The first time I ever saw or heard Kate Bush was when she performed the song Them Heavy People from her debut album The Kick Inside on Saturday Night Live. It must have been 1978. My brother Jonathan and I burst into peals of laughter every time she sang the line “rolling the ball” in her distinctive high soprano and executed its accompanying dance move, a sort of arty, mannered step like she was throwing a bowling ball on an English estate in 1840. Her affect was otherworldly—like a sprite or something from a Shakespearean play. For weeks after Jonathan and I would run around the house singing “rolling the ball” in an English accent and curling an invisible ball toward the ceiling. And that was the last I saw of Kate for a little while.
When I got to N.Y.U. in 1983 and met Elisa Casas, she played me The Man With the Child in His Eyes one drunken night. My reaction to the song was so immediate, so intense. I identified with the lyric so powerfully. I was away at college but so young emotionally and, in many ways, so ill-equipped to deal with the world. Isn’t it amazing when a pop song can see into your soul? Here is a clip of Kate the Great singing The Man With the Child in His Eyes on a TV special in 1979. The conceit of having a “little Kate” acting out the song in the corner is so unnecessary, taking away as it does from what “big Kate” is doing at the piano, but what can you do? Even with this art school indulgence, it is a towering performance that conveys the essence of what makes Kate Bush so compelliong—a true original.
After Elisa introduced me to The Kick Inside I went out and bought all of her albums and I was enchanted. She released albums fairly regularly at that time but never had the tremendous success stateside enjoyed by peers like Annie Lennox—this perhaps owing to the fact that she wouldn’t come to America to promote her work and didn’t like to tour. I would venture that it had more to do with the music itself: otherwordly, theatrical, uncommercial, utterly unique. Her most visible moments in America was the mid-1980s mid-chart hit Running Up That Hill and Don’t Give Up, the stunning duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel a few years later.
Though she has influenced many artists—Joanna Newsom and Tori Amos come to mind immediately—and she is a legend of Joni Mitchell-like stature in the U.K., Kate Bush enjoys only a cult following in the U.S. The sublime (and underappreciated) album The Sensual World (1989) included This Woman’s Work, one of the greatest Kate Bush compositions. Here is a live performance from that time. Just Kate accompanying herself on the piano, (with no “little Kate” acting out the lyric), and it is absolute perfection. I’ve always said that someone sitting at a piano and touching your heart with a song is the absolute ideal and the most elusive of all special effects. And at the end of the day, the possession of that rare gift is the legacy of Kate Bush.
Happy birthday to Kate the great, from a man with the child in his eyes.