Now You’re Not Around | The ‘Old Town’ of Phil Lynott

I miss Dublin. I miss Howth and the Wicklow Mountains.

I was born in Brooklyn, but have spent most of my life on Staten Island. This past month, as the virus has displaced ordinary life, I’ve stopped watching news. Recently a friend from Melbourne texted to share the statistic that, in New York, someone is infected with the virus every ten seconds. Thanks mate!

Another friend, a Japanese tattoo artist living in London, posted a video on Instagram of a dragon painting he’d done. I asked if he was making prints. Yes, he said, please stay tuned. His customary kindness and courtesy gave way to urgency, “NYC is going crazy! Are you guys ok???”

They won’t let me get away from it.


Four months ago I was in Dublin, having my photo taken on the Ha’penny Bridge, which carries 30,000 passengers per day. Or carried. Today I’m living with my girlfriend in isolation.

Our room in Dublin overlooked the bridge. I often sat by the window staring at it. I watched one or two homeless people settle into their positions in early morning, wondering how they could withstand the Liffey wind in December.

Until that moment looking at empty streets, I watched a lone city worker almost tiptoe out of his van to torch off a love lock. I watched back and forth fast-moving streams of Dubliners. Dubliners, I learned, move at terrific speed; it wasn’t uncommon that I felt one coming up behind me might climb onto my back.

“In Dublin, people aren’t pedestrians, they’re projectiles,” I said to a couple we met on the train, and the wife thought that was good, so I repeat it here.

We were on our way to spend two nights at Wilton Castle in County Wexford. The couple stood to let us take the window seats.

An EMT from Clogherhead I sat next to on the flight over picked us up and drove us to Wicklow and treated us to delicious coffee and scones at Glendalough Green. I found it true what they say about the friendliness of the Irish. The only unpleasant person I encountered in my week there was a drunk American from Dallas.

Mostly, when I sat by the window staring at the Ha’penny Bridge, I was imagining Phil Lynott standing on it. I imagined Fiona MacAnna pulling her hand from his and walking off. Lynott’s ‘Old Town’ video inspired me to visit Dublin.

I wish I could remember my first experience encountering the song. I only know I fell in love with it, and fell into the habit of watching the video every morning after walking a few miles in my neighborhood. I would sit at a chess table in my local park and broadcast the song, singing every word, to whoever might pass.

When we got off the bus in Temple Bar, it was morning and we weren’t scheduled to check into our room until afternoon. We were walking toward the room when my girlfriend said, “don’t look,” and when I did, there it was, the Ha’penny Bridge.

Even though she had described the song ‘Old Town’ and its video as “80s cheese,” I had impressed upon Liz my deep, meaningful connection to this song, and from the moment I envisioned visiting Dublin to find the locations in the video, to walk in Phil Lynott’s footsteps, she was excited about the adventure.

We settled in a Starbucks across the street and waited to hear back about a possible early check-in. We sat there two hours. I was perfectly positioned to take in the bridge. At some point a group of seagulls climbed above it, whirled and dropped, and the picture from the video was complete. Thirty-seven years had passed but the picture was still intact. I approached sheepishly to take a photo.

‘Old Town’ is, to my mind, one of the best songs ever recorded; I can’t think of another song that is at once so sad and exhilarating.

Four years before Lynott’s death he is telling us in naked terms that he is falling to pieces. If we are worth the bones that hold us upright, we should want to reach through the screen and help him avert disaster. Maybe we are him. We are all cracking up; he has given voice to our shared state, but he is taller, thinner, more charming.

In Dublin I learned fast to what extent I am not Phil Lynott. The second day there I took my spot on the bridge and asked Liz to take my photo. Where was Phil standing? We tried to figure out. Where was the camera? I leaned on the railing. “Point at me, like this,” she called from the sidewalk, demonstrating, and I tried it, but in the photo I looked like a bald, four-eyed jackass. We got a nice picture of us together on the bridge, one of the arches prominent in the background, and I was happy with that.

‘Old Town’ is about heartbreak, but Phil Lynott isn’t taking himself too seriously. By the second chorus, as he sings, “This boy is cracking up/This boy has broken down,” he appears to be suppressing a smile. I imagine he would have endured any hardship if the end result was a song. The song, the triumph of art, erases, is greater than, pain.

Heartbreak isn’t the worst of it. Drug addiction is present in this song. When I first fell under its spell, I was perplexed at how nasal Phil Lynott sounded in the break, when he is sitting in The Long Hall pub. Why would they leave it like that? I wondered. Why wouldn’t they redo it? We read about Lynott’s legendary constitution: alcohol, weed, cocaine, heroin. There must not have been a better day to do it.

Oddly enough, it works. If you want to sound really down and out, sing a song without being able to breathe through your nose.

To watch Phil Lynott strutting down Grafton Street, playing for the camera; to watch him grab a woman and give her a spin, to see her look up in awe, then sadness as he leaves; to see Phil twiddling his fingers, indicating the impending trumpet solo, to see him snapping his fingers to the beat, you understand you are witnessing a celebration. As the trumpet begins to solo, even Fiona MacAnna is smiling and looks on as though she might regret walking off earlier.

I’ll always remember my first trip to Dublin. I never grew tired of looking at the Ha’penny Bridge and imagining Phil Lynott standing there. Since returning home, I even had a dream I was crossing it to meet him; unfortunately the purpose of the meeting was to complete a drug deal. I hold out hopes of a more auspicious meeting in dream or beyond.

Dave, the EMT from Clogherhead I met on the plane, wrote to tell me he was experiencing symptoms and was isolating. He wasn’t worried though. Write to me as often as you like, I said. He was in good spirits throughout and finally got his test results, which were clear.

He had sent me a few photos of a trip he took with his family to the west coast of Ireland and told me how much I’d love it there. “Believe me,” I said, “I think on a daily basis about when I can get back to Ireland.”

Liz feels the same. Today, when one of us says, “I miss Ireland,” there’s a double meaning. What does the future hold? What will “ordinary” mean? Can we reclaim what we have lost?

I hope to stay in the same room, sit at the same window. I’m there now. I can see the lights reflecting on the water. The sky is dark and the streets are empty, but soon the commotion will begin.

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