Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’
Kate Bush (2) Lionheart
After the arcane glories of The Kick Inside, the record buying public
found 1978’s Lionheart to be a disappointment, perhaps even a
substantial disappointment. Although I would place the title track
“Lionheart” in the same exalted class as “Wuthering Heights” and “The
Man with the Child in his Eyes”, I have to agree with the popular
assessment, for the album as a whole was too patently a rushed
follow-up. However, it had the good fortune to be released in the
golden afterglow of Kick Inside, and went platinum in the UK. It is
not just that people were keen to hear what Kate Bush had produced:
music actually sounds better if we are well-disposed towards the
artist (or to adapt Gurdjieff’s terms, if we are favourably identified
with the artist). This phenomenon of “the golden glow” is an
interesting one, and I shall return to it at the end of this blog.
To my ear, the stand out track on this album, and one of Kate Bush’s
greatest triumphs, is the title song “Oh England, My Lionheart”. This
under-rated piece strikingly, even poignantly, conjures up “merry
England”, once more evidencing the Englishness we saw on Kick Inside:
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I’m in your garden, fading fast in your arms.
The soldiers soften, the war is over,
The air-raid shelters are blooming clover.
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes,
My London Bridge in rain again.
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park.
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames,
That old river-poet that never, ever ends.
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in
And keep the Tower from tumbling.
Oh, England! My Lionheart! Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I don’t want to go.
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge.
Give me one kiss in apple blossom,
Give me one wish and I’d be wassailing,
In the orchard, my English Rose,
Or with my shepherd, who’ll bring me home.
Oh, England! My Lionheart! Oh, England! My Lionheart!
Oh, England! My Lionheart!
I don’t want to go.
The song tells the story of a Spitfire pilot who has been shot down.
As his plane hurtles towards the earth and his death, he sings his
love to the green land beneath him (hence, although it’s a little
macabre, he serenades England that he is “in your garden, fading fast
in your arms”). Through this story, an esoteric idea or reality is
touched: the transcendent reality and preciousness of conscious
experience. Later in her career, Bush returned to this theme, notably
in “Some Moments of Pleasure” from The Red Shoes, and on record two of
The insight, an insight which I think can only ever come from
experience, is that in a moment of self-consciousness, our experience
is transfigured. There is a sort of scale of conscious experience: it
can range from a slightly more vivid sense of oneself through to an
illuminated state where it is as if heaven is present right here, as
if the supernatural breaks through into and illuminates the natural
world. The reality of the moment is often felt to have a quality which
is more than the reality of other moments, hence it is often called
“transcendent”. However much we may have read or heard of this, the
understanding of it can only come through experience: otherwise, even
if we read about it, we do not comprehend what we read. This is the
realisation which Hopkins referred to when he wrote that: “The world
is charged with the grandeur of God.” I am not saying that Kate Bush
expresses this concept in what I might call “all its fullness”, but
then who could? Yet I do find that there is, to a substantial degree,
an approaching to the transcendent in her work.
We tend to have experienced something of this as children. Usually, it
is when we are children that our lives are lived at their most vivid.
To children, there is magic in the night time and glory in the
daylight. In childhood we are more prone to the simple, direct vision
of the joy of creation and the universal adoration offered up to God
by all life (see p.26 of the George Adie book). It is not just a
question of the “being-ness” of life, one can also sense its goodness.
This, I think, is why children so often bring an affirming force of
feeling in the face of really big hardship.
I can add that, as a child, and I do not believe that I was alone in
this, I had an inarticulate sense of human tragedy. In fact, my feel
for sadness and pain was at the same time both clearer than it is
today, and also less given to melancholy. As children, we are not so
hampered by judgmental attitudes, or by guilt, self-accusation or
self-pity. Thomas Traherne described the mystical insights of
childhood very well in some of his poetry which resonate with most of
All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and
delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my
entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable
joys. … Everything was at rest, free and immortal. …. I saw in all
the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises …
All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. (from The Third
Century, pt. 2).
I have elsewhere suggested that, in Gurdjieff’s terms, a further part
of the reason for this is the fact that in children the work of the
centres or brains is less demarcated: feeling, thought and sensation
are far closer together. The intellects of children are not so
divorced from their feelings and instincts, and not having yet fully
learned the gamut of negative emotions, their positive feelings enter
into their perceptions – and so they should, for it follows from
Gurdjieff’s ideas that the natural state of our feelings is positive
and affirming. Being more in the higher parts of centres, children
also have a different experience of time, closer to what Traherne has
described. And most importantly, in children, the feeling of being
present to oneself (an ineffable but unmistakable feeling with no
colour of changeable emotion), is more common than it is among adults.
I am not suggesting that Kate Bush’s “Lionheart” stands on the same
level as Traherne or Hopkins. Yet, consider some of the lines, such as
the one about flapping umbrellas and viewing London Bridge during
rain, and when I say “consider”, I mean to experience their poetic
impact in the song. As adults, we’re too bothered to really take these
impressions in. But children do, and these impressions feed them, as
Gurdjieff said, surely under inspiration. When I was young, I was
almost entranced by the reflection of traffic lights on wet roads.
Even the being-reality of residential lanes, which Kate Bush mentions
here, possesses a fascination for children. This “being-reality” of
objects, a sort of inherent wordless affirmation of their reality,
nourishes, I feel, an unsophisticated sensitivity in children. In
“Lionheart”, Bush refers to umbrellas in the lanes, not the streets,
but lanes, those humble, human and unhurried passageways. That small
touch is the touch of art. The song possesses clarity, and yet one can
peer deeply into its crystal simplicity, rather as if one were looking
into a stream of bright water which ran a hundred feet deep, and could
see to its bottom.
Now, before I read of what was undoubtedly Kate Bush’s own intentions in the narrative, I simply took it as the poignant declaration of a young woman, in love with England, and with the idea of romance in England. She sounds wistful yet not sentimental; romantically
possessed by the green land which Shakespeare celebrated. Something
about the light and optimistic attitude to rural lovemaking makes me
think of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Read as lyrics, “Lionheart” is
good poetry. Whether she was the first to call Shakespeare an “old
river poet” or if she only aptly used the phrase, it seems perfect
here. Those three words evoke iconic aspects of English life:
Shakespeare, poetry, the Thames and a cultured life on the river
banks. Even the little word “old”, more than just a term of affection,
reminds one of the enduring English tradition, its continuity and its
I refer to the pilot of “Oh England, My Lionheart” as a male, but I am
not sure I should. There is a video clip, now available on YouTube,
where Kate Bush sings this song dressed as a sort of air pilot. I say
“sort of”, because, but for the goggles, the coat looks rather
feminine to me. But who am I to dictate anything to Kate Bush? If she
wants to recast the expected male pilot as female, or if she makes
herself the sole female Spitfire pilot in history, and to sing about
wassailing and her shepherd, that is her prerogative. That the song
was about a pilot at all was not obvious to me: after all, in the very
first verse, she sings: “The soldiers soften, the war is over, the
air-raid shelters are blooming clover.” To go on later to mention a
black Spitfire and the funeral barge, would seem odd. Further, it is
difficult to imagine a pilot addressing England as “Oh England! My
Lionheart!” But then, she is Kate Bush, an Englishwoman avowing that
she wishes to stay forever in the heart of “This precious stone set in
the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this
England”, to quote John of Gaunt from Shakespeare’ Richard II (2:1).
Who are we to dictate to her?
The music is simple, and yet it sounds like the only music which could
have gone with those words. There is nothing antiquarian about either
the melody or the sound, yet the woodwind and the simplicity evoke the past, and a quiet style of English folk music. There is a sadness, but also a strength in the dignified line of the melody. Kate Bush has
been accused of “over-singing” on occasions: she does not do so here.
The gentle movement of her voice is just right for the piece. Overall,
as I have said, I find it one of her masterpieces. It strikes me as
flawless in itself. But, to my taste, at least, it stands head and
shoulders over every other track on this album.
There are good pieces of music here: I would single out “Symphony in
Blue”, “Wow” and “Kashka from Baghdad”, and there is one song which is in parts excellent, and in parts all too mediocre: “Hammer Horror”. I
only wish that this album had been an EP. “Symphony in Blue” opens the album, and like “Lionheart”, but unlike most of the tracks, has one
even tempo throughout. “I spend a lot of my time looking at blue”, she
sings, referring to blue in her room, her mood, in the sky, and “the
sort of blue in those eyes you get hung up about”. She goes on to
speak about red (“the colour of my heart when she’s dead”), and sex
(“the more I think about sex the better it gets; here we have a
purpose in life”). But the heart of the song is the second verse and
When that feeling of meaninglessness sets in,
Go blowing my mind on God.
The light in the dark with the neon arms …
I see myself, suddenly, on the piano, as a melody.
My terrible fear of dying no longer plays with me,
For now I know that I’m needed for the symphony.
She was not more than 20 years old, and yet she sang of her “terrible
fear of dying” and of rising above it. Is this a sign of remarkable
maturity, or of pretentiousness, or of both? When one listens to the
piece and its assured, steady tempo, one would be harsh indeed to
accuse her of over-reaching.
But what is more remarkable about the contents, is that there are two
polarities in the song: the personal and the impersonal, or
transcendent, and these are brought into artistic balance. There is
the acute receipt of impressions and also the sense that she is a part
of a larger harmony: this is why she ceases to feel accidental and is
liberated from her personal fear. Something of this polarity can,
perhaps, also be sensed in “Oh England, My Lionheart”, which is a song
about the individual and their relationship to something larger than
themselves. This precocious woman managed, on her second album, to
say something new about the relationship of the small-s self to the
capital-S Self of the organic cosmos, and to express it in a fresh and
The only reason, perhaps, that “Symphony in Blue” is not one of her
great songs is that the melody, competent as it is, does not little
more than present the lyrics. The melody, in itself, lacks power.
“Wow”, the third track on side one, boasts more power, but its
deficiencies run deeper. It seems to be made up of two different
songs, both addressed to an older actor by up-and-coming actors. The
pairing is held together by the chorus, a simple “Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!
Wow! Wow! Unbelievable!” The first song within a song describes the
mixed feelings of the younger actors for the formidable veteran with
whom they are working. The second half is to an actor who will not
achieve the success he years for. As she sings: “He’ll never make the
screen … or be that movie queen, he’s too busy hitting the
Vaseline.” This actor is feted with insincere praise (“you’re amazing,
we think you are really cool”) but he is denied a role, because he’d
have to “play the fool”. The lyrics are clever, and the pocket
portraits from the world of acting are, I am told, accurate. The music
of the chorus is quite strong. Each “wow!” leaps out at you, aided by
the vocal gymnastics, where Bush sings low at just the right time. The
music of the verses is good, and the shift of tempo and feel at the
chorus brilliantly sets up and illumines the hyperbolic exclamations.
This is an instance where the gear change in a song works. Sad to say,
I do not think the same tactic works too well on the rest of the
album, and is, to my taste, overdone. The effect of the time change is
jagged on “In Search of Peter Pan”, “Don’t Push your Foot on the
Heartbrake”, “Fullhouse”, “Kashka”, “Coffee Homeground” and “Hammer
Horror”, fully six songs on an album of only ten.
Also noteworthy is the evocative “Kashka from Baghdad”, the third
track on side two. It tells the story of a man who lives “in sin” with
another, but has no other apparent friends or acquaintances: he lives
alone, visited by his lover, and remains inside the light of their
love (the metaphor she uses). Kashka’s Middle Eastern origin is nicely
conjured by the initial music, which is mysterious without sounding
like a caricature. The sentiments are beyond sympathetic:
I watch their shadows, tall and slim in the window opposite.
I long to be with them, ‘cos when all the alley cats come out,
I can hear music from Kashka’s house.
When the verse stops, the chorus erupts in a different tempo:
At night they’re seen, laughing, loving.
They know the way to be happy.
The track closes with a fade out. I cannot make out the words, but
they seem to something like: “Don’t you recognize? Don’t know you know the scene? … Let me in your love.” However, a lyrics web-site
offers: “Watching every night. Don’t you know they’re seen? Won’t you
let me laugh? Let me in your love.” Mmm. Overall, the piece is
something of a success, even if the sound of the chorus seems a little
contrived. It is not a great song, but it is a good one. I only wish
that I could have said the same for her “Gurdjieff” piece,
“Fullhouse”, which opens side two:
I am my enemy, mowing me over, and towing the light away,
… Imagination sets in, then all the voices begin,
Telling you things that aren’t happening.
(But they nig, they nag, ‘til they’re under your skin).
The rhythm is disrupted, as she hurries: “You’ve really go to ..”, and
then does she shriek: “Remember yourself, you’ve got a full house in
your head tonight! Remember yourself, stand back and see emotion
getting you uptight.” To “remember oneself”, in Gurdjieff’s terms, is
to be present to oneself as a whole: one’s thoughts, emotions and
organic instinct. The effort to remember oneself allows one to be
present to the turning thoughts which make up so much of our psychic
life, and to make them passive, so that they no longer bother, and
even cease. Despite the pointless screaming, the ideas here are good.
In verse two she sings:
My silly pride, digging the knife in,
She loves to come for her ride.
Surely by now I should know I can control my highs and my lows
By questioning all that I do, examining every move …
Once more, she is too accomplished to be pretentious: she is, as I
suggested in the first blog, the true prodigy of modern popular music.
But here, also, is the problem: the ideas are way too good for the
music. It just does not work as a song. The sudden change of pace at
the chorus does not help the song, as it does in “Wow”, it interrupts
and fragments it; and the singing is too fierce, almost hysterical,
for the chorus’s message.
Later, on The Dreaming, she attempted what may well be another
“Gurdjieff” song, “Sat in your Lap”. That effort was more successful,
at least to my ear. The last track to mention in any detail from
Lionheart is another worthy failure, the first single, and the last
track on the album, “Hammer Horror”. The opening is splendid, almost
scarlet with grandeur. The massive piano and synthesizer theme lasts
only 15 seconds, but it almost justifies the entire track. Then a
high-pitched vocal appears, eldritch and unearthly:
You stood in the bell-tower, but now you’re gone.
So who knows all the sights of Notre-Dame?
Just as the lyrics make a puzzling detour to the second line, the
music now changes completely: “They’ve got the stars for the gallant
hearts”, and then, after another 15 seconds, another complete change
of pace for the chorus: “Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror, won’t leave me alone.” The music never continues in one course, or at one tempo long enough to get into the feel of it. The song makes a picture of an
actor who has taken someone else’s role, and is now shadowed by the
former star. But the picture is a shattered one, it is too diverse to
even be a mosaic. It sounds jack clever, but clever as it is, it
doesn’t cohere. The other tracks on this album make me wince,
especially “Coffee Homeground” (which to me is pantomime of an
unconvincing type) and “In the Warm Room” (like an attempt to milk
There are some themes on this album: for example, film and theatre
appear in “Wow” and “Hammer Horror”, and “Coffee Homeground” is a
variation on the theme of Arsenic and Old Lace.
But the oddest theme on this album is that of blurring gender
boundaries. I have already noted this in respect of “Lionheart”. She
seems to be male, too, on “Hammer Horror” (it is easier to imagine a
man in the role of stalking another who has taken his role) and “Peter
Pan”, a fitting song for such confusion, for he, too, was somewhat
androgynous. Peter Pan also appears in the title track, and on the
liner notes: “Special thanks … especially to Mr. P. Pan whose tricks
keep us on our toes.” Does that mean that Our Kate, the doctor’s
daughter, was flirting with transgendering? “Wow” and “Kashka” both
deal with gay culture, and on “In the Warm Room”, a sort of an ode to
a seductress, she speaks of the woman in terms such as:
She’ll touch you with your Mamma’s hand,
You’ll long to kiss those red lips …
You’ll fall into her like a pillow,
Her thighs are soft as marshmallows,
Say hello to the soft musk of her hollows.
I cannot imagine what the masculine equivalent would be of “Say hello
to the soft musk of her hollows”, but could you imagine any male
singer, say Bruce Springsteen, saying something similar about another
male, even if he were addressing a female? There is something so
voyeuristic as to be discomforting about this song. Even its lack of
crudity adds to this sense: when Kate Bush uses measured phrases like
these it’s as if she’s serious.
Yet, this theme fades out from her later work. It is as if the album
were not only hurried, but also transitional. This brings me back to
the question of its initial reception, which I think was warmer than
deserved: how is it possible that we like one song, or several songs
by an artist, and then hear the rest of their work in what I have
called “the golden glow”? To an extent, it is a question of acquiring
a taste: it may take a while before one becomes used to hearing
something like, for example, the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
But once one has acquired the taste, it is as if one hears emotional
nuances one was previously unaware of.
Surely, however, there is more. Surely, the main feature in this
phenomenon is what Gurdjieff called “identification”, where we
associate our own self-image with the music. To the extent that we are identified with an artist, we have no objectivity. I recall being
identified with Bowie when I was younger, to the point that I
purchased Lodger when it came out, and persuaded myself that I liked
it. Now there are only two tracks on it which I can even bear to
listen to (“African Night Flight” and “Move On”).
It is not just that our taste changes. I am asking why does our taste
change? Why do we sometimes like the work an artist produces to a
certain point, but are fairly indifferent to them after that point? I
recall one reviewer who was a big fan of Bowie’s earlier work, but
wrote that they wouldn’t serve pizza on his latest offerings. What
There are two obvious answers which, in the case of Lionheart, we can
dismiss at once: first, there was no change of idiom or style, such as
when an artist switches from, say, playing rock and roll to playing
jazz. Second, Kate Bush did not simply re-record Kick Inside with
different lyrics. By that I refer to the way that certain artists
repeat their first triumphs, sticking to a safe formula. For example,
I personally find that from the time of Zooropa, just about everything
U2 have produced has been virtually the same songs with minor, barely
significant, variations. Bono continues to metaphorically position
himself in the imagined abyss between being and nothingness, and to
sing about love as if the idea were entirely original to himself.
Why is it that we tend to like the songs by one artist more
consistently than the songs of another? It could be, for example, that
one artist sings big ballads, or country and western, and we don’t
like that style. To an extent, this is a question of what one is used
to , the way that Vietnamese music sells well in Vietnam, and Arabic
music is popular in Arabic countries, but not so popular to those who
were not raised in a Vietnamese or Arabic culture, respectively.
Again, some people cannot stand a certain singer’s voice, or the speed
at which they sing, or their orchestral arrangements.
But I think that there is something deeper than all of this. For
example, I like much of the music Stevie Wonder produced between
Talking Book and Hotter Than July, but, five or six songs apart, I
don’t like Michael Jackson’s music. Yet, their styles and arrangements
were similar enough, although of course there were differences, and my
distaste is not based on Michael Jackson’s voice or his tempo. I just
like Wonder’s songs better than Jackson’s, the way that some people
like Paul McCartney’s music, but not John Lennon’s. Why is this?
We tend to think, and to talk of, one writer being better than
another, but “better” in what respect?
In future blogs, I shall explore this in more depth later, but to
anticipate: I think that we are assessing not only the music but the
person who is manifested through the music. This is not necessarily
illegitimate. Music is like the eye: just as one can tell something
about the whole of the person and their state just by looking at their
eyes, one can do something the same with their music. The state of all
of our being-functions (intellect, feeling and physical) is subtly
mixed in and apparent in the visible state of the eyes. So, too, music
is a mixture of these three functions. Even if there is not a single
word in three minutes, there is a sort of thought behind it, and of
course it is obvious that music includes emotion and physical
One feels that one comes to know the person behind the music. The
feeling of contact is even greater, perhaps, in the case of
singer-songwriters. Although, in the case of artists like Bing Crosby,
Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley who wrote little or none of their
work, this is qualified by the way that the music they chose to sing
was tailored to them, their style and their image. In other words, the
relationships we have with recording artists are akin to the
relationships we have with acquaintances.
These thoughts arose not from Lionheart, but from pondering it, and my
response to it. Next, we will consider Kate Bush’s third album, Never
For Ever, which did, to a certain extent, rehabilitate her reputation.
Yet, I have to say, that I do not think the promise of The Kick Inside
has yet been realised, or at least satisfactorily realised, in her
career. She is still, I feel, underachieving, and the reason is a
certain self-indulgence, which we shall further explore in the next
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.