Thursday, August 03, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 038: Kate Bush: The Sensual World

You wouldn’t think I was a great candidate for induction as a Kate Bush fan. I mean, here’s this airy-fairy sylph-like child prodigy in a leopard-skin leotard, singing in a voice that sounds a little like Marilyn Monroe on helium. About cats and Charlotte Bronte. I mean, she was first signed by David Gilmour, for God’s sake! The prog-rock train left the station, without me, a long time ago.

But you never know where the music will lead you, and when you open up to one kind of experience, you never know what other kinds you’ll find yourself opening to…

We were living in Indiana, trying to finish grad school, and I was playing in an 8-piece horn band (great band, too hip for most of our audiences, eventually riven by internal disputes and an infantile—but virtuosic—rhythmic section who wanted to play INXS instead of the Neville Bros). We played all over the Midwest, typically bar gigs from 10pm-2am, and then another hour-and-a-half of loadout while the sound company broke down the PA and the Good Doc (Dr Jolt, keyboards) loaded, unloaded, and reloaded his pickup “for best road stability.” I’d stand around waiting, the horn players having taken off with the nearest waitress within moments of the last tune, and wait ‘til the Doc was satisfied with the load. Then we’d clamber in, I’d say “are you OK to drive?” and he, wired after the last set would say “I’m OK!!!”, and I’d conk out.

We’d roll into Bloomington at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning, and, if I didn’t have to go directly to the public radio station for the Sunday sign-on Morning Edition shift (Scott Simon had nothin’ on me), the Doc would drop me at home. Usually I’d try to crash out straight away, so as to have at least a couple of hours sleep before class. Sometimes I’d be too wired, and would mindlessly surf the TV while trying to come down. That’s how I discovered the much-missed, live music program Night Music (hosted, awkwardly enough, by David Sanbourn, missed by Michelob, and booked by Hal Wilner), about which I’ll post in future, but it also meant that occasionally I’d see something on MTV, which I didn’t watch any other time. And that is how, one late night/early morning in 1989, I saw the video for the first single off Kate Bush’s disc entitled The Sensual World, for a song called “Love and Anger.” The first 90 seconds of that video made me a die-hard fan, at least of that record.

Of course, she was a good dancer and easy on the eye, so the sight of her in clingy black leotards under a rain of gold dust was not unpleasant. But, what’s that?!?...Mevlevi Dervish dancers spinning as in the sema? Some guy playing the Malagasay valiha? I was riveted by the visuals of the thing before the music and lyrics even registered. And that was the first aspect of Love and Anger that leaped out of the confines of the MTV-environment: that it was a little short film, saturated with images of transport and transcendence, and remarkably free of the pandering that MTV specialized in.

Then I heard the Trio Bulgarka singing the background vocals, and the beautiful groove being laid down by slapping bass and drums, and then I heard the chorus, which reminded me of nothing so much as Rumi: “Take away the love and the anger/And the little bit of rope holding us together/Looking for a moment that’ll never pass/Livin’ in the gap between past and future”, and as I watched the video, I felt myself virtually going into a trance myself. By the time she was carried, in an apparent swoon, to a stage where Gilmour was ripping out a solo, and began dancing ecstatically, I knew I had to get the record.

And what a record it is: bursting with what Bush herself later called “female energy”, it’s heavily dependent upon the collaboration of the Trio Bulgarka, who she said “just cuddled me and sang with me”; the various global instruments of her brother Paddy (yes, there’s a Mick in the woodpile—the Bush’s are Irish, going back), including kabosy and valiha (I was discovering Malagasay music at the same time), a lovely sample of her father’s Oxbridge voice, at the beginning of The Fog, saying “Just put your feet down, child…Because you’re all grown up, now”; and a succession of spooky, sensual, remarkably naked songs.

And it’s almost all written from the female's point of view, not of an teenage nymphomaniac as imagined by a coke-snorting blow-dried LA-songwriter-asshole, but of a grownup woman who understands that the gap between men and women, between the sensual and the technological, between the instinctive and the rational, might possibly only be bridgeable with love. And, in song after song, love—in all its most Apollonian, Dionysian, light and/or dark manifestations—is the topic: the opener and title track, which quite intentionally evokes Molly Bloom’s orgasmic, holy “Yes” at the end of Ulysses; the chilling noir of a woman who discovers her own yearning toward the sexiness of dark evil when she wakes up from a dream to discover she’s been dancing with Adolf Hitler (Heads We’re Dancing); the loneliness that comes to all when a loving parent is gone (The Fog); the stark loss of love in Never Be Mine; and also deeper, more complex, and more transcendent loves: a lonely soul who unexpectedly discovers love in the form of a computer program’s empathy, voiced in Deeper Understanding by the boops and beeps of her Fairlight and the voices of the Trio Bulgarka (as Kate said, “I tried to imagine what would be the most loving, unearthly sound I could, and that was the Trio”); the acceptance of the loss that love “Between a Man and a Woman” will almost surely entail and of the particular pains that each gender faces alone (This Woman’s Work, used to accompany a scene of miscarriage in the film She’s Having a Baby), and the absolutely astonishing, holy ecstasy of Love and Anger.

After staying up til all hours on multiple nights to see the video again, eventually I purchased the VHS (I had never done that with MTV shit before) and watched it many more times. I was so blown away by what I thought I saw in it—both visual and textual references to Sufism, mystical Christianity, pagan and Goddess religion, the ecstasy of religion and of rock music, the inarticulable but nevertheless real ways in which men and women experience the world differently, and the way that art can unite these halves and produce ecstasy—that I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on it, arguing that the video itself was a holy document, like a sand painting or a mandala or the decorations inside a mosque: that watching this video with the right intentions, surrendering to the absolute tidal wave of archetypal spiritual imagery she had carefully and “using women’s ways of knowing” had built into the document, could itself trigger a spiritual experience.

My revered dissertation advisor once said to me “you should never write a musicology paper unless you think that by doing it you can change the world.” And that was certainly the goal behind my paper on Love and Anger. The bibliography name-checked Sufi commentators like Idries Shah and John Lewin, feminist scholars like Jean Shindoda Bolen and Mary Field Belenky, pagan authors like Starhawk, poets like Omar Khayyam and, especially, my beloved Rumi. When I gave the paper (for a group of ethnomusicologists specializing in visual sources) I must have seemed a little bit like a fakir (a “God-intoxicated man”) myself: I was so convinced of the brilliance of this piece of art, so persuaded that this represented an extraordinary realization of the tools for ecstatic reunion still available in the technological West, that I gave the whole paper, verbatim, including all still and video excerpts, with virtually no reference to the printed text—and then couldn’t remember the experience afterward.

This piece of art found me when I was just about to slide into a deep valley of confusion, alienation, and crisis in my personal life: most particularly, in my relationships--both contemporary and very, very old--with women. Studying Love and Anger, grappling with it, trying to find the words to speak of the baraka (the spark of transcendence) which it created, I now see, also helped me begin to climb out of that valley again.

I honor Kate Bush for the human empathy, spiritual courage and pure stick-to-it-ivity it took to create Love and Anger—and I’m grateful it found me when it did.

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