Monday, August 6, 2007


Even by Siouxsie & The Banshees' standards, Through The Looking Glass is a distinctive album. They chose (perhaps after getting a taste with 'Dear Prudence' a few years earlier) to cover an eclectic range of songs by other artists. That contrast to their other albums, almost all of which contain completely original material, provides an intriguing glimpse at their visionary and sometimes radical approach to song production.

When it came to the b-sides for the singles, however, Siouxsie & The Banshees were not about to give up one of their great joys: holing up for the weekend to create quick-fire tracks without commercial consideration. Their three disc set of collected b-sides is a staggering achievement, and again, a fascinating survey of their creative process.

I was fortunate in my decision to purchase the 12" single of 'This Wheel's On Fire' (written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko and originally performed by Julie Driscoll in 1968.) The 12" is the only place the single's second b-side can be found: 'Sleepwalking (on the high wire)'. It's a remarkable rarity in Siouxsie & The Banshees' catalog, deserving of more attention than it has received.

The song doesn't open up immediately; it slowly rises out of a metallic field of whirs and clicks. An intricately plucked and echoed electric guitar line sketches out the undercurrent. The song eventually gets underway with a fuzzy detuned guitar that begs association with the shoegazers, and careens around the scale, held down by the regular, uncluttered drumming and bass line.

While Siouxsie Sioux seems to have been the primary lyricist throughout the Banshees' twenty year career, bassist Steven Severin regularly contributed lyrics; 'Sleepwalking' is one of those instances. He has said that the words were inspired by two movies: The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Trapeze. In two economical verses and a chorus that is barely more than the title, Severin gives us a kind of cubist portrait of a woman on a tight rope. Think of Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude descending a staircase, no. 2' - we see the woman from various angles and in various positions as she descends. Similarly, our tightrope walker is described from above and below, poised on the rope and falling off of it, as a passive object and an active participant.

I am struck by the way almost every word or phrase in the lyrics is balanced by its opposite somewhere else. Quicksand and sky. Sharpened and plush. Persuasion and accident. Open palm and blow. Spiral and angle. 'See her' but 'can't reach her'. Image after image provides another perspective, another position for this woman, but nothing that gives us a personal connection to her; she is anonymous, as much a still life as a portrait. There is no plot except an ominous reminder that we, the listener, have hurt her in the past but can't any longer. It's as though she has detached from us and possibly from reality, too, and perched precariously up there, vacant and dreaming, symbolic and literal. We are helpless, captivated by the path which will either kill her or enshrine her in the sky.

As the music fades, it's tempting to construct our own narrative ending to this static moment: she awakens, she falls, she crosses safely... But we are prevented; unexpectedly the song surges back with another chorus insisting that she's still up there, sleepwalking into the open palm of empty sky. It's beautiful and tragic, and a brilliant piece, making this song a highlight of Siouxsie & The Banshees' entire output over 20 years, single, b-side or otherwise.

Siouxsie & The Banshees official website