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Music

How Jimi Hendrix inspired Phil Lynott

Phil Lynott was one of a kind. His bass playing was stellar, ripping with flourishes of invention and character, and his singing came directly from the bottom of his gut, culminating in a fiery vocal performance that offered every live performance with a punch that was keenly bolstered by his desire to entertain his audiences. 

He borrowed many of his tricks from Jimi Hendrix, an American guitarist who based his stage performances on danger, thrusting his instrument into the faces of his audience as they gawped in his direction. But for Lynott, Hendrix’s importance was more long-lasting, as he saw a kindred spirit in the mercenary frontman. 

Jimi Hendrix proved that a Black fella could front a rock band,” Lynott informed Gay Byrne, in a moment of rare reflection for the songwriting bassist. He found himself on The Late Late Show, determined to salute the many accomplishments of his impressive trajectory. Keenly aware that he now stood as an emblem for Ireland, Lynott presented himself in humble fashion, hoping to inspire another aspiring musician with the tales of his experience. The bassist was expected to portray Hendrix in a biopic on the guitar player, but the film never came to fruition. 

But he invoked the American rock star in his own way, especially on the thunderous ‘Jailbreak’, a rock number that was equal parts riff and sex. The drums kicked the bassist into gear, and he spent the rest of the recording purring silently to himself. 

It was a sultriness that recalled Hendrix’s smouldering style on ‘Foxy Lady’, but rather than replicate the guitar solos himself, Lynott hired two guitar players to work out the crescendoing solos that formulated into a form of choreography and dance. The bellowing guitar performances were high on energy as if replicating the fusion and ferocity of a lover in delicto flagrante. 

Lynott could never match Hendrix as a songwriter, but he was arguably the better singer and certainly the more exhilarating to watch as a frontman, ready to break into a quip whenever his bandmates lay their instruments down to breathe. What Lynott offered was sex in capital letters. He would ask women with “Irish in them” if they’d care for “more Irish in them”, giving him the chance to dispel notions that Ireland was devoid of earthly pleasures. He was eager to create a new movement of Irish rocker, whether it was transforming the pastoral ‘Whisky in the Jar’, or advocating the need for diversity in his native country. 

Besides his reverence to Hendrix, Lynott rarely discussed his standing as a black man, preferring to portray himself as an Irish man leading his country into new times. “I’d say it’s almost like bein’ Irish and Catholic,” he told Hot Press. “Once you’re Irish and Catholic, you’re always Irish and Catholic. I think it’s in you. You can never disassociate yourself from it. You can acquire another accent, but it’ll always be there in your head. The rules that were beaten into me at school are ingrained. I still know when I commit a mortal or a venial sin, y’know.” 

His interviews were tinged with uncertainty as if pre-empting his eventual death. But he was also debonair enough to treat his interviewees with respect he felt they deserved, provided that they recognised the artistry he was eager to espouse to a music-buying public. What he offered was insight, perspective, philosophy and general bonhomie. He was sincere in his regard, ready to accept any challenge that presented itself to him, which might explain why his bass playing sounded so spontaneous and why his rock anthems were so jagged and sharp. 

He revered Hendrix but never ached to emulate Hendrix, thereby paying him the ultimate tribute. Suddenly, the work that had funnelled his life was appearing in his career, and he found himself speaking for a nation that was growing more progressive as it moved on. He spent the rest of his life dedicated to this crusade. The America that formed the backbone of Hendrix’s sparky material made way for the Dublin that appeared in Lynott’s. And when he sang about Dublin, he was creating a city that fashioned his senses, his behaviour and his beginnings as a musician. 

But no matter the vitality, the songcraft was his, and although he may have saluted Hendrix, Lynott was always his own man. As he strove to perfect his imperfections, the bassist began writing from a more personal nature, culminating in the shimmering ‘Old Town’, a piano-laden tune that championed Dublin from a variety of differing angles. Keenly aware of its history and his place in it, the bassist curated his finest track, one that had nothing to do with the Hendrix playbook that had presented itself to him in the 1960s. But by ‘Old Town’, he didn’t need to be Hendrix. He was Lynott.