Compassion, silence and Dolores

“This song’s our cry against man’s inhumanity to man; and man’s inhumanity to child.” – Dolores O’Riordan, 1971-2018

I didn’t know much about the life of Dolores O’Riordan before she died. I knew her name, and I knew her voice, and I knew her band enough to get the reference to it in the film Clueless. But I did know her song Zombie. I have been playing it since just before Halloween 2016, when I found it on a playlist alongside Monster Mash and Werewolves of London. Given the title I assumed it would be a lucrative crowd pleaser, but on first listen it wasn’t at all what I expected. I had to press pause while I called up the lyrics. Listening again I got the chills. WOW. My search for seasonal conformity had turned up a REALLY good song, with brilliant lyrics, and – even better – one that I had no idea existed. I forgot all about halloween and bounced up and down in anticipation of all the fun I would be having with Zombie down the tunnels.

Good songs are easy to learn, and with simple chords I memorised the lyrics on the bus to my pitch that evening. I was busking the old Central line tunnel at Tottenham Court Road, which was at that time separated from the current improved tunnel by blue hoarding and wire mesh as scores of contractors banged and drilled. The works had been going on for some time and I was self conscious about my song choice, and tried not to play too many repeats. But that night a stubborn passion transcended any empathy I felt for the men in orange boiler suits. I must have sung Zombie about 40 times. I can clearly remember the very first “In your head…” because it felt so daring, so brave and fearsome singing a big loud chorus like that. And it must have taken me at least 10 tries to get it right.

I can’t even remember if I made any money for it that night, I didn’t care. The more I sang it, the more I enjoyed the lyrics, the anger, the protest and compassion. On the way home I read up on it. O’Riordan was inspired to write Zombie after seeing a TV interview of the mother of one of the boys killed in the Warrington IRA bombings in 1993. As an Irish woman she was disowning the act of violence as a fellow patriot, and in an interview accused the IRA of being cowardly, saying that if they wanted to fight a war they should go and fight an army not murder young children out shopping with their parents.

The song made the band an international success but caused some controversy at the time of its release. The UK censored parts of the video showing footage of soldiers in Northern Ireland and press accused her of naivety about The Troubles. Reaching the top 20 in the UK and the top spot in five other countries, from what I can find it is one of a tiny handful of protest songs written by women that have charted in the top 20, and the only one I can find before the advent of downloading. And it has been climbing the charts again since her death. The lyrics to Zombie may reference 1916 but the rest of the song is open to interpretation, especially since the IRA signed a peace treaty just weeks after the single was released. Some have jokingly speculated they did so to avoid The Cranberries writing another song about them. Written entirely from the perspective of a grieving parent, it is not only anti terrorism but also anti violence, anti war and arms trade, and a challenge to historical grudges. Busking it in 2016, as Brexit Britain became the second biggest arms dealer in the world and Russian jets bombed hospitals and schools in Syria, the lyrics seemed even more heartbreakingly relevant than ever. The song asks those responsible for killing and ripping families apart, repeatedly, what’s in their head. And the answer is not justice, or revenge, or religious righteousness, or political gain, it’s just nothing, like a zombie, it’s nothing, they are already dead if they can’t feel compassion.

I didn’t bother learning any Christmas songs that year, I just sang Zombie on repeat, until I ran out of fervour in the January malaise. Once I’d mastered the chorus, it was actually my biggest earning Christmas song ever. That’s the other thing about Zombie; everybody loves it. Young and old, tourists and commuters. Since then it has been my go to song whenever world events are troubling me, or I get a particularly bad night when nobody even looks at me and I want to surreptitiously insult the commuters for their nonchalance.

When the news broke of her death earlier this month I was distraught. Not just because the world had lost such a talent way too soon, but because I started reading about her life, getting to know about her as a person, or at least that which she chose to share with the media. Born in Ballybricken in Limerick, she was the youngest of nine children and daughter of a farm labourer and school caterer. At the age of five a teacher stood her on a chair to sing to the class on account of her extraordinary voice; she knew it was her superpower, and had every confidence in herself when she auditioned for the band that was to become The Cranberries when she was a teenager. The band’s reputation grew, mainly outside Ireland, and she herself wrote the songs that launched their meteoric global success. Over the years the band broke up and reformed a couple of times, and was in the process of writing new material at the time of her death.

In 2014, after losing her father and getting divorced from her husband of 20 years, she opened up to journalist friend Barry Egan in a shockingly candid interview for the Sunday Independent. In it she revealed that she had been raped by a family acquaintance for four years as a child, and as a consequence had spent her entire life suffering from anorexia and depression. This went some way towards explaining how she came to die alone, estranged from her three beloved children in a city far from home, on the day she was due to record Zombie with hard rock band Bad Wolves. Despite the folky leanings of The Cranberries, O’Riordan was into hard rock when she was a child, her older brothers playing it to her as they taught her car mechanics. It would have been an amazing record.

The day after she died I was scheduled to play at Green Park station, just a stones throw from the Hilton Hotel, her last stop. It’s a dilemma to profit from someone’s songs when they’ve died; but more than ever it seemed like the right and obvious thing to do, a fitting tribute, the only real way of showing respect. When I did though I choked on every other line, and the one that got me the most was “violence caused such silence”. Because as I sang I realised, despite her enormous, stunning voice, there had been a lot of the wrong kind of silence in O’Riordan’s life, not only imposed on her by her abuser but also by the pressure she must have felt as a performer to keep quiet to allow the show to go on.

As I indulged in my interpretation of the song, a presenter and cameraman from a Polish TV news channel stopped to talk to me about “Dolores”. I couldn’t think what to say, apart from lamenting, praising her legacy, and ranting about what a good song Zombie was in the way a young child might review the sweets at a party. I was trying to keep it together to be jolly enough to stop from getting choked. I was just glad it was Polish TV so I never have to see it. I didn’t say anything coherent but it did make me realise how important the song is to me, and I hope I am at least doing a better job of explaining why here.

On that bleak day I saw a lot of the people in the world as zombies. Not just the ones casually dishing out death sentences with their arms trades or murderous ideologies. But the ones who see injustices and say nothing; whose self interest or need for status quo renders compassion a rationed luxury of spirit, a choice not an emotion. As I trundled home with a heavy heart and an even heavier amp trolly, filled with dead batteries and old half filled water bottles, my son’s swimming gear, tatty books and endless paper towels, the stairs of the underground seemed like giant pyramid walls I might never get up.

As I heaved up the interchange at Euston, a strange thing started happening. My trolley slowly got lighter, until it hardly seemed to weigh anything at all. My first thought was that I had died and was on my way up to heaven, and I’m ashamed to admit I was quite excited about flying around and relieved it was so painless. But then I turned and saw that it was a man who had just taken hold of the bottom of the trolley and was helping me, without any to-do whatsoever. I thanked him and he smiled and walked on. A silent act of compassion. It made me reflect on how there were probably thousands of silent acts of compassion going on around me at any given moment. And with that, I was back in the land of the living.

The beauty of Dolores O’Riordan is that despite her own troubles, she broke her silence in the most powerful way she could. And with Zombie, her message of compassion will be making people sing “In Your Heeeeead” for generations to come. For me it’s a standard I can only aspire to, and scream at the top of my voice every now and then in the face of the zombie apocalypse.

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