Today while working in my office, I was playing my normal Pandora mix station, floating in and out as I moved between varying levels of concentration and spaciness. Then, midway through a song, I was startled upright. My brain stumbled, trying to make sense of what it was hearing, failing at instant recognition but knowing I was hearing something deeply, almost primally familiar. It was that odd sensation seeing someone you're struggle to place but knew ten or fifteen years ago, a wholly different thing than running into someone you're struggling to place but met last summer.
Finally I looked at the screen and saw that I was listening to Sinead O'Connor's version of "Streets of London," Ralph McTell's old folk hit. How did I not know she'd recorded this song? McTell's song was one that my parents had recorded off The Midnight Special, the folk program on Chicago's WFMT (named of course for the Ledbelly classic), turned into mix cassettes and played during our car trips. They're probably the songs I'll remember when I'm senile and have no idea what Lady Gaga, David Foster Wallace or Mad Men ever were or why I or anyone cared. Like a lot of these songs, "Streets of London," was a sad song by a guy with a plain voice and a guitar, filled with a longing that was probably a strange thing for a kid to have as their formative musical experience.
Sinead's version, though, is something else. Sinead, of course, is, was, always, Something Else. I've been thinking a lot recently about how the late 80s and early 90s were this weirdly open moment, culturally and politically: think Public Enemy, riot grrrls, Backlash on the best-seller list, Spike Lee. Backlash prompted me to go to a women's college. Musically, though, if I were to be honest, Bikini Kill and such were never really where it was at for me. Sinead on the other hand, was Something Else. (If I were to be very, very honest, Tori Amos was a big part of it too, but that's another story.)
Now, it's tempting to write something nostalgic about how I listened to I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got obsessively, and how it understood me perfectly, and all that, but that's not quite how it went down. It was more like she was someone I was always conscious of, but who was unsettling, and I knew it would be more unsettling to spend too much more time with her. I was an intense person trying to hide; she was an intense person who made one of the best videos of all time by being totally exposed. I remember talking to a friend about the bald head and the closeup, and how brave they were, how beautiful she had to be pull it off, only vaguely sensing how brave and subversive it all was for a twenty-three year old who was already a single mother, already getting heat for her politics, for talking about her abusive childhood, whose debut was full of all the mythic poetry we could want at sixteen but also a song whose sublime horniness we could only begin to appreciate back then, who ended one of the greatest breakup albums of all time with the bare a cappella incantation "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" - quite something for sixteen year olds to try to wrap our heads around - but who also put one of the best anti-Thatcher songs in the middle of it.
Then, as everyone knows, there was the Pope thing. I was at my first semester of college at the women's college Backlash had inspired me to attend. I may have been watching it live, because I remember seeing her do it, and I know it was cut from the episode, although maybe it was on the news or something. I remember my fellow students - certainly an audience inclined to be sympathetic to how her translation of Marley's anti-racist message into a cry against abuse and its enablers - being mostly embarrassed by it. We were nice girls, we believed in being fair to everyone, and tearing up a religious icon's picture smacked of nasty things that nasty people did. I remember the discussion being about how she must be crazy, cracking under the fame. I remember my high school boyfriend, a nice Catholic boy, going off on her and me stammering a half-hearted defense. I remember enjoying her next few albums but wishing she wouldn't have little audio clips of Germaine Greer or speeches about how the potato famine wasn't really a famine and about "the one true enemy - the Holy Roman Empire" and how Jesus said "I bring not love I bring a sword." I remember being embarrassed for her when I read some music magazine interview where she said that all the problems in the world were caused by child abuse, because I was in college and I knew the answer to any statement like that was always ButIt'sOfCourseIt'sMoreComplicatedThanThat and then you get to leave it there. Oddly, I don't remember people steamrolling her CDs, Joe Pesci on the next SNL talking about smacking her, or her getting booed off the stage. Once again his followers did the Prince of Peace proud. (Wikipedia says that even before the pope thing, Old Blue Eyes threatened to smack her for not wanting the national anthem played before a concert. He had a point. I mean, any country that allowed that gangster-enabler to be a paragon is a pretty amazing country, no? The guy is like a walking encyclopedia entry under white privilege.)
In any case, of course it turned out that she was right, that there was a lot that we didn't know - not just about the church, but about her. At least, I didn't know until this year that she'd spent time in a Magdalene laundry after being encouraged to shoplift by her troubled and abusive mother. I didn't know they'd operated that recently. Frank McCourt-style memories of mothers talking about priests don't get at what she describes in the opening of her editorial response to the Pope's "apology":
When I was a child, Ireland was a Catholic theocracy. If a bishop came walking down the street, people would move to make a path for him. If a bishop attended a national sporting event, the team would kneel to kiss his ring. If someone made a mistake, instead of saying, "Nobody's perfect," we said, "Ah sure, it could happen to a bishop."
This made me think about the opening of one of Chris Marker's films, when he talks about the Old Russia and how the czar's people would smack someone who didn't take their hat off and bow, and how whenever you talk about Revolution and the good and bad of it, you have to remember that that's where it started. And this part made me cry:
We worked in the basement, washing priests' clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap. We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.
She doesn't give the exact dates but it was probably no more than a dozen years from then, from that first guitar from the kind nun, to being discovered and the "Lion and the Cobra" and the breakthrough with "Nothing Compares" and then to that night on SNL. People think artists take on unpopular views because they want attention, that it's an affectation, that they're just not serious people like the rest of us and they should shut up and play. And of course there are some where that's an understandable response. But I think with someone like her, being so public so young, without the ideological training that is the passage through prestigious institutions that other types of public figures go through, you get something real and raw and beautiful, and more often than not, people just don't know what to do with that. We bitch about the superficiality of popular artists, and then when one isn't, we freak out at their sincerity. She must be crazy, or else she doesn't really mean it.
Well she wasn't, and she did. And I wish it had been her reedy version of "Streets of London" I'd heard on those car trips, because that voice can (almost) make me believe in something like a holy spirit, which she says she believes in in spite of it all, and even if not, it's a voice I'd like to remember in my senile years.