On Saturday morning, I was lolling in bed while my husband executed his daily calisthenics routine in the walk-in closet. He must have wrapped up and started looking at his phone, because he called out, “Sinead was on TV last night.”
“Is she under arrest?” I thought. In a motel in Jersey tweeting out rageful, heartbroken thoughts? What has happened now?
I heard the tinny sound of a video playing on his phone and seconds later he walked in and handed it to me. There she was — in a brilliant red hijab, on a late night TV talk show with an orchestra behind her — singing “Nothing Compares to You.” The voice was still there, not as powerful or edgy, but who among us is still either of those things at our age? Most importantly, she was there, alive! And singing.
Sinead O’Connor’s first record, The Lion and the Cobra, was released in 1987. The title was a biblical reference, from Psalm 91:13, “you will tread upon the lion and the cobra.” The record unleashed a raging, tender, brilliant and commanding voice into the world, with a contemporary Irish rock sound, signature shaved head and huge doe eyes. Often her singing turned into high pitched howls, painful screams. Many of the songs were intimate, nearly whispered, but she also seemed to be singing for Ireland itself with songs like “Jackie” — about a sailor’s wife who won’t give up watching for her husband who’s been missing at sea for years. She was utterly contemporary but also a portal to the past; unresolved battles, ancient histories.
The track “Never Grow Old” opens with compatriot Enya reciting Psalm 91:13 in Gaelic. And then Sinead sings:
Young woman with a dream in her head
She likes to listen to rock and roll.
Oooh she moves with the music
Cuz it never gets old
It’s the only thing
That never gets old
The song “Mandinka” was a hit in the UK and here, a driving yet bouncy, pop song with an incredible vocal track. In the video, she bounced and bounced like kids I used to see at punk shows in Hollywood back when the band X first came out. Mosh pits at the Whiskey. Sinead had a rock ‘n’ roll spirit and looked like she wanted to fuck shit up; as likely to be found in a bar fight as a 19th century orphanage.
The track considered by many to be her masterpiece is the raging, swelling, “Troy,” the title taken from great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats’, “No Second Troy.” The song may have been inspired by mere heartbreak but in her performance it ascended to myth: half triumph, half tragedy — the sweet spot, if you will, of O’Connor’s art.
It was her second album — I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got — that moved her out of the rock tradition and into pop stardom. Specifically, her sublime cover of Prince’s, “Nothing Compares to You” —the single and the video — was one of those pieces of popular art that transcended musical genres, age, race, and class. You’d hear it playing everywhere. The combination of her startling vulnerability with such a powerful voice, was singular. On top of that — it must be said — she was extraordinary to look at: the video shows her in perpetual close up, wearing a black turtleneck; she is young, open faced, with huge brown eyes perpetually on the edge of tears, the bald head and delicate features.
In the 90s I worked at the Bodhi Tree, the renowned metaphysical bookstore in Los Angeles — it’s where Shirley McLaine became inspired to explore her past lives — and we were used to celebrities. One day while I was shelving books, I turned the corner of the stacks and there she was, even smaller in real life than I thought she was. I’m built like a linebacker, she seemed like a 10 year old. I may have towered over her but I was the more vulnerable. She was, at that time, huge. The height of her fame. And I was a huge admirer. Somehow I managed to keep my cool. She looked up at me, uttered a small, “uh…” and I, being a seasoned retail professional said, “May I help you find something?” She answered and I led her to a different part of the store. I wish I could remember what she was looking for. Books on Wicca? Histories of the early Catholic Church? Muslim tracts? But I’d be making it up.
The late night video continued. Her red hijab surrounded a face that looked puffy but much better than the last few times I’d seen her online; what I saw then was a life of disappointment and loss, self abuse and mental health struggles etched on her cheeks, there in her eyes, her forehead. You could still see remnants of those things on her face but now she seemed show-ready, primped, she was showing up. Successful in some ways, disappointed in others. I imagine my face looks like this, reflects similar battles. Stable as I’ve ever been, but still a little rocky. Older, slightly diminished, but prepared to meet the people.
Speaking of the hijab. Clearly, O’Connor is a spiritual seeker. In the early 2000s, she had herself ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church, even though the church doesn’t allow this. Last year she converted to Islam. There is probably a perpetual need in her, as in many of us, for solace. Clear directives for a disorderly life. I’m not a biographer, I only know that her childhood was marred by a nasty divorce, then a period of eighteen months spent in a Magdalene Asylum. She has been outspoken about emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her parents.
The last time I’d heard news of her, Sinead was in a motel in New Jersey, tweeting, wondering how she had ended up in, what she called, “this armpit.” A video with Sinead talking of suicide emerged online. There were calls for help, concerned fans urging her to call 911, reminders from others that she’d been diagnosed years back with bi-polar disorder, but hadn’t that been challenged at some point? She landed, thankfully, in the hospital. What else had I heard over the years? She had married an online fan, I think — her fourth marriage. Somewhere along the way she had her kids taken away from her. My point is: her life was messy and erratic. Mine has been messy and erratic, too. Perhaps not as messy, nor as erratic, as hers, but really who’s comparing? My bigger point is: I stand proudly on the side of the messy, erratic people. And I’m deeply grateful that my messes have not been witnessed by the general public.
What does a popular recording artist do with an authentic political message? An artist whose work speaks of genocide, abuse, domestic violence, poverty — these topics might work in indie rock bands or the commercial music of other nations (I don’t know that, just wondering) but in the US, where we want our pop music — now more than ever — to speak to a healthy outlook, even to provide a peppy boost of self esteem, where do those messages belong? Alanis Morissette waded into the murky waters of pop rage and managed to emerge fairly unscathed (the soon-to-open Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill is testament to both her survival and her broad cultural acceptance.) But Morisette’s issues — and her anger, which never seemed all that angry to me, meaning it seemed appropriate, healthy — were personal, not systemic. We love a pop princess who cranks out hit songs in the aftermath of love gone bad — see Taylor Swift, Adele — but what do we do with a pop star who is pointing at systemic oppression and wide scale abuses of power?
Sinead’s infamous SNL appearance answered that question: We punish them. Clearly, harshly, absolutely. In the middle of a performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” she stood center stage, looking straight into the camera. She held up a picture of the pope and when she sang the word, “evil”, she shredded the picture. It was a remarkable piece of political performance. Not perhaps the most subtle or the best use of what we would now refer to as her platform, or her brand, but it was thrilling and effective. AIDS was killing people at an alarming rate, gay men were among the biggest losses. Among my circle of friends, at least, there was a clear understanding that priests were abusing boys — girls, too — and had been as long as anyone could remember. On top of that, Operation Rescue was in high gear, showing up at Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics, harassing people trying to access services. On occasional Saturday mornings I would meet with volunteers from NOW, put on a bright orange vest and escort (mostly) vulnerable young women inside. Sinead’s gesture was, in the truest sense of the word, radical.
There was no applause, no sound, at the end of her performance.
A pop star rarely recovers from that level of outrage. She was booed off the stage of a Bob Dylan tribute show at Madison Square Garden soon after. Madonna (Madonna!) retreated to an earlier form of her religious beliefs and shamed O’Connor for attacking someone that so many believed in. Joe Pesci, the host of the following week’s episode of SNL, said he would have punched her in the mouth if he had been there. The audience cheered.
If you don’t know the album, Universal Mother, I highly recommend it. If The Lion and the Cobra is her greatest record, fueled by teenage fire and adolescent pain, Universal Mother is surely her second greatest, marked by a more mature — motherly — understanding of the world. Released in ‘94. I first heard a track on KCRW while driving around LA late at night. Driving in the dark was one of my favorite pastimes when I lived there. Whether I was cruising, or looking for drugs, or maybe just lonely and lost, the radio was my company. The track they played was “Famine,” a five minute rap song about the so-called Irish Potato Famine of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Opening with a sample of the violin strains of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, the song also includes a riff on the chorus from “Eleanor Rigby” — “All the Lonely People.” The song is a corrective history lesson, a call to arms to heal cultural trauma, to remember our past:
And if there actually is ever gonna be healing
There has to be remembering and then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving
There has to be knowledge and understanding
This is followed by another chorus of lonely people, then a reference to a US Army regulation, that states that if you kill more than 10% of a population, it will lead to permanent psychological damage.”It wasn’t permanent,” Sinead raps, “but they didn’t really know that.”
Ever a fighter, ever a survivor.
Also on that album, Sinead delivered one of the greatest covers of all times — ”All Apologies” — written by another tender hearted musical warrior, Kurt Cobain, who was found dead of a heroin overdose a month before the release of Universal Mother.
There’s a beautiful book my dear friend Patti gave me when I moved to NYC at 38: The Middle Passage, by James Hollis, a Jungian analyst. The basic premise is that we all play out our childish role until about the age of forty at which point we are confronted with the choice to truly grow up. If we decide the path to maturity is one we want to take, it requires an honest look at our behaviors, patterns, habits — we must examine the role we have played and then change it. According to Hollis, most people don’t want to do that, it’s too painful, too much work. And so most people continue to live out their primary role for the rest of their lives.
Watching Madonna’s latest video the other day I wondered, “Can pop music be made by anyone but the young?” I asked my husband Bobby that later in the car, and he immediately replied, “no.” Is it any wonder that, of the greatest pop stars of my youth — Michael Jackson, George Michaels, Prince, Whitney Huston — only Madonna remains. But has she managed to grow up? Or has she just insisted that she is still young, despite the passing of time?
We want what we want. Even those of us who rankle at the label ‘capitalist’ — we still want what we want when we want it. When we don’t get it, we are disappointed, even angry. We pay these people huge amounts of money — dance, Bojangles, dance!
Shortly after moving to New York, I was hired to perform in a three-person production of Elektra; three gay men with a female director. I’m afraid I was not a great member of the ensemble. I was difficult, which I could often be as an actor. I was gifted but occasionally problematic. Combative. Making Theater for me was clearly about working out family dynamics. Anyway, the production was being made for a festival honoring the 2500th birthday of Sophocles taking place in Delphi, Greece. Thrilling.
My cast mate and friend Tony and I had planned to stay on after the performances. We spent time traveling around the Peloponnesus then to Hydra then back to the mainland. I befriended a Greek actress when we were at the Festival. She wanted to talk about our production, dig into the ideas. We spent the day at the beach and she told me something that shifted a fundamental understanding I had had as an American, as an actor. Regarding tragedy, she said, “Americans think the tragedy is that this horrible thing happened to this great person. We Greeks think the tragedy is that this normal person had to become great. The horrible thing happened to them because that’s what happens to great people.”
I shared the Sinead video on Facebook, saying how moving I found it. To see her again after all these years, all these battles, all these bitter losses and meager wins. At the end of the performance, after singing very somberly, head looking down and off to the side, inside her own story, her own experience of the song, she looked into the camera, about the same distance the camera had been when she tore up the picture of the pope, and she smiled, a sweet simple smile — an Irish smile, my friend Kate pointed out; she added a finger wave. “I’m still here,” she seemed to be saying. “I know you’ve probably heard a lot of crazy shit about me and you might have even been worried but I’m still here.”
Lots of comments and likes on the post. So many loving thoughts — so many fans, people like me who have thought this world has been too much for her. Of course the one comment I couldn’t get past was the person who said, “She is amazing, though I can hear her voice starting to go.”
What do we want from our performers? What do we demand of them that we don’t ask of ourselves? A performer may be blessed with talent and vision, they may be extraordinary, but all of that resides within a vulnerable, human body, which is lined with — and ruled by — the same delicate nervous system you and I share. They have the same capacity for failure and loss, the same tendency to have their greatest flaws revealed over time. Greatness does not equal perfection.
I’m an artist who wants to make sense of the world. I look for connections, moments when ideas meet and contradict each other even as they coexist. As an audience member, I turn to artists and performers who are living messy lives — surviving, if we’re lucky — managing to report to the rest of us what they’re finding.
What I want most is — it’s an overused and corporatized word at this point but I’ll use it anyway — authenticity. In my own life and work, and the work of others.
Watching Sinead O’Connor sing her greatest hit, wearing her red hijab, with a sexily lit orchestra behind her on a late night talk show I thought, it’s incredible you’re still alive. What you must have seen during these past thirty years of fame, how did you possibly survive them? What courage you have, and generosity. How wonderful that you can still sing at all.
Listening to the lyrics, I thought, the meaning of the song has changed over the decades since you recorded it. It struck me that you were singing it to yourself — indeed, Nothing Compares to You. You’re singular, still. We all are.
Thank you, prophet, for the word. I have received it.