A Blackbird in the Hand: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bush
What is it about Kate Bush that makes musicians revere her so? I don’t think I have come across many of us who think she is “just alright‘ or indeed anything less than an untouchable, enlightened musical deity. It’s one of a number of questions that have been buzzing around my head ever since I saw her perform one of a series of concerts she has titled Before the Dawn at the Hammersmith Apollo London a couple of weeks ago. It seems like an impossible or at least a crazy difficult question to answer definitively. Perhaps it’s easier for me to say what it is about her that makes me feel this way. To talk about how she and her music has influenced my own creativity. To try to explain why I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what I experienced that night alongside a few thousand open-mouthed and stunned onlookers.
“So here I go…”
I remember as a young child seeing the video for “Babooshka” on Top of the Pops in 1980 and being quite shocked at the sight and sound of this black-veiled figure flirting outrageously with a double bass transform into an impossibly wild-eyed and colourful scary banshee-witch character intimidating a young me with her aggressively sexual Lindsay Kemp choreography. I remember my sister and I laughing and making fun of what we saw and heard because it was the only way we knew to deal with it. It still looks a little ridiculous now, but it’s undeniably courageous.
It was maybe another seven years until my next memorable encounter with Kate Bush. I remember listening to “The Whole Story” in the car while my mum drove my girlfriend and me to a theatre performance of The Great Gatsby in Glasgow. The music snob in me still winces to think that I first really fell in love with KB from listening to a “best of…” compilation. Maybe being presented with a broad overview of her oeuvre up to that point was actually beneficial. Hearing tracks like the mellifluous “Wuthering Heights” next to such absolutely bonkers art-pop like “Sat in Your Lap” cast quite a potent spell. (I was mostly a metalhead at that point in my life.) Regardless, once I was at an age where I could begin to get my head around the theatricality of her performances and was able to tolerate her many eccentricities and vaguely understand the complex and often heavily political nature of her lyrics, there was no going back.
“I’d make a deal with God…”
Talking of spells, my fascination with KB is hard for me to separate from my parallel fascination with the occult. When I was an impressionable teenager, growing up as I did in a charismatic Christian community, I was always more drawn to the “other.” As much as I bought into the Christian doctrine and theology, the darker side was always a lot more interesting to me. The stories/myths/rumours that circulated about mystical figures like KB, Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley, Charles Manson, et al. were much more textured and interesting than the characters that made up the rather pallid hues of the sermons that were spoon-fed to us twice on a Sunday.
Anyway, Kate Bush was a white witch, or so we were told. But what did this actually mean? To my young imagination, she probably did things like conducted Wicker Man-esque pagan fertility rites at dawn, summonings, invocations, hexes, etc., etc. She was beyond the ordinary. Superhuman, supernatural. Where did her otherworldly vocal talent come from? Did she indeed make a deal with a deity? And those little glimpses into worlds between the awake and the asleep that she brought us? The Dreaming.
Not that the details of her spirituality really matter, although for me, speculating about the metaphysical meaning of her lyrics adds a dimension of richness and fascination that has drawn me in over the years and isn’t showing any signs of waning.
“On top of the world, looking over the edge”
All that devilry would probably ring terribly hollow and stagey if it weren’t for the power of her music and that voice. I can’t think of another pop singer with such a range, and I don’t mean a pitch range but a dramatic range. She seems to flit mercurially between caterwauling siren, the softly intoned voice of a longing lover, the comforting tones of a mother, to a deeper, almost masculine unearthly voice. She is living proof, if ever it were needed, that the human voice is the richest and most effective way to deliver music. Soothing, terrifying, powerful, sexy… She is an actor and a performance artist, a very versatile one at that — although perhaps at times not possessed of particular subtlety. But that doesn’t really matter either. The effect — the spell, if you will — is a powerful one and it sets her apart from any other artist in mainstream popular music. Over the years she has been subject to many pretty misogynistic “crazy lady” criticisms, but that is to be expected in a fairly male-dominated musical era, especially when we are dealing with an artist who’s work has been consistently bold, courageous, forward-looking and downright fearless. Even at the peak of her commercial appeal in the mid ’80s she composed the conceptual song cycle “The Ninth Wave,” which forms the second side of her album Hounds of Love.
And it was her performance of the entirety of this piece that formed the centrepiece of Before the Dawn in Hammersmith that night. Watching her tell the story of these songs — with the aid of puppetry, video projection, skeletal fish-people costumes, blackbird wings, elaborate interior and exterior sets and staging and even a mock helicopter with searchlights and powerful fans that descended from above us — was like having a veil lifted from my eyes. I had been listening to “The Ninth Wave” all these years without ever realising what the hell it was about. Now, here, it was, all laid bare: it chronicles the dying thoughts of a drowning woman at sea in the aftermath of a maritime disaster as she begins to succumb to the freezing water and contemplates what she is about to leave behind.
I don’t think I have had an experience at a show that has had such a profound and lasting effect on me. Although to be fair, it had more in common with theatre than just another gig. As with her musical output, the show wasn’t flawless. It was a mixed bag, sometimes overreaching, sometimes a little corny and sentimental. But my overall impression was that I had just experienced a performance that reflected the humanity of the artist. Here, tonight, Kate Bush wasn’t untouchable or distant, hidden behind layers of artifice and theatricality. She was completely herself, open and vulnerable, brave and uniquely human. I really hope that this foray back into the live arena is just the beginning and that she continues to play live. It’s not like we deserve more of this, but she should know that doing so would make the world a slightly better place to live in. And that, in my opinion, is pretty much all we can ever hope to achieve as artists and musicians.