KATE BUSH AT THE EDGE OF REALITY

In a void of blackness, Kate Bush’s girlish British accent speaks.  “Times, places, people.  Everything is speeding up.  So to cope with this evolutionary paranoia, strange people are chosen ,who through their art, can move progress along more magically.”

We fade up to an exterior shot of a night sky and its galaxy full of stars.

It is 1935.

We descend and see a falling star soaring across the sky and explode in lavender sparks.  Purple mists clear to reveal the dirt-poor misery of Tupelo, Mississippi.  A luminous green spaceship is just making its ascent, leaving behind a trail of pink smoke.  In one grand synthetic WHOOSH the spacecraft disappears into the sky.

We crane down upon a tiny two-room shack.  A door opens and a woman steps outside to find a newborn baby boy laying on the porch.  She picks up the child and holds it in her arms.  She looks up to the winter sky.  The last green traces of the spacecraft’s eerie glow can be seen through the clouds.

Close up of the baby, revealing its luminous coffee-colored eyes, flashing like amber lights.

Cut to the interior of a Tupelo classroom in 1943.

We track past the ruddy faces of children standing and stating their future ambitions.   One after another, they name off occupations:  “I want to be a farmer, I want to be a doctor, I want to be a truck driver.”   The camera settles on the last child in the row, a solemn blond-haired boy whose seriousness is betrayed only by the slight smirk on his lips.  The name card made of folded paper on the edge of his desk reads ELVIS PRESLEY.  He stands up.  “I want to be a rock star.”

The other children giggle and the teacher shushes them.

The boy curls his lip.  We see his eyes.  They sparkle.

The first mists of the song Edge of Reality plays as the boy slowly dissolves into that of supercool Elvis on the silver screen.

It is 1968 and we are inside a darkened English cinema theater watching the dream sequence from the movie Live a Little, Love a Little.  At the height of his power, Elvis wears a reflective sharkskin suit and moves into a musical number that’s awash with flashes of psychedelic colors.

The song continues as the camera shows the audience bathed in movie glow with a beam of light shining overhead from the little square hole in the projection booth.  We begin a slow zoom until we’re focused on ten year old Catherine Bush.  She has an intense stare of amazement on her face.  We keep moving closer until her eyes fill the frame, mirroring a profound reflection of The King.

The song continues to play as we dissolve to an overhead shot of a country road.  Catherine is walking home and we follow her through tree branches all wet and spidery with mist.  She moves slowly as though through the quiet arches of a dream.  She hums the lyrics to herself, lost in some private fantasy where she maybe imagines herself to be the jealous ghost of Catherine Earnshaw haunting the wild and windy moors, forever in search of Heathcliff.  Or maybe she’s the doomed witch of the woods.  Or the mysterious whore of Babylon.  We hear Elvis singing as this young girl lifts her arms and begins dancing on the balls of her feet, in a circle, round and round, until her drab little dress billows out and flares around her, making the perfect shape of a bell.

Elvis is still singing as we dissolve to the interior of Catherine’s parent’s bedroom.  She walks through the dark to her mother’s vanity.  She picks up a red tube of lipstick and pulls off the plastic cover, begins to rub the color on her lips.  Faint sparkles in the air.  Then she notices the nearby vase of freshly cut flowers and plucks out a single pink rosebud.  She touches it softly and then sings the final verse of Edge of Reality to it.

It blooms in her hands.

In close up, her eyes widen and then slowly turn to find her own reflection in the mirror.

Elvis continues as we cut to an exterior shot of the Hammersmith Odeon, twilight, 1979.

Outside the theater, we move past a long line of teenagers and young adults.  They are punk rockers, glitter boys, super foxes, she-bitches, ziggies, iggies, shags, queens, straight kids, all anxiously awaiting their first glimpse of Britain’s newest sensation, a flimsy caterwauling wild-haired Shakespearean witch.

We track along this line of youth obliterated by camera flashes.  Some of the kids look at us as we move along, past their faces, to the name on the marquee: KATE BUSH.

In front of the music, we hear a BBC voice off-screen:

“Tonight the streets of London are ablaze in sparkle make-up and glittering leather as the boys and girls of the current punk craze pay tribute to their new patron saint, pop-star Kate Bush and her theatrical Victorian-space age persona.”

Cut to the interior of a dressing room inside the theater where we see a television.  The flickering broadcast of the BBC reporter standing outside making his comments.  From somewhere off screen, Elvis is finishing his song on a radio.

A black silk scarf falls to the floor.  A delicate hand with nails of black enamel and a menagerie of rings reaches down and picks it up.  We follow this movement back up and we see Catherine Bush, now age 20, dressed in a skintight blue leotard, her hair bright frizzled copper.  She is looking back at the TV through the mirror, and then turns her attention to her own reflection.

More faint sparkles in the air.  She takes a drag from a cigarette and we hear her accent again in voice-over:

“I needn’t mention how essential dreaming is to the character of a rock star.”

Fade to black.

Slowly a gray panorama of a desert comes into view.  It is Christmas Eve in Nevada, 2011.  The desert is dressed in winter scrubs, and absolutely colorless in the moonlight.  We hear in the distance, the applause of a crowd and then the echoey whale song that introduces Kate Bush’s live performance of Moving over a loud speaker.

Tracking over the desert, we find a modern house at the edge of a subdivision and slowly zoom towards its only visible light.  The music gets louder as we pass through a window and find ourselves in the interior of a warmly lit study.  Over a man’s shoulder, we see a sleek computer laptop sitting on the desk.  On the screen, a curtain as transparent as fairy wings, is swept from a stage to reveal Kate Bush, live at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1979.  She emerges from darkness, a pre-Raphaelite nymph with a Minnie Mouse soprano.

A slow zoom of the laptop until her performance fills the screen.  She stares wildly and throws strange shape with her hands.

And there ends my little exercise in cinema narrative.  Sorry, if it seemed pretentious, but I just had to try something different.  Our subject matter tonight deserves a certain creative approach.

Looking back, the most striking aspect of Kate Bush’s concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, besides being the final concert of her now storied career, is how ahead of its time this performance was.  With all its theatrics, with its projections, its multimedia leanings, its pioneering use of the head-mic, this show absolutely revolutionized the way other artists presented themselves on stage.

Thirty-two years.  Thirty two years and the world has changed so completely that the life I had back then seems like someone else’s life.  Someone else’s story.  Anyone’s but mine.  I wasn’t in London in ‘79, but I spent several years in Europe shortly afterwards.  Those crazy years were still reeling from the upheavals brought on by the wave of punk rock bands.  The rebellion of acts like The Sex Pistols and The Clash had caused a cultural war with anyone who remained loyal to more established rockers.

But then suddenly, in that acrimonious climate, there appeared a unique single.  It was called Wuthering Heights, and it simply sounded like nothing else ever produced.  The voice was unearthly, sweeping through the octaves, piercing and sensual, startling, and attractively alien.  Britain’s music lovers were enchanted by its strangeness and immediately sent it to #1 on the charts.

And so began the career of Kate Bush, an artist who managed to appeal to both sides of the warring tribes in the late 1970’s and early 1980s.  No other creative figure, before or since, has emerged from the music industry that can claim a more visionary or idiosyncratic legacy.

I return to YouTube and click another selection.  The premiere of MTV was still three years away in the future, and this was also a pioneering effort, an early form of music video.  It features Kate as the doomed heroine of The Kick Inside, dressed in black veil.  She sings while lying in a death barge slowly drifting down a river, evoking literary images of Shakespeare’s Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott and other poetical figures of Arthurian legend.   Kate’s hair has been painted white.

In terms of age, I am a contemporary of Kate Bush.  We were probably being exposed to the same gothic material at approximately the same times in our lives.  Much of the attraction for me is that her particular affinities mirror my own particular affinities.  Besides being a disciple of Elvis, she was also heavily inspired by the world of art, philosophy, literature and cinema, drawing upon an almost encyclopedia of influences.

Crazy for old horror movies, I found them referenced in her work.  The whole “Goth” movement seemingly followed in her wake.

There is the gothic masterpiece Wuthering Heights, of course, but she repeated the theme often.  On her second album, Lionheart, she has a dark and dramatic number called Hammer Horror, inspired by the popular horror movies made at England’s Hammer Film Studios.  The song tells of an actor playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame who ends up being haunted by a jealous Lon Chaney.

I open a Google page and surf through some of Kate’s album covers.  On The Dreaming album, she portrays herself as the wife of Harry Houdini, delivering a key on her tongue to the great escape artist.  The artwork of her third album, Never For Ever, was inspired by the haunting appearance of Mephisto in F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic silent film adaptation of Faust.  The cover features Kate with an army of grotesque creatures emerging from underneath her billowing dress, hinting at all manner of fairytale-inspired nightmares.  Her fourth album, Hounds of Love, contains a choral piece that she heard in Werner Herzog’s atmospheric Nosferatu, a movie saturated in death and decay.

I’ve always been amazed at the gothic depth in this woman’s work.

A few years ago, I read a novel called Waiting For Kate Bush.  In the book, a protagonist threatens suicide unless his musical heroine releases a new album within six months.  At the time of the novel’s publication, she hadn’t released anything in 12 years.  By the close of the story, the protagonist’s wish had still not been granted.

The unfathomable Kate Bush, the Queen of Art-Rock, reigns as an enigma.

She has spent the last twenty years living the life of a recluse rather than a cultural icon with a huge following.  She spends her days now in obscurity, raising a child somewhere in misty Cornwall, displaying all the creative urgency of a glacier creeping across the arctic.  But in the vacuum of Kate Bush‘s absence, all sorts of rumors have sprung up.  There have been stories about her ballooning weight, about how she’s shuttered herself inside her mansion and sobs into a mirror.  Out of sight, the world has turned her into a character from a Dickens novel.

The reason people still care about her, of course, is because she profoundly influenced popular music.  It is no exaggeration to say Bush single-handedly created the archetype of the slightly batty female singer, warbling passionately about her odd internal life.  She created the genre and set the template for all female singers of an esoteric disposition.  She is the alpha and omega of the undulating girl-crooner in funny clothes.

Which is pretty remarkable considering she didn’t grow up on some hippy commune in California or bohemian camp in upstate New York.  She grew up in the English countryside, just south of London, as the youngest daughter of a family doctor.  She played with dolls and worshiped Elvis.  Exceptionally intelligent and precocious, she was trained in music and dance, and by the age of 13, had already written most of the songs that would be included on her debut album six years later.

She was discovered by Pink Floyd member Dave Gilmour at age 15, and then taken under the protective wing of the EMI label.  What they did with her is unthinkable for a new artist today.  They gave her time, gave her years in fact, to develop and grow into her talents.

There was a time when labels did that, when they gave artists three or four albums to develop.

Now, they give artists two or three singles before getting dropped.

That’s why, back then, music was something different, more important.  There were no American Idols clogging up the airwaves.  It was a time before iPods, web pages and DVDs.  Popular artists were not disposable commodities.

Kate Bush disliked celebrity culture and she especially disliked live performance.  For all the poise she displays in her videos, she is actually quite shy and finds it difficult to bare her innermost feelings in front of a room of paying strangers.  She never performed another live concert after the Hammersmith Odeon in ’79.

But she didn’t disappear from the public eye.  Not right away.  Throughout the 80s, she continued to release hit albums and make gads of money.  But by the end of the decade, she was chaffing against what she felt were the restrictions of the record industry.  She refused to collaborate with producers, feeling they pushed her too quickly.  She withdrew to her mansion, to her private studio, where she produced herself, slowly, slowly, to perfection.

In the title track of The Sensual World, the character of Molly Bloom steps off the black and white pages of James Joyce‘s Ulysses into the real world, and is immediately struck by the sensuality of it all.  Kate Bush writes, produces and performs, and directs everything.

She’s an acquired taste, admittedly, but well worth the time.

I remember my wife in our younger days.  We were still getting to know each other back then, and I’d wanted to share my musical tastes by bringing out my collection of favorite sounds.  She sat on the sofa while I changed the record on the stereo, putting on some Kate Bush, just quietly in the background.

“Oh, good lord, what is THAT?”

I’d seen that look before in others and heard all the criticisms,  Kate Bush sounds like a strangled cat thrown into a recording studio, that her voice drives people up the wall, that it’s too screechy, and it sounds like a mental breakdown set to violins.

“Calm down, you’ll learn to love it,” I assured.

My wife put her fingers to her ears.  “No, I won’t.  Her voice is too . . . whiny.”

I had been playing Kate’s latest release, her masterwork Running Up That Hill, from the Hounds of Love album.  One of the best singles to come out of the 80s, it was also one of her most viscerally exciting songs, with its galloping drums and impassioned vocals about isolation, about the painful fact that however close you get to someone, you can never really feel what they feel, or experience the world just as they do.

Obviously my future wife wasn’t experiencing what I was experiencing.  What she heard was annoying.  What I heard was magnificence.

Oh, I’ve heard the predictable rubs, that Kate Bush’s music is somehow too feminine for men to enjoy, that its too frequently defined by a haunting, mossy nostalgia for the classics and repeated trips back to Kate’s shadowy dream country of girlhood.

But Kate Bush is immensely popular with men, and I‘ll tell you why.  She views men in an extraordinarily positive way.  She is unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or gives us guys the brush-off.

Take her signature piece This Woman’s Work from her fifth album The Sensual World.  One of the saddest, most beautiful pop songs I‘ve ever heard, it takes a woman’s subject and then tells it solely from a man’s perspective when he‘s forced to confront the unexpected death of his wife during childbirth.

Kate Bush hasn’t performed on television since 1994.

Her last public appearance was at the 2001 Q Awards to receive a songwriting tribute.

Even for an intensely private woman, this seems extreme for an entertainer.  Over the past 25 years, she has jettisoned producers, musicians, studios, the press, the industry, live performance and the expectations of fans to the point where Kate Bush, once the most kinetic and dazzling of artists, has become not just invisible but essentially an inanimate object.

The world listens to other things now.  It listens on MP3’s to Katy Perry, or downloads the latest mobile ring tones, but tonight, I’m revisiting my past and listening to a voice that sounds like a gothic angel floating in the fog on a moor.

When the song ends, I surf the related video section at the right side of YouTube,  I glance through a few selections and find a tribute cover version of Wuthering Heights by young classical sensation Hayley Westenra, of Celtic Woman fame.  While I don’t think there’s an artist in the world who is capable of bringing the same sort of deranged conviction as Kate Bush did to the song, young Hayley’s spooky, operatic voice does it proud justice.

But I don’t want cover songs tonight.  I want Kate the Great herself.  In King of the Mountain, she ponders the tragedy of Elvis and how human beings aren‘t really built to withstand the pressures of his kind of fame.  With a slurred delivery to mimic The King, she cradles his white sequined jumpsuit and hopes that he’s now happy and calm somewhere, playing at the snowy top of a mountain, with Rosebud, the enigmatic sled from the film Citizen Kane.

Kate Bush isn’t running up any more hills.  At 53 years old, her voice has aged into something deeper, something more mellow.  This year, she released a new album called 50 Words For Snow that aims to slow us down from our hectic lives.  The music takes time to create feelings that creep into you.  She lights a fire and shuts us inside on a winter’s day to roam through quiet fantastical worlds.  She plays piano while we sip a cup of hot tea and look outside at the falling snow.

It is Christmas Eve and my home is dark and hushed and warm.  The only illumination is the play of twinkling lights from the tree.

But there are no traditional carols tonight, no grand choirs.

I close my eyes and listen to her newest song called Lake Tahoe, envisioning what Kate wants me to see.  A soft white landscape of beauty, death, absence, and mystery fades into view.  The spirit of a drowned Victorian woman rises to the surface of an icy lake and wanders lonely through falling snow.

Merry Christmas, all.  Mine was ushered in with a ghost story.

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