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‘Songs For While I’m Away’: Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham Talks New Doc and His Friendship with Phil Lynott
As a member of ‘70s arena rock stars Thin Lizzy for nearly a decade, guitarist Scott Gorham served as the right-hand man to the band’s charismatic and talented front man, lead singer/bassist Phil Lynott.
An impressive new documentary, Songs For While I’m Away, charts Lynott’s deep history, from his childhood roots and formative musical beginnings to Thin Lizzy’s climb to rock stardom and his tragic untimely passing in January 1986. The doc was released alongside a 1978 concert film as Phil Lynott Songs For While I’m Away + Thin Lizzy The Boys Are Back In Town Live At The Sydney Opera House October 1978.
Framed by revelatory performance footage, archival audio interview clips from Lynott, interviews with Thin Lizzy band mates Eric Bell and Scott Gorham, 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.
Rock Cellar: For people that don’t know Phil as deeply as you do, what story does the new documentary tell?
Scott Gorham: 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. In Ireland, there was [nobody who looked like him], and I kept thinking, “how do you do that? How do you grow up in a place where you are the only one?” That’s got to affect your personality in some way, shape or form. I think with some person, it might have affected them in a negative way, 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.”
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Rock Cellar: 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?
Scott Gorham: Yeah, it’s more of the latter. He and I hung out all the time together. We were like 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 was the time that we are going to talk about their 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, 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. 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 11 years traveled around the world, talked about everything, got everything together. How many secrets can be kept when you’re that close?
Rock Cellar: Phil was extremely proud of his Irish heritage, and it’s such a part of not only his character but his artistry.
Scott Gorham: 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’ve 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.
Rock Cellar: 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?
Scott Gorham: 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]
Rock Cellar: 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?
Scott Gorham: 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.'” We had done a US 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, “Alright, 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 Seger song.” I went, “Oh my God, that’s right.” We had to go to Bob Seger and apologize profusely, and tell him, “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.
Rock Cellar: In the documentary, Huey Lewis describes 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?
Scott Gorham: 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 be 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.
Rock Cellar: One time Thin Lizzy guitarist Midge Ure observed that “Phil brought poetry into rock music.” You were around Phil for those 11 years, was he an intense reader?
Scott Gorham: He was, and you wouldn’t think it just 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 that he’d put it down on paper.
Rock Cellar: What do you think his attraction was to cowboys?
Scott Gorham: He just loved Texas. I don’t know what it was. I think it had to have been that he grew up going to the cinema when he was a kid, and there was always a cowboy and Indian movie on. 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, all that. [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 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.
Rock Cellar: From your perspective, in which period of Thin Lizzy’s history was Phil the happiest?
Scott Gorham: 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 happiest, being out on the road.
Rock Cellar: 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?
Scott Gorham: 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. 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.
August 11, 2022