Warning: contains a few set-list spoilers and lengthy, unrestrained, gushing sentimentality and a few misty-eyed personal reminiscences.
We knew we were on Row E — so good seats — five rows back, obviously. So we counted backwards as we walked through the stalls K…J…H…I…H…G…F…E
Er, what’s happened to A, B, C and D? This must be wrong. This can’t be happening to us. And then the people in the adjacent seats said they’d thought the same too.
There must be another row E in the stalls somewhere — one that isn’t really right in front of the stage — one that isn’t only feet from where Kate Bush would be standing in half-an-hour’s time for her second performance in 35 years.
What my friend Andrew didn’t know (and I guess no-one else did either) was that when he’d hit the enter on the day of the Kate Bush fan pre-sale was that the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo’s seat rows A-D were to be removed to accommodate the unusually demanding theatrical requirements of the exactingly perfectionist performer.
The need for the larger stage was revealed during the show with numerous trap-doors and pieces of stage machinery concealed beneath. At one point Kate Bush herself must have crawled under the stage virtually opposite my feet (I won’t give the explanation — it would be a big spoiler). I was also close enough to fear at one point that I’d be whacked in the head by a strange, rotating musical instrument.
I was in seat 14 — about four seats to the left of dead centre — which puts me in very select company. However, from the reaction of everyone else to discovering the true location of Row E, it seems they also applied for the tickets as normal fans. So no music festival style VIP-only cordon by the stage for Kate Bush. However, I’m sure all of us lucky enough to get hold of any tickets at all through the booking process (even the fan-sale) felt very privileged indeed.
Apologies if my (or, more accurately, my friend’s) extraordinary good fortune is provoking any raging jealousy (it certainly would with me) but it goes to show that Kate Bush see,s to have prioritised her fans — while expensive the tickets weren’t the sort of Russian oligarch prices that she could have charged — and the reselling sites are actually trying to charge. (Buyer beware — ID is checked against tickets on entry.)
Also the production itself must have been orders of magnitude more expensive to stage than a conventional rock concert. The only equivalents in musical theatrically I can think of are Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Beatles-based LOVE in Las Vegas. The latter was brilliant but, of course, the singers and the band weren’t playing live.)
And I am a genuinely huge Kate Bush fan — as seasoned readers of the blog may remember. (I posted this very long review of Graeme A. Thomson’s biography, Under the Ivy, and was also excited enough to write a post when The Director’s Cut was released.)
I have virtually every piece of music she’s ever released — and I’ve been listening to it on shuffle for the past two weeks. And not just the albums but vinyl single B-sides and bizarre CD single curiosities like Ken — with lyrics asking if the former GLC leader is a ‘funky sex machine’ (really).
I was wondering if she’d keep the local London political theme going with the comeback but, sadly, Boris was missing from the set-list (if you’re reading this Kate, there’s still time to dash it off).
And, as my post on the perceptive analysis in Under the Ivy points out, Kate Bush’s music has been a big influence on my writing (he adds, remembering that this is — loosely — a blog about writing). It’s also been the soundtrack to certain very significant episodes in my life.
I’m sure the number of female characters in my novel or and my attempts at writing from a female point of view have been heavily influenced by the extraordinarily insights that Kate Bush’s music and lyrics provide into female perspective, notably in songs like Hounds of Love, Running Up That Hill. Similarly, I also might not have had the nerve to go into certain territory in the novel that deals with the closeness ‘between a man and a woman’ without following Kate Bush’s courageous example in those amazingly intimate songs on the second side of The Kick Inside.
This isn’t just a male perception, I know her themes resonate deeply with many women. My sister was sitting next to me during the show and she was incredibly moved to be there in the presence of a woman who’d been a huge influence on her life.
There are several slightly buried Kate Bush references in my novel – one from The Dreaming was picked up straight away by fellow Kate Bush fanatic, Anne, from the MMU course. (Anne’s going to be fortunate enough to see the show in a couple of weeks). And there may be other subconscious influences: I now wonder if an inspiration for having a painter in the novel is down to side two of Aerial. If so, thanks Kate for opening the windows to me about the world of art.
To reinfoce the point that Kate Bush’s music has long been part of my life, as well as my sister, I went to the concert with two ex-school friends.
I remember sitting in my bedroom with my friend David on holiday from university discussing The Hounds of Love, especially The Big Sky 12″ Meteorological Mix — ‘That cloud looks like industrial waste!’ being one of her lesser known lyrics. I remember moaning, pre-Hounds of Love about the interminable wait for her next album — it turned out to be three years — perhaps the 35 years I had to wait to see her live has served me right for my ungratefulness?
Kate Bush’s most profound effect on me — and something that’s likely to be very deeply ingrained — was when I studied for a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Just before I flew out to the US Running Up That Hill, which I loved, had very recently been released. But the album Hounds of Love hadn’t. At that time Kate had only achieved cult recognition in America — a sort of indie, student act. While Hounds of Love was becoming a huge seller in the UK, it hadn’t even been released in the US, where I couldn’t get hold of it. This was, of course, before the days of the internet, iTunes and even the post could take two weeks to arrive. I was desperate to listen to the album that I’d waited (I thought then) for so long to be released.
I was pretty homesick, at times, with the culture shock when I first arrived in California and the American lack of appreciation of Kate Bush’s genius probably made me even more miserable. But a few weeks after the UK release and after I’d kept visiting the record shops in Isla Vista to keep asking when it would arrive (I think they’ve all shut now), the album was quietly released in the US. I got hold of a cassette version — and played it incessantly.
Kate Bush was so brilliantly, beautifully eccentrically English. Whenever I missed home, I’d play Hounds of Love and,Running Up That Hill in particular — and it would make everything about England seem so much more reassuringly close. Eventually the album broke through in the US in a modest way and Kate Bush’s videos were played on MTV (although they used the Wogan show appearance of Running Up That Hill rather than the apparently over-erotic dance video).
With many other British bands becoming popular in America at that time, in our apartment MTV was a frequent reminder of home — with videos like Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town (‘the north’), Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You (London) and Shout by Tears for Fears (Durdle Door in Dorset) almost like mini-travelogues.
There are many other Kate Bush related memories, like sitting with a girlfriend at university at the end of Nic Roeg’s film Castaway (I think I must have read in the reviews about its copious nudity) when a very familiar voice began singing an unknown song — Be Kind to My Mistakes — still very obscure. ‘Sit down. We can’t move. It’s Kate Bush’. I’m not sure she was thrilled as me about staying all the way through the closing credits. Or the first time I heard King of the Mountain — the first new song to be released in 13 years. I was driving but I welled up — ‘Sounds a bit odd. Mumbled. Hold on. I like those drums. It’s good. It’s bloody good. She’s back. She’s back and she’s still good.’
And on Wednesday she was standing right in front of me. No one else was in the space between me and the person who’d created the music — and images — that had affected and influenced me so profoundly. At fleeting points in the performance I must have been the closest person to her. (My coat, which I’d left against the bottom of the stage, was suddenly covered by one of the props during one section and I was worried it would get dragged on stage by accident).
For the whole audience, being in the presence of Kate Bush was an overwhelming experience in itself – throughout the show you didn’t have to look far to spot people in floods of tears. We were close enough to see every expression on her face – and rather suffering stage fright, as had been the fear, she appeared humbled and genuinely surprised by the spontaneous standing ovation when she first walked on stage.
One of the strange aspects of the recent media coverage of the concerts is that virtually all the images used of Kate Bush have been those taken in her twenties. This might be unsurprising because there have been extraordinarily few photographs of her in the past 20 years – a few very artfully created portraits for the CDs and less than a handful of ‘real life’ photos – the most recent being when she received her CBE from the Queen last year.
It’s been rumoured that she’s now very self-conscious about her appearance but she didn’t give any indication that she was. Nor ought she to be – she looked wonderful. Of course, she wasn’t going to be in rolling on a mat in a leotard. At 56, she appears to have aged gracefully and while she wore bulky outfits, she certainly doesn’t look, close up, as if she has any weight problem at all (some newspaper columnists and reviewers ought not to base their comments on concert photos or observing from a distance).
She did the show barefoot and her feet were occasionally within theoretical touching distance. When David’s wife Sue (who was in the circle) asked if Kate’s toenails were painted I was able to say without hesitation that they were’t. After all, I’d been looking at them for nearly three hours. I was so close to her physically that I could even see the thin plaits she had woven into her famously thick hair and trickles of sweat glistening on her temples.
Remarking on her physical closeness isn’t meant to be weirdly obsessive and stalker-like – all the people I know who’ve seen the concerts and everyone who’s tweeted has said similar. But this was someone who been in a huge, life-sized poster on my bedroom wall throughout my final year at university. She was stepping out of the page and into the sensual world. What was the biggest privilege of being so close to the performance is that I’ll no longer think of Kate Bush in terms of the images of quarter of a century ago – as a two dimensional icon – but as a person who’s as real and tangible as someone I might bump into in the pub or on the tube.
I’ve read some comments on Twitter comparing the show to a religious experience. I can see why — the emotion was so overwhelming it was physical for me and, I’m sure, for most of the rest of the audience. However, in my case, it was the opposite of religious — the icon we’d all only known from music and images was manifested as a ‘normal’ person — albeit one recognisable from all the images and able to sing with that beautiful voice. She might be a creative genius but she’s actually just like the rest of us — a point so obvious it’s banal to make about most artists. But this was supposedly the music industry’s eccentric recluse, someone whom I don’t think has given a TV interview in over 20 years.
I’d kept lowering my expectations before the show – and the moments between the band arriving on stage and Kate Bush herself were heart-pounding, as much with dread as anticipation. Surely she’d only be able to use the lower registers of her voice and the songs would sound OK but not a patch the records?
Lily, the opening number, seemed to have been chosen to as a vocal warm-up her voice – short, low phrases with the backing singers in full-throated support. But she sounded amazingly good. Then it was straight into Hounds of Love – much earlier than I’d expected but also a low-pitched vocal. Suddenly, the fourth song, Top of the City, its slow passages sung with heart-melting softness (‘he’s no good for you, baby, he’s no good for you now’) alternating with soaring, climactic high-notes. Her voice was sounded, incredibly, as good as the original recordings.
In her own lengthy programme notes, which are remarkably personal and detailed (longer, even, than this blog post), it’s revealed that there’s a sound engineer solely dedicated to her vocal sound. But I was close enough at times to hear her voice unamplified and it was genuine – no auto-tune for Kate Bush.
Vocally, Kate Bush is one of a kind and the second public live performance of songs I knew so well was an experience I never expected to occur at all, let alone witness myself. What was even more extraordinary was that Kate appeared very conscious of the audience’s response. She’s by no means an in-your-face stage performer and her facial expressions and small gestures to the band won’t have been obvious from the back of the theatre. She grinned in a deadpan way at the start of the show, almost appearing awestruck by the audience’s ecstatic reception (as if gesturing ‘Are these people really going beserk for me? They are? This is unbelievable. Well, here I go.’)
She was subtly looked at people in the audience, even making eye contact after which she’d smile, rock her head from side to side, move her feet a bit more emphatically and then deliver another astonishingly perfect vocal. It was if she was asking ‘Are you enjoying this? Am I doing OK? That’s good. Now I’m really going to go for it.’ Perhaps lots of famous performers do this if you get close enough. But, as she expressed with her the request for no cameras, this low-key but emphatic connection with the audience was an amazingly intimate experience. (Later, in the conceptual parts of the show, she concentrated on acting in character.)
I’d expect most of the looks she got in return would along the lines of ‘Yes, you’re doing brilliantly, Kate, and by the way you’re a bloody genius’. I was trying to convey as much. But her modesty and initial tentativeness provided an insight into the creative process – the greatest artists are also generally the most self-critical and depend and thrive and on the reassurance of their audience. This is particularly performers but no doubt also includes many writers too. It was a profoundly humbling experience — feeling as if Kate Bush was looking at me, checking that I enjoying the show she’d put so much effort into staging. I’m sure she felt the same about the other 3,000 people there but these were moments of absolute individual pleasure.
I won’t go dwell on detail about the theatrics of the show – there are many glowing news reports and reviews on the web. And the spectacle is so impressive that’s it’s better to let the narrative play out itself.
With tickets for the second night I’d managed to avoid knowing too much detail about the show until I’d seen it for myself. I’d largely avoideded knowledge of the set-list (so I was one of those who gasped when the opening chords to Running Up That Hill appeared so early in the show). I bought the excellent programme but I’d avoided reading it before the show. So I had no idea that the very young, gangly backing singer who appeared to take an increasingly more prominent part in the show was someone with particular significance.
In the rocking-living-room-HP-sauce-and-toad-in-the-hole interlude (it’s too bizarre to concisely describe and the dialogue probably won’t win a Booker Prize for David Mitchell), my sister asked ‘Do you think that’s her son?’
‘No,’ I thought. ‘It can’t be.’ After all, his existence was secret until she sang exultantly about him in Bertie on Ariel — when he was about eight years old. But then he did seem to be the right sort of age and he did look very similar to those photos of Kate Bush’s brothers from the start of her career – and the way she stood behind him looking enormously proud as he lolled on a sofa mulling out loud whether to watch QI or Liverpool v Chelsea on the television? It was indeed ‘that son of mine’.
With that discovery, everything suddenly made sense. The woman who wrote songs like Breathing, the Kick Inside, Room for the Life, Cloudbusting, Mother Stands for Comfort, A Coral Room and This Woman’s Work– all about birth and parenthood – wanted the audience to share her enormous pride in her own son. That this intensely private artist wanted to introduce her audience to her family was an incredible gesture of bonding. This is why I’ve been quiet for the last sixteen years – he’s been the priority in my life – and isn’t he wonderful? She was inviting us to celebrate her music and her family – this woman’s work indeed.
Without Bertie, we now know from the programme, ‘this would never have happened’ and he was the force who ensured his mother overcame her fear to ‘commit to pushing the “go” button’. The timing of the shows must also have been determined by Bertie’s involvement – albeit in a very non-rock’n’roll way.
As his mother writes in the programme: ‘In order for him to be part of this, which was always part of the deal, he has had to work really hard in order to keep up his school commitments as well as his commitments to the show.’ So it’s fair to assume that the rehearsals will have been timed to start after Bertie finished his GCSEs in the summer. Presumably he’ll go back to studying for his A-levels after the last show on 1st October.
One of Kate Bush’s most haunting opening lines is in Blow Away (for Bill) on Never For Ever — take a look at the cover of that album and it will clear up any doubts about her recurrent themes of female sexuality and motherhood: ‘One of the band told me last night/That music is all that he’s got in his life.’
These shows, and their incredible gestation time, are perhaps a sign that she took that lyric as a warning. Music isn’t all Kate Bush had had in her life. Given Bertie’s role, these live shows haven’t been half a lifetime in coming – they’ve been staged at the earliest possible opportunity.
As Graeme Thomson says in Under the Ivy what’s particularly remarkable about Kate is ‘the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men’ — and she brought on stage the man she’d brought into the world herself (or, at Bertie’s age, more the Man with the Child in Eyes). This was another profound statement about creativity — and one that seems to tie in with the otherwise rather baffling wooden puppet-mannequin that roamed the stage in the second half.
Bertie’s involvement isn’t cheesy or sentimental either. If anything he was a more confident performer than his admiring mother. Being so close to a sixteen year old acting out the role of the painter in A Sky of Honey, in which he sang his own song, Tawny Moon, (I don’t whether Bertie or his mum wrote it — but she wrote some classic songs at thirteen), made me forget I was at such a momentous event. Willing Bertie to pull off such a professional performance was, bizarrely, like being, in the nicest possible way, one the audience at a school play – albeit the most incredibly imaginative, spectacular one ever.
I found an interview from 2005 on the Guardian’s website in which Kate Bush describes how Bertie reacted to the news that his mother was going to meet the Queen: ‘The thing is I would do anything for Bertie and making an arsehole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen, I mean …’
In front of Wednesday’s roomful of people she certainly didn’t do that.
Incidentally, the request not to use cameras applied to the actual performance (see below). The security people were perfectly happy for people to take pictures before and after the show. Even so, I’ve cropped some of the images to avoid revealing anything more than the musical instruments on stage you’d expect from a conventional show. While I could have taken a photo of Kate that was much closer up than anything that’s been published I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing so – let alone posting it online.