Monday August 29, 2005

"Song to the Siren"

Every so often a song that I know well catches my attention again.  I listen to it as if for the first time, sometimes parsing the lyrics for the first time, sometimes noticing a musical motif I hadn't heard before.  This recently happened with "Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil—or rather, since This Mortal Coil was a series of compilation albums by artists at the UK label 4AD, by Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.  The song stands out for Liz's vocal performance, and for the sad, classical mythology behind the lyrics.  Fraser is famous for her very strange way of articulating the lyrics of songs, so it can be hard to make out what she's singing.  Curious, I started googling around to find out exactly what the lyrics were to "Song to the Siren", and discovered the surprisingly complicated textual history of the song.

Now, in most Cocteau Twins songs, it's nearly impossible to make out all the lyrics in what Liz is singing.  Usually, only an occasional word will bubble intelligibly to the surface.  I've seen a variety of explanations for why she sings this way (there are a bunch of them out on the Web) but suffice it to say that she's more concerned with the expression of emotion than with a precise articulation of the words.  In "Song to the Siren", though, the words are comparatively clear, although there are still several places where they can be interpreted in more than one way.

Ordinarily, I'd give you links to a bunch of sites at this point, but because lyrics sites seems to be particuarly infested with spyware and industrial strength popups (capable of popping up through the popup protection in both both IE and FireFox), I'm just going to collate the various versions of the lyrics I found.  In the following, alternative readings are surrounded by parentheses and separated by vertical bars (more or less as in regular expressions), and I've left out minor differences in punctuation and spelling:

(Long afloat on|On the floating,) (ship|shape)less oceans
I did all my best to smile
'Til your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving (into your eyes|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|here when I was full sail)?
Now my foolish boat is (leaning|leaving)
Broken (lovelorn|love lost) on your rocks.
For you s(a|i)ng, "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow.(")
(")Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.(")

I'm as puzzled as (a|the) newborn child.
(I'm as riddled as the tide.|
I'm as troubled as the tide.|
I am troubled at the tide.)
Should I stand amid the breakers?
(Or shall|Or should|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.(")

This struck me as a surprisingly wide variety of alternate readings.  Some amount of confusion is natural, of course, since Liz's way of singing leaves more than one possibility open.  I can't fault anyone for hearing "eyes" for "isle", for example, although I think it's pretty clearly intended to be the latter, given the mythological story of the sirens.  But what about "hare when I was fox" and "troubled at/as the tide"?  Neither of those seem very close to what Liz sings.

The simple solution to this riddle was contained in a line at the bottom of several of the pages, which attributed the lyrics to Tim Buckley.  There was never a member of the Cocteau Twins by that name.  It turns out that the idea behind the This Mortal Coil project was to have various 4AD artists cover songs by other artists, and Tim Buckley was a singer-songwriter in the 60's and 70's.  "Song to the Siren" was probably his best-known song—he apparently performed it live on an episode of "The Monkees", of all places.  I'd had no idea that the songs on the This Mortal Coil albums were covers, which I suppose shows you how narrow the information channel was between the early-80's music scene in England and a cash-strapped teenager in Southern California.

Having discovered the Tim Buckley version of the song, I downloaded a copy, and listening to it helped to clear up some of the mystery.  The lyrics in his version are quite clear, and I've transcribed them here:

Long aloat 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 (now)
For you sing, "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow."
Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.

Well I'm as puzzled as the newborn child
I'm 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."

So, the "hare when I was fox" line, which compared the pursuing sailor to a fox and the pursued siren to a hare, was clearly present in the original.  Buckley definitely sang "riddled as the tide", though, so this doesn't explain the "troubled" versions of the lyrics.  Still, having heard the Buckley version, I re-listened to the Cocteau Twins version, and as best I can puzzle it out, here's what Liz was singing:

On the floating shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile
'Til your singing eyes ??? 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 here when I was ???
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken lovelorn on your rock
For you sing, "Touch me not.  Touch me not, come back tomorrow."
Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.

Well I'm as puzzled as a newborn child.
I'm 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."

There were still a couple of places where I couldn't quite make out what Liz was singing: "eyes ??? fingers" and "were you here when I was ???".  The former sounds to me like "eyes win fingers", which doesn't make any sense, so she was probably just mumbling a bit.  The latter is puzzling.  She clearly wasn't singing the original lyric, "Were you hare when I was fox?"  I always thought she was singing "for sale", although that doesn't make any sense in the context of the song, and most of the lyrics sites I found agreed on "full sail".  It's clear she must have decided to sing a different line there, but what was it?

I persisted and started poking around a couple of file-sharing networks for other versions of the song.  (Yes, I know—bad Tensor!—but if you're looking for obscure or odd music the file sharing networks have an amazing variety.)  Among a bunch of cover versions, I found a bootleg of a live performance of the song by the Cocteau Twins.  (It's not, before you ask, this live version freely available on the Cocteau Twins web site.)  This bootleg version contains the answer: she very clearly sings, "Were you here when I was flotsam?"  Aha!  This makes perfect sense in the context of the song—the sailor has been floating on shipless oceans, after all—and I actually like it a little better than the original "hare when I was fox" line, which seems more suited to Aesop's fables than a song about rejection, death, and loss.  [Update:  I found a video of the flotsam version on YouTube.]

There's still a remaining issue I haven't talked about: the question of quotation marks.  At the end of each verse of the lyrics, either the siren sings to the sailor or vice-versa.  In each case, the beginnings of the quotations are explicitly marked by a phrase, such as "And you sang".  The question is, do these quotations extend onto the following lines?  Here are the lines in question again (with all but the initial quotation marks omitted):

And you sang, "Sail to me, sail to me, let me enfold you.
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.

For you sing, "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow.
Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.

Hear me sing, "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you.
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.

I think that, based on the meaning of the song, we can make pretty good guesses about the correct placement of the quotation marks, but not entirely certain ones.  In the first verse, I think the siren is singing both lines.  The sailor is moving while she is stationary, so it makes more sense for her to sing, "Here I am, waiting."  In the second verse, though, the second line pretty clearly has to be the sailor speaking.  It's the siren who has rejected him, so she has no reason to feel sorrow.  (Sirens were trying to lure sailors to their deaths, remember.)  In the third verse, I think it makes sense to consider the quotation to cover both lines, as in the first verse, because the sailor is standing in the surf, imploring the siren by singing her own spell back to her.  So I think the lyrics intended were:

And you sang, "Sail to me, sail to me, let me enfold you.
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you."

For you sing, "Touch me not, touch me not, come back tomorrow."
Oh my heart, oh my heart shies from the sorrow.

Hear me sing, "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you.
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you."

Having said that, though, I'd like to point out another interpretation—a possible happy ending.  What if the last two lines were:

Hear me sing, "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you."
"Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you."

That is, the sailor sings to the siren, begging her to swim out to him, and she relents and calls him to her.  I don't think this is very likely to be what was intended, but I thought I'd point it out for those of you who find the song terribly depressing.  Cheer up, they may have ended up together!

I mentioned above that I was surprised to find out that the Cocteau Twins version of "Song to the Siren" was a cover.  I was also surprised, when searching for alternate versions of the song on Amazon, just how many other artists have covered it.  Here's a partial list of artists (some of which may be wrong or redundant, since there's a couple of versions with a million remixes):

  • Robert Plant (yes, that Robert Plant)
  • Damon & Naomi
  • Barraka (4 mixes)
  • Lost Witness, (as "Did I Dream (Song to the Siren)")
  • Sabel
  • The Czars (from a tribute album to Buckley)
  • Sirene
  • Her Love Filled the Room
  • [Jimmy the] King (an Elvis Impersonator, apparently)
  • Sally Oldfield
  • Beasts Of Paradise
  • Ecim
  • Laurie Freelove
  • Geoff Smith
  • Sheila Chandra
  • Vengeance featuring Clare Pearce
  • String Quartet Tribute to Jeff Buckley
  • Susheela Raman
  • Dean Lwakatsuki

(There's also a Chemical Brothers song by the same name, but the sample snippets I've heard don't sound at all like the Buckley or the Cocteau Twins song.  Does anyone know if it's also a cover of the same song?)

These cover versions are all over the map, style-wise—there are trancy versions, dancy versions, folksy versions, gothy versions, and examples of just about every other kind of music under the sun.  What's interesting is that it's usually possible to tell which version of the song has been covered—some of them are clearly covers of the Buckley song, while in others the artist, like me, seems to be primarily familiar with the Cocteau Twins version.  There are two easy ways to tell who's being covered.  First, listen to the second line of the second verse, which will contain "hare when I was fox" if it's a cover of Buckley and "here when I was full sail" (or some variant on that) if it's a cover of the Cocteau Twins.  The second way is to listen to the vocalist—singers covering the Cocteau Twins version usually imitate Liz Fraser's heavily (and beautifully) melismatic style, especially on the last line of each verse.

Although writing about all of the different cover versions would take forever (and I don't have copies of most of them, anyway), I wanted to talk about four in a little more detail: the Cocteau Twins cover, the Lost Witness and Sabel electronic versions, and Robert Plant's cover.  The Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil version is, instrumentally, a very faithful cover of the original—the dreamy, eerie guitar sound is almost identical—but Liz Fraser's very distinctive and un-Buckleyish way of singing is, in my opinion, what makes the Twins' version the definitive one.  The echoy, ethereal, almost unearthly quality of her voice really suits the music and the lyrics.  It never occurred to me until recently that it ought to sound odd to have her singing the part of the (presumably male) sailor—that's how good of a match her voice is for the song.

The Lost Witness version (which has "full sail") isn't too bad either, if you're amenable to electronic dance music (which I am), but it fails to capture what makes the song so powerful.  It omits, at least in the version I have, the first and third verses, simply repeating a part of the second—hence the title "Did I Dream".  This inevitably defuses the impact of the song, since the story of the sailor's doom is what it's all about.

The other electronic version I have, by Sabel, actually contains the whole text of the song, and the vocal performance of the singer (Sabel?) is really nice.  It has a bit of a Middle-Eastern flair, which interestingly suits a song about the ancient Mediterranean.  But the overall impression it gives, with the dance beat and the repetition of the line "Here I am", sort of bleaches the tragedy out of the song, turning it into music for Ecstasy-fueled, sunburned European kids to seduce each other by at summertime Balearic raves.  I suppose that's good marketing, but it's not what made the song powerful enough to be worth covering.

The Robert Plant version (found on "Dreamland", his 2002 album of covers) seems to be based on the Tim Buckley version, since it has "hare when I was fox".  It also contains "troubled as the tide", which probably explains where the "troubled" versions of the lyrics came from.  It makes sense that Plant would be covering Buckley, since the two men were contemporaries.  Unfortunately, Plant's rendition of the song is, in a word, embarrassing.  Among other things, in all three verses he omits the phrase that marks the beginning of the quotation ("And you sang", "For you sing", and "Hear me sing"), which completely changes the meaning of those lines. Worse, he clearly sings "unfold" instead of "enfold" both times, so the closing lines of the third verse, for example, become:

Swim to me, swim to me, oh come on, let me unfold you.
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.

Instead of the image of a cruel siren calling to a sailor, drawing him to his death with her beautiful voice, this instead calls to mind the image of an aging rock god lounging by the pool, pleading with a young groupie to let him deflower her.  Eww.

When I started looking into the lyrics of "Song to the Siren", I had thought I'd find a quick answer.  Instead, I found out about the history of the song, its many different covers, and the various interpretations fans have made of its lyrics.  It's amazing the wealth of information available on the Web about a fairly obscure recording from long before there was a Web.  I think that's a testament to the power of Tim Buckley's song and the beauty of the Cocteau Twins' recording of it.  I think I'll go listen to it again.

[Now playing: "Song to the Siren" by This Moral Coil/Cocteau Twins]

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» Song to the Siren from בל!ג של בועז
אחד מהשירים היותר מרגשים, מוכר בעיקר בזכות הווקלז השמיימיים של אליזבת פרייזר (קוקטו טויינז) מ-This Mortal Coil. מסתבר שהמקור הוא שיר מתחילת שנות השבעים של טים באקלי. הגרסה המקורית מרגשת אפילו יותר בעיני. Song to the siren / Tim Buckley Long a... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 6, 2006 7:54:14 PM

Comments

<<Were you here when I was flotsam?>>

I always thought it was do you hear me when I fart, Sam?

Not really. Never heard of the song. Just want to commend you on the amazing depth at which you investigated said mystery. Dang. Many times a day I say "I wonder why <...>. I should Google it and find out." By the time I'm Googling, I don't remember what it was I was wondering. Which is probably good, since the Web is such a time-suck, anyhow.

I did spend 30 minutes looking at Tom Tom Club sites recently...

Posted by: eric morse at Aug 29, 2005 1:45:11 PM

Song to the Siren (the Cocteau Twins' version) has been one of my favorite songs since it first came out. I knew it was a cover but didn't know so many other artists had covered it, so I'm going to have to hunt down some of the other versions, although I suspect I'll not like any as much as the, while not original, in my mind definitive, Cocteau Twins version. Thanks for all the information!

Posted by: blm at Aug 29, 2005 10:10:45 PM

Just been listening to the Irish Elvis version of this song so I googled and found your site...very informative.
If you would like the mp3 I'll mail it to you.

Posted by: mick in the uk at Sep 4, 2005 6:53:38 AM

Good research mate, I enjoyed reading it. One thing you didn't mention tho, and maybe you didn't know it as you have only just found out about Tim Buckley, but his original line for "I'm as puzzeled as a new born child" was actually " I'm as puzzeled as the oyster" which you can hear on a cd called Tim Buckley rareties. Quite amusing, when he first played it to his band they all went "WTF???" so he changed it!
Martin

Posted by: Martin Burns at Sep 5, 2005 9:25:34 AM

Maybe it was a reference to The Walrus and The Carpenter?

Posted by: the wife at Sep 6, 2005 6:46:10 AM

As well as the Barakka dance music versions, there's also another dance version called Sunrise (Here I am) by Ratty which appears to be based on Song to the siren too :)

Posted by: Chay at Sep 13, 2005 4:22:30 PM

I think we should chalk up "I'm as puzzled as the oyster" to the spirit of the times (by which I mean the drugs).

Posted by: The Tensor at Sep 17, 2005 5:46:52 PM

I was sort of embarassed at Plant's "unfold", because even without hearing the original I knew it had to be wrong -- but as to the rest, I think that it's perfectly understandable, and a more enjoyable listen than Buckley's version. It's easy to tell the two speakers apart without verbal cues. And, well, I happen to like the entire album, and Song to the Siren is one of the high points :)

Posted by: Andrew at Sep 27, 2005 5:36:48 PM

Hi, does anybody know if this mortal coil version is the one that appear on the Texas chainsaw Massacre web site,
www.texaschainsawmovie.com/

Thanks
Kas

Posted by: Kas at Oct 14, 2005 1:10:57 AM

Hmm, it's not the This Mortal Coil version, but it's a very close imitation. According to a post in this discussion group (search for "waaaay"), the little snippet in the trailer for the movie was all that was recorded. (See also the discussion in the reviews of the soundtrack on Amazon.) The vocalist is apparently from a band called Moneypenny, who I've never heard of.

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 14, 2005 2:16:28 AM

Adding a bit more to Liz Frazers motivation in singing the song and her emotion of performance, was perhaps the fact that she was dating Buckleys' son, the late, great jeff. According to the biography of the two Buckleys, Liz found herself drawn to jeff like a moth to a flame, compelled and terrified by his immeasurable talent... Little wonder her version ofr Song to the Siren was so spinetingling.

Posted by: dickyboy at Oct 18, 2005 11:30:39 AM

Thanks a bunch! Your research helped me a lot. Still trying to find a particular version of this song - the one used in the film "Lost Highway' (David Lynch) but wasn't on the soundtrack. Does anyone out there know which version it would be?

Posted by: J at Oct 28, 2005 6:51:32 AM

I haven't seen Lost Highway, but I Googled around a little bit, and it looks like it was the This Mortal Coil/Cocteau Twins version that was used in the movie.

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 28, 2005 11:37:26 AM

such a lovely song.

one thing - I've always thought the line near the end was as follows:
"should I stand at the breakers or should I lie with death my briNe (rather than bride)".

always thought it was just a clever play on words. anyone else hear it the same way that I do?

Posted by: ja at Oct 29, 2005 10:42:39 AM

Here's an interesting one for you. Jeff Buckley, Tim's son and a successful musician before his death in Memphis in 1997, reportedly had an affair with Elizabeth Frazer, the This Mortal Coil vocalist of Song to the Siren and Cocteau Twins Vocalist, sometime in the mid-1990s.

Posted by: George at Nov 8, 2005 4:21:13 AM

Thanks for the in-depth material on this song. I'd like to add that I have the complete version of the Chemical Brothers "Song to the Siren" and (as you might expect) it has no lyrics whatsoever; pure drun n' bass (or whatever the pigeonhole might be; "electronica" is maddening that way.) Why they called that particular track "Song to the Siren" is beyond me - I suppose they had to call it something.

Posted by: John Sabotta at Nov 27, 2005 10:47:14 PM

There is a hardstyle version of the legendary song dutch hardcore legend deepack called down low on dutch label Q dance i think it also samples missy elliot on the vocal. I am desperate to get a wav sound clip of the song because i do also want to make a hardstyle version of this timeless classic

Posted by: daniel jago at Feb 8, 2006 9:05:31 AM

Thing is, the version recorded by This Mortal Coil was in 1986, from the album "It Will End In Tears". Liz and Jeff did not have their affair until around 1995. Therefore, her passionate interpretation of Song to the Siren couldn't have been influenced by her feelings for Jeff Buckley, as he was a mere 19 years old and unheard of by the time it was recorded.

If you watch the BBC documentary about Jeff Buckley's life and music, there's an interview with Liz, and she says that listening to Tim's music was very healing, and that she wanted to work with Jeff once she heard that Tim's son was also a musician. She didn't know that she would be so drawn to Jeff in the manner that she was.

Posted by: Jeisenne at Feb 19, 2006 5:16:30 PM

You have no idea how many years I have been trying to find out the name of this song. I first heard just the part of 'did i dream' on TV and nobody knew anything about it when i went into the shops to find the record. {this was years ago obviously}. Still the best record I have ever heard as far as I am concerned. Cheers.

Posted by: Carol at Mar 1, 2006 1:42:48 PM

Good job, thanks much. :)

Posted by: Shmoo at Mar 3, 2006 7:29:14 PM

hey, thanks for all that. do you know where on the web I can hear a recording of the Cocteau Twins singing 'Song to the Siren'?

Posted by: Han at Mar 14, 2006 8:40:34 AM

thank you so much, loved all the info i didnt know either... and i call myself a fan!

Posted by: nybe swordfish at Apr 13, 2006 12:05:57 PM

This performance by Tim Buckley has 'I am troubled as the tide'.

Posted by: AJ at May 13, 2006 6:44:28 AM

A couple of interesting Tim Buckley facts:

He co-wrote Song to the Siren with a poet friend called Larry Beckett - it was Beckett who wrote the original lyrics, not Buckley.

The Monkees show was the first performance of Song to the Siren (in 1997 or 68) and included the dubious 'puzzled as the oyster' lyric which was subsequently changed when it was released on record in 1970.

Song to the Siren was, in fact, first released on vinyl as a cover by Pat Boone in 1969.

A comprehensive list of all covers of the song can be found at http://www.secondhandsongs.com/song/12223.html, although there are no downloads on this site so you can't listen to any of the versions.

Finally, my favourite Tim Buckley 'interesting fact' is his ignominious entry in Scott's Book of Miscellany's Untimely Popstar Deaths - he mistakenly chopped up a line of heroin and snorted it because he thought it was coke. What a nob.

Posted by: stu at May 18, 2006 1:55:22 AM

Very interesting research, though I knew most of it before I read it.

Larry Beckett: He was the poet of most of Tim Buckleys early material, while Tim did all the music.

His death: He had been clean for some time, when he snorted the line, so some also sees his dead as the consequence of Tim doing drugs at a time where his system was too fragile and could not handle the dosis.
If you are interested in more details, read 'Dream Brother'.

Posted by: TF at May 22, 2006 5:34:38 AM

concerning the studio version of "song to the siren" by this mortal coil; it seems more likely to me that elizabeth fraser is singing "for sail" or "full sail" rather than "flotsam" due to the fact that, no matter how unusual a persons singing style is, it is unlikely an important tongue usuage as in the letter "l" would be bypassed. i would think that she just used a variation in the live footage. just a thought.

Posted by: me at Jun 2, 2006 4:43:15 AM

"full sail", "flotsam" OR do I hear "forecastle" (fo'c'sil)?

Posted by: mister gogos at Jun 12, 2006 1:38:08 PM

Two points in response to comments above.

First, Song to the Siren appeared on the TMC album in the 1980s, when Jeff Buckley was barely out of puberty and long before Liz Fraser met Jeff or even knew he existed. I used to see Jeff every week in concert in small venues in New York in the early 1990s, and he told a story about writing a fan letter to Liz when he first heard her cover of Song to the Siren, which his dad, Tim, wrote and sang. She wrote him back, according to Jeff's telling of the story, and they only met years later, during the break-up of her marriage and reportedly had a brief but intense affair. So, Jeff had nothing to do with her recording of Song to the Siren.

Second, according to Dream Brother, the biography of both Tim and Jeff Buckley, the rumor about Tim dying because he mistook heroin for coke is a baseless urban legend. He knew exactly what he was taking, according to the person who supplied him with the drug, and apparently overdosed because it was the first time he done any drugs in years after kicking a bad heroin addiction. His body simply could no longer handle the amount of drugs he was used to taking when he was an addict.

Posted by: Greg at Jun 27, 2006 7:01:48 AM

One more interesting tidbit. Song to the Siren (TMC version) is used to great effect in a short film produced by George Clooney and starring Selma Blair called "The Big Empty," in which a woman discovers her vagina is home to a vast frozen tundra-like wasteland (I know, I know, but it is a quirky and too-clever gimmick that nevertheless allows for interesting exploration of certain intense emotional dramas). It's the only licenses use I know of for the song in any film.

Posted by: Greg at Jun 27, 2006 7:13:21 AM

If, for some reason, you have not heard the Sheila Chandra version of the song.......you need to hear it....unbelievable voice and song combine for an ethereal performance....one of the finest female voices in music.....cheers

Posted by: Steve at Jul 9, 2006 12:28:49 PM

I don't know if you come to this website anymore, but I came to know this song on Pandora, where it often plays for me Song to the Siren (Solo Version). This is by Buckley and has lyrics different than the ones you attributed him. For one thing, the word "troubled" is used in lieu of riddled. Also, it mentions no newborn child but instead uses the word "oyster." I just thought you'd like to know this if you didn't already.

Posted by: Gregory G. at Sep 16, 2006 11:19:05 AM

Fabulous.

I too am obsessed by this song.

The Elvis version is gre, too.

I got into it from watching Lost Highway, where it's the background to an incredible Patricia Arquette scene.

One note about the potential happy ending: if a sailor does end up with a siren, there won;t be a happy ending! His ship will be smashed on the rocks!

Excellent stuff.

Posted by: Sam at Sep 21, 2006 12:51:45 AM

I am glad there is some interest in Tim Buckley and his music among today's young people. He had a most incredible talent both for singing and composition. I wonder to what shores he would have taken us had he lived. We will never know what we have missed. As a former drug crisis counselor, I am always amazed at the power of heroin to forever destroy young lives.

Posted by: Stephen Smith at Oct 15, 2006 11:03:19 PM

Check out the version by The Czars. probaly the best you will hear

Posted by: Riva at Nov 17, 2006 3:43:03 PM

Thanks for the help, it was the Lost Witness version that I was curious about. It sounds to me like the vocalist in that song is definately singing some variation, but last line I think she is singing, "...then you sang, 'sail to me, sail to me, let me fiord you..." Kind of a play on words, which fits with the whole theme of the siren (fiord = inlet). In THAT version though, I think SHE is the one sailing, looking out over the ocean, etc. and it some guy that is the siren, calling HER to run up on the rocks.

Posted by: a at Nov 19, 2006 8:28:23 PM

I quite liked the "puzzled as an oyster" line LOL :) It's delightfully unexpected and obscure but has that nice Alice through the looking glass association. :) Hahahaha I'm just picturing the band looking as puzzled as an oyster when he sang those words :)

Posted by: Jacki at Nov 29, 2006 12:37:50 AM

The best version I have heard of the song appears on the Johnny Vicious Ultra Dance Records from 2002.

Posted by: Matty V at Dec 27, 2006 6:40:04 PM

I am very happy that somebody gave me the link to this 'conversation'. The text has puzzled me for quite a while now. The song is one of my all time favourites.

Posted by: Christine Lange at Jan 9, 2007 10:48:30 PM

Listen,

The Robert Plant version from 2002'a Dreamland is an amazing treatment of the song.

Buckley's version, especially the aformentioned Monkee's TV show performance, is very moving, but also incredibly sad. Plant, by subtly changing the lyrics (from enfold to unfold) and making the end notes to most lines uplifting, turns the song into a more hopeful rendition -- and it suits the song well as an experiment in oppositions. Plus the strings are beautifully arranged. For those of you who called it terrible, or for those of you who haven't heard it, give it a(nother) listen.

Posted by: T at Jan 14, 2007 11:07:08 PM

The band Messiah also sampled the This Mortal Coil version in their song "Temple of Dreams." They used the "Did I dream you dreamed about me?" line.

Posted by: G at Jan 17, 2007 6:59:52 PM

check out Sunrise by ratty (a dance tune) that takes the first verse sounds beautiful

Posted by: Katey at Jan 21, 2007 2:35:39 PM

I love the Buckley version I have ie not 'oyster' which is kind of fun as someone else said in a Lewie Carroll way.... but he does always sound to me like he's singing "were you here when I was farting?" which I always thought to be "were you here when I was fighting?". The world of the mondegreen.

Posted by: Chris at Mar 10, 2007 7:58:36 AM

I also have a hi-NRG version that was released by a dance group called, MESSIAH. They covered songs like: "Silicon Jesus", Donna Summer's "I FEEL LOVE" (WHICH IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES) and sampled the very catchy and pondering phrase..."DID I DREAM??? DID YOU DREAM ABOUT ME..." by a European or German early underground techno/ early 1990's "ACID dance sound". Check it out. It is pretty cool, considering it is just one of the many versions remastered and recovered and reworked and re-uttered! haha

ENJOY! THE SONG TO THE SIREN IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SONGS out there. Just as Chicane's music is... Such as, "SALTWATER" featuring MAIRE BRENNAN (from the group CLANNAD) & the sister to the other sister, ENYA, who just happens to be another HEAVENLY BOUND- EARTH ANGEL sharing her amazing multi-talented gifts that our GOD has bestowed upon her thru her voice, songwriting, playing many instruments "A TRUE MUSICIAN AND ANGEL"...

Posted by: DJDAVIDPAUL at Mar 11, 2007 10:09:02 PM

Clearly it's a long time since you posted this, but I just thought I'd add to the confusion. I had always drawn the same distinction as you have between covers referencing the original Buckley version and This Mortal Coil. However I have recently heard a different version recorded for Radio 1's John Peel show in the late sixties. Featuring some reverb-heavy electric guitar and a wailing "siren" backing vocal, it seems very likely to me that this is the version This Mortal Coil were covering. While Buckley does sing "long afloat on" in this version, it isn't very clear. In fact, it is only after reading the different interpretations on this post that I've become convinced he isn't singing "on the floating." The "when I was fox" line is similarly obscured. Take into consideration that the artists involved in the cover were probably listening to an nth generation home recording of a medium wave radio broadcast and I hypothesise that this is where the divergent lyrics arise from.

Or not. You can listen to a 30 second snippet on this page (scroll down to number 40):
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/johnpeel/festive50s/2000s/millennium/

Posted by: The Cosh at Apr 5, 2007 6:45:29 AM

Half Man Half Biscuit did an excellent version during a Peel session sometime in the Nineties I think. Well worth looking up.

Posted by: Timmoss at Apr 29, 2007 6:39:33 PM

I've known this song for years from the Lost Witness version. The vocalist (Tracy Carmen) seems to have cribbed directly from Elizabeth Fraser's version. She makes all the same mumblings and so on. I have one thing to say about the "Were you here when I was ???" line that both female singers sing. I have always thought that it was "Were you here when I was forsook", conveying the sense of desire and longing the entire song has.

PS- There are other mixes of the Lost Witness version with more of the song's lyrics.

Posted by: Sir Felgar at May 6, 2007 5:30:41 PM

In the eighties I heard the song by This Mortal Coil. It sounded strange and odd to me. And I had no affection to it. Then in the late nineties I rediscovered it! This original cover by This Mortal Coil got such an great appeal to me. Their version also appears a few years ago in a tv-commercial for the perfume named NOA.

Another great song on "It 'll end in tears" is "Late Night"(original by Syd Barrett). Take a listen.

Posted by: RR at May 18, 2007 6:54:14 PM

Liz has said in interviews that she doesn't want to sing Song to the siren anymore because it's too emotional or painful for her.
That Jeff died while swimming in the ocean makes the song even more disturbing and painful I think.
It makes the song feel like a prophecy.

Posted by: Eli at May 23, 2007 12:30:59 AM

What does Maire Brennan sing in saltwater does anyone know? email me please graham_axford@vodaphone.net.nz

Posted by: Graham at Jun 3, 2007 5:43:00 PM

words to this song would be great to know and much appreated:)

Posted by: graham at Jun 3, 2007 5:45:25 PM

maybe know one knows???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Posted by: Graham at Jun 3, 2007 9:41:38 PM


I first became aware of this song when it was used in an ad for, I think, "Noa" perfume. Might have been another brand, no idea. But it was so startling and arresting in the midst of otherwise dull ad breaks.

Posted by: Psimon at Jun 7, 2007 4:54:25 AM

I saw George Michael cover this song on his 25live-tour in Sweden, Stockholm, on 2007-06-29. He used it to open the show, letting part of the lyrics light up behind him on a giant screen, "Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you," before entering the stage. Aside from a Stevie Wonder song (Another Star), it was the only cover performed during the 120-min show, and I'm guessing most of the audience had no idea what it was, nor never will.

Here's a link: http://community.livejournal.com/georgus_club/

Posted by: Andy at Jul 23, 2007 4:28:21 AM

Amazing, this discussion started 2 years ago, and still on !

I discover this blog, looking for the Song's lyrics, afet having seen "The Bubble", in wich you can hear a very good cover of it by Ivri Lider (seems to be the guy playing piano and singing in the piano bar scene), for one of the hottest, but nicest scene.

And I would like to add that I listened carefully to the Tim Buckley original version, and I can quite clearly hear (even if English is not my mother tongue) for the last verse :
"Hold my arm, hold my arm, 's waiting to hold you"", instead of "Here I am, etc.

And I agree with the "as puzzled as an oyster", and "as troubled as the tide".

And for the Cocteau Twins fans, I warmly recommand a Yann Tiersen (now you understand I am french) album called "Les Retrouvailles" with 2 songs performed by Liz, as well as the dvd called "On Tour" (Yann Tiersen live album) wher you can even see her singing one of these 2 songs : just perfect !

Posted by: LizIsTheBest at Aug 9, 2007 6:39:28 AM

I saw the film "The Bubble" by Eytan Fox today and was hit by the Buckley version of "Song to the Siren". I always have been thinking for decades that this song was from the Cocteau Twins. Went home to check the "This Mortal Coil" vinyl to learn that indeed Tim Buckley was credited as the author. Great movie, great song, and very interesting discussion here.

Posted by: t-bird at Aug 30, 2007 1:57:38 PM

My interest in this song came from hearing "Ratty(Scooter) - Sunrise" which contains the first verse of this song. I did some research as i was in no doubt that it wasnt an original, this eventually lead me here.

After reading the blogs no one has strayed from the sailor / siren and seen them as a metaphore - I believe the song, written by Larry Beckett, is about loss - more specifically the loss of a loved one possibly wife / partner.

The sailor is the person who has lost his love and the siren is the spirit or memory of the loved one.

I think the question the sailor is asking in the song is do i carry on or end it to be with my siren (partner/wife).

Thats the best i can explain it in written word - trust me my spoken word when discussing this topic with my partner was more indepth with better example.

Posted by: C P Raynes at Sep 9, 2007 5:56:02 AM

The Spanish rock legends Heroes del Silencio are opening their 2007 reunion tour concerts with This Mortal Coil's version before launching into their own "El Estanque." See the YouTube videos of El Estanque 2007. The effect is chilling.

Posted by: reyna at Oct 5, 2007 7:14:19 PM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEFizm6m0Vc

The version Tim Buckley recorded on Starsailor. This is the version that TMC covered, not the version he debuted on The Monkees.

Posted by: Jennifer at Oct 16, 2007 11:26:33 PM

I heard another cover today, by Amber Claire (Kiwi Artist) it's included on the Forever Loyal album, which I've had since 2003 (Loyal to the Team New Zealand America's Cup campaign). Again I'd recognised the "Did I dream" lyric, which as has been mentioned already is on the Temple of Dreams track by Messiah - which I've also had for ages (must be over 15 years old). Thanks for the background though. Fascinating

Posted by: DerekK at Dec 16, 2007 8:04:57 PM

have you seen the "loud vers" on youtube? it sounds like the full song version of the recording used in the texas chainsaw trailer. who recorded that one? hey, TMC...TCM hmmm weird

Posted by: paul at Dec 17, 2007 1:26:02 PM

I too was pleasantly surprised when the movie I watched mentioned here, "The Bubble," used this gorgeous song. It plays partially during a love scene, and then Ivri Lider's cover is given in full when the credits roll to haunting effect; I definitely agree with the poster above that took it as a metaphor for the loss of a loved one.

Maybe it was the context of the movie, or just the proximity of it to the film viewer's recent experience with the film, but Lider's has become my preferred cover. To me, he manages to remain soulful despite the polish he brings to the tune and instrumentals.

Anyway, I'd just like to say that Lider's cover uses different lyrics as well. This page here was a great help to me in scribing it as it played, because his rendition is a sort of mix of Buckley's original lyrics (including the oyster bit) and a few other lines collected here--AND, perhaps most interesting of all, "new" lines or at least shortened ones that Lider likely changed himself. Hope you don't mind all the line breaks--they indicate the brief pauses in the singing so to me, I get a better representation of how it sounds. Here it is:

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.
Oh my heart,
Oh my heart,
Shies from the sorrow."

I'm puzzled
As the oyster
I'm troubled
At the tide
Should I stand
Amid your 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."

Posted by: effessemm at Jan 1, 2008 5:28:47 AM

Very well written and reseached info.
You have pretty much laid to rest the forever long debate over the REAL lyrics.
I just downloaded the chemical brothers remix and I think it may be a cover of it although it does not reflect much of the true song.

Thanks.
Sarah

Posted by: Sarah. at Jan 19, 2008 6:34:05 PM

Knowing TB's on/off relationship with drugs isn't this song all about that (as documented by his friend / poet). With the drugs as the siren calling him to (self-)destruction and him recognising the danger but finding it hard to resist.

Posted by: Robert O'Brien at Mar 18, 2008 2:06:01 AM

I've subconsciously assumed for a long while that the 'siren'-y voice sample in the Chemical Brothers' Song to the Siren was taken from TMC's cover of Song to the Siren. Wikipedia's entry on the song credits a reverse vocal sample of Dead Can Dance's 'Song of Sophia', which thinking about it strikes me as equally plausible. I'll have to do some careful listening to figure this one out.

Posted by: Scott at Mar 25, 2008 5:50:18 AM

David Gray has covered this recently....Album is a collection of Covers, the version on the Album is Live...I loved it :-) You can get it on I-tunes.

Posted by: Mark at Apr 17, 2008 8:11:46 AM

Hi Got here from a youtube link from "Song to the Siren". Liz is a Scot genius re her singing - she sings the way my mother and my aunts sang when I was a small boy. I think if you ask Irish people they will say the same. Tim Buckley's song is brill but Liz gives it a proper celtic sound. Slainte~

Posted by: Neil Young at May 18, 2008 4:59:26 PM

This song has also been used in the opening scene of "Candy" with Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, which is one of the most beautiful and deeply sad scenes ever created. Bless the director. I saw it only after Ledger's death and it disturbs and haunts me. I can't help but watch it repeatedly. The song, his death, watching a ghost still alive, so in love with a woman. And to that song. Strange. It was almost prescient in some ways i guess. The man in that scene, is now gone. It's broken my heart.

Posted by: taresa at Aug 23, 2008 3:27:13 PM

Dunno why "puzzled as the oyster" seems so funny or obscure to so many... Think about the texture of an oyster's shell. Is it smooth and placid? Now think about someone's forehead and brows when they're puzzled. Makes all the sense in the world.

I'm a bit disappointed that the lyric was changed to suit listeners who couldn't grasp the meaning right away. If art is meant to enlighten and expand, then it shouldn't be dumbed down to suit the limitations of the audience.

Posted by: Mick at Sep 12, 2008 8:48:17 AM

Curiously enough, I'm making a comment similar to the one of
"Mick at Sep 12, 2008", years after the beginning of all this...

I also prefer the 'oyster' verse, which perfectly fits with the metric, and with the fact that various shells live "on the edge" of the tide, coming in and out of water along the day: it is thus pictorially appealing to think that a oyster can be puzzled by the sudden arrival of the tide, as well as the saylor is puzzled by the sudden arrival of the siren's voice in his lonely life where he "did all his best to smile".

Furthermore, you write:
<< In the second verse, though, the second line pretty clearly has to be the sailor speaking. It's the siren who has rejected him, so she has no reason to feel sorrow. (Sirens were trying to lure sailors to their deaths, remember.) >>

I do not agree on this, and think both the verses are spelled by the siren, and give a beautiful meaning to the song. If the original mith states that the siren is just cruel, I think that the Buckley+Beckett subsequential "lyric reinterpretation" of the mith states that the siren loves the saylors that she calls, but is doomed to see all her lovers die in the attempt of reaching her. Why, otherwise, if she just wanted to lure the saylor, did she say "touch me not"? Is she not just saying "I don't want you to touch me, because in this case you would die, and my heart cannot stand this sorrow anymore... but I love you, so that I do not either want you to go away, so I ask you to come back tomorrow"?

All of this sounds to me of another greek mith, of Orpheus and Euridices, in which a similar struggling exists... (and, by the way, this other mith has been revisited in music by another big artist, Nick Cave, in his "The lyre of Orpheus" album).

Sorry for my bad english, and the fact that I may have misunderstood obvious things for the fact that I'm not a native english speaker...

bests,
Andrea

Posted by: Andrea at Sep 14, 2008 3:56:49 PM

This Mortal Coil's version asks, "Were you hen when I was fox"?

Posted by: Lee at Nov 14, 2008 7:46:27 AM

When Liz and my friend Damon got together I asked her what she sang and this is how it goes:

Only floating, shipless oceans, I did all my best to smile
'til your singing eyes and fingers, drew me laughing to your Isle
And you sang, said to me, said to me, let me unfold you
Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you

Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was forsook?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
broken lovelorn on the rocks
for you sing, touch me not, touch me not
come back tomorrow, oh my heart, oh my heart,
shies from the sorrow

Well, I'm as puzzled as the new born child
I'm as riddled as the tide
should I stand at the breakers?
Or, should I lie with death, my bride?
here me sing, swim to me, swim to me,
let me unfold you, Here I am, Here I am, waiting to hold you

Hope that's definitive enough for you:-D

Posted by: Richard at Nov 24, 2008 7:35:19 AM

Thanks for this wonderful discussion on such a powerful song. I really enjoyed reading it.


Just for Clarification, it's Fable, not Sable who does the other mix. (according to my searches at least)

Posted by: A-C at Mar 29, 2009 8:41:53 AM

First of all I just want to say hi to all who have an affinity for this song. I have loved this song for years, and have never found anyone who enjoys it the way I do.

I don't want to ramble on about this song too much, I just wanted to express my own impressions of the lyrical meaning. I too like the 'oyster' version of the song, although TMC with Elizabeth Fraser singing is the ultimate version. Having said that I do feel that the Tim Buckley version on the monkees is the definative version, as written by the poet. All other versions I feel are the results of artistic license by each performer, and so the song has evolved slightly.

With reference to an earlier post,
'In the second verse, though, the second line pretty clearly has to be the sailor speaking. It's the siren who has rejected him, so she has no reason to feel sorrow. (Sirens were trying to lure sailors to their deaths, remember'

could it be possible that the siren felt love for the sailor, and was sending him away trying to save his life and breaking here own heart in process. Further more maybe they loved each other but could never be together, and so sharing the torment, being so close but yet so far from each other. I think many of us are filled with our own romantic notions, and inject ourselves into the scenario, trying to empathize.

For all those who love Elizabeth Fraser she has just released a new song "Moses", so good, I love it. Anyone who wants to talk about song to the siren please feel free to email me.

Posted by: Peter at Jan 2, 2010 2:38:09 PM

I heard this song for the first time whilst watching the movie, "The Lovely Bones".

Haunting and beautiful, couldn't get it out of my head. So downloaded the song (Cocteau Twins version) then researched the lyrics.

Have come across this version of the song (Tim Buckley singing), wherein the last lines sang are:

"Oh my heart, oh my heart, is waiting to hold you."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b49YfsjXw5E

So quite clearly, the sailor is waiting for his siren come to him.


Sorry for adding this post so long after this topic was first started.


Posted by: Mark at Mar 12, 2010 5:48:17 AM

Well, as you know This Mortal Coil was comprised of other independent artists that did covers of mostly Tim Buckley songs (Filigree and Shadow is exactly that). They only put out three albums and that's exactly how the founder wanted it to be.

I don't care for Buckley's version, although he wrote the song. But I love his version of Hallelujah and Cohen's remake.

You thought a lot about this song and I find you did a great job of breaking it down. I never thought much of the song and have a different take on it because of first hearing it was in the movie The Lovely Bones. Because of that I take the song to mean someone who has passed on calling out to someone who is living.

I am going to re-read your article because there's a lot to take in, just as with the song itself.

Thank you so much for taking the time to put the song through a sifter and giving me more of an insight to it.

Nikki

Posted by: Nikki at Apr 10, 2010 10:16:50 AM

Well you can't resist because the female vocals are so mesmerizing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8waEKpVoLbQ&feature=related&fmt=18

Posted by: kulmanister at May 7, 2010 4:07:30 AM

sorry couldn't resist posting because the vocals are so mesmerizing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PlMqnx2giM&feature=related&fmt=18

The "new new vocals" is Fable/Vengeance/Barraka - Song to the Siren

Posted by: kulmanister at May 7, 2010 4:14:48 AM

John Frusciante (former guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) has a lovely version of this song on his solo album, The Empyrean.

Posted by: KT at Dec 13, 2010 2:10:01 PM

"I suppose shows you how narrow the information channel was between the early-80's music scene in England and a cash-strapped teenager in Southern California."

Wow exactly!!! It's amazing, with the popularity of the internet, how much I've learned about the music I'd been listening to for so many years.

Thanks so much for your writeup on such a beautiful and timeless tune!

Posted by: zeek at Jan 21, 2011 10:26:46 AM

I heard this song for the first time this week while watching "The Lovely Bones". Initially, I didnt know who the artist or what the song was. I HAD to find it. I am so glad I did. I LOVE THAT SONG! Initially, I didnt understand what she was saying, but I loved her voice!

Posted by: Melissa at Jan 31, 2011 5:44:25 PM

<<<< However I have recently heard a different version recorded for Radio 1's John Peel show in the late sixties. Featuring some reverb-heavy electric guitar and a wailing "siren" backing vocal, it seems very likely to me that this is the version This Mortal Coil were covering. >>>

Spot on and absolutely agreed. Listen to the Peel Session version and TMC version back to back. It's obvious.

Posted by: MikeK at Jun 13, 2011 12:56:54 PM

On one live version of the Cocteau Twins, she sings "Were you here when I was flotsam".

(Not "Were you hare when I was fox?" & not "Were you here when I was full sail")

Which is my favourite version of this line. It fits with the imagery the best.


Posted by: Emma at Sep 3, 2011 3:31:26 PM

buen trabajo!!

Posted by: julio at Oct 15, 2011 1:20:05 PM

John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) has covered 'Song to the Siren' on one of his solo albums - check it out, it's really great. I love Elizabeth Fraser's voice in 'Song to the Siren'...

Posted by: Piggaletto at Oct 18, 2011 1:18:21 PM

Adding to the wealth of knowledge here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/nov/17/song-to-the-siren-classic

Posted by: Spine at Nov 24, 2011 2:09:29 AM

It's a beautiful song. It's about True Love which is said to be only one and in this story it's unrequited.

The fact that This Mortal Coil covered it is notable since it's also a play on the cosmic and immortal nature of True Love.

Posted by: omicron at Feb 11, 2012 7:05:13 PM

I don't know if anyone will visit this page again but if so, thanks to the author for all this research and for all the extra info provided by commenters.

I first heard Song To The Siren when This Mortal Coil released the Sixteen Days ep on 12" vinyl (STTS was the b-side!) when I was 12 and it transfixed me... I picked up a copy of Tim Buckley's Starsailor album with his original version not long after! It will always be one of my most special songs. If you've read this far without hearing it, a) you have too much time on your hands and b) get on with it a.s.a.p. I also agree that the TMC version is the definitive one.

P.S. In response to several posters:

I too heard 'were you here when I was forsook?'
& Jeff Buckley didn't drown in an ocean, it was the Wolf River.

Re: Mark three posts above:

"I don't care for Buckley's version, although he wrote the song. But I love his version of Hallelujah and Cohen's remake."

I think you're confused! TIM Buckley sang the original [of STTS], but he wrote it with Larry Beckett. JEFF Buckley recorded Hallelujah, but his was the cover - Leonard Cohen wrote it and recorded it first :)

Posted by: eden at Mar 10, 2012 6:59:38 PM