KATE BUSH: THE SONG OF SOLOMON (1)
JOSEPH AZIZE PAGE
Kate Bush: The Song of Solomon (1)
The Kick Inside
There should be an annual holiday in celebration of her birth, when the community allows the springs of business and commerce to wind down, and the machines of industry to lie idle for 24 hours. On that glad day, families will be reunited to their ancestral hearths from all ends of the lands, and after feast and thanks, will gather around their stereos, in communal silence before their heirloom recordings of the exalted one, she who was sent to us in the evening of the world, Kate Bush.
But such a holiday there is not. Popular as her work is, it is still not esteemed at its true worth. To a significant extent, her music is still, as Shakespeare said, “caviar to the general”. Yet, for my money, of all the contemporary recording artists whose work I have heard, she is among the very greatest and the deepest. Interestingly, she is also the only modern “pop star” I know who has referred approvingly to Gurdjieff in recorded song (“Them Heavy People” from The Kick Inside). But it isn’t as if I think she’s insightful because she has referred to Gurdjieff: it’s because she is deep that she has been interested in his ideas, if not his methods (I shall return in future blogs to “Full House” from Lionheart, and “Sat in your Lap” from The Dreaming). I am not simply identified with her music because she wrote some “Gurdjieff songs”, to coin a rebarbative phrase. Indeed, I think that “Full House” fails not only because the melody seems pedestrian, but because it is too much a frontal assault on something which is too subtle to survive such an approach; and those songs which I consider to be her very best (“Wuthering Heights”, “Lionheart” and “Some Moments of Pleasure”) do not seem to be at all indebted to Gurdjieff.
She is extraordinary for another reason: she is the greatest prodigy I know of in modern music. Stevie Wonder was younger, and even more talented as a musician, but not even he, or Donovan, ever matched her for the extraordinary work of art which was her first album, The Kick Inside, released in 1978 when she was 19 years old, although some of the songs were written when she was yet younger. In fact, I still consider that to be her best record, rivalled, but not surpassed, by The Dreaming and Aerial. And it’s with that album that I’ll begin.
The striking, almost the stupendous thing about The Kick Inside, is the consistency of its quality, and the integrity of the album. It has an overall sound, an aural signature, based around Bush’s distinctive vocals, and the basic ensemble of piano, guitars and drums. Side one, containing six songs, is dominated by the supernatural. For example, the last four tracks on side one are “Strange Phenomena”, “Kite”, “The Man with the Child in his Eyes” and “Wuthering Heights”. They deal with psychic phenomena, transmogrification from woman to kite, a phantom visitor, and the star-struck Cathy from Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. So, side one effectively closes with two songs about wraiths. Side two, with seven songs, is largely given over to romantic love. However, each side features some of the themes of the other side. For example, while side one closes with Cathy, side two ends with the tale of Lucy Wan, who suicides when she becomes pregnant to her own brother, vowing: “I shall come home again, but not until the sun and the moon meet on yon hill.”
So the last image which Bush impresses upon us, on each side of this record, is a woman desperate in love, whose passion has led her to her premature death, but will also bring her back from beyond the grave. Perhaps teenage life in England was not so terribly idyllic back then.
Kate Bush’s voice was distinctively high at the time of this album: when her voice deepened she re-recorded “Wuthering Heights”. The newer version has a certain depth, but the very pitch of her singing on the original possessed an inimitable natural eeriness. Oddly, when I hear it now, the manner in which that young voice embodies the spectre of Cathy, is reminiscent of a tale she would tell on Never Forever, the possession of a boy and a girl in James’ “Turn of the Screw”. So convincing is her precocious performance on “Wuthering Heights” that it is as if she is haunted.
To an extent which, to my ear, she did not match again until the triumph of Aerial, Kate Bush as a person dominated The Kick Inside. It is as if her very spirit was infused into the grooves of the record. The intimacy commences on the very first track, “Moving”. “Moving stranger, does it really matter, as long as you’re not afraid to feel?”, she sings, seemingly inviting us to drop our fears and open ourselves to an experience of emotion. She continues: “… how my open arms ache … how you move me with your beauty’s potency … You crush the lily in my soul.” In the next track, “Saxophone Song’ she is “a surly lady in tremor”, telling of “the stars that climb from her bowels”. These lyrics are more intimate, by light years, than any vulgar assault with terms for genitalia could ever be.
The extent to which her body and bodily sensations feature in these songs is almost amazing. The list continues: on “Strange Phenomena” she mentions how “every girl knows about the punctual blues”, and on “Kite”, “Beelzebub is aching in my belly-o”, while she feels “a rush along my body like a bullet”. In “L’Amour Looks Something Like You”, she is “dying for you just to touch me, and feel all the energy right up-a-me … The thought of you sends me shivering … All the time I’m living in that evening with that feeling of sticky love inside”. And I won’t even bother quoting “Feel It”, but, if you have heard it, you know that she is not referring to a sensory encounter with fabrics and materials.
Bush is fond of the genre of the ‘story song”, where she adopts a persona and narrates a story or a scene from some tale. Sometimes, I think, she is too fond. The most glorious successes of course, were “Wuthering Heights” and “The Man with the Child in his Eyes”, where she turns stories into opportunities for apparently intimate self-disclosure. In “Man with the Child”, the brilliant but simple piano accompaniment conjures the waves rolling in to the shore, while she sings of a man “Telling me about the sea, all his love, ‘till eternity”. Once more, love is not bound within the fence of earthly life. And, as in “Wuthering Heights”, it is ambitious but believable: she has made us believe from the first lines with the most innocuous yet individual of details:
I hear him before I go to sleep
And focus on the day that’s been.
Who else has ever spoken in song of reviewing the day? It is no stock phrase: it suggests a real person. “But I feel him hesitate”, she sings. Once more, have you ever heard that in any other song? However, I have to say, that by the time I come to “James and the Cold Gun”, I am getting tired of the succession of story songs (“Remember Genie, from the casino? She’s still a-waiting in her big brass bed.”) And it is not necessary for Bush to rely on stories: she does first person so well.
Probably the best example of speaking as Kate Bush on Kick Inside is “Them Heavy People”. It opens with a the phrase “rolling the ball (rolling) … rolling the ball to me” tossed around in air, as it were, with her voice and piano, echoing the word “rolling”, to musically establish a sense of the ball being airily passed to and fro. It’s almost a prelude rather than a part of the song. Then the other instruments kick in, and we’re into the first verse:
They arrived at an inconvenient time,
I was hiding in a room in my mind.
They made me look at myself.
I saw it well: I’d shut the people out of my life.
So now I take the opportunities,
Wonderful teachers ready to teach me.
I must work on my mind, for now I realise that
Every one of us has a heaven inside.
Once more, for the chorus there is a change of pace: “Them heavy people hit me in a soft spot, them heavy people help me …” and we’re back to the “rolling” theme, and then the final verse:
They open doorways that I thought were shut for good,
They read me Gurdjieff and Jesu,
Break me emotionally, it’s nearly killing me,
But what a lovely feeling!
I love the whirling of the dervishes,
I love the beauty of rare innocence.
You don’t need no crystal ball,
Don’t fall for no magic wand,
We humans got it all, we perform the miracles.
In one place, I believe, Bush described this song as “a prayer”, and one can see that. It is deliberately broad in its scope, including not only the two teachers but also the dervishes and innocence, which I take to mean openness to impressions. This is an important theme in Bush’s work, and shall achieve ever greater importance until it culminates in the triumph of disc 2 of Aerial. However, “Heavy People” does suggest a certain serious personal immersion in the techniques of Gurdjieff which, as I understand it, is not and never has been the case with Kate Bush. In an interview she stated that she had heard of Gurdjieff from one of her brothers, and read some books, but that he was far more concerned with it than she was. My own guess is that she had read In Search of the Miraculous, because if “G.” in “Strange Phenomena” is indeed “Gurdjieff”, then such an odd way of referring to him could only, I imagine, have come from reading that book.
I shall pull further ideas together in future Kate Bush blogs, but for now, I will wrap up on this album. The more I listen to it, the more I am impressed with its artistic unity. In addition to the features I have already mentioned, the very first sounds we hear are ghostly sounds, as if of spirits, presaging “Wuthering Heights”. The sounds which introduce “Moving” are in fact whale calls. And in case you didn’t know it, “wuthering” is an old word for the moaning made by high winds.
A feature of this album, distinguishing it from her others (or so it seems to me) is that even when she seems to be composing songs for the sake of composing songs, she composes good songs. For example, “Oh to Be in Love” strikes me, as it has other reviewers, as rather short on purpose (“I find it hard to face my face … Why did you have to choose our moment? … Why did you make it so unreal?”). And yet, the music is good: to my ear, very good indeed. The chorus with its marked rhythm “oh – oh – oh to be – e – e in love” is memorable and enjoyable, and in the last verse we are sprung a surprise:
All the colours looks brighter now …
Slipping into tomorrow too quick,
Yesterday always too good to forget,
Stop the swing of the pendulum, let us through!
We have seen these two ideas before: the joy of seeing everything with enhanced vividness, and the desire to escape from time (here represented by the clock). And we shall meet them again. That such ideas occur to her mind, however, is a tribute to her natural depth.
Another essential aspect of Kate Bush is her thorough English-ness. The two striking stories which close each side are based on an unmistakably English fiction: Wuthering Heights and the poem of Lucy Wan respectively, although Lucy is not named on “The Kick Inside”.
Then, the final matter for this blog, is Kate Bush’s individuality. She is not affectedly idiosyncratic, nor is she bound to fashion, the twin vices of “music celebrities” which Spinal Tap so accurately parodied. Consider “Room for Life”: she addresses a woman crying on account of her lover, telling her that men don’t care whether her tears are real or not, for the men it’s all part of the game. But, as for you, woman:
Like it or not, we were built tough
Because we’re woman!
No, we never die for long,
While we’ve got that little life to live for
Where it’s hid inside … Oh, woman two in one
There’s room for a life in your womb, woman …
Then, in the second verse, having consoled her friend, she tells her that she needs “a lover to free her desire” and urges her to “get up on your feet and go get it now.” It is unique, it’s personal, and yet it’s also public. I would not call this feminist, or, for that matter, any ideology. To me, it’s just wisdom.
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.