Tuesday 20 August 2019

'On stage, I don't feel pain and my body stops swaying'

Singer Shay Healy talks to Barry Egan about death, his musical comeback, life with Parkinson's disease and getting a record deal at 73

Shay Healy at home in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Shay Healy at home in Sandymount, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

What's another year? It's a loaded, even bleak, question for Shay Healy in 2016. The man who wrote Johnny Logan's winning Irish entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest with the song title of that name quotes me a bit of Dylan.

Not Bob Dylan but Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day/Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

At 73 years of age, Shay is funny and wry about death. It would be easier for him to be maudlin about the future, about Parkinson's disease - the progressive neurological disorder for which there is no cure that he was diagnosed with 12 years ago.

The drugs, he says, help by alleviating the symptoms, but "there hasn't been any new drugs for 30 years".

"So they're a bit of a blunt instrument," he adds. "And there are lots of side effects."

Shay says with a smile that one particular drug he's on can turn him into a "shopaholic, a gambling addict - and it can also drive up the libido, resulting in high levels of priapism. You'd be spoiled for choice if you were in the whole of your health".

The other "weird thing" he deals with is, he says, "constant hallucinations".

"When I go to bed I will see people in the bedroom or lining the stairs. From a logical point of view I know that I am projecting these images and, if I want to, I can get rid of them with a blink of my eyes. But sometimes they are oppressive."

One night recently, the house in Prince of Wales Terrace in Ballsbridge that he shares with Dymphna, aka Dee Dee - his wife since 1967 - was filled, he says, with 20-year-olds.

One of them told Shay that someone had posted on Facebook that there was a 'free gaff' in his house. This imaginary kid in Shay's head told him that there were 400 kids out on the terrace.

"Like everything," Shay says of the condition that hasn't defined him, "Parkinson's is good fodder for gags, but in reality I wouldn't wish it on anybody. It is ugly, painful and distressingly intrusive into my daily life as we try to deal with what one of one of my friends calls, the lodger inside."

Shay is a powerful talker - anyone who watched him on RTE's Late Late Show talking to Ryan Tubridy last weekend couldn't have been but moved.

He says the tips of his fingers have gone numb. He says he can't pick up peas if they fall on the floor. They stay on the floor. He says can't tie his laces anymore. It is heartbreaking stuff to hear.

And yet...

In truth, despite an incurable disease looming dark and large, the story of Shay Healy comes with a fairytale ending. His is a joyous story tailor-made for Christmas.

Getting his first proper recording contract at the age of 73 was "romantic and gloriously serendipitous".

"It's most unusual for a man of 73," he continues, "to get a recording contract but the way I look at it, if Donald Trump can become president then I can become a recording artist."

Early last year Shay felt himself slowing up physically, he recalls, but "my role models were still out there performing - Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett were all still going strong".

Perhaps because of this Shay "got the notion" that he would love to "do one last gig" where he could, for the last time, experience doing a gig with a full band. So he organised a show in IMRO headquarters and Darren Farrell, the head of the newly formed Trad Nua label, happened on the gig.

"I did it as my first step to rail against the dying of the light. Then I did two more 'last ever' gigs in the Sugar Club," he says.

"Fast forward a year and there is a party at my friend Kara Hanahoe's house for songwriter Paul Williams." Accompanied by Rob Burke on piano, Shay sang When You Become Stardust Too.

"When my life is over," he sang, "I'll become a bit of stardust…"

It knocked, he says, Darren Farrell "into a tizzy, during which he made the decision that I should make a CD/DVD" - The Stable Sessions, which is out now (and would make a great Christmas present!).

"Stardust is the departure to the more serious or contemplative side of me," he says of the song on the album. "It's a song of hope that somewhere in our future we will all get to meet again. I wrote it in place of falling on my knees praying to a sky full of stars. I think it's a comfort to people that this may not be the final chapter of your life. So even though the song made a lot of people cry, it also gives them hope for the future."

I point out that Dickie Rock also covered the song recently on his own solo album.

"Dickie looks in better nick than me because he has a permanent suntan by virtue of living half the year in his Spanish home," Shay says, adding that, "I have great admiration for the 'geezers' of music: the late Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson and especially Tony Bennett because I met Tony, even if it was only in a dream."

In this vivid dream, Shay goes on: "I was in Tony's dressing room after his concert. I suddenly find myself sitting side by side with Tony - just two old farts chewing the fat. And then he said: 'I want you to see something.' And I looked up as Tony ascended to the stage and sang a slow swing version of Stardust. It was beautiful in the extreme.

"I woke and said to myself, 'If Tony can keep going at 102, or whatever age he is, why shouldn't I, a mere stripling of 73, face the bright lights again," says Shay.

Asked about the transformation in him when he performs - onstage is one of the places where the pain of Parkinson's disease "goes away" for him - Shay answers: "It's very peculiar when I go on stage. I leave Shay Healy, the guy with Parkinson's, behind. I don't feel pain and I don't feel my body swaying and rocking from side to side, but I suspect I'm a sniper's nightmare.

"I feel all the time like I'm wearing clown shoes and I have taken a couple of very minor falls at home, but I had one serious fall in Nassau Street and - can you believe it - four people stepped over my body without as much as a glance in my direction?"

Never mind four people walking around Shay on the ground on Nassau Street, it is more likely that people will be crawling over each other to get into Shay's gig early next year.

"The first gig will be in Magistorium, Duke Street, on January 19. I hope it's right and the audience is not too young and not too old but somewhere in between," he says.

"I will have lots of guests on the show with me."

Sunday Independent

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