Soldiers of Fortune
published: 13 /
"Riveting and compelling" account of the rise and fall of 70's hard rock band Thin Lizzy, and its frontman, Phil Lynott
It has been almost 19 years since Phil Lynott died in the first week of January 1986, but the charismatic Thin Lizzy bass player and frontman's mantle has never been higher. A double CD of Thin Lizzy's 'Greatest Hits' came out to strong sales and much acclaim in the summer. A film about his life is in pre-production, and there is now also a new book.
Alan Byrne, the author of 'Thin Lizzy : Soldiers of Fortune', has set himself an unenviable task. A previous book about Lynott and Thin Lizzy, Mark Putterford's 'Philip Lynott-The Rocker', is one of the definitive rock biographies of all time. It is to Byrne's great credit that his book proves to be every bit Putterford's equal.
Putterford, who died a few months after publishing his book in 1994 and who knew Lynott well, chose to focus on the contradictions in his rocker's personality, the contrasts between the sensitive poet and the hedonistic rock star ; the benevolent godfather figure to many other 70's and 80's heavy rock bands, and the ruthless egocentric who would think nothing of sabotaging his support bands' equipment rather than let them supersede him.
Byrne, however, is less concerned with Lynott's psychological make-up, and has gone instead for a more straightforward account of Lynott and Lizzy's rise and fall. He begins in the 60's in Dublin with Lynott, the illegitimate son of a black American, playing in a variety of short-lived blues and folk groups. Byrne then moves to the international stage for the 70's where Thin Lizzy become one of the biggest hard rock bands in the world. He concludes in the 80's in the expensive London suburb of Richmond with a heavily dabbling Lynott, lost without his band who had broken up in 1983, sliding helplessly into heroin and alcohol addiction and dying harrowingly at the age of 36 after his body gives out on him. In an epilogue at the end, Byrne then describes what has happened since to some of the central support players in Lynott's story, his band mates Brian Downey, Scott Gorham, Gary Moore, Brian Robertson and others, and also his doting mother Philomena.
Byrne has a good line in anecdotes. 1978 finds a drunken Lynott in Memphis, borrowing the band's tour limousine to go looking for the allegedly racist Jerry Lee Lewis, and becoming involved at a petrol station in a ramming contest with a huge Barry White clone, who pulls a gun on him. In 1980 at his Valentine's Day marriage to former model Caroline, Lynott's new father-in-law TV host and future 'The Price is Right' star Leslie Crowther narrowly avoids getting beaten up by Thin Lizzy's roadies when, during his father-of-the-bride speech, he claims that when Lynott asked for his daughter's hand in marriage he told him "Why not ? You've had everything else." Even the agonising last few days of Lynott's life raise a wry chuckle when on Christmas Eve 1985 his friend, Wild Horses guitarist and fellow addict Jimmy Bain, turns up at his Richmond home, and earns the enduring disapproval of the saintly Philomena both with his bad language and by using Lynott's Christmas wrapping paper to wrap up his own presents.
He writes well about Thin Lizzy's music also. While Putterford was content to dedicate approximately a page to each album, Byrne goes into detailed and in-depth track-by-track analysis not only of all of Lizzy's twelve studio albums, but also Lynott's two solo records and a whole range of obscure and lost recordings. He writes from the perspective of an enthusiastic fan, but shows himself unafraid to point out when he feels that songs are substandard or not up to par. The word 'filler' is used a lot. One finishes Byrne's book with the sad feeling that Lynott, while leaving behind a strong legacy of many classic songs, as a result of his destructive choice of his lifestyle, never really lived up to his real potential.
'Thin Lizzy : Soldiers of Fortune' is not quite the perfect biography. Byrne has the annoying habit of telling the same story twice, but this quibble aside he has created a worthy testimony and tribute to both Lynott and Thin Lizzy's career. Byrne's book is both a first-rate extension and natural successor to Putterford's biography of 10 years ago, but, by not trying to emulate it, and in finding an alternative, differing focus as well as up-dating it, he has produced a riveting and compelling book in its own right.