Home Live Review RIP, Sinéad O’Connor, 1966-2023

RIP, Sinéad O’Connor, 1966-2023

RIP, Sinéad O’Connor, 1966-2023
Sinéad O'Connor (Photo by Donol Moloney)

Artists strive for success, but sometimes success can obscure the heart of their artistry. Sinéad O’Connor became a critical and commercial sensation with her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It’s a beautiful song, and a perfect performance, but it’s not, for me, the best cut on that album. My favorite song on the record is the searingly political “Black Boys on Mopeds,” written in response to the death of Colin Roach in 1983.

Roach, a 21-year-old Black man living in Hackney, London, was riding his scooter when he was stopped by the police, who determined the vehicle was stolen. Under questionable circumstances, Roach ended up dead of a gunshot wound sustained at the police station. Despite investigations and inquests, his death was ruled a suicide. Many, including O’Connor, never bought this story. She dedicated the album to his parents.

But the song is more than that, as the verses continue. It is a searing indictment of the right turn in British politics led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is explicitly named in the song:

Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her

As the song continues, it heaps the blame on the Iron Lady for the poverty of a working single mother, and for the starvation of her children. Though Thatcher was popular enough to serve as Prime Minister for a dozen years, she also sparked intense opposition. She crushed a miner’s strike, and her government pushed anti-gay legislation.

Watch Sinéad O’Connor perform “Black Boys on Mopeds” live for The Late Show in 1990 via YouTube:

Around the same time I rediscovered my music fandom, I was also reading a lot of what might be called “modern classics” of the comic book/graphic novel medium. One of these was Hellblazer. Its protagonist, John Constantine, described as a “working-class sorcerer,” was created by Alan Moore for his seminal run on Swamp Thing. He later got his own title, which read for 300 issues, the longest run of any title on DC’s prestigious Vertigo imprint.

John, as we learned, was once in a punk band, though his experiments with black magic led to a bad end for that. There’s a lot of Sinéad’s spirit in these pages: the working-class themes, the roots in the punk movement, the confrontational attitude. Alan Moore once claimed to have seen John in real life, buying a sandwich in London. I am skeptical about this, but if John Constantine is real, if he’s out there somewhere — and I’ve talked to the first writer of the series, the brilliant Jamie Delano, who agrees with me — Sinéad’s passing would’ve been a very sad moment for him.

Though her music wasn’t punk rock, O’Connor’s art would’ve been impossible without it. She preferred prettier, more melodious compositions, and her vocals were too pristine and beautiful to fit the punk mold, but the lyrics, the attitude, all of that is pure punk. As she wrote herself, she never regretted when, in an appearance on Saturday Night Live, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II to protest child abuse by Catholic clergy.

Child abuse wasn’t some abstract concern for O’Connor, who wrote about her traumatic childhood. Her mother, an alcoholic, abused her, especially after her parents divorced. The picture she tore up was taken from her mother’s wall after she died when Sinead was 18. Tearing up that photo was a cry out against what she and so many others had suffered, and the institutions that made such horrors possible.

For the last few years, I’ve suspected the end was likely near for O’Connor. She was open about her mental health struggles, especially after her son, Jake, committed suicide at 17. But the trauma that led to this goes back almost to the moment of her birth, to the harsh circumstances of her upbringing that her had in the legal system as a teenager and giving birth to her first child as a unwed, teenage mother. Shuhada’ Sadaqat, the name Sinéad adopted later in her life, left us far too soon on July 26.

Many have said it, and it’s worth saying: She was ahead of her time, and she’s been proven right. In the decades after the SNL incident, the terrifying extent of sexual abuse, not just in the Catholic Church, but in all sorts of trusted institutions, became painfully evident.

We cannot bring her back, but we can remember her sacrifices, and the sacrifices of all her spiritual and political allies. If we want to honor, we can remember the lessons that she and others who against injustice offered us. And we will always have the beautiful music she gifted us with.


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