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J. G. Frazer considers Thin Lizzy

On the origins of a song.


Who does not know Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town”? Mr. Gorham’s guitar riff, suffused with transcendent power in which the glorious Gaelic vocals of Mr. Lynott can craft visions of Paradise itself, and the twin-guitar attack at the end, soaring higher and higher towards the heavens, are dream-like visions of worlds faded away. But those who know it know it as merely a masterpiece of rock music of the 1970s, with its magnificent riff, brutal and majestic, introducing a tale of homecoming in which the awaited boys return to their former abode to enjoy those arts dear to the hearts of young men: drinking, fighting, and womanizing.

That Mr. Lynott’s narrative is, at the very least, based in historical events requires no great demonstration. It should be enough to note that the recency of the story’s origin mitigates against any alterations to the tale by slips of memory or careless scribes, that the particulars mirror well what facts are known about the life of Mr. Lynott, and that the details it contains would enable a curious hearer, should he be so inclined, to set out for the Gaelic country and confirm them for himself. The accuracy of the lyric having been established, we may now proceed to investigate what it is that the lyric says.

It opens with a shout of acclamation, the cry of those who have waited a long time for fulfillment and have now seen what they desired come to pass. The titular boys enter with little introduction, for it is clear that the inhabitants of the town, those to whom the song is addressed, are indeed familiar with the boys from their previous stays there. What comments the narrator does make about the boys are revealing: they are “wild-eyed,” and he judges them to be “crazy.” The choice of “boys” makes the picture still more clear. These are young men, not in control of themselves, and the narrator judges them to be, in some way, a threat to peace and order within the town, a fact quite salient to the interpretation of the lyric. The narrator also remarks that he has not “changed that much to say,” revealing that, while the boys have been gone for a certain length of time, a length of time long enough for the absence of these boys to be noteworthy, it is not a long enough stretch of time for any significant transformations or major upheavals to have occurred in his own life.

The narrator then details what the boys will do now that they have returned to town. They will congregate at a specified place at a specified time: “Dino’s Bar and Grill” on “Friday night.” Here, they will intend to drink and engage in some kind of fighting—which kind and against whom the narrator leaves obscure. We may assume, however, that they will pursue the girl “driving all the old men crazy” whom they asked after in the first stanza and who was exhorted to “spread the word around” of the boys’ return. If necessary, they will fight the old men for her.It is also possible that the boys will fight each other for the girl, for, from what information is provided about the boys, it would seem not inaccurate to imagine them as animals fighting for mating rights. While engaged in their quest, they are “dressed to kill.” The manner of their attire is of sufficient importance that it deserves a remark, even if the importance of that attire is not yet clear.

The final lines are the crux on which the interpretation of the whole rests. As their importance cannot be underestimated, I will here quote them in full:

The nights are getting warmer, it won’t be long
Won’t be long till the summer comes
Now that the boys are here again

The grammar of these lines is the key to their understanding: “now” is being used conjunctively to mean “as a consequence of the fact.” We are therefore told that the coming of summer relies on the return of the boys, and with this realization all impediments to our understanding fall away from our eyes and we at last see with what we are faced.

The boys, representing youth and virility, bring into the town the ability to make the crops grow, and their triumph over the old men, the fisher kings, symbolically drives out winter and the barrenness that comes with it. The girl, who yields to the force of the boys, represents the earth, which will yield to the acts of the farmers. In these ceremonial acts, the participants are drunk, in the style of the Bacchic rites, and the boys are “dressed to kill,” wearing the appropriate ceremonial garb. Through these rites, fertility is restored to the earth, and the import of the earth-girl’s spreading the word around is realized: the news of the return of the boys serves as the cue for the farmers to at last plant their crops, since the symbolic acts of the boys have made the earth able to again bear fruit after the sterile winter. The final interpretation of the work of Messrs. Lizzy is at last made clear.They have preserved some occulted Gaelic paganism, the rites of a fertility cult both ancient and abiding, skillfully and carefully hidden under the cover of mere boys who return to a mere town: but those who have ears to hear will hear.

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Steve Larkin writes from Long Island, New YorkHe is a managing editor of the Washington Review of Books.