The first time I heard Cocteau Twins, Matthew Kelly was telling me about the time he and his bandmates in The Autumns hid a maggot infested bull skull in the bed of Cocteau Twins bass player Simon Raymonde.
Simon was recording The Autumns' "In The Russet Gold Of This Vain Hour" album in rural Cotati at the time, just before I joined the band. The Autumns were sleeping in a cabin separated from Simon's by a large eerie field. "It was the kind of area," Matthew described, "where when the lights go out at night, it's black in a way that people from urban areas have very little experience with. Like being in the woods without the benefit of starlight." It was dark enough that no one knew the skull was filled with maggots when they found it there. After planting the skull under Simon's sheets, everyone ran back to their cabin and waited for the screams. In due time, the phone rang: "You bastards," Simon breathed heavily into the phone, "you bloody bastards."
Hours later, in the middle of the night, Simon's car was seen approaching the cabin. Everyone scrambled to lock the doors, bolt the windows, and hide. Laying perfectly still, struggling not to make a sound, they listened to Simon walk in slow, predatory circles around the cabin. The next morning, they found a message written on their front door in what appeared to be blood: "It's over. You're dead."
To understand how things got to this point, you have to imagine the state of mind The Autumns had collectively induced on "The Angel Pool" tour by committing themselves to watching a marathon of every "Nightmare On Elm Street" and "Children of the Corn" type of film they could find while touring middle America. Characters on the screen blended seamlessly with the string of mid-tour encounters with people like the Ketchum Prophet in Idaho, who chased members of The Autumns through the woods with a hunting knife and his 10-speed, while reciting encyclopedic details of his multiple crucifixions and resurrections. Losing sight of the Prophet only when he stopped to piss on a church, they returned to their cabin in the woods only to find other members of The Autumns engrossed in a viewing of "Friday the 13th," and refusing to take their screams to barricade the doors and windows from the serial killer outside as anything more than a mischievous joke.
A long history of audacious pranks (such as hiding in the back seat of someone's car and "surprising" them in the middle of their drive to work) was cultivating a state of mind which, as Matthew described, "got into a group mania, where it was genuinely frightening. Everyone suspected everyone was out to get them all the time." It's safe to say that finding a maggot infested bull skull in his bed had pretty much catapulted Simon headfirst into the collective mania. For several nights in a row, Simon could be spotted outside The Autumns cabin in the middle of the night looking through windows. One night, he waited for them in the field with a chainsaw and chased them around in the darkness until it stopped running.
Cotati became a ripe canvas for the psychological terror everyone had relentlessly sown in one another. "Going too far" became an ever receding boundary. Simon called one night to convince our bass player Zinskie that an approaching storm was causing electrical blackouts in the area. This was a complete fiction, strategically planted just before Matthew asked Zinskie if he had heard anything from our drummer "E" about a suspicious man in a cloak who had been seen hovering around rural Cotati at night. Zinskie turned to consult "E" about this, only to find that "E" was asleep in bed. This was another fiction: what appeared to be "E" in bed was only pillows that had been planted beneath his sheets earlier in the day, so that Zinskie would not suspect "E" was actually outside ready to cut the cabin's power. By the time "E" plunged the cabin into darkness, Zinskie had been successfully primed to believe that a potentially dangerous man was lurking in the shadows outside. As Zinskie froze, pregnant with impending panic, "E" smashed bottles to make it sound like someone was breaking into the cabin, climbed through a bathroom window he had left open earlier in the day, and came screaming into Zinskie's room, dressed as the cloaked stranger. Zinskie ran for his life, completely believing he was fleeing from a homicidal psychopath. "It took a very long time to calm him down," Matthew remarked, "it was a pretty rough place to be mentally."
Two months later, I met Simon when he jumped onstage unexpectedly during our cover of the Cocteau Twins song "Garlands" at Austin's 2000 South By Southwest Festival, lifted Zinskie's bass right off his shoulders, and finished the song in his place. By that point, Simon's surprises took on a different tone: he conscripted The Autumns as his band on his solo tour in Mexico and even convinced Robert Smith to seriously consider taking us on tour with The Cure. Despite many subsequent warm memories with Simon and two European tours through his label Bella Union, my first listen to Cocteau Twins while in the grip of Matthew's stories has permanently fused that fever of systematically applied terror to the ethereal beauty of Liz Fraser's voice every time I hear her ascending hermetic ladders of notes to some angel's breast just out of sight.
[For samples of The Autumns music]: http://www.steveelkins.net/Music/The-Autumns/8994797_MmSgLw