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COVER STORY : Nothing Compares 2 Her Year

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

Sinead O’Connor’s split-level Spanish-style house high in the Hollywood Hills has the feel of a refuge from her personal and public storms of 1990. It’s on a winding street that is difficult to find even with a map.

From a side window in the house’s living room, you can see the huge Hollywood sign above you. From the front window, you can look across the L.A. basin to the ocean on a clear day. High-powered binoculars are mounted on a stand by the window.

Given such highly publicized sieges this year as her decision to cancel an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” rather than appear with raunchy comedian Andrew Dice Clay, and the outcry after she refused to allow the national anthem to be played before one of her concerts, it’s tempting to picture an anxious O’Connor using the binoculars to watch for trouble heading her way.

“Oh, they came with the house,” the young Irish singer said with only the slightest brogue, smiling at the idea of the binoculars being a security measure. But it was clear as she spoke about the year’s events with the candor and passion that characterize her music that she needs some time out of the spotlight.

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“My life has entirely changed. On every level--emotionally, musically, intellectually, it was the busiest year of my life. I’m very happy with fact that the music which was so personal was understood by millions of people. . . .,” said O’Connor, whose best-selling album “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” is arguably the year’s most critically admired work.

“At the same time, the year was also very painful. . . . A lot of awful things happened to me as a result of seven months of touring and the success of the album. . . .

“The good thing was I could go on stage every night and scream my heart out when I needed to . . . if I hadn’t had that, I would have gone mad.”

O’Connor, who turned 24 this month, attracted so much controversy in 1990 that she made headlines just walking through a Beverly Hills supermarket.

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The explosions weren’t totally unexpected.

The young singer had caused a media stir in England back in 1987 and 1988 when she was still a cult favorite. Her shaved head made for startling photographs and her spitfire comments--including some (sympathy for the Irish Republican Army) that she later retracted--made great copy.

By the time her 1990 album was released, it was clear that she was a major artist. This was a brilliantly absorbing collection of songs--an album that reflected much of the intimate, confessional edge of John Lennon’s early solo work.

The album’s songs of betrayal and faith, confession and redemption were delivered with a rare intimacy and passion. The emotions are often so unguarded that you feel you are eavesdropping on a fiery scene in a bedroom or, elsewhere, the bitter goodbys of a couple in a lawyer’s office. The strong spiritual undercurrent is a reflection of some of the soul searching she did in the months before recording the new album.

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When one of the songs--an evocative interpretation of Prince’s old “Nothing Compares 2 U"--became a radio and MTV favorite in America, it was clear that O’Connor was going to be huge.

Last April, at the beginning of her tour, O’Connor seemed apprehensive as she sat in a Manchester, England, hotel room during an interview. Already, the pressure was mounting. Part of the strain: Her interest, she said, was strictly in expressing her feelings in music--not in the stardom or the adoration that often accompanies success.

However, young women--responding to the personal nature of her music--were already showing up at concerts, their heads shaved. These weren’t just fans . . . they were worshipers.

And O’Connor wasn’t just a performer, but an artist whose power draws from her ability to share her feelings spontaneously and instinctively. She sang some nights on stage with such intensity and fury that it was frightening--reminiscent of Janis Joplin emotionally, but more refined musically and without the Jack Daniel’s.

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If she seemed in such command on stage, however, O’Connor was uncertain offstage. It’s one of her many contradictions.

Looking back on that period, she says now: “I remember when we did the video for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ . . . I was very upset. Things had changed dramatically in my life. My first manager and I split up and I had been totally dependent on him. I had never thought for myself.

“I was very emotionally immature and I still am in some ways. I have a habit of sort of becoming very dependent on people and I suddenly had nobody to depend on. It was a very scary time and you can see a lot of that uncertainty in the video.”

The new album may have made O’Connor a star in the pop world, but the first that most Americans heard about her was in May when she pulled out of “Saturday Night Live,” where she was scheduled to perform two songs, because she didn’t want to appear on the same show as scheduled host Andrew Dice Clay.

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Her decision came two days after cast member Nora Dunn said she wouldn’t appear on the show as a protest against Clay’s routines, which have been widely criticized as degrading to women.

“It would be nonsensical of ‘Saturday Night Live’ to expect a woman to perform songs about a woman’s experience after a monologue by Andrew Dice Clay,” O’Connor said at the time.

The decision was applauded by Francoise Jacobson, president of the National Organization for Women chapter in New York, who called Clay’s humor “misogynist.” For his part, Clay responded on the show by referring in a skit to O’Connor as that “bald chick.”

That uproar was mild compared to O’Connor’s decision three months later to refuse to allow the national anthem to be played before a show at the Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey.

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O’Connor said that she didn’t mean any disrespect for America, but that she “has a policy of not having national anthems played before my concerts in any country, including my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general.”

A New York state legislator called for a boycott of O’Connor’s subsequent concert in Saratoga and a few radio stations around the country vowed not to play her records again. Frank Sinatra was so angry that he told one of his own concert audiences that he’d like to “kick her in the ass.”

O’Connor raised additional eyebrows at the time by saying that people should be far more alarmed about the “disturbing trend towards censorship of music and art in this country . . .” than by her action in New Jersey. An avid supporter of rap music, she alluded specifically to the arrest of controversial Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in Florida.

Perhaps the oddest wrinkle in the anthem story was in October, when a meat clerk at Mrs. Gooch’s market in Beverly Hills started singing the national anthem when he spotted O’Connor in the market. The incident made the news when the employee was fired for violating a store policy against harassing customers.

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While these public battles were raging, O’Connor was going through much private struggle--dealing with the pressures of fame and relationships. There were widely printed rumors during the tour that O’Connor had separated from her husband and had become involved with British musician Hugh Harris, who was her opening act for much of the tour.

All this left her with a public image that was part radical punk and part media opportunist.

Yet O’Connor appears much closer to the radical image than the pop strategist. She can be stubbornly outspoken, but there is little evidence she does any of it merely for publicity. Much of her intensity seems to stem from a deeply troubled childhood which, aggravated by child abuse, left her determined to be uncompromising in expressing her feelings.

“It may seem like she is out there creating havoc and controversy all the time, but that is who she is,” said Steve Fargnoli, who has managed O’Connor since late last year and who formerly represented Prince.

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“I knew this was going to be a difficult year for her and I did what I could to help prepare her for it, but it was always a concern. It’s a dangerous way to live when you are in the public eye so much . . . being that open and vulnerable.”

Any regrets?

O’Connor paused for a moment of self-inventory as she sat on a living room sofa, clutching a bottle of beer.

“Where do you want me to begin?” she asked finally, flashing a warm, winning smile--all the more disarming because it was so unexpected from someone whose media image is generally withdrawn or defiant.

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On this night after an appearance on the Arsenio Hall TV show, O’Connor was neither sullen nor defiant. Mostly, she seemed relieved. The TV show had been her final scheduled appearance of the year--and she was looking forward to spending the holidays quietly with her 3 1/2-year-old son, Jake.

“Of course, I have had second thoughts--not about the anthem,” she said. “But I believe now that I should have gone on ‘Saturday Night Live’ despite Andrew Dice Clay.

“I thought (going on the show) was wrong at the time, but now I see it is not fair of me on one hand to say censorship is wrong in the case of rap groups like 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. and then do something myself that basically amounts (in effect) to censorship on my part.

“But we learn as we go along. I’ve done all my growing up and learning in public. I’ve had to teach myself to think before I spoke and that it was sometimes best to keep your mouth shut. . . .”

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She still seems a bit gun-shy from all the media attention.

Asked during the interview how many bedrooms the house has, you could see her guard go up. “Why’s that important?” she asked, bristling.

When it was explained as an effort to clarify certain basic facts--that it gives people an idea of her lifestyle to know whether it is a modest home or some 20-bedroom mansion--she answered, “three bedrooms.”

She then showed no resistance to questions about her height (5 feet 4) and weight (110 pounds).

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When the reporter then looked at her shaved head, she smiled. Before the question was even asked, she volunteered: “Once a week.”

The furniture in the rented three-bedroom house--where the Irish singer and songwriter lives with her son and Ciara O’Flanagan, a female school chum from Dublin--came with the house.

But there are touches of its present occupants everywhere in the living room: from the huge stuffed animal resting in the antique barber’s chair to the ironing board left by the window.

“I do feel comfortable here, (in) the house and Los Angeles,” said O’Connor, who extended her stay here through the holidays. “It’s much less hectic than London for me. I have always loved Los Angeles. . . . Seeing it in films and on TV . . . all the sunshine and palm trees, the closeness to the mountains and the ocean.

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“It is the most inspiring place I’ve ever been in. There is so much to learn and see . . . things like the extremes of poverty and wealth, which I never knew in Dublin or London.”

While Jake is in school during the day, O’Connor goes out a lot, shopping or exploring the city--and never resorts to disguises, even though the shaved head makes her easily recognizable.

Fans occasionally ask for an autograph or say hello, but generally respect her privacy, she said. When Jake gets out of school, they often go together to such places as the zoo or a stable for pony rides.

O’Connor goes to an occasional movie, but mainly stays home in the evening, reading (a biography of Irish poet William Butler Yeats was a recent favorite) or listening to music (lots of rap and Van Morrison). She’s not big on clubs or hanging out with celebrities.

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Another attraction of life in Los Angeles is less of a media glare than in London.

“It’s amazing how the press in London operates,” she said. “I’m sure they have something going with the British phone company to get people’s numbers. They found my husband on the phone after we split up and he had only got the number the day before.

“I was worried because I had a son and I was worried about what they would do.”

One issue that O’Connor will reflect on in the aftermath of her enormous 1990 success is dealing with stardom.

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“I wasn’t able to catch my breath (on the tour) until last week when it finished,” she said. “It will take me a couple of months to figure out what went on and how to better handle it in the future.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed through any of this is my music--the fact that it is a reflection of what I’m feeling,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “It’s amazing to me that so many people responded to what I felt.”

What has changed, she said, is how people react to her.

“All too often, they don’t look at you like a person anymore . . . they look at you like you are Sinead O’Connor . . . the star. People lie to you, boyfriends, people like that. . . . People will stop at absolutely nothing to take advantage of that fame.

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“I’m almost paranoid now. I have a very hard time trusting people, which I think is a wicked thing because I used to be very, very trusting. . . . I am very lucky that I have some good friends who treat me as they always did. . . . Ciara . . . and John, my husband.”

English rock drummer John Reynolds is Jake’s father and lives in London. She refuses to clarify their status though there have been widespread rumors linking O’Connor with various rock stars in recent months--so much that she joked about what she sees as the absurdity of it:

“It’s amazing all the things you hear. I’ve lost track of all the babies I am supposed to have been having by now from different fathers . . . Lenny Kravitz’s baby, Peter Gabriel’s baby. . . .”

She does acknowledge that she and Reynolds have gone through periods of separation. “What is difficult for John and I to deal with is that the press seems to think they have the right to ask to those kind of questions . . . that they don’t realize that a marriage is between two people and it is nobody else’s business.

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“The public has no right to know. Just because I made a record, do you not think that I will not suffer pain over my private life when it is discussed in public? Nobody has the right to know.”

But why the compulsion for such candor in her music?

O’Connor was the third of four children in a middle-class Catholic family in Dublin. Her father, John, was an engineer; her mother, Marie, a dressmaker.

The singer’s parents separated when she was 8 and she lived with her mother, who she says abused her with frequent beatings--sometimes so severe that she would just lie on the floor and cover her face while her mother kicked her.

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By the time she was able to escape and move in with her father, O’Connor had become so rebellious that she was placed in a “corrective center” run by Dominican nuns, where her father hoped she would get a fresh start.

Looking back, she said, “First of all the reason I am speaking about this is not that I am looking for attention or for sympathy or that I bear a grudge.

“It’s that I really believe nobody speaks about child abuse. Children need to be encouraged to speak about it and to understand the reason their parents are doing this is that they are unhappy.”

The worst part, O’Connor says of her younger days, was feeling helpless and alone. No one seemed to take notice of her problems--even when she showed up at school with bruises.

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“The Irish society is one that does not discuss things like child abuse or incest or wife-battering or pregnancy or sex or AIDS--which is horrible,” she said. “I am very proud to be Irish, but people there suffer from their inability to express themselves, which is so incredible considering the artists that come from the country . . . people like Yeats, Van Morrison.

“I remember trying to tell people--getting on the school bus and telling the conductor, but no one wanted to hear. My way of reacting to (all this) was that I stole all the time and I (skipped) school.” No one, she said, ever tried to deal with her abusive mother. “No one sat me down and said, ‘What is wrong? Why are you doing this?’ . . . even though everyone knew what was going on.

“The result was I was made to feel I was a terrible person. The real problem was brushed under the carpet.”

Throughout this period, music was a comfort and a way to release tension. O’Connor would put on a tape, turn it up loud and scream along with the vocalist.

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“Remember ‘The Beautiful Ones?’ . . . that Prince record? I’d stand on a chair in my sitting room and scream along.”

The song deals with the pain of feeling disconnected and rejected:

You make me so confused

The beautiful ones

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You always seem to lose.

By 1985, O’Connor discovered that singing and writing music was a liberating force and had obtained a record contract with England’s Ensign Records. But something happened that year that appears pivotal in her life: the death of her mother in a car wreck.

O’Connor spoke about her mother’s death in Rolling Stone magazine last spring: “Her life had been such misery, and as a result, our lives had been misery. . . . She had lost her career when she got married, and she’d had baby after baby, and I don’t think she ever had time in all those years to figure herself out, like I have since leaving Ireland. More than anything, I think she is the reason I sing.”

O’Connor expanded on that thought during the interview in her home. She said she feels her obligation as an artist is to speak honestly in her music so that she can share feelings with people.

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“I made a decision at a very young age that there was no way I was going to end up in the same circumstances that my mother ended up in. I was aware that the reason she was in this state was because she was never encouraged to talk, to express herself.

“If people say I seem to be aggressive, well, Jesus, I have a lot of reason to be aggressive. It’s part of my nature. It’s why I write the kind of songs I do and why I am the kind of person I am . . . It’s why I think it is wrong to brush things under the carpet . . . The important thing is to express ourselves so that we understand ourselves and each other better.”

Ensign Records’ Nigel Grainge signed O’Connor after hearing four songs she recorded for him. But it took two years to finish the debut album, the sensual, stormy “The Lion and the Cobra.”

During that time, O’Connor shaved her head, become pregnant, and took on Fatchna O’Ceallaigh as her manager--a colorful, strong-willed man who, it has been reported in the British press, strongly supported the Irish Republican Army and was head of U2’s Mother Records until the band fired him.

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It has been speculated in the British press that many of O’Connor’s controversial statements--including those supporting the IRA and attacking U2--were influenced by her relationship with O’Ceallaigh, though both parties refuse to discuss the situation.

Shortly before the release of her second album, O’Connor severed ties with O’Ceallaigh--even though she still credits him with suggesting that she record “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

For television viewers, O’Connor’s image as a media opportunist and radical was perhaps reinforced by her only network TV interview prior to the Arsenio Hall show: an appearance last summer on Maria Shriver’s “Cutting Edge” special on NBC. In the segment, O’Connor seemed stubbornly uncommunicative.

O’Connor admits that she makes no attempt in TV or print interviews to answer questions she finds boring or offensive. The important thing, she stresses again, is the music--not the personality.

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“I’m not prepared to play the game and pretend what a wonderful question it is . . . and I am aware that some people probably think it comes across as a bad attitude, but I am not interested in being a different person on the stage or in public than I am in my own house,” she said.

“That’s why you don’t see many photos of me smiling. It’s not that I set out to have ‘serious’ or ‘stark’ photos. If someone takes my picture when I’m smiling, that’s fine--and I smile a lot. But I’m not going to sit there and try to pretend to smile during a photo session.”

But last month’s decision to appear on the Arsenio Hall show suggested that O’Connor is becoming more sensitive to the question of public image.

The main reason she appeared was to sing Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me,” which she also recorded for “Red Hot + Blue,” a benefit album to raise money for AIDS research and education.

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But there was a second reason: O’Connor saw Madonna as a guest on Hall’s show last summer and was impressed. She felt that she got a new understanding and appreciation for the only woman in rock who created more headlines during 1990.

“I admire Madonna, much more after seeing her being interviewed,” she said, on the set of the show. “I’m not interested in most of her songs . . . they’re too poppy, but I thought she handled herself well on the show . . . smart and (with) such vitality.”

The fact that Madonna’s appearance was live was especially appealing to O’Connor, who thought it would give people a chance to see what she’s really like.

On the Hall show, O’Connor did come across as far more personable than on the Shriver show. As she is in person, she was a bit shy, even frail in ordinary conversation. But when an issue was raised, there was a sting in her response--and she inadvertently created headlines in England.

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Hall asked if it were true that her British record company had once asked her to have an abortion.

Without hesitation, she replied, “When I became pregnant, I went to the record company doctor and said that I was pregnant and that I was very happy about it. I was 19 at the time and had just started recording my first album. . . .

“The next time I went back to (that) doctor, he said I shouldn’t have my baby . . . in fact I couldn’t have my baby because my record company had spent 120,000 recording my album and I owed it to them not to have (a baby at this time).” She refused.

(Ensign Records officials deny that they pressured her to have an abortion.)

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O’Connor even got a chance to display some humor on the show. Is it true, Hall asked, that she once considered being a nun? Her reply: “Only until I found out you couldn’t have sex.”

In her Hollywood Hills living room the night after the Arsenio Hall appearance, O’Connor seemed far more relaxed than she had during the interview in April in Manchester. She may still be confused by much of what has happened this year, but she seems to have also gained confidence from having survived it.

Should one interpret her appearance on “Arsenio” as a sign that she is becoming more concerned with her image?

No, she said flatly. She said she thinks she has generally been portrayed accurately in profiles--though people might have the impression she is a bit tougher or more aggressive than she is.

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What about the MTV Awards in September? If O’Connor feels “stardom” is so unimportant, why did she seem so excited to win some awards that she jumped up and down at the podium?

O’Connor stood and walked across the room by the fireplace.

“Yes, yes,” she said, nodding her head. “I took a lot of slagging for that, but you’ve got to remember at the end of the day that it was fun . It’s fun for a 23-year-old girl from Dublin to be sitting at the MTV Awards with some of her girlfriends and be given an award.

“I wasn’t standing there thinking, ‘Boy, this will make me a bigger star’ or ‘This is great for my career.’ I’ve always dreamed of giving an acceptance speech . . . like Greta Garbo or something. It was like winning the prize you never won in school. Don’t people get excited when that happens? Isn’t that normal?”

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As if looking for a way to summarize both the interview and the year, O’Connor paced around the room. She stopped by the front window, the lights of the city glittering in the background.

“It’s funny how everybody seems to think that once you are in the public eye, you spend every waking hour trying to protect or build your stardom, especially when it comes to women,” she said, no longer with trace of a smile.

“Some people just aren’t prepared to believe that a woman can just be herself . . . that you can be spontaneous or speak words that weren’t written for them. Or that you can’t stand in front of a camera without hiding behind an image. Whether people like it or not, what they see--is me. It’s no image.”


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