Licking the wounds of old high school and college romances, real or imagined, I could often be found in my dorm room at UMass blasting the first album from This Mortal Coil, It’ll End in Tears, the collaborative effort of a bunch of artists from various acts on the 4AD record label circa 1984/1985: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, et. al. As conceived and overseen by the legendary A&R; man and producer, Ivo Watts-Russell, this atmospheric album of well-selected covers, dramatically presented by some of England’s mopiest but inventive art rockers proved a potent soundtrack for an undergrad’s unrequited loves, a sonic Sorrows of Young Werther for one disenchanted by the hair metal that was taking over the popular culture.
Lying on my single mattress under a gigantic Joy Division Closer poster, the album was a salve and made my puppy love pain seem oh so artsy and tragic; I wanted to project my image as a dark Love Song of J. Alfred Janovitz, hair down in my face, the Passion of Jean D’Arc from my Avant Garde film class and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice from my Decadence in Literature class providing a backdrop for me to act out my melodramas as the UMass meatheads and big-frizzy-haired chicks from Woburn danced to Warrant and Prince at keggers next door. Sure, I would often find myself right in there with them, but Ivo provided part of the soundtrack for my more brooding moments with his conceptual reworking of the haunting Big Star track “Holocaust,” e.g. wrung out of a Yamaha DX-7 synth as some dark Candytalk-dude baritone rang out in thin 1980s digital reverb.
Yeah, I was that close to being a goth. At certain get-togethers, I was flattered to join Chris Colbourn’s party band, a group which shall remain unnamed here to spare embarrassment to future senatorial candidates. I would sing my allotment of a few tunes, which would include the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” and, believe it or not, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Then they would move on to “Brand New Cadillac” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” They were a bizarre band. Honestly, by the time they had the old hippy bass player sing “Who Do You Love,” there was no one in the room who was not confused. These guys played everything.
But we were all very open minded in our 20s, so that This Mortal Coil would segue easily into the Grateful Dead. And that is the beauty in Ivo’s vision in putting this collective together. He dusted off some great old art-pop, folk-rock, and other semi-obscure tunes that he picked off of some of his favorite old records collected in his days as a clerk at the original Beggars Banquet record store around London and he re-imagined them with the then-revolutionary early digital synthesizer, the DX-7, with fresh but dark electronic arrangements. And in so doing he introduced a bunch of kids like me to songs we were embarrassed to not already know, like Tim Buckley‘s “Song to the Siren.” Oh yeah, that’s thats song from the Monkee’s movie, Head! I mean, even if you knew who Big Star was in 1984, and many of us did, it was less likely that you were well-versed in their Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers LP and less likely still that you would have chosen the halting, deconstructed “Holocaust” as a possible cover. It is an important record.
Years later, after being saved from being a goth by the other churnings in post-punk rock music on the this side of the ocean [for chrissake, I coulda been one of those sad old weirdos who to this day lament the closing Boston’s “Trench Coat Mafia” dance club, Man Ray! I am thankful for all the money I saved in eye liner], I was riding in a van with Buffalo Tom somewhere in Australia when another taste-maker, the promoter Steve Pav, was playing a mix tape and this striking song came on. I recognized the voice of Kim Deal. The song was heartbreaking, Kim singing harmony with another woman. The song was “You and Your Sister.” I asked Pav who it was. I was embarrassed to learn that it was Kim and Tanya Donelly from the Throwing Muses, as their new act, the Breeders, singing a Chris Bell song from his I Am the Cosmos record. The Breeders’ version was from the third This Mortal Coil iteration, Blood. I had rushed out and bought the second Mortal Coil record, Filigree and Shadow, but nothing could live up to the first record for me, so it did not have the lasting impact. Soon after hearing this Breeder’s cover of the Chris Bell song, however, I ran out and bought both the Blood record – which also did not do much for me beyond this cover – and, more importantly, the Chris Bell record, I Am the Cosmos. Bell’s record is a lost-and-found masterpiece, the kind of record that, like the Big Star records, you can not believe has existed outside of your consciousness — such beauty, such masterful songwriting and pop perfection kept secret?
Though Alex Chilton is known better now, thanks in no small part to the song bearing his name, Chris Bell is still somewhere back there in the shadows, much like Gene Clark covered in one of my earlier posts, and dying tragically young, without the collection of solo tunes ever finding release aside from a single, “I Am the Cosmos b/w “You and Your Sister.” It must have been this single that Ivo heard. I am sure I could do better research and find out for sure, after all Ivo was part of the label family BT was part of as well. But the whole collection was not releases until 1992, mercifully, on the heroic Rykodisk. Blood was released in 1991.
The pain is palpable, inescapable on Chris Bell’s original recording, or more specifically, recordings, as there are three versions on the CD. Each of them is aching, Bell’s vocal pining as he strains at the upper end of his remarkable range. Kim and Tanya’s version is pretty faithful by This Mortal Coil standards and, as I have noted, is striking enough on its own. For my version, I had to lower the key; my range sounds out of control up that high. I also keep pretty true to this beautiful song that needs no cover version. I had no reinterpretation in mind. I only want to sing another song that I absolutely love.