Treading Upon The Lion and The Cobra
(The Biography of Sinéad O'Connor)

Sinéad has always been this way: headstrong, defiant, unwilling or unable to conform. born in the working-class Glenageary part of Dublin on December 8, I966. Sinead, the third of John and Marie O'Connor's four children, grew up cautiously, anxiousty observing what was teft of a marriage that had begun to deteriorate before she had been born. John O'Connor was an engineer, and Marie was a dressmaker. Sinead and her two brothers and one sister spent their early years in a home full of constant strife, all anger and precarious silences.

Sinead's interview comments frequently refer to a childhood speckled by unspecified "abuse". In 1975, Sinéad's parents divorced. For the next five years Sinéad lived with her mother. Sinead started doing what most thirteen-year-old kids, from happy homes or not,start doing: she rebelled. In those five years she stayed with her mother, Sinéad was never happy, and at thirteen she moved back in with her father Sinéad saw little of her mother over the next few years; when Marie O'Connor was killed in a car crash in 1985, she had not seen her daughter in more than a year.

The Lion and the Cobra is dedicated to Marie O'Connor ; perhaps to keep balance, Sinéad dedicated I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got to her father. Sinéad's father seems to have kept his daughter on a longer leash than his wife did. Testing her father's patience, Sinéad rebelled against him as well. She skipped school regularly enough to be considered a truant by school officials, and she spent much of her hooky time moping around Dublin and playing video games, most of the money spent on playing these video games she had stolen from her father. After getting away with stealing from her father, she moved on to shoplifting clothes and perfume, and eventually got caught trying to sneak out of a store with a pair of unpaid-for shoes. Although there were more minor offenses against his daughter, John was worried he decided he had to place his daughter in a situation that might teach her some discipline.

Getting moved from school to school Sinéad finally settted in at the Newton School in Waterford. While at Newton, Sinéad realized what she wanted to do with her life. She played guitar in her dormitory room, began to feel comfortable singing and even writing the beginnings of songs (some of which she still performs), and found some solace through her music. With finding solace in her music, it was all Sinéad really had that made her feel like she belonged to the world. With knowing how to play the guitar and sing Sinéad got her first break when one of her teachers at Mayfield asked Sinead to sing at her wedding.

The brother of the bride was Paul Byrne, drummer for the band In Tua Nua. Sinéad and Byrne became good friends and she even helped write the group's first singles "Take My Hand." Although In Tua Nua released "Take My Hand in 1984, Sinéad did not remain in the band, her father insisted that she not tour with the band and she wound up at the Waterford Boarding School, While there she began playing in public more regularly, usually in pubs or coffeehouses (often with a supporting guitarist). With only staying close to one year at Waterford, Sinéad urged her father to let her attend Dublin's College of Music.

At the age of seventeen, Sinead joined a group called Ton Ton Macoute, as its singer She was not allowed to write for the band. The band even tried to audition for England's Ensign records, they were not taken in by their performance, however, Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill were taken in by Sinéad's presence and intensity. Sinéad was still very shy when she performed in front of an audience, Nigel and Chris simply told her she needed to work on her shyness. That was a typical record company blow-off, and they returned to England. Consequently, a month later Ton Ton Macoute broke up.

Sinéad was convinced and more confident that should we receive a record deal. Promises made earlier by Grainge had come through when he sent her a plane ticket and promptly forgot about her. On July 14, 1990 Rolling Stone Magazine ran a story about Sinéad which featured a photograph which was taken at Dublin Airport before she left for Great Britain, she had her luggage and even a full head of hair.

When Sinead showed up at Ensign' s office, a surprised Grainge sat her down and introduced her to Karl Wallinger, formely of the Waterboys. In the studio, he guided Sinéad through the process of recording her first professional demo tape. Grainge went into the studio and saw and heard Sinéad perform a stunning version of "Troy". Later that day, Sinéad went on to record "Jerusalem", "Drink Before the War", and "Just Call Me Joe". Surprised by Sinéad's performance, Grainge immediately had Sinéad signed to Ensign Records.

Sinéad quickly moved to London (a cold-water flat in Stoke-Newington) for good. While in London Sinéad wrote The Lion and the Cobra and spent most of her times hanging around the Ensign Records office answering telephones, she had nothing better to do. In the two years Sinéad had been in London, she had taken her songs and transformed them into full-fledged musical pieces and by mid-1986 she was ready to record them.

Grainge sent Sinéad into the studio with producer Mick Glossop. Sinéad met Fachtna O'Ceallaigh, the former manager of Boomtown Rats and Bananarama. Grainge had insisted Sinéad not hire O'Ceallaigh as her manager, but Sinéad needed a strong mangager and she believed in and trusted him. The second and probably most important man Sinéad would meet while in London was her future husband John Reynolds, who was hired into the studio group as the drummer on Sinéad's debut album. Soon after they met, Sinéad and John had begun dating.

Before recording her album though, Sinéad did a collaboration with U2's Guitaritst (Dave Evans) known as "The Edge" was writing a soundtrack for a filmed called "The Captive". Sinéad flew to Dublin and her and Evans started their collaboration. The song they had written together, "Heroine" was beyond anything Sinéad had ever accomplished with In Tua Nua and Ton Ton Macoute. With this song, Sinéad was able to share her real talent with someone who was her equal, both in writing and performing. The collaboration with "The Edge" helped Sinéad transform her music and from then on she experimented more and more developing her own style, she even experimented with her hair.

She tried a mohawk, tired of that look, she sported a crew cut, and finally went completely bald. Late night talk show host Arsenio Hall use to refer to Sinéad as "that little bald lady." SPIN magazine published it's fifth anniversary issue in April of 1990, according to the article, Sinéad's record company wanted her to "spice" up her image and make herself more "girlie", so she cut off all of her hair.

She did this for a number of reasons, one being she simply did it for herself and no one else. Sinéad once said "Hair's a fashion statement and I don't want to make one." When Sinéad finally went into the studio to record The Lion and the Cobra, she discovered she was pregnant with her and Reynolds' child. The record company and Reynolds wanted Sinéad to quickly have an abortion, she got as far as the hospital, but at the last minute, she changed her mind. With her personal and professional problems rising, Grainge suspected O'Ceallaigh was creating a gap between Sinéad and the record company.

Under those circumstances, it was evident that the sessions Sinéad recorded under Glossop's direction were a bust she and Glossop were at odds on how the record was suppose to sound. Both Sinéad and O'Ceallaigh saw Glossop as a patronizing impediment to making the record Sinéad and O'Ceallaigh wanted. Just when Glossop was ready to remix the album for release, Ensign agreed to let Sinéad call all the shots, along with O'Ceallaigh. She would produce herself, with engineer Kevin Moloney. Sinéad started recording the album in April of 1987, while she was seven months pregnant. She knew she had to complete the record in 2 months time. Knowing that she could pull this off at the age of just 20, that was far more impressive then the album itself, that June, she had completed the record and Ensign officials were pleased with the results.

She gave birth to her son, Jake Reynolds. Soon after he was born, she and John had a falling-out, and she grew even closer to O'Ceallaigh. The Gaelic inside of the inner sleeve translates into: "You will tread upon the lion and the cobra, You will trample the great lion and serpent." The fact that it was written in Gaelic also made sure that no one was in on the plan. The photograph, in which Sinéad leans her head towards the ground with a grimace look. This shows that the album your about to listen to will be unlike any other. If you look real close you will see that Sinéad wrote an illegible note on the back of her left hand. The cover image may show a tough, agresssive and serious woman, but underneath that image was a very vulnerable woman. The image is one thing, and the art is another.

The band musicians who played on The Lion and the Cobra were: John Reynolds on drums and drum programming, keyboardist Mike Clowes, guitarist Rob Dean, and bassist "Spike" HollifieId. The most important addition was Marco Pirroni, the former foit to Adam Ant, who overdubbed several guitars onto the album's only traditional hard-rock song, "Mandinka," and supercharged it. Yet the album was based upon a solo artist and not a band, with the addition of a couple star-spoken cameos. Many of the songs on The Lion and the Cobra have a big sound, but they aretraceable back to a solitary woman and her guitar.

The stark opening cut "Jackie" sets the agenda and exemplifies what is startling about The Lion and the Cobra and what remains unfinished. "Mandinka" shows how Sinead can work with well-worn materials and come up with something new. The electric-guitar chords of "Mandinka" are worthy of a first-rate heavy~metal group like AC/DC; Sinead sharpens her lyrical point, but smooths her sound by grating acoustic guitars atop "Mandinka's" snow slide of electric guitars.

The Lion and the Cobra is a debut album full of songs written by Sinead when she was still a teenager, and as a result the young performer and writer is not able to maintain the intensity of "Mandinka" throughout the record. " Jerusalem" offers evidence that Sinead has not yet perfected a voice that can show agitation without sounding whiny " Jerusalem" also loses itsetf in a cluttered sound-its adventurous middle section sounds like a collage of sound effects, this song also shows how much anger Sinéad could put into her music as well as powerful lyrics and music.

"Just Like U Said It Would B" marries British folk (in the tradition of the groundbreaking folk-rock group Fairport Convention). " Never Get Old" is more problematic. Its elevated tone diffuses a good hook, reminiscent of Aja-period Steely Dan, that appears once Reynolds's drums finally kick in hard against Sinead's wordless moans. What diverts the listener mainly from the song is the cameo of arty Irish singer Enya (full name: Enya Ni Bhronain). Enya's Gaelic-language spoken sections serve as intentionally elitist devices, because they make sure that most fans will not be able to understand what is going on.

"Troy", an outstanding dissection of the treacherous journey from love to betrayal, embodies wide-screen sound to an expansive tale that takes in small domestic moments and grand ones derived from Greek mythology with equal finesse (although Sinead's promise that "I'd kill a dragon for you/And die" is a bit much). "Troy" is an ideal showcase for showing how closely Sinead can focus on affairs of the heart. The version of "Troy" on The Lion and the Cobra has since been overtaken by the sparse live version that Sinead performs alone with an acoustic guitar and climaxes with the spat-out scream, "You're still , a fucking liar" this is not some demure singer-songwriter scolding an ex-lover ; its pretensions not withstanding, it feels real.

"I Want Your (Hands on Me)," is a savvy white-girl funk exercise. It is an urgent song that is full of demands for physical affection and promises of what will happen if the listener takes her up on her offer. Electric guitars bounce off Reynolds's programmed drum patterns, leaving plenty of room for Sinead to spray lust in all directions. "I Want Your (Hands on Me)" and " Mandinka" sound much hotter than the rest of The Lion and the Cobra, probably because they were remixed by different people after the initial mix by producer Sinead, engineer Moloney, and manager O'Ceallaigh.

The Lion and the Cobra winds down with two of its oldest compositions. "Drink Before the War", and "Just Call Me Joe". "Drink Before the War' features perhaps Sinead's slyest singing on the record, all purposeful swoops and asides. "Just Call Me Joe," a feedback-heavy ballad built around the ominous fret work of guest guitarist Kevin Mooney, who wrote the song under the pseudonym Black Moon E. "Just Call Me Joe" is a barbed, yet ironically low-key ending to an album that as a whole is anything but low-key.

Sinead had lived up to the liner-note boast: she had tread on the lion and the cobra, and emerged from that experience wiser and more ferocious. However, sales of The Lion and the Cobra were exceptionally low, selling only twenty-five thousand, and some in the company did not even think that Sinead, a woman they perceived to be quite odd, would get even that far. Sinead's debut album arrived in unsuspecting record stores at a time when albums by female pop performers were considered an amusing novelty Retrogressive folk- oriented performers like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman were all the rage for young fans who had missed Joni Mitchell the first time around and for older fans who simply missed her.

For no other reason than because she was a woman, Sinead was lumped in with these overt folkies. In an interview with Bill Coleman that ran in Musician. " I'm not an admirer of folk music, of Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell," all that stuff is wishy-washy as far as l'm concerned." Sinead may have had a big mouth when she sang, but that was going to be nothing compared to what she could do with it when she talked.

Before Sinead could get out the good word about herself, she had to deal with a new record company. Ensign had hammered out a distribution deal with Chrysalis, who would market The Lion and the Cobra internationally, but a shortage of cash at Ensign led to a deal in which the company of Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill became a wholly owned subsidiary of Chrysalis.

Chrysalis' projection of twenty-five thousand sales was quickly surpassed. Even conservative commercial American radio was playing the record. Sinead's beachhead on the United States airwaves was college radio (also known as "alternative radio") stations, which made sense. College radio has always been extremely open to performers who do not look mainstream-especially if that performer is mildly androgynous, and an apparentty literate manipulator of obscure, angst-filled lyrics. Sinéad fit this category to a "T" and frequently appeared on the alternative and college radio charts.

Sinead's face in the press, led to more interest on the part of radio programmers. Live shows also helped sell the record. Although Sinead and her band only toured through clubs and small halls, such intimate settings enhanced the quiet, insular songs that made up the bulk of The Lion and the Cobra. Her hour-plus sets featured most of the songs from her debut album, as well as a harsh, unrecorded tale called "The Value of Ignorance".

She played several of the songs accompanied only by her guitar and in doing so did her best to minimize the inevitable distance between performer and audience. The most riveting of these solo acoustic tunes was her recasting of "Troy." Stripped of its ornamental orchestration, the hurt and ambivalence of the tune shone through.Sinead and a guitar, this "Troy" nonetheless wailed. Many fans left these shows moved.

Sinead was able to get across via music videos. Three of the songs from The Lion and the Cobra-"Troy," "I Want Your(Hands on Me)," and "Mandinka"-were filmed by John Maybury. Listening to The Lion and the Cobra, attending the tour supporting it, and watching the videos culled from it yield impressive evidence that anyone who considered Sinead aggressive or pushy (or one of the sexist synonyms for such an attitude) was not paying attention to the performer's work.

Every song Sinead performed in 1987 and 1988 was built on the platform of the singer's vulnerability. Critics reviewed her interviews instead of her record, and they were reviewing a totally different type of performer. However, Sinéad didn't feel she should be praised just for writing a song. Sinead was something special, and she surely knew it. How else could she be so confident of her own opinions and be so willing to express them?

As Sinéad turned twenty-one, she became a "punk", In fact, there may have been some pressure on Sinead (from record-company people as well as O'Ceallaigh) to be confrontational: it kept her unusual first name out where people saw and heard it, and it accentuated how Sinead was different from the flock of female folk singers. Sinead climaxed her support of The Lion and the Cobra with a lip-synching performance at the Grammy Awards, one of the American music industry's many annual tributes to itself. Bald-headed and fierce-looking among the wide-smiled moussed stars, Sinead was like "Twin Peaks" at television's Emmy Awards eighteen months later: she was miles ahead of everybody else, she had upset the status quo, and nobody knew quite what to do with her.

Although she had to contend with the stupidity that is lip-synching before a live performance (and she has never mentioned why she did not play live, as others did that Night), Sinead blazed through "Mandinka', as well as she possibly could. In the midst of the polite evening, she came on like a punk. For the first time she delivered a performance that lived up to her rhetoric. The audience (both live and in their homes) were stunned. They were not used to seeing something that appeared real. Flagrantly sexual, built on inside jokes (most people neither knew Jake nor Public Enemy), it was a performance that succeeded precisely because it did not belong.

"We realized that she had turned off a lot of people that night." Quietly company officials began to discuss toning down their unlikely star, but everyone knew that was unlikely as long as Fachtna O'Ceallaigh remained her keeper. Sinead could not have cared less such public considerations. After her Grammy performance, she flew back to London and married John Reynolds. Even though she had married John Reynolds, Sinéad seemed to grow closer to O'Ceallaigh, this shocked everyone, even the tabloids were starting to pick up on it.

The love triangle between the three may have not been sexual, but more emotional. Moving back to London and marrying Reynolds was one way of starting to deal with the problem. Getting married also created some necessary friction between Sinead and O'Ceallaigh. Sinéad's work of this period is accurately documented by The Value 0f Ignorance, a short (only thirty-five minutes long) video document of a June 1988 show at's Dominion Theater, shot by John Maybury The song selection is pretty much what one would expect from seeing her live, since her set lists did not vary much. The Value 0f Ignorance presents seven songs from The Lion and the Cobra and an a cappella encore of a recontextualized Frank O'Connor (no relation) poem "I Am Stretched on Your Grave."

Although the product takes its name from the visceral unreleased tune Sinéad was performing at the time, that song does not appear here. Almost the entire Value 0f Ignorance tape is composed of close-up shots of Sinéad. the shooting style is so intentionally fuzzy that the tight close-ups don't add up to any intimacy with the singer. There is little visual evidence that a band is backing her; the camera rarely pulls back far enough to reveal that. Also unseen and virtually unheard in the video is the audience, they might as well not have shown up at all.

The Value 0f Ignorance is as insular as a live recording can be. None of what is great about Sinéad works its way onto the tape. What does come through is arty indifference. Sinead performs some wonderful songs but she does not bother to put them across to anyone but herself. The closure of the video seems like nothing so much as a vanity project and a souvenir for diehard fans. Both Sinéad and her loyal audience deserve better.

A new song from that period was called "Jump in the River", which showed up on the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme's warm comedy Married To the Mob. Cowritten with Marco Pirroni, it is an immediate leap in songwriting quality from all but the cream of The Lion and the Cobra. Sinead plays nearly all the instruments on the tune, and she sounds more in control than in any of her previous recordings. "Jump in the River" charges harder than anything on The Lion and the Cobra, including "Mandinka," both musically and lyrically. The song is about trust, about giving one's self over to another, and the peace of such as countered by Sinéad's mammoth electric guitar chords.

The video for "Jump in the River" undermines the song. How can Sinéad's audience get excited about a track if it looks as though she is bored by the whole thing ? Not surprisingly, in spite of its great strengths, "Jump in the River" was not much of a hit. In her music, espescially with "Jump in the river", Sinéad seemed to be more assured artistically and personally when she tied the knot with Reynolds.

She had more of a sense of herself and what she could and could not do, and the chance to be at home with Jake for an extended period of time gave her even more strength. She kept a low profile and tried to settle back into some sort of normal life. The year on the road had left her chronically fatigued, and she turned to yoga as a way out.

At this time she also fired her manager, O'Ceallaigh, they say he is too abrasive, he is too opinionated, and he is too anxious to escalate a minor disagreement into thermonuclear war. Instead of helping an artist keep control, which is what a good rock-and-roll manager is supposed to do, O'Ceallaigh controlled Sinéad. Granted, she was a willing subordinate in that she was infatuated enough with O'Ceallaigh and his ideas to go along with anything he said (on the musical side, it is not unfair to suggest that this situation helped inspire "Jump in the River").

lt has become standard to blame everything Sinead did from 1987 to 1989 on O'Ceallaigh (Sinead herself does it in interviews when someone brings up O'Ceallaigh), but it is worth remembering that Sinéad was no dope during that time of her life, just a kid. by late 1989, Sinéad had outgrown O'Ceallaigh. She wanted complete power over her life and her career, and he was living vicariously through her. Breaking away from O'Ceallaigh, She huddled in a small studio with engineer Chris Birkett- again, Sinead intended to produce herself-and sparingly brought other players (Reynolds, Pirroni, Rourke) into the fold, and poured her heart into her new songs.

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