Israel – Siouxsie and the Banshees (Review)

For whatever reason, I’ve been on a Siouxsie and the Banshees kick over the last couple of weeks. That’s a band I used to listen to a lot in high school and college and haven’t paid much attention to since. They’re a lot better than I remember. Albums like Kaleidoscope that used to seem like interesting failures are now listenable all the way through. Tinderbox – which used to seem saccharine and empty – turns out to be completely brilliant. I should have done this a long time ago.

At least part of the upgrade is down to giving their lyrics a more serious listen. Lyrics are important to me, and Siouxsie’s always seemed a little showy – more about images than meanings. In retrospect, I wasn’t giving them enough credit. It’s true enough that they’re more imagistic than I like and am used to, but some of that imagery is masterful.

Which brings me to Israel. This is an odd little song of theirs. It was never on an album, but you could be forgiven for "remembering" having heard it on Kaleidoscope, since it was released soon after and fits the general theme. A lot of Banshees songs are sort of hard to track, but it seems like everyone I talk to remembers this one in particular as the one that was frustratingly cryptic. That’s probably down to the subject: if you’re going to call a song "Israel," people are going to want to know just what you mean. It doesn’t help that Siouxsie came off as pretty racist when she burst onto the early punk scene. It wasn’t just singing largely negative songs about Chinese takeout and wearing swastika armbands for shock value (and then following that up as recently as 2005 by saying in an interview that she still really likes the Nazi uniform!). A lot of people don’t know that in the original version of Love in a Void the line "Too many bigots for my liking" was "Too many Jews for my liking." So if it’s true that anyone who writes a song called "Israel" is in for some scrutiny, that goes double for the Banshees.

Problem: the lyrics are really cryptic.

Here they are, followed by some thoughts of mine.

Little orphans in the snow
With nowhere to call a home
Start their singing
Waiting through the summertime
To thaw your hearts in wintertime
That's why they're singing

Waiting for a sign to turn blood into wine
The sweet taste in your mouth -- turned bitter in its glass
Israel... in Israel
Israel... in Israel

Shattered fragments of the past
Meet in veins on the stained glass
Like the lifeline in your palm
Red and green reflects the scene
Of a long forgotten dream
There were princes and there were kings

Now hidden in disguise -- cheap wrappings of lies
Keep your heart alive with a song from inside

Even though we're all alone
We are never on our own when we're singing

There's a man who's looking in
And he smiles a toothless grin
Because he's singing
See some people shine with glee
But their song is jealousy
Their hate is clanging -- maddening
In Israel... will they sing Happy Noel
Israel... in Israel
Israel... in Israel
In Israel will they sing Happy Noel

Granted that no one’s ever going to know for sure what this means, to me it reads like a horror movie, and the impression I get is that they’re comparing Isreal to a kind of changeling abomination. It all hinges on that final verse, though, which is completely impenetrable. Everything before that can be read in one of two ways; the final verse can’t be read at all – and so you simply project onto it the impressions you’ve been accumulating up to that point.

Little orphans in the snow
With nowhere to call a home
Start their singing
Waiting through the summertime
To thaw your hearts in wintertime
That's why they're singing

"Little orphans in the snow" is a Holocaust reference probably. There are famous recordings of recently-liberated concentration camp survivors singing HaTikva that are the likely concrete reference here. "Orphans" can be literal or figurative – obviously the Nazis and the Holocaust created a lot of actual orphans, some of whom – pre-Holocaust – inspired an infamous line from David BenGurion to the effect that stateless Jewish orphans are a good thing because they inspire support for a Jewish state in Palestine. Which seems like the proper analogue for "Waiting through the summertime/to thaw your hearts in wintertime" to me. The question is one of spin – and that last line ("That’s why they’re singing") reads really negative to me. It’s a manipulative kind of singing, not a genuine one. It’s sustained (we go all the way through summer), and deliberate rather than spontaneous ("start their singing" sounds like a conscious project more than a spur of the moment outburst) and to a purpose ("that’s why they’re singing" – i.e. there’s a reason for it).

Waiting for a sign to turn blood into wine
The sweet taste in your mouth -- turned bitter in its glass
Israel... in Israel
Israel... in Israel

If you don’t pay too much attention, you might come away thinking this was a harmless reference to The Marriage at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, where at a wedding party he turns jugs of water into wine, because the wine had already been drunk. But read it again and you notice that everything is inverted. Jesus didn’t "wait for a sign," his action was the sign. More importantly, this isn’t actually a reference to the Marriage at Cana, it’s a Eucharist reference, and an inverted one. In the Eucharist, wine turns into the Blood of Christ – a miracle provided for believers. This is the opposite of that. We’re turning blood into wine. It’s an Anti-Eucharist. And it’s not a good thing: "The sweet taste in your mouth turned bitter in its glass." Whatever is going on, the perception and experience is sweet, but the reality is bitter. These are evil images. But images of what?

Shattered fragments of the past
Meet in veins on the stained glass
Like the lifeline in your palm
Red and green reflects the scene
Of a long forgotten dream
There were princes and there were kings

It continues – inanimate things becoming animate. Glass becomes veins – veins in a human palm. This is a very subtle Frankenstein reference – and the theme of abomination is unmistakeable at this point. As far as I know, Victor Frankenstein in the original novel is never presented as Jewish. The name probably comes from Castle Frankenstein in Rheinland Germany, and it is actually not a Jewish name, even though it sounded like one to us in the 20th century when the classic horror movies came out. What seems Jewish about that novel is the resemblance to the legend of the Golem – a Jewish myth about a being brought to life entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). In the traditional story, it was summoned to defend Jews from attacks in Prague, and so it makes a kind of fitting metaphor for modern Israel – a constructed, artificial nation sold to the world as a safe haven for Jews. This could be a positive image, but a couple of things here suggest it’s not. "Red and green reflects the scene of a long forgotten dream." In interviews at the time, Siouxsie bizarrely suggested that this was a "holiday song," kind of the Banshees’ Christmas special. (!!!) That seems … far-fetched – and yet you could, if you wanted, read "red and green" as Christmas colors. They’re also Palestinian national colors, though, and in a song about Israel that seems like something you can’t just set aside. To me, this is again a dual image – like the orphans in the snow singing, which seems to be one potentially positive thing but is in fact another, much darker thing. You take "shattered fragments of the past" and you assemble some structure – a stained-glass window – out of it, and that seems really positive, but it reflects red and green light, rather than blue and white. You can’t cover up, in other words, that you’ve built your project using someone else’s materials. Then there’s the "long forgotten dream," which works as a reminder that Zionism is a recent project, not an unbroken historical longing. "There were princes and there were kings." Which is the question. If you had princes and kings at one time, does that entitle you to a nation now? And if so, does it entitle you to this one?

Now hidden in disguise -- cheap wrappings of lies
Keep your heart alive with a song from inside

Even though we're all alone
We are never on our own when we're singing

This is the closest thing to straightforward we get, and even this isn’t all that clear. What are the "lies?" On the one hand, anything that’s deliberately deceptive is usually not good. On the other hand, we don’t know what "cheap wrappings of lies" are. You’re inclined to say it’s propaganda, but whose? Nazi? Zionist? A not-entirely-implausible reading might be that this is about "passing" during the Holocaust to stay out of the camps, or maybe even those day-to-day deceptions that kept you alive during the camps. But we don’t normally choose words like "lies" to talk about things that are necessary to survive gross injustice. What’s technically lying gets a euphemism in cases like this. This reads more like an indictment of Zionists to me. The project is Israel, but to get there you have to sell the world on a version of yourself that isn’t quite true – like that you’re happy to live in harmony with the Arabs, that they will be citizens too, that you’re OK with limits on how many Jews can settle in British Mandate Palestine, etc.

There's a man who's looking in
And he smiles a toothless grin
Because he's singing
See some people shine with glee
But their song is jealousy
Their hate is clanging -- maddening
In Israel... will they sing Happy Noel
Israel... in Israel
Israel... in Israel
In Israel will they sing Happy Noel

It’s this bit that I find completely uninterpretable. I simply have no idea what any of it means. Who is the "man who’s looking in?" What’s the significance of the fact that his grin is "toothless?" Who are the "some people" who "shine with glee?" It’s completely cryptic.

I only see two ways to get at it. First, we can just ask the question – "will they sing Happy Noel?" If you’ve taken the dark view of the other verses that I did, the answer pretty much has to be "no." Second, we can notice that the people shining with glee are singing too: "their song is jealousy." Are they the same "orphans in the snow" from before? It’s not conclusive, but it’s a good bet they are. And I suppose we could also notice that the man who is "looking in" with the "toothless grin" is only toothless "because he’s singing." That seems significant. He isn’t toothless on his own; it’s only because he’s singing.

That’s as close as we’re going to get, I’m afraid. This is one of those things that’s down to how it makes you feel, and to me it feels like a horror piece. The "orphans in the snow" are creepy. Their singing isn’t spontanous and joyful, it’s more like a spell being cast. It brings them what they want, but in an underhanded way. It comforts them, but the comfort is false: "Their hate is clanging — maddening." They won’t "sing Happy Noel." Whatever their song is, it seems evil. This spell they’re casting with song is an Anti-Eucharist. The’re drinking blood, but it isn’t the Blood of Life. It’s been rendered inanimate, mundane – no life force. These are orphans – they have no parents, and so no bloodline, no history. They make up their history out of "fragments of the past," which you can assemble into any pretty picture you want, but it isn’t real. "There were princes, and there were kings," but they’re in the past, and they don’t seem to have any present reality or meaning. However well-crafted and brought to life this history, it doesn’t actually obscure the truth. When the light shines on it, it still shines red and green.

So, I read this as anti-Israel. Israel is an abomination, born in deception, called to life by the evil incantation of children with an invented history who feed on blood not in a life-affirming, but a life-destroying way. It feels unnatural, and undead, and the horror-movie choirs that swell up before the last verse fit the atmosphere.

Is it anti-semitic? Is Siouxsie anti-semitic? I don’t know, and I don’t care. The problem with anti-semitism is that it’s too easy to confound it with simple criticism of Israel, and this has been so well-exploited by certain people that if you let these worries stop you the topic is effectively off limits. It’s relatively clear to me that this is meant to cast Israel in a negative light. Negative, frightening images are what this band does. But it doesn’t really answer the question of who caused the abomination. The orphans are only orphans because of the Holocaust, after all. The reading is there, if you want it, that it’s Europe that caused the abomination. They created the evil orphans who cast the vivification spell. But what you don’t seem to be able to get around is that the orphans are evil in some way. The song is at least mildly anti-semitic.

It’s still a great song with pretty impressive lyrics. Even if the image isn’t how you see Israel, you have to admire the complexity. And so you see what I mean about the Banshees being better than you remember. This is a rather sophisticated song, it turns out. Who knew? I didn’t in the 80s, for one.

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