'We’d snorted our way across America, it was ironic I was sacked over drugs'
Aslan singer Christy Dignam on rehearsing in a pigsty, writing ‘This Is’, drug problems, collaborating with Finbar Furey, and staying positive through gruelling bouts of chemotherapy
It began for Christy Dignam at the kitchen table at home in Finglas when he was a kid. His father would make dinner on Sundays and sing his heart out as he cooked. “He was a big opera fan and he used to sing John McCormack songs,” remembers Dignam. “That was the beginning of it for me.”
We’re many years down the road now. There are mishaps and wrong turns, victories and triumphs already in the ledger. Dignam is still standing, still fronting his band of brothers and soulmates in Aslan, still beating the odds. Still singing.
Even back when he was a young lad running those north Dublin streets and tending to his collection of finches in an aviary in the backyard and singing in St Fergal’s school choir, he says he knew he was going to be a singer. Don’t ask how, he doesn’t know. But he knew this was his calling.
In school, “I wasn’t a thick or a clown or anything like that, I was always up near the top of the class, but I never worked hard because I thought I was going to be a singer so this is irrelevant.”
An older mate provided an epiphany for what was to come.
“He said Slade were from a place in Wolverhampton like Finglas, they were just ordinary blokes. Up to that point, I thought David Bowie and Mick Jagger were born rock stars and I never considered the fact that you could become a rock singer. You could come from a place like Finglas and become a singer.”
Forming Aslan was the next step. Like every other newbie, they started out with covers, but they were hankering for their own identity.
“The bands around us like Blue In Heaven, In Tua Nua, Cactus World News and them were writing their own songs, but it was a generic sound, a Dublin sound, and it was all the same and I didn’t really like it. They all hung out in Bruxelles and the Bailey and McGonagle’s and I didn’t think that was healthy for a songwriter.”
Instead, Dignam and Aslan hung out in a pigsty. “It was in a farm beside the runway in the airport. A shed with a corrugated tin roof and nine-inch solid blocks and it was absolutely fucking freezing even with a Superser.”
Every morning at 9am, the band would assemble in Poppintree, put their equipment and amps in shopping trollies and head to the airport. At 5pm, they’d down tools and walk back home for tea. It’s a beautiful image, a band on the march every day, the air thick with in-jokes and slagging as they talked 19 to the dozen.
“We did that for a year and a half and wrote [their debut album] Feel No Shame. It was a learning curve for us because it was hard work. Ed Sheeran might have a natural ability to write great songs, but it was the 95 per cent perspiration and 5 per cent inspiration adage for us.”
They’d take the songs to gigs at the Danceline Club and Revenue Club and Ivy Rooms to road-test them. “You’d watch the audience for their reaction. There might be 1,000 people going mad, but you always lock in on the two people with a puss on them. You spend the whole gig trying to convince them and then they go to the jacks when you’d play the big song.
“We always wanted to be the absolute best. We had a pursuit of excellence about what we were doing. We were trying to behave like we were successful before we were successful.”
Feel No Shame kicked off a run of ups and downs. Their website details the number ones, the sell-out shows, the triumphs. It also mentions the other stuff, the “overindulgence” which led to an implosion in 1988 when the band, at the height of their appeal, sacked Dignam as lead singer because of his drug problems.
“There are two ways of looking at it and both are valid,” he says today. “I was out of control because of the drugs and I can understand the band being pissed off, but I think it was handled badly. When it came to that situation with me, our management at the time couldn’t handle it. I found out afterwards that EMI were prepared to pay for me to go into rehab but the band weren’t having it.
“We’d just toured America and we’d snorted our way across the country. I came back and I was using heroin and I thought it was really ironic that I was sacked over drugs. The band used to be in the bleeding Pink Elephant at the time snorting coke with all the bands who were in town and I thought it was outrageous what happened. To me, there was a bit of greed involved. Then again, I was out of control and not contributing to the band.”
By 1993, the Aslan train was back on the tracks with Dignam on board, and the band rediscovered their mojo. Crazy World arrived, another anthem in the catalogue for the fans to sing. The years went by with more albums, more tours, more fans. It was victory from the jaws of defeat.
Fate, though, can be a bitch. At the end of 2012, Dignam found himself in hospital for what he thought was a chest infection and which turned out to be a rare disease called amyloidosis. He went through gruelling rounds of chemotherapy and, by 2014, found himself back onstage again. Another turn-up for the books, but that’s unlikely to be the last page.
It’s February 2017 and Dignam is back on the chemo again. A routine check-up at the Royal Free Hospital in London showed that negative proteins in his bone marrow were on the rise again. “It hasn’t started to do any damage yet so they’re trying to nip it in the bud before it starts to do damage like the last time. I’ve started four weeks of chemo and then a week off and back on another four-week run. I’ll have three bouts of that and then they’ll reassess it.”
Regardless of all these setbacks, Dignam is upbeat. He’s still planning albums (a collaboration with Finbar Furey on Irish folk sings and a possible sean-nós record) and talking about upcoming gigs. He’s got birds to care for again, with African weaver birds now in the aviary out the back. He’s still standing. Still wanting to sing.
“Health-wise, I feel grand, apart from the fact that I’m doing chemo, which is really gruelling. You’re f**king tired and you can’t sleep. I could be talking to you like this and, half an hour from now, hit a wall and can’t move. You feel sick all the time.
“I try to be as positive as I can. I was diagnosed four years ago and three people came in to see me when I was in hospital. One was a girl who died a week later from septicemia, another died of cancer since and another fella was killed in a car crash. These are three friends of mine who’ve died since I’ve been diagnosed with this. That’s the way life is, you just don’t know what the f**k is around the corner.
“You can try to be brave and push it to the back of your mind, but there are times when it hits you. I might be lying in bed and I get a twinge in my heart and I go ‘oh f**k, what’s that? Is it a heart attack?’ and you’re terrified. But I want to stretch this out as long as I can because I love life.”
Just like that: How Aslan wrote
“When we wrote it first, it was a real Rocky song, you know, big chords and upbeat,” says Christy Dignam. “I liked the lyrics, but I thought the melody and chorus were shit so we shelved it.
“Then I heard the Eurythmics’ There Must Be An Angel and I loved how Annie Lennox used one word with loads of notes in it. I pulled back down This Is and wondered what we could do with it, and I threw a lot of notes into “feeling” and that’s where the idea came from. We changed the melody and once we’d done that, the whole thing came together in five minutes.
“Five minutes, but it took ages to get that five minutes. When it hits like that, you can’t write it quick enough for fear it will go out of your head. The best songs are like that – it was the same with Crazy World.”
Aslan play Live at the Big Top, Limerick (March 18); Opera House, Cork (April 8) and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin (July 7)