When I was old enough to know better, I ate a bar of soap in the shape of the Muppets’ Fozzie Bear, because I loved him so much I wanted to consume him, even if doing so made me ill. I didn’t yet know the word foreshadowing. Fozzie was the only first of many pop-culture icons I feel shaped by. I’ve held longest to Kate Bush, the singer-songwriter who conjures Millais’s 1852 painting of Ophelia come to life, a beautiful young girl, singing to herself as she drowns, her pure, high upper register both childlike and demented. I was nine, in 1985, when Bush’s Hounds of Love unseated Madonna’s Like a Virgin from the top of the UK pop charts, presenting a different kind of sexuality. Hopping across New York in a Day-Glo tank top, Madonna was livin’ for the city, fueled by wolf whistles. Bush was fueled by dreamscapes, by her inner emotional life. That’s a good option, I thought. I could just live inside my head forever.
Bush emerged at the same time as Debbie Harry, but your punk-rock Grace Kelly was nothing like our prog-rock Ophelia. Never had one felt so worried for a pop star.
“Hold me down! It’s coming for me through the trees!” she sang on Hounds of Love’s title track. In “Running Up That Hill” she was ready to “make a deal with God.” I memorized the accompanying dramatic dance moves (to the lay observer they look like Martha Graham, but they’re actually Lindsay Kemp, whose interpretive dance classes Bush spent her original record advance on).
From her enormous popularity in Britain, I understood that men like mad women (see also Betty Blue that same year). Or: men like beautiful women, and if you happen to be crazy, extreme beauty will allow them to forgive it. Bush was so beautiful, with the slender body of the dancer she had been and the milky skin and dark hair of her Irish heritage. But mainly, she had the most amazing, staring eyes. Bush was probably the first sex symbol since Joan Crawford whose hallmark was staring.
My best friend Lizzie and I would send ourselves into raptures watching Kate Bush videos after school, loving her, loving each other, our emergent sexuality rotting our brains—it looked like it was rotting Kate’s—dangerous to men and to ourselves. We were Briony in Atonement, but with dance moves. We would write down SEX in pages torn from our school notebooks, and then shriek, crumple the paper, and eat the words.
When she first made it, Bush was not all that much older than we were—only sixteen when “Wuthering Heights” went to number one—but we could see the massive gap between us. We were obsessed with sex, but she’d had it—a kind of sex, it seemed, that had undone her.
Later, after a gap of twelve years, no longer an ingénue, Bush reinterpreted Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses as her song “The Sensual World.” She did it because she couldn’t get the rights to use the soliloquy itself.
… yes first I gave him the bit of seedcase out of my mouth …
Mmmmm yessss. Then I’d taken the kiss of seedcake back from his mouth …
“The Sensual World” was a conversation through the ages, like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a call-and-response between artists many generations apart.
I became a teenage music journalist. There was all this sensuality I carried in me, and it needed direction. But this was the height of Britpop. Guys wouldn’t really talk to us because they were saving themselves for Paul Weller, and by the time he showed up at parties, if he ever did, they’d be much too drunk to win his approval.
My first clear memory of sexual arousal comes from Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now—the opening sequence, where he’s so drunk and unhappy that he’s cutting himself with shards of his vodka bottle. Soon after discovering Martin Sheen, I became besotted with Cat Stevens on the inside cover of Teaser and the Firecat. He’d been Yusuf Islam for many years, but there he was, captured with his shiny black curls and bare chest. Looking back on a lifetime of impossible men, or “right guy, wrong time,” I note that my early focus was on a man who literally did not exist anymore.
I’d need to move to America to have real boyfriends, to meet men who were on quests and had destinies. I’d have to get older. But I was having a hard time with that, transitioning uneasily from child to adult. Bush’s artistic celebration of fragility and madness had so influenced me that when it actually happened, pulling me under one night in my Manhattan studio apartment, I didn’t see the problem. Madness had looked so good on her. No matter that I looked like hell and was desperately unhappy and also very dull and had no number-one hit singles and had not fallen in love with Peter Gabriel or had Prince write a song for me. I was just, you know, locked away at a psych hospital in the suburbs. Of course, if diabetes is a role model for mental illness, then one can be born with a genetic predisposition to manic depression, but your environment is also a factor.
I’m not saying I watched the “Wuthering Heights” video so many times that I’d decided, When I grow up, I want to go mental. But it had always seemed a reasonable alternative.
Things went really, really wrong for a while. And then, over the course of a decade, I came back to me, back from sea. And now that I am, well, far enough away to be publishing a memoir of those years, Kate has come back to me, too. In news that has astonished scholars of James Joyce, she has been given permission to use Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy from Ulysses, more than twenty years after asking. Bush’s upcoming “Director’s Cut” will be a reworking of her classic albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
“When I came to work on this project,” Bush explained to The Guardian, “I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes … I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfill the original concept.”
Oh, Kate. I want to get a yes where it had previously been a no. I want to go back and revisit many, many things and get permission and have it all turn out differently.
Emma Forrest is the author of Your Voice in My Head.
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