Discover more from The Zero Hour Report: A Newsletter from Richard (RJ) Eskow
Sinéad: The True Believer Goes Home
Real artists are subversive. They come to undermine, not reform, the social and spiritual order of the world.
She was a tree that dripped blood. The audience sat in her shade and called her a freak, a mutant, a mistake, even as the warm rain refreshed them.
She was a tree whose fruit was grief made flesh. The public mocked the spectacle even as they ate the fruit.
She was the ghost mother of Asian mythology who forever mourns her child, but the forests she haunted were inside her.
She was the ghost child, the frail form looking through the frosted window.
She was the exposed nerve ending that reminds everyone — those people whose nerves are sheathed and whose smiles shine like armor — that electrical storms still burn inside them.
They loved her for it, and they hated her for it.
This was Sinéad O’Connor. So was her voice, pale and yet insistent, singing:
It will not be long, love, til our wedding day …
That’s from “She Moved Through the Fair,” an Irish folk song that deserves our attention. The singer meets her loved one, first at a fair and then at night, possibly in a dream. The beloved moves slowly and softly. “He went his way homeward/with one eye awake,” the song says, “like a swan in the evening moves over the lake.”
Here’s the twist: her lover is a ghost, and everybody who hears the song knows he’s a ghost. But the song never actually says that. We just know. It’s an unspoken consensus, a ripple through the silent communion of listeners.
That song was made for Sinéad.
When she died I thought of Bob Dylan’s line about Lenny Bruce: “He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts.”
Did I love her? How could I not? She was friend, lover, and enemy. She was mother and child: the mother fierce and kind and ethical, the child wide-eyed and fragile and instinctual. She was, to borrow another Dylan line, the sister you never had.
I’m not deeply familiar with her music, but I’ve loved much of what I’ve heard. Even when I wasn’t sure about the track itself, I’ve loved every note that issued from her throat. Besides, she sang “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” — an anonymous 17th-century poem set to a traditional folk melody — accompanied only by a drum sample taken from “Funky Drummer” by James Brown. That’s proof of artistry, because synthesis is creation.
Everybody knows about her Saturday Night Live appearance. Enough’s been said about that. Some people were born to break the world open so it can be rebuilt; it’s the dance of creation and destruction. I didn’t know what she was talking about back then, but I knew it was a breaking-open moment. And I saw raw courage.
So few people defended her. Kris Kristofferson did, loudly, and probably got his ticket to heaven punched right then and there. They sang a duet on TV once. She looks up him with such tenderness and vulnerability; he looks down on her with such warmth.
Jason Aldean isn’t fit to shine Kris’ belt buckle.
Later on I found out, of course. About the Magdalene Laundries, about the child abuse by priests and the cover-ups by the Church. Like everyone else, I found out she was right. How many of the people who condemned her ever apologized?
Speaking of '“later on” … white liberal America finally discovered the police killings of innocent Black people in 2020, when it became safe to take the knee or put a black square on their Facebook page. After all, their CEOs were doing it, too. But young white Sinéad had sung about police violence thirty years earlier, taking her cue not from bank executives but from the Black British activists protesting the murders of Colin Roach and other young Black men by UK law enforcement. '
“Black Boys on Mopeds” doesn’t indulge in vague pieties. It calls out Margaret Thatcher by name for her hypocrisy in condemning deaths in China while her own forces kill innocents at home. “England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses,” she sings, “it's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”
But I’m not trying to claim Sinéad for the progressive cause, as some people have done. For one thing, I don’t really know what that word means anymore. For another, she wasn’t progressive. She was subversive. Real artists always are. They come to undermine, not reform, the social and spiritual order of the world.
As Sinéad told the Los Angeles Times:
“I come from a tradition of Irish artists where I am principally concerned with affecting my society. Artists are supposed to act as an emergency fire service when it comes to spiritual conflict — not preaching or telling people what to do but being a little light that tells us that there is a spirit world.”
Hers was a revolution of the spirit. She’s a little like William Blake that way. “The hapless Soldiers sigh,” Blake wrote, “runs in blood down Palace walls.” And, “A dog starvd at his Masters Gate/Predicts the ruin of the State.”
That’s not a call for reform. It’s a declaration: that a people’s inner thoughts and outward actions become spiritual obscenities when they support, through acts of commission or omission, an unjust empire. In a moral universe, even the simple act of putting a wild robin into a change “puts all Heaven in a rage.”
Blake’s calling was Sinéad’s, too. Unfortunately, those who bring light frequently get burned. The Los Angeles Times obituary includes this quote from her:
“I think the most crushing thing is the isolation that comes from being a person who is not seen as an ordinary human being, but someone on whom other people’s expectations are placed.”
That speaks to her artistry, her activism, and her reputation for mental illness. There’s a painful talk show interview on the internet where the host keeps saying things like “You seem so normal,” and, “How are you feeling?” The poor woman is just trying to promote an album and he’s treating her like a psychopath.
Those of us who have wrestled with mental illness at some point in our lives, especially in the late 20th century, know how much courage it took for her to talk about these things back then. She performed a service and made a sacrifice by doing so. As she said,
“When you admit that you are anything that could be mistakenly, or otherwise, perceived as ‘mentally ill,’ you know that you are going to get treated like dirt, so you don’t go tell anybody. That’s why people die.”
That’s why people die. I’m sure somebody wanted to live after learning they weren’t alone.
Whatever the cause of Sinéad’s death, her life wasn’t a failure. It was an extraordinary success. She survived for decades under the most intense pressure imaginable, and accomplished so much as she did. Forget pity: she deserves our undying admiration.
At one place in his diaries William Blake wrote, “Wise men see outlines, and therefore they are wise.” In another he wrote, “Mad men see outlines, and therefore they are mad.”
A gift in one context is a curse in another. It’s a gift to see beyond the world of the mundane. But it becomes a curse when you lose your psychic GPS, your orientation in space and time and emotion and society. People with these Blakean tendencies take a chance every time they dive into their work with their full heart and soul. But I imagine she could do nothing else.
Sinéad lived in the shadow of the Catholic martyrs who preceded her. I don’t know how she practiced her Islam, but perhaps she knew that Sufis sometimes refer to a person’s death date as their ‘Urs, their “wedding day.” I’m sad she didn’t get more time and more joy on this Earth, especially since I know — I don’t think, I know — that even profound depression can be cured.
Death is never the answer. It is, as they say, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But I hope her soul is at peace, and that she has finally achieved union with the God she sought for so long.
“It will not be long, love …”
If you or someone close to you is at risk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (English: 1 (800) 273-8255; Spanish: 1 (888) 628-9454. Their website: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org). Please reach out. There is real hope.
Don’t go; there are videos beneath these notes.
I am aware that the artist’s name at the time of her death was Shuhada’ Sadaqat. Since most remembrances from her friends and colleagues used her birth name, and since most people know her by that, I’ve used it here. (Her Arabic name has been imperfectly translated in many stories, by the way. It can mean “martyrs to charity,” as the LA Times and others have reported, but it also means “witness to charity,” which seems to make more sense for her.)
Lastly, I’ve been silent for a few days because of a slight health setback, but I couldn’t keep myself from writing this. I should be fully back on line shortly.
“He Moved Through the Fair,” 1997
“Help Me Make It Through the Night” (w/Kris Kristofferson), 2010
“I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” 1990
“This is a Rebel Song,” 2010
“This is to Mother You,” 1997
“Black Boys on Mopeds,” 1990