Rock and Roll Book Club: Sinéad O'Connor shares her 'Rememberings'

Book on keyboard: 'Rememberings.'
Sinead O'Connor's 'Rememberings.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"Best day of my life was the day I left Ireland," writes Sinéad O'Connor in her new memoir Rememberings, "and any other day I left Ireland was the next best." How fed up is O'Connor with the country where she was raised? Reader, she has good things to say about even the U.S. health care system.

If you know anything about Sinéad O'Connor, you're probably not expecting Rememberings to be suffused with warm nostalgia. You're correct, it's not; beyond that, it's probably best to leave any expectations behind and just give yourself over to the flow of this distinctive volume, which doesn't so much solve the puzzle of O'Connor's brilliant but mercurial career as it does add a number of new pieces.

Every artist has their iconic, defining (and often dividing) moments; O'Connor's career has been defined by those moments more than most. Even the writing of her own memoir was defined by one such moment. Going chronologically, she explains, she'd just finished writing about her infamous 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance when she experienced a 2015 breakdown — this is the episode, sparked (she writes) by a hysterectomy, that led to a troubling Dr. Phil interview O'Connor writes that she primarily accepted because it meant a long car ride to a new treatment facility and she could smoke cigarettes all the way.

Eventually she returned to the book and finished it, in a manner of speaking, but the result is a disjointed, disorienting narrative that touches down here and there without giving readers much sense of how one thing in her life followed another — or why. In short, and I suspect the author would be the first to acknowledge this, Rememberings is not one of those memoirs like Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run where you know the artist's done a lot of time in therapy and worked out What It All Means before sitting down to write.

It certainly is a very rock and roll memoir, almost a gonzo journey through a singular life in popular music. The story starts in the positively gothic circumstances of O'Connor's youth, much of it spent with her mother after her parents' divorce; her profoundly troubled mother stripped her and beat her, O'Connor writes, and although Catholic reformatory was a welcome respite from that environment, it was the kind of place where when you got in trouble, it meant spending the night in a the convent's hospice ward with piteously dying nuns for roommates.

Like so many future stars, O'Connor found solace in music. When her brother played Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind," the teenage O'Connor found it a revelation. "It's really brave," she thought. "He isn't pretending to be nice all the time." An obviously gifted singer with undeniable charisma, O'Connor joined a couple of bands but ended up singing a solo record deal, and immediately demonstrated her rebellious streak when her label suggested that she should adopt a more feminine look. At least she had the right manager: Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, who'd previously worked with Boomtown Rats, suggested she shave her head. Done and done, and when an executive at her label expressed his disapproval, she shot back, "It's you who needs hair, you baldy oul f---er."

O'Connor's 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, had to be re-recorded with the artist herself as producer after an initial set of sessions went poorly...but in the end, the money proved well-spent. The album was a commercial success and a critical smash, leading to a follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, that made O'Connor a major star when her cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" (originally recorded by the Family) became the biggest hit of 1990.

O'Connor recorded her version entirely independent of Prince, and her account of their subsequent interaction — which occupies several pages of Rememberings — paints a picture of an artist who felt O'Connor was in a sense representing him, and who wasn't thrilled with how she was doing so. Summoning her to his Los Angeles house, Prince creeped O'Connor out with an imperious manner and manipulative, aggressive humor: she writes that he started a pillow fight, for example, without informing her that his pillow would be weighted. She ended up essentially fleeing his house, and her account stands as one of the most negative pictures of Prince ever painted by a peer.

She separates the music from the musician, though, and writes that she never gets tired of singing it. It's a song "I was always — and am always — singing to my mother," writes O'Connor. Her mother died in a black-ice car accident while driving to Mass in 1985, and the artist explains that the tears she famously cried in the song's video were for her late mother. "Every time I perform it," O'Connor writes, "I feel it's the only time I get to spend with my mother and that I'm talking with her again."

Of course, O'Connor's relationship with her mother was never uncomplicated; the same goes for the Catholic Church, which has infuriated the artist with its patriarchal culture despite the fact that she's always felt connected to spirituality. (After extended explorations of various faiths, she converted to Islam in 2018.) That picture of the Pope she ripped up was her mother's, one she'd carried around for years, waiting for just the right opportunity to destroy it. As Lin-Manuel Miranda might say, she certainly didn't throw away her shot.

Rememberings, which goes through O'Connor's discography in a series of short chapters with comments and reminisces about the albums' songs, is a reminder — if anyone needs one — that for all the ups and downs of the artist's subsequent years, she's produced a sizable discography of fine music. U2's The Edge told O'Connor, she writes, that he found her 1994 LP Universal Mother so extraordinarily personal, he could only listen to it once. I'll also put in a plug for Am I Not Your Girl?, the 1992 standards and showtunes album she recorded deliberately to subvert any pop-star expectations; in her teen years, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" was a moneymaker for O'Connor when she'd use her stunning rendition to win Dublin talent contests.

That album was released in the same year that another legendary Minnesota musician disappointed O'Connor. When she went out to sing "I Believe in You" at Dylan's 30th anniversary tribute concert, she writes, she thought it should have been Dylan himself — and not proxy Kris Kristofferson — who went out to help her offstage when she was greeted by a post-SNL chorus of boos. (She did, she writes, hear her equally vociferous defenders; the cacophony hardly constituted an amenable setting for the sensitive spiritual song.)

Rocky as her road's been, O'Connor's embraced the struggle at every turn. "A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope's photo derailed my career," she writes. (The lower-case "p" seems very deliberate.) "That's not how I feel about it. I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing up the photo put me back on the right track."

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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June 17: Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones

June 24: Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music by Eric Weisbard

July 1: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur by Sheldon Pearce

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