It’s been a rough couple of weeks with too many eerie happenstances to deal with . . .
Toward the end of the Full Circle – End of the Honeymoon Series post, I indicated that the next review would be delayed because we had to prepare for our summertime escape to the cooler climes of Ireland. I also identified an imbalance in this year’s set of reviews as well as a plan to address it: “I’ve only reviewed one album by a female artist (Tracy Chapman). In response, I’ve moved the broads up in the schedule along with a few non-70s requests.”
One of the broads I moved up in the schedule was Sinéad O’Connor. I scheduled The Lion and the Cobra for August 6.
We arrived in Ireland on July 23. I had just finished the first draft of the Dolly Mixture review when I heard about Sinéad O’Connor’s passing. The news hit me hard; it felt like I’d lost a sister or a best friend. Because Sinéad was so open and direct in her songs and interviews, I felt like I knew her. And though at times she’d say or do things that I found utterly baffling, in one important aspect I considered her a role model: other than my mother, I have never known another woman so completely determined to be herself. Though I knew she had dealt with intertwining physical and mental health issues for most of her life, I found it difficult to believe that a spirit burning with so much intensity could possibly die.
When something I don’t understand or can’t accept intrudes into my life, I take long walks or drives to try to get my head around things. Alicia and I spent the next couple of days walking and driving through our environs, mainly in contemplation, saying very little. We weren’t trying to take our minds off Sinéad’s death, which would have been a fool’s errand anyway—everywhere we went in Cork County we could hear her music coming out of homes, shops, pubs, and in a touching and spontaneous tribute at the Skibbereen Arts Festival in West Cork.
Epitaphs and obituaries abound, but I found Una Mullally’s piece “How Sinéad O’Connor Changed Ireland” the most insightful in terms of her artistic courage and enduring socio-cultural impact:
O’Connor’s death has cracked open a complex and deep emotional network in the Irish psyche. Once again, through her, a pain about growing up in a place where little truth-telling occurred, is flowing.
Speaking out against the Catholic Church at a time when few people did sparked outrage and hostility and risked her career, but Ireland is now realising the good she did.
She created connection. Seeing how she held herself, spoke, sang and acted, people projected on to her their desires to break free, to live authentic lives, to not care about what people thought, and to kick against the structures that told people – especially women, LGBTQ people and anyone who felt marginalised or divorced from straight, square, conservative society – to stay in their place and to do what they were told.
O’Connor was a lighthouse for those who felt adrift in Irish society. She offered a new moral compass beyond the lie of societal piety, one that pointed towards an uncharted direction of authenticity.
She rejected all notion of Catholic shame. While her actions were sometimes unfairly characterised as reckless, she was attempting to both expose and damn this shame. Far before people could converse fluently in therapy and wellness-speak, O’Connor identified the core problem of human strife and Irish self-loathing – childhood trauma. She equated the entire society’s psyche to that of an abused child.
Some time on the 29th, the mental fog lifted long enough for me to remember that I had to do the final edits for the Dolly Mixture review. Feeling a bit unsure of myself, I asked my mother to read the post and make any necessary grammatical corrections. Once the review was published, I opened my spreadsheet to move Demonstration Tapes from the “Pending” to the “Finished” column and saw The Lion and the Cobra in the on-deck circle.
My first reaction was, “I can’t do it. I am not ready to deal with this.” Then I thought, “Well, if Una Mullally kept it together long enough to write her piece, maybe I can keep it together, too.” Having reviewed two of Sinéad’s albums (I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and How About I Be Me and You Be You?) and listened to everything she’d ever done, I knew enough about her strengths and weaknesses to give me some protection against the tendency to accentuate the positive when an artist passes away.
And let’s face it—-everyone who has a passing familiarity with her music and career is aware of Sinéad O’Connor’s strengths and weaknesses because she never held anything back. In a world where most human communication comes in the form of positioning (whether you’re talking about politicians or the dance of the mating ritual), she had no problem saying exactly what was on her mind or in her heart. Her pattern of in-the-moment communication led to several apologies and retractions, but when she fucked up, she admitted it instead of indulging in face-saving bullshit. Despite her personal challenges and all the scorn and vitriol thrown her way, she never wavered in her commitment to living an authentic life.
What finally convinced me to go ahead was that most of the farewells covered her iconic status as a symbol of female rebellion and the many controversies she triggered in her lifetime but said very little about her music except for the expected references to her amazing vocal abilities, usually accompanied by eerily similar quotes along the lines of “When I first heard her voice, I stopped dead in my tracks.” There is no doubt that Sinéad O’Connor had one of the most compelling voices in popular music history, complementing her extensive range with a unique ability to transform her vocal timbre, imbuing her songs with a wide array of emotions. Her remarkable voice covered for her sometimes so-so and occasionally impenetrable lyrics, making them appear to have greater meaning than conveyed in the words. On that point, I found myself in rare agreement with Robert Christgau:
People put out a lot of guff about O’Connor’s deep meanings–betrayal, redemption, sexual mysticism, and so forth. But all such talk is based on her lyrics, and she isn’t yet writer enough to hold it up. She’s insisted many times that she doesn’t want her meanings known, and specifically declared that the gorgeously chugging and gliding “Jerusalem,” a starting point for those mysticism rumors, is “just words” (“There’s one verse which means something, but the rest is just shit”). Her gift of gab could eventually translate into great songwriting. But beyond a few striking images (“Like the times we did it so hard/There was blood on the wall”), she’s like the early rappers—it’s her commitment to words rather than what the words say that wins you over.
I finally concluded that the best way I could honor Sinéad O’Connor’s contributions was to write an honest, authentic review of the music and lyrics presented in The Lion and the Cobra.
As related in the Showtime documentary Nothing Compares, The Lion and the Cobra (ironically) almost died at birth.
Things seemed to be going well after Sinéad signed a recording contract with Ensign Records. The label generously gave Sinéad and her backing band ample time to work out the songs and arrangements in the studio. The trouble began when the album was near completion and the suits sat down with her and explained how they intended to market their new commodity. “They wanted me to grow the hair long and wear short skirts, high heels and makeup—the whole works—write songs that wouldn’t challenge anything. But then I come from a country where there used to be riots in the streets over plays. That’s what art is for.” Her immediate fuck-you response was to shave her head.
Then they learned to their dismay that she was pregnant . . . but in the process of trying to convince her to abort the pregnancy, they would also learn just who they were dealing with:
The record companies in those days had their own doctors that they sent you to. The doctor announces that the record company have spent a hundred thousand pounds making your record, you owe it to them not to have this baby . . . That was the final straw for me. I was sick of the fucking record anyway. I hated the fucking record.
In my part it was a response to them telling me I owe it to them not to have my baby. And I was like, “Well, it ain’t worth it for a shit fuckin’ record.” I just knew that I didn’t want any man telling me who I could be or what to sound like. I came from a patriarchal country where I’m being told everything I can and can’t do because I’m a girl. I figured well, if I didn’t take it from the system and I didn’t take it from my daddy, I ain’t taking it from anybody else.
—Sinéad O’Connor, Nothing Compares
She would do it her own way or not at all.
With strong support from manager Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, the label backed off and reluctantly agreed to let Sinéad be herself. As drummer and expectant father John Reynolds remembered it, “The whole of The Lion and the Cobra was completely scrapped and we started again. That was a really important turning point in that record. The second version was fresher, younger, and spontaneous.” The original takes had been recorded under the influence of a traditional producer assigned by the label; Sinéad used her hard-won power to have the guy sacked, choosing to produce the album herself in collaboration with engineer Kevin Moloney. Given that Sinéad wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album, her triumph over the suits resulted in something quite unimaginable: a young woman pushing twenty-one in the late stages of pregnancy with no production credentials and very little recording experience managed to obtain nearly complete artistic control over her maiden effort.
The suits at Ensign Records learned a fundamental truth that the music world would eventually accept whether they liked it or not: you don’t fuck around with Sinéad O’Connor.
“Jackie”: The inspiration for the first two songs on The Lion and the Cobra came not from Sinéad’s personal experience but from watching television. As she related in her memoir Rememberings, “I had seen a play on TV about a very old lady in Scotland who was coming toward her own death. She would spend her days looking through her curtained window, waiting to see her long-gone husband return from a fishing trip he’d taken 40 years earlier and during which he’d drowned.” Written when she was only fifteen, Sinéad would give the tale a gothic imprint by imagining the old woman as a ghost haunting the shores, still waiting for her long-lost Jackie to come home.
The first sound we hear is Sinéad’s voice at the upper end of her register, moved to the back and left of the soundscape to emphasize the old woman’s ethereality. As the ghost introduces the story of Jackie’s disappearance, the background music begins a slow build, with the instruments strictly following the root notes. In the second verse, she drops down an octave to relate how she learned about Jackie’s disappearance from “a young man,” then drops down another octave in the third verse to give her reply—a sternly indignant denial accentuated by the rising synth orchestration and electronic renditions of seagulls swarming above the scene:
I remember the day the young man came
He said, “Your Jackie’s gone
We got lost in the rain”
And I ran to the beach
And laid me down
“You’re all wrong”, I said
And they stared at the sand
“That man knows that sea
Like the back of his hand
He’ll be back some time
Laughing at you”
Sinéad changes her intonation on the line “Like the back of his hand,” slipping out of the melody and into disdainful conversation mode. The sheer power of her voice in this passage is particularly stunning, conveying the awesome strength of denial and foreshadowing the woman’s eventual descent into madness. She returns to the octave-shifting pattern of the first two verses before ending the song in another burst of determined denial that sends chills up and down my spine. I’m impressed that a girl of fifteen could convey the tale through superb poetic economy and, as is often the case, I’m blown away by the seemingly endless capabilities of her distinctive voice.
“Mandinka”: Her first hit was a straight-up rock tune inspired by the mini-series Roots. In Rememberings, she explains, “I was a young girl when I saw it, and it moved something so deeply in me . . . I came to emotionally identify with the civil rights movement and slavery, especially given the theocracy I lived in and the oppression in my own home.” I can understand that takeaway, but I question her claim that “I do know Mandinka.” It is true that the Mandinka people were one of the main targets for American and European slave traders, and though Sinéad doesn’t mention it, they have a very rich musical tradition that I touched upon in my review of In the Heart of the Moon (Toumani Diabaté is of the Mandinka people). It’s also true that Mandinka culture is stratified and caste-based, and slaves are one of the castes. They also continue to practice female genital mutilation, and I find it impossible to believe that Sinéad O’Connor would have supported that barbaric practice.
Sinéad must have been about eleven years old when Roots was first broadcast (she also read the book), so I think we can forgive her for not doing her research. If watching Roots strengthened her emotional connection to the oppressed, then she was a better person for it.
The reference to the Dance of the Seven Veils has been identified by some morons as somehow connected to Mandinka culture, but the truth is that this alleged example of the mysterious culture of the Orient was invented by nineteenth-century Frenchmen who were determined to brand Salomé as the slut to end all sluts. Irishman Oscar Wilde took heed of those Frenchmen and used their depiction of Salomé in writing the play of the same name (which he originally wrote in French).
So here’s my advice for listening to “Mandinka”: fuck the lyrics except for the definitive Sinéad O’Connor lines “I know no shame/I feel no pain” and immerse yourself in the get-your-ass-out-on-the-dance-floor opening, the hot rhythms, the rough power chords and the versatile voice of the singer. What I love most about the song is that it reveals Sinéad’s playful and joyous side, and given all the pain she carried during her lifetime, it’s nice to know that she was capable of having fun.
“Jerusalem”: For the life of me I can’t figure out which verse is the “one verse which means something” because it all sounds like word salad to me. I do not agree at all with Christgau when he describes the song as “gorgeously chugging,” for all I hear is way too much reverb, echo and chorus effects in a vain attempt to make the song interesting. The only thing I can make out is that Sinéad is very angry about a shitty relationship but what that has to do with Jerusalem is anyone’s guess. Hard pass on this one.
“Just Like You Said It Would B”: In Rememberings, Sinéad wrote that this song came from “a lesson I’d been having from a certain minister on the art and outcomes of praying Psalm 91, which is where my album’s title is taken from.” The essential meaning of the psalm is that if you accept God as your refuge, you will earn his love and protection.
9 If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
It’s all gibberish to me, but Sinéad O’Connor was a true believer who credited her faith in God with helping her through the darkest times and I have to respect that. That said, it seems to me that the song is really about finding her way and place in a patriarchal culture that represses free thought and values masculine competition:
I will walk in the garden
And feel religion within
I will learn how to run with the big boys
I will learn how to sink and to swim . . .
I can see too many mouths open
Too many eyes closed, it’s closed
Not enough minds open
Too many legs open
Tell me tell me
Tell me, do
Why listen to it, why why
I don’t see why I listen why why
It’s interesting that she would complain about open legs and then follow it with a song that celebrates fucking three tracks later.
I assumed that the chorus (“Just like you said it would be”) was addressed to “a certain minister” but the following verse throws that interpretation into question:
When I’ve walked in the garden
When I’m walking off stage
When everything’s quiet
Will you stay?
Will you be my lover?
Will you be my mama?
I said will you be my lover?
I said will you be my babe?
There’s a long pause after she sings the word “quiet,” communicating hesitation. “Will you stay?” is delivered a cappella, as if she’s whispering a naughty secret. The lines that follow seem to indicate girl-to-girl intimacy, a turn in the tale emphasized by the addition of vocal harmony. I know that Sinéad was a switch-hitter like me (though with a stronger lean towards men), but anytime I hear her use any form of the word “mother,” I hesitate to draw too many conclusions, given her challenging relationship with the female parent. As noted above, I really think the song is about finding her way and place in the world, and such a journey often involves unexpected twists and turns.
The music is “synthesized pastoral” marked by sudden rests, Sinéad’s exquisite vocal transformations and a rather pleasing melody. The guitar work on the song is excellent, with a nice combination of strumming and arpeggios. The synth is used to great effect in several different forms mimicking accordion and both smooth and pizzicato strings.
“Never Get Old”: The song proper is bookended with Enya reciting the words to Psalm 91 in Gaelic, identifying the piece as a companion to “Just Like You Said It Would Be.” This is one of the songs Sinéad wrote as a teen and it feels like a recitation of teenage memories that have stuck in her head but need more processing to understand why they recur: a young woman who’s into the music “that never gets old” (rock), a brief fling with a boy who let her feed his hawk and all the lonely people who “live their life undercover/Being blind.” The climax involves an extended fade where Sinéad employs the full power of her voice to express emotions too complex for words. I find the song intriguing but in need of . . . something.
“Troy”: Sinéad obviously knew her Yeats, cleverly applying the essence of the poem “No Second Troy” to her difficult relationship with her mother. Both poem and song are about feelings of betrayal (though heaping the blame for Troy’s burning on Helen seems a bit of a stretch.) “Difficult” doesn’t even come close to describing the horrors her mother inflicted on her:
There are a lot of songs that I’ve written about my mother’s death or in response to her death. And “Troy,” I think was the first one. It’s also the first song I’ve wrote (sic) where I’m telling anybody about anything that’s happened. One of the very traumatic things that happened to me growing up, was that my mother had me living in the garden. So once when I was eight-and-a-half, I lived in the garden 24/7 for a week or two. And I’m talking in that song about that experience, the whole thing of sitting in the long grass in summer trying to keep warm. So I’m out in the garden in the fucking dark and when it’s coming to dusk and I still hate dusk to this day, I don’t mind if it’s day or night, but dusk I don’t like. And I’d be looking up at the only window at the side of the house where she’d have the light on and I’d be screaming, begging her to let me in. And she wouldn’t let me in, the light would go off, the house’d go dark. Every other song I’m writing is about somebody else or their point of view, “Troy” is the first song I’ve written about me. It’s not a song, it’s a fucking testament.
—Sinéad O’Connor, Nothing Compares
She shared more about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the “monster” with Dr. Phil but also spoke about her realization that her mother was seriously ill, that she still loved her and wished she could have helped mama find a path to healing.
But that’s in the future. At the time of The Lion and the Cobra, there was unrequited love and deep feelings of anger and betrayal:
And you should’ve left the light on
You should’ve left the light on
Then I wouldn’t have tried, and you’d never have known
And I wouldn’t have pulled you tighter
No, I wouldn’t have pulled you close
I wouldn’t have screamed
No, I can’t let you go
If the door wasn’t closed
No, I wouldn’t have pulled you to me
No, I wouldn’t have kissed your face
You wouldn’t have begged me to hold you
If we hadn’t been there in the first place
Oh, but I know you wanted me to be there, oh-oh
Every look that you threw told me so
But you should’ve left the light on
You should’ve left the light on
The orchestration for this piece is appropriately dark, dramatic and intense, but at no point in the proceedings does the music overwhelm the singer. I’m certain that “Troy” was an important step in Sinéad’s quest to deal with the abuse she suffered as a child, but I’m equally certain that the experience did not result in complete catharsis. Children are deeply impressionable and willingly dependent on adults to help them through life’s challenges; betrayals of that trust burn with the pain of searing flesh and the scars take forever to heal. Though she’d come a long way by the time she died, I don’t think it was possible for all the scars to have vanished.
But we can be thankful that she had the courage to speak openly about her suffering, for it made it easier for others to do the same and begin the healing process.
Damn, that woman had guts.
“I Want Your (Hands on Me)”: Speaking of healing processes, there’s nothing like a good fuck to put me in the best of moods. Sinéad explained to the obtuse interviewer for the Record Mirror that the song was “simply about shagging.” You may think that a song that repeats the line “Put ’em on, put ’em on, put ’em on me” twenty-seven times would get boring pretty quickly, but Sinéad immerses herself in a sexual trance and colors her vocals with pure erotic energy. The arrangement is equally strong, with a sweet mix of cowbells, hand drums and gated drums providing rhythmic diversity and the back-and-forth between strummed chords and bass giving the piece a let-it-all-hang-out feeling. Is the song in my fuck playlists? Hell, yeah!
“Drink Before the War”: This was one of the demo songs written in her teens, and it’s the one I find most impressive. According to Rememberings, Sinéad wrote the song about “a snob and cowardly little fucker” who happened to be the headmaster of the Catholic reform school Sinéad attended in her teens. “He hated me making music and campaigned for my father not to let me take my guitar with me back to boarding school, despite the fact that all I could do was make music. I used to smoke right outside his gate to try to get expelled as a protest against his protest against my music-making. It never worked.”
Anyone who tries to force a young person to give up music is clearly a first-class asshole, but really, Sinéad’s label of “a snob and cowardly little fucker” applies to most of the people who occupy positions of power in our fucked-up world. This universalist interpretation is supported by verses one and three:
Well, you tell us that we’re wrong
And you tell us not to sing our song
Nothing we can say will make you see
You got a heart of stone, you can never feel
And your parents paid you through
You got a nice big car, nothing bothers you
Somebody cut out your eyes, you refuse to see
Ah, somebody cut out your heart, you refuse to feel
Note how she uses the first person plural: “our song.” Then think about all the leaders who had the money and the right connections to attend prestigious schools, are welcomed by others of their ilk into the corridors of power and live the rest of their lives behind a wall of privilege that isolates them from the people they rule. Sinéad wasn’t talking solely about one cowardly little fucker but the whole bloody lot of them.
The song opens quietly with a funereal organ; Sinéad enters in a voice so small you can barely hear her. Her voice gradually gains power and greater clarity, and as the song proceeds, she demonstrates her complete command of vocal dynamics, lowering her voice to express disdain, and raising her voice to express disgust. Her anger at incompetent leaders who continue to fight the last war while ignoring more urgent problems in the here-and-now reaches its peak in three lines delivered with undisguised contempt.
So stop talking of war
‘Cause you know we’ve heard it all before
Why don’t you go out there and do something useful?
Her vocal power is on full display when she delivers the closing rendition of the chorus, comparing today’s drunk-with-power leaders to the half-crazy drunk who’ll drink to anything, especially the next war:
Oh, listen to the man in the liquor store
Yelling “anybody want to drink before the war?”
“Anybody want to drink before the war?”
“Anybody want to drink before the war?”
In this case, the words won me over.
“Just Call Me Joe”: Alas, the album ends with a mess of a song combining loud, lumbering distortion set to a dissonant chord pattern and a whole lot of background noise that pretty much drowns out both Sinéad’s unusually meek voice and the extended spoken word segment in the fade. Classify it as an experiment that didn’t work out and be thankful that out of nine tracks, only two failed to make the grade.
The Lion and the Cobra received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Slant Magazine called the album “one of the most electrifying debuts in rock history” (agreed) and Pitchfork accurately (for a change) noted that its “themes of patriotism, sexuality, Catholicism, and social oppression set the stage for a career marked by a resolute sense of independence” (Wikipedia).
Sinéad would validate her independence by performing “Mandinka” (nominated for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female) with the Public Enemy logo painted on the side of her head to protest the academy’s refusal to televise the Best Rap Performance segment. When I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was nominated for multiple Grammies, she told the academy to fuck off. She then proceeded to defy expectations and lose a good chunk of her fan base by following that cherished classic with an album of standards from yesteryear (Am I Not Your Girl?).
She had no use for celebrity for celebrity’s sake; she valued her celebrity only because it gave her the opportunity to draw attention to serious socio-cultural problems that had been ignored for far too long. Unlike the brain-dead leaders described in “Drink Before the War,” she went out there and did something useful.
Whether you loved her or hated her, her commitment to authenticity cannot be denied.
If I hope for anything as an artist, it’s that I inspire certain people to be who they really are. My audiences seem to be people who have been given a hard time for being who they are. It ain’t easy being green—maybe they don’t know they are the reason I get to be who I really am. Onstage, I can always be who I really am.
O’Connor, Sinéad (2021-05-31T23:58:59.000). Rememberings. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
When I was exploring my Irish cultural origins in my teens, I formed an attachment to two Irish singers: Sinéad O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan. Both women were deeply religious in their own ways, both were victims of child abuse and both died far too young. In following their careers, I formed an impression that Irish culture was very hard on women, a perception strengthened to the nth degree when I saw the movie The Magdalene Sisters. As it was always in the back of my mind to leave the USA someday and thanks to family connections had a reasonable chance of relocating to one of two countries, I dismissed Ireland as hopelessly patriarchal and Catholic and decided that France was the more desirable possibility.
Now that I’m at the start of my second summer in Ireland, I can feel the cultural changes Sinéad helped bring about. Before these last two jaunts, Ireland always felt bipolar to me. I loved the people and their rich sense of humor but I always sensed a certain gloominess in the air—the cultural “psyche . . . of an abused child” Sinéad identified. It feels a bit lighter and freer in Ireland now. A Gallup poll rated Ireland as the world’s 9th most gay-friendly country in the world; abortions are legal in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy; and Ireland scored above the EU average in supporting gender equality. The revelation of centuries of child abuse on the part of Catholic priests and nuns has resulted in a severe decline in weekly mass attendance (estimated at 91% in the early seventies and 35 percent in 2018). There is no doubt that Sinéad O’Connor (and EU membership) played a significant part in securing fundamental human rights in the Emerald Isle.
That said, the Irish still have some work to do. During our first dinner with my parents after our arrival, my French mother (not my Irish-American father) floated the idea of permanent relocation to Ireland. The main motivator is climate change, which has already made summers unbearable in most of Southern Europe and is bound to get worse.
I came away with the impression that they’ve pretty much made up their minds to make the move. I’m not ready to give up on France just yet, but the political situation continues to deteriorate and I really resent seeing my tax dollars pissed away on military adventures in the former colonies in Africa. I will be paying close attention to an Irish referendum to be held this November to remove a rather troubling paragraph from the Irish constitution:
Article 41.2 contains a recognition that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and that the State shall therefore “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.
If the Irish get rid of that piece of bullshit, I might be more amenable to relocation—something I never would have considered if Sinéad O’Connor had not helped to lay the groundwork.
Go raibh maith agat, Sinéad