Running Up That Hill

It’s quite a surprise to have  what seems an innate appreciation of an artist (in the general sense of the word) explained by reading some analysis that explains possible reasons behind a latent, unconscious bonding  – or at least have light cast upon it. On holiday I read Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of Kate Bush – ‘Under the Ivy’  (Omnibus Press) – which bills itself as ‘the first ever in-depth study of one of the world’s most enigmatic artists’.

It’s a curious book – mostly biography gleaned from interviews with figures relatively peripheral to Kate Bush’s life and from press interviews with Kate Bush herself. She’s certainly a fascinating and enigmatic subject but what lifts the book above the levels of most music biographies is Thomson’s critical interpretation of her music, somewhat in the vein of Ian MacDonald’s classic about The Beatles, ‘Revolution in the Head’.

There were a few passages of analysis in the book which suddenly grabbed me and made me think ‘that concept is similar to what I’ve been trying to get over in my writing’.

One trait I have is to tend to throw in all sorts of cultural references and allusions, which is what Kate Bush tended to do in her lyrics – almost to the level of self-parody in ‘Them Heavy People’ but there’s far more – think of Molly Bloom’s speech from ‘Ulysses’ in ‘The Sensual World’ (my favourite Kate Bush track of the lot), or the obvious ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Yet Thomson points out that these cultural references are a paradox and something of a deliberate obfuscation because her work is impossible to fully appreciate solely by academic analysis:

‘Bush’s music takes us somewhere else, somewhere deeper…It’s a very inquisitive, giving quixotic thing…there is no need to join every dot, or explain every reference. That is a game for those who can’t trust their own responses without first looking for an intellectual hook on which to hang it. Kate Bush is all about emotion: the things she uses to get to those emotions aren’t necessarily important. You either hear it and feel it – and trust what you’re hearing or feeling – or you don’t.’

I particularly like the last sentence: you’re either the sort of person who trusts your emotional reaction or you aren’t. This ties in with some current debate about writing, especially of the more literary genre – does it work on an emotional level or does it solely exist to perform intellectual gymnastics?

No-one who’s seriously listened to Kate Bush’s music can underestimate its sensuality. The candid attitude towards sex, even in songs released in the 1970s, is quite revelatory and far more insightful than many of her female successors (think of the relatively crude shock-tactics of the likes of Madonna or Lady GaGa). However, even knowing the song for 25 years I hadn’t fully realised (shows how closely I read the lyrics) what she was trying to suggest in one of her most well known singles, ‘Running Up That Hill’. To quote Thomson:

‘Originally called “A Deal With God”, the song spoke passionately of Bush’s impossible wish to become her lover, and he her, in order that they could finally know what the other felt and desired. It was a sobering comment on misfiring communication and the impossibility of men and women ever really understanding one another, and yet – in capturing the basic human need to strive for compatibility – it was not without hope nor optimism.’

I’d say that many novelists also try to set out to achieve this ‘impossible’ ambition (trying to fully understand the experience of the other gender) – to know ‘what the other felt and desired’. It’s certainly something I’m fascinated with – as I have a novel that switches between male and female POVs in a putative relationship.

It’s pretty evident that these songs have lodged themselves quite deep in my psyche and bits of them seem to come out when I’m writing. I had a playlist of ‘quiet stuff’ on my laptop which featured a lot of Kate Bush songs and I have listened to this over the past few years at very low volume as I fell asleep in work trips in various hotel rooms around Europe.

There’s another aspect to Kate Bush’s work that makes it more approachable from a male point of view which I’d never realised until reading this book – and yet it’s so obvious. She likes men. Thomson says of one of Kate Bush’s most touching songs:

‘Aside from its luminous melody and swooping chorus, “The Man With the Child In His Eyes” is one of the first example of the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men. She is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or generally gives men the brush off. She has been feminist in the bluntest sense – she wants to preserve and embrace the differences between the sexes and understand the male of the species. Many songs display a desire to experience fully what it is to be a man; she invests them with a power, beauty and a kind of mystical attraction which is incredibly generous. “It’s not such an open thing for a woman to be physically attracted to the male body and fantasise about it” she once said. “I can’t understand that because to me the male body is absolutely beautiful.”’

I knew that Kate Bush had a large gay (male) following but it was only after reading the above interview quotation that I the penny finally dropped. On a similar vein I’m wondering about buying ‘Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory’ which is full of analysis (as it says in the publisher’s press release) ‘written by a queer woman in her late 20s, its answers are delivered in a unique way…showing that theory can be sordid, funny and irreverent’. I wouldn’t mind too much if those three adjectives were applied to my novel, at least in part.

7 Replies to “Running Up That Hill”

  1. Beautiful and thought-provoking, Mike. Love your thoughts on emotional response and men and women. Great stuff. Now I’m off to listen to KB.

  2. I quoted rather liberally from Graeme Thomson’s book as it was his insight that ‘opened the windows’ for me (that’s a piece of praise KB made about Peter Gabriel on the credits for ‘Never For Ever’ btw). He’s read the post himself and tweeted the link to his followers so he’s obviously happy with the quotations. There are many more similar nuggets in his book about interpreting KB’s work.

    My absolute favourite is ‘The Sensual World’ (the title track) which is both about fiction and what it means to be human and alive — with the fantasy of characters in a novel being able to ‘step out of the page and into the sensual world’. It’s the most beautifully constructed song too — it has a beautiful symmetry reflected in way it starts (church bells — and whips!) and finishes (with the Uilleann pipes slowing and subsiding). She alludes to Molly Bloom’s monologue in ‘Ulysses’ throughout — repeating ‘mmm…yes’ throughout. Somewhere in Graeme Thomson’s book he mentions a theory (maybe mentioned by KB herself) that ‘yes’ is the most feminine word in the language. It’s more than a little smutty too. I read an interview with her when she said she’d not made any overt sexual references in her later work and the interview asked what ‘And then his spark took life in my hand’ was about and she said ‘Oh yes that was a bit naughty’. Just that song alone is genius.

    You should also listen to tracks 2, 3 and 4 on side 2 (shows that the vinyl version is etched in my mind) — ‘Feel It’, ‘Oh To Be in Love’ and ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’. They’re very simple songs, the first is just voice and piano, but sequenced together they’re quite stunning — incredibly emotionally honest and candid. (In the book, there’s a story about how she showed her father the words to ‘L’Amour Looks Something Like You’ just after she’d written them in the studio and the male musicians expected him to be horrified but he thought they were fine.)

    I like ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’ better than ‘Wuthering Heights’ apart from that brilliant middle-eight section (‘Let me have you, let me grab your soul away’). ‘The Infant Kiss’ is also extraordinary. It has the most amazing melody and the subject matter also heads fearlessly for the taboo.

    ‘Sat in Your Lap’ is also one of my favourites for the line ‘I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a scholar but I really can’t be bothered.’

    It’s a shame she’s only been one album in the past 17 years but there was a fair amount of good stuff on that — with perhaps my favourite line of hers, opening ‘Sunset’ — ‘could be honeycomb’.

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