Remembering Sinead O’Connor (1966-2023)

I saw it live myself, that 1992 SNL show where Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul and declared, “Fight the real enemy!”  Like millions of others my first reaction was, Did I see what I just saw? Yes. And while it was probably the most notorious thing Sinead O’Connor did in her short life, it wasn’t by far the only notorious thing, nor the bravest either. Immensely talented, and immensely angry at the nonsense of the world, she led a very troubled life. She reacted poorly to fame, to what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery behind the popular song,” refusing to attend the Grammy’s during some of her greatest triumphs because of the industry’s overwhelming materialism.  Her religious travails, her stormy relationships, the death by suicide of her son Shane—these are all widely documented and easily accessible.

Her fierce activism over a wide swath of causes often overshadowed her music, though much of that music is so wonderful it will forever stand strong among the legacies of her life.  From her debut album The Lion and the Cobra (with its hit single “Mandinka”), through perhaps her biggest hit, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” her was voice was always described as beautiful, forceful and, especially, haunting. For me that haunting reached its height in her almost impossibly beautiful cover of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin song “Sacrifice.”  It plays in my head a lot, and always when I think of her, as do thoughts on the relationship of pain and art.

James Baldwin said of the artist “that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him could not be divorced from one another.” Indeed, many of our greatest artists are in reality the walking wounded among us, feeling things most of us are too afraid or our common sense steers us away from feeling. Of course, lots of their troubles they bring on themselves—and others—but that should not turn us away from the wonder we feel as they turn their pain and turmoil into a beauty that does make us feel more deeply.  That’s another way of saying, Just listen to “Sacrifice.”

Or to the song in the VIDEO below.  Besides “Sacrifice,” it’s the one I think of when I think of Sinead O’Connor.  In 1995, two years after her Pope-picture-tearing episode, she appeared with Van Morrison and the Chieftans—in a gathering of some of Ireland’s greatest—to sing “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” on Late Night with David Letterman.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of TV, which I just happened to be recording on an ancient dvd recorder. I like to remember Sinead O’Connor this way because it’s such a contrast to the torturous aspects of her life.

“Have I Told You Lately” is very beautiful on one level, but on another it’s also kind of corny and cliché, and I believe Van Morrison knew that.  His version of the song has muscle, and distance, and a kind of knowingness absent from Rod Stewart’s cloying hit version of the song.  His performance here shows he didn’t take the song half as seriously as many others did, including Sinead O’Connor, who starts out singing with such utter seriousness, until she gives in to Van’s goofiness. Also, though Morrison gave us some of the greatest grooves in Rock history, he was often stiff and clumsy as a performer.  Here, among other things, he loses control of his mic as he’s singing blah blah blah into it, then bangs into her mic stand as he approaches her at song’s end. She can barely contain a giggle, and her smiles are luminous. I like remembering her like that just as much—maybe even more—than when she’s singing “Sacrifice” and we’re remembering the travails of her life.

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