Q&C Icons: Kate Bush
CULTURE: ROBERT INCE
This week marks forty years since she emerged on the pop scene with Wuthering Heights. It’s also the year she turns 60. Q&C looks at why time nor age has withered the enduring appeal of pop's greatest enigma, Kate Bush.
A few years back, shortly before Kate Bush made her long-awaited live comeback, I was flying back from Brazil through a long dark night of turbulence in the plaintive wake of Hurricane Bertha. I recall quite clearly my abiding thought as I clutched mercilessly at the arm-rest - this bastard plane better not go down before I get the chance to see Kate Bush live in concert.
To understand such anxiety, one needed to put her live return to the stage after 35 years in the context of a life-long devotion. I’d fortunately secured tickets after the unlikely announcement months before, when I had to check the date wasn't April 1st, such was the improbability of it all.
I'm going to come out. You see, my love affair with Kate Bush has been one of the longest and most enduring of my life. The intimacy we share is one that is comparable to that with closest friends and family, and is one that represents a belief in a better self, a better world, even transcending the dull minutiae of life itself.
How does one best sum up in so few words the impact she's had on my interior world without sounding deranged? But alas, by believing truly in someone's greatness, you believe in your own greatness, or at least fantasise it, thus elevating you to a higher place. That's the crux of fan worship.
The singer John Grant has spoken of his fondness for Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins in such illuminating terms that could be applied equally to Kate and her fans. He said: 'Back then, she had the power to transport people out of ugly places. She took people out of their ugliness long enough for them to get perspective.'
As an idolater, it was no surprise I'd be drawn to Kate in my formative years. Some smirk at this type of love affair and belittle those who hero worship. They'll say it's a mere obsession with an exalted stranger, exacerbated by a lack of meaningful relationship in ones past, or even ones present. I say - so what? What's wrong with a love that can be controlled on your own terms, to a degree. And when it fills your life with so much joy and richness, where’s the harm?
Living in rural Lancashire as a sequestered teenager, her records were manna from heaven to me. As Deborah Orr wrote in The Guardian: 'Bush was so poised, so sophisticated, such a seductive messenger of the big, messy, complicated world out there.'
And it's true. During adolescence she was both an education and an aural revelation. She was an art-pop enchantress and her sonic gifts were the perfect soundtrack to nascent youth. I fell hard for her ethereal charms as her songs triggered my imagination, consoling and inspiring along the way. They delved into the dark recesses of the heart and spoke of monstrous passions, sexual awakening and romantic yearnings.
Much of her oeuvre defies definition but through her work, one could discover what it means to be human. Who else had the ability for such diverse narrative viewpoints in their songs, and delivered with such astonishing aplomb? She was a mix of Bronte, Keats, Kubrick and Mozart rolled into one; a musical auteur in an industry of vacuous puppets and one-dimensional banality.
My first exposure to Kate's music was in a children's TV show in 1986 called Running Scared that used Running Up That Hill as its theme tune. Its hypnotic and haunting percussive opening intrigued me, as did her album The Sensual World a few years later, which I found on cassette in the local library. It was like discovering a diamond in a pig's arse. Its inlay cover was battered and all mucky fingerprints but it seldom mattered. It was the sonic gateway from which a fruitful and at times challenging relationship developed.
All these years later she's still one of those rare artists to retain an air of mystery and magic which is what music-consuming used to be about - before the immediacy of downloads, social media and the insipid laundry-airing celebrity world. By not capitulating to the demands of the record industry and a voracious public, she's led a private and ordinary life away from the limelight, thus achieving an extraordinary mythic status.
As for Before the Dawn, the run of live shows she undertook in 2014, it did not disappoint. It was just as compelling and confounding as her records, not to mention subversive, inventive and surreal. Surreal because standing in our midst was Kate at last, perhaps having realised it was an utter betrayal to her songs not to breathe life into them in a live setting. By doing so finally, she was able to reconfigure unperformed classics before a new and eager audience.
One of the best descriptions of the show I read was on social media. It said: ‘A night of murmurations in light and sound, of astonishing beauty and magic, of the thunder in our hearts. A most powerful affirmation of the dream of life through the imagination. Thank you Kate Bush, the world needs your message now more than ever.”
Like an angel of hope, she came unexpectedly when needed most, and Hammersmith, for a short while, became akin to Lourdes. It was a quasi-religious experience. The devoted masses came from far and near to be in the same room, to breathe the same air, and be transported for a brief period of time into Kate’s world. And what a world!
Inevitably she retreated back to her ordinary life after the run of shows and back to her rural Oxfordshire idyll. There’s murmurs of a new project underway which, as is her wont, will be presented to us when she is good and ready. Let’s hope this time the wait’s not too long.
A different version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post.