Untold Stories by Donal Lynch

(c) 2005 by Donal Lynch

This piece appeared in the Sunday Independent on September 28, 2005. I subsequently wrote the press bio for the release of Throw Down Your Arms and took some of the photos for the album sleeve.

Untold Stories

Sinead O’Connor looks at me, smilingly grimaces, and lets out a long, resonant fart. The air-conditioned lift fills with pop star fumes. I stagger backwards onto my luggage and anxiously glance at the dial. Fourteen floors still to go. She sniffs her effort appreciatively and laughs at me mock-gasping for air. ‘Thanks for comin’ sweaty!’ she chuckles.

Farting is Sinead’s secret weapon, her anti-adoration defence mechanism. She has spirited me, her biggest fan, across times zones and oceans to watch her record her new album of roots covers. I can’t quite believe I’m here. At this point we hardly know each other but we will be alone together for nearly a month. I am jetlagged, watchful and slightly awestruck. But I’m conscious that far from home and lonely she needs a friend, not an admirer. And so every time I go reverently quiet or look like I might well up in appreciation she lets one rip and makes my eyes water for a different reason. It’s her way of reminding me she is human after all, not some untouchable rock deity.

But outdoors I’m safe. On the balcony of the enormous suite Sinead rolls me my first Jamaican joint. Below us Kingston stretches out, a twinkly sprawl, in all directions. Sirens echo into the distance. The night air is thick and warm. The weed smells pungent, moist, nothing like the crumbly dry stuff you get in Dublin or London. She laughs at my spluttering. ‘It’s strong shit over here’, she tells me. I pass it back to her. ‘I’m glad you’re here sweaty’ (this is her nickname for me after a text someone sent me in which they misspelled sweetie) she tells me between drags. ‘I’ve just been going a bit mad all on my own the last few days. You’re a true friend for coming all this way. We’re just mates now’. I take a long, sensuous toke and smile dreamily at her.

Sure we are.

For practically my whole life I had been slightly obsessed with the woman now sitting opposite me in her swimsuit and t-shirt. I had seen almost every Irish concert she had ever given (I attended my first one in 1990 when I was just ten years old and she was the latest chart-topping sensation) and had even travelled to England to see her. I had amassed an exhaustive collection of B-sides, rare tracks and live appearances and for fifteen years I had played her music on an endless loop and kept a growing pile of press cuttings on her. In 2002 I had thrown her a bouquet of flowers at a concert in Vicar Street and a year later my career in journalism had begun with an article about her. She was my email, my passwords, my screensaver. Though I had gotten to know a little her by the time I went to Jamaica, the relationship was still primarily one of fan-star and it would take more than a few farts to knock that long-held wonder out of me.

She acts motherly towards me. She wants me to be safe. ‘Don’t go outside the hotel on your own, it’s too dangerous’ she tells me earnestly. ‘And don’t let these guys know you’re gay. It’s not worth it. We’ll make up some bullshit. Just don’t leer too obviously at anyone. And’ she adds, clocking my boyish face, ‘don’t shave!’

As we get ready for bed I can’t help stealing little glances at her long elegant neck, her huge doe eyes, her shaved head. I had a poster of this on my wall when I was in school .A little uncool voice inside me is screaming ‘There’s Sinead O’Connor and she’s brushing her teeth!’ Despite my protests and her bad back, she insists I take the bed and she will sleep on the couch. I hug her goodnight. I’m half wondering if now would be the right time to ask for an autograph.

The next morning we head down for breakfast of Johnny Cakes and Salt fish by the pool and meet her new manager, Danny, a genial New Yorker who also is also getting the get-to-know-you fart treatment. He twitches his moustache, smiles indulgently at her and theatrically wafts his hand in front of his face. He talks business. I tune out. She listens and constantly assures him that she’s not going to ‘suck industry cock just to sell a few records.’

We’re picked up at the hotel by Buffy, Israel Vibration’s Rasta tour manager and our Kingston chauffeur. His dreads are piled high under a woolly hat on his head and he pours sweat in the heat. He touches fists with Sinead. ‘Seen’. We rattle through the streets of Kingston in Buffy’s old jalopy. As soon as we move outside the financial district the gleaming skyscrapers give way to grubby shantytowns of dirt tracks and corrugated iron roofs. Withered old men sell cigarettes on the side of the road and huge black ladies sit fanning themselves in the shade of the huts. There is a smell of scorched rubber. When we stop at traffic lights, barefoot little boys come scurrying up to the window, their arms outstretched. Buffy tries to shoo them away from the window but before he can do this Sinead, sitting behind me, shoves some notes through the crack in the back window. ‘Ah whaddya do that for?’, he asks, shaking his head at her. ‘Them take advantage of you. They everywhere!’

Along the building of Tuff Gong studio there is painted a huge mural of pan Africanist Marcus Garvey. This is where Bob Marley recorded Stir It Up and one of Sinead’s favourites, Concrete Jungle. The gates open. This is the Mecca of Rastafarai. She is flushed with excitement. For ten years she has been dreaming about coming here. When she moved to London as a teenager she fell in with future manager Fachnta O’Ceallaigh who introduced her to reggae and roots music. ‘I would hang around with all these Jamaican Rastas' she tells me. ‘They had the fire and passion I wanted to bring to my own music. What they were making was the antithesis of a lot of the fake commercial shit that was around at the time.’ A few years later she would appear on Saturday Night Live and sabotage her own commercial success by singing an acapella version of Bob Marley’s War and, famously, ripping up a picture of the pope. As we stare up at a mural of Marley Sinead tells me that she gave her youngest son, Shane, one of Marley’s names in tribute. Inside the studio the musicians, engineers and Sly and Robbie are waiting. Robbie is the only one who proffers a big hug. He’s running the show. Sinead is wearing a Haile Selassie T-shirt, and a Rastafarian wristband. It’s her turn to be the giddy fan.

The other musicians, most of whom played on the original roots records that Sinead will be covering, greet us. One of them, Glen Brownie, has heroically long dreadlocks. They have never been cut and are nearly double his body height. We are greeted with a series of elaborate handshakes, which I cannot quite get the hang of. I suddenly feel very uncool and white. They eye me quizzically, trying to figure out the whole entourage dynamic. ‘I think they think we’re together’ Sinead mutters through gritted teeth. ‘We’ll let them think that for now.’

At Tuff Gong the day’s work begins with a fat spliff and a leisurely chat. Sinead and I hang out in the gloomily lit hall with the musicians. I strain to understand the thick Jamaican Patois they speak in. I’ve never heard English mangled quite like this. Half the time I just nod, hoping a non-committal affirmative doesn’t sound too stupid. Sinead is better at it than me. ‘Stoosh means arrogant’ she whispers to me, spotting the look of confusion on my face.

Only after about an hour does the music begin. The instrumentation will be laid down in Tuff Gong but Sinead sings along ‘guide vocals’ while the musicians play. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her sing as a friend instead of a paying customer. At first she is barely humming along, trying to get the right key, tentatively feeling her way into the songs. Then, as they begin to record War, something strange and wonderful happens. Sinead sings out. Her voice booms with authority and passion. The light shines on her face and she closes her eyes in fierce concentration. As she emits what Sean Nos singer Lilis O’Laoire calls ‘that long public note’ she raises her hand in acknowledgement of whatever force has now possessed her. This is the other ‘her’, the one that had cast a spell on me from afar. I am rooted to the spot, mesmerised. Even one of the session musicians, who has just stopped off at the studio, stares at her, mouth open, and mutters in astonishment. ‘White girl know da flex!’

When the music stops the trance is broken. She opens her eyes and looks at me with a little elfin grin. ‘Was that ok?’

In breaks between recordings at Tuff Gong the old Rastas sit around and talk philosophy with Sinead. They call it ‘reasoning’. On the third day Cat, a Rasta Godfather, ceremonially places a Rastafarian pendant around her neck. Another warm evening he takes away her hand-carved priest staff and, to her delight, has it ‘rastified’ for her with red green and gold paint. He tells her that she must bite into a special seed before she eats anything in case her enemies try to poison her. (This, he adds, was what really happened to Bob Marley). Her most likely enemies were ‘faggots’, the source of all the world’s ills. But on the other hand you wouldn’t know where the danger could spring from he adds, looking pointedly at me. I could see a shimmer of an indulgent smile cross her face but her eyes glittered defiantly. Up to this point she has been listening and nodding but now she answers back. ‘How can you say that?’ she asks him quietly. ‘It ain’t gay people who are fucking up the world. What have gay people to do with any of that?’

Jamaican intolerance is a source of constant bewilderment to both of us. It seems to be so deeply ingrained and yet it runs counter to the teachings of Rastafarai. Buju Banton can write a heartbreakingly beautiful song like Untold Stories and then he can come up with anthems of hate like Boom Boom Bye (the lyrics of which are so explicitly and violently homophobic that he has been banned from performing it in England) While we are in Kingston, another reggae star, Sizzla, gets caught in a ‘mix up’ with the police relating to possession of weapons. With urban violence spiralling out of control there is little local sympathy for him. Even one of the Rastas tells me ‘Sizzla, you know, he had it coming.’

We don’t have to worry about violence though. Sly and Robbie enjoy god like status in Kingston. A Rasta escort is better than any armed guard.

For our lunch breaks at Tuff Gong, we are given delicious salted fish from the street vendors or piled high plates of goat curry from the back of the van. Sinead is determined to not even vaguely act the diva around Sly and Robbie. She wants to be ‘one of the lads’. If she so much as asks for a cup of coffee she frets to me afterwards ‘D’you think they’ll think I’m being demanding?’

Our days settle into a pattern of late breakfasts (in fact we mostly miss breakfast and have to plead with the waitress to rescue some Johnny Cakes for us) long days in Tuff gong late-night spliff-fuelled chats and watching court TV (we are glued to the Michael Jackson trial) in the hotel room. I try to play down my fandom but I once ask her about that ‘other’ Sinead, the force of nature that is unleashed when she gets a microphone in her hand. ‘It’s what I do for a living, but it’s only a tiny part of me, although often its all people can see’ she tells me. ‘But at the same time, I’m grateful its there. If it wasn’t for singing I’d be finished, totally finished. I wasn’t good at anything else. I’d be waitressing for the rest of my life … not that there’s anything wrong with that.’ Before we go to sleep she sometimes asks me to put on a record - ‘anything but reggae’. Agreed. I thumb through my collection. I figure she probably doesn’t want to listen to herself again so I sometimes put on Nina Simone, who I compared to Sinead in the first piece I ever wrote. ‘She was amazing’ Sinead tells me, almost wincing at the searing emotion in I’ve got in bad and that ain’t good. ‘I was a huge fan’.

The recording is going well but after about ten days it hits her like a ton of bricks. She is thousands of miles from her kids. She won’t see them for weeks. I find her sitting by the pool, sobbing.’ I’m a bad mother’ she sniffles, her voice shaking. ‘I shouldn’t have left them for so long.’ I hold her and comfort her. ‘No you’re not. You’re out earning a living. Someone has to keep them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.’ She sniffles. A half smile. We’re getting somewhere. ‘So just cos it’s a bit of a holiday too doesn’t mean I’m a bad mother?’ No, I assure her. If anyone asks we were both working our arses off at all times.

The next day we have a day off from the studio but I can see guilt is still gnawing at Sinead. Up to this point we have only seen the inside of the hotel and the recording studio, and I am anxious to do a bit of exploring. Sinead won’t come to the beach because she is ‘feeling a bit ill’, so I go off on my own. After about five minutes of exposing my translucently white hide on the white sands (wasted on me) I am deeply bored, brightly red and decide to head back to the hotel. When I get to the room the curtains are closed. All of the furniture has been rearranged. The place is sparkling. All of the clothes are neatly folded. I cheerily shout out ‘honey I’m hoooooome’. Sinead emerges from the kitchen (now also sparkling). She has spent the day in a frenzy of tidying and cleaning. ‘Sorry’ she says sheepishly looking up at me. ‘I had a bit of a Bean an Ti moment. I had to make our little nest look nicer.’

We both feel weirdly depressed by the constant sunshine. Neither of us is a very determined sunbather, although Sinead once declares that getting a tan would be worth it ‘even if it only makes them (people at home) jealous for five minutes.’ One afternoon we’re trying to explain why constant blue skies make us blue to Danny when the heavens darken and apple-sized droplets of rain begin to spatter the dry earth poolside. Soon a wall of water is coming down and Sinead and I stare up appreciatively at the comforting greyness. The poolside is deserted now. I walk out in my shorts into the rain. It’s quenching my thirst. This must be how hippies feel about trees. I turn around and Sinead is running towards me. She screams, grabs my hand and we jump together into the pool. It is a very Prince of Tides moment. Danny is standing under the umbrella shaking his head. ‘You crazy Irish.’

As the time to record the vocals draws nearer Sinead gets nervous about the amount she is smoking. ‘I just know I’m going be all croaky’ she laments as she shows me for the thousandth time how to roll it ‘properly’. ‘Are you bored here?’ she asks me. ‘Are you sorry you came?’ I realise it would be uncool to tell her I still think I’ve died and gone to psycho-fan heaven.

That night we cuddle up in bed. I’m just nodding off when I hear a familiar rumble under the covers. Duvet lifter. ‘Night sweaty’, she mumbles. ‘I’m glad you’re here.’