NIGHTCLUB Stampede Breakfast dance party inside an old movie theatre on Saint Catherine East, Montreal Saturday afternoon, July 2005
CLOTHES Soso Jeans, Skinny Luke fit, 16-oz, slubby Xinjian cotton, green line selvedge Western plaid blazer, Hutchings and Sharp; Medicine Hat, Alberta
Man Trapped In Jeans The jeans had arrived on my front doorstep in a plastic bag that morning. I’d been expecting them. They were my birthday present, but they were a present which had required my advance participation. Custom jeans—made to order, just for me. My partner was at work when the jeans arrived. My plan was to text her a picture of me in them. They were lovely jeans. I’d selected a solid 16-oz slubby selvedge denim, milled in China. I’d ordered the jeans in Soso’s skinniest cut—their “Skinny Luke.”
I think I might have still got away with it if I’d left it like that, and not decided to take advantage of Soso’s customizable features. The thread, the rivets—I kept it all well within the realm of classic contrast. But I asked for a 36 length (instead of a standard 34). My thinking at the time was that this would allow me to get a seriously chunky rolled-up cuff. My thinking was flawed.
What the additional length of extremely skinny, tapered heavyweight denim (a purist’s denim—not a stitch of stretch fabric in them) meant was that the jeans got stuck on the length of my feet. I could not fit into them. Turns out that your feet (a modest North American-sized 10 and a half) have to be able to:
a) slide through the tube of fabric;
b) emerge completely at the other end.
I struggled with each step.
First, my feet became stuck in the additional two inches of extremely narrow fabric I had requested as additional length. And when I say stuck allow me to explain: I lay on my back on my bed, yanking my legs through. I yanked so hard that the skin on the knuckles of my hands rubbed off against the inside of the denim. I was bleeding from eight knuckles. It made no difference.
I kept trying. The beauty of raw jeans is that they’ve never been washed. The denim was so saturated that the indigo coloured my blood blue. I was bleeding blue, and that must have been symbolic because finally it worked and I felt my feet slide through—all the way through.
I stood up and walked around. I don’t know if I looked good. I took no pleasure in triumph. I realized my supposed conquest of the jeans was folly, the victory certain to prove pyrrhic because now I had another problem on my hands/feet. There was no way I was ever getting the jeans off.
As soon as I thought it, I lay back down. I heaved and schemed and my hands starting bleeding again and some of my contortions felt rather ancient. My body was forming positions out of its deep, spinal memory, but this time you could tell from the get-go: getting them on had been the easy part.
I was stuck in my pants. Unless my legs eroded, I was going to stay stuck for a very long time. I’d managed to get stuck in my new jeans so severely, that I could no longer pull my trousers up or down. The blood supply to my feet felt restricted. My toes had grown numb and I imagined I saw both pinky toes turning blue. I lay back down on the bed and tried to take off what it had taken me two hours to put on. Of course, I could not. My knuckles, already bleeding blue, had very little left to give.
I texted my partner, “I am stuck in my jeans!”
She texted back, “Haha, I can’t wait to see!”
Then I lay back on the chaise lounge and for two hours I thought about jeans. I thought things like:
Two Swedish capitalists. Two Instagram beards. A single, “transparent” factory in Thailand where the jeans had been cut and stitched by skilled artisans using vintage equipment—nothing computerized about the construction of these jeans (Soso, n.d.). Denim from China that may or not be ethical—the calculations seem too confusing to say for certain. Is Xinjian cotton good because it’s picked by hand? Yes, in terms of the quality of it—machine-harvested cotton destroys the virtues of long staple cotton. Machine-harvested cotton is what makes shitty, contemporary, mass-produced jeans so shitty: when you begin with an inferior product, you can doll it up as much as you like, but what you get is lifeless, droopy jeans that sag from your body and look tired before they’ve ever once been worn. Texas-grown cotton is about as long as Zimbabwe or Xinjian. But Texas cotton is machine-harvested. A lot of what’s good about Texas cotton gets destroyed by the machines that gather it. If you really want authentic jeans, the way jeans looked and felt before jean manufacturers stopped even pretending that quality was important, you need to begin with hand-harvested cotton. The existence of pre-industrial cotton fields—in Zimbabwe and Xinjian—makes this possible. (Kyle, 2014)
But the pre-industrial workers enjoy pre-Enlightenment working conditions. It’s slavery under different names. In particular, the use of Zimbabwe cotton has fallen under intense scrutiny because of how little workers were being paid. Even if you’re buying jeans made in Japan by a reputable producer paying its own employees very competitively, if the denim mill is making denim using cotton harvested by Robert Mugabe-slaves, that can’t be good, can it? I don’t know how much workers who pick Xinjian cotton are paid. I think it’s safe to assume that it’s somewhere close to, perhaps even beyond, the “shit sandwich” scale of global worker salaries. Soso didn’t switch to Xinjian because it has more cachet than Zimbabwean cotton. It switched because the price of Zimbabwean cotton has increased as the denim industry has attempted to ensure that Zimbabwean workers are getting paid. The great virtue of Xinjian is not really that it’s almost as good as Zimbabwe. It’s that it’s almost as good at a fraction of the price.
Still, there are positives. Until the cotton fields were planted, Xinjian was a semi-arid wasteland used for nothing. Its conversion to agrarian land was a massive state project of Communist China. Xinjian cotton is testament to human ingenuity, and central social planning. Land that did no one any good suddenly became land capable of supporting tens of thousands of workers with living salaries. Except: the cost, in water, of making crops grow in places where nature never intended a crop like cotton to grow, is unsustainable. The diversion of available water has made much of the Xinjian region a desert. It has filled the region’s remaining water supply with pollution from all of the fertilizers and pesticides needed to make the cotton grow. It has created tension between the immigrant population of workers brought in from other parts of China to harvest the cotton, and the indigenous Chinese population: the locals do not want cotton or polluted water. The livelihood of this migrant workforce depends on Xinjian using more water than the country can afford, and all of its attendant pollution (which, in any case, is happening to a region where the workers do not intend to stay). So, I’m assuming that most of the approximately $200 paid for those jeans went to Sweden. I hope the factory in Thailand is happy as well. I sincerely hope that the workers picking the premium Xinjian cotton are making bank. But I think to actually believe that is sliding over into unicorns and rainbows. I still think trying to work with a small company making attempts at transparency is good. But it’s hard to get it right, even still. (Leong, 2006, p.144) Dear god, help.
When my partner returned home from work, about six hours after the jeans arrived, I was still laying on my back on the lounge. The jeans were stuck around my ankles. I felt my jeans were reprehensible, and that fate was punishing me for my vanity. I stayed still. She tried to pull them off. She tried for about two hours. Then came the scissors. It took another hour because the denim was seriously solid, and it was stuck so tightly against the heels of my feet and the calves of my leg, that it seemed inevitable she’d puncture me somewhere. Fucking blue jeans.
 Like Zimbabwe cotton, used in much of Japanese selvedge denim production, Xinjian is a long staple cotton. Long staple cotton—particularly Zimbabwean—is prized for its external strength and visual appeal. (Lebris, 2015; Saintkeat, 2012) The long cotton results in a hairier surface, which now that I’ve typed the word “hairier” I understand why the euphemism “slubby” was totally needed. With long-staple heavyweight denim, you’re judging it the same way you would the cookery on a duck breast. The outside needs to be fucking crispy, while the inside melts into the smoothest softness, or the softest smoothness (Like driving a tank wearing pyjamas? No, that makes no sense.). As I discuss above, the trinity of denim salvation is formed by Italy, Japan, and the United States. Soso sources denim alternatively, we must presume, because: 1) China, as with Thailand whose denim Soso also uses, lacks marketing cachet, which keeps costs down. 2) the cost of Japanese denim in particular would force Soso to charge a price for their jeans that too few could pay to make the business viable. This is the result of the appropriation of the raw and selvedge denim movements by the very same corporations which had been perfectly content selling us mass-produced crap using inferior cotton, made in inhumane conditions: the best Japanese mills are now getting top dollar and operating at full capacity for companies like Gap, Uniqlo, Topman, Old Navy, Asos, American Eagle. Selvedge, which began as a practical critique of capitalist production, is now dominated by corporate capitalist production (Leverton, 2015). Even with jeans, Adorno was right: all successful, independent ideas will be co-opted and used to maintain and strengthen the status quo.  My tailors did their best to alleviate my crushing shame. Told me I wasn’t even the first hipster that year with jeans too tight to put on. Simple fix: ankle zippers. Unfortunately, the zippers went on the selvedge line-side of my jeans. So now, instead of showing off my beautiful, unique thin green selvedge line, I show off my generic, two dollar big brass zipper: I always thought the lyric “big, brass bed,” was accidental 70s cheese, a poor design choice in an era of wall-to-wall daft design choices. That the phrase originates from an entirely different culture and era obliges me to retract the criticism. Ruth Willis sings the phrase in a duet with Blind Willie McTell on “Rough Alley Blues” (originally released by Okeh Records, 1931). Dylan was tipping his hat with the lyric. Showing off the depth of his musical knowledge. (I still mostly wish “Lay Lady Lay” had remained a song I never had to hear.) (Dylan, 1969, track b1)
Tom Ford’s stylized love letter to Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, perfects this look in Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) seen here with one of the Colins who plays a college professor who can afford a wardrobe of Tom Ford suits, lives in architectural splendour and drives one of the most expensive Benz convertibles ever made hahaaahahahahahaa (Ford, Miano, Salerno & Weitz, 2009). Also, if you're wondering, yes, once, on the same day (and obviously from the same donor) I found, and then purchased, two Tom Ford dress shirts at Value Village in Vernon, a town where anything over Jones New York is entirely unrequired and also undesired, you're pushing it, buddy.
I was trying to look like these guys. Not these guys. Still no.
Cowboys in Montreal Jeans began to feature heavily in my wardrobe only after Morrissey’s solo career took its famed early 1990s turn to “rockabilly.” I started rolling up my jeans because of England, not Calgary. True, I was imitating guys from England imitating how guys from Calgary dressed in the 1950s, but honestly, I never thought about that at the time. Rockabilly and Calgary had no connection in my mind. Real Calgary cowboys in the 1990s did not dress like 1950s cowboys. They did not like those who did. There was, in the way I and my friends dressed, nothing that anyone in Calgary would have felt represented them in any way. I feel like there were not more than fifty kids in Calgary who rolled up their jeans: two thirds were members of the town’s actual rockabilly subculture; the rest were us, ersatz and instant rockabilly fans because Morrissey’s band of borrowed rockabilly musicians looked so cool. Britpop kids envied the real rockabilly kids. They did not envy us back.
Which is why, when I went to Montreal, it was so infuriating. The stylistic subcultural dissonance I’d worked so hard (and pretentiously-I gather is the general, uncharitable perception of me) to cultivate in Calgary was almost universally misread. Everywhere I went, people thought this was how people dressed for realsies back in Alberta. People asked if I missed the ranch, the rolling foothills. They thought I’d be a good guy to ask about car repairs, that I’d be handy, there’s a ranchero who can handle himself: when people had a question about cowboy boots, the proper oiling of, they turned to me.
The desire of others to read my appropriated identity as not appropriated, but the real Western McCoy, seemed the product of a powerful communal craving for actual authenticity. Secondarily, it also seemed born out of a desire for the heterogeneous as proof of the possibility of alternative lives. Canada hadn’t entirely become an exurban, Big Box SUV wasteland already, had it? There were still wide, open spaces and freer kinds of lives out there somewhere, weren’t there? It wasn’t the role I’d have chosen for myself, but it was a pretty easy part to play. It allowed me a freedom I’d never had before. In Calgary, it was usually a question of how much to tone it down. In Montreal, I could, if I wanted, wear an embroidered red satin shirt, vintage cowboy boots with my rolled up denim every day of the week and people still were disappointed I’d forgotten to tie a ‘kerchief around my neck. But who’s complaining? If some people needed me to pretend that what was obviously and entirely a homo-erotic homage to the most iconic version of North American masculinity ever created—a partly remembered, partly imagined vision of James Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt, a cigarette, a pompadour and the smirk-smile as socially deviant question mark—was actually one of the last iconoclastic manifestations of authentic North American masculinity, why on earth would anyone object to that? Everyone raised under American cultural imperialism wants to be a cowboy sometimes.
My third year in Montreal, I got talked into attending a Calgary Stampede breakfast by a few fellow ex-Calgarians. The pitch wasn’t that hard: day-time drinking in an old movie theatre on Saint Catherine East with a few hundred kids who, obviously, retained some fondness for a city they’d nonetheless had to leave to pursue their lives. That sounded about right. Mostly the daytime drinking: but if you can daytime drink dressed like Hank Williams in a crowded room wall-to-wall with Kitty Wells clones and way too many guys gone the full Waylon Jennings (bearded, coked to the gills, maybe a touch too huggy) then that’s winning, it’s a mathematical truth.
In between songs, a cowgirl MC was asking Calgary trivia questions for prizes. Next question, “Name one of the ‘Big Four’?”—the “big four” being both the name of one of the main buildings on the Calgary Stampede grounds, and also the name of the big four cattle barons who founded the Calgary Stampede in 1912. I was already six beers into my early afternoon and all of the normal inhibitions that otherwise constrain me socially were bucking free and easy and my blue-gingham-clad arm shot up and I heard myself yell, “Pat Burns!”
Yes, there was a moment of doubt. The brain is a dark and mysterious place. Hadn’t I just drunkenly yelled the name of a hockey coach?
A beat and then “Pat Burns is right!” is about all I heard before I went up to receive the warmest round of applause I’ve received ever anywhere. I don't know why I had to leave Calgary to feel Calgarian, but it was nice to know several thousand of us found ourselves in a similar state of exile, voluntary but obligatory also. 
Your Arsenal, the 1992 record produced by Mick Ronson, is generally held to be the album to signal this shift, although on what evidence and using what criteria it’s often difficult to tell. Does Your Arsenal sound like Gene Vincent? Not ever. Visually, Morrissey appropriated a rockabilly style. Most notably, he did this with the appropriation of a rockabilly band, who served as live props. A useful riddle: if rockabilly musicians, in full rockabilly uniform (including an upright bass), play music, is it rockabilly music, no matter what? (Morrissey, 1992)  The most enduring image in late 20th century cinema: Tom Ford’s stylized love letter to Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, set in 1960s Los Angeles. (Ford, Miano, Salerno & Weitz, 2009) The gas station scene, which introduces Carlos (played by the Basque actor Jon Kortajarena), captures with perfect precision the ultimate ideal of this look.  Ah shit, I strayed so close to Rural Alberta Advantage sappiness that now I may just as well: “We invariably left the prairies. But our heart has never moved an inch” (Edenloff, Banwatt & Cole, 2009, track 1).
Pat Burns (with the mustache)
The Chelsea boots are Hugo Boss, thrifted from Value Village (see Club 8 for a discussion on the ethics of buying Boss). The deep v-neck sweater, yeah, that's from a clothing company from Montreal that used to make its clothes in downtown Los Angeles and then it really went south. My shirt is Naked & Famous, a clothing company from Montreal that makes it clothes in Montreal: their clothes are well-made and I was super excited to get this shirt for under $10 at Value Village. Listen, the sweater I bought new when it was still ok to do so: that's just what happened.
Thin Lizzy is not, of course, in any way a country band. And no one played Thin Lizzy that day at that Stampede breakfast. But it was in the context of a Calgary Stampede-themed radio show (several years later, on the other side of the country) on CBC Radio 2 that I first heard a song by the band that wasn’t their big hit (more about that later). In my head when I dance to this song it’s this song as though it were played that day. I know it doesn’t make sense, but our memories never make sense: memories exist to make mockery of the order we attempt to impose on thought and time with language. Dreamscapes are not built with words. I heard Phil Lynott the first time seven years after the Stampede breakfast in Montreal. The first time it played, and every time it’s played since: I’m back in Montreal, a Calgarian for the first time, a country fan for the first time, rolling up my dark blue jeans (which were not dark blue jeans; they were 2005 jeans: colourless, shapeless, cheap and fake) and getting away with it, and it’s like everything clicked in a way it hadn’t before. I’m in a delirium of happiness, put there by music’s rewriting of memory, not by anything that’s happened in my so-called real world.
“I am just a cowboy,” Phil Lynott sings in “The Cowboy Song” (Lynott & Downey, 1976, track 8) the first Thin Lizzy song I ever heard (that wasn’t their big hit), “lonesome on the trail.”
I don’t think I’ve ever actually pulled over to the side of the road while driving for any song, but I probably should have then. “Roll me over and set me free, the cowboy's life is the life for me.”
I knew exactly what he was singing about, because he was giving voice to a collective regret and yearning for freedom lost, an ennui that characterizes the modern condition.The song kept coming back to me. I couldn’t get that voice out of my head. It was better than any song I’d ever heard of from the 1970s. It didn’t even sound like the 70s. I became obsessed to the point of proselytization. Thin Lizzy I suddenly couldn’t shut up about. The dismissive response I tended to receive deepened my fascination further.
When you tell people that your new, favourite band is responsible for unleashing on a world not yet ready the locker-room jock anthem for all the ages, the ultimate hick hockey song, they are incredulous to the point of disbelief. Thin Lizzy’s critical rehabilitation will be forever frustrated because of what their hit song has come to mean, the culture with which it is now associated. Released on the album Jailbreak (1976), “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Lynott, 1976, track 6) is far more famous than the band who wrote the song ever was—even throughout its groupies and heroin heyday. As internet meme, the song title lives forever. I wonder if you’d still want immortality if you knew these were the terms: a song half-remembered because of how it so perfectly captured—both in the title and the power chords—the glorious absurdity of the dying days of 1970s hyper-macho rock culture, when hard rock already seemed to have become a parody of itself? Oblivion or existence forever as an object of ridicule—what’s your pleasure?
A lot of my progressive friends and colleagues couldn’t get past it. They refused to be interested in anything to do with “The Boys Are Back in Town” on the grounds that, not only was the song beyond rehabilitation, but 70s rock culture was the evil from which punk and post-punk had helped us escape. I found the calm self-assurance with which these sweeping indictments of generation and genre were issued super irritating. The convention of music belonging to a “generation” is itself the sort of cultural construct that normalizes the logic of capitalism (newness must for its own sake continue always).
“A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself.” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 5)
As always, what we are naturally supposed to do deserves scrutiny: why is it good and natural to consume primarily the culture of one’s era? To what extent should the primary criteria by which we select art or culture be temporal? Today’s music now! What if all of today’s music now is really quite awful?
“What if the ‘good’ man represents not merely a retrogression but even a danger, a temptation, a narcotic drug enabling the present to live at the expense of the future” (Nietzsche, 1887/1956, p. 155)? Nietzsche here is using “good” in the sense of conventionalized morality—the good as measured comparatively through acts and observances of currently dominant moral codes. Conventions around musical taste are similarly organized: it doesn’t matter what you listen to; so long as what you are listening to is what most others in your peer group are listening to too, music understood to be socially acceptable. Pierre Bourdieu defines taste as “a practical mastery of distributions…[showing]…an individual occupying a given position in social space” (1984/2010, p.468). Musical “taste” in this sense is misnamed: music is selected not because of any individual taste. Music is selected to avoid controversy, as a way of acknowledging agreement with social consensus (or of soliciting controversy as a means to distinction).
The consequences of this collective voluntary abnegation of discernment are significant, both culturally and to the individual. Music valued because of its newness creates as standard the need for a new sort of music: a song with such mass appeal that it can appeal to the many instantly. The reification of newness is acquiescent to the dominant economic order. Capitalism collapses without the perpetual fulfillment of this implicit obligation for the individual to consume, and consume correctly. This is a dilemma as true for the musician as for the fan. Production must first meet the needs of consumption.
What makes Thin Lizzy so interesting is that you can hear this tension throughout its discography. It would be convenient to argue that “The Boys Are Back in Town” was an aberration, in no way representative of Thin Lizzy’s oeuvre: it would also be inaccurate. “The Boys Are Back in Town” is fairly representative of two thirds of the Thin Lizzy canon: hook-driven, hard rock celebrating the camaraderie between lads. It is the sound of Thin Lizzy repaying industry handsomely for the opportunity to be rock stars. Lead singer Phil Lynott is the ultimate company man: he is a rock star, ready and willing to give the audience, the recording industry and his own bank account exactly what each wants. Lynott, suffering two knocks to begin with, does not have the luxury of challenging the music industry, which, very improbably, has made of a (1) black, (2) Irishman the first Irish rock star—period.
Yet this artistic potential is forever unfulfilled because it is forced into a format already in cultural decline. Hard rock is played out by the time Thin Lizzy really hits its stride. Lynott drinks and shoots up with Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders. He knows it’s over. Two solo albums released on a hiatus with the band, show Lynott experimenting with hip hop, funky beats, reggae, calypso (?!). He sounds assured and playful in any genre he tackles. He was living where he recorded, in New York City, a source of inspiration for him as much as The Clash. Whereas The Clash’s subsequent musical experimentation is hailed as visionary, Lynott’s contemporaneous exploration received little attention at the time, and less since. Lynott was too old. Lynott was too hard rock. Above all, Lynott’s look wasn’t punk enough: he’d too successfully transformed himself into a hard rock god of such singular appearance, that that’s what he would be allowed to be forever—that exactly, and nothing else. The public already had punk stars—young ones, new ones. It had no time for an old rock star in new clothing. It had no more time for hard rock at all. At the age of 33, and at the height of his artistic prowess, Phil Lynott got junked. Phil Lynott didn’t want to die with hard rock. He didn’t need to, except for the reification of the new thing, the next thing, as the one thing valuable beyond all things.
He seemed to know what was coming. Newness exists only in relation to what it replaces. Newness demands obsolescence. Tired forms must give way to new ones. Lynott's voice is characterized by a sort defiant melancholy, gallows humour, the resignation to a tragedy foretold: Phil Lynott is a peerless rock star nonetheless sad that fist pumps and leather pants is all he will ever be allowed to do. That he found a way to thrive in an era and a genre to which he was not naturally or uniquely suited is proof of his talent’s adaptability. Every poorly rated Thin Lizzy record nonetheless carries a couple of songs that hit you like this: the era and genre disappear. You glance over at the turntable in disbelief. You cannot believe you are listening to the band that wrote “The Boys Are Back in Town” because what you are hearing is a song that exceeds its category, a song that you expect might astonish anyone who knows music. “Didn’t I” is pretty much just buried in the middle of side two of an album that most critics rate around the band’s second worst.
Released in 1980, Chinatown was born into a world that already had rejected it. The rockers, the vocals over anything uptempo, seem forced and phoned in. A lot of Chinatown sounds like parody. Thin Lizzy doing Spinal Tip doing Thin Lizzy. Rocking out has seldom sounded such a chore. Forlorn in decline because unable to prevent it, Phil Lynott nonetheless kept trying—but only on the slow songs. You can hear the gravitas of uncertainty and dissatisfaction most clearly in Lynott’s ballads. As a crooner, Lynott remains nearly entirely uncontaminated by the conventions of era and genre that otherwise conspired to make sure the time was never really right for his full flourishing. Right up until they stopped letting him, Phil Lynott wrote gorgeous, inventively melodic slow songs, always with vocals seemingly straight from his diary.
Lynott, an outsider by natural circumstance, triumphed in belonging. Now it’s the obligations of belonging that are getting him down. Lynott is tired of drinking and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll excess, and beginning to suffer the physical consequences and emotional calamity that typically ensue. Unfortunately for Lynott, he is as good at drinking and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll excess as anyone has ever been. It’s what the public and his bandmates expect and demand of him. Yet Lynott’s lyrics clearly depict an artist in the midst of an intellectual and social awakening. He is in revolt against the generational excess coming into being, an excess in which, he must have understood, he had been himself handsomely complicit. He sees North America from an Irish immigrant perspective: he writes often of injustice, and the hopelessness of not belonging—the consequences of not fitting in. Even the band’s celebration of laddishness may be read in this context—security through solidarity. The boys of Thin Lizzy’s world may drink and carouse, but they are local neighbourhood Robin Hoods, resolutely working class and defiantly proud of the people that made them.
It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough. Vilification of hard rock was necessary for punk to exist. Tastes changed. The most beautiful songs about and by a man in decline weren’t going to bring the public back to a hard rock band that began in 1969. Thin Lizzy had to go, and Phil Lynott with it. Punk had established itself in rigid opposition to all music made by dudes with long hair displaying excessive and superfluous technical virtuosity on their musical instruments, and the worlds of post-punk and new wave mostly respected this bias. Never mind that Thin Lizzy sounds like an earlier version of The Clash only with a much tighter live act. Never mind that it’s difficult not to view the entirety of U2’s career as a frustrated effort to do something Thin Lizzy hadn’t already done better and with humility. Rip it up and start again.
This refusal to consider the band separate from its classification is problematic for it forces reality to conform to invented divisions and categories. Taxonomy, although intended to facilitate understanding, serves instead to oblige artistic output and audience expectation to conform to its proper pigeonhole. I believed my twenty-year avoidance of Thin Lizzy was an act not of ignorance, but of informed good taste and credible musicological research. I felt entirely within my rights to abstain from Thin Lizzy because 1970s hard rock was what you were supposed to make fun of—it showed you knew. In the same way, we rolled our eyes at the mention of the names John Mayer or Norman Mailer: the lot of them were embarrassing cultural curios with no salience in the contemporary world. Except Thin Lizzy got mislabelled and miscategorized. I was wrong to trust the wisdom of genre. I was wrong not to question the inherited biases of my time and class. Maybe Thin Lizzy isn’t punk rock. But Phil Lynott was never the enemy of punk rock either. Punk continues from Thin Lizzy more than it breaks from it.
The continued existence of cultural artifacts, long after the era that produced them has been forgotten, allows for this reinterpretation. The original audience is not the only audience, nor is it necessarily even the preferred one. Further, the original interpretation is not necessarily the unchangeable or uniquely correct one. A great work of art may call into being its own audience. It can shape cultural tastes imperceptibly so that twenty years on listeners can hear what the band was trying to do in a way that contemporary listeners could not. Because new audiences will receive the old new text in new ways, any change in the conditions of reception makes possible the discovery of new meaning in the cultural text.
The meaning of music doesn’t reside in the text: meaning is the result of a reciprocal relationship between performer and listener. It’s infinitely changeable, and subject to a range of mutations that totalizing theories which close off the importance of subjective reception fail to consider.
 I understand that the song is equally associated with Irish rugby, and Liverpool, the association football club. Probably way more teams than I know about.  See Bourdieu (1984/2010) for a discussion of the sociology of taste. The even more reductive version than the previous footnote reduction is that most people like what most people like them like; most people dislike certain things to distinguish themselves from the people who like those same things.  The Clash’s famous fifteen-night stint at Bond’s Casino in New York occurred in 1981, a year after Lynott’s equally inspirational, but mostly forgotten, visit to New York City. The Clash’s publicity stunt, in promotion of the newly released Sandinista!, featured opening acts such as Grandmaster Flash, Lee “Flash” Perry, the Bush Tetras and Dead Kennedys (Greene, 2015; Knowles, 2002, p.232).  I feel like it’s fair to say Mayer may wait some time for his champion, and that I will not be it. Mailer wrote seriously fucked-up shit about women, here's a man who worked hard for his title of Misogynist Extraordinaire. He also wrote what remains one of the few great World War Two novels (no mean feat, because the entire English-speaking publishing industry would collapse even now if you banned Nazis as villains and all tales of Spitfire derring-do). The soldiers in The Naked and the Dead fight because they need work or because their stateside lives were so desperate any chance out was a chance that must be taken, even if that chance came with a strong likelihood of a gruesome death sooner rather than later. There is not a patriotic, pro-American word in the book. Everyone loses, everyone knows it. It's like reading the prologue to most every film noir ever made: disaffected and cynical GI brutalized by the war returns to a newly swinging North American society in which it is not yet culturally acceptable for a man (newly acclimated to violence by and for the state) to admit to deep feelings of traumatic stress, buddy represses feelings for a spell; goes apeshit in the end. Mattehorn, Karl Marlantes' Vietnam novel, is just as damning, plus it features a marine nicknamed "Vancouver." The character is based on the true life heroics of a volunteer U.S. marine from Osoyoos, B.C. Farley Mowat (Hardly Know It), speaking of which, wrote the best Canadian WWII novel in And No Birds Sang. Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison the best Canadian anti-war novel of the first. They're all anti-war; they don't seem to have diminished our continental need to rain hellfire one bit. My first good novel is about my grand-father, the traumatized, disaffected war vet of the family, whose brutalized state upon return was well-known, even to his neighbours. I don't want to hide this hyperlink: this 2018 newspaper article is about my grandfather's 1953 orchard tractor, which still operates with its original engine, and gets driven to farmer protest rallies. As the article states, "Jim Snowsell died in 1957, from the effects of his war years spent in a Nazi prisoner of war camp." It was Stalag Luft III, Belaria Compound, operated by Colonel Klink of the Luftwaffe but close enough. My war novel is called Time Will Wipe Us Out. It was way better than anything I'd written previously, and the few publishers I sent it to said uncommonly generous things about it. It was accepted by a literary agent, provisional to a rewrite. Instead, I got accepted to grad school: the book I never went back to. Fiction after post-structuralism I found difficult: too much theory wrecked many of my stories.
Phil Lynott on Pop Quiz, 1984 & Phil Lynott Not at Live Aid, 1985 The most curious thing about the song “Didn’t I” is that it was released twice in the same year. In 1980, Phil Lynott also released his first solo album, Solo in Soho. The song “Ode to a Black Man” invokes Stevie Wonder, Martin Luther King and Muhammed Ali in a defiant statement of black pride (Lynott, 1980b, track b3). It also features Huey Lewis on harmonica, and that’s a non sequitur, but my rule is simple and it is when the guy who wrote “Hip to be Square” shows up, mention it—always (Gibson, Hopper & Lewis, 1986, track five). “Ode to a Black Man,” a blues song, is based around this lyric:
There are people in this town that try to put me down They say, "I don't give a damn" (Damn these people) But the people in this town that try to put me down Are the people in the town That could never understand a black man
On “Didn’t I” those same lyrics appear with two minor changes: the parenthetical remark is removed; as is the racial complaint. In “Didn’t I” the last line of the verse is “they never could understand.” Period. The additions to “Ode to a Black Man” seem designed to signal to astute listeners that “Didn’t I” is not just a love song, and he’s not the cliché hard rock has become. Lynott remains both keen cultural observer, and lifelong sufferer of stereotyping, doomed always to be doubly misunderstood. “Didn’t I” is certainly more conventional than anything on Solo in Soho. But while serving as ballad filler, the song manages also to write Lynott’s life coda. The song is an apology for hurts caused. Equally, it’s a plea for empathy: he insists that a lifetime of being told he doesn’t belong (too Irish, too black) and that he’s not living his life the correct way has left him, you know—a little fucked up.
Lynott sings the song like it’s his final defense against the injustice he’s about to suffer. Somehow when he sings the word “town” it expands in size with each iteration. The first time he sings it softly and playfully allowing the vowels to stroll around, see what’s what. The town is literal. He’s doing his version of John Mellencamp’s “Smalltown” (Mellencamp,1985, track 3). Except, no.
Next time around the warmth is gone. It’s clear he’s not just talking about some shitty small town, but about where he grew up more generally: place, but his era too. The moment when you hear Lynott click into his top gear, I mean it’s hard to miss. All of a sudden, the entire rock star façade falls away, and you’re listening to the desperation of man tired of always having to take it. Now he’s singing “town” like the word is being wrenched from him, like at that instant the pain of having lived an entire life trapped inside the prejudices and expectations of others was more than he will bear. “Town” has clearly become the world itself and “Didn’t I” is Lynott lamenting his treatment by it.
What a lot Lynott had to lament.
His solo career died a quiet death in 1983, the same year as Thin Lizzy’s last hurrah. 1983 was calculated to send Thin Lizzy off in a blaze of glory—a final studio album, double live album and headlining tour. It was supposed to have been the year of Lynott. Instead, it made the general public say things like, “Thin Lizzy? Are those guys still around? I think my dad liked those guys. No wait. I’m thinking of Nazareth.”
What happened next is well-known to fans, and has been well-documented elsewhere (Thomson, 2017; Doherty & Gorham, 2012; Xaviant Haze, 2012). By 1984, Lynott had been reduced to appearances like a television advertisement for Virgin Airlines, and a spot on the British show “Pop Quiz” in which stars of popular music compete against each other in teams answering questions of contemporary music trivia. His public role had become this: famous has-been—and hanging on by his fingernails, only just. He’s not too far from the abyss: local rock star.
I know him first from that clip.
Only I didn’t know he was the guy from Thin Lizzy, or that he had been long dead by the time the video reached me. Judging by the comments underneath the YouTube video, most who have watched the episode of Pop Quiz featuring Phil Lynott were not there to watch Phil Lynott (ThePrivilegeIsMine, 2012). They are fans of the famous person on the team opposite Lynott’s. I say “famous” not in the context of 1984 because all the contestants were famous then to some extent—thus their appearance. Now, it's all about Morrissey.
The Smiths are in the pantheon. Thin Lizzy isn’t. I watched that video several times over several years, and I still didn’t remember having once seen Phil Lynott. Because I didn’t know who he was, my mind treated him as though he was not there. Even when his image appears, somehow he remains disappeared. Like everyone else who clicks through to that video, I was looking to see Morrissey throwing shade. Pretty much that’s why you watch it: to watch the famous person treat the rest of the panel—both his team and Phil Lynott’s team—with a mixture of haughty condescension and the silent treatment. 
Phil Lynott on the quiz show is funny, speaks softly and seems very unassuming. He seems like the most likeable person in the room. You would think that Morrissey and Phil Lynott would find common cause, based on shared personality traits, national origin and Whalley Range. Manchester’s Whalley Range, in the Smiths canon, represents the place you end up when everything you’ve tried has failed. Whalley Range, in Phil Lynott’s life, was where his mom lived, and ran a boarding house. “At the time Whalley range was a byword for seedy neglect, a red-light district typified by unkempt tenements and once-elegant Victorian villas converted into shabby bedsits” (Thomson, p. 51). Morrissey actually seems unable to conceive of a fate worse than ending up like Phil Lynott grew up.
When Lynott learned Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were organizing Live Aid in 1985 with U2 as feature attraction, he must have called up the rest of the guys straightaway (the band was but two years broken up and remained on good terms) and told them, “Be ready. The call’s coming any day.” Midge Ure was a former Thin Lizzy guitarist. Geldof’s Boomtown Rats had got signed thanks to a huge assist from Lynott, who championed him to labels and took the band on tour. U2’s live act is Thin Lizzy’s live act with more falsetto. Thanks to Lynott, Rock and Irish no longer sounded anomalous to anyone.
But the call never came. Both Geldof and Midge Ure have said that they thought Lynott couldn’t have gone on stage anymore, that his addiction to drugs had already taken too great a toll. Defenders of Lynott have said that was nonsense, that for a man born to perform, getting out in front of people and touring was the one thing, maybe the only thing, so important that he could shake off any addiction, just like that. Lynott was a professional: he was always ready and waiting for the call. But the call never came. On the day of Live Aid, Lynott dropped by the RTE studios in Dublin, and auctioned off his bass guitar. (RTE, 2016) “He did his bit, I guess, and there's something quite heartbreaking about that. He wasn't somebody who would vent about it. But privately, I think, you can be sure that that had a [profound effect]. It's someone literally looking in from the outside at this party that's going on, this rock celebration. And he's quite clearly been left out" says Lynott’s biographer Graeme Thomson (RTE, 2016).
Talent has a shelf-life—like any other product. If your genius has no market, who cares? The world had somehow changed irrevocably between 1983 and 1985. Thin Lizzy had an existence in one world, and not in the other. No one was ever calling Lynott again.
"Chris Morrison [Thin Lizzy’s former long-time manager] was a member of the Band Aid Trust and didn’t utter Lynott’s name as a prospective participant in the six months leading up to the concert. For Lynott, far worse than being deliberately side-lined was the implication that they had simply forgotten he existed.
‘To our dying shame neither Bob [Geldof] nor I even thought about asking Phil to put Lizzy together for Live Aid,’ says Midge Ure. ‘If he had been in a healthy state that could have been the Queen moment for them—“The Boys Are Back in Town” at Wembley? Jesus, can you imagine? But it never crossed our minds, and we were both friends of his. I think he would have felt absolutely betrayed by that. I think if we had done that, Lizzy would have reformed. Why didn’t we do it? Was it that psychologically we had given Phil up as gone? It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.’" (Thomson, 2016, pp.333-334)
Top of the world in 1983. Dead 1986, age 36.
Hospitalized, in a coma, on Christmas Day to add insult to injury.
Earlier that day Lynott’s mom, Philomena, had intercepted a heroin delivery to her son, who was at her house, with his two daughters, for Christmas. She confiscated the drugs. Tough love, 80s style. “Just Say No,” was the right way to go. Drug addiction as moral failing and character weakness: the discourse of the day. The family opened presents. Lynott went into withdrawal. He collapsed. Philomena poured him a cold bath and made him get in. Lynott sobered up enough to snap out of it and get dressed. His ex-wife Caroline arrived, and Lynott was put into the back seat. He went in and out of consciousness as they drove…to the local drug treatment centre. The staff, more suited to tasks involving rehabilitation than resuscitation, assessed Lynott as beyond their help. Not a question of addiction at the moment. More a question of the man in your back seat is in imminent danger of death. The nearest hospital was two hours away. He was in a coma by the time they arrived, and he came in and out for eleven days before dying. (Thomson, 2017, pp.338-343)
The death made but a minor dent in the collective consciousness. Like Midge Ure said, it was like somehow Phil Lynott had died a couple years earlier, and it had just taken this long for the news to finally arrive. I was a teenager at the time and I remember it not at all. Wouldn’t have known who he was anyway—the pace of pop culture transforms the new into the archaic in an ever and rapidly decreasing time period. Four years before your time, and it’s like it might as well have never happened. Technological traces endure, but news of the recent past no longer reaches us reliably. The present throws up too much noise.
I was thinking about Phil Lynott Christmas 2016 when George Michael died, alone, aged 53. Only in death had we remembered he’d still been living. Joe Strummer, dead home alone, at age 50, a few days before Christmas 2002: all of them unable to endure the interregnum between first fame and the comeback that never really comes, even when it does. We seem to enjoy the self-righteous fun of celebrity death carnaval, where each of us is expected to take turns talking about how much of a part of us George has always been and how now nothing will ever be the same again. It's made sincere mourning nearly impossible. No grief is above suspicion. And anyway, the stupid thing about George Michael is that the new- 80s era in which all of us currently reside is at least 50% his creation, why yes we can settle on 20. And by stupid I mean horribly tragic, because GM never got the respect he deserved, not really. About five years shy of a full-on Wham revival? Less, I guess. It’s like every fifteen years or so, on the West’s last remaining holy day, a blood sacrifice is demanded by the gods of the new.
 The lyric from the Smiths’ song “Miserable Lie” is “What do we get for our trouble and pain? Just a rented room in Whalley range?” Morrissey then proceeds to wail the word “range” like he’s singing a jingle for Maytag ovens, and has been tasked with explaining the functional differences between the two appliances: “Ray-eh-ah-eh-ainge,” is how I would spell it (Morrissey & Marr, 1984, track 3).  Morrissey will go on to hire as producer Tony Visconti for Ringleader of the Tormentors (Morrissey, 2006). Visconti produced three Thin Lizzy records. Although Visconti also produced Bowie, T-Rex and Iggy Pop, Ringleader of the Tormentors sounds mostly as though Visconti’s brief was, “Thin Lizzify us.” Visconti does not entirely succeed. ROTT signals the beginning of His Later Dad Rock Years. Morrissey throws the same sort of shade at Bill Cosby six years later on another television show, this time The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (Barrie et al., 1991). And then the year after that he does the same thing to Keenen Ivory Wayans on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (Brogan et al., 1992). So, the alternative interpretation is that Morrissey’s handlers should know to let show producers know not to book Morrissey with people who don’t look like him? Morrissey now exists as an anachronistic reminder of exactly the sort of Irish-Englishman responsible for the prejudice about which Lynott complains (Alternatively, Morrissey sees the future, knows Cosby will one day be accused and convicted of sexual crimes, and is just doing future Morrissey a solid).  The song “Massacre” as recorded on Live & Dangerous fools me every time—it’s like listening to a U2 song if U2 aimed not to instill fervent devotion amongst its audience, but instead to whip it to pure, nihilistic frenzy (Downey, Gorham & Lynott, 1976, track b3). By focussing on Lynott, I’m doing the guitarists of Thin Lizzy a disservice. The accusation against their type, the superfluity of their virtuosity, is refuted throughout the band’s canon: the omnipresent guitar solos are vital to Thin Lizzy’s functioning as an ensemble. Live—even when the guitarists cheat and play silly stuff for the gallery, the theatre is exciting, as is the sheer noise the guitars create. The perhaps slightly, and unfairly, unheralded Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, the duo responsible for much of the band’s best material, are original guitar heroes—the sort upon which the entire archetype seems based.
"There are people in this town That say I don't give a damn But the people in this town They never could understand."