Sinéad O’Connor: "Everywhere Is War"
A soldier and prophet.
(Watching 👉🏻 this is more important than reading 👇🏻)
The star-studded cast were still stepping through their sound checks. The crowd wouldn’t be in Madison Square Garden for hours. They’d come to fete Bob Dylan for the contrived occasion of his “30 years as a recording artist.” At some point someone would have pointed out his voice sounded the clarion call of a generation. They always do. With wry humor, Neil Young called the event a “Bobfest.”
The moment was fraught for Sinéad O’Connor.
Two weeks prior, on Saturday Night Live, the Irish darling of rock and roll had torn up a picture of the Pope. It was a PR disaster. By the following Saturday, the SNL cast got busy washing their hands of it and literally taping the picture back together. Joe Pesci declared he would have slapped her if it had been “his show.”
Pesci, a crudely funny man, was crudely funny enough to release the pressure of O’Connor’s sacrilege. The audience laughed. Dark relief. The generalized discomfort was over.
The Irish star had been too raw, her enemy too specific, too intense, too humorless, too threatening to the order of things. She was too ungrateful, too taboo, too passionate, too beautiful for all that anger, and too oblivious to the rock and roll house rules.
For many of her fans, the behavior caught them on their heels. Suddenly, the shorn head was real. It wasn’t fashion. It wasn’t the performative anger of punk. It was focused fury and self-immolation. Railing. Tantruming. And, to be blunt, the gravest entertainment sin of all: it was embarrassing to watch.
It was as if she tricked her fans. No one signed up for a march to the pyre. No one signed up for Joan of Arc. Now, it was her image that needed shredding and fast.
I felt it.
The Afternoon Sound Check
And I walk out on my own A thousand miles from home But I don't feel alone 'Cause I believe in you — Bob Dylan, "I Believe in You"
During the concert later on, the torrent of boos from the arena would leave her unable or unwilling to perform her chosen song, but a recording from the afternoon sound check is available.
O’Connor selected Dylan’s Christian-era ballad I Believe in You for her tribute. Her interpretation during the sound check features the mix of feminine whisper and gulping Irish keen that made her an unlikely, but indisputable international recording star.
There is a brief exchange with the sound engineers. She clears her throat. Reverb on her mic reverberates through the empty arena. The patter suggests a star already confident even on rock’s biggest stage among rock’s biggest stars.
It is not a stretch to describe her valedictory vocal performance as childlike, even prayerful. If she had been able to sing it that evening, it would have been one of the songs in the box set with a “favorite” star on Apple Music. She was not able to sing it, and it’s so intimate and personal that’s probably a good thing.
I Believe in You is about being a spiritual outcast in the service of the Lord, alone, shown the door.
She must have known banishment was coming. And maybe everyone standing in line knew banishment was coming.
Remember what I told you, If you were of the world, they would love you… — Sinéad O'Connor, "Black Boys on Mopeds"
Allegedly, Dylan heard her sing it from his trailer. The emperor wanted to know, pray tell, whose voice that was.
Thirteen years before, when he emerged on tour for the first time as a born-again Christian on his Gospel Tour, he’d been booed viciously for that song. He would have understood why she picked it and what it meant to be told “and don’t come back no more.”
No other performer could have made a more intimate tribute, and none of them did.
They show me to the door, They say don't come back no more 'Cause I don't be like they'd like me to — Bob Dylan, "I Believe in You"
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.
Sackcloth & Ashes
If I was a god — any god, of any religion or denomination, past or present — and I wanted to find a prophet to whom I could entrust my fiercest message, I would only call on spiritual soldiers that march toward wars that were going to be lost.
If a prophet doesn’t lose his war — her war — then the war means nothing. The sackcloth and ashes are rags and dirt. Prophets can’t operate in negotiated half-measures. Only complete sacrifice has any spiritual purity. How else would your god know he can trust you?
You can’t get a “thousand miles from home” living in a cathedral. The organized religious world trudges along in a quotidian parade of ritual, theater, wardrobe changes and financial concerns. The prophet could care less about the reasons for all that soul-numbing hypocrisy. She demands raw truth.
O’Connor’s torn photograph of the Pope was a cry to cut through all of that, to deliver the unvarnished message, to name the hypocrisy with ferocity. “I know that you know that I know that you know that God knows…”
If you want to end up a thousand miles from home, try shouting out “everywhere is war” by Bob Marley.
Now, watch the recording of her 5-minute performance all the way to the agonizing last seconds of her collapse into Kris Kristofferson’s arms by the side of the stage.
The woman was a soldier and a prophet.
“Sinéad” — The Inevitable Film
There will be a movie about that evening, but it will not be a movie about Bob Dylan. The same rock and roll emperor who asked who was singing in the afternoon made no effort to give her his blessing or support in the evening. He didn’t protect his young guest or clear a path for her to sing his very own psalm of ostracism.
It’s scandalously Biblical.
And this is the advice they gave me You must not try to be too pure You must fly closer to the sea So I'm walking through the desert — Sinéad O'Connor, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"
For the film, some starlet will shave her own head for the lead role. She’ll live in Sinéad’s hometown for six months. She’ll interview the hairdresser that refused to cut the singer’s hair and she’ll learn one hundred words in Gaelic.
(Such dedication to her craft and to this story that must be told!)
In the four hour and twenty-two minute director’s cut, the afternoon sound check will be included, but it will feature Nothing Compares to You and not I Believe in You.
(Faith had already been treated powerfully during the childhood scenes in the girl’s home for truancy.)
Instead of O’Connor’s shrill, declamatory reading of Bob Marley’s War, the producers will have her sing Marley’s lyrics unabridged, which will have the benefit of removing the references to child abuse.
(And wasn’t the beautiful little girl who played young Sinéad incredible?)
Instead of searing oratory there will be a full band and a string section. This will reach the broadest audience for her message of female empowerment.
(Which was her true message to young girls. The message under the message. She cared so much about children.)
The one bright spot will be the shoe-in Best Supporting Oscar for the actor who plays Kris Kristofferson. His deep humanity and fatherly protection of O’Connor should be a layup. It’s an act of beauty and generosity. I might go for that alone.
(And wherever you are tonight, God bless you, Sinéad. We want you to know we thank you, thank you, thank you, and we want to thank the Academy and Chrysalis Records for honoring our vision.)
Whatever it may bring I will live by my own policies I will sleep with a clear conscience I will sleep in peace Maybe it sounds mean But I really don't think so You asked for the truth and I told you Through their own words They will be exposed They've got a severe case of The emperor's new clothes — Sinéad O'Connor, "The Emperor's New Clothes"
“Everywhere Is War”
Based on the tributes I’m seeing now, there will be little mention — any? — of O’Connor’s outrage over the endemic child molestation in her church and its history of institutional enablement. Somehow the most critical event of her public life will become a sidebar.
Her full frontal attack on the head of the Roman Catholic church — a stand that she sacrificed her reputation and career for — will be sidelined and soft-pedaled because it is as frightening to stand in that prophetic space as it is to utter “Voldemort.”
It’s frightening typing it.
But if the movie goes anything like the bulk of the tributes this week, she would have loathed the hypocrisy. O’Connor’s cinematic canonization and restoration to grace would be be the new elephant in the room, a hypocrisy celebrated in the cathedral of entertainment.
At least consider this: we will know the movie is false if it does not shake us up. Soldiers and prophets come to shake us up.
And she certainly shook us up.
And until the ignoble and unhappy regime Which holds us all of us through child abuse yeah, child abuse yeah, Subhuman bondage has been toppled, Utterly destroyed, Well, everywhere is war. — Bob Marley, “War” Edited by O’Connor to reference child abuse for the Anniversary concert
Suffer the children.
And suffer the war.
RIP, Sinéad O’Connor.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.