By Andrew Fort
When the album “Hounds of Love” came out I was in high school. Even though Kate Bush was hugely popular in Europe, she was still perceived in the U.S. as bizarre, willful, and somewhat immature. If anyone knew about her at all, it was as “that chick who sang with Peter Gabriel.” I think that’s still all most people here know about her.
But I was obsessed. I had all the albums–on cassette. I read all the interviews. People used to see me walking home from school and think I was talking to myself. I wasn’t. I was just singing the entire album to myself. From start to finish. Track by track. With sound effects.
But I was a Freshman, so people wrote me off, and I was left to my liner notes and reviews. I remember one in particular (in ROLLING STONE, I think) which was unable to deny the songcraft and production ingenuity of the album, but which still wrote off the lyrics as nothing more than the rantings of a woman with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. And though I would have vehemently denied it to anybody I was trying to convert, I always felt the same about this one particular song, Cloudbusting: bizarre, willful, somewhat immature. I mean, she actually sings from the perspective of an eight-year-old here. She sings about her glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. She sings about her dad being taken away by the government.
Perhaps not coincidentally, my parents split up around this time. My dad had been jobless for a long while and I think this was the source of the conflict. My mom felt like she had to do everything and my dad felt worthless, a them which would carry through the rest of his life. At the time I didn’t really understand the pressures of having a family, so I spent most of the time in my room, with my liner notes and interviews and cassette tapes. With the kind of obsessive attention that only a high-school Freshman seems to have time to lavish on his favorite music, I even went so far as to seek out the book which inspired the song: A BOOK OF DREAMS by Peter Reich. It explained the backstory: Reich’s father, the brilliant scientist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, regarded glow-in-the-dark items as radioactive and was later taken away by “men in black” who thought him dangerous. Yet is still didn’t excused the childishness of the song or the video, in which Bush, with the aplomb that only someone as brilliant as she can manage when being totally ridiculous, dresses as a child and spends time with her magical, brilliant father (played by Donald Sutherland) until he’s taken away.
So. My father has been dead for nearly twenty years. He wasn’t brilliant. He wasn’t magical. Towards the end of his life he was close to being homeless, struggling with alcohol and joblessness. He wasn’t taken away by the government, but by a heart attack. And I was almost too busy trying to be an adult to even take notice.
About five years ago I wrote a calculatedly tear-jerking essay about him for a now-defunct website called Field Report. The site’s gone now, but at the time it was offering $1,000 prizes for winning entries. Even though I have never really written for money, this time I did. I won the $1,000, as I knew I would. But I still didn’t feel much. Because my dad had always been a cipher, someone I was vaguely embarrassed by.
Quickly enough the $1,000 evaporated, as money tends to do. And little things began to permeate the air, like alpha particles being ejected from a radioactive material. I began to feel guilty for writing the piece. I remembered the time my dad got so angry at my older sister that he broke down the bathroom door with his bare hands while she hid inside. I remembered the birthday when I had given him a carton of cigarettes, because he couldn’t afford his own. Then, the next year, to atone for contributing to his terrible smoking habit, I gave him a book of Mark Twain stories, only to learn somewhat later that he was most likely dyslexic and could barely read. As someone who writes, this realization hit me the hardest.
Then, slowly, happier memories began to come through. Tickle-torture matches. The way he could dance completely unselfconsciously, something I’ve never been able to do. How much he loved his parents.
My father wasn’t magical. He wasn’t brilliant. He was jobless, on the verge of homelessness, and could barely read. But I began to understand how difficult it all must have been for him. I began to see how earnestly he attempted to make a connection with his sometimes bizarre, willful, and immature offspring.
I think that what troubled me most about Kate Bush’s song when I was in high school was that it felt embarrassing and childish at a time when the last thing I wanted to be was embarrassing and childish. But the childishness was still with me. I hadn’t shaken it yet. And ultimately Kate Bush was right, as she seems to be about most things, given time.
My dad’s entire side of the family has died out, and often it seems to me like my his life was completely pointless, and it feels far too self-congratulatory to imagine that all of his struggling went towards forming my sisters and me.
But ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway, because his memory is like Kate Bush’s yo-yo: something radioactive which I keep in my pocket. And it continues to emit energy into the air whether I acknowledge it or not.
Cloudbusting video on YouTube