The alluring absence of Kate Bush

 

Miracles happen at Abbey Road Studios. The first time I visited, in the London autumn of ‘93, renowned rock recluse George Harrison strolled unexpectedly into a press conference waving incense. So an appearance by Kate Bush was almost certain, I reckoned, when I returned weeks later to hear her freshly minted album, The Red Shoes.

The atmosphere was expectant to the point of reverence. A few dozen media types sat in neat rows in the building’s hallowed Studio 2, whispering over carefully policed sheaves of lyrics. Someone somewhere pressed a button and the first Kate Bush album in four years all but suspended breath for the next hour.

The Red Shoes was a mixed bag: something brilliant, something ludicrous and overreaching, something insane, something achingly moving, all recorded with an immaculate attention to detail that partly explained its long gestation. Business as usual, then. And true to that brief, Kate didn’t show.

Jostling for a rare interview, I later attended a private screening of her new short film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve. Kate did not, perhaps because she already knew what I learned that day – it was terrible – but mainly because she had long shunned media attention like Courtney Love was just beginning to crave it.

Eleven years on, there’s no follow-up to The Red Shoes. Aside from the ill or dysfunctional likes of Syd Barrett and Guns N’Roses, the length of this hiatus is otherwise unknown at the megastar end of the pop business. But Bush has been wuthering coyly around that spotlight since her overnight success with The Kick Inside in 1978.

We know that the Bexley-born doctor’s daughter is alive, at 46, and living comfortably near Reading with her partner, guitarist Danny McIntosh, and their six-year-old boy, Bertie. She’s gone public a few times in recent years, to collect lifetime achievement awards from a (mainly) adoring UK music biz, although she turned down an honorary Brit, allegedly, because they insisted she perform to receive it.

In 2001 she gave her first interview since her meagre Red Shoes press schedule in ’93. “I don’t think of myself as a personality,” she told Q. “To do an interview when I have no work out doesn’t make any sense.” She made allusions to an album in progress but none to a release date. Shortly after, she made her first live appearance in 15 years, singing Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb with her old benefactor Dave Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall.

Since then, zip. Those who await an eighth album from her farmhouse studio retreat do so with waning confidence, accompanied in extreme cases by a bitter sense of abandonment that may be unique, even in the obsessive realm of pop fandom.

Such extreme cases are the dramatis personae of John Mendelssohn’s new novel, Waiting For Kate Bush. Part pop biography, mostly a brutal indictment of the celebrity age, it’s a comedy of the blackest hue, set in a boarding house for Bush fans in London. Mendelssohn – not a Kate Bush fan – has a succinct reason for using her slim body of work as the common lifeline for his cast of desperately sad and damaged characters.

“Because she’s disappeared,” he says. “By virtue of her disappearance, she becomes a sort of blank canvas. Having absolutely no visibility in the press or in the public eye and making no new work, people can imagine what they want about her. So I thought she would be a good candidate for someone like Mr Herskovits.”

Lesley Herskovits is the novel’s tragic anti-hero. Suicidal, bulimic, delusional, crippled by self-loathing over a failed relationship with his daughter, he spends much of his time listening to Kate Bush’s (later) albums, sending her countless emails and gifts, and conducting the critical inner monologue about her life and work that comprises the book’s biographical thread.

“He’s totally made up,” Mendelssohn insists. So is the Irish landlady who named her children Cathy and Gilmour. Also imaginary is the downstairs boarder, Mr Chumaraswamy, who listens to Kate’s Never For Ever LP daily, and a thug-for-hire named Cyril who faces down his quarry while meditating on the extensive thankyou notes on the inner sleeve of The Dreaming.

Still, give or take eating disorders, low self-esteem, emotional transference issues, and violent and suicidal tendencies, such people exist. They celebrate Bush’s birthday – they call it Katemas – every July 30, high on the suitably myth-encrusted Glastonbury Tor, as well as in fan enclaves as far south as Australia. They offer interpretations of her baffling lyrics, itemise and discuss her every move – and non-move – on web sites such as children.ofthenight.org.

John Mendelssohn admits to contact with Bush fans who are “reasonably obsessive,” not least Andrew Marvick, who he describes as “perhaps the Western democracies’ pre-eminent Kate scholar.” “I asked him if he would read the factual parts of the book and call my attention to any mistakes,” the author says. “He wrote me this incredibly long letter, it must have been 10,000 words, telling me how irresponsible I was and how I’d shirked my duty by not writing about her more seriously. His point of view is that Kate Bush deserves serious musical scholarship no less than Brahms does.”

Fred Vermorel is another fan with an unnerving passion. His 1983 book, the Secret History of Kate Bush (& the Strange Art of Pop), is a mystical tome indeed, deeply enthralled with her Saxon ancestry in “witch county, Essex” and her colourful family history. It’s replete with spellbound passages that read more like incantations than biography.

“So she burst through the telly in early ’78,” Vermorel enthuses on page nine. “All wrists and dimples, all sweet and clever, all arms like water flowing over stones, as clean and delicious as a scoop of avocado pear. The suburbs breathed again. Fresh air after punk’s foul blast . . .”

Seven pages later the pace is frantic, like an acid trip in flight. “From the bump of B to the shush of Babooshka, Bush Baby, Bush me. Bush girl, I’m Bush crazy, lush Bush and I’ll gush Bush. And take Kate, Kate conjugate, Kate fashionplate . . .” and so on, till his hysterical page 94 conclusion, “Kate Bush is a profoundly SUBVERSIVE artist.”

On that, John Mendelssohn agrees. “I can’t think of anyone other than Captain Beefheart who is less MOR (middle of the road) than she is,” he says. “Some of her stuff absolutely defies you to listen to it. The screeching, the voice, like someone who just inhaled a great deal of helium. All of Never For Ever and almost all of Lionheart I find unlistenable. The Dreaming is like a talent show put on at the mental hospital.”

The idea that Bush’s work resides beyond sanity has been accepted for 26 years, dismissively by detractors, with pride and joy by fans. Who, of a certain age, can forget the shock of first sight: a shrill, apparently barmy wood sprite in a blood red leotard, swaying and tip-toeing out on the windy, windy moors of the Wuthering Heights video?

Of course boys like me and Fred Vermorel fell for her, but it was more than her svelte form, her cat’s eyes, her floating dark hair and lips – which, as Clive James observed, looked like she’d been eating jam with a wooden spoon. It was the melody, the voice, the passion, the wildness, the fragility, the mystery of her – and the breathtaking vulnerability of an artist who would let all of that flail so freely in the breeze.

This wide-open quality is the one, Mendelssohn imagines, that makes his otherwise terminally isolated characters feel they have a friend in Kate. “And also the fact that in a fairly large amount of her work, it’s close to impossible to ascertain what she’s on about,” he adds. “So it becomes a blank canvas again. You can hear whatever you want to in the work.”

After countless teenage evenings lying prone between my bedroom speakers with Lionheart cranked to divulge every nuance, it’s hard for me to argue with him.

My personal communion with Kate intensified in my 20s, when I came to believe that I, alone, had side two of The Hounds of Love sussed. The Ninth Wave is a continuous, seven-song suite invoking drowning, witch burning and the afterlife. I gradually made every impenetrable lyric and every creepy, subliminal sound effect fit into a perfectly meaningful jigsaw puzzle of my own fanciful design.

It was years later again that Kate finally spoke directly to me, in a song called Moments of Pleasure. No, she really did. There I was, sitting in a chair at Abbey Road Studios when track four of The Red Shoes tinkled towards its first heartbreaking surge of strings. Unusually transparent lyrics spoke about the power of memory, and of specific memories Kate itemised in the sublime lower register she seldom unveils.

At the end, she crooned with exceptional gentleness: “Hey there Teddy/ Spinning in the chair at Abbey Road/ Hey there Michael/ Do you really love me?” I read the lyrics again and again as a bolt of electricity crept up my back and out the hairs of my crown. Somehow, Kate had discovered my middle name is Edward.

I don’t remember saying I loved her when I wrote that letter when I was 19. I just felt an irresistible need to make contact. Even in the days when we only waited a couple of years between records, Kate Bush was a blank canvas I filled with the most transcendently beautiful stuff.

Of course, when I try to explain all this to John Mendelssohn, it comes out sounding crazy and convoluted and embarrassing, like any expression of intimacy would to an uninvolved third party.

“That must be a wonderful feeling,” he answers at last. Yes, it really is. Kate could totally screw it up by reappearing now.

Waiting For Kate Bush is out in mid December through Omnibus.

 

WHAT KATY DID:

  • 1958 Born in Bexleyheath, Kent.
  • 1971 First songs include The Man With the Child in His Eyes.
  • 1972-75 Family friend Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd) finding her talent “criminal to ignore”, produces demos.
  • 1976 Signs unusual development deal with EMI. Studies dance, mime, sings in her brother’s KT Bush Band.
  • 1978 First single Wuthering Heights bumps ABBA from UK no 1, follows suit in Australia. The Kick Inside and Lionheart (singles: Hammer Horror, Wow) albums released in succession.
  • 1979 Elaborate, exhausting UK/ European tour is her first and last.
  • 1980 Never For Ever (Babooshka, Army Dreamers) recorded in five months.
  • 1981-82 Over 16 months, self-produces deeply strange fourth album The Dreaming (Sat In Your Lap). “I was viewed as some kind of nutter,” she later marvels. Invisible years begin.
  • 1983 Builds 48-track home studio.
  • 1984-85 Overdubs alone take 12 months for Hounds of Love (Running Up That Hill, Cloudbusting), widely considered her masterpiece.
  • 1986 Don’t Give Up, duet with Peter Gabriel.
  • 1987-89 The Sensual World takes most of three years. She promotes it recluse-style.
  • 1993 The Red Shoes (Rubberband Girl) features Prince, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck. “I blew it,” she says of her film directing debut, The Line, the Cross and The Curve.
  • 1994-98 Er…
  • 1999 A son, Bertie, is born.
  • 2001 First interview in eight years amid a slew of lifetime achievement awards: “People are incredibly patient with me,” she observes.
  • 2002 First live appearance in 15 years, as guest to Gilmour.
  • 2003 Mojo mag manages to pose the obvious query. Her e-mailed reply: “How long is a piece of string?

This article first appeared on The Age, Melbourne, December 11, 2004