I have many things to say about "The Pictures Generation" show at the Met, which I trekked up to New York to see last weekend. And I will say all of them. But not today. Today I only want to point out how shocked I was to learn-- and at a museum, of all places-- that I had been trapped for years in a completely false supposition about one of my favorite songs of all time.
The song in question: the Cocteau Twins' "Song to the Siren." A pop music masterpiece, it is built around the sparest of melodies-- just a few chords, strummed at intervals so wide that the vocals have plenty of room to float in and around them.
As for the vocals themselves, I can't think of a more moving performance. But really, what would one expect from Elizabeth Fraser? Much of the song's power comes from her phrasing and dramatic changes of register, which always seem natural and effortless, never forced or showy.
Here are two Cocteau versions of the song, the first from the "This Mortal Coil" album on which their version was originally released and the second from a live television performance.
Yes, the first video is goofy, with Robin Guthrie coming about on a lazy susan in his long leather coat and cotton ball hair. And in the second, the song's pace is accelerated to the extent that it's not quite the same song, the speed sacrificing a good deal of its depth of feeling. Nevertheless, you see what I mean. You see how magical this song is, and understand why I've remained attached to it for 25 years.
So there I am in New York last weekend, walking through one of the "Pictures Generation" galleries, when I hear this familiar but not so familiar tune. Unheimlich. It was coming from a room set apart from the exhibition, in which was recreated a 1977 installation by the young David Salle called "Bearding the Lion in His Den."
The installation includes two wall-mounted photos and a floor-mounted bank of lights. It also includes, on continuous loop, a version of "Song to the Siren" by its original composer, Tim Buckley. That's right. "Song to the Siren" isn't a Cocteau Twins song. It's a Tim Buckley song. One of my favorite songs of all time is a mere cover!
Each new discovery delivers a litle thrill. But this one also brought a kind of sadness. I mean, it's not like finding out your dad is really your uncle, or anything like that, but when you hold something close to your heart, you like to think you know it intimately. You like to think that. All kinds of lessons there.