“This is a tale of great expectations”
- By Chris Heath
- Jan 1991
People who meet the Cocteau Twins are always disappointed. They listen to the beautiful, shimmering soundscapes of their heavenly songs (when you indulge in the Cocteau Twins, you talk like this) and they expect… poetic souls with the hearts of lonely children! They read such song titles as “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and they expect…cosmic visionaries! They dream and cuddle to Liz Fraser’s soaring, rarely intelligible, glorious wail of a voice and they expect…ethereal little pixies of the mist!
“Have another drink,” grunts plump guitarist Robin Guthrie through his fluffy beard. Every time there’s a question he doesn’t like—and he doesn’t seem to like most of them—he insists that I join him in another tipple instead. Of course, it would be rude to refuse.
The Cocteau Twins have left their London home to promote a new LP, Heaven or Las Vegas. They’ve had a tedious day answering questions, mostly just the dull facts. The dull facts: Robin and Liz grew up in a rough Scottish town called Grangemouth. They dressed sort of as punks (Liz had a jumper with chicken bones hanging off), which meant—in Grangemouth terms—they dressed as freaks. Robin got beaten up a lot. They started making music with a friend called Will in 1980. They took their name from a song by a promising local band, Simple Minds (they admit this now with embarrassment but without shame). They made their first LP, Garlands, in 1982. Simon Raymonde replaced the departed Will in late 1983. In 1984 they briefly became This Mortal Coil to record Tim Buckley’s haunting hippy lament “Song to the Siren,” but have more or less disowned their version, which they now call “Sludge to the Siren.”
Since then they’ve made lots more Cocteau Twins records—all fine, all weird. But these three are not, alas, ethereal pixies of the mist. They have an altogether unusual relationship with their music. At a time when it is de rigueur to parade around the streets living your “art,” the Cocteau Twins make records and then go home. If there’s a connection between them as people and the songs they sing, that relationship is obscure at best.
You get this effect at its finest—its most painful—when you talk to them about Liz Fraser’s lyrics, words that are generally described as beautiful gibberish. This is hell to the Twins. These words aren’t gibberish; you just can’t understand them at all. You can’t understand them because of the way Liz writes and sings. But she swears they actually make total sense.
Not that she’ll tell anyone what they mean. The Twins’ first couple of LPs gave fragments on the sleeves: “grail overfloweth there is rain/and there’s saliva and there’s you”—that sort of thing. And before the Cocteau Twins stopped their Japanese record company, it used to guess the words for their lyric sheets. It wasn’t a great success: “Hit me with your airplane!” (Wrong!) “I don’t mend no fence!” (Wrong!) “Yeah, baby, I’m a mud dancer!” (Wrong!)
America has just put them through another Traumatic Cocteau Twins Lyric Experience. In a praiseworthy attempt to weed out backward satanic masking (which, you know, is just rife), MTV refused to program the “Iceblink Luck” video without seeing its lyrics.
After our restaurant meal, Liz, who is feeling ill, goes to bed. Robin and Simon come to my hotel room. In the middle of a long room-service-fueled ramble, I ask them about the words.
“I’m not much of a lyric person,” admits Robin, who is also Liz’s partner outside the group. They have a daughter called Lucy Belle. Robin doesn’t get to read the words.
Don’t they think it’s sad no one can share them? I mean, if she died tomorrow no one would ever know…
“I feel that as well,” mutters Robin.
“I think there are enough people who enjoy our music as it is,” defends Simon.
The next morning I try to coax some sense out of Liz. Her eyes are full of hope and wonder, as if she sees something you don’t, but her words are fatalistic and packed with expletives. At moments, having some secret thought, she’ll smile and say, “I get excited just thinking about it,” but mostly she hates this. She flounders and screws her face and swears (“Fuck! I make myself sound so foolish!”) and looks so, so embarrassed. To think too hard about where the words come from (she says she flicks through dictionaries and reads books when she’s writing) would plug the source. To explain the words… well, she can think of plenty of reasons not to. And even if people knew the words, it wouldn’t mean they’d understand. “People are misunderstanding things all the time. So it doesn’t matter anyway.”
On the new album you can hear the word “baby” over and over, drifting out of the wash of sound, and Liz agrees that there’s a lot of Lucy Belle in there. She giggles in shame when she realizes that a lot of people will probably not hear “baby” (mewing object of motherhood) but “bay-bee” (born to be Bon Jovi’s).
They’re used to strange reactions: “We’ve had a lot of people say they have babies to our music.” They’re also aware of a school of thought that rates their work as the ideal music to have sex to.
“I can’t believe people do that,” Liz says, shaking her head. Only the final rite of passage has so far been excluded. “I don’t think anyone’s died to ‘The Cocs’ yet.”
They’re forever hearing of pop celebrities who like them. Prince, it has been reliably leaked, is keen on them. Boy George once proclaimed that Liz was his favorite singer (“Back when he was famous,” chuckles Robin. “Remember then?”). Robert Plant went through a phase of raving about them in every interview he did. Liz doesn’t tell me about the time she introduced herself to him, but Robin does. They had gone to see Echo & the Bunnymen. Liz, who was a little tipsy, spotted Robert Plant at the bar and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I read that you really like the Cocteau Twins.”
“Yeah,” the mousy-maned ex-sex god grunted. “I like them. Do you like them?”
Mortified, she muttered her assent and slunk away.
“It’s been a miserable flop, hasn’t it? Me, not you,” apologizes Liz as we talk. She is always saying sorry. I say I’m sorry too, because asking these things makes me feel like I’m torturing her.
“You are,” she admits frankly. “But I suppose the reason I’m here is to be tortured.”
It’s a nice couple of days I spend with them. We eat a lot and drink a lot. Robin brings Lucy Belle to see me. They use my room for a photo session, pretend to be Charlie’s Angels, and laugh at my underwear. They happily talk about films and writers and other people’s music; they unhappily talk about themselves. They really think they’ve nothing to say. It’s as if they really are completely, desperately normal people who accidentally discovered they could do something extraordinary.
On their last day in New York I talk to Liz in her hotel room while—she eats some pizza for lunch. She cuts it up with a strangely shaped plastic spoon.
“It looks just like a shoehorn,” I blithely quip.
She stares at me with that innocent expression, the one that says, “We don’t do anything unusual. It’s all normal.” Nevertheless, it is a shoehorn.
(Chris Heath, who doesn’t know Mickey Rourke, nevertheless once introduced him to Liz Fraser.) ▣