Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy
I never knew Tim Buckley nor did I know of him. Our lives intersected by about 11 years but there was no encounter. He was one of those 60’s-style hippie children who sang unfamiliar folk music and eschewed commercialism while singing to his heart’s content and was ultimately done in by the insidious beacon of his era: drugs. He was shaggy-haired, like a cast-off from a Scooby-Doo perfidious nightmare. Most people I’m sure have never heard of him. I hadn’t until recently. I was going through my music folder and discovered a song hiding which nearly drove me to tears for its haunting beauty. This song has done a similar number on me before. It evokes endless spiraling psychic tornadoes of sadness and tragedy, because that is ultimately what I am all about. I am tragedy and I am sadness and certain songs trigger this latent agony.
Tim Buckley wrote this peculiarly poetic song in the late 60s. It bears no resemblance to the market-driven hollow garbage that bloats the playlist of today’s music industry’s implosion. All the time I spent in literature classes and dissecting the minute words of every great master in authorial hisotry is usually confined to my memories of academia and rarely bleeds into real life. Even rarer is the instance where it manifests itself in pop culture, for pop culture is not artistic nor poetic nor intelligent. The dollar has the unfortunate effect of extinguishing noble aims, and the ethereal allure of artistic expression is assuredly unable to complete with modern marketability. That is whey this song is so damned affecting. Not only is it beautiful, it is poetic. Metaphoric concepts are absolutely wasted on our modern generation of Twitted simplicity and Facebookian one-dimensionality. To discover a song that is brimming with metaphors and symbolism, that doesn’t need to resort to trite truisms or slang in order to portray a message is indeed to unearth a rare treasure. Literature suffers the misfortune of expressing itself only in the singular palate of words. The clever skillfulness of the author dictates how influential the words are, but essentially the words work in a vacuum. Nothing can accompany their merry dance into your psyche. Music, however, depends on tune, melody and, to a certain extent, lyrics. Music is a melange of elements married together in order to trigger emotional reactions and sympathies.
To listen to Tim Buckley sing “Song To The Siren” on The Monkees Show in 1968 is to hear the perfect storm of music and poetry collide.
These are the “official” lyrics which Buckley slightly departed from.
Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
’til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving to your isle
And you sang
Sail to me
Sail to me
Let me enfold you
Here I am
Here I am
Waiting to hold you
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you hare when I was fox?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rocks,
For you sing, ‘touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow:
O my heart, o my heart shies from the sorrow’
I am puzzled as the newborn child,
I am as riddled as the tide:
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Or 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’
Note the symbolism and the ensuing placement of his troubles in the context of water where they are battered by the overpowering currents of the oceanic tide, and his description of objects and habitat residing in the body of water. Noting this, we are able to “fill in” the blanks and abiguous elements of his song lyrics. We know he is singing of water, so we can assume the sound “I” is isle because it fits in the context of his usage. Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose in 1975 but by then he’d become the father of a baby boy named “Jeff.” Jeff naturally became a musician himself and performed an assorted series of gigs and supporting studio roles. He recorded a couple of albums and during a swim in the Mississippi River in 1997, he was apparently sent adrift by a passing steamboat and drowned. His body was recovered a few days later and pathologic examination revealed exactly that which you were not thinking…there was no alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of death.
“Song To The Siren” has been covered by a multitude of artists. The versions are all good but none stand out. Even Sinead O’Connor’s version is not heart-wrenching and George Michael’s is pleasantly “touching.” In my hard drive discovery, I found the version performed by This Mortal Coil, a conglomeration of acts which in this case included The Cocteau Twins. It easily outshone all versions of the song, even Tim Buckley’s. Whereas prose cannot be expounded on or improved or given an unfamiliar flair, music is buoyant and nebulous and can be re-worked in different manners to suit different tastes. It is safe to say that one version of a song is not necessarily better than another, but we can assert that its present incarnation appeals to different temperaments in different manners. This Mortal Coil sings a version of “Siren” that elicits the emotional agony of the narrator better than other versions.
This is an amazing musical rendition of the Siren mythology. A tale which describes man’s fall, and his subsequent descent into perdition at the hands of his own egotistical reflection. Like Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice,” the song speaks of man’s hypnotic destruction at the hands of self-absorbed magnificence. Man is always at a loss for the perfect complement to his wonderful and flawless self-image and thus seeks to assert such wonder from his environment, and confronting this disheartening absence of discovery, retreats to a state of moral blurriness in which he must choose whether to stand or sink. Many people interpret the song in terms of Love; of its loss and intransigence. That is short-sighted and the Siren mythology describes man’s vanity and his expectation of rewards and heavenly glory. Which he realizes is all bullshit in the end and which he confronts when he faces the siren and must decide whether to obey her call or turn away to a life of alienation and ingloriousness.
I find it very ironic that Jeff Buckley died in the water considering this song his father penned.