Sunday, January 3, 2010

Once upon a New Year's Eve I met a Drunken Boat

Here's a story I discovered by chance on New Year's Eve.

This is a recording of Tim Buckley performing Song to the Siren in 1970. The song follows the thoughts, dreams, and feelings of a protagonist who is literally and metaphorically at sea until he becomes infatuated with a songstress on the shore. He follows his longing, at first full of passion and the excitement of the conquest, but becomes more and more despairing and confused as he loses control of his ship and it crashes onto the rocks. At the end of the song, he finds himself stranded in the waves, ahead of him the prospect of unrequited love, and behind him the deathly embrace of the water.

The deeper meaning of the song rests on a narrative device: that of using quotes in the trio of two-line choruses that follow each verse. In the first chorus, the protagonist quotes the siren: "Sail to me, sail to me, let me enfold you." In the third and final chorus, the protagonist quotes himself, calling out from the breakers: "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you."

Both the first and last choruses end with the line "Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you." But it's not entirely clear who is voicing the line. Probably the siren in the first, and the protagonist in the third. But then again maybe not.

In the middle chorus, it is crystal clear that the siren is the one singing: "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow." Yet the ultimate line - the clincher - could be sung by the siren, the protagonist, the songwriter, or all of these - "O my heart, o my heart, shies from the sorrow." You can hear this in the way Tim sings it. I suspect this is a reflection of the extraordinary turbulence of those early years, and the unworldly places his pursuit of his muse was beginning to take him. This line is placed smack dab in the middle of the song, framed in perfect symmetry at its very heart.

Tim wrote Song to the Siren having in quick succession discovered his high school sweetheart and fellow outcast, Mary, was pregnant; married her; discovered it had been a phantom pregnancy; honest-to-goodness impregnated her; then divorced her. Many of his songs from this period are said to be inspired by Mary. She bore his son Jeff without him, then changed the child's name to Scott Moorhead, after her new partner and Jeff's stepfather. Tim and Jeff, bloodline father and son, were to see each other only once, when Jeff was eight years old. Mary took Jeff to see Tim in concert, and the son stayed with his father for a week. Seven months later, Tim was dead, having mistaken heroin for cocaine and overdosed at the age of 28. Scott Moorhead began asking to change his name back to Jeff Buckley.

Jeff went on to be a celebrated singer-songwriter in his own right, primarily on the strength of his first and only studio album, "Grace". It is hardly a surprise that he struggled mightily to escape the mythologized legacy of his father (Interviewer: Extraordinary voice. I mean, everybody knows your dad is Tim Buckley, of course. I mean, he sort of had that same sense of abandon, didn't he? Jeff Buckley: Yeah - he abandoned *me*.) Yet the similarities in their musical styles and personae cannot be ignored. Also unavoidable is the uncanny way each died before his time - on the dot. On the evening of May 29, 1997, also at the age of 28, Jeff went for a dip in Wolf River Harbor in his clothes and boots singing Whole Lotta Love, and didn't come back. His drowned body was spotted by a riverboat tourist five days later.

"Grace" is basically a death prayer. Not something of sorrow but just casting away any fear of death. No relief will come, you'll really just have to stew in your life until it's time to go. But sometimes, somebody else's faith in you can do wonders.

The most well-known rendition of Song to the Siren is by This Mortal Coil, with Elizabeth Fraser on vocals. It was much admired by David Lynch, who used it in Lost Highway, and pointed to this single song as the inspiration for Julee Cruise's entire first two albums. Elizabeth Fraser's vocals were recorded in 1983, when Jeff was a high school student in Hollywood. She had become a fan of Tim's music, and studied not only Song to the Siren, but Tim's entire vocal style. When she heard Jeff's voice, she also became utterly captivated. And Jeff knew Elizabeth's voice through her international success as vocalist of The Cocteau Twins.

When Elizabeth and Jeff finally met several years after Elizabeth had recorded Song to the Siren, each had listened to the other's voice, and come to idolize it.

They fell in love with each other's voices.

To meet Jeffrey was just like being given a set of paints. ... I had all this color in my life again. I just couldn't help falling in love with him. He was adorable, he was lovely. I read his diary; he read mine. We'd just swap, we'd literally just hand over this very personal stuff, and I've never done that with anybody else; I don't know if he has. So in some ways there was a great deal of intimacy, but then there'd be times when I'd just think, "I'm just not penetrating this Jeff Buckley boy at all."

Broken down hungry for your love with no way to feel it
Where lie you tonight cause you know how much you need it
I love you
But I'm afraid to love you

So. In the year of his son's birth, his father writes a song about a lonely man falling in love with a woman's singing, but who can't quite reach it... and by that time, it's too late, but the only other choice is to "lie with Death my Bride" in the watery depths...