Christy Dignam of Aslan has been through the wars, dealing with cancer and watching people associated with the band die in tragic circumstances. But he is still smiling – all the better to show off his brand new gnashers... Interview: Jason O’Toole
Christy Dignam has always taken great pride in singing tunes from the Aslan’s debut album Feel No Shame. But he’d be the first to admit that those three words started to feel more than a little hollow after he was first struck down with a rare cancer.
Christy had to undergo chemotherapy. One of the effects was that he started to have trouble with his teeth.
“The chemotherapy affects your mouth badly: you get blisters on your gums and on your tongue,” Christy explains. “I was doing this chemo for about eight months and I couldn’t really brush my teeth properly. My gums got infected and my teeth came loose. So I went on the Late Late Show and I’d be trying to talk with my mouth closed because I’d be afraid people would see. I was really self-conscious doing gigs.
“When I was doing any television singing I’d have the mic pressed right up against the mouth so nobody would be able to see my teeth. I was trying to hide my fucking teeth.”
Christy acknowledges that his well-documented addiction to heroin also played a central role in the problem.
“Of course it did,” he admits. “It was the whole hedonistic lifestyle that would’ve put them in a jeopardised situation. They were in bits anyway. But what was left of them got destroyed with the chemotherapy.”
NEW ASLAN ALBUM
Unbeknownst to Christy, a close friend of his tracked down Darragh Mulrooney, the dentist who had worked miracles with Shane MacGowan’s teeth.
“He went to him and said, ‘Listen, I have this friend, he’s gone through cancer treatment. He’s kind of a personality and he’s really embarrassed going on television. But he doesn’t have a lot of fucking bread’. So your man said, ‘Tell him to come down to me’.
“I thought he’d be in London or Dundrum, but he just happened to be down the road from me in Cabra. So, I went down and he said, ‘Look, I see you as an Irish icon. It’s not fair that you’re going around like that. I’ll do those teeth for you.’ I said, ‘I don’t have any bleeding money’. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I want to do this for you.’
“So, I spent six months going to him and he did all my teeth. He did a great job. He’s been an absolute hero.”
The fact that Christy can show off his lion’s roar again couldn’t have come at a better time. Last month, Aslan released their Made In Dublin live album on vinyl and they’re heading back into the studio at the start of November.
“We’re just starting with an EP,” Christy proffers. “We’re going to put that out and see what the reaction is. In the meantime, we’re writing a new Aslan album.”
Christy’s also in the middle of recording an LP with Finbar Furey: they decided to make an LP after singing the ‘Green Fields Of France’ together on the Late Late Show – a performance that racked up a staggering 7 million views on social media.
“Any chance he gets, we’re in the studio,” he says with the enthusiasm of someone half his age. “We’ve got half the album done. I’ve been doing the Aslan stuff as well. So, it’s been fucking great.”
Christy also recently teamed up with Dublin punk outfit Hooligan.
“I went to see them play in Finglas a few months ago. And they were doing a song by a punk rock band from Belfast called The Outcasts. So, in the end, they asked me if I’d record a vocal – so I did.”
It’s over three decades now since Aslan first burst into the limelight.
“Feel No Shame is 30 years old next year – so maybe we might do something with that,” Christy suggests. “Since the vinyl thing kicked off again, people had been hounding us to bring out Made In Dublin on vinyl. We’re just doing 1,000 copies and they’re nearly gone already. We probably should’ve done more. But we said there’d be only 1,000 and people are buying them on that premise. It would be unfair to do more – but we might do something with Feel No Shame.”
Facing terminal cancer is tough. But it must be all the more galling for Christy, given the band’s resurgence over the past couple of years. “It’s mad,” Christy nods. “It’s like a curse on the band at times. In the last year, our keyboard player, Pat Fitzpatrick, died. Svenn Braamark, who was the first real manager we’ve had in 30 years, was killed in a fire over in Sweden a couple of months ago. And then a girl, Grace McDermott, who did all our social media, was killed in a fire down in Galway.”
Christy pauses and shakes his head. “So, three people in the band were killed in a matter of two months. It was terrible.”
Christy himself had to endure the hell of chemotherapy for a second time last Christmas. He headed down to Limerick to play a gig – and ended up being rushed to hospital.
“I was going to pull the gig because I felt a bit dodgy,” he recalls now. “But I went down anyway. And the next day my temperature was 39.5 degrees and I was fucking delirious. I had been doing selfies with people – and I’d been with somebody that had a cold. My immune system was fucked because of the chemotherapy. So, the infection I picked up turned into sepsis within hours and my kidneys started faliing – and I was rushed to hospital.
“They said, if I had waited another 12 hours it would’ve gone into septic poisoning. And if it had gone that far, I was dead.”
Last year, Christy told Hot Press that he hoped to live for another 10 years. Is that realistic?
“I just don’t know, Jason. What happened at Christmas was a real eye-opener for me. I would be afraid of something like that fucking killing me. On Friday I was on stage and by Sunday I was at death’s door. Your whole fucking life can turn on a sixpence. It’s not the fucking cancer that would kill you – it’s the side effects, or the fact that you get a bad infection.
“If I get sick I don’t have the same strength that you’d have if you got a bad dose. Like, I’ve to get ’flu injections at the beginning of the winter because I can’t afford to get it. A ‘flu could ending up fucking killing me.”
Christy isn’t relishing the thought of dying.
“It’s fucking terrifying. There’s no point in bullshitting and being a big hero about it. It’s fucking terrifying,” he confesses.
“Until I was diagnosed, I thought I was bulletproof. But when something like this happens to you, your mortality is like a hammer in the face. It hits you. I’m in the house and you get a little twinge in your heart and you’re saying, ‘Fuck! What’s that? Is that the cancer back?’
“You and me talking, it’s not so bad – but when you’re lying on your bed at night and it’s just you in your quieter moments… it’s frightening.
Most people want to stay on this earth for as long as they possibly can. And I have a lot of stuff I’d still like to do. I don’t want to fucking die yet.”
I tell Christy that Aslan’s legion of fans don’t want him going anywhere in a hurry either. Christy cracks a smile and I notice a diamond on one of his teeth. His mood quickly lightens up.
“When we were in the Iveagh Gardens during the summer (for the gig) it was my birthday, so I asked Darragh Mulrooney to put a diamond in my tooth. That cost me a 1,000 pound.”
He pauses to shake his head at the extravagance. “So, about a week after the Iveagh Gardens, I was eating a hot cross bun and the diamond was gone! I’d swallowed it.”
There was only one thing for it.
“I bought a box of rubber gloves and spent a week looking for the fucking thing! But I just gave up then. There was a hole left in my tooth, so I had I had to buy another diamond to put in it.”
It’s typical Christy – you’d have to marvel at his ability to go from talking about the despair induced by facing death, to engaging in toilet humour. I guess it was never easy to wipe the smile off Christy’s face – and even more so now that he’s got those new set of gnashers.
Aslan play Dinn Ri, Carlow (December 2;) The Big Top, Limerick (16), and Vicar Street (27 & 29).