This post is about a single line:
“I’m as puzzled as the oyster.”
It’s from the original version of Tim Buckley’s song, “Song to the Siren”, seen at the top of this post: the lyric was by his former band member and regular co-writer Larry Beckett. Buckley, of course, had a brief, uncommercial, but influential music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s before he died of a drugs overdose at the age of 28.
“Song to a Siren” is probably his best known song, but initially Buckley played it once, on The Monkees TV Show (seen above) in 1967, and then set it aside after the singer Judy Henske, who was also the wife of his producer, made fun of that line. By the time the song appeared on Starsailor, in 1970, Buckley had changed it to,
I am puzzled as the newborn child.
You don’t need to be Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney to see that this doesn’t scan as well, or fit so well into the lyric, which is inspired by the famous Homerian sequence in which the Sirens try to lure Odysseus and his ship onto the rocks by their singing.
In fact, the whole lyric is infused with the sense of sea and water. The original stanza continues:
I am puzzled as the oyster
I am troubled as the tide.
Should I stand amid your breakers?
Should I lie with Death my bride?
Beckett’s answer to Buckley’s concern, shared in an article in the Guardian, a couple of years ago:
“A pearl is an object of great beauty caused by a grain of sand getting inside the oyster’s shell, which seemed apposite to me, what with the sea imagery and the sailor and siren confronting each other. Will beauty or pain rule all? But Tim believed the song was flawed and could never be performed, even though he agreed it was the best song he ever wrote. But then Tim always self-sabotaged his career.”
Starsailor wasn’t the success that Buckley had hoped for, and he died in 1975. “Song to the Siren” became visible again in 1983 when This Mortal Coil (actually the Cocteau Twins covered it, as a B-side. This version quickly became an A-side, and sold half a million copies. Since then it’s been covered by everyone – Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, George Michael, Sinead O’Connor, even Alfi Boe, are all on the list.
But the oyster has long been washed away.