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Bowie, Eno & the Elgins: Kevin Armstrong on Sinéad O’Connor

“He thinks I just became famous

And that’s what messed me up

But he’s wrong…

I will live by my own policies

I will sleep with a clear conscience

I will sleep in peace” 

– Sinéad O’Connor, The Emperor’s New Clothes (1990)

A rebel with many causes to the bitter end, as Sinéad O’Connor is laid to rest in Ireland’s County Wicklow we‘ve an exclusive and very poignant passage from an upcoming autobiography.

Like many episodes in her unfiltered, brutally honest short life, her burial in the promenade picture postcard town of Bray is itself a head-scratcher, having lived there only for 15 years from 2007 to last year.

Sinéad O’Connor was an artist whose frankness was as disarming as it was uncomfortable, a woman who seemed inseparable from pain, even in her peak years. What is indisputable is that Sinéad was a Dubliner though and through, and when news of her tragic death jolted the airwaves in July I couldn’t help but be flashed back to the last time I visited the Irish capital in October 2019, and how I immediately regretted it was a one-night-only flying visit; little more than a stopover via London and Belfast on my way to Hong Kong and then Australia.

As I remember telling my Uber driver on my way to the airport, “I would have liked to have stuck around for another couple of days, especially because Sinéad is playing a concert here tomorrow.”

Indeed, SOC was due to perform the first of two shows at Vicar Street, an intimate venue just 15 minutes from her birthplace, and 15 minutes from my accommodation, the U2-owned Clarence Hotel on the River Liffey in Temple Bar.

I never got to see Sinéad perform then or ever, sadly. Just a few hours before her passing was made public, Jawbone Press had sent me the advance proofs of Absolute Beginner: Memoirs Of The World’s Best least-Known Guitarist.

The musician in question is Kevin Armstrong – original fifth member of Tin Machine (and contributor to Bowie projects such as Live Aid, Absolute Beginners and Outside), long-time axeman for Iggy Pop, and band member of sessions for Morrissey, Grace Jones, Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby, Transvision Vamp, Brian Eno, Paul McCartney… and Sinéad O’Connor. 

With thanks to Tom Seabrook at Jawbone, it’s the 19th chapter titled Sinéad & The Elgins that seems the most poetic and timely to reproduce here.

Suaimhneas síoraí Sinéad.

At one of Brian Eno’s [The Elgins] singing nights in 2007, I caught up with Sinéad O’Connor’s long-time bassist and friend, Clare Kenny. She asked me if I would like to play with Sinéad’s band on a tour of the States. This was an unexpected but very welcome invitation after such a long break from high-level live work. 

Much has been said about Sinéad since her very public Pope-portrait-ripping gesture on Saturday Night Live in 1992—an act so shocking to the watching TV audience that it virtually killed her popularity in the US overnight. She was making a sincere protest born of righteous indignation at the behaviour of the Catholic Church and its denial and cover-up of widespread child sexual abuse by priests, but it was mostly seen at the time as the act of a mad person and precipitated a dismissive and hostile attitude toward her. 

The furore was probably a mixture of old-fashioned misogyny and a knee-jerk reaction to her mental health problems, as much as it was a rejection of her protest, but various revelations over the years have vindicated her stance on the culpability of the Catholic Church in systemic child abuse. Eventually, instead of being dismissed, Sinéad became more likely to show up as a commentator on serious news shows or be touted as an authority on the Vatican Council and the scandals surrounding the church. 

She was proved right all along about the priests, the paedophilia, and the cover-ups. A messed-up Irish pop singer, trying to expose a deep evil that had been a shameful secret for decades, had sabotaged her own career with an angry cry for justice. In truth, she blazed a lonely trail for many outspoken female artists of today. 

Playing for Sinéad seemed like a more than interesting gig, so I said yes. I knew that John Reynolds would be along to lead the band, and that was a plus for me too, as I liked John. John was the father of Sinéad’s first-born son, as well as being her ex-husband, producer, and drummer, and was one of the very few people she trusted completely. Her childhood had involved terrible neglect and suffering, and she had obviously been damaged by those experiences. 

Though I’d never met her properly, I was aware of Sinéad’s reputation for instability, and John warned me about what may be in store. ‘Expect the unexpected. She might not show up, she might do a week and then fire the whole band. It might happen, it might not.’ 

I tried to keep an open mind when we started rehearsals. When she did arrive on the last day, Sinéad was polite but emotionally distant, to the point of almost not being there. She was smoking a fat spliff and wearing a hoodie that covered her face. She went through the songs in a whisper, and I had no idea if she even registered my presence as a new member of her band. 

Sinéad’s album Theology had just been released, and we played a few songs from it in the set. I struggled at first with the restrictions she imposed on the music. The songs were made up of two or possibly three chords, alternating every two bars at about sixty beats per minute, with absolutely no other harmony other than root, fifth, and third. 

Grade-one piano triads plodding along for six minutes at a time, at a funereal tempo, under semi-whispered lyrics from the Old Testament. Not a huge amount of fun for the band. After being in Sarah Jane Morris’s lively combo, where improvisation and harmonic colouring were positively encouraged, it felt like playing with gloves on after someone had hit you over the head with a baseball bat. 

It took a few shows for me to understand why the tonal and rhythmic palate was so tightly restricted. When Sinéad was on form, she could weave a spell over an audience and perform with a rare honesty and emotional commitment that put other singers to shame. The band was there merely to provide as blank and opaque a canvas as possible on which she could paint. Our job was, in effect, to be largely unnoticeable. Much of the music was rooted in Irish tradition and her religious beliefs, so a certain reverential atmosphere is her comfort zone. 

The first gig we played was at Dublin Castle—no, not the well- known rock pub in Camden Town but the actual castle in Dublin, Ireland. Sinéad’s voice had changed over the years (her speaking voice is surprisingly deep), partly due to smoking and maybe her age, so many of the older songs had to be played in dropped keys and some with a capo on the guitar. I had an array of guitars tuned in various ways for different songs, so it was quite a complex task for me and my tech to navigate the changes during a set. 

Our first gig would have gone brilliantly if only I hadn’t started the opening song with my strident, unaccompanied chords ringing out over the crowd in the wrong bloody key! Sinéad began singing over my guitar and the band came crashing in on verse two in the correct key—a semitone lower— making the whole thing sound, for a split second, like a sonic train wreck. I corrected the key and Sinéad recovered, but it wasn’t the most auspicious start. 

Being around Sinéad and John Reynolds can be a real laugh, as both of them suffer from a kind of Tourette’s syndrome, or pretend they do. There is a refusal to obey social convention that in John’s case, at least, belies a warm and generous character, and makes him impossible not to love. 

Once, on a transatlantic flight, Sinéad stood up, several rows in front of me, and loudly asked, ‘Kevin, have ye got any o’ that there deodorant? Me minge is kicking awf like a box of owld fish.’ I mean, what do you say to that? I was so embarrassed I wanted the ground to swallow her up. 

On the London date at the Royal Festival Hall, my mother came to see us. After a particularly slow and spiritual number, Sinéad addressed the audience. 

“I have been to see my doctor and he told me in no uncertain terms that I should stop masturbating. 

‘Why?’ I asked him.
‘Because I’m trying to examine you,’ he said.”

Another time, John asked Sinéad, ‘Hey, Ted, what’s the collective noun for cocksucker?’ She replied, without missing a beat, ‘A Westlife, Ted. A Westlife of cocksuckers.’ 

At the start of Sinéad’s tour, we had a gig in Poland to play for seventy thousand people on the campus of Poznan University. Sinéad had never gigged in Poland before, so it was a pretty big deal. Her tour manager, larger-than-life Dubliner Paddy McPoland, had a trick up his sleeve to get us through airports. First, he would discreetly inform the fan club what airport Sinéad was flying from and when. Then, when fans turned up in some numbers, he could say to security staff, ‘Hey look at all this hassle we’re getting from people.’ And then— bingo!—we were more often than not ushered smoothly past every queue straight onto the tarmac. 

On our arrival in Poland, we experienced no passport control or immigration checks. We came off a commercial flight and were whisked off in black vans, first to the local TV station and then to a restaurant in the middle of the town. A reception dinner, hosted by the mayor and his wife and other dignitaries, had been laid on in an upstairs room of a restaurant overlooking the town square. A huge image of Sinéad’s face, thirty feet high, had been mounted on a building opposite and was clearly visible through the windows. She hated that. It dominated the town centre, but she was just embarrassed by it. 

The tables were arranged in a big rectangle so that twenty people could be seated facing in toward each other. We were served extremely strong aperitifs called Mad Dogs, which slipped down a treat. It was after we had downed six or seven of these fruit-based but highly alcoholic beverages that the dinner, somewhat unsurprisingly, degenerated into pissed-up mayhem. The guitar tech Warren Kennedy ended up with his tongue down the mayoress’s throat in between lugs on a giant Cuban cigar, while the mayor danced on the table, trousers round his ankles, singing Polish folk songs at the top of his lungs. Sinéad herself had long since made a run for it, but not before meticulously removing all the heads from a plate of whitebait with her knife and fork and leaving them in a neat pile. 

Sinéad’s gigs could range from transcendent to downright boring, entirely depending on her mental state. On the day of the gig in Poznan, her mood was dark. She locked the dressing room door and smoked hash for hours. The gig itself was a rolling disaster, as she was stoned, depressed, and attired in a shapeless tracksuit. She shuffled around the stage looking at the floor, barely singing above a whisper. Luckily, the audience remained docile, but if I were them I would have asked for my money back. As cellist Caroline Dale bleakly observed after the show, ‘Well, nobody died!’ 

One of the tunes in Sinéad’s set was a reggae song called Lamb’s Book Of Life, in which I played kind of backward wah-wah chops and dub-inspired echo effects. I would often forget to turn off the wah-wah pedal. This meant that when I played a big creamy power chord on the next song, Thief Of Your Heart, it would be harsh, brittle, and nasty. When the Sinéad tour played its first German date in Munich, I asked Warren to put a reminder near my pedalboard about turning it off and, true to form, I got onstage and looked down to see a sign that read, ‘DON’T MENTION THE WAH! 

We also played a gig in Moscow. It was my first visit there, and I had always been curious about Russia. Some of the rumours about it were well-founded. On our way from the airport into the city, we were ‘randomly’ pulled over by uniformed police of some sort. A curt exchange with the driver resulted in a fat wad of cash changing hands, and, with that, we were allowed on our way again. 

By the end of the American leg of the tour, Sinéad’s mood had lifted. She had taken to wearing a man’s suit and Dr Marten boots, which looked really good on her. She sang wonderfully, too and, on occasion, she could take the roof off a place. We finished with some dates in Australia and parted on good terms. 

I later played on Sinéad’s 2012 album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, which she had wanted to call How About I Be Me And You Fuck Off. 

Since then, there have been other tours with different line- ups that have hit the buffers. There are stories of all kinds of problems, from financial and sexual shenanigans to the summary sacking of managers and bands. I think I got off lightly as a sideman for one of the most volatile artists I have ever played for. 

Kevin Armstrong 

Edited by Steve Pafford 

* Clearly, they’ve passed on their penchant for withering sarcasm to the next generation, too. John Reynolds told me that if Sinéad ever had occasion to ask their son Jake for help with something around the house, he would reply drily, ‘Why don’t you get Prince to do it for you?’ Her biggest hit, Nothing Compares 2 U, is, of course, a Prince song.

Even better than the real thing: 11 Irish Icons that aren’t U2 is here

Perfect 10: Sinéad O’Connor is here


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