We tended to play Dungeons and Dragons without music in the background. Distractions could be dangerous — while you were tuning in to Bauhaus or Tangerine Dream, the chances were you’d get smeared by a troll or jumped by some pesky hobbit thief. But during the refreshment breaks (food, drink, mind altering substances, as per individual choice), a record would inevitably be spun. At Anne and Craig’s place, that often meant a strange and captivating 12” single unlike anything I’d ever heard. Such an other-worldly voice, it somehow fitted the mystery and wonder of our role-playing adventures perfectly; alluring, unfamiliar, perhaps dangerous.
Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
’Til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle
When I tracked down the CD a couple of years after the album’s release, I was slightly disappointed at first. It wasn’t all sung by that ethereal siren who the cover notes told me was Elizabeth Fraser from a band named Cocteau Twins. Still, there was much to like on the CD, ensuring it remained esteemed for more than simply alerting me to Cocteau Twins (whose fine album Treasure, released the same year as It’ll end in tears, is featured here).
There was something heartbreaking about ‘Song to the siren’ and I was curious to uncover the words carried upon Ms Fraser’s captivating keening.
And you sang
Sail to me
Sail to me
Let me enfold you
The infatuation was so powerful it hurt. Lucy had been away on extended leave when I started in the job. Away, I later learned, in rural New South Wales putting space between herself and a long-standing addiction. It did not take long for me to become enthralled by her lazy sensuality and to offer myself as a substitute medicament. Or was she my drug? Whichever, the music started and an intricate dance around intimacy began. Yearning for something within reach yet utterly unavailable provides a rich score for inner turbulence.
Here I am
Here I am
Waiting to hold you
I worked harder on unearthing the words, but Elizabeth Fraser was as elusive as quicksilver.
Perhaps I could track down the song performed by its creator, Tim Buckley. But no-one I knew owned the impossibly rare Starsailor and this was long before the internet.
A change of jobs provided everyday breathing-space from Lucy but did little to dampen my ardour. At night I returned to the urban cottage I rented and sang ‘Song to the siren’ in a wracked, unaccompanied baritone.
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was falling?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks
The second line is really a mondegreen, a recreation made by a listener desperate to complete the lyric but guessing, guessing. What rhymes with rocks? Locks? Lucy, please free me from this desperate prison of infatuation. Mocks? Elizabeth Fraser was mocking my desperate attempts to complete the song; I believed, I needed to believe, that some alchemy of the heart would ensue if only I could sing the lyric in its entirety. Surely the suffocating desire, once exhaled on the breath of melody, would draw Lucy towards this foolish sailor?
For you sing, ‘Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow’;
O my heart, O my heart, shies from the sorrow.
I am as puzzled as the newborn child
I am troubled as the tide
Restless nights, shiftless weekends.
At the new job, a mentor became a friend. Soon she was travelling to the United States on holiday and yes, she would try to get me the Tim Buckley album. You see, I’d found that Enigma Retro (a truly great name for a rarity re-issue label) had released Starsailor on CD for the first time. The Aussie dollar was low against the greenback yet I set a gulp-inducing upper limit in order to gain one line of one song.
My friend delivered.
Were you hare when I was fox?
I guess the reveal was satisfying, though I truly felt more road-kill rabbit than scheming Reynard.
Alchemy is an unreliable science on which to pin hopes for happiness; the treasure is mostly fool’s gold. Knights and maidens belong in mythic tales of high romance not in suburban Melbourne, where fantasy role-playing games are the safest path to wish fulfilment. Desire was infiltrated by despair, curdling hopeless devotion into something more desperate, more threatening.
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Should I lie with Death my bride?
Hear me sing. ‘Swim to me. Swim to me. Let me enfold you.
Here I am, Here I am, Waiting to hold you’
Travel, adventure; the classic circuit-breaker. It is not the pursuit of glory that draws the foolish hero forth, it is flight; escape from an everyday that has become intolerable. Away, not towards.
And so to the old country first, visiting modern record shops and touching ancient stones, but also exploring the musical present.
At WOMAD in Cornwall, I sat in a marquee amongst bedraggled festival goers while a pretty troubadour sang ‘Song to the siren’. To my delight, she had a number of lines wrong. Afterwards, I casually rushed towards her and engaged in conversation about this most elusive and iconic of love songs. ‘You know all the lyrics? Tell me’. But between the babble of the crowd, the distraction of other music, and the confusion of talking to an attractive woman radiating post-performance glow, my brain could not order those words. Or perhaps the song refused to endorse this betrayal of Lucy.
Silence would enable recall, I was sure. A meet was suggested, later that evening, by the notice board. And later came, and I came, lyric-filled parchment in hand, and later stuck around for quite a while but she did not come. I pinned the words to the notice board, no closer to her, or anyone, than a forgotten name scrawled in smudged pen.
To Greece, treading the mythic earth of gods and heroes and sucking in the salty air of liberation. No, I did not sail a boat past siren-draped islands nor rescue anything precious from a possessive cyclops. But I did take a ferry south from Athens, carving through absurdly blue Aegean waves, rumbling over the eon-washed bones of Atlantis to Crete, where I met a lovely German doctor who invited me to travel with her for a while.
Both aided and undermined by a half-world commute, the relationship lasted a number of years. Language skills of a different kind were required, and the misses and confusions taught me something of the chastening self-awareness demanded by true intimacy. No fault need be apportioned, the bond just slowly weakened then broke. Yet the lessons stood me in good stead for the next and last union. Stirring the oatmeal of the everyday is, perhaps, the true adventure, the quiet quest.
As I listen to ‘Song to the siren’ I am again transported by its melancholy beauty. I also hear that Ms Fraser appears to have made up the elusive line too. Somehow, that is comforting. All understanding is misunderstanding.
Ivo Watts, co-founder of the 4AD label, conceived This Mortal Coil as a studio outfit comprising artists/musicians attached to his label playing a combination of their own music and cover versions of favourite songs. But not straight covers; all pieces are given the ‘4AD treatment’. There are layers of reverb, oceans of echo, everything is coated in a gothic ambience made transcendent by the vocals of Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins) and Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance). Although Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the siren’ is the obvious standout track —bracketed by the two Alex Chilton (Big Star) songs— the second side flows with a dreamy beauty that is both captivating and timeless. A cover of Roy Harper’s ‘Another day’ flows into the gorgeous instrumental ‘Waves become wings’ (a very Cocteau’s title!) and thence into ‘Barramundi’, another ethereal instrumental by Cocteau’s Simon Raymonde and Lisa Gerrard that dissolves into ocean waves. Lisa plays the yang t’chin, a Chinese stringed instrument that evokes an oriental balalaika, and sings with microtonal eastern-tinged mystery in ‘Dreams made flesh’, making the cut to Colin Newman’s ‘Not me’ —as close to 80s alt-rock as the album offers— quite an eye opener. Things quieten down for final song ‘A single wish’ whose pastoral, chamber-psychedelic textures evoke late 60s Pink Floyd. The final sung words, ‘It’ll end in tears’, are a fitting epitaph for an album dripping with limpid beauty and transmuted melancholy.
Listen/Watch via the link (I can never get those freaking youtube vids to embed successfully)