Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Siren: Shallow then Halo

In the previous installment of a story that continues to grow and grow quite unbidden (and apropos of nothing else I've been researching lately), I detailed a number of bizarre omens/synchronicities in Cocteau Twins records that seemed to foreshadow the mythic tragedy of Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley, a story that seems to have been written long before it transpired. 

The climax of these synchronicities came with the 1990 album Heaven or Las Vegas, an album that namechecks the other American city that boasts a giant glass pyramid. From the previous piece:
Omens ignored: OK, here's where this story gets insane. 
The 8th and 9th songs on this album are 'Wolf in the Breast' and the almost unbearably mournful 'Road, River and Rail' (lyric: "like mother's daughter/to fish, you fly"). 
Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River in Memphis, which runs parallel to a railroad and is crossed by Interstate 40. 
The Wolf River is on the 89th Meridian West.
The neighborhood at the end of the Wolf River is named Frayser. 
Now please go watch the first minute of Elizabeth Fraser's video love letter to Buckley again.
However, I didn't tell you the name of the tenth song on the album.

That's called 'Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires'. Just another charmingly opaque Cocteau Twin song title, right? 

Well, not exactly.

(W)e have seen that serpents and foxes used sometimes to be burnt in the midsummer fires; and Welsh and German witches are reported to have assumed the form both of foxes and serpents. In short, when we remember the great variety of animals whose forms witches can assume at pleasure, it seems easy on this hypothesis to account for the variety of living creatures that have been burnt at festivals both in ancient Gaul and modern Europe; all these victims, we may surmise, were doomed to the flames, not because they were animals, but because they were believed to be witches who had taken the shape of animals for their nefarious purposes. 

This information comes to us from the seminal work on ancient paganism, The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer (there's that name again). Lest you think this is mere coincidence, I'd point that the Cocteau Twins also have a song titled 'Need-Fire', which is also the title of another chapter in The Golden Bough (and a song in which Fraser invokes the Aos Si).

Wicker Man fans will recognize that The Golden Bough was one of the primary sources for that film, which dealt with an elaborate human sacrifice orchestrated on a remote Scottish island for the May Day festival, in honor of the Sun God and the Goddess of the Orchards. As Frazer writes:
At the same time we must bear in mind that among the British Celts the chief fire-festivals of the year appear certainly to have been those of Beltane (May Day) and Hallowe’en (the last day of October); and this suggests a doubt whether the Celts of Gaul also may not have celebrated their principal rites of fire, including their burnt sacrifices of men and animals, at the beginning of May or the beginning of November rather than at Midsummer.  
What you may be more surprised to find out is that the Fraser sang about wicker men on a track on the Cocteau Twins' 1982 debut Garlands, which now that I've researched it, seems to be a concept album of sorts based on olde Celtic witchcraft. 

I'm not talking about Wicca, I'm talking something more akin to the blood and fire witchcraft of The Golden Bough, which Fraser-- who gives the impression of being very well-read, name-checking authors like Rainer Maria Rilke and Willam Least Heat-Moon-- seems to have read.

Read and taken to heart.

Garlands is the only album that includes something akin to lyrics in its sleeve, though nothing like the booklet you'd see in a Clash album. The lyrics for the song "The Hollow Men" are typically impressionistic, but present a situation in which a girl who's soul has left her body finds her way home by using the wicker men (note plural) to orient herself.

The lyrics to "But I'm Not" also allude to animal-- and human-- sacrifice: "Things from the forest die here, but I don't; Dead forest things are offered here, but I'm not...."

The lyrics to "Blood Bitch" (where Fraser warns the listener "don't damage my altar") would make Siouxsie Sioux shudder: "I'll paint the blood bitch/The blood bitch black/ Lift up your heels/You'll see burnt soles"

Not exactly the patchouli-and-camomile fodder of Milk and Kisses. But as we'll see later, neither is Milk and Kisses, actually.

The oblique, obscure nature of Fraser's vocals makes the lyrics all the more shocking once you discover what it is she's actually singing about. From 'Wax and Wane', a song with a very heavy witch vibe they performed up until their last tour:

When you get so many children

The Devil bites dirty
Up to the wee wanes
And we laugh in their faces!

Now, I don't know about you but I think those are some pretty fucked-up lyrics, miles away from their late-period image as music for Body Shop patrons to get their freak on to. "Wee wanes" is idiomatic Scottish for "little kids," which is kind of creepy on the face of it, more so when you think of the repeated lyric "and we wax and we wane." What exactly is she saying here?

Fraser in her mohawk and leather miniskirt days-
was the Victorian wallflower persona merely that- a persona?

The title song seems to have some connotation of defiling Catholic sacraments: 

Garlands evergreen
Forget-me-not wreaths
Chaplets see me drugged
I could die in a rosary
Die in a rosary

The idea of garlands will take on added significance in just a moment. But there are two songs, both especially dark and ominous sounding, that take on a prophetic air in light of the overall Siren drama we've been looking at (and if you've not read the previous installment, please stop right now and do so).

The first is the final song on the original LP, 'Grail Overfloweth', whose lyrics in part read, "Grail overfloweth, there is rain; and there's saliva* and there's you." 

One of the songs Jeff Buckley covered on his debut album was 'The Corpus Christi Carol', believed by many to be linked to the Holy Grail mythos.

Further, we hear, "Grail overfloweth, there is rain; There is ink and there is love." (starting at 1:07) Why is this significant? From a Guardian interview with Fraser:

The news that Buckley had disappeared – he drowned, swimming in the Wolf River in Memphis – came while Fraser was recording Teardrop with Massive Attack. "That was so weird," she says. "I'd got letters out and I was thinking about him. That song's kind of about him – that's how it feels to me anyway." It seems she is haunted by guilt: for not being there for Buckley, for everything. As she puts it: "I need to forgive myself."

Well, hopefully she's not reading this blog.

Another lyric that seems like a grim harbinger of Buckley's drowning in the Wolf River is 'Shallow Then Halo', whose first verse reads like an ancient Sumerian hymn:

Winged water
Feathered river
Dirty rich soil
Strong and fertile
The then shallow she
Earth as we know it
The then halo she
A sky for the sacred

Buckley (born in Anaheim, home of the Angels, whose logo is a halo) actually drowned in a shallow stretch of the Wolf River near a sandbank called Mud Island, probably drawn into the undertow by a passing tugboat.

The second verse of 'Shallow then Halo' reads:

Stars in my eyes 
Stars in my face
Womb in the belly
Capital place

Memphis is not the capital of Tennessee but its namesake was the capital of Lower Egypt, where the Nile River emptied into the sea.

Well, we have the river again. Now read these lyrics from 'Speak No Evil':

My soul I sold
I can't forget to ask
There's a full moon out again
Wolf thirst said me

 River. Wolf. 

Again. Bear in mind this is a band that many people assume aren't singing in English at all.

Remember also that Garlands predates all of the drama between Fraser and Buckley by a dozen years. Buckley was still "Scott Moorhead" at the time of this album's release and probably spent most of his time listening to Rush and Yes and hanging out at the local shopping mall when the Twins were on fire. 

But there are still more portents to be had from this slab of witchery. Jeff Buckley died on May 29, 1997. What is the significance of May 29?

Photo © Homer Sykes

May 29 was once known as Garland Day in Britain. It still is in a couple villages.
Castleton Garland Day or Garland King Day is held on 29 May (unless that date falls on a Sunday, when the custom is transferred to the Saturday) in the town of Castleton in the Derbyshire Peak District. 
The Ancient Castleton Garland Ceremony is an important annual event in English Folklore history and thought to be a relic from a Pagan fertility rite. (BBC)
More on this Garland Day: 
The Garland King (or May King) rides on horseback at the head of a procession of musicians and young girls, who perform a dance similar to the HELSTON FLORA DAY furry dance. 
The "garland" is an immense beehive-shaped structure that fits over his head and shoulders, covered with greenery and flowers and crowned with a special bouquet called the "queen."
Yeah, I think we know how that story ended in pagan times. 
Another Garland Day: 
(On) Old May Day, the children of the Dorset fishing village of Abbotsbury still "bring in the May." They do this by carrying garlands from door to door and receiving small gifts in return.  ach garland is constructed over a frame and supported by a stout broomstick, which is carried by two young people as they go about the village. 
At one time this was an important festival marking the beginning of the fishing season. Garland Day used to center around the blessing of the wreaths, which were then carried down to the water and fastened to the bows of the fishing boats. 
The fishermen then rowed out to sea after dark and tossed the garlands to the waves with prayers for a safe and plentiful fishing season. This ceremony may be a carry-over from pagan times, when sacrificial offerings were made to the gods of the sea.
The Romans also had a Garland Day in May, where offerings were made to Neptune.

On one level I look at this story as a human tragedy, and a story about the senseless loss of a promising artist. 

On another I see the symbols at work, and see an archetypal drama escape the confines of myth and come to life without any apparent rhyme or reason.

On another, I wonder  just what kind of forces were at work and who summoned them here?


POSTSCRIPT: I have no idea why I started writing about this story again, especially since I was knee-deep in the Gnostic material recently. The previous installment inspired a lot of discussion on the Facebook group and one reader pointed out that the day I began working on this series again, Pluto went direct after more than five months in retrograde. I don't know what that means exactly but given the symbolism at work here it certainly seems to be a fascinating synchronicity.

*Fraser would again sing of "saliva" in her paean to sex with Buckley, 'Seekers Who Are Lovers', on Milk and Kisses