Scattershot – Life, Music, Elton & Me – Bernie Taupin (2023)

More than anyone in my youth, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics for Elton John’s brilliant run in the 1970s made me want to be a writer. The evocative expressions, three-dimensional characters, and conflicted stories covering the gamut of tragedy to comedy was a masterclass for an impressionable mind. It led me to want to discover more songs and artists that tread similar paths, so when I’d heard Taupin had a memoir in the works, I was more than excited.

Scattershot is not merely a memoir. In fact, it is less about Taupin as lyricist, co-songwriter, silent talent behind the pop throne, and more about his exploits navigating a strive for fame and his incredible run achieving and enduring it. The book details the ups and downs through his experiences in love and loss, laughter and tears, the exquisite fun of excess into terrible bouts with drugs, alcohol, lost loves, and, finally, survival and redemption.

At first, this disappointed me. I wanted to know more “behind the songs” stuff – you know, the process and craft that I am sure no one else would care to read (hence Scattershot). However, Taupin does provide (between all the hijinks and adventures in L.A., England, France, Mexico, the Caribbean, etc.) the odd bauble. Like, um, there is a fourth verse to “Daniel” that explains the whole thing? But then I realized, the real-life encounters, exotic locales, and hard-to-believe unfolding dramas reflect much of what made me love Bernie in the first place: his writing. The man is an observer, a social reporter of the mind and emotions of the human condition. He places these experiences, these outsized personalities inside his songs.     

Scattershot is aptly named as he finds a center in a whirlwind life and beautifully describes each layer. And that is the true payoff of this book – it is as stunningly written as a fan of his songwriting would hope. Funny. Sad. Insightful. A lasting memory of his travels within and without. 

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60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s – Rob Harvilla (2023)

I adored this book. 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s is – to say the very least – a comprehensive ride through the 1990s musical landscape, which the author reminds us on its cover handles commentary for the over 60 songs promised. Rob Harvilla, whose work has appeared in Spin, The Village Voice, and more recently the pop culture online zine the Ringer, pours his heart into the time that framed him as a young man, a journalist, a husband, and a dad. The joyous expression of his love and even minor disdain for the songs that defined his generation make for compelling reading. His passion for this period is infectious and recalls many of its most important musical and cultural expressions.

The book flows quickly through styles and periods, genres and images from chaos-agents to sell-outs, influential women rockers to adversaries, flukes, comebacks, myths, and more. Through each, the songs and the artists behind them come alive as Harvilla deconstructs the very essence of what made them crucial to a decade that careened from one fad to another with tongue-cheek ease. 

Harvilla’s paragraphs on the imprint and import of Kurt Cobain and unabashed esteem of Céline Dion alone are worth the price of admission. These are just two of the polar aspects of the music covered in 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s that enhance the trek with humor and pathos aplenty, for it is his voice that carries the day. You never feel as though he is not in there swinging with each comment, artist and tune. A true heart-on-the-sleeve effort that I always appreciate with this type of project.  

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Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound – Andrea Swensson (2017)

Another full disclosure: I have gotten to know author, journalist, broadcaster Andrea Swensson rather well in the past year (as I am currently writing a book about Prince and the Revolution). Andrea is one of the preeminent Prince scholars – she even spent time at Paisley Park with the man – and found time between writing liner notes for yet another Prince legacy box set to whisk me around Minneapolis this past summer touring all the most important places that created one of the great artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. But first, for me, there was Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound – the most important and comprehensive study of the music, culture, and import of the thriving and influential Minneapolis scene, which stakes a high place in the pantheon of popular music.

Swensson, also a music journalist, radio host, and podcaster, is a proud native of the Twin Cities and leads the reader on a similar tour through the neighborhoods, inside the clubs, and, most importantly, out on the streets of a growing American city through a long journey from jazz, blues, funk, soul, and rock. Lost figures – Black and white – bind together to form a distinctive sound and style that sets the world aflame in the 1980s, but has its deepest roots in each phase of its evolution.

However, it is in the city’s cultural history, specifically its Black and Jewish lower middle-class neighborhoods, where the true art blossomed and pulsed with revolution and extermination, fighting systemic racism, a lack of exposure, and a schizophrenic amalgam of musical aspirations clashing and inspiring a movement. Swensson sets the scenes, puts us in the middle of times that exploded myths and forged new paths.

Got to Be Something Here brims with atmosphere, and there was and is indeed something there worth exploring and celebrating.  

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Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – Adam Steiner (2023)

Secret history? Sign me up. Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) delivers. Adam Steiner provides historical, political, sexual, and cultural context to one of David Bowie’s most underrated and forgotten albums. Crammed between his experimental Berlin triptych (“Heroes,” LowStation to Station) and his pop sensation coming out (Sell out?), Let’s DanceScary Monsters is Bowie’s grand pivot, the gift to and harangue of the emerging New Romantics period he had helped create and influence like no other.

Entering the 1980s out of his most prolific and shape-shifting era of the 1970s, Bowie is on-point in his lyrical and aural commentary, as Steiner illustrates with each track – the concept of hyper-change, fears, and regrets of wasted youth and uncertain future bursts from every beat and note. Splitting up the author’s deeply nuanced narratives are creative, poetic companion pieces and revealing quotations that add to the uncovering mystery.

Silhouettes and Shadows stands as a needed reflection point in the growing catalog of Bowie books, especially since his death in 2016. It bridges the gaps of his many personas with a portrait of an artist in constant flux who knows where he has been and where he might go.

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Parachute Women – Marianne Faithful, Marsha Hunt, Bianca Jagger Anita Pallenberg, and the Women Behind the Rolling Stones – Elizabeth Winder(2023)

First and foremost, Parachute Women is a gorgeously written work; every paragraph brims with boldly worded visual descriptions of hippy fashion, psychedelic comportment, and underground psychological expression with pure rock and roll spirit. Author Elizabeth Winder’s wonderfully evocative travelog through the hoary subculture and glitzy celebrity romps of the long-haired, drug-addled nouveau riche and the 1960s into the seventies youth movements simultaneously flips its macho machinations on its head. This is a story of not the women behind the Rolling Stones in their most prolific and powerfully influential period, but leaders in their behavior, brand, and image.

Parachute Women is a revelation to those of us, namely me, who have been fed a filtered version of these well-worn tales over the years – even if powerful female figures like the enigmatic train-wreck sexual firebrand of Anita Pallenberg bursts from previous volumes on the band’s history. The author deftly eschews rehashing the usual stories of drug busts and bad-boy behavior to recast previously celebrated rebel figures of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as cultural neophytes groping for radical fulcrums for which to build their outlaw bona fides.

Pallenberg rightly gets top billing as she radically altered the Stones paradigm while bedding three of its key members, introducing drugs, fashion, and a worldly witchy countenance to their otherwise middle-class attitudes, which Winder reminds us never really faded throughout their reign as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” Although, it is in the fragile yet indefatigable Marianne Faithful that the strands of this tale find its pathos. She gets a fair review as a genuine alter ego of Jagger in their “it couple” period bounding around Swinging London, in which her impish teenage freestyling reflects badly on the posturing of her ego-driven man.

This is a must read for those of us who gorge on Rolling Stones ephemera with a true exploration of strong women who endured their oppressive if not brilliantly devised ascent as a major force in rock’s firmament.   

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Lou Reed – The King of New York – Will Hermes (2023)

For my money, Will Hermes penned one of the finest books written about music, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, which I reviewed here in 2012, and by far the finest one on New York’s rich late seventies influence on modern popular music. So, it makes sense he would tackle the oracle of New York in Lou Reed, and as imagined, he hit it out of the park.

First off, full disclosure, I knew Hermes had been working on this book for a while. Years ago, he’d reached out for contacts of insiders I had interviewed that dovetailed with Reed’s studio history, so from that point on I was busting to read this. Hermes ability to mine research and bring interviews to life is unparalleled, but what makes Lou Reed – The King of New York sing is his ability to describe and deconstruct Reed’s eclectic artistry, his mercurial nature, and his surly, spastic, intensely passionate life within and beyond the music. 

Having written my own book on a difficult subject in Warren Zevon, my heart goes out to Hermes, who agilely tightropes very delicate subjects here, from mental illness, drug addiction, sexual identity, domestic violence, art versus commerce, and music business ugliness that found Reed at every turn. His work on the Velvet Underground period is a completist’s dream, as many nuggets are uncovered and still many others explained – including wonderfully painful but insightful commentary from the band’s drummer, Moe Tucker. It is within the solo years that much of what Reed did in addition to his music – interest in film, painting, his foray into poetry and theater – along with his forgotten but seminal tours are portrayed and analyzed. Reed’s music – his hits and misses – leap from the page and profoundly illustrate what made him a great, as well as oft-misunderstood, celebrated, harangued, and imitated artist.

Lou Reed – The King of New York may be the final word on Reed’s life (and the final weeks before his death) as it is a biography that reads as dangerously close to the bone as its subject investigated in his best work.

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20 YEARS OF HEALING: MY JOURNEY IN MUSIC

Aquarian Weekly
11/8/23
 
Reality Check
 
Guest Columnist – Seán Barna
 
 
20 YEARS OF HEALING MY JOURNEY IN MUSIC

(Seán Barna is a sing-songwriter and activist, whose themes run from queer rights and the trans-underground, to love and loss and personal experiences. His series of single releases like “Straight Motherfuckers and Their Favorite Friends” (2015), and “Everyone’s Queen on Halloween” (2022) among others, EP’s Cutter Street, (2014), Cissy (2018), and Margret Thatcher of the Lower East Side(2020), and his latest LP, An Evening at Macri Park teem with humor and pathos. This is his second guest columnist appearance)

People always ask if I get nervous before I have to play a show. No, I do not. Not if there are five people in the audience, not if there are 8,000.


November 5, 2003

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothing.”

“Alright, are mom or dad there?”

“Yeah.”


I wish I had better words to replay and relive. Hell, even the best songs can get tiresome after twenty years living in your head. But all I have is, “Hey, what’s up?” to remember as the last conversation I had with my brother, Kyle. 

That conversation happened on a Wednesday. That evening was my first concert with my jazz combo. At the time, I was a freshman in the jazz drum set program at Florida State University College of Music and had been away from home for less than three months.

I have played thousands of concerts since then. That was the last one I gave without the experience of having lived the worst day of my life. My brother was hit by a car on November 8th, 2003. Twenty years ago. The police report listed his time of death as 10:03 p.m. It was a Saturday. I was practicing drum set in room 27 of the HMU music building at Florida State University. 
 
***
 
My dad asked me, “What’s your plan?” 

I’d been home for two weeks. All the people had gone, all the food had been eaten. We had returned to Southwest Florida from our native Connecticut, where we buried my brother. 

I had no plan. Somehow, in his own grief, he summoned the wisdom to give me this advice: “Whatever choices you make right now, whether you go back to school or not, or for that matter if you become a drug addict or something, nobody is going to blame you. They will understand. You can do what you want, but I think you should go back to school.” 

He was not wrong. Science is pretty clear on this: when a young person loses a sibling, they face an increased risk of early death themselves, for many terrible reasons, including deteriorating mental health from emotional trauma and increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse. Grief is a bitch.

And so, I went back to school. I will forever be grateful to my dad for this advice. Looking back, it is an obvious turning point for me. 

As a serious undergraduate music student, your life requires relentless prioritization over four years. You spend countless hours practicing for weekly private lessons and learning or rehearsing music for various ensembles. In my case, I had a weekly hour-long lesson with my drum set professor, Leon Anderson, and was the drummer of one of the university jazz combos. As a jazz major, I was also required to take a half hour classical percussion lesson – though I voluntarily did an hour-long lesson – and attend the weekly percussion studio class. Then there are multiple music and non-music academic classes.

Knowing I had serious catching up to do on my classwork, I asked my drum set professor if he could just give me a pass for the rest of the semester, since private lessons are basically a class that lasts four years instead of a single semester. “Of course. You have an A.” He also gave me a very nice card signed by everyone in the jazz studio (I wonder if I still have that card? There are some serious names on there…).

I also stopped by the office of Dr. John W. Parks, IV. Like me, he was in his first semester at Florida State, except he was the new Professor of Percussion. 

“Of course,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Keep going to your lessons and work on cymbal crashes with Mr. Lloyd or something, but don’t stress about your grade.”

Keith Lloyd was a doctoral student and my graduate student teacher. 

“Thanks,” I said.

He stopped me as I was turning to leave. “Oh, and you haven’t performed in studio class yet. On Tuesday morning let’s have you perform the Bach you’ve been working on for your colleagues.”

My jaw hit the fucking floor. I was furious. Did he not hear what I just said? I do not have the capacity to practice hours a day right now. 

Though I had been a semi-professional drum set player since fourteen years old, I had just started learning four-mallet marimba a couple months before and could barely read melody. Plus, I did not really know anyone in the percussion studio. I was not one of them. I was a jazz guy, not a classical guy. A drum set guy, not a mallet guy.

And, to my astonishment, none of them knew what had just happened to me aside from Dr. Parks and Mr. Lloyd. Dr. Parks made the choice to let me tell who I wanted, if I wanted. 

I walked downstairs to the practice rooms and, fuming, got to work.

Seven a.m. on Tuesday came fast. Dr. Parks chose this time for our weekly class to weed out the students who were not serious about what they were doing. It worked because if you were late by even one second (I don’t mean two seconds and I certainly don’t mean three seconds), the locked door would slam shut in your face. If you did this three times, you failed.

It was my turn to play. I was terrified. Preparation aside, I just was not that good at this instrument yet. And J.S. Bach, under the best circumstances and in the hands of the best players, can be a nightmare to remember in live performance. 

My love and obsession with music did not go away, it just evolved.

It started fine but at some point, in the middle, I froze. Unable to remember the next note, I stood there as my vision started to blur from the panic and embarrassment. It felt like an eternity, but of course it was likely four or five seconds. That being said, of all the emotions a person can feel, embarrassment is my least favorite.

And then came one of the most important moments of my entire life.

From the corner of the room, I hear Dr. Parks shout, “A.” Horrified, I strike the A. Then, “F#.” I hit the F#. It continued like this.

With his photographic memory, he could see the music in his head, so he yelled out every single note for the rest of the piece until I made it to the end. Then he stood up and clapped. The rest of the studio, unaware of what was going on, followed his lead and clapped. Dazed, I sat down. I wanted to disappear.

By the end of the semester, I had added Percussion Performance as a second major. By the second semester, I was ranked #2 in the studio, behind only my graduate student teacher, after a rather stunning amount of practicing over Christmas break. By the end of my first semester in college, I had dropped jazz as a major entirely.

I believe – I know – that Dr. John W. Parks did not just save my ass that day. He saved my life. He did not encourage me or ask me to keep going, he insisted. 
 
***
 
My new routine was practicing eight to fifteen hours a day, forgoing all of the things a college student is supposed to do from attending parties to having sex with people you just met. This seemed to be a pretty healthy way to grieve my brother. Better than drinking, right? 

Playing the Bach Cello Suite in G Major, or Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, my tears would fall from my face to the marimba. The music, so beautiful, provided a perfect setting for my sadness. 

Sounds peaceful, in a way.

But the reality is this: with even the smallest mistake, I would snap marimba mallets in half. Punch walls. Scream. Or, at my very worst, hurt myself. It was not out of the question that I would pull my hair or scratch my face if I missed even one note. As a percussionist, I wanted to be a bad motherfucker. And I was. But I was also a nightmare to the people around me, especially my best friend then and now, Ben King. And what I was doing almost killed me. 

During my junior year, my body started to shut down, my hands shaking so uncontrollably in one lesson that Dr. Parks forbade me to practice for a time.

To this day, I do not enjoy playing drums, especially in a rehearsal setting, due to legitimate PTSD and the association between the loss of my brother and the act of playing percussion. I play on all my own records, but I have not seriously practiced since probably May of 2006. But my love and obsession with music did not go away, it just evolved.

On August 18, 2006, I bought an acoustic guitar in Denver before attending a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert alone, hoping to rekindle my love of music.

On August 18, 2007, I saw Counting Crows live for the first time. This is the day I started writing songs. Until I wrote the previous sentence, just this moment, I did not realize this concert was exactly a year after buying my first guitar. Holy shit.

In September of 2014, I released my first EP, Cutter Street

In August, September, and October of 2021, I toured as a solo artist (with a band) for two months as direct support for Counting Crows, playing for larger crowds than I ever have in my life.

In May of this year, I released my second LP and first on the legendary label, Kill Rock Stars, entitled, An Evening at Macri Park.

This week, November 9th, the day after the 20th anniversary of my brother’s death, I am playing a show at Sleepwalk bar in Brooklyn. The evening is named, Songs for my Brother.

It is going to be an emotional, difficult show. I am playing entirely solo. The audience will contain friends and family, including my parents. 

What a couple of decades it has been. 
 
***
 
Am I nervous for Thursday’s show?
 
No, I am not.
 
The only thing that scares me about music is the thought of what my life would have been without it. 
 
Music is why I am alive. And when I am on stage, I want everyone to know they are not alone. 
 
Be kind to one another.

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JAIME ROYAL “ROBBIE” ROBERTSON – 1943 – 2023

Aquarian Weekly
8/10/23
 
Feature
 

James Campion
 
 
JAIME ROYAL “ROBBIE” ROBERTSON – 1943 – 2023

Robbie Robertson was a lightning rod in the tempest of rock’s centrifuge, a 1960s poet noir with an anachronistic streak that drove him to capture the flipside of his manic life in song. His mouthpiece, his collaborative framework, his scuffle-brothers-forever was the Band. For one summer in 1968 they imploded the entire psychedelic merry prankster tune-in-drop-out Sgt. Pet Sounds zeitgeist with ancient music from the woods. Reverberations in Big Pink – basement booze noodling during Bob Dylan’s self-banishment from hipsville, as he morphed into a country bumpkin troubadour. From that spark came his own songs that twisted a generation and struck a chord of Americana emanating from this otherwise reserved Canadian songsmith and his boys on the prayer-wing.

Robertson was a guitar player first. He played it as if it might leap from his hands and never return. A prodigy that was exploited as a teenager and blossomed as a songwriter, he never lost this obsession that bordered on dangerous. Watching the seminal rock and roll film of all time again recently, as I introduced my twenty-year-old uber-talented singer-songwriter niece, Sydney Leigh to The Last Waltz, I am/was/always will be mesmerized by his trenchant fury on the instrument shining within his band’s framework – boogie-woogie to plantation blues and twangy country to folk-rock. The Band, upon Robertson’s request, worked in service of song, all of which he composed with their able assistance. You could see it when they played – all looks and listening and eye contact and compromise.

All of it began and wrapped up in the circle of his guitar.

When you think of Robertson, darkly handsome with Jewish-Native American blood, he is withdrawn and hyper-focused, and you think of those songs, and their borderline atavistic romanticism about the deep South (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), the epic struggle of the nineteenth century farmer (“King Harvest [Has Surely Come]”), down-on-their luck carnies (“Life is a Carnaval”), or the Biblical wanderers of arguably his best and definitely his most known composition, “The Weight.” Character-driven morality tales of lost souls emersed in cheap temptations of the demimonde.

He learned about these vagabonds and charlatans, sad sacks and high rollers from the Band’s only American; a pistol-amped Arkansan drummer and the ensemble’s first boss, Levon Helm, who had a voice awash in moonshine molasses and lent a languid bordello backbeat to the affair. But he mastered the storytelling vehicle from Dylan when the Band first agreed to back his mercurial nether ride on the infamous mid-60s “electric tours” of Britain and the U.S., with all the booing and catcalls and death threats and the brutal fury pouring from those performances.

You want to know about Robbie Robertson musically, you listen to the most famous of all bootlegs, The Great White Wonder – released in 2017 as The Royal Albert Hall Concert and his work with Dylan in 1966 during those tours. Especially “Like a Rolling Stone,” which at once made my wife tear-up and boiled something in me that is difficult to describe as mere anger, closer to a crushing disappointment in humanity and a rare empathy for the then spiteful and speed-addled Dylan. And then go find the clip of Robertson’s dueling guitar solos in The Last Waltz with Eric Clapton, which for my money is won by Robbie on pure grit and force. It is well documented that Clapton not only dreamed of one-day joining the Band but completely restructured his musical journey and professional career on their oeuvre.

He defined the last pathway to rock and roll.

A road dog from his teen years, most infamously as part of the legendary Hawks that backed a feral lunatic named Ronnie Hawkins, who took performance to alarming levels of spastic eruptions, earned Robertson lead-guitar duties and later as the right-hand of Levon Helm, who took the name and the band and moved it out of Canada and into the heartland. And that is precisely why the Band became a touring machine, something Robertson at times barely endured and oft abhorred. Suffering from severe panic attacks – one in which a hypnotist had to be called in to get him to the stage – was well depicted in perhaps the best song written about the pangs of a traveling performer, “Stage Fright.”

The revisionist history of the Band and Robertson’s sense of entitlement as its sole songwriter and de facto leader in documentaries and his memoir has taken some of his self-aggrandized autonomy away. Of course, in that “basement” – although it was more a downstairs garage space – in Saugerties, NY, the five members, all brilliant musicians and arguably (and I argue) the best Caucasian singing rock group ever, was deep collaboration. But one thing that never changed was Robertson’s retreat from the darkness that enveloped its sheepishly lovable bass player, Rick Danko and his near-death drug-fueled car wrecks, or Helm’s descent into heroin fogs, or the gin-drenched peril of multi-instrumentalist, Richard Manuel, who’s voice sounded as achingly fragile as the man who eventually committed suicide by hanging.

No teetotaler, Robertson, an only child who understood the duality of independent solidarity, kept himself centered inside the tumult of his times and his band and remained true to his adoration of the music that moved him as a shy kid steeped in the golden age of rockabilly meets swamp-stomp, a world away from tepid suburbia. His dreams of the mystical Beale Street and its bawdy Black rebels, pool-hall hustlers, and barroom fisticuffs melded seamlessly into his story-songs. He lived vicariously through the voices of these songs, usually sung by others, except for his later solo albums, and always with a mask of truth.

Robertson broke up the Band in 1976 with the Last Waltz concert that his friend Martin Scorsese turned into a visual masterpiece and then the two worked together on several of his films and other projects, including Robertson’s scoring of the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon about the genocide of the Osage Nation in the early part of the twentieth century. Robertson told everyone the separation was mutual, but the rest of the musicians in the group disagreed and went on touring and making records without him – none of them as good, but that would have been understandable when considering the last few Band records were not as good as their time with Dylan or immediately thereafter. It’s as if they missed the outrageous turmoil of their times, the best marriage of art and chaos.

Later in life, Robertson produced Neil Diamond and played behind Ringo Starr and Carly Simone and James Taylor, and his old sparring partner, Eric Clapton. He played the part of elder statesman for bands like my friends in Counting Crows, tutoring them on recording in houses not studios, and helping to stage many of the early Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies. But his legacy was created in those rooms with those musicians.

Together they formed the final bridge between the jump-jive-swing / blue grass / downhome blues and the pop / rock / soul that sounds today as fresh as it did when it was played in that basement. They ushered in the singer-songwriter, country-rock fusion of the 1970s that still reverberates in clubs and bars in kids with mandolins and fiddles and washboards and drums and hearts filled with song.

Robbie Robertson played guitar.

He wrote songs.

He defined the last pathway to rock and roll.

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SINEAD MARIE BERNADETTE O’CONNOR (SHUHADA SADAQAT) 1966 – 2023

Aquarian Weekly
7/26/23
 
Feature
 
James Campion
 
SINEAD MARIE BERNADETTE O’CONNOR (SHUHADA SADAQAT)
1966 – 2023

Sinéad O’Connor was my hero.

Wait, I can’t leave my wife out of this. Eric D. Moore and I would not have sealed our bond, the one that has lasted twenty-six years, twenty-four in marriage with a gorgeous, strong fifteen-year-old daughter, Scarlet (who briefly could have been named Sinéad) if not for Sinéad O’Connor’s voice, her music and the miniscule freak conclave of which we were and are and will forever be proud members. Had an extra ticket to see her play at the Beacon Theater in NYC. No one gave a shit about Sinéad O’Connor in August of 1997, except, apparently my bride-to-be and yours truly. Two years later “This is to Mother You” from her wonderful 1997 EP, Gospel Oak, the album O’Connor was touring when the two of us went to see her together for what turned out to be our first time alone together and the last time I would ever be alone again, was our wedding song.

Yeah, Sinéad was our hero.

She became mine much earlier. When I needed her – like I needed Warren Zevon when Zevon stepped in – she arrived like a gale force wind, horrifically refreshing.

Haunted by demons from her earliest sentient memories, defiant and reborn with a voice that coursed through your guts, Sinéad O’Connor pushed hard against what she thought was wrong and embraced with maternal aggression what she cherished. She was a holy mess, a furious angelic punk, and when you spoke to her, as I did, you can still hear the tremors of those battles in her throat, the almost whispered Gaelic pulse of words and breath that exploded into a thousand points of light when she sang. It was in her conversation that the spastic duality which fueled her art might be glimpsed.

She put it into the songs, on those albums, and when you saw her on stage – wholly present, like watching a reed dan le déluge – trying so damn hard to be the tough Irish lass but refusing to harden her heart. She needed that tool for the art. But as many of us know, it’s a painfully arduous balancing act. I could hear it in her voice, on stage, on record, over the phone. Sadly, today, she lost her balance.

When I wrote Prince Rogers Nelson’s eulogy for this paper in 2016, I spent a good part of it explaining what his music and times meant to the twenty-something me. Well, Sinéad owned a good deal of the latter part of my twenties into my thirties, from the opening notes of “Nothing Compares 2 U” – a song I adored in 1986 when Prince strangely handed it to one of his fringe bands, the Family instead of recording it himself – flooding out of the speakers of the shitty car I was driving towards dawn. It was revelatory, a shuddering tightrope declaration of pure adrenaline and hurt. Prince, no fan of O’Connor’s, understood the song belonged to her now. He said then, “Sometimes a song doesn’t find a home until it does, and this one has.” Because when she sings, “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the backyard / All died when you went away,” Prince knew the score.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” went on to be a massive global #1 hit with a video in the how-nuts-can-we-get age that featured only her face. It is the first track on the second side of O’Connor’s second album. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, one of the finest statements by a woman singer-songwriter ever, and when I was working on a pitch to the editors over at the 33 1/3 series three years ago to write about the record, I pointed out how pertinent it was to the woman’s movement of 90s power pop, rock, and indie expression, from Liz Phair to Ani DiFranco, P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morrisette, and bands like Bikini Kill and Hole.

And there would not have been that album or the Prince cover if not for the death of her mother, Johanna, who had suffered all her life from mental disorder, shoved aside in a patriarchal fascist state that was 1960s Ireland – no contraception or reproductive rights, no legal recourse against “marital rape”, laws against married women working, laws against battered women leaving their husbands, women disallowed from drinking in pubs. Sinéad watched her descend into madness and endured her ghastly mental and physical abuse, forcing her to a nunnery where she found her voice, learned guitar, and escaped to London at sixteen to make her way. When Johanna died it was as if the talons of a great predatory bird had lifted from her eighteen-year-old soul and allowed her once again to breathe and to grieve.

The songs on that album are as arresting as anything that had come from a male artist. Male artists cannot be this vulnerable, as much as they might try. Prince tried, and he wrote a damn fine song, arguably his best ballad, but it took Sinéad to see it was not a torch song, but a paean to past regret and the desperate need for a wayward kid to belong. Prince later admitted it was as much about his complicated relationship with his mother and the insular emotional cocoon he’d erected to survive a peripatetic childhood than a woman he was pining for.

Watch the video again. Sinéad begins to cry when she sings that line about flowers in her mother’s garden dying. The honesty of it is terrifying. In her infinite duality, Sinéad O’Connor sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” as she sang her own sad, pure, fierce songs, tenderly but so fucking strong.

This is what you got from Sinéad O’Connor from the very beginning to the bitter end. The balance was remarkable but unsustainable.

This is the same woman who refused to allow New Jersey’s Garden State Arts Center (now PNC Center) to play the national anthem before her show. I was there that night. We did not hear about this so-called fracas until the next day. What concert have you ever been to that played the national anthem? Anthems are stringent jingoism. Her music is infinite, borderless. O’Connor took the stage, bald and thin, inflamed by the rush of that music and put on a show for the ages, and when we all awoke, she was an instant pariah. Front page news. Outraged politicians. Frank Sinatra threatened to “kick her ass.” And in the swirl of that media frenzy, she proved her point: Violence, vengeance, patriarchal lunacy comes with all the “home of the brave” stuff just like pedophilia and systemic control over women in Northern Ireland came with the Catholic Church. And so, she appeared on Saturday Night Live two years later and ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II, the one that hung on her mother’s wall when she was a child, announcing “Fight the real enemy,” and officially tanked her career.

“I never wanted to be a celebrity, I’m a fucking protest singer,”

Sinéad O’Connor

It was as if she had killed the man. The backlash was brutal, and it came from everywhere. A few days later, she stood on stage and listened to twenty thousand New Yorkers, not KKK Alabamans, boo her mercilessly as she shouted Bob Marley’s “War” – the same furious acapella performance that presaged the torn photo – with unrepentant rage before falling into Kris Kristofferson’s arms. She was to sing at some Boomer celebrity thirtieth anniversary circle-jerk for Bob Dylan, who used to get the same shit from people for singing about the murder of Emmitt Till, a young Black kid massacred for purportedly looking at a white woman. In 1963, when honored at a Bill of Rights Dinner for his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, the twenty-one-year-old Dylan took to the dais and unleashed a drunken diatribe alerting the rich liberals before him to find another “voice of a generation.” He was out of that game. Too dangerous.

Sadly, but predictably, Dylan said nothing of the incident that overshadowed his stupid shindig, much to the consternation of many of his fans, including my friend, professor Tim Riley, who dedicated a chapter in his Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary to the glaring omission and its painful irony. The next week, actor Joe Pesci hosted SNL and ripped up a picture of O’Connor and threatened to “give her such a smack.” She needn’t say anymore.

But enough about that and enough about women speaking their minds against patriarchal madness, racism, pogroms on women’s rights, all of which Sinéad stood against even after she was declared a dead pop star. “I never wanted to be a celebrity, I’m a fucking protest singer,” she told Rolling Stone, when she simultaneously won Artist of the Year and Most Hated Artist in the same issue. It was in O’Connor’s ensuing work that she spoke the loudest – her constant battle with faith, be it Catholicism or Rastafarianism or Islam. She became a priest and a shaman, then changed her name, but she could have been a sixth Marx Brother or the fifth Beatle or submerged into X for all that mattered, because her truest spirit came from that uniquely quivering, impenetrable, irrepressible bottomless throat. And from that machine emerged multitudes; lyrics and melodies bursting with love and peace and heartbreak and independence.

She often sang about her children, she had four, the first one Jake, was born when she was only twenty-one. She was allegedly asked to abort the fetus by her management as her career was about to blow up; who wants to see an unmarried pregnant pop star? This was the same management who previously suggested she wear provocative clothing and do up her hair before she showed up with a shaved head in a dirty tee shirt. She was barely twenty then. Jake is thirty-one now. She lost her third, Shane, a seventeen-year-old troubled kid, haunted like her mother, like her mother’s mother. He hung himself last January. She never recovered. Soon after, she was on suicide watch. She went missing and ended up here in New Jersey last summer. We tried to reach out to her, find her. She came back, but barely. She’d recently popped up on Twitter under a pseudonym, her last tweet to the world was of Shane, “Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.” Nine days later she was gone.

How delicate the balance.

And so, we are left with the songs and the memories of those incredible performances, and her marching for Black lives, Women’s lives, Irish lives, Human lives. Long after the shaved head and combat boots, long after her front-page stint as punk warrior, demon bitch she kept singing – and all those records are gems – and miraculously kept up the fight. Depression. Fear. Defeat. Resurrection. None of it silenced that astonishing singing voice. To this day, whenever I hear her hit those beatific notes on her stunningly gorgeous ballad. “Three Babies,” the feathered dance of falsetto on the sultry “Jerusalem,” the building sprint of “Thank You for Hearing Me,” the naked passion of “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” the gritty harangue of “No Man’s Woman,” the whispered gauntlet in “Petit Poulet,” the lilting grace of “Jealous,” or our wedding song, the sweet, compassionate, agonizingly expressive, “This is To Mother You,” I feel, we feel, as if I am, we are, in there with her.

There is too much to say, and I am shocked I got this out, because the first draft read like a man on the edge of a complete breakdown, but I need to share the last time I spoke directly with Sinéad.

It was 2014 for an AQ Weekly cover story on her last album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. Erin and I had just gotten back from Ireland to celebrate our fifteenth anniversary, as we both share Irish blood, and we spoke about a mural outside Dublin’s Hard Rock Café, which had a stunning painting of her with the inscription: “Sinéad, you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.” Sinéad was so moved she stopped for a moment and took a long breath. “It’s very special to me,” she said. “I’d really love to know who did it.” I told her we all did it, and she laughed. I kept that part out of the piece. It was maudlin then, but it is so apt now.

I finally asked her about her disturbing “suicide” song on the album, “8 Good Reasons” in which she sings, “Don’t know if I should quite sing this song/Don’t know if it maybe might be wrong/But then again it maybe might be right/To tell you ‘bout the bullet and the red light.”

“Can you reveal the eight good reasons that are worth sticking around for?” I asked.

Without hesitation, she whispered, “My children’s eyes.”

She lost her balance, that’s all.

She is still my hero.

Our hero.

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John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life – Kenneth Womack (2020)

On the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, noted Beatles’ historian and author, Kenneth Womack, accomplished again what he does best: provide us with every detail, nook, cranny, and movement of a Beatles-related story, making it come alive and matter as much as it did then.

I have admired Kenneth’s writing for years, reviewed his books in this space, and recently struck up a friendship through my work on the aforementioned Take a Sad Song. (He was kind enough to lend a blurb to its back cover.) Therefore, I was not surprised when I picked up a copy of his John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life at the Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans – where we both spoke last summer – and could not put it down.

Womack covers the entire last year of Lennon’s life, expertly weaving a story that begins with a peaceful, hermit-like existence of a nearly 40-year-old Lennon doting on his new son, Sean, and traveling to family haunts with his wife, Yoko Ono. Soon, Lennon, as is his wont, becomes restless, takes up sailing, wherein he is plunged into a harrowing life-changing experience on the way to Bermuda and contemplates what he believes will be the rest of a long life ahead. It is this revelation along with being inspired once again by the new music of his old teenaged chum and fellow songwriting genius, Paul McCartney, that fuels Lennon’s to embark on what would be his final album, Double Fantasy.

What struck me the most about the book was the ultimately tragic but heartwarming plans Lennon had to visit his Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him, for the first time since he and Yoko settled in the United States in the early 1970s, and how he had readied the musicians who worked on his album for a planned world tour. This, as we know, never happened.

Womack gets everyone on the record here: limo drivers, assistants, nannies, producers, studio cats, all of whom usher us through Lennon’s every move, even that fateful week and the terrible day of his murder on December 8, 1980.

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