Before The Dawn – A Prologue (with setlist spoilers) :: 13-9-14

Let me be weak, let me sleep, and dream of sheep

A first. This is a first. I’ve never written a preview of a gig before. The closest I’ve ever come was writing the opening two paragraphs of my Poughkeepsie review before I saw the show. Reading now, it’s presumptuous; it predicts being changed (even though I was) by something I hadn’t yet experienced. Is it possible to know that something will change you before you are present? Or is it just something you feel, like a premonition? I’ve never felt pressure to love or hate something based on what other people, friends or strangers, have said. And I don’t feel it this time, but I do seem to instinctively somehow just know that I am about to see something special.

It’s not rare, in any event, to have prior information about a pop concert. When you go to see the Stones you know what songs you’ll get. In fact, when you see most artists – Arcade Fire, Morrissey, McCartney, even Björk – you know what you’re going to hear and see, largely. There are certain songs you know will be played, the performer/s will move and sing in familiar poses and tones and, on a good night for you and them, will reach you in a certain, visceral, emotional way. Surprises may come to meet you, but we go to see pop or rock shows precisely because of those degrees of comfort, nostalgia and familiarity. At jazz concerts, the pieces you know from the albums probably aren’t going to be played note for note (it’s unlikely but can happen), so you’re most likely going to spend your evening in sonic surprise. At classical recitals, improvisation is surely unlikely (I could be wrong, I’m a beginner at classical, at best), so unless you know the music back to front it’ll be a new exploration. But even then, of course, you know how those instruments in those combinations sound, even if some of the specifics are unknown to you. In the case of popular music, if you know the songs as part of your muscle memory, you might hope for something visually arresting to accompany them. Something, anything, as an unexpected flourish of sound or vision makes the eyes sparkle and the synapses fire. However, It’s rare to get everything in combination: songs you know + something you’ve never seen before + the feeling that you’re seeing something unprecedented. This gold dust formula can and should all = a unique night. It might not be the music itself that’s going to be a surprise: you’re excited because you have the sense of being present at an event.

Even allowing for the fact that I’ve seen hundreds of gigs, the mere act of going to a performance of any kind fills me with anticipatory excitement. Whether I’ve seen the artist a dozen times or never before, I have a bit of a sleepless night, as I fantasise about what the show’s going to be like. It’s a bit like going on holiday – having something, whether big or small, to look forward to… isn’t that what makes life worth living?

Having said all of that, even if you (think you) fundamentally know what a concert will contain, once in a blue moon you’ll be confronted with something so completely unexpected that you have no idea how to process it. While this usually happens at the gig, not before it, this is where I am, today, thinking about Kate Bush’s run of concerts in Hammersmith and what on earth it’s going to be like to see, pretty much, the only pop artist (of this size, certainly) who has never established herself as a live performer. The reasons for her absence from the stage are storied and varied and irrelevant to me (as in, none of my business). Did she feel her songs could live only as products of studio creativity that passed through listeners’ ears in private? Was stage fright a factor? What about the understandable trauma at the death of her lighting engineer on her sole outing, 1979’s Tour Of Life? A desire to simply retreat from the burdens placed on her, perhaps, as a female in pop music operating in a sexist industry atmosphere? (We think misogyny lurks around every corner today, and we’re right; but try it in the 1970s for size.) I don’t suppose the reasons matter, though the latter point does bring to mind a recent set of thoughts (and an online exchange) I had about music and femininity.

BBC4 screened a new documentary recently, no doubt made to cash in on these Hammersmith shows. It was very enjoyable and part of it illuminated views on the essentially feminine qualities of her music and persona. This, inevitably, elicited some unpleasantness on Twitter, the world’s toilet wall, and even on friends’ Facebook pages, with one person saying that she (yes she, incredibly) didn’t like female singers – a generalisation that I could barely believe I was reading. Back on Twitter, female creative expression was being roundly scoffed at, in this case in particular as the proponent is attractive but deemed to be strange. During this depressing stream of Tweets, I had a quite brilliant email thread going with my frequent gig companion. Back and forth we went, on the subject of what exactly it is that bothers men so much about women like Kate Bush. And yes, predictably, it was almost entirely men decrying her as a weirdo. They don’t really know what to do with women like her – who appear on the surface demure and slight, but are suspected of being like sirens drawing you onto the rocks; they are suspicious and find it easier to dismiss Bush and her musical contemporaries and descendants as crazy or kooky.

credit: John Carder Bush
Perhaps a deep misogyny lies at its heart, the idea that a woman drawing her artistic creativity so completely from her gender goes over their heads and makes them feel like they don’t understand, so they lash out, rather than try to engage or identify with it. Women who have the kind of agency that Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush and Björk and Madonna et al. have are a mystery, and thus are dangerous and must be shut down and stopped, or ridiculed, derided. Artistic content is dismissed because of a crazy dress she wore to that awards show that time, or that album cover with the breastfeeding or the leotards and wide-eyed, high-pitched undulated singing. Kate Bush is an incredibly beautiful, sensual woman whose virgin/whore ascribed sexuality fair bursts out of the screen in those early clips. Because she’s not fat or ugly or masculine, and cannot be ridiculed for her looks, this makes it easier to deal with her, to objectify her, to focus on her surface femininity: eyes, tits, red lips, long hair. To focus intently on that visual sexual aspect is the easiest thing in the world, and it lets them ignore what’s actually being said. And those chicks like Tori and Björk, well, they don’t wear revealing clothes to titillate, so they must be crazy harridans and probably man-haters.

We’ve all grown up with male voices in music, male bands, so where is the coping framework for someone as original as Kate Bush? Oh, the male Bowie, they say, because it’s easier to place her in that box (she stole plenty from him, of course, as he stole plenty from others). Music can be, but does not have to be, gendered. Music made by men isn’t always exclusively masculine, nor does music made by women have to be feminine. And certainly, you don’t have to be female to understand the music made by females. Yet here we are, talking about female musicians and female composers and female singers. When have you ever seen a man be asked what it’s like to be a man navigating his music career? When has a man ever been asked how he juggles his fatherhood with his job? When have you ever seen a man described as bossy, feisty or pushy? These are questions and terms directed exclusively at women and, while we have to tolerate it before we can change it, we are at least starting to talk about it and call it out for the misogynist rhetoric it is.

Music is so much about emotion and how comfortable you are able to feel when a song has that alchemy, that combination of notes that causes your eyes to get wet, in a song like This Woman’s Work. If men don’t feel comfortable with that level of emotion (or her total creative control of her own career) they can dismiss her by calling her kooky, then decry that emotional relationship to music that most people crave and respond to, and push anything that resembles real connection away. She can make that response easy, in some ways, because so much of her music, let’s face it, is pretty odd! A song like Wuthering Heights is so accepted now as a classic pop single. But listen to it, I mean, really listen. It is incredibly bizarre! Everything about it, the lyrics, the arrangement, orchestration and composition, the vocal… even today it seems shocking somehow; now imagine it in the 1978 world of felt-up and frightened girls in BBC dressing rooms and lumpen coked-up Eagles road crew favours.

Freed from the yoke of live performance, and how songs must be rendered with live bands, her music is imbued with this quite incredible, otherworldly quality, and perhaps nobody has embodied or employed the concept of using the studio as a musical instrument quite as well, or as opulently. Albums like The Dreaming and Never For Ever are strange, bewitching, wonderful and even surreal records. Incidentally, and perhaps it’s a combination of a high register and the sheer scale of those recordings, but she performs nothing from her first four albums at these shows.

Consumers of pop music are comfortable with outright sexuality, Rihanna et al., but women who confront, like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, are ‘scary’ and even marketed as such. Strong men are adored, yet strong women are feared and shut down, worldwide, every day. Even now, in the gushing reviews of Before The Dawn (the title she’s given to this set of shows), she is fitted neatly into the last of the three categories women are allowed to occupy (virgin, whore, mother). This has come to pass because she’s now 56, and not as svelte (another word used only to describe women’s bodies) as she once was. It seems fair game for the nastier sections of the press to call her ‘matronly’ and remark on how much she must have eaten, how she has ‘let herself go’. Some of the tabloid reviews are filled with euphemisms commenting on her weight, which is as predictable as it is depressing and tedious.

credit: Ken McKay/Rex Features
So she is now a benevolent mother figure, because imagine if she cared about being skinny and worked out and pulled and tucked herself like another pop star of the same age, Madonna (the irony of her name is a constant marvel) – then she would be dangerous again, and treated like Madonna is: as a woman stalking men in their 20s to fuck the life out of, like so much Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. And that is not acceptable, as no woman should be so dominantly in charge of her sexuality, as we live tacitly in a world littered with men in their 50s seeking out girls in their 20s and being high-fived for it. Femininity must be suppressed, feared and controlled. And this is why Kate Bush scares people: because they don’t know what to do with a woman who is feminine but absolutely never passive. And yet, outside the hideousness of the internet and all of its dark misogynist corners, you can find and be surrounded by people who get it, who get her.

So, second only to seeing Bowie live again, this gig next week is a special one. It’s a bucket list chance to see a performer who doesn’t perform. It’s up there with somehow getting to see Joni (who has retired from live performance) and Tom Waits (one show in England a decade ago, and in 1987 before that). In addition, in quite a staggering development, I’m actually going to see her twice, entirely by accident. On the morning of the sale, in the same frenzy as everyone else, I loaded up 22 pages (one for each date) and reloaded them all to the point of insanity, looking for a pair of tickets. I failed. And then, after nearly two hours of trying, I was barely concentrating between the incessant reloading and my own madness when I accidentally clicked on one ticket and a screen telling me I had five minutes to buy it appeared. I panicked. I bought it. Ok, so I had one. But this was no good, and I was a little upset about it. I told Leah and she was, of course, very happy that I had gotten a ticket. But, I didn’t feel good about it, as you’d imagine, and I went back in to try and get another for the same night. Another hour passed and, dejected, I had to admit defeat. I spent the day not talking to anyone – I wasn’t happy that I was going, I know what kind of a night it’s going to be and the idea of her not getting to see it was… well, we never got to see Bowie together, not that I’m trying to make a comparison, but there’s similar dash of magic about the pair of them. However, on the next day I was coming round a little to the idea because I had little choice but to. And then I got a message from my old friend Joe Wakeling. I’d completely forgotten that we’d had a conversation a few days earlier about the shows. He lives in Berlin and had said he was going to try for tickets too. I said, rather airily I recall, as even my ticket karma shouldn’t stretch all the way to Germany, that if he got in to try and get four, as we would happily take those two spares off his hands. You guessed the end of the story, right?

So we got two and I was bouncingly happy. And now I get to go twice! And how perfect it is to go with the very person who actually got me properly into Kate Bush in the first place. I only knew the hits. I thought she was fantastic but I didn’t understand her. I love whole albums, and prefer listening to song cycle concepts rather than singles collections, but I had no place to start. So on a particular day, some years ago, she says, this is the one, this is the album, listen to this and it’ll blow your mind: Aerial. Good lord, AERIAL. Released twelve years after her last album The Red Shoes, 2005’s Aerial is an utterly epic 80-minute double album and, to this day, if people tell me they don’t get Kate Bush I never send them running to singles or even, arguably, to her most complete album, Hounds Of Love. I send them to songs about nature, Pi, summer days, the sky, the sea, birdsong, contentment, childhood, motherhood and her washing machine. It was a revelation to me. I own all of her albums now, and it is still my favourite (not even Rolf can ruin it). However, it seems that Hounds Of Love is recognised as her most realised work – the first half has three big hits, the second half is a concept piece about a woman lost at sea, which she calls The Ninth Wave, as it is partially based on Tennyson’s The Coming Of Arthur:

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame

1. Ninth Wave
Ivan Aivazovsky

That excerpt, printed on yellow-aged paper, lands like confetti on the heads of the audience at these Hammersmith shows during the first half. I know, a spoiler. But they have been, even with warnings, unavoidable. I read with abandon the myriad reviews of the first night. Respected and august journalists wiping tears from their eyes and falling over themselves to claim it the greatest concert spectacle of all. My hope for the show before it began was that some of Aerial would be played, this being the reason I fell for her. My second hope was to hear some of Hounds Of Love, of course. Typically, I’m not a person who cares much about setlists. I have no time for that. I’ve never exited a gig complaining about anything the artist played (ok, once: Primus, they played two hours of B sides and rarities, it was interminable). I’ve also avoided the very few sneaked audio/video clips on You Tube; I’ve seen almost no photos of the stage set, even. Remarkably, in our digital age, 99% of the photos I’ve seen are of fans beaming outside the venue, as people are really letting their phones drop and putting themselves in the moment, incredible in itself! As a result of the reviews, I do know the seemingly unchanging setlist, but my excitement has not been dimmed remotely even though I know she performs the entire hour-long second half of Aerial and virtually all of Hounds Of Love. On Wednesday I’ll go to Hammersmith, fall asleep and wake up in a dream. Caitlin Moran’s Times review describes the show as being simply too much. As it’s subscriber-only, I’ll print some of it here (and I’ll finish with my three favourite reviews):

“Foyer, ticket, seat, waiting, lights down, roaring – a sound of love I have never heard before. Kate Bush walks on stage, a tangle of black hair and a pale face like the Moon, but beaming, like the Moon never did. We expected drama, or fear, or perhaps a ghost, but not someone beatific in a state of simultaneous calm and joy that you see in yogis and lamas, and very old couples holding hands on park benches, still in love.

Bush opens fire on the audience with Hounds of Love, which is like having every emotion you’ve ever experienced in your life all turn up at once, unannounced, as you’re leaving the house at 8am. It’s quantifiably too much. “Take my shoes off/ And THRRRROW them in the lake … Oh, here I go!”

… Interval. Foyer. The darker and deeper neurones have been fired up. Everyone here feels as if they are part of something on-rushing and huge. People touch more, use words that they never usually use in the supermarket queue or, tired, in the bathroom: “euphoric”, “astonishing”, “voltaic” (it means electric).

The second half takes us from the sea to the land and the sky. This is the second half of Aerial, and if we didn’t know what it was about then, we do now. Just: a day. A beautiful day. And how one might go wild trying to pin it down. For, in your younger years, you live for moments – a kiss, a song, the email that changes everything.

But as you move into your thirties and forties, your moment-hunger becomes longer, and you shift your obsession to whole days, instead – vexed with the inability of a photo, or a single song, to capture the amazing ones, the ones that truly grieve you to know you can never live again. Just to have, and keep, a whole day – that is the greatest magic you can imagine. It is all you wish, as you rush towards death. Where can we live but days?

In A Sea of Honey’s long day, nothing particularly remarkable happens, just as nothing really remarkable happens in Ulysses. The sun comes up, and “the sky is filled with birds”, and the Moon rises, and the protagonists swim in the sea, at night. But some people are just more alive than others, all eyes and mouth, and overloading senses – and that’s what Joyce was, and that’s what Kate Bush is. They appear in your life to remind you that to watch a sunrise is to watch a burning star, and that pollen is sperm, and summer is fleeting, and everything on Earth is so unlikely – so improbable – that we might as well live somewhere where Kate Bush can end a concert by turning into a one-winged bird and flying out into the auditorium, as 4,000 people roar for her return.

So what is it that you know, as you stagger out into Hammersmith – rattled, high and newborn again? This: that you have patiently waited 35 years to be reminded that you are alive.”

To write like that, what a gift… so, as she says, it’s all going to be too much. Every emotion happens to you all at once simply because you’re in a room with a person you never thought you’d be in a room with. I’ve read a hundred accounts from attendees on Twitter: to a human, everyone says they wept. These are not only reports from people who went to the first night, when it was utterly new: this is every night. The mornings after each show Twitter is filled with changed, emotional wrecks warning everyone to be prepared; one woman saying today her life has been leading up to the concert. Everyone is meeting their childhood memories face-on all at once. I don’t even have a childhood attachment to her and I don’t feel ready, not even close. But as sure as the days roll into night, Wednesday will come, and I will sit in a venue I saw Bowie in, and I expect it to be just as transformative. In this case, I don’t feel cowed or frightened of what I expect from her. I trust her to deliver, more than I’ve trusted anyone.
perhaps the best review I’ve read, by Simon Price in The Quietus
Alexis Petridis in The Guardian
pop star turned author Tracey Thorn writes brilliantly; worth reading for the subhead alone: “If we still ask, where has Kate Bush been all these years and why has she not done this before, my answer would be that I think she has been living the life that made this show possible.”

1. photo credit John Carder Bush
2. photo credit Ken McKay/Rex Features