I believe in you: the Sinead O’Connor experience

By Tony Attwood

This is not a website dedicated to putting forward a political or religious view – it is about the exploration of Bob Dylan’s music – including by writers who might have a political view.

And of course for many people Bob Dylan’s compositions can change their lives and allow them or encourage them to see things in a different way.  Music can indeed change the world.  Others see in Dylan the  confirmation of their own political visions.

Now, at the moment I am writing this, I am also slowly plodding through creating a piece about the themes within Dylan’s writing year by year – and I am a long way from looking at 1979.   So the series has only just begun, and already there are

And writing this series really does make me ponder also Bob’s religious period – even though I’ve a long way to go in analysing all the songs into topics before I get to those religious albums.

Now the fact is that for many people Dylan was the “voice of the generation” – as in Dylan the protest singer.  And yet as I have tried to point out a number of times, Dylan rarely wrote protest songs – in the sense that he didn’t write many songs telling everyone to rise up and overthrow the oppressor, or rise up and stop the war, or indeed to rise up at all.

He wrote songs of observation: “Masters of War” doesn’t suggest we invade the gun producing factories and pull them down, but rather tells us that what the manufacturers do is unforgivable.  “Times they are a changing” says just that, times are changing, but it doesn’t suggest that we might make them change faster or indeed rise up and make a better future.  Rather it just says, change is happening; you can’t do much about it.

“It’s alright ma”, really does end up by saying “It’s life and life only”.  That’s how it goes.  Life can be a mess ma, but don’t worry, that’s how it is.

And indeed, as I work through the 48 songs that Dylan wrote before 1963, only a tiny percentage are revealed to be about social change.  There are love songs, songs about moving on, the blues, and so on.

But – and this is the thought I have already had although I have hardly started the series of analysing what Bob’s songs are all about – (and this is part of the magic of Dylan) – they can be used by others to create all sorts of meanings.

And I was reminded of this by Jochen’s piece on “I believe in you” ro which I gave the title I Believe In You: momentary conversion for all non-believers (I should explain Jochen does all the hard work in creating the articles, and I just pop along at the end, and throw in a title which may – or may not – be appropriate, or attending grabbing).

But even that tiny task can cause me to go round and round in circles on occasion, and especially so with that review, because quite rightly Jochen included Sinead O’Connor’s performances of the song.

Now just in case you missed Jochen’s article here’s Sinead O’Connor’s studio version of “I believe in you.”

The fact is that “I believe in you” comes from “Slow Train Coming” of which Wiki says, “It was Dylan’s first effort since converting to Christianity, and all of the songs either express his strong personal faith, or stress the importance of Christian teachings and philosophy.”

Now in my review of the song (a review, which for some people doing a search about the song, turns up on page 1 of the results on Google in the UK, which is rather nice for me, and means that the review seems to have been read by a rather large number of people) I make the point that the official version of the lyric doesn’t emphasise that this is a religious piece in that in the text we repeatedly have the word “you” not “You”.  That is to say, “you – a person” not “You” as in God or his son.

But the consensus among commentators is that it is a hymn, and I have to admit I’ve often been struck by this dichotomy.  I adore the song, but see it as a love song, and as dancer and choreographer, I have choreographed it as a love song.   Not least because Sinead O’Connor sings it as a love song.

Indeed how she hears it is important, because on 3 October 1992, Sinead O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live and held up a picture of Pope John Paul and ripped it up declaring that paedophile priests and others in the church were the enemy.

It took many of us a while to realise that the soft atheist line of considering the church as an annoying but essentially harmless by-product of outmoded thought patterns, which could be argued against as one argues against a political party, was itself utterly outmoded and that some senior members of religious organisations were using the church not to help and protect the weak but to manipulate and harm the weak, while others in even more senior positions who discovered what was going on, turned their efforts into covering up what was happening – moving the criminals on, rather than handing them over to the civil authorities.

In 2011, abbot of Glenstal Abbey and Benedictine monk Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, was quoted by novelist and writer Russell Shorto speaking about the Church making “this island [Ireland] into a concentration camp where [the Church] could control everything. … And the control was really all about sex. … It’s not difficult to understand how the whole system became riddled with what we now call a scandal but in fact was a complete culture.”

That seems to me get it about right.   Indeed in August 2018, a list was published which revealed that over 1,300 Catholic clergy in Ireland had been accused of sexual abuse, with 82 of them getting convicted.

And so Sinead O’Connor’s declaration in 1992 that there was paedophilia in the Catholic Church was true.   So, for me, Sinead O’Connor has credibility – having been exploited herself when she was sent to a Magdalene Laundry – which the state colluded with, through keeping the behaviour of the nuns in the laundroies secret.

So my point (and this has been made with far more evidence and far more eloquently than I could ever do, by many others) is that before the American and Irish church scandals really came to the fore, Ms O’Connor got it dead right.  And her adoption of Dylan’s song “I believe in you” with its lower case you, has an enormous poignancy.

And as a result maybe we were not that surprised that in 2018 a grand jury in Pennsylvania found that over 1000 children in six dioceses had been molested by priests with church officials covering the events up.

Or that in February 2019 the third most senior Catholic in the world, George Pell, was found guilty of child sexual assault.  Pope Francis, had previously praised Pell for his honesty and response to the child sexual abuse scandal.

As the publication, Irish Central wrote, “Imagine if 300 imams were named as sex abusers of children. The Muslim religion would likely be banned and the imams driven out or jailed.”

But of course it doesn’t work like that.  Actor Joe Pesci said after the image of the pope was torn, “She’s lucky it wasn’t my show.  ‘Cos if it was my show, I would have given her such a smack.”     There was widespread applause from the audience at this threat of violence against a woman who was daring to stand up and expose crimes that had been hidden by a state-wide conspiracy.

So when Sinead O’Connor sings “I believe in you” I hear her believing in human kind – in the ultimate ability of the wider world to root out the abusers and deal with them.  I hear a beautiful love song which moves me more deeply than I can explain in mere words.  I hear a lovely song which maybe was a song about believing in the power of the church, turned into something much more more.  Which in a strange way is part of the essence of Dylan the composer – he creates songs that can become ever more than they were when he wrote them.

And that of course is just my interpretation in the light of the music, the abuse the singer suffered, the lies told in hiding the abuse, and the way others then responded to her act.

Of course Bob may have written the song in praise of the Lord he had just found, although that lack of a capital Y throughout for You does make me wonder – after all, the lead song on the ablum “Slow Train Coming” also is itself not overtly and clearly religious.  Remember that song ends…

I don’t care about economy, I don’t care about astronomy
But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

Love ones turning into puppets… that could so easily mean friends converted to a religious cause that is riddled from the inside out with harm, depravity and hatred.  Could it possibly be we’ve been misinterpreting these songs all along?

Of course these are just my rambling thoughts, and from the very start of this blog I’ve never tried to hide my atheism.  Likewise I have tried not to let it become central to the reviews I’ve written. Nor, I hope, have I sought to have used this site as a way to propagate my views those by others on this site.

But I really do wonder about those tracks on Slow Train.  And indeed why Bob moved way from organised Christian religion again, after such a short space of time.

You might also enjoy I believe in you; momentary conversion for all non-believers

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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2 Responses to I believe in you: the Sinead O’Connor experience

  1. Aaron G says:

    I love Cat Power’s version of this

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=INsC59eabmw

  2. Stephen Blower says:

    I made a post on Dylanology arguing many of the same points, but also linked the irony encased in the moment that the fans in MSG that October night in 1992 did not want to hear anything from O’Connor, which is a shame. The afternoon rehearsal of the song excels her studio version IMO. I wrote:

    Today’s song and backstory represents an unusual confluence of life events and performance circumstances overlapping or at least seemingly intertwined, coincidentally some might say, to the lyrical content of the song performed or nearly performed.
    On October 16th, 1992, at the 30th Anniversary concert celebrating the career and music of Bob Dylan, held at Madison Square Garden, dozens of A and B-list musicians and celebrities, and plenty of others, gathered for an evening tribute concert. Unfortunately, Sinead O’Connor had recently found herself in hot water in the public eye and the NY media’s vitriol for having (with no beforehand knowledge of the producers) torn up a picture of Pope John Paul II live on national television during an appearance on Saturday Night Live only two weeks earlier, after singing an acapella version of Bob Marley’s War. Her protest performance was less about refugees and more to do with the abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and the Church’s conspiracy of silence till then (according to her falling squarely at the feet of the Pope). At least, if that is what she intended it was lost on or unappreciated by many, including a fairly voluminous constituency present at the Bob Dylan tribute concert 13 days later.
    The plan had been to perform a version on “I Believe in You,” a track that was also due for release as the final track featured on A Very Special Christmas 2, part of the series of Christmas-theme albums produced to benefit the Special Olympics. Indeed this album was released on October 20th, 1992, 4 days after the Dylan tribute concert, and it was and continues to be immensely popular, now certified double platinum.
    The performance, as anyone who may have been around at the time and paying attention may know, did not go according to plan. Amidst loud jeers and boos, and several false starts, and even consolation from Kris Kristofferson himself, Sinead abandoned the plan to perform I Believe in You, (which had it happened would have surely felt like giving the holy to dogs or casting pearls before swine at that point), decided to simply shout, in loud protest over the crowd, her acapella version of War again. What they missed “in the Garden” that October evening, and probably couldn’t have partaken of anyway since some disruptive part of the audience was not receptive to exactly delicate or reflective moments at that point, is only preserved in some part for us from the afternoon rehearsal of the song. This version finally saw its official release in the 2014 reissue of remastered DVDs and Blu-ray edition of the concert.
    If you’ve read this far, bless you for your constancy. The connection lyrically (to me) is that the singer, the first person of the lyrics, is facing rejection from the 3rd person plural. “They” are rejecting “me.” “They” don’t want “me” around. And the second person of the song, “You,” most assume in Dylan’s meaning to be God, belief, Divine Essence, what have you. We don’t *have* to agree that the You here is only just ONE of those, the Jesus Christ of Dylan’s conversion. I’m in no way defending or even critiquing Sinead’s conduct or how she chose to make a point. This singer was not allowed by a live crowd on one evening in October 1992 to sing the song she had chosen to use as a tribute to the man whom we all respect and listen to. The song carries out in many directions and speaks for any who are marginalized for taking an unpopular stand on principle. It would probably be wrong to take this too far and inconsistent to say it applies, for example, to some banal or merely political context, but in the world of the personal, the spiritual, the ethical and moral, in a world where a person fearless chooses a path of Love over Hatred, then I think it most certainly is at home. And it is ironic that, just in accordance with the lyrics of the song she had chosen well beforehand and recorded for a Christmas benefit album, They told her not to bother singing, because she “don’t be like they’d like” her to [be]. A final note: this song continued to be performed live by Dylan as recently as April 2009, for nigh on 260 performances, so it is safe to say, in my view, that it carries more meaning and relevance than a simple declaration of one-dimensional belief from an album released 40 years ago.

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