sweet 16
(1) siouxsie and the banshees, “cities in dust”
(6) cocteau twins, “blood bitch”
and play in the elite 8

Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 12.

Which song best pleases your black heart? (Vote by 9am AZ time 3/16)
Blood Bitch
Cities in Dust
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danielle cadena deulen and j. max stinson on “cities in dust”

It had been almost a year since I was last hospitalized when Kristin began making overtures. It might have been sooner, but I have always been frustratingly obtuse regarding signals from women. My natural gift for uncomprehending feminine attentions was certainly made worse by the torch I held for a girl I met in the hospital. Oh, Hospital Girl. I white-knuckle gripped that torch. Beyond the clear romance of meeting in a psychiatric ward and sharing some childhood trauma, Hospital Girl was a brunette, dark-eyed punk. Hardcore punk. Where I meekly suffered the aftereffects of my damage, she donned it like rusty spiked armor and threw her weaponized self at the world. In the radiance of her glorious self-destruction, all other girls were peripheral shades. So, I had to blink and look sideways at Kristin when she plopped down next to me on a smoke break between classes and asked me to prom.

“Prom? Us?” It was not just the “us” part, but I had never given prom serious thought. I was not able to properly imagine it.
She was visibly nervous and brought the bravado on heavy. Backhanding my chest, she said, “Hell yes, us. We would tear that place down, dude. We can storm the thing, and when we get bored just pull a fire alarm or something. Say yes.”
“How much will it cost?” My weekend job at the car wash only covered gas, music purchases, and the exorbitant rates teens usually pay for their drugs and booze— which Kristin had been supplying me with during our lunchtime valium-and-vodka talks off campus. “And I have to buy a tux, too. Don’t I?”
“I already bought the tickets.”
“Really? Why?”
She shrugged. “I think it is going to be fun. I plan to blow the minds of some preppies. Come on. Say yes. And you rent a tux, not buy one. Be sure the cummerbund is red. I’m wearing a red sash. You don’t have to go. I’m gonna go. If you don’t want, it’s no big deal. I want you to, but it’s no big deal. I could sell the tickets.”
I regarded her for the first time as a possible date. She was pretty. Slender and pale with reddish-brown hair and sharp features. She wore skinny black pants and a green flight jacket with her hair spiked up in all the right ways. She was a traditional punk, first and second wave. I was a mix of maudlin Brit synth pop and death rock. I wore red eyeliner to look especially unhealthy, a whip of blue hair across my face, and a general disposition of gloom. Kristin had an older sister who was living large in the LA scene and was a conduit for her tastes. For weeks, she’d been making me mixed tapes and loaned me VHS cassette collections of some damn obscure music videos. She introduced me to bands she enjoyed like Killing Joke and The Buzzcocks, and to music she rightly thought I would like, such as “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie & the Banshees. In a nearby parking lot, we’d had the deep talks all teens think they are having while we ate our food, took our pills, and drank our booze. Looking away from me, waiting for an answer, her jaw tensed.
I held my hand up to calm her. “No-no. Sure. Yeah. It’s gonna be cool. Let’s do it.”
She hugged me—a first—and headed back to campus. If she looked back, I didn’t see it. I stared at my cigarette and tried to understand how I was feeling.


A banshee is a creature you hear before you die. Nasty hag, beautiful woman, singing soothsayer, omen embodied, she flies around the houses of the ill and injured, divining their deaths with a piercing wail. She screeched her hymns through famines and plagues. She wailed with storms, mudslides, floods, and when Mount Vesuvius opened its maw above the ancient city of Pompeii, it was her howl that erupted over the crowds of people just before they were covered in ash.

Nearly two millennia later, that banshee would return as Siouxsie Sioux, releasing “Cities in Dust” to a throng of devotees, making her own legend. An anachronistic diva. The future is the past:

Water was running children were running 
You were running out of time 
Under the mountain, a golden fountain 
Were you praying at the Lares shrine? 

The destruction of Pompeii has drawn the imaginative attention from people in the Western world since it was unearthed in 1748.  Some are drawn to the site because of its preservation of the past—the way it provides insight into everyday historical experience. Some are drawn to the narratives made from the remains of the human forms, some to how swiftly and completely an entire city was removed from existence—a terrible reminder of mortality. You think you’ve got big plans, huh? Remember Pompeii. But there’s something about the particular moment in which Siouxsie composed the song that harmonized with the youth of America. The single came out in 1986, smack dab in the Age of Reagan—ultra-conservative, middle class, Christian values reigning everywhere, or at least the veneer of them—everything bleached and shining like the laminate kitchen counters in suburban homes.

There’s a mocking tone of the opening verse that places itself in direct combat with domestic complacency: the children running, the fountain fashioned from gold, and the Lares Shrine—a guardian deity of the household often placed near the hearth—all gone in one fell swoop. Also, the “you.”  As in “you people.”  As in, not me—and maybe even I ran away from your bullshit town a long time agoYou thought that trinket shrine would protect you… 

But oh your city lies in dust, my friend 
Oh, oh your city lies in dust, my friend

But it gets worse. How, you might wonder, does it get worse than all the inhabitants of a city crushed or suffocated by molten rock and ash?  Well, centuries later, the people who found their unmarked graves would be so fascinated by their horrible death that their bodies would be displayed, photographed, and fetishized, in the way capitalist values make nothing sacred:

We found you hiding we found you lying
Choking on the dirt and sand
Your former glories and all the stories
Dragged and washed with eager hands


The night was what it was. When this off-campus event called prom adhered to the school rules on smoking and everything else, I wanted to leave. I was a dud date, I am certain, preoccupied and angry. I can’t remember if she even got a dance out of me. Most likely not. What a treat for Kristin.
“Let’s go. Let’s just take off and drink or something,” I sulked. She was gracious enough to leave with me. I drove us to the elementary school near her house and parked where we drank more vodka and ate more valium. She put on a mixed tape she made for me, straddled my lap and kissed me so deeply that her braces began to draw blood. She whispered confessions of affection as we kissed and dry humped, the shadows from the street dimming her face, her spikey hair. When “Cities in Dust” came on, she climbed off me and sat in the passenger seat. She eased it down and pulled me over on top of her. Siouxsie Sioux sang out over the speakers:

Hot and burning in your nostrils
Pouring down your gaping mouth
Your molten bodies, blanket of cinders
Caught in the throes…

Kristin held my face, kissed my cheek. “I want this. I’m ready.” She laid back, brought balled fists to her chest, and nodded. I realized she was a virgin.
I decided the night was over. I had had an unsettling amount of sex by the time I found myself in that car with Kristin, but I had never been a person’s first, and had a big hang-up about that—maybe a hangover from my Southern Baptist past. I viewed the act of deflowering a person as evil. When the opportunity presented itself and she to me, I literally ran away. I rolled off Kristin and started the car.
“I should get you home.”
“Wait—what? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. I just have to get home.” I was starting to hyperventilate.
“Yes! Now!”
We were in front of her home in less than five mute minutes. The lights were on.
“I don’t understand what just happened. What did I do wrong? Tell me. Can we leave before my parents see us? Let’s go back, and you can tell me what I am supposed to do. I’ll do it.”
“This is me being weird. This just is not right. You are fine. I am the one messing up.” This went on for a couple of minutes until her driveway light came on.
“Your parents are waiting. Go.”
She climbed out of my car, bewildered. I was careful to not let the tires spin out as I pulled away.


Goth is a histrionic art. At the center of the arguments that deride the music, the style, is a distaste for the theatrics of it, which I suspect is disguised discomfort with the emotional, the feminine. The dramatic externalizing of pain through fashion and music might strike some as inauthentic—a commodifying of pain in the way capitalism commodifies everything. Pain, as western people understand it, is a thing yoked to shame, and you don’t parade shame around on stage, or sing about it. You let it burn in your pockets, on your tongue. You let it bury you. There’s a distrust of anyone dangling their darkness out in front of them. If she is drawing our attention to pain—the civilized mind imagines—she must not have actually lived it. She must be a liar, or deranged—hysterical.
Hysterical. Histrionic. History. I think of the Salpêtrière asylum of Paris in the late 1800’s—a place for vagabonds, epileptics, women with venereal diseases, old maids, malformed infants, and mad women. Upon arrival, they were whipped, interned once their “punishment certificate” was complete. The head physician of the hysterical wing was Jean-Martin Charcot, now known as the “Father of Neurology.” Charcot was an exhaustive taxonomist of hysteria: drawings, photographs, observation, description, classification. He wanted to discover, claim, name, categorize—not cure. In his observational sessions, his patients were stripped naked and ordered to keep silent while he drew them, supposedly to focus on the symptoms that neurology might explain: motor paralyses, sensory losses, convulsions, and amnesia. 
His theory was that hysteria was caused by lesions in the brain, so he waited patiently for his patients to die to crack open their skulls. He never found lesions, which frustrated him. Instead, he found how his philanthropic work with these women—who would interact with such creatures except a saint?—fascinated the people of high society. Hysterical symptoms were so tawdry, consumable: hypersexuality, imaginative to the point of hallucination, self-centered, emotionally demonstrative, given to violent outbursts when their stories of sexual trauma weren’t taken as true. The lurid fascination for these frail and dangerous women reached fever pitch in Charcot’s Tuesday lectures, attended by scientists and aristocracy alike, during which he paraded his patients under hypnosis, triggering them into outbursts, flashbacks or seizures—all for the approval of his audience.
What made these women so strange and wicked that they were kept away from the innocent public? First, they were haunted by their painful pasts, and second, they displayed their pain. In other words, good girls don’t cry—and neither did good boys, for that matter. For decades, men suffering from similar symptoms, usually upon returning from combat, were treated for “male hysteria,” then “shell shock” and now PTSD—a disorder that forms when a person has difficulty recovering from the shock of a traumatic event. By the time was I sent to the psychiatric hospital, the men and women suffering from what would have historically been called hysteria were treated together, in talking circles, with coffee and cigarettes. We could listen to each other’s stories without flinching, recognize that we freaks could form a community.
I’m not saying that it’s genius—the Goth way of making drama of darkness. In fact, most of the bands that have been credited with creating or riding the first wave of that post-punk genre give sour lips to the label “goth.” Siouxsie despises being labeled “goth.” So does Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy and Robert Smith of The Cure, and Peter Murphy of Bau-fucking-haus. They are fine with their fans calling themselves that, but they will also explain how their commercial successes cannot be laid on the shoulders of such a relatively small, niche purchasing group. This upsets the fans. Siouxsie does not care. This delights the fans.
It’s just that Siouxsie showed a different aesthetic, a different perspective. At the black heart of goth style is the subversion of the conventional ideals that trap people in a façade of nice. The theatricality surrounding pain, darkness, and death, is meant as a mirror to the theatricality of The Normal. To make art of confusion, the clothes remix contemporary and historical fashions in an anachronistic display. The make-up is clown-like both in image and aim—to unsettle its audience with exaggerated features, distorted mouths. You can see why this might appeal to those who felt sequestered inside the standardization of 1980’s America: the madwomen, the queer boys, the totally reasonably depressed. Instead of hiding their strange backstage to protect the sensibilities of convention, they could strut out into the spotlight, into a bright applause. That is, we could applaud each other. As pearl-clutching mundanes and normies looked on with their own theatrics of outrage and unself-reflective chagrin, we could fall in love with each other’s pain.


It was before midnight, and I got on the freeway to kill some hours before sunrise. I headed to Hospital Girl’s neighborhood and drank coffee at a beachside doughnut shop, romantically dour until the sun came up. It was a school day, and I planned to catch Hospital Girl on the way out her front door.  She would understand me leaving the prom.  She would approve of me leaving Kristin without ruining her.  She would, perhaps, be cool with my confessions of affection for her. I pulled up in front of her house and, too eager, I walked to the door and gently knocked.
Her mother answered. She looked burned out, exhausted, confused:
“What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Is she here? I just left a prom date to come here. I need to tell her something. That I’m ready?”
“For what? What is happening? Have you heard from her?”
I learned Hospital Girl had run away months ago. Her mother had no idea where she was or if she was alive. I’d been harboring these feelings, this story about us, and she had a completely different story. I wasn’t even in her story.  I stood there stupidly a moment, said something like “sorry to bother you, sorry she’s missing” and went back to my car.
When I returned to school, I gave Kristin a wide berth and minimal acknowledgement. Everyone assumed we had sex, and I corrected them, I thought, to save her honor—though deep down I knew I was just covering up my freak out. Of course, I said nothing about how she was game or how I derailed the evening. Instead, I told people that her braces shredded my mouth and that there was no way I was going to have sex with her. I thought this was respectful of her and the best way. Kristin and I never really spoke to one another again. I dropped out of high school not long after.
Three decades later, and still that moment in my car with Kristin rising up every time I hear “Cities in Dust,” I decided to find her on social media sites to see if I might apologize and explain my behavior. I didn’t expect that it would change her life—maybe she didn’t think of me at all—but I still felt like I owed her that much. It didn’t take long for me to find friends of friends, who told me that she was dead.
She went in her sleep in her early twenties. They offered no further details and I didn’t push.


A banshee cannot harm or heal.  She can only give warning. Her voice points into a time, into a place, into a moment of illness, injury, disaster. She’s not a reaper, but a seer, not a teacher, but a singer—her song a sonic crash between the living and the dead. In her arrival, she strikes the living into fearful contemplation. In her departure, she leaves contrails of questions.

(For more discussion of “Cities in Dust” by our contestants, dial up episode 31 of their podcast, Lit from the Basement.

Danielle and Max Day of the Dead.jpg

Danielle Cadena Deulen is the author of a memoir, The Riots (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and two poetry collections, Lovely Asunder (U. of Arkansas Press, 2011), and Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us (Barrow Street, 2015). She’s an Associate Professor at Willamette University and hosts a literary podcast at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @DanielleDeulen. On Instagram: @dcdeulen. On her author site: danielledeulen.net.


J. Max Stinson is a recovered ne’re-do-well, stay at home dad, and podcast co-host at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @VitaReadings. On Instagram: @litfromthebasement.


What’s my worth? / There’s a fire / I’ll paint the blood bitch / The blood bitch black / Lift up your heels / You’ll see burnt soles [1]

…or, “Blooo’t Betch”, if we faithfully transcribe singer Elizabeth Fraser’s working class Scots dialect, rendering it more adorable and disarming on the page than sinister. Which makes a kind of poetic sense, because the dark matter present in these lines is ugly, authentically distressed human stuff—unapproachable by the bat-wing machineries of Gothic rock’s standard cartoon-morbidity.
Which is to say that “Blood Bitch” is not Goth. Although…strike that. The restrained monotony of the song, faltering towards drama, and the vaguely scorched and bloodied imagery, do nominate it as the most Goth song on Garlands, the debut (and most Goth) album by Cocteau Twins…who were not Goths.
Which is also to say “Blood Bitch”, which I did not choose to write about but have been assigned to advocate, is the most boring song on the most boring album by one of the most exciting and idiosyncratic post-punk bands that Goth culture ever happened to embrace.

A friend I call Mister Laurie, who grew up in the middle of the scene and wrote a book about it [2] (so he must know), said: “No bands, well, no-one of ‘significance’, openly called themselves Goth, and rightly so: genres are for followers, not leaders”.
Guitarist Robin Guthrie was not Goth. In most interviews he gleefully punctures any inflated poetic mystery surrounding the band, playing up his gregarious ‘working class bloke’ personality, cracking dad jokes. What he was, alongside Simon Raymonde (who joined a few albums into their career), was one of the era’s most inventive and accomplished producers; a prime architect of musical styles that came to be called ‘shoegaze’ and ‘dream-pop’, and whose obsessively crafted opalescent sound-sculptures would heavily stamp not only future guitar-driven music, but a great deal of the gauzy trap and R&B currently in vogue on Top 40 hip-hop radio.
“Liz” Fraser, too, was no Goth—she was a genius.

“Like so many tribes, Goth is just as importantly an act of rebellion”, Mister Laurie says. “a secession from the mainstream, from your family and your peers…It’s all tightly bound to that nobody-understands-me teenage alienation ‘phase’… a romantic and mysterious outsider was basically what we were shooting for, I think”.
Maybe the Cocteaus were Goth. For a minute.


An early concert video—

—shows the band in late 1982 or early 1983; London or Amsterdam. Garlands had been released a couple of months prior, and as far as I can tell the kids onstage are doing their best to disappear. Or cope. There are no capes, death-mask makeup or fishnet sleeves to be seen (well not onstage, anyway). Fraser, barely 19 at the time, is what I can only describe as an accidentally powerful presence, wearing a Scottish tartan button-down (today you’d think ‘outdoorsy flannel from Land’s End’), her long red hair in a high Edwardian pile (far more Gibson Girl than Siouxsie Sioux). She is nervously wringing the fingers of each hand methodically, before her hands break free, seize and wave, roughly miming the motions of an arthritic, underwater clap. In most interviews she will go on to find ever less comfortable ways of saying “I'm just really afraid of being judged”—still, her physical and vocal tics make a spell-binding virtue of it.
Eyes mostly closed, her voice stutters, whirs, trills and howls like nothing else in the fledgling Punk canon, rhotic whirlwinds of bird-song. Her eyes open between lines as if to punctuate her words (are they words?), swinging between stunned emptiness and a look of concern for the audience, at times looking positively startled.
Bassist Will Hegge, just stands there—the way his bass-lines do. He’s dressed in black (but ‘regional concert band’ black, not ‘Prince of Darkness’ black), only ever looking up to glance nervously sideways at Guthrie, a stocky boy hiding beneath his hair. Bookends, they both more or less idle in their concentration. Instead of a drummer there’s a tape machine in the back (down in Liverpool, Echo & The Bunnymen would have been putting theirs up in center-stage), playing pre-recorded Roland 808 drum machine rhythms whose tempi Fraser will occasionally mark by patting the ground, then patting her stomach, then touching her face…and repeating. Strange, unpremeditated and awkward motions. There is no arch camp, no melodrama. There are no vampires to be seen. The vampires are all back at home in their living rooms in front of the telly. You have to invite them out.

When asked about first hearing Cocteau Twins, David Narcizo of Throwing Muses (4AD label-mates) wrote that he fell in love with “mainly the awkwardness of the whole package…an exhilarating mess of beautiful noise, good taste, bad taste…[Liz] either warning me about something or celebrating with me—happy on the verge of hysterical…I still do not know what their intentions (if any) were.” [3] In this he nails down one of the most defining but least discussed features of Cocteau Twins from the beginning, that opacity of intention. Even out of the gate, loosely draped in the second-hand sounds of their contemporaries, struggling to find a voice, there is something far more elusive, and far more emotionally granular—more emotionally intelligent—than what the Gothic broad brushes of “Sorrow” or “Desolation” would suggest. “Happy on the verge of hysterical”: there should be a word for it.


Fraser called it “dark and stifling” [4]. It was once called Grange-burn-mouth.

Which sounds like a Cocteau Twins song title but refers to the river mouth at Grange Bùrn (‘bùrn’, Scots Gaelic for “fresh water”, almost as Gothically haunted as the synonymous Dutch, ‘kill’)—later shortened to Grangemouth. Aerial images of the Cocteau’s hometown are striking. Particularly so if your mental images of Scotland’s interior involve one or more unicorns and moonlit castles in disrepair. An inhumane expanse of pipe stacks, blue gas flares erupting like wildflowers in bloom, and a shocking number of hyperboloid cooling towers (think of the giant smoking nuclear power plant towers in The Simpsons’ opening credit sequence), are under-lit with an eerie orange glow at night.
Officially founded as a town in Stirlingshire County in 1777, Grangemouth was established on wet, windy, sparsely populated Pict tribal farmlands (in “the misty guts of Scotland”, to borrow a phrase from Mister Laurie, anthropomorphically correct). These tracts of alluvial soils and peat just north of Antoine’s Wall (the northern frontier of the Roman empire) have been bounced back and forth between the Kingdoms of Scotland and Britain since the 12th century. In fact, the symbolic hero of Scottish Independence, William Wallace, was defeated here by the armies of Edward I of England in 1298’s battle of Falkirk. If you buy historian Luc Sante’s thesis in his book Low Life, moods like defeat and resignation can stick to the map for a long time, a limp dowry for each new generation. I buy it.
Over centuries, Grangemouth’s strategic adjacency to several transshipment points for major waterways between Glasgow and the North Sea saw that Stirlingshire’s resources would ping-pong between various feudal lords, landed gentry, and industrial interests. Whatever could be wrung from the land and its people: brick-making, dock-yards, whale-boiling, timber and grain trading, coal-mining and ship-building (which, abandoned by corporate interests in the 1970s, came to a halt and left a significant slice of the town jobless).
The 20th century’s turn saw Grangemouth rushing headlong into the blackened, scaly arms of the industrial revolution, importing crude through vast pipelines and establishing one of the largest petrochemical refineries in Europe. By the 1970’s, the Grangemouth that gave birth to a band called Cocteau Twins, with a population of less than 20,000, could be fairly described as more of an oil refinery and pharmaceutical plant than a town. Perhaps a decent place to earn a paycheck; less likely an inspired place to grow up. Robin Guthrie, less charitably: “It was a toilet”.


Cocteau Twins’ debut album, Garlands, was released on September 1st, 1982. Less than a year later Guthrie complained to the press that the album was “a big stone hanging around our necks”. Unhappy with the sound and production, he said, “it was created through total naivety, we just didn't have a clue what was happening… There's a hell of a lot more power when we play live than anything we've ever done on a record." [5] On that point he was not wrong—the handful of 1982-83 bootlegs online bear ample witness. Still, we have record of Guthrie’s perfectionist complaints only because the press response and sales were significant. So hungry for newness, the post-punk era was such that even the oddest one-off outsider singles in the UK could easily sell 5,000 copies on the back of a nod from Melody Maker or John Peel before disappearing into obscurity again. Garlands made an immediate mark.

“Blood Bitch” is the first song on the first record by Cocteau Twins. Listen loudly—it’s actually kind of an introverted affair as far as angsty squalls go. The first sounds you hear are undramatic, dry Roland 808 drum machines with kicks on the quarter notes, hi-hats on the off-beats, and a single snare every third beat (a simple but actually quite unusual, and so unsettling choice). You also hear a bass guitar picking out sixteenth note patterns on a single note (E), and saturated with chorus effect, which generates miniscule differences in pitch and time, drenching the instrument in a shimmery, hollow, ringing sheen.
Guthrie’s guitar enters four short bars in, filtered through enough layers of distortion and modulation that you never quite detect any single note’s attack, only dissipation and decay. Even ascending scales come off as effectively static clusters of harmonics, rendering the natural tones, as played, spectral at best. The guitar’s entry also establishes the key as E Minor. In Western music the minor chords are triads of pitches that composers use to spell ‘BROODING DREAD’ and ‘HAUNTING SADNESS’ in letters six feet high (and, of course, deep...#GothDadJokes).
That’s what we hear, but how does it feel? Tense, mostly. Relentlessly so. There’s a touch of dread, but principally anticipation. This is a droning, static transmission—static in the sense of ‘stasis’. There is an inner forward momentum but no actual movement. Tension in the fashion that Ravel’s monomaniacal Bolero introduced to the world, via repetition to the point of concern. In actuality, those guitars are ascending much of the time: Em, to Fm, Gm, then AMaj, and an almost honky-tonk dip into E7. As guitar frequencies stretch, go out of phase and begin to pile up on themselves, they almost build Shepard-Risset tones; auditory mirages that create the sensation of hearing pitches that continuously rise (or fall) forever. The music should soar by now. But with an unflinching stoicism the bass guitar never leaves root note E, and any organic cry falls on a drum machine’s deaf ears. While you get the sense it would soar live, on record the guitar never reads as much more than a limping attempt to escape E Minor’s repressive dolefulness.

And that’s where the voice enters, after a full minute and a half of one-sided argument between guitar and rhythm section.

Blood woman. Blood bitch. There’s a corona. A corona swelling.

At least that’s what we think she’s saying. “Blood Bitch” was not among the few lyrics Fraser allowed to be printed on the original sleeve. As an introduction to a voice that will be recognized by more than a small circle of critics as an exceptional talent, one of the great stylists of her generation, it’s inauspicious at best. Here we have a drugged soprano, bassoon-like, stretching out the words in laconic and restrained long tones colored only by a yelping, manic passagio as her voice passes the glottal break at the beginnings and endings of certain words. If you listen very closely, some lines trail with a prolonged stuttering trill, mostly breath, far-too-quietly indicating just how close she is to unhinging (on the following track, “Wax and Wane,” we get the full-voiced incarnation of the same signature technique, and it is thrilling by contrast).
Frustratingly, there is never a peak here. Even melodically, we almost never hear more than the same sequence of two notes, the first and the third of the scale—enough to affirm the song’s key, but never to question it. There are tantalizing moments where the threads come loose, but like the production of the song overall, restraint and tension win, with the promises resolution, implosion or collapse always imminent and never manifest. The closest we come to an upshift is when, over two minutes in, the entire guitar sub-mix is run through a Flanger (a carousel-like filter, as if a wah-wah pedal were to be engaged at a glacial pace). It’s an effective transition for sure, and one that feels like it means something. Like those Shephard-Risset tones, however, it gifts only an endless rising that never arrives anywhere.


Two self-styled ‘Punk’ teenagers, Guthrie and Fraser met in the late 70’s: “The only excitement for a 30-mile radius is the 'Nash,'” said Fraser in 1982, “a local hotel disco where Rob was DJ…. I used to go there on my own, dance on my own and leave on my own...Yeah, very poor social skills," she says, in her typical self-scorn. "I was going there for a year and at the end of that year everyone was very drunk and Robin and I started talking. He said, 'Have you ever tried singing, why don't you come along to a rehearsal?' And I didn't know what else to do at the time, so I did.” [6] Told elsewhere, Robin liked how she looked and thought if she could sing half as well as she could dance, she’d make a cool front-person. He thought she was cute.
“’I was the sweetest punk rocker you've ever met,’ said Fraser with a giggle, describing her look as resembling Wilma Flintstone’”. She later says she saw the self-confident and sociable Guthrie “as a father figure”. They soon formed both a band and a relationship. “What brought us together was me having no ideas and opinions of my own, and him having plenty—enough for both of us”, side-lining “We were attracted to each other for the wrong reasons". [7]
More than enough books and documentaries have covered the socio-economic and political climate that back-dropped what we call the post-punk era in Great Britain. The 70’s saw 30% inflation, miner’s strikes, discontent with the political establishment, and the dawn of Thatcherism, which waged a kind of war of ideas (and riot gear) on the working class. If you were working class in the UK (and particularly if you were Scottish or Irish) chances are very good you were all sorts of fucked and hopeless. When the Sex Pistols and their horde came along they politicized and polarized creativity under the banner of ‘Punk’, like an aerosol can tossed on the fire by kids both hopeless and hopelessly bored. Punk was both hope and resignation in the same wordless howl, a “symptom of that mood of crisis, but from the very start it refused definition", wrote Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian. [8] Elevating the role of the outsider, it was a lightning rod for anger and disenfranchisement, and a near-spiritual mandate to find salvation (or at least self-worth, for many working class kids a foreign concept) in something creative and loud, the more outlandish and confrontational the better.
Lester Bangs wrote about the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten that he was an “insect buzzing atop the massed ruins of a civilization leveled by itself…on another level”, he said, “he’s just another trafficker in cheap nihilism”. [9] A young teenage Elisabeth Fraser had him tattooed on her arm. At the time, what civilization in her field of vision could have looked all that worth saving?

The youngest of six children, bulimic, and already feeling abandoned by older siblings who’d left the nest, Fraser was thrown out of her house at 16 for “being a punk”, she says.
According to an Alternative Press interview in 1996, “Music provided a respite from her home life, where she was sexually abused by a brother-in-law”, with the implication of other abuses and violence at home. Home: where the vampires hang their hats. Dancing alone at the local hotel disco: less affect or cliché, more self-care, more defensive survival strategy.
"By the time you're old enough to make choices, if you believe through being told so often by your caretakers that you’re not worth a shit [and] you don't deserve a choice, then you won't even challenge that. And when you're old enough to make choices on your own, you won't know how" [10], she later said. Unsurprisingly, it would take time to find her creative footing.
But years’ later, Fraser also still gets excited thinking about the Punk scene, an extended family of misfits that liberated her, to the point the wants “run round the house!...It did change my life, it made me a better person, and believe it or not it made me much more content, I just appreciate things more than I did.” Without the thrill of music, she says “I’d be working in the Chunky Chicken factory, getting in the wages, buying a single every month or something.” [11]

More confident and self-directed than their future singer, Guthrie and Heggie had already started up an instrumental version of a band called Cocteau Twins by the time they met Fraser. The name Cocteau Twins suggests a band keen to parade their bohemian intellectual bona fides, a reference to filmmaker/writer Jean Cocteau’s book Les Enfants Terribles. But no. Cocteau Twins was rather the name of a Simple Minds song (i.e., during their early days as a manic, proggy punk band, with their Breakfast Club soundtrack histrionics still an unthinkable lifetime away). They’d all seen Simple Minds (who’d named themselves after a Bowie lyric) in Grangemouth and were inspired.

And then it all happens very quickly. Maybe because a young body’s manic current has nowhere else to go in Grangemouth, except by taking aim at yourself. Or someone else. Or having babies. Or putting heroin into your arms. Or being in a band—everyone else seemed to be finding the truth there. Or, at least, a few good laughs.
Guthrie never seems to have had a doubt or a moment’s hesitation about getting what he wanted and knew he deserved. Turned out it was the easiest thing in the world. And it had never occurred to him that they wouldn’t be larger than Grangemouth, larger than London, as big as ‘the voice of God’ (as journalist Steve Sutherland later called the Cocteau’s music). ‘Cream rises’, and all that—too young and naive to think otherwise.
They recorded (not dubbed, being without the technology to make copies) two cassette demos. They headed down to London (7-8 hours’ distance by car) to see a show (The Birthday Party, all hellfire and showmanship). Guthrie recognized radio DJ John Peel and pushed a tape into his hand (a feature on his show could change your fate overnight). After the show, as Fraser recounts “We were moseying along a bit aimlessly and then…Rob decided to wheedle us all backstage and sat himself down next to Phil [Calvert]. I was bloody terrified at the audacity of it, but Phil was genuinely interested and helpful, he gave us the address of 4AD and told us to write, and of course Rob being Rob, he did." [12] 4AD, the only record label address they had, the only label they sent a tape to (well they’d have to record another one if they did).
4AD responded. John Peel responded. It worked.


Factory Records’ impresario Tony Wilson famously said, “Punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’, but it couldn’t go any further. It was a single, venomous, two-syllable phrase of anger. Sooner or later, someone was going to say more; someone was going to want to say ‘I’m fucked.’” He was talking about Joy Division, but as a Tweet-length biography of gothic post-punk there’s hardly better. “Goth’s perennial allure”, wrote Simon Reynolds in Blender, “also has a lot to do with the way the epic music and tortured lyrics give majesty to moroseness, elevating and ennobling adolescent angst”. [13]
But Fraser agonized over what to say, her inner voice telling her “'You're shite! Go and get a day job immediately”. [14] “I didn’t feel adequate as a lyricist” she’d tell 1FM. “I get a bug for words, but I don’t know what any of them mean…”, saying that showing the world her lyrics, “I felt like I was shark-bait” she says between giggles, but in a broken voice that makes me sink inside. "A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical”, she says in 1995 [15]. “I guess it's back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I'm 17 and I don't even know when I'm hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don't even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place?” And so we have Garlands’ lyrical impressions and evasions, from a singer maybe too uncomfortable simply finding an authentic place between the very rock, very male, very performative twin constraints of “fuck you” and “I’m fucked”.
But within a year of Garlands’ release Fraser’s lyrics, her voice, the mystery of it all, will be hotly dissected and devoured, as she begins to develop a language that poet (and Cocteau Twins fan) Sommer Browning impeccably describes “as indecipherable as desire” [16].
And then there’s the musicality: of the language and of that voice. “Blood Bitch’s” ostensible lyrics don’t stand out miles beyond the more impressionistic strands of standard Goth fare. However, the way that Fraser stretches out each phoneme almost into its own compositional vignette, you begin to sense that delivering the words is spectacularly unimportant to her. Hers is a very “trees for the forest” approach to singing, timbre over sense. Equivocating, perhaps, but why should a head-on boxing match with your demons be the only form of allowable bravery in song lyrics (while critics give filmmakers, poets and visual artists, so much room to explore)? If her peculiar enunciation can be read as a curtain behind which to hide, it was also a launch-pad to explore the wordless edges of emotions she couldn’t, or chose not to form into concrete objects, but proved uniquely equipped to emote (and which could only have been done in song). Steve Sutherland said it best in a 1985 Melody Maker: “Her lyrics …[are] not nonsense but emotion liberated from cliché. When she sings, my world moves and it means something beyond and without all the blasted, blighted baggage of linguistic nostalgia”. Referring to the decade of vocal experimentation that follows Garlands, Simon Reynolds wrote simply, “She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.” [17]
But it took time to get there. Fraser even left the band for about six months before finishing the recordings that became Garlands, only returning because of her blossoming romantic relationship with Guthrie. Trying to write and express within the idiom of her peers, she became exasperated: “I think it was more the lyrics I didn't have the faith in. I found it too hard” [18]. More than a mere self-confidence issue, as she told The Guardian in 2009, she came to avoid words that could pin down meaning—a story, a character, a scannable emotion—for the simple reason that “I can’t act. I can’t lie”. Whether by safety or fearlessness, Fraser ultimately took a far less codified approach, rejecting the kind of language imposed by the conventions of pop song. In order to feel safe being herself, she removed her ‘narrative self’ from the picture completely.

And she enthralled, Mister Laurie wrote, “Liz was the soul of the band, singing with passion, urgency and sometimes anger; that much was clear…Everyone wanted to know more about them and find out what on Earth she was so fired up about”.
The contemporary voices of authority on the Cocteau’s lyrics were wildly (and comically) diverse, and bafflingly contingent (not helped by Fraser’s general refusal to have lyric sheets printed). Myths abounded (and somehow still do):

  • She makes up her own language (Ice Choir’s Kurt Feldman described it as “mermaid dialect” [19], which is actually pretty good),

  • she babbles a kind of Pentecostal nonsense,

  • she improvises in the puirt à beul tradition (a sort of Gaelic scat that sounds way more exciting on paper than on Youtube),

  • she sings in a mixture of five Pagan languages indigenous to the British Isles,

  • or, my favorite piece of anecdotal fiction (as relayed by Erik Blood), she is “schizophrenic and always sings about food” [20] (a close relative of David Byrne, then, pathologically speaking?).

However, around the release of Garlands Fraser was candid and consistent when speaking about her process. As self-deprecating as she has been in describing it, her process comes across as an impressively deliberate one, both in the compositional and literary sense. Her house was littered with notebooks and lists as she obsessively documented words. She spent hours trawling foreign language dictionaries, treating language as a ‘found sound’ source, resulting in a sort of vocal score bordering on bricolage. Think maybe Meredith Monk by way of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“Combining words in different languages that I couldn't understand just meant I could concentrate on the sound and not get caught up in the meaning ... But it got to be more fun because I was able to make up lots of portmanteaus, literally hundreds and hundreds of words. I was really into it… And it just kept on getting bigger and bigger” [21] By comparison to even an artistically proximate contemporary like Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, an impressive singer who came to embrace (and spiritually mythologize) the notion of improvising in a made-up language, Fraser’s performances were in turn based on very complex lyrical arrangements that take her multi-tracked vocal parts to the edges of her voice’s technical capabilities, neither intellectualizing nor mystifying it. On paper, it sounds like work. On record it sounds impossible.

The level of deliberate writing involved is less evident on Garlands, more or less a live-band capture. But by the release of 1983’s “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops” it becomes difficult to defend the notion that music like this could ever manifest in momentary flashes of inspiration. There is beauty, grace and playfulness, as well as almost super-human feats of technical athleticism and control; rolled R’s in perfectly synchronized harmony, precise semi-tonal trills that perform pirouettes and knife kicks within the same breath. There is also scatter-shot ugliness. Broken barks and howls, words stretched and pulled as if by force (and they are) from abused glottal machinery, often multi-tracked alongside other voices whimpering, childlike, and soft. As angelic and astral as she could be, at its best Fraser’s is also a voice that can sounds as if it positively relishes in ripping itself apart.

In the 90’s, as Cocteau Twins finished their swan-song albums, Fraser, fully in ‘Recovery’ mode, will talk about a newfound personal need for lyrical clarity and personal honesty. This does not negate the fact that in the early 80’s post-punk scene, just beyond ‘fuck you’ and ‘I’m fucked’, is a small, shy teenage woman making the truly brave choice to privilege “sound rather than meaning” in her lyrics, and in her interpretative choices as a singer. For as many breathless converts as she won in the press, she also received an enormous amount of shit from the rock establishment. It was nothing if not an act of courage at that time to admit and embrace these things. However creatively anarchic post-punk may have been, rock was, and still remains a long march of self-styled messianic men (face it, they’re usually men) with so much to say; and always a writer waiting to reprint every self-important word. In that environment, to say ‘I don’t know what I mean’, and to suggest that meaning lay in the way the end results felt—animal, pre-cognitive and undeniable—was an act of fearlessness and nerve rarely seen in pop music. We only see the earliest blushes of this on Garlands, but it is there.


“When she [Fraser] panics, she says she feels about five years old. ‘You kind of go back to the age when you were being abused,’ she explains. Singing helps her soothe her younger self.” [22]
Trauma, especially childhood trauma, re-wires the brain so that it carries around a misleading model of the world, built from emotions and physical responses at best no longer relevant to the world around you, and at worst pretty destructive. Had Fraser’s youth been a bit less traumatic perhaps words would have been less dangerous. If the actual fucking darkness in her mind had been more ‘role-play’ than a ‘recent memory’, perhaps she’d have taken the mantle of Siouxsie and Nick Cave and sang cinematic tales of the twisted and macabre. I’m projecting. We can’t know. And no doubt plenty of victims have also found comfort and power in the well-defined Sacraments of Goth. But part of Fraser’s unique genius is located in the fearless, map-less granularity of her emotions, and the way that she chose to express them.
I’ve been re-reading How Emotions Are Made, the 2017 book by the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. It makes the un-intuitive, paradigm-shifting and scientifically compelling case that emotions are something the brain constructs. She says emotions are culturally contingent (i.e., not universal) mental constructions based on, among many other things, the concepts we build from our shared languages. I’m borrowing the concept of “emotional granularity” from her.
On emotional granularity, which she equates with “emotional intelligence”, Feldman Barrett writes, “‘Happiness’ & ‘Sadness’ are each populations of diverse instances…[a] broad brush” [23]. It has popped into my head as I wrestle with what I find persistently frustrating about Goth culture (and I should probably admit that I was a Goth-AF teenager…I’ve been there…and I’m still learning to have compassion for that teenager, wildly spinning out from childhood abuse and shame, that I was). Perhaps that’s why I so strenuously object to labeling Cocteau Twins Goth, even here on “Blood Bitch”, at their most obviously Goth-y.
While Feldman Barrett’s book doesn’t traffic in ‘self-help’, she does write a bit about ways you can game your body’s mental health systems, a fine-grained language at the center of it all: “If you could distinguish”, she says, “between…fifty shades of ‘Crappy’ (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion.” [24] i.e., maybe you’d feel less ‘Crappy’. Cocteau Twins painted hundreds of shades of CRAPPY (and elation, bewilderment, bliss, and not forgetting ‘Happy on the verge of hysterical’).
By contrast, the Gothiest of Gothic pop culture paints with the broadest of black brushes: anachronism and nostalgia, romantic role-play—big categories as emotionally subtle as a dominatrix in her dungeon. As melodrama, that is its job. Goth likely sticks around because melodrama, as a safe ritual of emotional exorcism, works.
Nuance has never been easy to market. If Cocteau Twins hadn’t come up in the time and place they did, hadn’t wrapped their music in reverb, foggy half-light and big hair, I don’t expect that their “fifty shades of ‘Crappy’” would ever be mentioned in the same breath as the dark camp of Bauhaus or Southern Death Cult. Nor, I expect, would they have had careers. Cream doesn’t rise to the top, as a categorical rule. Darwinism hasn’t proved out in pop-culture. The post-punk era was an exceptional time, where for a minute everything was thrown at commerce’s wall, much of it sticking (although to be thereafter slowly ground down into palatable shapes). Perhaps also because of the perfect (and perfectly new) aesthetic clarity of Guthrie’s lush productions, the lack of musical abstraction, Fraser was able to get away with a level of abstraction almost never seen on pop music stages before or since. Still, Elisabeth Fraser found innumerable ways to further granulate feeling, using every conceivable tool at her disposal, in ways that we’d never heard before. The unlikely magic trick worked because those singular bits of meaning-non-meaning came from such an individual voice, and a mind with enough audacity to think that confessional narrative was not the only way to be emotionally honest in music.

“Learn the difference” recommends Feldman Barrett, “between ‘discouraged’ and ‘dejected’ versus generically ‘sad’…Pick another language and seek out its concepts for which your language has no words, like the Dutch emotion of togetherness, gezellig, and the Greek feeling of major guilt, enohi. Each word is another invitation to construct your experiences in new ways. ” That’s what the best music should do anyway: the world around you changes just a little bit more on the other side of it. I don’t have a working concept of gezellig. The Portuguese saudade is famously difficult to explain in English (but immortalized in a Love and Rockets instrumental!). However, I do share with maybe a few hundred thousand others, the emotion signified by Liz Fraser belting out “Fall I do, fallen I do lean (fall I do, fall I do) Fall I do, fallen I lean (fallen I lean)” over a bed of ambient baroque fantasy music, and I don’t know another word(s) for that feeling. That’s what Cocteau Twins created.

But not in “Blood Bitch”. “Blood Bitch” is straight-Goth-fire

[1] Lyrics were never officially printed for this song and many ‘official’ lyrics printed later were not sanctioned by the band. There are competing versions online.

[2] Laurie, D. (2015). Dare: How Bowie & Kraftwerk Inspired the Death of Rock ‘N’ Roll & Invented Modern Pop Music. London, UK: Something in Construction.

[3 Heim, S., The First Time I Heard Cocteau Twins…..

[4] Phoenix, Val. "Embracing Otherness". Alternative Press (January 1997)

[5] Article name not listed, Sounds Magazine (Nov 5, 1983). Retrieved from https://cocteautwins.com/html/history/history02.html

[6] O’Sullivan, E. (1995) The Independent

[7] Ibid iv

[8] No future? Punk is still the sound of youth rebellion the world over. (2012, June 1). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/jun/01/no-future-punk-youth-rebellion

[9] Bangs, L.; ed. Marcus, G. (1987). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York, NY: Vintage Books, a Div. of Random House, pp. 313-315

[10] Ibid iv

[11] Ibid v

[12] Article name not listed, Sounds Magazine (1982). Retrieved from https://cocteautwins.com/html/history/history01.html

[13] Various Artists: A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (Rhino), Blender 2006. (2008, March 26). Retrieved from http://reynoldsretro.blogspot.com/2008/03/various-artists-life-less-lived-gothic.html

[14] Ibid iv

[15] Ibid iv

[16] Ibid iii

[17] 4AD: The Dozen, Director's cut, eMusic, (2008, March 26). Retrieved from http://reynoldsretro.blogspot.com/2013/10/4ad.html

[18] Ibid iv

[19] Ibid iii

[20] Ibid iii

[21] Jackson, Travis A. (2000). Spooning Good Singing Gum: Meaning, Association and Interpretation in Rock Music. Current Musicology, Volume No. 69 (Spring 2000), p.26

[22] BARRETT, LISA FELDMAN. HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE: the Secret Life of the Brain. p.179, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

[23] Ibid xxii, p.180

[24] Ibid xxii, p.181


Shannon Fields is a composer, music producer and horse-farmer living in Upstate New York. His music has been featured favorably in the New York Times, Pitchfork, The Village Voice, Salon.com, The New Yorker, Spin, NPR, The Guardian and other reputable purveyors of opinion. He currently fronts the band Leverage Models, whose most recent release, Whites, a benefit for the Southern Poverty Law Center, is available for purchase on all the usual platforms. A long time ago, Shannon was a lonely, angry, self-harming, black-lace wearing goth teenager growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, full of suicidal ideation and unspent melodies; he tries to go easy on goths under 25.

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