I am a little less than 10 years away from being 56 and considering I feel like I just turned 40 yesterday it won’t be long before I am that old. I also have struggles with mental health issues and trauma from abuse. So despite not being quite up to date on Sinéad O’Connor’s music and life over all this time, this one has a bit more sting than some of other recent musician deaths.
I was in middle school when her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares To You dominated MTV and all of 1990. Unlike today’s music landscape where one is free roam and can bob and weave to avoid today’s biggest hits that song was inescapable then. Also, I was young so the song held little meaning to me other than a school slow dance.
But here it is the day of Sinéad O’Connors passing on July 27, 2023 and I am walking down the street with a portable speaker blaring that song as I make my way to see Tori Amos. Prince wrote it about his personal assistant who was moving on to other work. Sinéad sang it as an ode to her mother who had recently passed and recorded it in one take. I cry because it is a gorgeously written and sung production and also because now knowing better what the lyrics mean and more about Sinéad’s own struggles, truth telling, media backlash and mockery therein, she definitely lived on her own terms.
Sadly, she also became an artist more or less whittled to one hit. A cover version that overshadows her own great songwriting. I of course know more of her work by now but once on the crowded BART train instead of choosing a rock classic or one of her dance club hits I started the behemoth pop ballad again because I knew even if people didn’t know of her or know she had passed that song survives as a pop standard of the modern era. And needed larger community bonding in that moment.
Sure enough once people caught wind of what song was actually playing it was a full cast sing-a-long and sway. It mattered not who knew and who didn’t know the reasons for this impromptu event, you could feel the catharsis that communal singing brings. Something I find to be very very Irish in tradition the longer I live. And when you have had a moment like that so often one wants to follow it up and keep the energy going instead of letting it pass. I can be one of those people. But there is no other hit in her catalog known well enough to maintain that energy.
So I switched to Tony Bennett who also recently passed. It’s the San Francisco bay area after all. And it took the mood from melancholy to joy. I had more songs on offer and people looked at me with a, “what’s next”, but I let the moment fade because all that was needed to be said in that moment was said.
As with the passing of many musical icons radio and DJs come out of the woodwork to play an artist’s songs to honor a legacy they really weren’t giving much attention to for twenty some years despite her vast importance in the alternative scene of the 1990s. This is great as it reintroduces her people who grew with her or introduces her to music fans who never even knew of her. But unlike other artists who passed recently Sinéad also brought the added narratives of abuse, trauma, mental health, motherhood, & activism to the fore. Reminding us how she was thrashed in the media for calling out the Catholic Church on national TV before anyone was else was. Also coming to the surface was the death of her 17 year old son by suicide the year prior to her own.
And sadly her struggles with mental health also became a punching bag, like with Brirney Speares, as she ended up on media circus shows like Dr. Phil. Her path was eerily similar to another 90s Irish music trailblazer Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries. Both women very open about their abuses, trauma, and being women in a male dominated music industry. Both women who by in large wrote their own lyrics that took people to task while also taking personal repsoibility.
And like Tony Bennett mentioned earlier Sinéad sang her songs more or less straight. No runs up and down scales no needless belting to prove something. She sang in service to the lyrics. And I find with Irish (and Scottish) singers especially, they sing with a crystalline vocal tone you don’t find in mainstream US music. You do find it in Broadway with people like Julie Andrews and Mary Martin or Audra McDonald… But I find US pop singers to come with much more of that US ego and attitude or the soul/gospel tradition of “telling it” and delivering a sermon. Both have their merits but the majority of my favorite singers all go the route of sing the song straight and let the lyrics do the talking.
Compare the Sinéad cover to the Prince version. They send very different messages.
Also compare her cover of Elton John’s, “Sacrfice” to his original. They both know how to phrase a song but get very different results.
Sinéad was also one of those voices other artists greatly respected and so she ended up collaborating with many other musical greats like The Chieftains, Massive Attack, and Peter Gabriel on one my my favorite Gabriel tracks, “Blood of Eden”. She was highly respected by her peers like Tori Amos (another musician who thrives in spite of sexual abuse and trauma).
I am not well versed enough in her catalog to go giving you a best of or some sort of run down on where to start -ahem- the first two albums. I know the songs I like that I have heard. But know there is more I have not heard. She had too defiant a voice to not keeping putting it out their to be heard. So this is my chance to fully educate myself on a musician who refused to compromise or back down and who threw off the cloak of shame around their personal struggles and in doing paved a path for others.
And with her passing we once again see how hard the mental health struggle is, it is like cold water to the face, especially for somebody like me who knows how easy it is to slip back in that darkness. But it does not trigger me to despair as one might think. For as with any artist passing, the record will show (pun intended) Sinéad’s music stands and will continue to do so and that is where I find the hope, the ecstasy, and the power to put on music I love and wait one more day.
Tori Amos, of course paid tribute by performing two of her songs that night. One was the cover version Sinéad did of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”. The other was “Three babies” and it was the first time I’d been fully aware of this gorgeous song. It is stunning so here it is in the original form.
REST IN POWER.
PS: Coincidentally Sinéad O’Connor’s death occurred on the 80th birthday of Mick Jagger, whom my friend recently described as a shark, in that he has to keep moving in order to stay alive. Musically Mick and Sinéad are very different in subject and tone but at the end of day Mick Jagger is also somebody who lives and dies by the lyric (admittedly it’s not always the greatest lyric) but he definitely sings in service to the written word. And he was also a completely defiant personality who made his own rule book. He is one of the great musical forces of the last 100 years. He’s the man who along with fellow tiger shark Keith Richards wrote, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes you just might find/ you get what you need” one of the greatest and most hopefully rock anthem romps ever. I think Mick got both what he wanted and needed out of life and is still getting it. He will be one of those artists who literally dies on stage doing the chicken dance with a feather boa around his neck. And I too, like him, am my own rainbow shark who has every intention to die on the dance floor. So keep on rockin’ me Mick baby! Cheers mate!