Sinéad O'Connor: No One Compared
This is one grieving process I won't relinquish until I'm ash in my backyard.
ALTHOUGH THE CAUSE OF HER DEATH hasn’t been revealed, all of my friends who cared deeply about her assumed suicide. I believe so too.
My brother took his own life when he was 22 years old. As my family reeled, I discovered the only way to survive the tragedy emotionally was to honor his decision. This freed me from the endless ‘whys’ that accompany suicide. And so I did—honor him. And if she took her own life, I honor Sinéad’s decision too.
When I was in a spiritual school for many years, we were told that the ultimate form of self-hatred was suicide. A form of punishment to the friends and family who survive. I dismissed this flat out. Just as I dismiss people who espouse knowing what happens after death.
Conversely, who are they to judge what was going on before someone decided to end it all? Life experiences that would encompass all of the reasons that culminated in their decision to check out early.
Albert Camus nailed it when he said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”
Sinéad was a disco ball of philosophies and theologies. Her endless curiosity and searching are the qualities I loved most about her. One year she was shoplifting Bibles. Several years later, she was ordained a priest (she took on the name Mother Bernadette Marie). And some years after, she converted to Islam, which she called “the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey.”
Why? Because according to her, a Muslim’s only religious approach is to contemplate god 24/7. In a way, that’s what we all do, in some form or other, when we stop and ask ourselves: Where in the fuck am I? How did I get here? And where in the fuck is it all going? This may not connote ‘god’ directly, but ‘god,’ the concept is nothing more than a catch term for all of life’s unanswerable questions.
My friend Tara Snowden said it eloquently today while discussing Sinéad:
“It is good to allow people their autonomy, to honor that autonomy, and to let go of all notions of control. Our sight is so limited; there is a kind of terrible beauty in the larger picture but we’re still down at the bottom of the cosmic painting scratching about trying to find the signature.”
Sinéad was also a reluctant vessel for the mythological ghosts of the country she was born in. She could never shake Ireland and its toxic enmeshment with religion. Her courage to confront it—to keep questioning and rebelling and exploring and creating and coming back around again made her a genuine punk heroine—a characterization that’s been devalued (punk and hero) into a hackneyed sentiment. But she earned the honor unquestionably.
As a double Sagittarius (where do you suppose the centaur is aiming his arrow?), she rocketed herself into targets where others wouldn’t aim—namely, the heart of religious hypocrisy and its black underbelly—child rape.
That night on SNL when she ripped up the picture of the pope (which some say ended her career—and I’d answer back with, “She could give a fuck”)—man, that seared her forever into my heart. I was raised Catholic, and it took me about 20 years of therapy to dissolve its residual sex shame from my psyche.
Friends make fun of me because I have a thing for compiling and keeping favorites lists. More specifically, top 10 lists. (It must be Jupiter in Virgo in my chart.) The contents of these lists aren’t set in stone—they are always shifting—how could they not? I’m still alive.
The one album that has never budged in my ten best albums of all time is Sinéad’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. I remember the first time I heard it. I was smoking a cigarette and watching the view of Waikiki from my house in Manoa Valley. I didn’t leave my seat on my lanai until the last cut on the cd played.
Afterward, I was lodged in a bizarre amalgam of wiped out, invigorated, sad, inspired, and dazed, but mostly in awe of the album’s power and freedom from pretense. It was utterly raw and for the taking. I’d imagine making the record was like what Joni Mitchell said of Blue, that while composing the album, she felt like the transparent cellophane wrapped around a pack of cigarettes.
If you want to experience the ‘all-ness’ of Sinéad, it’s all right there for you in that one album. Who else could take a translation of an anonymous 17th-century Irish poem—Táim sínte ar do Thuama (I Am Stretched on Your Grave)—and sing it atop a shuffling James Brown backbeat? Her version includes a swirling fiddle that zig-zags its way through the incantation—drilling its way toward the heart of the Earth.
And then there was Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. And, well, within pop music, Sinéad’s interpretation is the last word in conveying heartbreak and sorrow—for a lover, a mother, a child.
I’ll never forget working out at the YMCA one day in 1990 when the song completely dominated radio airplay. The gym was packed with beefy guys grunting and tugging with their weights. When Nothing Compares suddenly came over the sound system, certain dudes paused and stared at the ground—in a stupor. You could feel, palpably, throughout the workout room that some guys were poised on the lip of crying. For real.
“All the flowers that you planted, mama/In the back yard/All died when you went away.”
Yes, that—exactly, today.