Sinéad O’Connor was raw majesty and music was her God, her healing, writes American singer and songwriter Adele Bertei.
On October 3rd, 1992, accompanied by a full orchestra, Sinéad performs her first song on Saturday Night Live; a fragile, nearly whispered version of Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home).
At the song’s denouement, Sinéad improvises: ‘I’ve never changed! I’m still the same!’
Her desperation, naked now in true punk glory as her voice wails, ‘Am I not your girl?’.
Anyone who has caught their heart at the most formidable performances of Piaf, Garland, and Callas will never doubt they’ve witnessed raw majesty. The performance is merely a prelude.
Moment Sinead O’Connor sparked global outrage by tearing up picture of the Pope during SNL performance 31 years ago
Sinead’s death was announced on Tuesday, July 26, with her family saying they were ‘devastated’ by her passing
Later in the show, Sinéad performs her second song acappella. She’s alone on a darkened stage. Nine white candles burn, invoking ritual.
She begins to sing/speak the words of Bob Marley’s War, eyes locked on the camera. ‘…Children! Fight! We have confidence in the victory of good over…’ — and on the cue of ‘evil,’ she holds up a photo of Pope John Paul II and rips it to pieces, commanding us to:
‘Fight the real enemy!’
The audience is stunned into silence by the beauty and horror of the act. She blows out the candles, and exits the stage.
Sinéad had slipped the pin off the grenade, shattering the mirage of celebrity for the sake of thousands of children physically, sexually, and psychologically abused by the Roman Catholic church.
We stared into her defiant eyes as she dared the world to see the truth. And the world wasn’t ready.
At just 24, Sinéad O’Connor ascended to the top of the charts with Nothing Compares 2 U – her rendition eclipsing Prince’s original, which allegedly made him livid with envy.
Jealousy was not unusual with Sinéad; journalists as well as major and minor celebrities without an iota of her talent loved to crucify her and were abusive to the point of absurdity.
O’Connor, performing live headlines the Open Air Stage on the final day of WOMAD music festival, in 2014
By the time Sinéad had hit Number 1 on the charts, she had already courted controversy with her radical truths and stark, exquisite image as the first female rock star sporting the eyes of heaven and a shaved head.
Yet Sinéad’s greatest strength remained her miraculous voice. That divine instrument, forged in the fires of child abuse, trauma, and a lifelong quest for mercy, was her healing.
I met Sinéad once, briefly, at a party for her debut LP at Chrysalis Records in New York. We were both signed to Chrysalis US at the time.
She was standing inside a large circle of suits, dwarfed by arrogant record execs; men who love to push their power all over you.
I approached, was introduced, and she shook my hand, her tiny frame dressed in a tutu, eyes more lamb than lion.
I was an openly queer, outspoken feminist in 1988, and after a #metoo incident, about to be dropped from the label.
I thought I’d spontaneously combust when I heard Mandinka for the first time and was pulled in deep by her stories on The Lion and the Cobra.
I’d end up with a career as a backing singer, putting my faith in Sinéad to be the public artist and activist I could not be at a time when being out could prove fatal.
Musician Sinead O’Connor attends the Seventh Annual MTV Video Music Awards on September 6, 1990
Our lives mirrored each other’s in many ways. On my mother’s side were three generations of Irish women.
I spent two years in an American Magdalene laundry with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. For all the Church’s diabolical sins, O’Connor experienced the Magdalene laundry in Dublin, An Grianán, as safe haven.
There she was encouraged to pursue music. And like Sinéad, Marycrest in Ohio initially provided a secure harbour for me. After experiencing traumatic childhoods, I believe we were both comforted by a promise of mercy, safety, and a provocation toward music, that support being the closest I’d come to feeling loved.
It wasn’t until Sinéad snuck into a locked corridor of An Grianán that she discovered the heart of Magdalene darkness – a Draconian dormitory prison that housed the forgotten women of the laundries; those who were too old, too sick, or too feeble to work. Haunted faces begging for release that a young girl cannot unsee.
Although Sinéad never boasted about it, she would be vindicated when the Church scandal first broke in 2002 on the Catholic calendar’s Feast of the Epiphany.
The Boston Globe began publishing a series of reports that the Church had been covering up child abuse by priests in the US for decades.
The hits kept coming. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI issued a public apology to the victims of sexual abuse throughout the decades (and most likely, the centuries) by Catholic priests in Ireland.
And yet, what was worse? Sinéad ‘blaspheming’ the Church? Or blaspheming the sacred cows of stardom and gendered expectations?
Sinead O’Connor performs at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on December 16, 2019
Her acts of defiance cast a hot light on the hypocrisy of celebrity and of women petrified to speak to social justice causes for fear of losing fans, wealth, status, and the ‘love’ of men.
No other celebrity on SNL stood up for her the night she tossed that truth grenade. In an interview after SNL, Camille Paglia publicly hissed the words, ‘In the case of Sinéad O’Connor, child abuse was justified!’
Sinéad inspired many female singers to be brazen, to rage at injustice. Yet she walked alone. We did not follow this brave warrior into the collective fury necessary to heal our wounds, to create change. It became the norm to label her crazy long before her very public breakdowns.
In 2015, her son Shane began to struggle with his mental health and that same year she had an emergency hysterectomy, yet the doctors did not give her hormone replacement therapy.
Sinéad’s medical issues and the betrayals she experienced resulted in public, agonised breakdowns. I watched, wept while her fragile vulnerabilities were used as tabloid fodder.
The patriarchy made good use of Sinéad, profiting off millions of LPs sold, then delighting in exploiting her heart-wrenching illness as an example of what happens to women who fight the power.
And when an artist dies, the circle continues with the corporate thugs that supported their work in life salivating over the mountains of profit to be reaped by pimping work the artist may have never wanted the public to be privy to.
Sinéad’s engagement with people on social media and the press that bullied and shamed her felt excruciating to watch for those who loved her.
Sinead O’Connor in the official Nothing compares 2 U music video
The truths she knew and lived by began to curdle beneath the layers of abuse. She hardened. Decided to fight back.
She related to the wrath that would destroy evildoers in Book Two of the Quran and converted to Islam: she changed her name to Shuhada’ Sadaqat.
Always a seeker, she journeyed through comparative religions like a budding theosophist, finding solace at moments but never fully experiencing the grace of mercy and redemption sought.
And then came the death of her son Shane. Seventeen years old, I can only imagine the loss of her child as inflicting a pain unimaginable.
If only she’d realised that God was music, was with her all along.
n Adele’s memoir Twist: An American Girl is out now from Ze Books. Universal Mother, a book on Sinéad’s LP for Bloomsbury, will be released in early 2024.
It’s been seven hours and fifteen days… the story of THAT hit song
BY RAFAELLA SPANOU
It became Sinéad O’Connor’s signature song and a video that broke the mould and inspired other artists.
But behind the scenes, legendary stories dovetailed from her recording of Nothing Compares 2 U – and rows have continued to simmer up to recent years.
This weekend, Katherine Ferguson’s acclaimed documentary on Sinéad was released to Sky Documentaries and Now TV. But even she had issues with Prince’s estate over the use of the recording.
While Sinéad made the song her own, propelling her to levels of fame she never imagined in the process, the song was written by Prince in July 1984.
Prince who’s behind the original of Nothing Compares 2 U
Publicly he insisted he was supportive of her rendition, but the reality was more complex.
As Ferguson began putting together the documentary, first released last year, old wounds emerged Stateside.
Sharon Nelson, Prince’s half-sister, said in a statement to Billboard in September last: ‘Nothing compares to Prince’s live version with Rosie Gaines [released in 1993] that is featured on the Hits 1 album and we are re-releasing that album on vinyl on November 4.
‘I didn’t feel [Sinéad] deserved to use the song my brother wrote in her documentary so we declined. His version is the best’.
Millions would disagree, but Ferguson said the refusal ‘as the rights holders, was their prerogative,’ and it forced the team to get creative.
Instead, in the documentary, the music video plays with commentary from the director and Sinéad without sound, alongside a disclaimer saying: ‘The Prince estate denied use of Sinéad’s recording of Nothing Compares 2 U in this film.’
‘In the end we were very happy with that section of the film,’ she said. ‘It meant the focus remained on Sinéad’s words, and on her own songwriting.’
Prince recorded the song in a matter of hours with his engineer Susan Rogers by his side.
‘I was amazed at how beautiful it was… He took his notebook and he went off to the bedroom, wrote the lyrics very quickly, came back out and sang it. I was very impressed with it,’ Rogers later said.
But it could have been destined for obscurity under it original creator. It was never released as a single by Prince, and according to one account it was Sinéad’s former manager and lover Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh who remembered it and suggested she cover it for her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.
Other accounts suggest she was introduced to the song by Steve Fargnoli, who had looked after Prince in the Purple Rain era, and took over as O’Connor’s manager around the time of the recording.
Fast forward to 1990, when the video recorded with Sinéad’s haunting, mesmerizing performance was filmed in Paris. It would go on to be viewed more than 400 million times on YouTube alone.
It wasn’t just the vocal performance that stunned. With the enigmatic black backdrop, a tear streams down her face as she sings: ‘All the flowers that you planted, mama / In the back yard / All died when you went away.’
No doubt those same lyrics will forever weigh heavily on her three children as they struggle to cope with the loss of their mother who died in London on Wednesday last, aged just 56.
But at the time of recording, Sinéad was thinking of her own mother.
‘I didn’t know I was going to cry when I sang in the video because I didn’t cry when I sang in the video because I didn’t cry in the studio recording it,’ she said years later.
Sinéad lost her mother in 1986 in a car crash, and they had a complicated relationship, with Sinéad accusing her of abusing her both physically and mentally.
‘Every time I sing that song I think of my mother. I never stop crying for my mother. I couldn’t face being in Ireland for 13 years because of it,’ she said.
Much later, Sinéad claimed that Prince was furious at her success, and had summoned her to his property in Hollywood for a dressing down.
In a 2004 interview, she rowed back on the claims, calling Prince a ‘sweet guy’ and saying the story had been exaggerated in the press.
But after Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016, she seemed to step up her verbal attacks against him, telling police investigators Prince was ‘into devil worship’ and a woman-beater.
Belfast-born director Ferguson said the documentary – titled Nothing Compares and which was released last year – allows people to ‘hear her tell her side of the story’. She said the plan to air the programme, which had been scheduled to be released yesterday for some time, was going forward after ‘lots of thought’ following the songwriter’s death.
Ms Ferguson said: ‘The reaction to the film and love for Sinéad has been palpable and we feel screening it this weekend is the right thing to do, so that people can see her in all her glory and hear her tell her side of the story.
‘Nothing Compares is a love letter to Sinéad.
‘She meant the absolute world to me and I know she did to many of you.
‘Watch the film, feel the rage, have a good cry and let’s remember the woman for her radical, magical ways and all she has done for us. I’ve never been prouder to be an Irish woman.’