Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hounded by Kate Bush: A Tribute...

I first learned about Kate Bush as a freshman in college. I learned about her in a way that is embarrassing to admit to but was characteristic of the time: a quiet boy in my dorm with pale blue eyes and an all-black wardrobe (also, in retrospect, a mullet) told me I looked like her.  It was narcissism and a budding crush that inspired me to rush to the record store that same afternoon and pick up a cassette of hers, but I've been fully entranced by her mysterious, beguiling, smoky-eyed, utterly idiosyncratic charms for my own reasons ever since. That year, I even dressed up like Kate Bush and lip-synched to Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) for a celebrity look-alike charity fundraiser, unconcerned that no one in Kansas but the boy with the blue eyes and I seemed to know who she was. Everyone else was dressed up as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper or Simon LeBon, there was a veritable Claire's Boutique warehouse worth of leggings, rubber bracelets, eyeliner and mesh gloves in the room, and because no one knew who I was, I felt beyond cool, channeling Kate’s inimitably hot-and-chilly English persona as best I could.

The Kate Bush album I bought that afternoon was Hounds of Love. The image of her lying on a purple bed with a diaphanous mauve sheet across her chest, her dark hair splayed out around her, pouty lips and two sleek Weimeraners snuggling against her, one gazing up at her lovingly, was jarringly intimate and sensual.  I stared at the woman lying there with her arms around the dogs in the photo - okay, yes, it seemed like she had a post-sex afterglow - and I thought, I could look like her to someone? I was eighteen, fresh from the suburbs, naive, prone to blurting out whatever I was thinking at inappropriate moments (still am), and apparently I also ran off to record stores the moment that I got attention from cute boys: I could look like this confident, sexy, fully-formed woman who stared back at the camera lens, daring the viewer to disapprove of her? As someone who had always sought approval, just the photo itself unraveled me a little.  That I even reminded one person of the woman in the picture was enough to give me the boost I needed to think I was cut from a different cloth that those boring, cookie-cutter people who went to football games in at my dorm. As soon as I was exposed to Kate Bush, I stopped trying to fit in and I found my crowd: the artsy, weird, wonderful misfits came out of the woodwork to meet me and they have ever since.

I really believe that there were two identifiable, seismic inner-shifts I had as a young person that have determined my direction in life ever since: becoming a vegetarian at fifteen and discovering Kate Bush three years later.  Vegetarianism gave me the tools to become the sort of person who was in harmony with her values: Kate Bush with her inspired, bold, thoroughly-engrossed-in-chasing-her-muse example was a different sort of catalyst, teaching me that women could be as seized by an artistic, aesthetic drive as any brilliant male artist.

And the music. The incredible, unearthly sounds that she made. That voice, screeching one moment and guttural the next, changing from a sweet little chirp to a grandiose, swooping vocal in one brief line, Kate's voice expressed a quality I’d not come into yet, which was a person who was fully at home with herself.  In one moment, she could sound like she'd gulped helium, in the next, her voice was indescribably lush and gorgeous. Despite this, it didn't take long to integrate the two, these opposing voices that could exist in one person and be transformative together. Hearing her voice was a little like the first time I had kombucha. At the first sip, I recoiled at the weirdness of it, the distinctly vinegar flavor with the carbonation that made me feel lightheaded, and then I somehow couldn't resist taking another sip. By the third sip of kombucha, it was not only like it was always imprinted as part of my DNA code but I also was hooked. Kate Bush was kombucha to me.

The moment my Walkman's wheels spun the thin black tape and that translated into sound in my headphones, the dorm room around me dissolved and I was in her world. She has been quoted as saying that she wants her music to intrude, and this is an understatement. She was running up a hill, she was haunted by hounds, an angry man threatened her, made us sympathetic to her as a witch, she described with chillingly simple detail something - a person? - moving under ice, alive but desperate to get out, a ghost in her home, murderers. There was the complex instrumentation, too, the creepy rise and fall of the synthesizer in Mother Stands for Comfort (not to mention the disturbing lyrics belying the gentle, almost sleepy singing), the amazing fretless bass throughout that gave me goose bumps to the point where I needed to put on a sweater to listen.  The first time I saw music as being sculptural, as something I could almost reach out, feel, and let wash over me was through Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album that freshman year in college, sitting on my industrial cot in my messy room. I’d loved albums and songs before but this was different. I was spellbound and I wore that cassette down within a few months. I hungrily reached for the rest of her albums, each one leaving me more punch drunk than the previous. Hounds of Love will always be my Kate Bush album, though, because it was my first.

I was a painting major with English major leanings. I had no idea as to how this would translate into the real world of paying bills and supporting myself, but her music assured me that anything was possible. Kate Bush had her first recording contract at sixteen and Hounds of Love, her fifth album, came out when she was 27. This was the first album she self-produced, making it in the studio she built so she could record it at the pace she wanted, exactly as she wanted. Kate Bush’s music resonated so powerfully with me also because of her story: that she was a fierce believer in her right to be heard, to intrude, and to not always sound pretty or ever be packaged as a plaything. Her childlike curiosity, the way that she played with sound like a four-year-old smashing around finger-paints, the way trusted a bold muse with enough confidence that she was willing to fall on her face, helped me to realize that the pursuit of a creative vision should also be damn fun sometimes (when it’s not infuriating), or your results will suffer. It will be anemic and stale: maybe you will have technical proficiency but you won’t inspire. Our culture can hold to firmly to the archetype of the artist as a dour, long-suffering, joyless scold, and Kate, with her feral, playful but also deeply disciplined aesthetic, gave lie to that outdated notion.

Kate Bush was passionate and sensitive, feminine and ferocious in one, petite, totally unshackled form. More than any of the visual artists I studied, she was my inspiration because she was the one who challenged me, as a woman, to intrude. By the time I graduated and left Kansas, I was optimistic and hungry for the future. I had an amazing group of friends who supported and challenged me, I believed in myself for the first time since early childhood. This might have happened without Kate but I don’t like to contemplate a life without her. Years later, at 26, I met my husband. The first night we went out, we bonded on our mutual love of Kate Bush and I knew I’d never have to explain myself to this man. I knew I’d found home. 

Kate is not perfect, of course, because she’s real, flesh-and-blood, not a marketing creation. After the creative burst of her young adulthood, her output has tapered off considerably. She is a reclusive person, living with her husband and son, rarely giving interviews. (This is a sweet one, though, from 1980: yes, Kate is, or at least was, a vegetarian.)  Some of her songs are overwrought and her music videos – oh, her music videos! - are cringe-worthy at best and stand as very good examples of bad performance art from the 1980s. You can’t say that she didn’t put it all out there, though. Ambition and gumption are to be admired in this fearful, self-conscious world. Who knows what kind of astounding music she’s creating, epic songs she’s writing, off alone with her family and her imagination?

The quiet boy in black with the pale blue eyes faded into the background and I don’t think I saw him past my freshman year. I probably fell in love fifty more times that year alone. He left a lasting legacy to inspire me, though: the knowledge of a daring, brilliant, beautiful woman living as an artist, one who refused to do anything but intrude.


  1. This is so immediate and lovely. There's something special about the way music seizes us during adolescence--maybe because there's no other period when we have unlimited time to trip out on music (at least I did). And, like you say, we're discovering our own power. First Leonard Cohen, now Kate'll remake my music collection yet, Marla!

  2. I like the cartwheels Kate Bush did in her "Wuthering Heights" video.

    I did my second burlesque routine to a Leonard Cohen song. Somebody asked me, "Was it 'Closing Time'?" It was not. I can imagine somebody line-dancing to "Closing Time", though.

  3. Totally agree, Marla, certain albums steer our thinking toward an understanding and a clarity we all need. It's the same with novels; I can think of many writers I read during my late teens whose viewpoints resonate even more now in my forties. Thank god for creative people! Great post.

  4. Aw, Vegan Burnout, you're so sweet. I'd forgotten I had anything to do with your love affair with Leonard Cohen. Well, I just introduced you: where you went from there is your own journey. :)

  5. Burlesque to Leonard Cohen, Vanilla Rose? That blows my mind!

  6. Oh, I couldn't agree more, Caroline. Art is transformative at its best, making us into people with more depth and showing us what's possible. I had the same love affairs with certain novels that will have forever burnished themselves in my heart and my mind. Thanks for sharing...

  7. Yes, indeed. Burlesque to a song written and performed by Leonard Cohen. My performance (which was captured on DVD and sold back to me) was not very polished and probably relied on too many props.

    But it seems I am not the only person who has performed burlesque to this particular song. I didn't look at videos of anyone else's performance as I didn't want to subconsciously steal their ideas.
    Anyone want to guess which song ...?

  8. I'd like to think it was dance me to the end of love! The only song of his that I know has this sort of history is Everybody Knows, was it that?

  9. Those sound like as good guesses as I would have, LiseyDuck, so count me in on that.

  10. No. I know someone who wrote a short story which incorporated "Dance Me to the End of Love", but I couldn't imagine dancing to it. It was "I'm Your Man".

    Someone at burleque class the other day suggested trying to dance to something by Pink Floyd. Now, that I cannot imagine.

  11. Ooooh I LOVE Kate! Funny, it was a quiet blue-eyed boy who introduced me to her too. Sweet story =)


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