- 22 Dec 19
We're revisiting the Best Of Hot Press 2019! The Something Happens & Newstalk man pulled absolutely no punches in February when he talked to Stuart Clark about his journey to hell and back.
"I wrote an entire six-parter in which you set off on a weird adventure to find each of the Féile Classical acts. Jerry Fish was living Apocalypse Now-style up a river. The Frank & Walters had their own little Corkworld house, like The Beatles in Hard Day’s Night. Liam O Maonlai was doing something strange that I can’t quite remember. I thought it was brilliant at the time, but now upon sober reflection…”
Tom Dunne is telling us about the potentially smash hit TV series he penned whilst dosed up on morphine following the emergency surgery, he underwent last November for a heart condition that nearly cost him his life. His going under the knife came just eight weeks after the aforementioned Trip To Tipp reboot, a sell-out two-day affair that Tom curated, MC-ed and played at with Something Happens.
“We did two shows; I jumped around as usual, got very sweaty and felt absolutely fine afterwards,” the 58-year-old resumes. “I was presenting the bands as well, so they were long days, but my energy levels were normal. Before Féíle, I’d go for a long walk and wouldn’t be the most out of breath person on it. I might have got a bit out of breath carrying a box of CDs to the attic, but no more so than the kids or my wife, Audrey, would have done if I’d been lazy and made them carry a box of CDs up the stairs.”
Tom had been told in 2009 that he had a minor heart condition, which required annual monitoring, but after eight successive trips to the doc ended in a “nothing to worry about” he skipped a couple.
When he did one day feel a little out of sorts it was Audrey who insisted on him going for his cardiovascular MOT.
Stuart: You, being a typical man, had put your heart check-ups on the long-finger...
Tom: Yeah, I did. When I’d gone to the cardiologist before, he’d said things like, “It’s important to stay fit in case you ever need surgery, but your heart may just stay at this level forever and it mightn’t be necessary.” So, I was in the gym, running and doing good things. I just never thought about mortality. That attitude is very much about being young and carrying youthfulness on into middle-age when you should be thinking about things a bit more seriously.
Two of our mutual journalist friends, George Byrne and Richie Taylor, died prematurely. You were especially close to George who used to come in and do his, “Ah, lads…” routine on your Newstalk show. Them dying made me go to the doctor where I found out I had obscenely high blood pressure. Did it not ring alarm bells for you?
No, it didn’t, as I had a very different lifestyle to George and Richie. I’m well under the 22 units a week. I’ve slashed everything since the children arrived, which is twelve years now. I’ve led a very careful life. I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything bad. I’m married to a chef who studied nutrition and nudges me towards healthy eating all the time, so my whole tastes have changed. I wouldn’t see a chip from one week to the next. Late night kebabs are but a distant memory…
So, Audrey gently bullied you into going to see the cardiologist; what did he say?
I’ll remember the 25th of September 2018 for the rest of my life. His attitude towards me had changed. Young guy, children the same age as mine. Normally we’d talk about music – he’s a big REM fan and saw their live rehearsal shows in the Olympia – but this time he wasn’t jovial. He said, “These figures have changed, they’ve moved on, I need to refer you.” The receptionist had a weird look on her face afterwards when she said, “Oh, you’re seeing the surgeon.” I thought the conversation I’d have with him would be, “It has changed, so in two-or three-years’ time you might possibly need surgery.” Instead, he floored me by saying, “There’s a 70% chance of you dying within the next two years.” I was more likely to have a serious cardiac event than not. I felt the room go still and it was like he was talking about somebody else.
Can you describe the feeling?
Everything stopped, it really did. My first thought was, “I can’t cancel the three Something Happens shows we have coming up.” I started asking, “Could we leave the surgery ‘til after Christmas?” He made a face and said he’d be happier if we didn’t. So, I booked the surgery, went home and told Audrey and you could see her face darken. She got very worried, more so than me. She was saying, “Don’t wait for Christmas, do the surgery now. I can’t keep looking at you waiting to see if you’ll have a heart-attack at any moment. That’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to you.” While I was thinking about it over the weekend, I started getting chest-pains, so I could no longer ignore the symptoms. I was down in our local vinyl shop with the owner, Brian, who’d had a heart issue too. I said, “I’ve been talking to surgeons and I’ve got chest pains” and he was like, “Go immediately to A&E!” Which I did.
Were you having a heart attack?
On the way in, I had even worse chest pains and felt awful. I thought, “I’ve left this too late. You’re going to die from stupidity. That’s what it’ll say on the tombstone. You have a known condition and didn’t go for two years. You idiot!” The chest pains when I got to A&E turned out to be stress, but they said, “You do have stenosis, a dangerous heart condition.” James the surgeon, who was doing his rounds, saw me and we agreed to the surgery being done as soon as possible, which was about three weeks away on November 25th.
Presumably you had private health insurance.
I went into A&E in Vincent’s Hospital. Everybody’s treated the same in A&E. But they were saying, “If you didn’t have health insurance you’d have to stay in hospital until such time as they could do the surgery, which might be weeks, even months.” I could have died waiting. Thankfully, I was covered and had the operation done in the Blackrock Clinic. The care I received in both was incredible. You feel very safe. I ended up with three litres of fluid on my lungs, which had to be drained. They put drains into your back and it’s very painful, but a nurse holds your hand while they’re doing it. You’re grimacing in pain and squeezing the hand off them. I kept thinking, “Where else in the world would you get this” So caring. That nurses are having to strike for proper pay is a disgrace.
How much did the kids know about what was happening?
I told them the night before that I was getting something done to my chest, and that afterwards I was going to have time to play with Airfix kits, which I hadn’t done for years. One of the first presents I got in hospital was an Airfix set from them. I made it sound like it was going to be a picnic, which was as much for my benefit as it was the girls’. During the weeks leading up to the surgery, I was trying to buy stuff I didn’t have and needed like pajamas and slippers without them noticing that Daddy was planning for a long stay. Even if we’d decided to tell them, I wouldn’t have been able to get the words out.
Did you get the surgeon, James McCarthy, to talk you through the operation and what complications might arise?
Complications? No, I didn’t want to hear any of the potentially bad stuff. I was doing my best to minimise it in my head. It only really sank in when his assistant, Dr. Mohammed, said to me pre-op, “We’ll bring you down safely and we’ll bring you back safely.” 99.9% of people would have found that reassuring, but it terrified me. Anyway, the eight hours surgery and straight into recovery turned out to be six days in ICU. My kidneys failed during the surgery. They did three different procedures to my heart. They replaced the aorta and something else and did a bypass.
Were you in a medically induced coma for those six days?
I have no idea. I haven’t been able to ask Audrey that question. All I can remember from those six days were these horrific dreams, which I’m going to have to go and talk to some professional about because they were so disturbing. I came-to from whatever it was thinking, “I don’t ever want to have those dreams again.” Then it became apparent that it was Wednesday, which was a shock and didn’t make sense because I’d gone in on a Thursday. One of the nurses said, “You’ll feel better if you have a shave” so, I did and saw the wounds on my neck. They take the blood out of your neck for dialysis, which leaves a massive scar. I was thinking, “Oh god, you’ve really been in the wars.” Then I looked at my legs. I’d gained ten kilograms and it all seemed to have gone on to them. Rory Best legs: dreadful. I didn’t know about the dialysis until a man came in and introduced himself as a kidney specialist. I remember thinking, “You’re in the wrong room.” I was angry in case there was other stuff they weren’t telling me.
A friend confided that the first thing he did after undergoing major surgery was check that his wedding tackle was still fully operational. Were you similarly concerned?
(Laughs) No, never crossed my mind. I’m still chained to the lunatic. It hasn’t gone away!
Is it possible those dreams were some sort of supernatural experience?
There was no walking towards the light or out of body experience. It was just very threatening end of your life stuff. There was a resignation in the dreams and I still don’t know what to make of it. That darkness was really frightening.
Did you pray beforehand?
No, I’m agnostic on that front. I feel I owe my life to human skill and people’s training and professionalism. I don’t know what’s out there or is lying ahead of us. I never thought of praying, though.
Six days isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, but quite a lot of stuff will have happened, some of which you probably still haven’t caught up on.
On top of those six days, there was probably another week before I was able to read a newspaper, so my entire world was just those four walls. They’re either feeding you or giving you drugs or trying to get you to walk. No one thought to tell me that Ireland had beaten the All Blacks again while I was out. That was a nice surprise. United’s continued appalling former under Mourinho less so. That was a wide-awake nightmare that’s now thankfully come to an end!
You spoke the other day on Newstalk about the scars on your body making you feel ugly and somewhat less of a man. Do you think that’s going to stay with you?
It’s surreal looking at your body and not recognising it as your own (laughs). Let me put into perspective how awful it is; I’ve started wearing vests! Seriously, it must be extremely traumatic for people who lose limbs or a breast. There wasn’t too much time to dwell on things in hospital because as soon as I got up to the room they went, “Why don’t we try walking?” A couple of nurses propped me up and I did about five feet. They said, “We’ll have you running laps in the next few days.” So, there was this forward momentum from the moment I arrived back up in the ward. They gave me a diuretic, which made me go to the toilet a lot, but within days my legs had gone down. The low point was looking in the mirror for the first time, but you immediately start moving away from it.
Were you afraid of showing Audrey your scars?
I was hoping that thing about chicks digging scars is true. I have to say, she’s been wonderful on every front.
Has side-stepping the Grim Reaper made you think, “Fuck it, I’ll take more risks, I’m going hang-gliding”?
No, it hasn’t. It just makes me feel, “Savour every moment.” I’ve very simple pleasures. One of my biggest ones is swimming in the sea with the girls – it has to be the sea. I feel that it’s something we’ve been doing as humans for thousands of years. There’s something very bracing and life-affirming about it. The two girls are just at that age where they’ll get a little bit afraid, and they’ll swim back to you and stay close. It’s like having two ducklings with you. It’s a moment you want to go on forever.
Did you feel that you had to hang on for your daughters’ sake?
Yeah, totally. I thought, “If I die, who’s going to take them swimming in the spring when the water heats up? Audrey’s working all day in the restaurant, so it has to be me. And what about the dog?” He’s an absolutely magnificent beast. He chases seagulls in the sea and then comes back to you with this look of adoration on his face, and the ears bopping and the hair in the wind. Small moments that I just love. I go for dinner with the whole family, just hanging out with them. I like the sunrises and summery days, and all these little moments in life. I’ve always appreciated them. Always. When I used to do breakfast or the morning show on Newstalk, you’d be up before dawn and there’d be this moment when the sun would start to come up and you’d say, “Take a second…” Another one was when you turn onto Grafton Street, just when they put the Christmas lights up.
Was there a moment when you thought, “I might not broadcast again”?
No, there wasn’t. I had total faith in the medical team. I thought everything would return to normal. The success rate is very high. They’re the best surgeons you could possibly have, and I’ll be back on every front. What rattled me was the realisation that I’d been very, very close to dying. You think it’s never going to happen to you, but there will eventually be something that does for you. That was the first time I’d thought, “You’ll never see your kids, never see your wife, again.” It’s a cliché but you really do suddenly become aware of your mortality, and the impact your mortality has on others, and that scared the fuck out of me.
Did you get a “get well soon” message from Communicorp boss Denis O’Brien?
Well, Newstalk were great. They were very supportive and remain so. Again, it was a bit of a shock to them because the first they heard about it was when I got in touch to say I couldn’t do tonight’s show because I was in hospital. I had to go and bring them up to speed on something that was developing very, very quickly around me. I could have been looking at surgery within three or four days at that point, which was terrifying. And then it got pushed back to November 15th. There was a lot to take on board.
I’ve given my funeral considerable thought. As a little taster, mourners will be able to grieve along to The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Motörhead’s ‘Remember Me (I’m Gone)’ and the Kirsty MacColl version of The Kinks’ ‘Days’. Had you planned your funeral – or might you now, just in case?
There’s a little part of me that thinks all those things are going to be somebody else’s problems. You know, there’s only so far I can take this life business and then it’s over to you. It’s a logical thing to think about when you’re seriously ill, but I wasn’t scrolling through my music compiling a funeral playlist in hospital.
I was talking recently to Noel Hogan who was very touched that you ended Féile Classical with a mass singalong version of ‘Dreams’ in Dolores’ honour.
Yeah, that was powerful. It was very raw at the time and there was a sense of being so close to her hometown. If Dolores had still been around, we’d have asked the Cranberries to be part of the weekend. They played the original Féile in 1994. That she wasn’t or couldn’t be there was shocking.
The Happens were gigging when Dolores and the lads were on their way up. Did your paths cross?
(Laughs) She took refuge in our dressing-room at an awards ceremony in the Point. Dolores was up there with Madonna in terms of how big a star she was. We were able to walk around without being molested, but she couldn’t stick her nose into the corridor without mayhem ensuing. As for going to the shop for a loaf of bread, good luck! She came in, asked, “Do you mind if I hide in here?” and drank beer with us while everyone was running around in a panic going, “Have you seen Dolores?” That was also the night when Chris De Burgh came up to us and said he loved our song.
I was going to ask you what your Happens career highlight was, but there we are.
We were looking at him thinking, “We could kill you if we wanted to…” If you’re over 50 and Irish, there’s a very good chance that the first album you bought was a Chris De Burgh one. He was massive here in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was always too cool for that, though. He was never going to find his way into my collection. I had his number from day one. I knew ‘The Lady In Red’ was going to happen eventually.
I assume Michael Lowry agreed to a re-run of Féile because Semple Stadium needed new toilets or something.
No, I don’t think there was anything in particular that the Tipperary GAA needed. The stage was facing the new stand, which the previous Féiles actually built. It was two lads from CWB in Limerick who rang me and asked would I curate it. Their initial idea was for a house band and guest vocalists, but I was like, “I’m not going to be able to sell me singing Happens songs without them to Alan, Ray and Ted. We’re not as fab as The Beatles but we are a foursome.” And I knew the other bands would feel the same way. Then somebody said, “The twist can be having the Irish Chamber Orchestra”. Everybody I approached loved the idea. It was supposed to be one night, but we sold out two and probably could have done a third. There was a great sense of community around it, so we’re doing Féile again on September 20th and 21st with Mundy, The Sultans Of Ping FC and The Frank And Walters already lined up.
Are you well enough to get back on stage with the Happens yet?
We’ve got festival dates booked for July and August. In the unlikely event that I’d want to run a marathon, I’ve been told that my heart’s completely up to it now. Come April/May I’ll be physically better than I have been for years.
I’m getting there.
You told us about the TV series you wrote whilst on morphine. What’s it like for listening to music?
I was kind of annoyed at first by the drips because it meant I couldn’t get up and go for a walk or anything for three hours. You were stuck in the one place. Eventually I thought, “Let’s just go with it” so I got my phone out, went on Apple, and streamed that re-issued Kate Bush album. It was the most pleasant, otherworldly experience of my life. Feeling the buzz. Brilliant music. Lost in my own thoughts, it was wonderful. I was just marvelling at ‘Sat In Your Lap’ and the fact that Kate was so young and confident and full of ideas. Just a major, major artist.
Music has always been the guiding force in your life,. Does it mean even more now post-op?
Yeah, I’m enjoying music more than I have in years. Some bit of you is waiting for the song that explains the whole world in three minutes. And some people get close to it, you know? I was watching the Springsteen on Broadway film, and I love it. There’s a great wisdom to what he says about his dad and family. It was very kind of Ryan Adams and Jenny Lewis to mark my Newstalk return by releasing new singles. You mentioned career highlights, well, a life highlight for me was meeting Jenny Lewis back in the very early days of Oxegen. It’s funny, I’d never seen a photo of her. I just played the records and had no idea what she looked like. I turned around and there she was. Oh man! (Laughs) I still remember what she was wearing.
Reading about your operation, my fiancé’s son said, “Gosh, I didn’t know he was in a band!” He thinks of you purely as a broadcaster. What have your on air highlights been?
There are times I can’t believe I’ve talked to people like Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney. I spent an evening in the Temple Bar Music Centre with Brian Wilson, interviewing him and inviting questions from the audience. When I was doing the morning show, I became increasingly impressed with mere mortals. You’d talk to people who’d come through illness or done something amazing. I was talking to a lad who’d cycled the length of the two Americas and a guy who’d climbed Everest. Then there are the everyday heroes who look after a sick relative or something like that. I found their strength really inspiring. It made me see rock stars as being a little bit cossetted. As much as I admire their gifts and the brilliant songs they’ve given us, nurses do unbelievable things every day. When I was having those really bad nightmares and not sleeping, someone would come in and get you back together. Do the bed up and reassure you. That’s worth its weight in gold.
Have you stuck on U2’s ‘The Blackout’, which addresses Bono’s unspecified brush with death?
No, should I be listening to that alongside Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and the last Bowie album?
Hearing Bono sing “Blackout, it’s clear, who you are will appear/ Blackout, no fear, so glad that we are all still here” in the 3Arena before Christmas was very affecting.
It’s like that line Keith Richards always uses: “It’s good to be here… it’s good to be anywhere!” I can’t be steeling Keith’s mantra, but that’s exactly how I feel.