In the early 1990s, when the Cranberries were at the height of their career, I remember enjoying their music but keeping them at a distance. It seemed like every alternative music station was playing “Zombie,” “Dreams,” or “Linger.” Though I appreciated the complexity of the lyrics and was riveted by Dolores’ voice – which sounded like it was resonating in an echo chamber – I was oversaturated by their fame. They were ubiquitous and, like any celebrity band, reproductions and copycats of their sound and image were inescapable. I didn’t want my early and mid-twenty experiences defined by memories of their music. For example, I didn’t want to associate my experiences walking through the streets of Mexico City with “Ode to My Family” churning over in my head. I wanted the playlist of my formative adult years to reflect the pain and desires of falling in tormentous love and looking for an exhilarating external freedom (which only much later on, would I realize could only exist within). I wanted something audible that was raw and full of power. Sound Garden, P. J. Harvey, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana provided backbone to all the mixed tapes and CDs I created to accompany me on road trips and international adventures or during indulgent brooding sessions. There was no room for the Cranberries during this period in my life though, in some ways, they were always there following me through magazine covers and background music in restaurants and bars.
Then in 2012, I watched The Cranberries on Tiny Desk Concerts. It was sometime in March or April just a few weeks after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember I was alone. It was late at night in the living room. My husband had gone to bed and the girls, including my 10-month-old baby, had finally fallen asleep. The house was quiet, but warm. It was early spring in Washington state and, though there was a deep chill in the air outside, inside, my husband had prepared a beautiful, crackling fire in our wood-burning fireplace. It smelled of sweet hickory.
I couldn’t sleep. I was preparing myself emotionally and psychologically for the upcoming mastectomy. I sat on the couch with one of my cats on my lap and began scrolling through Apple TV. I had started watching Tiny Desk a couple of weeks earlier and had caught a set by Foster the People. I wasn’t terribly acquainted with their music, except for “Pumped Up Kicks,” and immediately appreciated their acoustic, stripped down performance. It hooked me. I wanted more.
I scrolled through the Tiny Desk menu and saw, “The Cranberries” listed. My heart gave a little jump. I thought, “Wow! They’re still together? I’ve got to see this.” I pushed the play button on the Apple remote, and there she was – Dolores O’Riordon. I was immediately struck by her short black hair against her pale white skin and minimal makeup. She, too, was stripped down. She felt raw to me, but far from vulnerable. There was an inner ease and strength in her voice and movement. She started the set with Linger and, at one point, when she sang, “I swore. I swore I would be true and honey so did you. So why were you holding her hand?,” I felt her question measured, direct, and full of context. On the word “why,” she arched her body forward and squinted her eyes as if posturing to an old lover who had deceived. That gesture said, “How dare you mess with me! I will not stand for this! I am worth so much more!”
My heart filled watching her, feeling her emotions ebb and flow. At certain moments she was standing her ground and speaking from her heart and, at other times, aloof and distant. At one moment, it seemed like her mind had drifted and had landed on a deep, dark memory. Her stare was thousands of miles away. Then, suddenly, she came back as if jolted into the present, smiled at her “lads,” and poured air and life into each forthcoming word.
Tears flowed down my face as I watched her performance. I found myself standing in the center of my living room arms outstretched, in the same manner as Dolores’, singing with her. I poured and channeled all my anger and fear into each song and was completely surprised by the fact I knew almost every word. How in the world had I learned these songs? A part of me must have always been paying attention. A part of me must have known during the 1990s how important these songs would be to me one day, how cathartic it would be to sing with Dolores in my living room as I sang out the fear of death.
Something about who Dolores was now, in 2012, became really important to the healing that occurred that night. I saw my own pain, sorrow, and happiness reflected in her eyes. There was a deep understanding that I knew we shared. It was the indescribable bittersweet experience of feeling loss and hope simultaneously. She embodied both and, that night, I was completely receptive to the underlying message her soul was expressing.
Dolores, in Spanish, means “pains” or “sorrows.” It is not lost on me that in the Tiny Desk performance she is wearing a beautiful, heart necklace which, I believe, is a representation of a Milagros pendant. A Milagros, which translates directly to “miracles,” is a religious folk charm that is traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings of hope. I find it profound, in the retelling of her Tiny Desk performance, that what I experienced as the most transformative aspect of that 4-song concert was the juxtaposition of the pain and hope I felt from her through that set. Now, after her untimely death at age 46 – the same age I am now – I am struck by how she weaved, pain and hope, so viscerally, effortlessly.
This is my Ode to you, Dolores. Thank you for always being there for me, in the foreground and at a distance.