Christy Dignam: ‘Nearly all the people I started with are dead’

Interview: The Aslan singer pulls no punches about drug addiction, sex abuse and cancer

After Aslan's singer Christy Dignam was told he had six months to live, he felt like he had wasted his life.

"I was looking at the way we were destroying the world, Syria and all the conflicts in the world, and I was thinking, 'You sang a few fucking songs, what a waste of a fucking life.'

“I just went to this really dark place . . . I thought, ‘I could have been a care worker, I could have gone over to Syria to try and help the children being blown to bits. All the things I could have done, and I just sang songs.’ I felt I had underachieved and it was only when I started gigging again that that darkness lifted and I saw that, apart from what it gave me, my singing gave something to the audience as well. I’d never really copped that until then.”

Six years later, sitting in the Halfway House pub in the Dublin suburb of Ashtown, Dignam is telling me about his new autobiography, My Crazy World, and he's looking well. He first grew to love music while listening to his father, a CIE employee, singing along to John McCormack and Enrico Caruso as he made the Sunday dinner in Finglas.

Dignam loved Finglas. He talks about community bus trips to the countryside and keeping finches in an aviary made by his dad. He still breeds finches and tells me how, when he first became ill, he sold some rare birds to a boy for a few euro before changing his mind and buying them back a few weeks later at an exorbitant loss. “The little bastard.”

Why did he form a band? “One day somebody said to me, ‘You know, Slade are from a place in Birmingham that’s like Finglas,’ and up until that moment I thought doctors were born doctors and rock stars were born rock stars. I thought they were given this divine right.”

There's this idea that between battering auld ones and robbing cars we'd write an odd song

He approached a guitar-playing classmate, Joe Jewell, about making music, and eventually Aslan was born. They hung around the edges of Dublin's music scene at a time when international labels were seeking the next U2. All the musicians in Dublin played in each other's bands, says Dignam, so they all sounded the same. Meanwhile, Aslan sequestered themselves in a literal pigsty near the airport and wrote their first album while carting gear in and out in shopping trolleys.

They were also stigmatised as a working-class band amid that middle-class scene, he says. "There's this idea that between battering auld ones and robbing cars we'd write an odd song. We were playing the Iveagh Gardens, I think it was last year, and I was listening to something in the car radio and someone said, 'Get your Ben Shermans and your ronnies out, Aslan are in town tonight.' Fuck off! We've been coming up against that for years."

‘Mid-Atlantic drawl’

He's proud of where he comes from. This was reinforced when his singing teacher Frank Merriman helped him strip away the superfluous ticks he'd learned from his idols. "You hear singers with mid-Atlantic drawl and they're from Offaly [but] if you sing in your dialect that's where your soul is."

Aslan were eventually signed to EMI and toured America in the heyday of music industry excess. Record company executives would outdo each other with the amount of debauchery they could provide. Dignam recalls one executive spelling out his name in cocaine. "See how much of my name you can snort."

He tells another story about going into the Capitol Records building in LA for a day of press interviews.

"We walk into the foyer and Aslan is playing over the intercom. All through the building. Outside, the cover of the album – me and my daughter – is all along Sunset Boulevard, these giant fucking posters. We were playing a gig that night in the Roxy so we went to get our lift. I had a shoulder bag with a Sony Walkman and all my tapes and a book. I got into the car. 'Fuck, I'm after forgetting me bag.' So I flew back in the back door and the two girls from Heart are coming in the front and Heart's music is being played."

Later he says, “I’ve mixed with drug dealers, scumbags, and they had more honour than some of the people I’ve mixed with in the music business.”

When did drugs become a problem? “Drugs were always a problem,” he says. “Both of my grandfathers keeled over in pubs, chronic alcoholics. There was just a bad vibe about alcohol in our house, so I never drank because of that.”

As a fan of "hippyish bands" like Yes and Pink Floyd, he enjoyed hash, he says. "I used to score off this biker who was in the Mountpleasant flats over in Rathmines and I went over one day and he said, "I just have skag. Do you want that?" I didn't know what skag was but I didn't want to say because I didn't want to look like a fucking eejit. I said, 'How do I do it?' He said, 'Just chop it into a line and snort it.' We were all going out to Donabate that night. So we went out and I snorted it and thought 'Fuck me.'"

You know when you're hungry and you have this sort of empty feeling inside? The day I took heroin, I was home

The way Dignam writes about the addiction that gripped him is starkly and upsettingly honest. He describes in detail the damage he did to his body, the humiliations, the debt, the way it led to him nearly losing his family and, for a while, his band.

“All my life I had this fucking hole in me,” he says. “You know when you’re hungry and you have this sort of empty feeling inside? The day I took heroin, the first day I took it, I was home. It was how I was supposed to feel. Now I knew how you feel and . . .” He gestures to an adjoining table. “And how they feel when they wake up. When you’re an addict that’s what your poison does for you. You wake up the next morning and you have the choice. Do I live with this hole or do I get rid of it?”

Sexually abused

Years later, Dignam understands where that darkness came from. When he was six years old, he was sexually abused by a neighbour and then, a few years later he was abused by another man. “I think it all went back to the sexual abuse thing,” he says. “When I first brought this up a few years ago nobody was talking about that kind of stuff. It’s funny because my dad said to me, ‘Just fucking get on with it, why are you talking about it for?’”

His father had been abused in an industrial school, he says. “That was his way of dealing with it.”

He thinks that all addicts have some sort of psychic wound beneath it all. “Some people walk through life and they’re fucking bulletproof to what’s going on around them,” he says. “I’ve found that the addicts I’ve known in my life, 99 per cent of them were very sensitive people and that was the reason they were addicts in the first place.”

For almost as long as he was addicted, Dignam was trying to find a way out. The first time he had any type of success was when he went to detox at a Thai monastery around 15 years ago.

“They take all the clothes off you – your passport and everything – and you’re given this uniform with ‘addict’ on the back in Thai. There was a big gutter, and in the gutter there’s an addict, a bucket of water, an addict, a bucket of water, an addict, a bucket of water, and all these monks are chanting and playing drums and these schoolkids come down in busloads and take photographs. It’s a ‘this is where you end up if you take drugs’ kind of thing.

“Then a monk comes by with this drink that’s made of bark and different spices and you drink that and it’s fucking horrible and five minutes later you’re projectile vomiting.” The main thing, he says, was that he learned some Buddhist philosophy and talked about his life. “I got on well with the abbot and would pick his brain.”

Yet, the night he left, he took heroin again and soon he started using crack. "For years on the heroin I was still managing to get stuff done. Six months on crack and my wife kicked me out. I hadn't a pot to piss in. I owed a crack dealer in Darndale money and I just gave him my Mercedes."

Hit the ground

It came to a head one night on the sixth floor of the Ballymun flats when he dropped a penny out of the window, counted how long it took to hit the ground and thought, "In a second and a half all this will be over. You'll stop hurting your wife. You'll stop hurting your daughter. They'll mourn you and then they'll go and get the people they deserve in their lives."

Instead, he got clean. “It was never the same [after Thailand]. I knew why I was using and I knew everything about it and the dangers and the bullshit involved. There was no pleasure in it anymore.”

It’s a strange thing to suddenly find yourself sober, he says.

“Heroin comes from morphine. Morpheus is the god of sleep and that’s what heroin does to you, it puts you to fucking sleep. Every aspect of you – your emotions, your spirituality, all those things. After I stopped, I remember being at a gig singing Crazy World and my wife was at the mixing desk in this venue and I sang “How can I protect you?” And I looked at her at that moment and I thought, ‘You haven’t been protecting her, you haven’t done anything you said when you married this girl. You promised her parents you’d look after her and you haven’t done it,’ and I just started bawling.”

For years I was running around like a headless chicken. I didn't know what I wanted out of life

He knows he’s one of the lucky ones. “Nearly all the people I started using with are dead. But there is some redemption when you come off drugs. There is a life after drugs and I wanted to show that in the book.”

He hates the inequities of the class system and he hates the dehumanising way Irish society treats addicts.

"There was a house in Clontarf that was derelict for years and the Simon Community bought it and they were going to treat drug addicts. All the politicians come out, 'This is not suitable for this area.' Oh, it's suitable for fucking Finglas, though. It's suitable for Ballymun. The injecting centre in Merchants Quay, they all objected to it on the grounds it would bring more addicts into Dublin."

He talks, in contrast, about Portugal where they decriminalised heroin and pumped all the money formerly used to lock people up into rehabilitation and microloans for recovering addicts. "The addiction rates reduced by 50 per cent."

Serious disease

He eventually got his life and career back on track and then, six years ago, he became very ill and was diagnosed with a serious disease called amyloidosis.

“The day I was diagnosed, my daughter said to the doctor, ‘I’m getting married in July. Do you think he’ll be all right for the wedding?’ And the doctor said, ‘We don’t think he’s going to make the next 24 hours.’”

When he did make it through those 24 hours he was told he had just six months to live. The illness has damaged his heart and he must get regular blood tests and bouts of chemotherapy whenever his symptoms return, but he’s still here.

How has facing mortality changed him?

“For years I was running around like a headless chicken,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted out of life. When I thought I had six months left, I remember just wanting to see my family. That’s all I wanted to do. One of my grandchildren was coming up to his communion and I wanted to be there. The point is, that’s all that was important. Aslan wasn’t really important. The house I lived in wasn’t important. The car I drove wasn’t important. It allowed me to focus on what was important in life.”

Right now, he's working on an album with Aslan and another with Finbar Furey (learning some folk music was on his "bucket list", he says). He's enjoying music more than ever. We have a very enjoyable chat about singing (I also like to sing). He explains some bel canto vocal techniques. We both talk about the joy of singing with friends.

“Music in its purest form is sitting in your house or around the campfire years ago making music and harmonising with each other,” he says. “The further you get from that reality the more insincere music becomes.”

How does he feel when he sings?

“I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but the only time I feel alive is when I’m singing. All the things you can’t be in everyday life, you can be when you sing. You have that freedom.”

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