And so, in a story about Sinéad O’Connor, her life and career, she might want us to recall a biblical quote: “For both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness.”
We’ll get there. Almost half a lifetime ago, at the ripe old age of 30, an already battle-scarred Sinéad O’Connor featured in a press conference in Montréal. Let us not say “held” a press conference, because it was certainly an obligation she would have enjoyed not enjoying, but there was a major outdoor summer concert to publicize, and a contract is a contract.
Publicizing a massive 4-day Formula 1 Grand Prix outdoor concert fest on Montréal’s Ste. Catherine St. West, the presser confirmed what the concert later would—that O’Connor still had enough cultural and artistic swag to draw 25,000 fans, and the media. Even by this point, in the late ‘90s, Sinéad was already in/famous and there were many questions from the press pool in attendance. As it drew to a close, one francophone journalist asked if she was “haunted” by her horror-show childhood; but in his accent, it came out as “’unted”.
“No”, she smiled that beatific child’s smile, “I’ve hunted it.”
Great line. But had she? As the tributes and encomiums flowed in postmortem, it was worth recognizing that the measuring instrument that can balance the luminescence of her achievement and the value of her defiance is a scale loaded with the weight of her pain. From the beginning unto the end. Especially in the last few years.
It wasn’t, obviously, all agony. But that press conference—it was a rare moment of placidity in a timeframe of incidents.
O’Connor came out of nowhere with her debut album The Lion and the Cobra in 1987 and by 1990 had conquered the world with Nothing Compares 2 U. And in 1990, she was already taking flak after refusing to perform in the U.S. if the Star-Spangled Banner was played before her concerts. Classily, Frank Sinatra threatened to “kick her in the ass”; cue the protests, with her albums destroyed outside her record company—in New York City. How very un-rock’n’roll. She nixed her 4 Grammy Award nominations. Things slo-mo-snowballed. While touring with Peter Gabriel on his Secret World Tour in 1993, there was a Los Angeles sleeping pill incident. O’Connor denied it was a suicide attempt.
But it’s one thing to take on Ol’ Blue Eyes, and quite another to take on the Catholic Church. On October 3, 1992, on Saturday Night Live, while singing a version of Bob Marley’s “War” and denouncing child abuse—of which she had horrifically been a victim at the hands of her mother—there ensued the Pope Photo Shred Heard ‘Round the World. Two weeks later she was booed at the 30th-anniversary tribute concert for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden, which featured the Kris Kristofferson Hug Felt ‘Round the World.
It only took the Pope nine years to acknowledge that O’Connor was, you know, right.
Contrary to popular belief, this did not kill her career—especially not among her colleague group. Pink Floyd, The Who, Red Hot + Blue, Mary J. Blige, Band Aid 30, U2 and even Willie Nelson still came calling. However, once you’ve stepped out of the sanity lane and are branded ‘eccentric’, at the very best you are a target. It does not help when you cannot get out of your own way. Four marriages and divorces, a wrenching custody battle, terrifying online shrieks of despair and pleas for psychiatric help because she was “really un-well… and in danger”, the anguish of her son Shane’s death…
“Am in desperate need of a very sweet sex-starved man. He must be no younger than 44. Must be living in Ireland but I don’t care if he is from the planet Zog. Must not be named Brian or Nigel. Must be blind enough to think I’m gorgeous. Has to be employed… Leather trouser-wearing gardai, fire-men, rugby players, and Robert Downey-Junior will be given special consideration. As will literally anyone who applies… Not just wham-bam. Must be wham-bam. Has to like his mother.”
That was posted online by a popstar. And you didn’t think this might end badly?
But in reference to the weight-scale analogy above, let’s set her to rest by acknowledging that you must never simply measure a life by the weight of its pain, and in a case like this, you are left with one thing: the talent. The art. And here are two songs to illustrate how this singer could transcend life and psychic troubles no mortal should have to, with her voice, but more potently, with what she gave voice to.
“This is to Mother You”—listen to that song and, if you’re aware of what her own mother did to her, try to imagine the fathomless depths of forgiveness she had to navigate to sing it.
“Sacrifice”—her unearthly cover of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song that reimagined it at the soul/DNA level. Listen to the blithe original, listen to her version, and how she invests the lyrics (“Cold cold heart / Hard done by you” and “I gave my heart”, the latter the outro she added) with such fierce, complex feeling.
Ultimately, that is a voice that could lift a spirit, channel an anger, probe a wound, salve it, hold a heart, enrage a right-wing gang—scare, scar, and soothe. All those things. So why cite the prophets and priests, per above? Because a priest is supposed to assuage your spiritual wounds and exalt what is divine. And “crazy” as she was, Sinéad O’Connor did those things better.
At least she got to sing with Willie Nelson. RIP.