Before you even open the book, one aspect about Christy Dignam’s autobiography immediately strikes you. Unlike many autobiographies of well-known people of a certain age, the front cover features a contemporaneous image.
While the back cover image sees Dignam in sensuous, let-me-entertain-you rock-star mode, the somewhat forlorn face staring out at you from the front looks weather-beaten and less concerned with people’s perceptions.
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This theme runs through the book like a jet of flame: the singer who once embodied something ineffably cool and just that little bit hazardous has been replaced by someone whose lifestyle choices have seriously altered his health and outlook on life.
With bouts of ill health, however, come periods of reflection, and so My Crazy World sees Dignam (with the steady co-writer hand of journalist Damian Corless) do just that. Like his best songs, there is a good story told concisely and without sentimentality.
Amid the hedonistic tales, this is a life story and a half from one of Ireland’s most dedicated and acclaimed songwriters and singers. The chronological narrative reflects Dignam’s songwriting style – there is a beginning, a middle and a conclusion.
Born on May 23, 1960, the story starts, perhaps most nostalgically and evocatively, in Finglas, north Dublin (“the last outpost of the spreading city before you reached endless countryside”), where he grew up in a family of eight siblings supervised by a mother with an “unbreakable spirit” and a father “who led by example”.
Early days as a budding rock star, principally inspired by David Bowie, were advanced by the knowledge that “the only unique thing you have to offer the world is your own personality”, and so gradually the band Aslan was formed.
In quick succession came rehearsals in a disused pigsty close to Dublin Airport, one of their songs, This Is, being dismissed by U2’s Bono as “not great”, and scrapping for the same tricks and treats as many other Dublin rock acts of the era.
As fitful band management came and went, the rollercoaster trip of engaging with major record labels sent Aslan into realms of joy and despair. Cue trips to America. Cue being picked up by limos. Cue hangovers. Cue dabbling with drugs.
Cocaine and then heroin became a daily habit for Dignam, and this is where the story goes from one of bare-knuckle ambition to a daily teeth-grind of addiction. It is so vividly told that when Dignam writes of the first time he took heroin (“I felt whole for the first time in my life”), it’s a genuine shock to read. Success in the US and elsewhere disappeared down the toilet, and as Dignam is kicked out of Aslan, the story goes from bad to worse.
Two lengthy chapters – ‘Fear and Loathing in Dublin City’, and ‘Dicing with Death’ – give you the chills. The former outlines Dignam’s troubles in tandem with scoring from drug dealers and trying to avoid gangsters as they come knocking for money. Living in a state of fear and fatigue, his only comfort his family, Dignam nails it when he writes that “addiction is death by a thousand cuts”.
‘Dicing with Death’, meanwhile, documents his life before, during and after four weeks in rehab in Thailand. “I’d survived and my body was cleansed of drugs,” he tells us. Good news is followed by the worst: “I used in Bangkok on the way home.”
As we know, Dignam cleaned up his act and has since gone on, ever resilient, to be even more successful with Aslan. Seven years ago, however, he was diagnosed with two types of cancer – multiple myeloma and amyloidosis – so the book concludes on a rather more solemn but just as intense note.
“Everything hurts,” Dignam writes towards the end of My Crazy World. No doubt it does, but throughout this courageous, no-regrets book, a virtually invincible spirit is highlighted.
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