Sinéad O'Connor: A Mea Culpa

Sinéad's never going to play the game or be someone who has finally "learned her lesson", so forget it. Here’s someone whose career was derailed for being blasphemous. Well, as it turns out, she was right. It’s time to offer our apologies.

Sinéad O’Connor

How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?

Label: One Little Indian
US Release Date: 2012-02-21
UK Release Date: 2012-03-05
Label Website
Artist Website

It’s time to apologize to Sinéad O’Connor. Remember her? Ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live before adding, “Fight the real enemy” to protest child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the complicity of the church hierarchy? Already a platinum record and a number one single to her name, Sinéad's career was never the same again. Here is the clip...

That indelible moment now seems prophetic as revelations of paedophilia in the Catholic Church by priests in Sinéad's Irish homeland, across Europe and here in the US came to light.

Sinéad knew very well that she would be eviscerated for taking such a stand, but she did it anyway because it was that important to her. “I knew my action would cause trouble,” she said, “but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.”

Sinéad had always said, “I never wanted to be a pop singer, I wanted to be a protest singer.”

With the release of her first record of original material in five years, the extraordinary How About I Be Me (and you be you)?, it may be time to recast Sinéad through the veneer of protest singer and give her her proper due as one of the most influential artists of the past 25 years -- something that’s been easy to overlook amidst a litany of controversies that have dogged her career. But let’s try.

Sinéad reconfigured the image of women in rock by refusing to be seen as a sex object but as a serious artist. While Madonna was lauded for breaking down sexual boundaries and making eroticism a crucial pop element, Sinéad challenged the accepted preconceptions of femininity and sexuality by wearing the mask of androgyny: shaved head, shapeless wardrobe, Doc Marten boots. Fiercely independent and unapologetically outspoken, Sinéad was the catalyst for strong, willful, independent female domination on the airwaves in the '90s. She inspired a new breed of female artist that did not rely on sexuality. Artists as diverse as Alanis Morissette, Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, Sarah McLaughlin, Sheryl Crowe, Liz Phair, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and Courtney Love all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sinéad.

The first time I saw Sinéad was in 1988 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on her first tour. I didn’t know what to expect. A couple years before, I’d heard her haunting voice on a song called “Heroine” off the soundtrack to Captive by U2’s The Edge. I’d heard the single “Mandika” from her debut record, The Lion and the Cobra, but what really caught my attention was the fact that she’d sacked her producer, scrapped months of recording, and fought her record company until they let her produce her debut herself.

Sinéad walked out on the Wiltern stage, just 21, shaven head, combat boots, and it was jarring to witness the kind of cult-like adulation she had already inspired. Being from L.A. and seeing lots of “next big things” come through town, you kind of instinctively brace yourself to be underwhelmed. But when she began to sing she exuded an uncanny ability to blend strength and vulnerability by mixing tales of love and longing with yarns of lust, hate and rage. Her voice was at turns angelic, raw, sonorous. All within the confines of a single verse.

Fifteen minutes into the show, it was abundantly clear why she had struck a nerve with her audience in a way that transcends the typical fan-performer emotional connection. It was like Sinéad was giving some vicarious retribution to the legions of young disaffected girls leaning against the stage who, too, were called freaks and outcasts.

Listening to her, your body tightened up. You gasped. You winced. You blushed. You sure weren’t in the same place before the showed started. You knew something special was happening and found yourself looking around to get some corroboration. It was like she was singing for her life -- or at least for her sanity. This wasn’t a concert. It was an exorcism. Her very own. It still ranks among the five greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

She would go on to achieve worldwide success with her second record I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got which spawned the number one Prince-penned single “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But Sinéad’s unfiltered impulsiveness has defined her career, and she has paid dearly. Her remarkably diverse and moving work has been tragically overshadowed by her unfiltered outspokenness.

Frank Sinatra famously threatened to “kick her ass” after she refused to perform in a New Jersey auditorium because of its antiquated policy of playing the National Anthem before every performance. She initially refused to appear on Saturday Night Live because notorious misogynist Andrew Dice Clay was the host. She was the first artist to ever turn down a Grammy. She was ordained a priest by an independent Catholic church. She protested about anti-legalising Irish abortion. She candidly spoke out about the physical abuse inflicted by her mother, about battling bipolar disorder, and her suicidal inclinations.

But all that was nothing compared to the furor caused from the aforementioned SNL appearance. Less than two weeks later came her showdown, with a hostile crowd at a Bob Dylan tribute concert. As it’s routinely told, Sinéad was “booed off the stage,” but watch the clip. It’s a stunning testimony to her unflinching artistic convictions.

Watch her move away from the microphone and step forward and willingly absorb the hate of 18,000 strong with prideful defiance before finally waving off her band and delivering a fiery a cappella version of Bob Marley’s "War", a song about ending all hate. She then turns and leaves the stage on her own terms. I’ve always found it ironic and beyond hypocritical that the crowd who spewed all this hostility was there to pay tribute to the mind expanding songs of liberation and free thinking of Bob Dylan.

Although Sinéad has reason now to feel vindicated, if anything, she’s an even more vigilant activist routinely going toe-to-toe with Catholic Church leaders on television and even demanding accountability directly from the Pope himself. Her heartfelt open letter to the Pope in the Washington Post and her numerous national television appearances have just started to bring her some much deserved praise in her native Ireland. ("To Sinéad O'Connor, the pope's apology for sex abuse in Ireland seems hollow", 28 March 2010). Leading Irish rock critic Tony Clayton-Lea says, “I can’t think of anyone who has addressed these socio-religious issues in such a justifiably abrasive way. Neither of the obvious people have -- Bob Geldof or U2.”

She’s still virtually a lone voice of protest amongst her artistic peers, something that is particularly galling to her. Her new record concludes with the haunting “V.I.P.” which contains the lines: “To whom exactly are we giving hope / When we stand behind the velvet rope / Or get our pictures taken with the Pope / Like some sick April Fool kind of joke,” a pretty obvious reference to her fellow countryman, Bono, who Sinéad says she admires for his work in Africa and the fight against AIDS, but is heartbroken for his and compatriot Bob Geldof’s refusal to speak out against the abuses and cover ups by Catholic Church that has rocked their country.

But Sinéad continues to be a confounding and polarizing figure, both artistically and in her private life. While her activism has helped her regain a measure of respect in her own country, it took a hit late last year when she put an advert out in search of a male companion and her graphic Tweets took on an increasingly unstable tone. She quickly married one of the suitors and then just as abruptly announced it was over only to reconcile again. Comparisons of Brittany Spears’s meltdowns and other vicious attacks piled on her before it was revealed she was hospitalized in January after a suicide attempt.

However, Sinéad has since emerged lucid and assured with How About I Be Me (and you be you)?, a return to form that harkens back to the classic sonic terrain that made her the most compelling new artist of the late '80s. During her spellbinding tour opener at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles last month, even her most jaded and hardened critics could not deny that Sinéad still possesses one of rock’s most disarming and gripping voices ever.

I brought my 17-year-old daughter to the show because I wanted her to see what a real artist looks and sounds like. Someone who spurns image and relies entirely on her own evocative voice and ability to express herself in the moment of performance. Someone who is challenging and hard to love in any classic way. Like a lot of 17-year-old girls, my daughter likes Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. All fine performers. But while too many of today’s artists are reticent to be outspoken and have become conditioned not to rock the boat for fear of jeopardizing their chances to get their song placed in corporate commercials or movies, Sinéad remains committed to laying herself on the line and chasing her muse even if it leaves her vulnerable to criticism.

“I suppose the thing that inspires all of these songs is the need for soothing,” she offers. “In the first place to soothe myself, in the second place because of my own experience and the awareness outside me that the world needs soothing and mothering as much as I do.”

Sinéad is still singing for her life. For her sanity. And she’s still here. She’s used music to evoke the troubled mind and an artist’s impulse to redeem disaster by making sense and beauty out of it. Her time on stage is a reprieve from life’s madness, a private stairway to the stars in a pursuit for deliverance, redemption and transcendence. Like Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Patti Smith, Sinéad’s core impetus has always been to reach God through the portal of music.

Throughout all the controversies, her sometimes confounding twists and turns creatively, what is plainly clear is Sinéad is a bona fide artist, steadfast, resolute and uncompromising. Sinéad’s never going to play the game or mellow out or be someone who has finally “learned her lesson”, so forget it. Here’s someone whose career was derailed for being blasphemous. Well, as it turns out, she was right. It’s time to offer our apologies and acknowledge her as one of the most important artists, male or female, of our time and one of the greatest protest singers ever.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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