Monday 20 November 2017

This is Christy 'spins one of the most memorable, eye-opening and moving tales in Irish music history'

'This is Christy', RTE One

This is Christy. Christy Dignam
This is Christy. Christy Dignam
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

This is Christy opens and closes on the same image: Aslan playing the Iveagh Gardens, just a few days ago. It’s been 29 years, amazingly, since the band’s last open-air gig in Dublin.

In between these bookends, we revisit the life and career of one of Ireland’s most iconic, beloved singers. This excellent film runs along two chronological lines: the months leading up to the Iveagh Gardens, and the five-and-a-half decades Christy Dignam has spent on this earth.

It’s been a remarkable life, and This is Christy, which aired tonight on RTÉ One, spins one of the most memorable, eye-opening and moving tales in Irish music history. Christy said in a recent interview that whereas U2 “belong to the world” in a sense, Aslan are “Ireland’s band” – and there remains a huge, enduring respect and affection for him and the group across the nation.

The documentary travels to his old childhood home in Finglas, a semi-D where his parents reared eight kids. We meet his dad, a fine singer in his day, who slags off Christy that he’s just read his son described as “the greatest singer in the world”. Christy fires back, “They only said that because they haven’t heard you.”

Aslan.jpg
Aslan

We also meet the other members of Aslan, including Joe Jewell, Billy McGuinness and Alan Downey who’ve been there since the beginning. (Well, almost the beginning in Billy’s case; in one funny scene, Christy remembers how they invited the guitarist to join when very drunk, and forgot all about it until he showed up for rehearsals the next day.)

Aslan’s great first album. Almost breaking America. Christy’s sacking from the band. The reunion. Crazy World. Late Late Show appearances and garage rehearsals. Childhood reminiscences and new memories being made with kids and grandkids. It’s all in there.

The film hops back and forth in time constantly, with a startling and powerful cumulative effect. These days Christy is battling a rare form of cancer; the effects of chemotherapy, and serious issues with hard drugs in his youth, have left him looking every day of his 57 years. The other lads, too, are heavy-set, grey-haired, with lined faces: in other words, they look middle-aged.

But then we whisk back to footage from the 1980s, of early Aslan performances (and even one from Meelagh XVIII, Joe and Christy’s band before they formed Aslan), and the contrast is almost shocking.

They were so young. So good-looking, so cool-looking, with their leather gear and rock ‘n’ roll hairstyles – all attitude and tats and ass-kicking guitar. Christy stalks stages like a rock god drawn from central casting.

In a counterintuitive way, the shock is greater because, of course, it’s not remotely surprising. This is what happens in life. This is life. Everyone gets older, things change, things falls apart: entropy in human form.

The viewer’s nostalgic longing for the past, during these scenes, can nearly be felt physically. Maybe that’s what’s meant when we say that Aslan are “our” band: their triumphs and downfalls felt like ours, their dreams and frustrations mirrored ours…and they’ve gotten old now too, like the rest of us.

And there’s nothing any of us can do about it. To quote Christy at one point, “Shit happens.”

this is christy 1.jpg
This is Christy. Christy Dignam

But they’re still standing tall, still kicking against the jams. Christy’s voice remains a thing of wonder – has there ever been a finer Irish rock vocalist? – and all of them, including him, seem contented, enthusiastic, happy to be doing this. And the crowds, obviously, continue to love Aslan: for songs like This Is or Crazy World, you’d imagine, they hardly need to play at all, just let the audience holler it together.

Equally obvious is just how important singing is to Christy: performing, playing with his friends, reaching for that ineffable magic only music can provide. He’ll probably be doing it until the day he dies. May that day not arrive for many, many years.

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