SONG TO ODYSSEUS

I

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

ThisMortalCoil-SongToTheSiren12

II

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

III

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.

This Mortal Coil It'll end in tears

IV

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.

V

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.

Tim Buckley - starsailor

My friend delivered.

Were you hare when I was fox?

Ah.

I guess the reveal was satisfying, though I truly felt more road-kill rabbit than scheming Reynard.

VI

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’

VII

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.

WOMAD 1993

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.

VIII

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.

IX

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.

This Mortal Coil - End in Tears Vinyl

X (CODA)

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)

28 comments

  1. Wonderful Bruce. So fuelled by hauntingly indecipherable lyrics and melodies of the epically romantic variety our hero appears to have roamed several continents having his lovelorn way with the ladies of the world, whilst all the while keeping hold of his polyhedral dice?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Forget towels, it’s knowing where your dice are that counts!
      As for having my way, more running away really. Never quite had the strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution or charisma for conquests.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Or the ladies of the world made their saving throws against your charm spell? always seemed to happen to me!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yep. That pretty much nails it. I created good dungeons, though!

          Liked by 2 people

  2. I think that’s a wonderfully-told tale, draped seductively over a wonderfully-crafted song.

    I’ve only owned this for 7 or 8 years now, but as soon as I put it on, I felt like I’d known it always (I’d never knowingly heard any of it before now). there are times when ‘Song For The Siren’ is just a bit too much for me, too gorgeous, too pure and I stick with ‘Kanga-Roo’ over and over – love that one too.

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    1. I know what you mean. I found the emotional density of ‘Song to the siren’ (as performed by TMC) brought forth more colourful prose than usual, even though I know it so well. I had to go through and remove adjectives before publishing!

      If I can get my act together, I thought a short companion piece on the Tim Buckley original/album might be worth doing.

      Thanks for engaging, Joe. ‘Preciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely, I’ve never heard any Tim Buckley.

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        1. I have them all, and this one is absolutely NOT the place to start (unless you want to be inoculated against Tim for life).

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Well there you go then, how about an Idiot’s Primer to (for?) Tim Buckley?

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, nice Thorens turntable, Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Midnight Toker · · Reply

    First paragraph immediately transported me back 30 years Mr VC! I had a tape (possibly recorded at Anne & Craig’s?) that had ‘It’ll end in tears’ on one side and Cocteau Twins on the other, which was often my late night listening. Like all the other cassettes, it found it’s way to the cupboard under the stairs at the beach house until I saw ‘The Lovely Bones’ and I went back and listened with joy to both. I agree with 1537, Kangaroo is one of my faves.

    Laudatory self-deprecation, but I reckon the tall, intelligent, warm and interesting bloke cut a fair swathe through the fairer sex! And yes, you created bloody wonderful dungeons!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are very kind, M T.
      I know neither the novel nor the book of ‘The Lovely Bones’. Did the film use Cocteau’s music, I wonder? And it does occur to me that your tape would have made fine ‘Midnight’ listening.

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  5. Midnight Toker · · Reply

    The film uses ‘Song to the siren’ in a ‘dream/afterlife’ sequence. They also use a Cocteau’s song…’Alice’. Most of the soundtrack is by Eno. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0380510/soundtrack

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting tracklist. Thanks Mr T.

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  6. I have eaten ambrosia and can not live without oatmeal. Good stuff.

    (PS: My take on Odysseus is that he had to come up with a bloody good story to explain a twenty year overrun on his leave-pass).

    Liked by 2 people

  7. read with my second morning coffee, the one i drink aware of my xistence and persistence on earth. e-n-j-o-y-e-d every period

    Liked by 2 people

    1. cheers, friend. to be consumed with your coffee is an honour. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. my privilege, really. although the choice to go with my coffee was between you and youporn. so yes, consider it an honour 😉
        haha 😛
        i like this memoir thing where music (not surprisingly) entwines with episodes and knits scattered lives’ events

        Liked by 1 person

        1. thanks Paolo. they are satisfying (if slow) to write and though they usually get less ‘views’, I value the engagements very highly. thank you for choosing VC over youporn. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

        2. hehe, my pleasure! 🙂
          do you think that writing a memoir suggests that the time has come for someone to sit down with their past or just the need to finally tell themselves their own story, to dig a groove on the vinyl of this planet? one’s own song?

          Liked by 2 people

        3. what a great question. i wish we could sit down with a good montepulciano / coonawarra red and dissect it at a leisurely pace. perhaps something of the travelling one’s own groove, repeating for the first time, bringing some softness like a vintage full bodied red… humming one’s own song.

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        4. yeah, i agree. i think that the answer is in the atmosphere

          Liked by 3 people

  8. 1537 said it all. A wonderfully evocative post. Thanks, Bruce. Keep ’em coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot Phil. I hope to continue with the ‘memoir’ pieces as time allows. They are fun to write (though perhaps not quite as easy to knock out as a music piece!) and I really appreciate the positive feedback.

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  9. […] Mortal Coil’s version of ‘Song to the Siren’. It involves drugs, dungeons and dragons (now posted here). But for now we’ll return to the […]

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  10. Wishing for something more profound to say here, but forced to go ahead simply with “Wonderful post!” The best part is “knowing” how much exists within and between the actual words the writer has chosen to put to paper. Stirring the everyday oatmeal really is a beautiful place to be; with care, taking time to consider the convoluted and treasured-in-hindsight path taken can deeply reinforce the beauty of “now” and “here.” Here’s hoping you can give us more such travelogues.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I feel like “song to the siren” TMC version is indescribably haunting and cuts at your soul, and after that piercing wound is made you realize your glad for it. Then kangaroo comes by to pick up the pieces and liven you back up again.

    I’m only 19 and I feel like I’m the only person of my generation to actually know what true music is. When an artist gives you a glimps of the phantasms of their minds, the mellifluous melodies of pain and emotion that is absent in the contrived music of today’s pop culture. This is how music should be, music should make you feel something important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic that you are exploring beyond the fields of generational fashion. Hope you continue to discover music that moves you deeply. Thanks for visiting Vinyl Connection.

      Like

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