John Boyne on Sinéad O'Connor: 'I’d been half in love with her for a large portion of my life'
Listen to Sinéad O’Connor and you will hear the story of Ireland. The troubles. The sadness. The rebirth. She may not know it, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author John Boyne has shared his life with her. The Sinéad superfan takes us on their voyage
It ‘was the era of lip-syncing, and it was obvious that here was a girl who had no interest in faking anything’ – John Boyne recalling his first sight of Sinéad O’Connor
‘Perhaps she recognised the determined look on my face because she glanced left and right nervously, looking for a getaway’ – John Boyne recalling his first encounter with Sinéad O’Connor
At last November’s Irish Book Awards, sometime between the starter and the main course, I glanced across the room and my eyes landed on the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life. I say this as someone who hasn’t found myself attracted to the female form since around 1991, and even then, the girl I fancied turned out, on closer inspection, to be Chesney Hawkes.
But this woman was something else. People were on their feet, mingling, and so I made my way across, brushing Booker Prize-winners away with my left hand while fending off air-kissing chick-lit authors with my right. I felt like I was back at a school disco, only instead of being an anxious kid liquored up on cider, I was a grown man wearing a tuxedo, a tie-clip, a pocket square and holding a glass of champagne. Classy.
She turned as I approached her and our eyes met. Perhaps she recognised the determined look on my face because she glanced left and right nervously, looking for a getaway. If she walks away, I told myself, I’ll follow her. If she runs, I’ll leap over the tables. I’ll rugby tackle her to the ground if I have to. (I didn’t go to Terenure College just for the beatings.) I’d waited a lifetime for this moment and she wasn’t getting away from me without a fight.
“Hello,” I said, uncertain whether or not I should reach for her hand or simply throw my arms around her and hug her tighter than a tube top on a majorette. “I just wanted to say . . .”
“Hi,” she said, interrupting me and managing to turn one syllable into something commanding with her husky Glenageary voice. She was looking at me with a challenge on her face. Fine, you’ve got me, that expression was saying. I can’t escape. So either say something interesting or fuck off.
“Yes,” I said, nodding as if I was in full agreement with her. “Absolutely. I just wanted to tell you that I’m a huge fan.”
“Thanks,” she said, unimpressed. In fairness, this was a literary awards ceremony. She might have hoped for something a little more original than that.
“No, I really am,” I insisted, as if she’d accused me of lying.
“Yeah, thank you.”
I was struggling now. Actually, it was exactly like being back at the school disco. I searched my brain for something intelligent to say. “I’m friends with your brother,” was what I came up with. I’d probably used that line on some poor unfortunate Our Lady’s girl back in the day too.
“Which one?” she asked.
I thought about it. I didn’t know she had more than one.
“Joe,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, shrugging a little.
To her left, a red-haired man appeared and stood next to her protectively. I recognised the poor unfortunate creature as a social diarist; I’d seen his picture in the papers standing next to the type of person you see on Celebrity Apprentice. He must have overheard my pathetic attempts at conversation because he was staring at me with withering contempt and was this close to telling me to go back to my table, wait for my meal to arrive and prepare to lose to Derek freakin’ Landy (again). My heart sank. When that guy looks at you like you’re worthless, you know the jig is up.
“Alrighty,” I said, like a character from Fargo, offering something between a bow and a curtsey. “It was great to meet you.”
“Thanks,” she said.
I wandered back to my table with all the grace of Mel Gibson at chucking-out time. I put my head in my hands. I ate some chicken. I lost to Derek Landy (again). Then I got royally drunk and tried to put my humiliation behind me.
HALF IN LOVE
I’m not usually intimidated by famous people. I’ve met a few over the years and for the most part, I can take them or leave them. They’re great for an old Facebook picture but let’s face it, you don’t really want to get stuck in conversation for too long with David Beckham or some girl who made it to Judges’ Houses on The X-Factor in 2007. (And for what it’s worth, using “I’m wearing your underwear” as an opening gambit to Beckham comes across as creepy rather than amusing.)
But I hold my hands up. I was intimidated by Sinéad O’Connor. I’d never met her before but I’d been half in love with her for a large portion of my life. If I was going to make a fool of myself in front of anyone, it might as well be her.
My first introduction to Sinéad was watching her perform Mandinka on Top of the Pops when I was around 15. Gary Davies, wearing a snazzy brown sports coat that hung down below his knees, was pointing towards the stage where a young woman was standing in front of clouds of smoke, thrusting her hips back and forth in time to the music. She stared out at the audience with an uninterested expression on her face, for this was the era of lip-syncing and it was obvious that here was a girl who had no interest in faking anything. I sat there, mesmerised, and stopped playing with my Spirograph for the length of the song.
Mandinka. To this day, I still have no clue what that even means. I could probably look it up and find out but I don’t want to. I like not knowing.
And then there was her most distinguishing feature. While Carol Decker had a head full of red curls that required their own postcode and Whitney Houston could barely dance with anybody who loved her under the weight of her hair extensions, Sinéad had shaved her barnet completely, thus depriving herself of what might have been a lucrative L’Oréal advertising campaign.
Fuck my hair, she was telling the world. Just listen to my song. Lesser women than her have put me in my place over the years – I sat next to a Nobel Laureate once at a function who instantly turned to me and told me to find somewhere else to sit and I nearly wet myself – so I did what I was told.
That was early 1988. It would be two more years before the real breakthrough came with Nothing Compares 2 U. Apparently, Prince wrote it. No one cares. It’s a Sinéad O’Connor song. The song, the performance and the video are the stuff of legend; almost a quarter-of- a-century of telling us that she can eat her dinner in a fancy restaurant and it’s still as powerful as ever. There’s a video on YouTube of Sinéad performing the song on a soapbox on Grafton Street on Christmas Eve, and look at her: she still loves it, she still sings the shit out of it, and she still means every single word that comes out of her mouth.
That’s the thing about Sinéad. In music, in life, she never says anything she doesn’t mean. But given the choice, she’d probably rather set it all to music.
The number one single before Nothing Compares 2 U was Kylie’s Tears On My Pillow. And after, it was Dub Be Good To Me by Beats International. I’m just saying. February 1990 was a good time to turn the radio on. January and March? Not so much.
Part of Sinéad’s mystique has come from how we’ve watched her live her life in public, succeeding, struggling, falling apart, pulling herself back together, putting on a clerical collar and then taking it off again. She’s come out fighting, she’s gone down weeping, but she’s never given in. She ripped the Pope’s picture in half on television and now that we know all the things that he knew and did nothing about, it feels like a pity that she only had a photograph before her and not the man himself. She’s called out Bono on his pomposity and Miley Cyrus on her stupidity, and whenever it seems that her life is turning into a national soap opera, she comes back with the only thing that really matters: an album. A great album.
And that magical, incredible, gift of a voice.
I wonder whether people appreciate the magnitude of her recording career. She burned bright with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got; it made her famous. She won a Grammy, although, incredibly, not for Nothing Compares 2 U; in fact, she lost her three nominations for that song to Mariah Carey, Phil Collins and Paula Abdul. Yeah, I know. It sounds like a joke, but there’s no punchline. She recorded a covers album because she wanted to sing a little Rogers & Hart, some Sammy Fain, some Andrew Lloyd Webber. She wanted to sing them so, basically, fuck you world, that’s what she did.
Universal Mother opened with the dulcet tones of Germaine Greer and sexual politics back at the fore. I’m not no red football to be kicked around the garden, she sings. I’m a red Christmas-tree ball. And I’m fragile. Is there a word that more encompasses how we see Sinéad than fragile?
Who is she anyway? She’s a mystery. A bit like the Queen, in that she seems to have been part of our lives forever but we still don’t really know who she is or what makes her tick. Although Sinéad is a lot more interesting than Elizabeth. And I bet she’s a lot better in the sack.
More great songs followed, more great albums. Listen to No Man’s Woman on Faith And Courage; listen to how she sings that she hasn’t travelled this far to answer to anyone but herself. Listen to Daddy I’m Fine; listen to the love and the anger and the way she pulls it all together in the four final words of the song, the most honest statement a child can make to a parent, no matter how conflicted the feelings. Listen to ’Til I Whisper You Something and wonder how a sentiment so apparently simple – “You take my rainy days and make them go away” – can prove so profound when delivered with such sincerity.
Listen to any one of her songs and tell me that you aren’t overwhelmed by the extraordinary juxtaposition of anger, serenity and overwhelming love. And then there’s still what is, for me, her greatest achievement, her 2012 album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, an album filled with blistering accounts of love lost, love found and – in the case of the magnificent Old Lady – love that still’s to come.
A great singer of other peoples’ songs too, she can add a twist to a familiar piece and makes you think of it in a whole new way. Have you heard her sing Elton John’s Sacrifice? Or I Don’t Know How To Love Him, from Jesus Christ Superstar? John Grant’s Queen of Denmark? Gabriel Yared’s Lullaby For Cain, used in the opening scene of The Talented Mr Ripley? “If you ever make a film,” that movie’s director, Anthony Minghella, told me once, “grab your audience from the opening titles. A voice like that will capture them and never let them go.”
Ok, I’ll stop. Clearly she can do no wrong in my eyes. I don’t care if she ordains herself a priest, puts personal ads in newspapers, looks at Gay Byrne like she wants him to adopt her, covers herself with tattoos, piles on the pounds or works every one of them off again. She’s the greatest vocalist this country has ever produced and one of the best songwriters. She’s part of our national story, a vulnerable, troubled, talented, loving, angry, peaceful, complicated singer.
I’m not interested in her personal life, her relationships, who she chooses to marry. I just want her to be happy. Someone who’s given the world so much deserves a little happiness. And to keep making great records.
I might have embarrassed myself in my one encounter with her at the Irish Book Awards, but I don’t care. For a couple of minutes in November 2013, I stood in front of a singular artist, told her that I was a fan, and, despite my humiliation, that alone made up for losing to Derek Landy. Again.