Maverick Life

REFLECTION

Sinéad O’Connor – remembering, then grieving

Sinéad O’Connor – remembering, then grieving
Sinead O'Connor performs on stage at Womad at Charlton Park on July 27, 2014 in Wiltshire, United Kingdom. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

Since the announcement of her death on 26 July there has been an outpouring of words about Sinéad O’Connor. And yet…

Front-page news that references her fearless activism and also her conversion to Islam in 2018 when she took the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat. Stories about her physical and mental health including her radical hysterectomy that was followed by a breakdown. Words of condolence from many different people, lazily reproduced by reporters through keeping an eye on social media. Obituaries that almost always have the words “controversial Irish singer” in them. Lists of her best songs chosen by journalists who mostly pick from two albums, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra and 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (her full repertoire remaining criminally overlooked). And many articles about what is generally considered the pinnacle of her artistry – an extraordinary reading of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U which, it’s invariably noted, thrust her to global fame by becoming one of the biggest-selling singles of 1990 and which, it is true, showcased a voice that could part the waters. 

What the reporting fails to mention – except in a few cases – is that the song and its hundreds-of-millions-times-viewed video was written by someone who O’Connor said terrorised her during an encounter in his LA home. The incident is recounted in her memoir Rememberings and it carries with it echoes of Mayte Garcia’s anguish at Prince’s treatment of her in the wake of the birth and then death six days later of their child in 1996 (detailed as part of an essay in Ian Penman’s wonderful book It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track that includes an examination of Garcia’s own book, The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince).

But what is most glaringly absent from so much reporting on O’Connor’s death is a recognition of the breadth of her artistic genius which encompassed songwriting of a naked, majestic, memorable force. Across nine albums and a number of singles, O’Connor produced a remarkable body of musical work. Although she’s known for emotionally stark material, her original music was also voraciously experimental – as an example, the potency of the spoken-word Famine off Universal Mother is buoyed by an interpolation from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby, references Fiddler on the Roof, includes trumpet notes from Miles Davis’s recording of Straight No Chaser and contains four lines that sum up Irish history as much as O’Connor’s: “And if there ever is gonna be healing/There has to be remembering, then grieving/So that there then can be forgiving/There has to be knowledge and understanding.”

Missing, too, is O’Connor’s own voice; her recounting of a life that, as the current reporting is at pains to point out, included a mother who abused her and died when she was 18, several years in an Irish reformatory school, and the many decisions she took that others couldn’t find reason in – among them that time, in 1992, when she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, inviting a storm of protests from America’s large Catholic population, and a year before that when she had Public Enemy’s logo shaved and dyed on her head to amplify protests against the Grammy Awards which included, but wouldn’t televise, a rap category (she had refused the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1991). 

Luckily for those of us who seek the source, O’Connor’s Rememberings was published by Sandycove, the Dublin-based imprint of Penguin in 2021 – and it contains everything that’s missing from what has been written since news of her death broke. 

In the foreword to the book, O’Connor candidly states: “I can’t remember any more than I have given my publisher. Except for that which is private or that I wish to forget.” What takes place over the next 288 pages, spread episodically over three parts, is both O’Connor’s recollections of her life but also a telling of her songwriting journey which began when, aged 14, she wrote Take My Hand. This wasn’t the only song O’Connor wrote while still a schoolgirl: as she recounts, after getting a call from Ensign Records – whose executives had seen her singing in the band Ton Ton Macoute – she flew to London (using money given to her by the boss of the Dublin cafe where she worked) and demoed four songs with Karl Wallinger. Three of these eventually made it onto her debut, The Lion and the Cobra, including Drink Before the War which, she writes, “I’d written the previous year about my constipated headmaster who hated me making music and campaigned for my father not to let me take my guitar with me back to boarding school, despite the fact that all I could do was make music”, and Never Get Old, penned about “a very quiet boy that all the girls were secretly in love with”. 

Listening to these songs and others, like the searing Troy, 35 years after they were recorded, it’s impossible not to see how O’Connor’s artistic potency was there at the very beginning. In Part Three of Rememberings, O’Connor shares “Some Musical Notes” about her individual songs and albums, framed by this observation: “I thought it might be useful to relate all the information that I can concerning these. I always say that if one could discuss music, one wouldn’t need music, since music is for the things that cannot be discussed.” And, later: “And it is also the case that if anyone wants to truly know me, the best way is through my songs. There is nothing I could write in this book or tell you that would help you get to know me. It’s all in the songs.” Songs like Last Day of Our Acquaintance, perhaps the most moving detailing of romantic separation ever captured in music; songs like Black Boys on Mopeds, about racism, police brutality and hypocrisy in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain; songs like Reason with Me, a plea for human understanding off How About I Be Me (and you be you?); songs like the breath-taking origin ode, All Babies; songs like the “churchical” (her words) Thank You for Hearing Me, which is about breaking up with Peter Gabriel. 

And it’s not just her original material that so distinguishes her but also her reading of the material of others, like in parts of Theology (especially I Don’t Know How To Love Him), like her version of Nirvana’s All Apologies and, most affectingly, like her duet with Terry Hall, All Kinds of Everything that brings together two of the best singers of their generation, both now no longer with us, both taken much, much too young.

Today, as I write, I ache in the way that you can for someone you never met but who appeared, to a young woman in isolated and repressed South Africa, to be the embodiment of the extraordinary – in music, in how a woman can be and look in the world, in being an outsider in a place that only wants you inside. I long for a photographic memory so that I can replay seeing her live at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 1990, slightly hidden behind round tinted glasses, working her way through songs off her first two albums in a way that brought me to tears, and ensured that I have never stopped listening to these records.

In the closing pages of Rememberings, O’Connor – who never gives in to sentimentality in her writing and is frequently side-splittingly irreverent – turns to her children in a short entry titled “Jake, Roisin, Shane and Yeshua”. In the wake of both her and Shane’s death, it is heart-breaking to read her words of hope, love and pride for her four babies. 

In one of her final entries (like her songs, which she urges us to read as diaries, Rememberings takes the form of short recollections that read like extracts from a retrospective diary) she tells us she believes in heaven and that, in that place, she will be able to sing. She writes: “I’ve only done one thing holy in my life and that was sing. Only the business of music is so unholy. After a while they begin to clash. You just can’t work right because you are in the wrong environment. Kind of like the acid not working in the rockabilly club. My spirit isn’t suited for the business of music. Nor for anything, really. Other than making songs and performing them. Which is my love…” And then there is this: “I wonder: in heaven, do they make songs? And whisper them to composers on Earth?” Today I want to answer yes, Sinéad. It is true. They do make songs in heaven and in the years and decades to come there will be many listening to your whispers. 

Read Rememberings.

Watch Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary Nothing Compares.

Listen to everything. DM

You can follow Diane Coetzer on her Substack.

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  • Paul Mathias says:

    Thanks Diane. I’ve been trying to work out why Sinead’s passing has touched me so much. I’m old enough to have seen many of my favourite singers, writers, actors and artists pass on and have felt that strange remote sense of loss for someone I didn’t really know, but this was different. This piece helped.

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