By Ken Sharp
As a guitarist for Thin Lizzy from 1974–1983, Scott Gorham served as the right-hand man to the band’s charismatic and talented frontman, lead singer/bassist Phil Lynott. An impressive new documentary, Songs For While I’m Away (full title: Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy Songs For While I'm Away + The Boys Are Back in Town - Live At The Sydney Opera 1978), charts Lynott’s deep history, from childhood roots, his formative musical beginnings, Thin Lizzy’s climb to rock stardom to his tragic untimely passing in January 1986.
Framed by revelatory performance footage, archival audio interview clips from Lynott, interviews with Thin Lizzy bandmates, Lynott’s family and friends, Adam Clayton of U2, Metallica’s James Hetfield (and more!), the documentary is an extraordinary primer into the artistry and psyche of a fallen rock and roll giant.
The following is an interview with Scott Gorham, who continues the serve the Thin Lizzy legacy to this day.
For people that don't know Phil Lynott as deeply as you do, what story does the new documentary tell?
Scott Gorham: Well, I think the main thrust of the story was how a guy like Phil Lynott grew up. What turned Phil Lynott into Phil Lynott. And some of that is growing up in a country where you are literally the only colored face. I even noticed that myself on these early tours that we did with Thin Lizzy, I would look around just coming in from England and America and all that, where the color faces are everywhere. In Ireland, there were none and I kept thinking, how do you do that? How do you grow up in a place where you are the only one and that's got to affect your personality in some way, shape or form. I think with some person, it might have affected them with negative impact, but I think with Phil, he grew up with the positive impact. Okay, I'm a little on the lonely side here. But he had so many friends growing up in Ireland that the whole color thing just was not a factor, even though he saw nobody like himself at all for years and years. If you get enough friends around him, just say, "Well, that doesn't make any difference, man, because you're just such a cool guy so forget about it."
You knew Phil so well, while watching the documentary were there revelations about him or insights into his character that resonated with you or did it just solidify your impressions and your relationship with him and his character?
Yeah, it's more of the latter. He and I hung out all the time together. We were like these great best friends and brothers all at the same time. We were on the road so much and then in recording studios that we practically lived out of each other's pockets. But one of the great things to look out for on the documentary is his wife Caroline, and his two daughters, Sarah and Cathleen, who for some inexplicable reason, decided this is the time that we are going to talk about our father. They'd never done it in the past. They felt it was time that they actually spoke about him, which I had wanted them to do for quite a long time. And they came out and they did it and they come off great. I was in Ireland just recently, and I spent a lot of time with them talking about their father. They wanted to know stories, and they didn't want me to whitewash it in any way. They didn't want me to clean it up. They wanted to hear warts and all what their dad was like and what we got up to and I found that pretty cool, that they could take a lot of these stories in stride and actually, really be very proud of their father, which is a really cool thing. As far as revelations, no, like I say, he and I for eleven years traveled around the world, talked about everything, got everything together and how many secrets can be kept when you're that close?
Phil was extremely proud of his Irish heritage, and it's such a part of not only his character but his artistry.
Well, he was extremely patriotic about Ireland. To give you an example, we would do interviews all over America and it always seemed to be me and him. If the journalists just made a tiny mistake about the size of Ireland or where Ireland was situated in the world or mispronounced an Irish capital he would just jump all over that. And for the next 30 minutes, these people were getting an Irish lesson to the point where I finally had to say, "Come on, man, we're over here trying to sell albums. This is not supposed to be a history lesson." He said, "I know, but these people got to understand. These people don't even know where Ireland is and I got to let him know." He was that sort of passionate about it. We'd be on tour in Ireland and we'd be walking around whatever city and he'd go, "Hey man, you see that statue of that guy over there?" "Yeah." "You know what that guy's name is?" "No." And then he would tell me, and for the next 15 minutes, I'm getting a history lesson on this damn statue that I've already forgotten about. I don't know if you could call it over passionate about Ireland. I'm American and I don't know that much history. I don't even come close to knowing as much history about America as he does about Ireland. So you're right to ask that question. He was very passionate.
It surprised me that it seemed that Phil was a little embarrassed by the song "Whiskey in a Jar," which became a big hit. It's a beautiful reworking of an Irish standard. Did have a conflicted view of that being the first song that really pushed the band over the top?
Yeah, well, I think some of that is my fault, especially when we first started out hearing the kind of songs that we were coming up with in writing and recording and playing. We'd get to "Whisky in the Jar" and it just seemed to be the oddball song. It just seemed to be out of order. I said to him one day, "Hey, how about if we drop 'Whiskey in the Jar'? It's not really an original song. Let's just stand on our own two feet of things that we had written, not from songs that other people had written." And he surprised me. He agreed almost straight off the bat, "Not a problem. I think you're right. Let's drop it." And that's what we did. Now, if I had got somebody new in the band, and they said to me, "Hey Scott, maybe we ought to drop 'The Boys Are Back in Town,' it's a bit old. I would have said, "Okay, you're fired." (laughs)
Well, there is an anomaly, though. One of the Thin Lizzy’s signature songs was the Bob Seger penned, "Rosalie." How did that song wind up on Phil's radar?
I think that was on Fighting, the fifth Thin Lizzy album. The record company said, "We really need a hit. I don't care what you say. We really need a hit" and that really pissed Phil off. "We can write a hit song and they said, "Yeah, but let's try a cover version of something." And we had done a U.S. tour with Bob Seger, and we all loved Bob. Every night he was great with songs like "Turn the Page" and all that we listened to every night. So Phil got this Bob Seger album with his version of "Rosalie" and he played it and he said, "We could do this song." And he plays it and I listened to it, and I'm looking down at the record player and I'm looking back at him and go, "Really? (laughs) I don't see that because it's more of an acoustic song that Bob's doing." But Phil said, "No, no, no, what we have to do is really up the tempo and put different lines in there. It was Robbo (Brian Robertson) who really got into that idea. It took me a little while to latch onto it, but when we did, all four of us really got into it. And you're right, we turned it into our own, basically, so much so that when we did our live album, the record company guy said, "All right, can you write down all the writers on each individual song?" And when it came to "Rosalie," immediately went "Phil Lynott" and it went out. It was printed with that on there and somebody brought to my attention that, "No, this is a Bob Senior song." I went, "Oh my God, that's right." We had to go to Bob Seger and apologize profusely, and "you're going to get the money. It's not going to be a problem," and he laughed and said, "Don't worry, that's fine. That's great." But that goes to how much we considered it our song.
In the documentary, Huey Lewis described Phil's songs as "cinematic," and I think that's a really astute observation. He was an exceptional songwriter and had an exceptional ability in spinning these vivid stories, these mini-mind movies. Could you talk a bit about that aspect of his artistry?
Well, you're absolutely right. Phil is a lyricist and you always learn to paint a picture. I've noticed this about a lot of Irish writers. It's what they do. They're very vivid in their explanations within the songs without getting corny about it. There's a lot of country and Western songs that paint pictures but it gets a little corny at some stage in a lot of their songs, But Phil always seemed to be able to avoid that corniness and being able to bring the story side to fruition, which I always thought was great, especially in rock. There doesn't seem to be a lot of lyricists that are able to do that and to come up with ideas that actually make sense and that are really meaningful and that are really cool at the same time. So it was such a pleasure when he would hand me his lyric book and he'd say, "Hey, read this. What do you think?" You'd be reading the lyrics in his book and go, "My God, that's a great line. That's beautiful how you did that." Yep, he was that guy. He knew what he was doing writing those lyrics down on the page.
One time Thin Lizzy guitarist Midge Ure observed that "Phil brought poetry into rock music." You were around Phil for those eleven years, was he an intense reader?
He was and you wouldn't think it just kind of knowing the kind of person that he was. You wouldn't see him putting out a pair of spectacles and opening up a big thick history book. But he did. He would read quite a bit. I think this is where a many of his ideas came from, especially the historical Irish ideas. Maybe he wouldn't specifically go historically truthful all the time, but he always found a way to get the thought process over so you understood what he was talking about and what era and all that. And he could go the other way and just flat out write a love song so he was very eclectic in his writing. He had a lot of really great sort of mood changes within his writing, which I think is a real talent right there not to be able to just write one genre rock song, but he had a whole sort of spectrum, a whole palette of different ways of looking at life and then he'd put it down on paper.
What do you think his attraction was to cowboys?
He just loved Texas. I don't know what it was. I think it had to have been he grew up going to the cinema when he was a kid and there was always a cowboy and Indian movie on and I think that really fired up his imagination of what America was all about. Everybody riding horses and the big ten gallon hats and everybody's got a gun on thing and cactus everywhere, right. (laughs) And when we got to America, he made sure that the management knew that we were going to hit that whole southern section of America and stay down there for quite a while. There used to be a club just outside of Dallas called "Mother Blues" and every single time we came to Dallas, which was quite a few times, he and I would end up at "Mother Blues" and quite unceremoniously (laughs) he would walk up on stage, he didn't care, and he would grab the guy's bass guitar and say, "Come on up, Scott" and I would ask the guy if I could play his guitar and we just got up there and jammed for half hour every single time. So it became like a tradition when we got to Dallas it was straight down to "Mother Blues" at some time of the day or night.
From your perspective, what period in Thin Lizzy's history was Phil the happiest?
Well, probably the happiest I ever saw was the night that Sarah was born. We were in Dublin. Caroline had given birth to Sarah sometime in the late afternoon Phil went out and bought three massive boxes of cigars with little bands on them saying, "It's a girl!" He and I walked up Grafton Street and other streets and he would open up his box and say, "Hey, man, I am a father, have a cigar on me." And the whole night people were buying drinks and smoking cigars. And that was probably the happiest I ever saw on the music side, obviously. It was whenever we had a hit record, he was ecstatic." Somehow we've done it again. This is how amazing is this?" Having a hit record or another hit record, made sure that we can go back out on the road again, back out on tour. I think actually that's where Phil was the happiness was being out on the road.
This is a hypothetical question, but if you could be with Phil again for just one day, were there words left unspoken that you would like to share with him, things you would ask him about and if you could jam on a song or two with Phil, which is the song or two that you would want to play with him one more time?
Well, I think the song would be "Emerald" because it's a song that has everything. It's got the power, it's got the lyrics. It does have quite a bit of harmony guitar there, and everybody gets to play lead guitar.
I think there was a point in time I wish I could go back and be more forceful. It was when I stopped taking drugs and a year later I was completely healthy physically. I was really healthy and Phil really noticed this. He was talking about, "We've got to get the band back together again." I'm looking at him thinking, "You know how hard it is out there. You can't go out there in that condition."
I wish I would have been a little bit more forceful in explaining to him that you really have to get off of this crap. You've got to start putting it right. There's a lot of people counting on you, especially fans. They want to see you get well again. So come on, man, buck up, man. Get rid of this shit. I didn't. I kind of glanced off of the subject because I could tell that Phil wasn't the kind of guy that you demanded to do anything. He had to come up with it himself. He wouldn't ask for help because asking for help was being weak and I think that was a real flaw in Phil's personality and that's the only part that I did not like.
With me, I was looking for anybody that could give me help to get me off this crap. I wish I could have been the guy that pinned him up against the wall and said, "You're going to stop this shit." But that wouldn't have worked.
A trademark of Thin Lizzy’s sound is the duel harmony guitars, discuss how this became a key part of the band’s sound.
To tell you the truth, the whole harmony guitar thing wasn’t premeditated. In fact, how it happened with us was kind of an accident. We were in the studio and working on the Fighting album. Brian Robertson had walked out into the studio and he had one guitar line he was gonna put down. As they were recording this one line the engineer had mistakenly left this echo on that had this delay on it. So when it came back, it started to feedback on itself and in harmony, I remember the engineer jumping up and going, “Oh geez, sorry, sorry!” And we all went, “Wait a minute, that sounds kind of cool!” We played it back and I said, “Brian why don’t you just go ahead and record that line again, I’ll sit here and learn the harmony to that and I’ll go out and put it on.” So we did and we listened back to it and we really liked it. I said, “Well, as a matter of a fact, I’ve got another line in another of the songs, why don’t we do the same thing?” And we did the same thing and when we finished we said, “That sounds really good” but we really didn’t think about it anymore. It was juts another kind of cool part to have in the songs. On the next album, Jailbreak, we started to do more of that. We started to get a little bit more adventurous with it because we dug how it enhanced all these different parts in different songs. When the reviews came out, one guy said, ‘That patented twin guitar harmony line of Thin Lizzy.” And I thought, “Oh cool man, we’ve got a sound. How cool is that?” (laughs)
What inspired that type of harmony guitar playing, was it a group like the Allman Brothers?
I don’t know if we can call it an influence, you just kind of grew up with all of these things. Yes, the Allman Brothers were always being played on the radio. Hell, the eagles were doing it with “Hotel California.” Long before that, Les Paul and Mary Ford were doing it for chrissakes. It was something I enjoyed doing. I loved the whole harmony thing, the whole country vocal harmony deal and that kind of permeates into your head. Then you try to translate that into guitar notes. Through the years I’ve had so many people say to me that Thin Lizzy invented harmony guitar (laughs) and I go, “Woah, woah, woah, let’s back it up here.” (laughs) I’d reel off a whole list of people who did it way before us. But we popularized it. We put into the rock genre where the Eagles and the Allman Brothers were coming at it form more of a country kind of thing. We would put harmony guitars not only over major notes, we would put it over minor notes which many of the other bands weren’t doing. I think that probably set us apart a little bit because of that.
Songs For While I’m Away documentary is available in the Goldmine store HERE