Phil. I’ll never know for sure. But he came back out with a resigned look on his face, handed me a little Thin Lizzy mirror pin, and told me I could just hang out backstage and watch the rest of the show.

I vividly remember Tommy Shaw and the other guys from Styx walking past me, all smiles and laughter, to play their encore, but I couldn’t tell you what song it was. I was stuck in my Thin Lizzy moment, and have been ever since.

The green backstage pass has been permanently affixed to my vinyl copy of Jailbreak.

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Not sure what happened to the Marlboro.

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