Part 1. We Are Talking About No Less Than Killing Dragons.
Sinéad O’Connor came rocketing out of Dublin, Ireland and implausibly landed in the late 80’s Pop music landscape like an authentic Catholic miracle; Along the way, at the age of 20, O’Connor had fought for control of her vision and ultimately was the producer on her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra (1987). This extremely rare achievement was not hampered by the fact that O’Connor was also seven months pregnant at the time.
The backstory has always mattered in the stories of and about O’Connor, even though the artist’s work rises far above anything cherry-picked for the women’s mags or the tabloids, for here was a mature, robust and diverse body of work; a stunning set of nine practically perfect tracks that cover the music of Dirge, Rock, near-Opera, hint at Shoegaze, and predict Grunge (the last two genres clearly influenced by The Lion and the Cobra). The record is challenging, raw, and majestic in scope.
Walking to Toronto’s key destination for suburban teenagers, the downtown HMV record store windows that capably ruled our big cities and our hearts in those days, we 15 year olds found this unknown girl suddenly dominating the walls in artistic collages of the album cover and featured alone across both store windows, we gaped. The music blared out of the open store doors with equal exuberance and relief from young, hip staff who were celebrating something new, real, bad ass, beautiful and transcendent. This was quite simply the coolest and most original record to come along in years.
I bought the album and quickly wore it out. In a rare form of consensus, so did everyone else. It was, for that moment, the next U2: cool AND important. You know those 1980’s records you play so much that you can skip in later entire years and you still have every word, every intonation, every pause, inside you? Like millions of other kids, my interest swelled quickly to devotion, and O’Connor’s willingness to swim the dark depths of the heart in sympathy with the world, her boldness that the world so needed and responded to was a live wire. For us, Sinéad O’Connor was then, and would forever be, the true sister and best friend we had always longed for. Unshockable, accepting, radical, worthy. Sympatico. Legendary.
This record would probably accelerate a million private teen dramas to their outermost limits – or galvanize young women who had no real heroes of their own in the home or on the radio to tell them stand up straighter. She sang to us that women could be outspoken and still pretty. To not settle for a love any less than “Jackie” (ghostly, timeless, ethereal, haunted, tragic, loyal, “Irish”). To not accept cheap sex or, at least, girl, try to convert it to something with truth of “Just Call Me Joe” or that transcends boundaries like “Just Like U Said it Would B”; that is deep and soft but never forfeits sexiness and power. Its words filled through very air like smoke, filled with longing, confusion and assertion, anger, passion and identity questions. Like we girls all were. In short, The Lion and the Cobra was destined to both fuck us up and guide us around the rough rocks in the sea of love, in roughly equal measure, like only true art and life can.
In spirit, this was pure punk rock. But along with a rebel heart was a vocal star with range and control for days, ample poetry, and many more than three chords. And look: imagine the hand-wringing record label discussions in L.A. boardrooms about a woman with a shaved head on an album cover. Imagine the fight over which of these images was used as almost palatable to Americans.
It was powerful, love it or hate it stuff. It was not for the faint of heart. Anyone who was strong enough simply loved it to pieces. Unusually, it was embraced by the boys, too, who innately considered themselves the authorities on music as well as girls who’d rarely (ever?) had a guide such as Sinéad O’Connor to feel good about. And by god, was she ever beautiful.
This record was sorely needed in the era of Madonna, who, for lack of better alternatives (and like The Catholic Church, got a hold of us young) we had thoroughly enjoyed but that I’ve come to see now as Ground Zero of the decline of Pop Culture and Music that we as are still grappling with today.
Part 2. Fight the Real Enemy
Fast forward a few years to 1992: Sinéad O’Connor’s public denouement, during a promotional tour for O’Connor’s second album: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Live on SNL, O’Connor tore a picture of then Pope John Paul the Second apart and told us to simply “Fight the real enemy” while I, watching alone in my family’s TV room, cheered. Her fate was soon sealed in an ugly Corporate America that did not really ever like her, want her or need her unvarnished truth (even thought its citizens, its young, surely did). American mainstream media, then as now, was corporate and subject to unreasonable pressure from advertisers and the Right Wing.
O’Connor’s watershed moment of SNL, which to me is the brightest, shiniest, most significant and impactful moment of Pop protest in our time had followed O’Connor’s recent request to remove the American National Anthem from her U.S. shows, which was responded to in the press by de facto U.S. “Chairman” Frank Sinatra who actually threatened to kick her ass. This was a very messy America approaching the end of the century. The aging Sinatra was, and is, an untouchable iconic, pope-like pop figure who seems to have climbed the charts and ruled via fear. Maybe his music was not only the perfect thing back in wartime but also the perfect accompaniment for awful men to kick womens’ asses to.
Laughably and disturbingly, SNL allowed public responses to O’Connor’s act of protest to come from its most famous celebrity creeps: Joe Pesci (famous for some of the biggest acts of brutality and stereotype on film) and controversial woman-hating comic “Diceman” Andrew Clay. Madonna was crassly tagged into the ring with the unfunniest joke EVER. A SNL parody where she rips up a picture of Joey Buttafuoco : long a figure of controversy herself, Madonna was now accepted because she had an aggressive charm offensive and made a lot of people a lot of money, though she had made her name on rolling about Like a Virgin and playing with religious iconography. She burned crosses and played with race and religion and sex. She claimed to be Catholic (well, she liked crucifixes and sexy Jesus) but articulated little grasp or regard for the Catholic Church’s big issues that were an open secret. In the pop game, O’Connor posed a significant threat to her status.
And on the backs of these bullies campaign, Our Lady, while not aiming for martyrdom, was thus martyred in 1992.
It would be 20 years before The Catholic Church and its many, many, covered up abuses of untold children by pedophile, rapist priests would begin to be addressed and redressed in North America, Ireland, and U.K. as victims came of age, out of the shadow of the deteriorating image of that church and their waning authority, and our culture became more Oprah-fied, more open to sharing and to the idea of refusing the shame that is part of abuse. O’Connor’s act in 1992, long derided but never forgotten, and her music, aided this mass cultural movement in quantifiable, but significant ways. A small trickle of understanding, gratitude, and rightsizing of O’Connor’s act on live US TV finally began to form, with an exciting rumble from the ground as people remembered who said it first, giving credit for once. And a murmuring begain, a rallying cry of support for O’Connor the woman and artist that was long overdue.
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which included the blockbuster single, written by Prince for O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” a song that as ubiquitous as it was, does not shine as brightly as her own work, is an album that still shimmers and is a fascinating evolution of an artist who’s now grapping with success, young motherhood, marriage, and the art. While a lot of male rock stars rejected family life (or certainly didn’t write about it) O’Connor was big and true enough to rock right through it and to sing about it without losing her edge. The accompanying tour still lives very large in my sometimes frayed memories as one of the very best -TOP 5-in a lifetime of concert going. I wore that record out too. I wore the t-shirt, emblazoned with that title phrase/mantra to be at peace with oneself, out too bits too. Relationships wore thin, yet O’Connor still comforted, consoled, fortified, and continued to give me and all the other fans a big sisterly reality check in the years and decades that followed.
Part 3. I Wanna Be Haunted By The Ghost Of Your Precious Love
Sinéad O’Connor continued to sing and speak her truth down the years. She remained great despite her U.S. detractors, the boos, the boycotting, the fear of the outspoken, the use of the medium as it rarely is, for true life messages. Surrounding herself with strong music figures and collaborators ensured her work would evolve and flex beautifully throughout the 1990’s, notably a terrific body of duets eventually compiled in Collaborations (2005) with “Heroine” (with The Edge) duets with Kris Kristofferson (he later wrote the rather clumsy “Sister Sinéad” about her) “Haunted” with Shane McGowan & The Pogues, “All Kinds of Everything“, a delightful departure for both O’Connor and Terry Hall of The Specials, and her gorgeous “Kingdom of Rain” with Matt Johnson of The The, some of the musical heavyweights of the day. O’Connor further contributed significant charitable work with The Red Hot & Blue organization. Cover songs proved there was nothing she couldn’t sing (O’Connor’s version of ABBA’s Chiquitita is stunning and All Apologies gives an entirely new way to read Cobain (from the underrated album Universal Mother). O’Connor continues to please her devoted and loyal fans today with live performances around the world and latest release, 2015’s well received I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss. O’Connor continues to carve her own path, true to only herself and her own compass, a vocal Irish and Global Citizen; an iconoclast who is true to herself and a free thinker; a much needed social & cultural critic; an advocate for artists and self and health and abused children, a great stoic, an Irish brain and wit, and a great artist, with a legendary body of work. But you can just call her “Joe”.
By Jacqueline Howell
All music and lyrics by Sinead O’Connor and respective copyrights to various labels; brief excerpts quoted for the purpose of review only. For more information, to purchase music or for touring news please visit Sinead O’Connor’s webpage.