Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Let Me Drown: Chris Cornell and the Siren (UPDATE)

As I write this it's twenty years ago to the day that Jeff Buckley's body was fished out of the Mississippi River, where he drowned after being caught in the wake of a passing tug while swimming off Mud Island on May 29th. I had a feeling that something might happen in conjunction with this anniversary.

I just had no idea how momentous it would be.

Chris Cornell, who died around midnight May 18th, was very close to Buckley. So much so that he became a de facto curator of Buckley's legacy, acting as his spokesman as well as overseeing and promoting some of Buckley's various posthumous reissues. 

It's entirely possible that the upcoming anniversary was weighing heavily on Cornell's mind and could very well have contributed to the depression that led to his death. Cornell had a combination of drugs (including lorezepam, barbiturates and naloxone) in his system leading some to believe his death was accidental. But it's just as likely he was anesthetizing himself in anticipation of his final act.

Of course, Buckley wasn't the first singer to die with whom Cornell shared a close bond. Late in 2016 Cornell toured with Temple of the Dog, the supergroup he formed to pay tribute to Andrew Wood, with whom Cornell had a formed a close and intense bond. That Wood's death still haunted Cornell was made clear in an interview given while touring with TOTD:
“With all that’s been written about Temple of the Dog recently, it’s reminded me of the original meanings of those songs. Say Hello 2 Heaven, for example, was one of the songs I wrote directly for Andy Wood and the amount of times someone has requested I play that song for someone else who’s died have been numerous. 
That’s great that it’s become this anthem that makes somebody feel some comfort when they’ve lost someone, but recently I’ve become a little more possessive of the idea that this song was actually written for a specific guy and I haven’t forgotten that person. So I’ve been reminding myself and those in the audience where that song came from.”
“I don’t know if you can ever take him out of [my heart and soul].”
Seven years later he'd lose Buckley, who became his confidant while the two wrestled with the pressures of fame. Buckley idolized Cornell and the two spent a lot of time talking on the phone while on tour. These talks were so important to Cornell that he'd take Buckley's old telephone onstage with him during his solo tours.
In 2011 Cornell started turning up on stage to do solo shows with his red phone on a stool next to him. People would shout out what’s the phone for, one day he came clear and said Jeff’s mum gave it to him, Jeff owned that phone and he put it on stage hoping Jeff might call one night.”

Buckley had a lot in common with Andrew Wood- more than a bit androgynous, prolific, eclectic, magnetic. Buckley would heavily influence Cornell's solo career, and the former Soundgarden singer even adopted a weird adaptation of Buckley's hairstyle while promoting his first album Euphoria Morning, which featured a tribute to Buckley that saw Cornell channeling his late friend.


Some have speculated if Buckley's own death was suicide but he often liked to swim in the Wolf River on hot days. He was swimming there with a friend while waiting for his band members to arrive at the Memphis airport. Apparently this kind of behavior was typical for Buckley. A friend said:

“The guy just made a big mistake — put some Led Zep on I’m going to go for a swim, I’ve got my Doc Martens on, what a great idea. He’d actually gone swimming on the Gold Coast with his girlfriend Joan (Wasser) the year before he died. His tour manager John Pope said to me everyone talks about him dying in the river in Memphis but we had to go and pluck him out of the surf. It’s not suicidal, it’s recklessness. That’s how he lived his live from what I could tell. He might have slowed down in his 30s if he made it.”
The Wolf River was once a popular swimming spot but as with Buckley its placid surface disguised a powerful current that led to drowning deaths:
All too often, those tranquil waters proved dangerous, however. More than one child drowned in the swiftly flowing stream, and in the 1950s, when yet another child — a young boy named Ronnie Jones — died there, city leaders decided enough was enough. Funds were raised to build a public swimming pool in Gaisman Park, so the children in North Memphis could have a safer place to play. 
As I've written about extensively, Buckley's death was the last act of a real-time Mystery Play, in which the gifted young singer found himself messing around with forces he didn't quite understand.
There's something else at play, some poetic -or mythic- ending, beneath the exoteric narrative. Something floating around the Symbolic Realm. I can just see it in Euripides and Aeschylus. 
It goes like this: A beautiful and talented young troubadour gets drunk on his own charisma and thoughtlessly toys with a delicate soul who is playing host to something that crossed over from the Other Side. Two thousand years ago, the omens and portents would have been recognized by everyone, from old women to schoolchildren. 
They would have warned him- don't break the Siren's heart.


Indeed, Buckley's fatal error was to toy with the tender heart of Elizabeth Fraser, who had a hit with a cover of Buckley's father's "Song to the Siren." Buckley idolized Fraser and pursued her while she was on tour for the Cocteau Twins' album Four Calendar Cafe. The two enjoyed a brief but powerful affair, which also came when Fraser was at her most emotionally fragile and least able to manage the strange force possessing her.

But Buckley, young rock god, wasn't interested in anything serious:

Buckley had a reputation as a lover man, DNA from his body was kept in case of future paternity cases. 
“He liked the ladies, the ladies liked him. When people’s stars begin to rise there’s a lot of people attracted to them, like moths to a flame, Jeff was like that. At one of his memorial services all these crying women going ‘Oh, you too?’ He had relationships with a lot of ladies over a short period of time. Not just sexual, but close personal friendships. Some didn’t know each other. He squeezed a lot into 30 years and specifically into the last five or six years of his life. Once he got to New York for the tribute to his father, which is where his career started, it was non stop until the time of his death.”
Buckley might have been racking up conquests but Fraser had other ideas. She wrote a number of raw-wound songs about him and even produced a painfully-imploring shortform video addressed to him called Rilkean Dreams shortly after their split. 

It would carry a chilling foreshadowing:

A short film called Rilkean Dreams (Fraser compared Buckley to the poet Rilke) was made in 1994 as a promo for the EP, named after the heart-rending "Rilkean Heart." It's hardly a promo as much as it is a nakedly confessional video love-letter to Buckley, with Fraser explicitly apologizing in song for being too needy and clingy here and then accusing Buckley of being selfish and immature there. But it's the symbolism that gets you. 
The opening shot of Rilkean Dreams is of a slowly rushing river 
Followed by a sunset.  
If ever there was an argument for teaching the art of divining omens and portents in school, that's pretty much it.
Fraser would receive news of Buckley's death at a pivotal time:
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."
The death devastated Fraser and the Cocteau Twins split not long after, seemingly exorcising Fraser and sending her into a semi-retirement ever since. In a bizarre twist, her first solo record would be called 'Underwater.'

And then there's this:

 It seems she (Fraser) is haunted by guilt: for not being there for Buckley, for everything. As she puts it: "I need to forgive myself."
What an odd turn of phrase.

As I detailed in previous posts on this frankly bizarre story, Fraser's discography is rife with startling premonitions of this archetypal drama. Discussing the Cocteau Twins' seminal album Heaven or Las Vegas, we see this:

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'.  
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.
Further a reader informed me that the spot where Buckley entered the Wolf River was near the Bayou Gayoso. Fraser also sings the lyric "from out of the bayou" in 'Road, River and Rail.'

Why is any of this relevant? Well, Fraser is an interesting woman. The lyrics to the first Cocteau Twins album (Garlands, 1982) are absolutely soaked in the iconography of witchcraft and the occult. 

Not to mention a song about a river called "Shallow then Halo." As in you're in shallow water (like Buckley actually was) and then you drown.  

In 1982

Fifteen years before Buckley's death.

And soon after Fraser underwent a somewhat startling transformation:

The lyrics to Garlands speak to a more-than-casual familiarity with witchcraft on someone's part, presumably Fraser's. In that context, it should be noted that the singer underwent a rather stunning metamorphosis from 1982 to 1983. 
Her appearance, her wardrobe, her voice, her lyrical style, and her comportment all underwent a radical change. Gone were the punk togs; the provocative leather minis, fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots and in their place were billowy, neo-Victorian frocks (Fraser always wore long sleeves to hide her tattoos). Her lyrics began evolving towards the near-total glossolalia of Treasure, though the lyrics on Head Over Heels still retain the violence and menace of Garlands. 
Even allowing for the effect of makeup, her face (most noticably, her irises) seemed to change- she looked like an entirely new person. You can see it in the live videos as well, where lighting and makeup have less power to disguise (or did back then).
Those are some Thomas Jerome Newton looking eyes

Remarkably, Fraser herself* said she believed she was channeling another force or entity in a 1984 interview. She also claimed her music "wrote itself " (shades of 'Stairway to Heaven'). 

And you know what? I believe her. Without question. Everyone seemed to sense it at the time.


Now what does any of this have to do with Chris Cornell, aside from his shared association with Jeff Buckley?

Well, just like all the Siren symbolism that connects to Jeff Buckley's death, it just so happens that Chris Cornell died just minutes away from the location of a very similar legend:
The Indian demi-god, Sleeping Bear, had a daughter so beautiful that he kept her out of the sight of men in a covered boat that swung on Detroit River, tied to a tree on shore; but the Winds, having seen her when her father had visited her with food, contended so fiercely to possess her that the little cable was snapped and the boat danced on to the keeper of the water-gates, who lived at the outlet of Lake Huron. 
The keeper, filled with admiration for the girl's beauty, claimed the boat and its charming freight, but he had barely received her into his lodge when the angry Winds fell upon him, buffeting him so sorely that he died, and was buried on Peach Island (properly Isle au Peche), where his spirit remained for generations—an oracle sought by Indians before emprise in war. 
His voice had the sound of wind among the reeds, and its meanings could not be told except by those who had prepared themselves by fasting and meditation to receive them. Before planning his campaign against the English, Pontiac fasted here for seven days to "clear his ear" and hear the wisdom of the sighing voice. 
But the Winds were not satisfied with the slaying of the keeper. They tore away his meadows and swept them out as islands. They smashed the damsel's boat and the little bark became Belle Isle. Here Manitou placed the girl, and set a girdle of vicious snakes around the shore to guard her and to put a stop to further contests. These islands in the straits seem to have been favorite places of exile and theatres of transformation.  
Myths and Legends of our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner (1896)
So we have a variation on the Siren/Lorelei myth here, right near the Fox Theater. 

Jesus. What are the odds?

• We have a victim known for his powerful voice. Right near the Fox Theater.

• We have glossolalia as we have with Elizabeth Fraser.

• We also have a "girdle of vicious snakes." On the last Cocteau Twins album Fraser sings of a "Serpentskirt." 

Fraser posed naked for the cover of that album, which featured a number of songs written about Jeff Buckley (Fraser was clearly still smitten, as this performance indicates) , dedicating "Love and a Thousandfold Rose" to him.  Buckley answered her with the song "Thousandfold", written in Memphis. It included the line "Long time ago I'd died and gone."

• Like Mud Island, Belle Isle is located in a river off a major city. 

• 'Road, River and Rail' not only mentions the bayous but also namedrops the Isle de la Cite in Paris. Both Memphis and Detroit trace their establishment to French colonists. 

• And Jesus, I don't even know how to say it- OK, try this: CHRIS CORNELL RECORDED A SONG CALLED 'THE KEEPER'. In it he sings, "I am the keeper."

Are you getting all this now?

Strangely, Chris Cornell is credited as the author on several different lyric sites of 'Siren Song', written by Cocteau superfan Robert Smith. The lyrics are clearly inspired by Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' and reference "crystal eyes." It also includes the couplet "She sang "Give me your life or I must fly away/And you will never hear this song again."

What's likely is that Cornell covered the song during a concert (Temple of the Dog covered the Cure's 'Fascination Street') and it was mistakenly credited to him by fans. The synchronicity of it all (not to mention "Let Me Drown") and how it seemed to ensnare him is par for the course in the apparently still-unfolding drama of the Siren. 

UPDATE: Now this is going from insane to downright arcane. We saw the juxtaposition of 'Wolf in the Breast' and 'Road, River and Rail' acting as a prophecy of Jeff Buckley's death on the Wolf River. A body of water which- again- terminates at a place called Frayser. We saw the deeply disturbing premonitions- the river and underwater footage running throughout Fraser's heartbroken petitions to Buckley- in Rilkean Dreams. 

And of course the title itself could be interpreted as a reference to the water of the Wolf River in the lungs.

But there's a little detail I overlooked- the lyrics to 'Wolf in the Breast', at least some of which are in English. Now you have to be careful with the lyrics posted on the Internet- they're nearly all guesswork by fans and don't bear any relation to what Fraser actually wrote

That being said, a phrase recognizably repeated throughout is "I'll revenge all I need that day." 

Mind you, this is a song that seems mostly concerned with taking care of a baby.

Now of course, Fraser herself was never consciously aware of this. She hadn't even met Jeff Buckley at this time. But by her own admission she wasn't always in control of the songwriting process, that the songs often wrote themselves. Who may have assisted in this process then? I guess we'll never know.

But given the Celtic extraction of the main players in the drama it's worth looking into the myth of the Leanán Sidhe: 

In Celtic folklore, the leannán sí "Fairy-Lover"[1] (Scottish Gaelic: leannan sìth, Manx: lhiannan shee; [lʲan̴̪-an ˈʃiː]) is a beautiful woman of the Aos Sí ("people of the barrows") who takes a human lover. Lovers of the leannán sídhe are said to live brief, though highly inspired, lives.   
The leannán sídhe is generally depicted as a beautiful muse who offers inspiration to an artist in exchange for their love and devotion; however, this frequently results in madness for the artist, as well as premature death.
Like the Siren, the Leanán Sidhe is said to live at the bottom of the ocean.

UPDATE: It should also be kept in mind that Fraser was recording "Teardrop" with Massive Attack when Buckley died, a song she wrote about their breakup. The lyrics include lines about "black flowers blossom," a common symbol for death.

UPDATE: A Jesus Christ Pose in Detroit? Soundboard recording of Wolf in the Breastfrom 1990. Uploaded in 2015.

UPDATE: Our Gordon reminds us that Memphis- Egypt- literally had a Temple of the Dog, ie., Anubis.

*Fraser was studying Theosophy and Anthrosophy in 2012 at Emerson College, Sussex.

Again, David Lynch tried to license Elizabeth Fraser's version of 'Song to the Siren' for Blue Velvet but was unable to. He later used it in Lost Highway.