21 Apr

In the spring of 2022 I was sitting on the couch with my daughter Clementine when Stranger Things season 4 ruined the novel I’d been working on for over ten years. 

The first inkling I had that my decade of labor had been undermined came when the needle dropped on a song cue and Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) began to play. From the first note, I knew what song was coming in to bridge the end of one scene and the beginning of the next. When the character Max appeared, walking down the hallways of her junior high school, headphones on, world tuned out and Kate Bush tuned in, I had an immediate flash of nostalgic connection and intense betrayal. I knew exactly how Max was using that song to help herself feel whole, and at the same time I felt that the TV show my daughter and I had been watching together for years had just stabbed me in the back. The severity of the wound would only be fully revealed after we finished binging the season.

Running Up That Hill has been a touchstone of mine since I heard it at eighteen. I was introduced to it by my first serious girlfriend, a young woman with far better and more interesting musical taste than my own classic rock leanings, and I’d listened to it and the album it came from, Hounds of Love, non-stop on my off-brand portable cassette player through the last of my teens. It is one of the few albums from my youth of which I have never tired, and that has never lost its emotional power over me. The opening notes of any track will slip me into a kind of time machine that connects me to being profoundly dumb, selfish, idealistic, unthinking, and in love.  If you’d never heard of Kate Bush or her music before spring 2022, there is a very good chance that you were utterly sick of hearing Running Up That Hill by the end of the summer. 

Much to their credit, the writers of Stranger Things milked every note of that song for what it was worth and helped turn it into the hit it had never been before. In the show, the song serves as Max’s magical, touchstone, a musical incantation that both protects and empowers her in the face of evil. An idea that is delightful and makes perfect sense to nerds like Clementine and myself. In fact, when we first watched season 4, I’d just recently sold a novel in which a teenage girl, a rebel not unlike Max, uses Running Up That Hill as her touchstone, a musical incantation that both protects and empowers her in the face of evil.

When I first started working on that novel, Catchpenny, in 2012, it wasn’t a book, it was a script for a TV pilot. Over the ensuing decade that I worked on it on and off, it morphed back and forth between TV show and book. But all through its twisting and turnings, Kate Bush’s music had always played a central role in the story – the story of how people imbue memories with emotional power, and how that power can either enable or cripple us. As I am a nerd, that power is literal in my book; strong emotions connected to specific memories, events and objects become transmuted into magical power. An idea that feels very real to me, especially in the context of music. In my book, emotional magic is called mojo. After Stranger Things had staked a claim to Running Up That Hill I needed some serious mojo to save my book.

It is not in fact true that Catchpenny had been ruined, but even my editor recognized that I could no longer use Running Up That Hill as the core musical, magical touchstone of the story. This wasn’t, for me, simply a matter of finding another cool song to drop into the book. I been writing about the power of our emotional memories and how they can trap us. Specifically, I’d been writing about how one person’s memories of events long past had trapped him in a cycle of hopelessness and depression. I was writing about how hope and optimism are not qualities with which we are imbued, but are cultivated and ultimately fought for. From a place of deep hopelessness in my own life, I was describing the arc of another life, a life in which a person’s choices give them the possibility of finding hope again. I didn’t know how to start a journey like that myself, but I needed desperately to imagine it for someone else. Even if that someone else was entirely fictional. 

Except, of course, there is no such thing as an entirely fictional character. Every character, every object, scene, plot point, concept, noun, verb and comma in a novel is actually a thinly disguised feature of the writer. The words that go on the page, the order of them, every choice made in how the story is composed, comes from inside the writer’s mind. Even the act of word for word quotation from another source is an act of the writer expressing some aspect of themself. The books I write are impressions of myself as surely as if I’d had a latex mold made of my face. I believe this to be true of all writers and their fiction. When I was writing Catchpenny and investing myself in the journey of a character escaping the trap of his memories and past actions, some part of me was trying to demonstrate to some other part of me that such a thing was possible. I was dreaming on the page about the person I was, and how I wanted to change myself. I have been emotionally invested in all of my novels, but I’d never before spent ten years searching for a way to tell a single story, I’d never so desperately been describing myself to myself and asking for help. And every note of Running Up That Hill was punctuating the message I was sending to myself. 

I did not glean any of this understanding for some time. That evening on the couch with Clementine, when we first watched Max with her headphones on, I was weeks away from an emotional meltdown that would lead me first to therapy and then to sobriety. That is a journey I will be on for the rest of my life. I recover or discover pieces of myself almost daily. All I really knew that night on the couch was that I’d written a book that helped me to feel hopeful in a way that I’d lost touch with many years before, and that the song which tied that book together and made the feeling of hope rise up in me when I thought about it had to be replaced. I needed a new song of power. Enter Sinéad O’Connor.

In the fall of 1987 I was living in the hallway of a truly filthy four bedroom apartment above a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. It was my first time living away from home, and I was not handling it well. My roommates were mostly strangers, there were rats in the kitchen, I hated – and was soon failing – most of my classes at CSUSF, and I was very, very lonely. Thankfully, Sinéad O’Connor was there to keep me company. 

I don’t remember where I first heard Sinéad’s debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, I don’t even remember buying it for myself (it may have been a gift), but I vividly remember how it lived on my crappy turntable (once I moved out of the hallway and into a room of my own) and how I dubbed it onto a cassette and plugged it into my ears in much the same way I had with Hounds of Love. Throughout that first semester my ears and my mind and my heart resonated to the howls and whispers of Sinéad O’Connor’s voice. She cast spells of both yearning and power over my days, spells that protected me from the typical alienations of a young person who has no real sense of self landing in a new an intimidating landscape. I listened regularly to Sinéad and her enchantments for the next few years. Tapping into them when I needed a touchstone to protect or realign my emotions. And then I stopped.

Unlike Kate Bush and Hounds of Love, Sinéad and The Lion and the Cobra did not stay in rotation throughout my life. For some reason that I do not understand, I never returned to O’Connor. Other bands and music began to speak to me, changing year by year, but never achieving the potency of the musical spells cast by those two amazing witches. But of the two, it was Kate who stayed with me, while Sinéad faded. Which is astonishing when I think about how faint an impression Kate has made upon the culture as a personality, and how Sinéad blasted a flaming crater into the center of everything.

I was in the first semester at another new college when I watched Sinéad rip the Pope in half on SNL. I was, in fact, living in an apartment (albeit very clean and sans rats) with several strangers, in a strange city, beginning grad school. I was alienated and lonely and out of my depth and I didn’t much like my roommates. My life was on a sad repeat that was entirely my own fault. I watched Sinéad’s unforgettable gesture of protest at a friend’s apartment. We were high, hanging out, unprepared. It is difficult to communicate what a gut punch it was to watch tiny Sinéad ripe up a photograph of one of the most revered and powerful people on the planet. I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Well she’s fucked now.” I thought it was a gesture of rejection aimed at the institution and hierarchy of the Catholic church. A gesture I very much supported. It would be many years before I understood that she was specifically calling out the church for aiding and abetting serial sexual abuse of children. Sinéad knew about and was taking action against crimes that it would take decades for the rest of the world to acknowledge and accept. And while that may have been the largest cultural explosion Sinéad ever set off, it hadn’t been her first, and was far from her last. By contrast, Kate Bush has always been something of a retiring pubic figure. Expressive and theatrical in her music and her performances, but very much out of the spotlight otherwise. Whatever her politics or beliefs, she seems to keep them private, having made no public gestures or taken any vocal stances that resonated loudly enough for me to know about them personally. This is not a criticism, just an observation in contrast to Sinéad’s loud and opinionated presence in the culture. Any yet, over the years, I all but forgot about Sinéad. How could that be possible?

When I think about it, I have to confess that I let myself fall victim to the narrative that allowed so many people to write off Sinéad O’Connor. The narrative that said she was a crazy bitch. As the years passed, Sinéad became more associated with her gestures, her beliefs, her struggles and her opinions than with her music. As far as the culture was concerned, she peaked with her cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2U, and so that’s where she was dipped in amber. Whatever her latest outrageous act or statement might be, the historical reference point was Sinéad the waif and her heartrending interpretation of someone else’s song. Few of us look past that Top 40 peak to the album before it, an album that she seized control of from the label to co-produce herself at twenty, recording it while in the last months of her first pregnancy. Even fewer look beyond her biggest commercial hit to the increasingly more personal music she produced once she freed herself from the constraints and expectations of stardom.

That was Sinéad’s take on the deal. She didn’t implode, she didn’t fail to live up to expectations, she didn’t wreck her career. Sinéad, according to her autobiography, Remeberings, saw and experienced what incandescent fame had to offer, decided it wasn’t for her, and exited stage left to her real life. How could a culture that savors the the toxins of fame as if they were mothers’ milk interpret such a person as anything but a crazy bitch?

Through the first couple decades of the 21st century, whenever Sinéad was recognized by our culture, it was to call her out for her crazy bitchness. If she talked publicly about being neuro-atypical or about suffering from addiction or about her conversion to Islam, it was in the context of the crazy bitch who had it all and threw it all away. Even when the Catholic church’s conspiracy to conceal serial sexual abuse was brought undeniably to light, there was no look back at Sinéad’s early act of protest. And I was swept unthinkingly along with that narrative.

When I thought of Sinéad in a thirty year span, from when I’d stopped listening to her music until 2022, it was mostly to give a mental shrug of melancholic dismissal. A shrug that said something like, “Well I really loved that first album, but I don’t think it held up, and she went kind of bonkers so I don’t feel super motivated to think about her or her music.” Sinéad had been there for me when I needed her in 1987, living in a rat infested apartment, lonely and at a loss to understand who I was, and I’d abandoned her. 

Despite that abandonment, Sinéad was there for me when I needed her again. In the summer of 2022, I needed a new song, a new album, and new artist for my novel. I had to replace not just Kate Bush, but the emotional power she and that one album and that one song had for me. Something I thought was impossible. I was resigned to choosing a great song that I loved, but which did not and could not have the same magic. My novel, I knew, would suffer for this lack of mojo. It would be less the touchstone I’d crafted for myself, less the demonstration to myself that there might be a path from my own depression and despair toward being able to build the tools of hope and optimism that I was fumbling for without knowing that was what my hands sought. Then I found that crazy bitch again. Not the crazy bitch out culture had made up, the version I’d let myself buy into, but the real one. Crazy in the sense of outside the norm, willing to do and risk things that most people will never conceive of doing or risking. Bitch in the sense that the word is an aspect of queenliness. Fierce bitch. Unbreakable bitch. Don’t mess with that bitch or she’ll fuck you up.

I dropped the needle on Jerusalem, the third track on The Lion and the Cobra, and it all came back to me. The years Sinéad had lived in my ears and in my heart, how she’d protected me from my loneliness. How her songs had narrated my bus ride to school. How I’d crafted scenes in my head with her words and music as the soundtrack. The forgotten depth of what she had meant to me and how fully I had believed in her came back in the gut punch of that song. After it ended, I started from the beginning of the album and listened to it straight through, falling through a hole in myself back to who I was in 1987.

Pure mojo.

There was no question of how I would proceed. While I still had mixed feelings about pulling Kate Bush out of Catchpenny, I knew that Sinéad wasn’t just a strong replacement, she was a truer fit. It wasn’t until I read Rememberings that I realized the extent to which the events of her life resonated with the characters in my novel. Again and again I saw simpatico connections between Sinéad and my book and, by extension, between her and me. I was delighted and excited by the change. Excited to be rediscovering Sinéad. Reading her book, reading about her struggles with mental health and addiction were an integral part of my efforts to understand how I had fallen into despair, and how I could become sober. I knew that Sinéad was still struggling and fighting, and while that saddened me, it also heartened me. She’d been through far worse than I ever had, and she was still battling. I could do the same. Less than a year later she died.

The recently released coroner’s report states that Sinéad died of natural causes. But at the time her death was reported it was hard not to assume she’d committed suicide. Her personal losses were beyond comprehension for anyone but a mother, and she’d frequently talked and written about her suicidal thoughts. Suicide hangs over the plot of Catchpenny, an echo of the darkest of my own imaginings when I was writing it. When I heard that Sinéad had died, I assumed that was another point of connection between herself and my book and me. I am grateful to have been wrong. 

I was approaching my first full year of sobriety when Sinéad died. I was mentally and emotionally stronger and more healthy than I’d been in over twenty years. I’d been working as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life, trying to redevelop the muscle of hope in myself. I needed it for what came next. Catchpenny is a contemporary novel, meant to feel very much in the moment. In order to help maintain that illusion, I had to go through its pages and make Sinéad dead. She could no longer be referred to in the present tense, and there were scenes in which she needed to be spoken about specifically as being dead. My protagonist had to say something about how her death had affected him. I’d leaned on Sinéad for strength when I needed her, forgotten her when that was no longer the case, used her and her resonance when I needed her again, and now I was killing her off. What I could not do was swap her out for yet another artist. Sinéad was irreplaceable.

Clementine and I have developed a new tradition. Beginning just before Thanksgiving, we watch the entire run of Stranger Things over the holiday season. The act of watching the show with my daughter in the context of this silly ritual has transformed it from something I mostly liked into something I love. An emotional touchstone that evokes the hours we are embedded together on the couch with her head on my shoulder. A touchstone that is doubly charged in that it has spanned the first two holiday seasons I’ve spent sober in over forty years. This is the very process that imbues memories with emotion that transmutes them into mojo. Whatever else Clementine and I have to say about Stranger Things (and we have a lot to say, people), there is magic in it for us.

I find myself grateful for the knife I felt stuck between my literary shoulder blades when we were on that couch in the spring of 2022. Repairing that wound led me back to the medicine of Sinéad. A powerful tonic that my life needed without me ever suspecting it was so.