Anyone who saw Christy Dignam perform live was struck by his voice. He was a hell of a singer. When all settles over the coming days, and the records and the memories are what remain, Dignam will be remembered for the songs he sung, and the way that he sang them.
Sincere and emotive, his vocal had a beautiful warm and worn tone that came from lived experience. That experience drew from the depths of the demons that would ultimately curtail his ambition, to the love of family, friends and fans that, more than once, brought him back from the brink.
As a singer, his range was outstanding. His voice screamed of defiance, a defiance perhaps stemming from being raised at a time and place in Ireland when he needed to fight to be heard, to stand tall or go under. From being born into a neglected community in North Dublin, to the vicious sexual assault he suffered aged just 6 years old, Christy, as he later sang, seemed to be hit by everyone; knocked down by everyone. When he sang This Is, night after night, it was as if he was singing to himself – that nothing would keep him down, nothing would hold him back.
And nothing did. Even amyloidosis, the rare blood disorder, which ended his 63 years of life this week, found one of its toughest opponents in Dignam. Diagnosed with the condition in 2013 and, at the time, given just six months to live, Christy defiantly fought on, continuing to perform and record with Aslan and, in 2021, releasing a well-received solo album.
So grave was his initial diagnosis that, almost exactly a decade ago, on June 21st 2013, a concert in The Olympia was held in his honour. Billed at the time as a ‘collective show of goodwill’, in truth the night felt like it might be a goodbye. When tickets went on sale, many doubted that Christy would live to see U2, The Coronas, Bressie, Mary Black, Steve Wall and many more, perform on the night. But live, Dignam did. He watched on from a box in the Olympia that night silently, but critically, appraising each interpretation of the songs that made up his life’s work as he thought to himself, “this is what happens when you die”.
His strength of character in the face of terminal illness strengthened his bond with his fans and a wider Irish public that, until then, associated him with salacious stories around his heroin addiction as much as songs such as ‘Crazy World’. In the last decade of his life, he became a kind of beloved uncle figure, an image cultivated through numerous appearances on The Late Late Show. He enjoyed such adulation, of course, but he himself would later speak of his unhappiness with the focus on his past. Christy Dignam was about now. ‘Crazy World’ was then. His medical condition was there, but his focus was on the new music he continued to create, with and without Aslan.
“You know, ‘Crazy World’ wouldn’t even be in my top 30 Aslan songs,” he once said. “We’ve had songs a thousand times better and they’ll never be fucking heard.”
Aslan remained an active touring band through his illness and, although there would be no follow up to 2013’s ‘Nudie Books and Frenchies’, two later singles were released, including late career highlight ‘I Need a Little Time’. A lifelong ambition to record a solo album was fulfilled in 2021, while in his last years he set about recording an album of traditional Irish folk songs with Finbar Furey. Around 4 songs were completed before his death.
Dignam would have fought any suggestion that Aslan weren’t successful. The unpalatable truth though is they were not as successful as their opportunities might have allowed. Feted internationally and penning deals through the years with a number of major record labels, Aslan, for a time, were seen as the next big band to follow U2 out of Dublin. Their failure to capitalise on their opportunities could be directly or indirectly attributed to the heroin addiction that plagued Dignam’s life. He was the first to acknowledge the toll his 20 year on-off habit had on those around him. He eventually got clean around 2008 before the positivity sparked by that feat was cruelly setback by his cancer diagnosis.
Waking up on a day that Christy Dignam is no longer among us seems a little unreal. He will never be forgotten though because he was real in every sense of the word. For all the musicians that may have enjoyed greater financial reward in their lifetime, few will leave songs as timeless or cross-generational as ‘Crazy World’ and ‘This Is’. There are others in the canon too. “The one wish I have,” Christy said in recent years, “is that when I die people will look at our back catalogue properly and think, “Jesus! This band were fucking good.”