As a young woman starting out in music, Sinéad O’Connor rarely did what she was told. When Nigel Grainge, an executive at her label, asked her to stop wearing her hair short and dress more like a girl, she went straight out and got her head shaved. While recording her first album, she discovered she was pregnant, prompting Grainge to phone her doctor and tell him to warn her against having a baby. The doctor duly told her that women shouldn’t take babies on tour but neither should they go on tour without them. O’Connor ignored them both and had her son anyway.
Then, in 1992, during a performance on Saturday Night Live, she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, and blew up her career. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Everyone wants a pop star, see?” she writes. “But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.”
Rememberings, then, is a tremendous catalogue of female misbehaviour. Music memoirs tend to follow similar trajectories of ambition, success and depravity followed by regret and redemption. But O’Connor doesn’t do regret, and redemption isn’t required – at least not by her. She wanted to make a living as a performer but her idea of success wasn’t the same as other people’s. “I define success by whether I keep the contract I made with the Holy Spirit before I made one with the music business,” she explains. “I never signed anything that said I would be a good girl.”
The writing is spare and conversational, and reveals O’Connor as self-deprecating, pragmatic and a sharp observer. She is funny, too. During a tour of America in 1990, there was an outcry after it was reported she had demanded “The Star-Spangled Banner” not be played before her gigs. MC Hammer made a big show of buying her a first-class plane ticket back to Ireland, while Frank Sinatra said she should have her arse kicked. People began steamrollering her albums outside her record company HQ in New York. “Intensely angry old people (with pointy noses) operating the steamrollers,” she hoots. In the end, O’Connor put on a wig and sunglasses and joined the throng. When a news crew turned up, she gave an interview pretending to be from Saratoga. “They ran it later on the news, with the caption Is that her? Running and re-running the footage of my ‘interview’. Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
As a child, O’Connor endured fierce beatings from her mother. She once won a prize at nursery school for being able to roll up into the smallest ball – “but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well”. She rarely went to school and would steal compulsively: “If a thing ain’t nailed down, I’m stealing it.” She picked up the habit from her mother, who would take money from the collection plate at mass rather than putting it in. Later, she and her mum would steal from charity tins. Full of guilt, O’Connor went to see her local priest who made her promise to give the money back when she got a job, and that way she’d be square with God (she was true to her word, giving her LA home to the Red Cross). She eventually left home to live with her father after her mother locked her and her siblings out in the garden all night. She later recalls being sent to a convent boarding school, where a nun bought her a guitar and a book of Bob Dylan songs, and encouraged her to sing.
There are stories from the height of her success, too, most of them underlining the hollowness of the experience. She is summoned to visit Prince, whom she brilliantly calls “Ol’ Fluffy Cuffs”, and who treats her atrociously. He tells her off for swearing, demands that she eat soup even though she has declined it and insists on a pillow fight. It turns out his pillow has something solid in it: “He ain’t playing at all.” She runs out of the house and towards a nearby highway, though Prince catches up with her in his car and orders her back. She eventually escapes into a stranger’s driveway and rings the doorbell.
In the book’s foreword, O’Connor says that before she ripped up the picture of the pope, she never had the chance to find herself. “But I think you’ll see in this book a girl who does find herself,” she writes, “not by success in the music industry but by taking the opportunity to sensibly and truly lose her marbles. The thing being that after losing them, one finds them and plays the game better.” While her childhood and rise to fame provide rich material, O’Connor, who is 54, says she can’t remember much of the past 20 years, “because I wasn’t really present until six months ago”.
As such, the final chapters, which sprint through her marriages, children, a traumatic hysterectomy and spells in mental institutions, are episodic. But they remain, like the rest of her book, full of heart, humour and remarkable generosity. The postscript comes in the form of a letter to her father. “Please know that your daughter would have been as nutty as a fuckin’ fruitcake and as crazy as a loon even if she’d had Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary for parents and grown up in the Little House on the Prairie,” she tells him. “So don’t be kicking the walls unless it’s just for fun.”
• Rememberings is published by Penguin (£20). To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.