In case you hadn’t noticed tomorrow night Kate Bush appears on stage for the first time since 1979 in a series of London concerts that are perhaps the most widely anticipated in the history of popular music. In these closing passages from his superb biography Under The Ivy, Graeme Thomson explains the reasons for her enduring role as a key icon of British culture.
In recent years the notion of Kate Bush as a genius has rarely been disputed. In 2006, viewers of BBC 2’s Culture Show voted her seventh in a poll to find the top ten living British icons. 50 Words For Snow certainly proved that she has no need to rest on former glories, but it’s also true that as an icon, as an idea, Bush is in that rare and strange position where what she represents now overshadows the actual music. Her life is in her work, but her work exists beyond her, is greater than her.
Her influence certainly reaches far beyond the parameters of pop music, encompassing fashion (designer Greg Myler used her shifting styles as the bedrock of his 2005 Milan fashion show), numerous visual artists, comedians, film-makers and writers; David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, recently wrote passionately about his fandom. In her own specific field, through each of her absences her reach simply seems to grow and grow, across generations and genres. Countless dance acts have sampled or covered her songs, among them Utah Saints, E-Clypse and Blue Pearl, and she has also penetrated urban music. Aside from Prince, Tupac Shakur was a fan, US nu-soul singer Maxwell did unspeakable things to ‘This Woman’s Work’, while OutKast’s Big Boi is a raving devotee who has consistently haggled for a collaboration which has, sadly, yet to emerge. Guitar bands seem equally in her thrall. Among many others, Futureheads had a Top 10 hit in 2005 with ‘Hounds Of Love’, Placebo covered ‘Running Up That Hill’, and the Decemberists have played ‘Wuthering Heights’ in concert many times.
Since the emergence of Toyah Wilcox, and later Tori Amos, it has been de rigueur for virtually every young female artist to either cover Bush’s songs, cite her as a heroine or be compared to her. Fiona Apple, Bat For Lashes, Lily Allen, Kathryn Williams, Lady Gaga, Florence + The Machine, MPHO, Charlotte Church, Joanna Newsom, La Roux – the list rolls on and on; in 2010 Little Boots posted a stripped down version of ‘Running Up That Hill’ on YouTube. Some are fine artists, but the similarities with Bush often amount to little more than a smattering of external eccentricities and what is usually defined, rather vaguely and perhaps chauvinistically, as ‘kookiness’. Although Bush has made no attempt to engage with – or apparently even listen to – these acts, she is still regarded as the grande dame of arty outsiders the world over. Yet the people she is often said to have most in common with rarely sound anything like her. But then who does? Before Kate Bush, there was no Kate Bush. She is sui generis. There are only a few comparisons that make sense, and they are all about a certain shared sensibility rather than a look or a sound. Never mind Bjork. How about Roald Dahl, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Philip Pullman, Mark Hollis and perhaps Scott Walker: inimitable individualists who paint vivid pictures and work in the realm of dark imagination, sly humour and deep emotion; who inhabit lands that belong to neither the adult or the child; or rather, belong to both.
David Bowie may well be the most useful point of musical comparison. Crucially, like Bush, he has always been unafraid to make himself seem ridiculous for a good cause. But although Bowie is ultimately a more comfortable and accomplished pop star than Bush – with thicker skin, better at finding the art in the artifice and quicker on the draw – he never quite defeated his acute self-awareness; with Bowie there is always a pose, always a façade. His music is a beautiful fabrication.
Bush takes us somewhere else, somewhere deeper. She theatrically embodies and exaggerates numerous personality traits, but only in order to get to the heart of what makes us all tick. Despite the dressing up and dancing, there is no trace of affectation in her music. It’s a very inquisitive, giving, quixotic thing which in the end has nothing to do with the teachings of Gurdjieff, or Sufi mysticism, or Peter Pan, or Lindsay Kemp, or the films of Michael Powell, or Jay’s poems. There is no need to join every dot, or explain every reference. That is a game for those who can’t trust their own responses without first looking for an intellectual hook on which to hang it. Kate Bush is all about emotion: the things she uses to get to those emotions aren’t necessarily important. You either hear it and feel it – and trust what you’re hearing and feeling – or you don’t.
She is not a pop star, a fact which may only now be becoming truly clear. She just happened for a long time to make what we broadly describe as pop music the vehicle for her creativity. Who is she? “A writer, I suppose.” “That’s what I started doing when I was a little girl,” she said. “That’s what turned me on, that’s the buzz: writing a story.” At her best she is our greatest poet of the senses and the psyche. “With a mind that renders everything sensitive,” she once sang. “What chance do I have here?” She brings to life every twitch, every neuroses, every love, every tingle, every ache, every muscle, every unseen demon, every remembered angel, every recalled taste and smell through her music. At her worst, of course, she can be painfully sincere, naïve, twee, shrill, ridiculous and rather clumsy, but it has proved a price worth paying. Over 10 albums she had tried to resensualise the human experience, to break down the barriers between the heart and the mind, the body and the spirit, the living and the dead, the sea and the sky, winter and summer. The thought often occurs that she gives her fans very little back in return for their endless patience, yet they remain incredibly loyal because on some level they recognise the depth of her music, how much goes into it and how much she reveals of herself.
It’s a generous gift from such an otherwise determinedly concealed individual. As Bowie once noted, “It’s not great for a writer to find [themselves as] the centre of attention.” Her intensely private nature is not a fiction, but it has perhaps been misinterpreted. There are many stars who appear more regularly in public than Bush who live considerably more reclusive, fearful lives, and the idea of her eking out a remote, witchy existence is a nonsense which now finally seems to be accepted as such. Away from the spotlight she genuinely seems to enjoy the kind of true stability with her partner and her son that doesn’t require outside validation. She does normal things. She socialises, stays in touch, via phone and email, she is very responsive and generally available to those who she trusts, by all accounts a loyal and often very generous friend.
She could be forgiven at looking out at the Jordans, the Brangelinas, the Mariah Careys, Madonnas and Lady Ga Gas and shouting, ‘It’s not me that’s mad’. In one sense she has clearly been the victim of our distorted view of how celebrities should behave; her quiet normality has been turned into something grotesque, primarily due to a popular press that is unable and unwilling to cope with a woman who has consistently refused to play the PR game and which as a result ridicules, exaggerates and demeans her eccentricities.
But her although she is at pains to emphasise how ordinary her everyday life is, it’s hard not to conclude – weighing up the lengthy silences and her now seemingly habitual refusal to support her music publicly as a living, breathing, walking, talking human being – that at some level Bush has been wounded by the experience. Has she been cursed with fame? “I’ve thought about that a lot, because I was so proud of signing her and not letting her go into the studio, and so I was obviously somewhat conscious of that,” says [former EMI CEO] Bob Mercer. “But to be honest, no. I think Kate is Kate, and fame didn’t crack her at all – the demands, yes, but that’s because of the way she is. But Kate has had the career that she would have liked to have had.”
As a woman who has always fought to control every aspect of her art, it would be foolish to expect her to then cede control of her life. Fame can arrive so fast sometimes that reality never succeeds in catching up; she hasn’t allowed this to happen to her. Not only has she refused to permit the wide world access to her internal life, but she has also refused to construct an alternative version to sell publicly as part of fame’s Faustian pact. The decision has served her well, though many times it has made her seem prickly, defensive, controlling, humourless, frightened and paranoid, with an overdeveloped sense of persecution. When she appeared at the Q awards in 2001, emerging from a public absence of several years, she was booed by the waiting paparazzi outside the Park Lane Hotel because she didn’t linger to pose for shots. She was upset, interpreting it as representing some kind of deep, lingering hostility on the part of the public dating back to 1993, rather than a few disgruntled snappers venting pantomime spleen at her refusal to humour them for a moment or two. When she was featured on the BBC’s Queens Of British Pop series, broadcast in April 2009, she was the only living artist involved not to consent to a new interview. The participation of those close to her – Del Palmer, Jay – was only granted after Bush was allowed complete control over the contents of the broadcast. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly it is she’s afraid of.
There are inherent contradictions: she likes people yet craves solitude; she is proud of her work and wants people to hear it, yet hates selling it; her music is both candid confession and armour-plated shield. These tensions have at times made her life difficult. In particular, the artist who has relished playing around with binary opposites in her work – the synthetic and the earthy, the childishly innocent and the overtly erotic, the male and the female – has for much of her career struggled to resolve the core clashes in her life, those between privacy and fame and reality and image. The result, from those looking in from the outside, has been a central confusion about who she really is. “There is a figure that is adored,” she says. “But I’d question very strongly that it’s me.”
It is fame, rather than her innate sense of privacy, that has been the great anomaly of her life. She survived the post-‘Wuthering Heights’ period of invasion, intrusion and immense self-consciousness, but it’s little wonder that she has spent the ensuing 30 years and more steadily backing away from that utterly unexpected entrance, gradually carving out more and more elbow room. Her career has been an incremental process of withdrawal from that first hot blast of exposure, shedding along the way producers, bands, musicians, studios, press, the expectation of live performance, even her own image.
She has jettisoned all the unwanted accoutrements of a ‘pop’ career in order to maintain a connection – primarily mentally rather than physically, although she did build two studios in the barn at East Wickham Farm and record three albums there – with the emotional landscape in which she started: being left alone to work in a safe, secluded space, free to explore and expand the borders of her imagination, the clock on the wall ticking to her own stretched sense of time, the ones she loves around her, always there but not always right there.
Her pursuit of this very authorly isolation, doggedly carved out from instant pop stardom and its attendant objectification and ceaseless questions; the constant demands to tour; to be here, there, anywhere and to produce more, more, more, is perhaps her greatest achievement. She simply couldn’t continue to do what she does without protecting it fiercely. “The more I got into presenting things to the world, the further it was taking me away from what I was, which was someone who just used to sit quietly at a piano and sing and play,” she said. With 50 Words For Snow, her music has returned to somewhere very close to that place.
Her career has never been about fame or fortune. Everything has been concerned with keeping alive the initial, terribly fragile surge of wonder and possibility she first glimpsed as a young girl. Against fearsome odds, she has succeeded. She has almost come full circle: making beautiful, out-of-time music at her own speed, playing and singing in an old English building, surrounded by trees and grass and water. Still searching for clues under the ivy and under the snow. “It comes from a quiet place,” she said of her music. And the world is so loud. Perhaps that’s all we really need to know.
Here is a link to Graeme's piece about Kate Bush that appeared in Saturday's Guardian - http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/22/kate-bush-profile-before-the-dawn-concerts-london