Original Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell is still rockin' at age 71
As Original Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell takes the stage in Belfast today as part of a special anniversary tour, the ageing rocker tells Gail Bell that although his wild days are now well behind him, playing guitar is still his purpose in life
THERE isn't an awful lot that annoys the softly spoken Eric Bell these days – certainly not enough to prompt a rock 'n' roll style TV-out-of-hotel-window spectacular – but while age may have mellowed the former Thin Lizzy hellraiser, don't get him started on faulty amps.
Failing amplifiers and not having enough time to rest and digest his meal before performing on stage are now the main bugbears for the Belfast-born musician who, at 71, is half-way through an extensive Thin Lizzy 50th anniversary tour (which includes upcoming Northern Ireland dates) with his own band and is also about to launch an autobiography – Remembering: Before, During and After Thin Lizzy – in the autumn.
We are sitting in the lobby of the Clayton Hotel in Belfast – incidentally, the site of a former garage where, in a different life, the guitarist, singer and song-writer used to work as an apprentice mechanic – and he is bemoaning the unreliable nature of modern guitar amps with a passion.
"We were at a gig in Liverpool recently and a member of the audience even offered to go home and bring back his own amp so the show could go on," Bell says, wincing. "We did eight gigs in a row and my amp refused to work at four of them. I was really upset about that. I just like amplifiers to work – that's what they're there for."
His musical style is more eclectic now, but alongside the blues, "evergreen rock 'n' roll" and some of his own songs, there is always the prerequisite Whiskey in the Jar slotted somewhere into the playlist.
"Everyone expects to hear that song, so I have to play it," Bell says. "I do it nearly the same as it sounds on the record – I keep the intro and solo the same, but I go off on a tangent at the end just to keep me sane. The early Thin Lizzy – Phil Lynott, Brian Downey and me – sounded a certain way. I wouldn't say the songs were more complicated then but they were definitely more structured, although there was a certain amount of ad-libbing on stage, anyway."
His memories of those days are warm and plentiful and he recalls how the monumental talent of both Lynott, singer and bassist, and Downey, on drums, "spoiled" him for years down the line when putting other new, experimental bands together.
The story of how this apprentice mechanic from east Belfast played with Van Morrison (in Them) on occasion, became a showband musician in Dublin and went on to become the Whiskey in the Jar guitarist with one of Ireland's most iconic bands is well documented, but Bell is still struck by how luck and timing proved pivotal in the rise to international stardom.
"The thing is, at the start I was actually very happy being a mechanic because the guy I was working with let me do lots of interesting jobs," Bell reveals. "But, one night he crushed the boss’s car on the ramp and was fired instantly. When I came into work on the Monday, the foreman put me with a different mechanic who wouldn’t let me do any of that stuff, so I started losing interest very quickly.
"I was living in Belfast at that point, working during the day and playing the blues at night, but then things changed when I joined a new Irish showband in Dublin called The Dreams. I was with them for about a year and a half and it was great but I really wanted to start up my own three-piece blues group. I left so, instead of staying in the best hotels and being well paid for regular gigs, I spent my nights roaming around Dublin on my own, looking for musicians and wondering if I had made the worst decision of my life."
Then came the fateful night in 1969 when he walked into the Countdown Club and found an exotic-looking Phil Lynott on lead vocals and drummer Brian Downey taking the stage. Bell was mesmerised. On a whim, he followed the pair into the changing rooms – on the pretext of asking for names of potential musicians for his, as yet, unformed band – and was elated when Lynott expressed interest himself.
"Brian – who had just blown me away with his drumming – was hesitant at first, but was eventually convinced by Phil, and that is how the band started,” recalls Bell, who is credited with coming up with the 'Thin Lizzy' name.
Fate again intervened when the trio was unexpectedly signed by Decca Records after soul singer Ditch Cassidy had asked them to play for his audition with the record label following the break-up of his own band.
But instead of signing Cassidy, the talent scout who had flown from London to Dublin to audition the soul singer wanted the Thin Lizzy boys.
"On another occasion, we stopped our van to give a stranger a lift to a gig when he told us our debut album – which had largely been disappearing without trace – was being championed by the DJ Kid Jensen on Radio Luxembourg," Bell continues. "Suddenly, we were on the radio and on our way to Top of the Pops.
"We tried to work out how it all happened so quickly because there were so many great bands in Dublin at that time. I don’t know... we looked the right way, we sounded the right way and we had so much luck, it was just incredible."
But, almost predictably, fame and excesses of drink and drugs brought Bell's charmed life crashing to a halt at a New Year's concert at Queen's University Belfast in 1973.
"I was losing the plot," he says simply. "That night, on stage, I was completely out of my tree and didn’t know where I was, who I was or even what music I was playing. I heard a voice, that inner voice that I think we all have, warning me to get out - and, this time, I listened to it."
After throwing his guitar "15 feet up in the air" he staggered off stage, left the band and returned, with his then girlfriend, to Dublin where he bought a "push bike" and cut back on the booze.
It wasn't long, though, until he returned to music, starting up various bands in Dublin and playing with the famous Noel Redding Band from Co Cork for a time. He has been pretty much writing, recording, singing and playing music under his own name ever since.
Now living a quiet life in Carrowdore on the Ards peninsula with son Erik – his much-loved wife Rhona passed away last year – the self-confessed perfectionist fills his days practising his beloved guitar and walking nearby beaches in total solitude.
"The music business is my social life these days and that’s the only social life I have really – the gigs, the concerts," he muses. "I remember buying my first real wooden guitar and it was like I had played it before in a previous existence. Today, I still have as much passion for the guitar as I ever had. It’s my purpose. I haven’t found anything else, so it must be."
:: Eric Bell will be playing at CS Lewis Square for the Eastside Arts Festival today at 2.30pm. Other dates include the Black Box, Belfast, on October 10, and the Townhouse, Castlederg, October 12.