My Road Trip with Sinéad O’Connor

Photo for The Washington Post by Lindsey Best
Sinead O’Connor, right, with band member Jackie Rainey at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles in February 2020.

Can we just hop back into that rented SUV and head South on the 5? It was early February 2020, and Sinéad O’Connor was sitting next to me, rolling a joint on the divider. I had come to San Francisco to write about her first tour in years, a short stretch of test gigs along the West Coast, and she decided she’d prefer to ride with me than fly to L.A. with the band, so she could smoke.

“Are we going to have to pay a fee for cleaning?” asked Erin, the Washington Post videographer in whose name the car was rented.

“It’s Sinéad O’Connor,” I told him. “The bosses will understand.”

We talked about mental health and her difficult six-year recovery from a radical hysterectomy. We listened to Freddie King and yoga chants. We brought her for her first visit to an In-N-Out Burger, where she sat in her hijab – she had converted to Islam – sampling a burger and vanilla shake, and nobody seemed to notice.

She told dirty jokes and signed onto my phone to play songs by country-music parodist Wheeler Walker Jr. with titles I can’t print. She also talked to me about Shane, her teenage son, and his lifelong struggles with depression that had landed him in an adolescent inpatient unit. This was all being managed as she tried to relaunch her career with a short tour down the West Coast.

Some would probably characterize her as “difficult” or “unpredictable.” Or “mercurial.” This woman who was so quick to tell you she didn’t give a hoot how people perceived her would, in the next moment, scroll the anonymous comments posted on a story to see what they thought. Bob Geldof, who talked to me for my profile at her insistence, told me later that Sinéad had been furious about what he’d said. Neither of us could understand what about it upset her. Their onetime mutual friend, Bono, had stopped talking to Sinéad altogether, at some point after she publicly called him out as a “bozo.”

I was mesmerized the first time I saw her perform that February, more so by the songs that were new to me than the classics – “Fourth and Main,” a poppy jig from her little-heralded 2012 album, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?”; the shivering, back-to-back brilliance of “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a timeless take on police brutality, and “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” a break-up song like no other.

Those gigs were a reminder that Sinéad, the artist, hadn’t disappeared. We had stopped paying attention.

– – –

How to do justice to the memory of a complicated genius dead at 56? What would she want?

It was hard enough to know what she wanted when she was alive.

My relationship with her was supposed to be professional and brief – an arts writer who entered her life for the sole purpose of publishing a profile that would highlight her brilliant past and resurgent career as she launched this tour. Yet it was never that simple. One phone conversation opened with her calling me an expletive I’ve certainly never been called to my face by any celebrity I’ve profiled.

“You are someone who can’t accept when he’d annoyed a woman by being a d—? F— that and f— you.”

My heart raced. What had I done? Why was she so angry? How do I get this back on track? By this point, I had not only driven down the California coast with her; I had visited her home in Bray, a small, Irish seaside village just south of Dublin. I met three of her four children, and we had talked a lot about Shane. She would tell me about his struggles and then beg me not to include them in my story. I agreed. Shane was a teenager, and I could see this mother was tormented by what he was going through.

But that’s not why Sinéad was cussing at me that day on the phone. I was trying to assign a photographer to go to her house and take a proper portrait for the story. And this had set her off.

“I’m literally crying over this,” she told me. “It’s just f—ed up my entire weekend.”

I explained that I just want her story to be perfect. That she’d given me so much time and we wanted to tell her story right. That her struggles were understandable. That she had been treated so unfairly in the press and by the public throughout her tender, overexposed, skyrocketing young adulthood. And that her music was still vital. I promised I would talk to the photographer about making it all as easy as possible.

And she yelled at me and hung up. I wondered what to do next. Then a text arrived.

“I don’t really hate you. Dingbat.”

Dingbat! Then I knew we were okay.

“I want a huge favor in return,” she added in a follow-up text. “Washington Post has to buy me a typewriter and a whole f— ton of spare ribbons.”

– – –

I did not buy Sinéad a typewriter. But in Dublin, I bought her a record. Her music collection was absent from her big old house in Bray, and she missed it, though it was never clear what had become of it. The past few years had found Sinéad in and out of hospitals, only in the news when she trainwrecked.

So I found a clean copy of “Slow Train Coming,” Bob Dylan’s first Christian album. Its spiritual nature captured her as a child. For a time, she told me, she even daydreamed that Dylan was her real father.

Sinéad remembered that gift more than a year later when I interviewed her about her memoir, “Rememberings,” on a Washington Post video livestream. In her Black Lives Matter T-shirt, cigarette in hand, she talked intelligently – albeit with a string of F-bombs that spooked my bosses – about human rights, the power of music, and her plan to record a new album. And she asked, publicly, if I could get her some more records.

“Send them to Geoff,” she said. “Because I just got a record player and I’ve got hardly any records.”

The packages began to land on my front porch. Strangers from across the country sent Jimmy Cliff, The Police, Blondie, Loretta Lynn, Carole King. When I finally mailed the box to Ireland, it cost me close to $250.

Did she ever get them? Did she get to listen? I never knew.

– – –

Shane looked just like her, down to the buzzed head and the brilliant blue eyes. When Sinéad and I met up, that first week of February of 2020, she was struggling with how to relaunch her career and stay near the adolescent center to support him.

And then she texted one night to say she had written a song. “Can I share it with you?”

It was a beautiful ballad, structured like a classic country song: “Horse on the Highway.” Anybody could have figured out it was about Shane, even if she didn’t tell me, which she immediately regretted and made me promise not to say so. (“Also explain it’s a really s— demo with a karaoke mike and a child’s guitar and a Dictaphone app and a chest infection.”)

“The song is beautiful,” I wrote her. “Stunning from the first line.” I asked if we could include it in the story.

“I’m SO happy,” she wrote. “You’re an angel.”

Less than two years later, Shane took his own life at just 17 while on suicide watch.

Sinéad was found unresponsive in her London apartment on Wednesday.

“Tonight I’ll dream we are in heaven.

“Sitting underneath that apple tree.

“Not being at sixes or at sevens.

“Just being with you being with me.”