Yesterday I found in the stack of mail that piles up on my assistant's desk an invitation to a record release party for Sinéad O'Connor at a club called Lava. Good thing I spotted it—the party was that evening. Half an hour later, an advance of Sinéad's new CD arrived in my office. I liked Sinéad's first album very much and I loved the second, the big No. 1 hit. (I have very common taste—if I like something it usually means a lot of other people will, too. That is the sad secret of getting ahead in the music business.) Sinéad should have been the biggest rock star of the '90s.
Maybe she didn't want to be. As everyone knows, Sinéad got in the way of Sinéad. Some people had it in for her from the top anyway because she was an aggressive woman. Some goons had it in for her because she had a shaved head. But between refusing to have the National Anthem played and trading barbs with Frank Sinatra and tearing up the pope's picture and all the other tabloid misdemeanors, Sinéad got knocked out of the running. Because her life was in upheaval, her music suffered. She still came up with good songs, but they were scattered over singles, soundtracks, other people's albums.
I knew Sinéad a bit during all this time and liked her immensely. I think she's one of those rare artists like John Lennon who hates hypocrisy, especially in herself. She is hard on herself. If she has a notion and knows it might offend her audience or cost her fans, she feels she has to do it—she can't back down. Like Lennon, she's said and done some things that she undoubtedly regrets, but she believed them with all her heart when she did them and—agree or disagree—she had the guts to go forward, knowing it would cost her.
Still, I wondered if she could ever get her music back to the level it achieved before her life went public. I put on the new CD and the phones rang and people were running in and out of my office. I couldn't really listen. I put it on again. It sounded pretty good, beautifully produced, her singing was great. I put it on a third time. It's early to say for sure, but it sounds fantastic. It sounds like the album everyone expected her to make way back when, before everything went nuts.
I went to the party. Usually at these functions a crowd is allowed to gather for an hour or so before the artist, surrounded by minders, rolls in and shakes a few hands, poses for photos, and takes a seat behind a velvet rope. I got there early and grabbed a table and looked around. There was Sinéad, standing amid the first arrivals in the middle of the room, laughing, talking, drinking a beer. No barriers at all.
It's funny how even if you know someone, if you don't see them for a while and get your information from the press, it's easy to believe they've changed, gone nuts, whatever the papers are saying. Sinéad and I had a falling out a few years ago. It was one of those situations where hard feelings had been officially put to rest by an exchange of notes and phone machine messages. But you never really know until you see someone face to face, and I had not seen her since.
So I was delighted that she greeted me happily and said, "I was just thinking about you today! I really was!" My head swelled and she added, "Which is so funny because I hadn't thought about you in ages!" My head shrank. She said she'd been hearing about the novel I'd written and that people were trying to figure out whom the characters were based on and that she couldn't help wondering if one of them might be based on her.
Here's the funny thing: One of them sort of is. A lot of people are asking me who the characters in A&R really are. They are disappointed when I say I made them up. I knew the broad outlines of the story I wanted to tell, I sketched in the plot and the characters in general terms, I gave them names and histories. At that point they were all fictional. It was only as I wrote the book that I fleshed them out with details from people I knew.
There are about 12 important characters in the book. I needed to be consistent in how each one spoke. I found myself basing character's speech patterns on real people. At first I was not conscious of doing it. Once I recognized it, I realized that I had used a high-school friend for this character's voice, a fellow I work with for that one, a powerful rock manager for a third, and Sinéad for one of the female leads. I don't mean to suggest the character is Sinéad—I had the character before I had her speaking voice. It's more like Sinéad is the actress I cast in my head to portray this character while I wrote her dialogue.
Sinéad asked if "her" character in my book ends up like her. I said she does not. Sinéad said, that's good. I told her to read the book and tell me if she recognizes herself. If she doesn't like the way it came off, I'll deny it had anything to do with her. She said if she doesn't like the way it came off, she'll deny it first.