Kate Bush

The Continuing Allure of Kate Bush

Gillian G. Gaar

By Gillian G. Gaar

on 09.26.14 in Features

Immigration agents aren’t known for their friendliness. But when my plane touched down at Heathrow Airport in early September, I felt I had a pretty good line to help me breeze through customs. Sure enough, when asked about the purpose of my visit to England and I replied, “to see Kate Bush,” the agent actually smiled. “Oooh!” she said. “You’re one of the lucky ones who got tickets!”

‘Who was this woman? Many trips to local used record stores followed in the hopes of finding someone else’s Kate Bush cast-offs.’

But that was only to be expected. Bush’s return to the stage for her first full-length concerts in 35 years was front-page news in her native Britain. When tickets for the 22 shows went on sale in March, they sold out in minutes. The opening night (August 26) was live blogged by the Guardian. Since August, eight of her albums have leapt back into the U.K. Top 40 — a record for a female artist. Use of the word “genius” quickly became ubiquitous in the flood of articles written about her.

Yet her commercial fortunes are more modest stateside. Of her 10 studio albums, only two have poked into the Top 40, with 1993′s The Red Shoes being the highest, at an unimpressive No. 28 on The Billboard 200. “I believe her reluctance to travel had a lot to do with why she never broke big in America,” says Kurt Reighley, aka DJ El Toro at Seattle-based radio station KEXP. Yet Bush has also seemed distinctly uninterested in cracking what was once the largest record market in the world. “I’ve never seen it in terms of you make an album and then conquer the world,” she told Pulse magazine in 1989. “I must say it’s never really worried me that I’ve not been big in America.”

Which means that especially for American fans, Bush has always been something of a mystery. She had the chance for greater U.S. success: Following the release of her first album, The Kick Inside, in 1978, she made a promotional jaunt to the States (including an appearance on Saturday Night Live) and was offered an opening slot on Fleetwood Mac’s U.S. tour, who were riding high on the success of Rumours. Yet she turned down the chance to boost her profile. “It would have required compromise,” Brian Southall, head of publicity and artistic development at Bush’s label, EMI, explained to Bush’s biographer Graeme Thomson. “And one thing Kate isn’t good at is compromise.” She wouldn’t return to the U.S. for another seven years.

So in America, people tended to discover Bush by chance. As when Seattle musician and teacher Gretta Harley, then living in Long Island, picked up Bush’s fourth album, 1982′s The Dreaming, at the record shop where she worked. “Here was a woman musician/instrumentalist and producer, who could also really sing, and I had never heard of her,” she recalls. “I took the record home and put it on the turntable and my head exploded! It was the wildest, strangest pop music I had ever heard. It wasn’t pop. But it was. I was hooked.” Harley, who saw Bush’s show in September, cites her as an influence for her own work: “When I discovered a woman musician who was smart, bold, unabashed, who controlled her own music, and who was a physical mover and brought a theatrical flair to her music, I thought I found a kindred spirit who was doing what I had hoped to do one day.”

‘You couldn’t find her records at mainstream stores. She wasn’t played on the radio. There was no mention of her in the U.S. rock press. And her videos only made sporadic appearances on TV.’

Reighley became, in his words, “fixated,” after seeing a video of Bush’s 1978 breakthrough hit, “Wuthering Heights,” on television, “but I had zero idea how to hear more.” This was a key obstacle at the time; Bush’s music wasn’t readily available. You couldn’t find her records at mainstream stores (after The Kick Inside‘s failure in the U.S., EMI America wouldn’t release another of her records until The Dreaming). She wasn’t played on the radio. There was no mention of her in the U.S. rock press. And her videos only made sporadic appearances on TV.

The “Wuthering Heights” video was my entry point as well (shown to me by a friend who taped videos off MTV). It’s potent in its simplicity: Dressed in white, with dry ice providing the requisite spookiness, and lit so her auburn hair glows, Bush’s wide-eyed, impassioned wailing as Cathy desperate to be reunited with her Heathcliff seemed otherworldly. Who was this woman? Many trips to local used record stores followed — the only option in those pre-internet days — in the hopes of finding someone else’s Kate Bush cast-offs.

Kate Bush

The author’s Kate Bush zine

The lack of information about Bush made it more imperative to share what little kernels you stumbled upon. I was inspired to publish a fanzine, For the Love of Kate, its title meant as a self-deprecating reference to my own adoration/obsession of Bush (a recent Google search turned up a copy of issue No. 1 selling for $7 at gemm.com). In addition to reviews of Bush-related releases, I filled out the pages with jokey articles about Bush possibly replacing Michael Crawford as the title character in The Phantom of the Opera or announcing her starring role in the new feature film Elizabeth I: The Musical.

Though the zine was only publicized in a few other Bush fanzines, I received numerous letters from around the U.S., and abroad. A common theme from the U.S. fans was isolation; they knew no other Bush fans, and were thrilled to have someone, however distant, to talk to about her (“I have always felt a little alone in my personal fandom,” says Christopher Svara, a 44-year-old engineer who discovered Bush at age 10 through Pat Benatar’s cover of “Wuthering Heights”). But interest in Bush grew throughout the ’80s in the U.S. The Dreaming found a welcoming home on college radio, and a subsequent limited theatrical screening of Live at Hammersmith Odeon (documenting her 1979 tour), helped generate a groundswell of support that led to her next album, Hounds of Love, finally cracking the U.S. Top 40 (peaking at No. 30 on The Billboard 200), with Bush returning to the states for promotional appearances and a hours-long autograph session at Tower Records in New York City.

‘After spending years as the only Bush fans we knew, we were now part of an exclusive club.’

Bush considered touring — if there was any time to set up a U.S. tour, it was then — but it didn’t happen. There were also thoughts of a tour after the release of 1993′s The Red Shoes, but Bush chose to direct her energies toward a short film based on the album’s songs (The Line, the Cross & the Curve). The film was poorly received (Bush herself later wrote it off as “a load of bollocks”), and Bush seemingly disappeared, not to resurface until the release of Aerial in 2005.

But the fervor that arose with the announcement of her 2014 shows showed her allure hadn’t dimmed among her fan base. “I think the hard core of Kate’s fans are very drawn to the music,” says Peter Fitzgerald-Morris, co-editor of Homeground, a long running Bush magazine and now website. “It is an important part of their life. It touches them at a deep level so that playing it and talking about it are continuous activities.”

The 2014 shows galvanized Bush fans around the world: “Martin’s Kate Bush Meet Up Group,” a Facebook page set up by a London fan for pre-gig gatherings, quickly gained more than 1000 members, from places as far flung as Australia, Poland and Saudi Arabia. Bush’s U.S. fans discovered they were not alone after all. “I was actually shocked to learn of so many closeted Kate lovers when I posted on my Facebook wall that I got tickets to see a show,” says Harley, a sentiment echoed by Svara, who attended on Martin’s pre-gig meet ups at a local pub with his wife: “It was surprising to see so many people who were into Kate as I was.” After spending years as the only Bush fans we knew, we were now part of an exclusive club.

Especially since no one has any idea if Bush will ever perform again; perhaps when her run of shows ends on October 1, she’ll retreat from public view. But Bush’s fans have long known she’s an artist determined to do things in her own time. “I think it’s interesting that while she has long stretches where she’s out of the public eye, she seems quite content to let fans do and say and dream what they like on her behalf, whether she’s actively creating or not,” Reighley observes. “She’s very much a 20th-century pop artist. And in this accelerating world I appreciate that no end.”