"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
The first thing about Kate Bush is her voice. If you hate her, that’s probably why. It’s childish and prickly, and she sweeps through her four-octave range with all the inhibition of someone taking a shower in an empty house, seemingly oblivious to the fingernails-on-chalkboard effect a voice like that can have. Maybe Bush knows this and maybe she doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, she’ll sing anyway.
Catherine Bush was born on July 30, 1958, to a doctor and his nurse/dancer wife, in the town of East Wickham in Kent, England, 50 miles from Stonehenge. The woods around East Wickham, at dusk and in the early morning, take on a misty eeriness that carries the scent of something creaking and pagan and scary. And the farmhouses there, like the one Kate Bush grew up in, are old, 17th century old, and large and drafty and suggestive. It’s not hard to imagine that people have died in rooms like those from tuberculosis and consumption and childbirth, that torrid love letters were urgently delivered and ghosts rattled the windows at night. And if you are a bookish teenage girl, and you have the kind of imagination that fills in the gaps that life leaves open for you, you will, in a place like East Wickham, have a little Kate Bush in you.
Kate Bush was a small person in a small town: meek, delicate and, in the recollections of her classmates, annoyingly passive, as reported by Fred Vermorel in his “Secret History of Kate Bush: And the Strange Art of Pop.”
“She was so nice it was ridiculous,” said one.
Another said: “I was jealous of her. So petite and so pretty. A perfect little goody-goody.”
Vermorel quotes Bush saying, “School was a very cruel environment and I was a loner. But I learnt to get hurt and I learnt to cope with it.” One way she coped was by coming home from school and making up songs at the piano. Loner songs. She went inward early on and never came out again.
When Bush was 16, she produced a demo tape with the help of her two musician brothers, Paddy and John Carder, who managed to get the tape, through friends, to Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Gilmour liked it and passed it on to EMI, which promptly came back to Bush with a remarkable deal: The record company wanted her but didn’t think she was ready yet. So they gave Bush money and three years to “grow up with.” Bankrolled, she dropped out of school and played local shows as the KT Bush Band, with her brothers as backup. She took mime classes and dance, both of which would always be a part of her work; then in 1977 she gave EMI a gigantic hit.
There are probably few things more galling for an established musician than reviewers who hover lovingly around work you did 25 years ago, ignoring or glossing over anything more recent. This has always been Kate Bush’s problem. “The Kick Inside,” her first album, went to the top of the British charts almost immediately, largely based on the success of “Wuthering Heights,” her first No. 1 single and the most commercially successful of her career.
“Wuthering Heights” sounded like nothing else. It seemed to come out of some raging tornado inside her; it growled and screeched and pitched, as Bush/Cathy begs her lover Heathcliff to come join her in death.
Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely
On the other side from you …
How could you leave me
when I needed to possess you
I hated you
I loved you too.
Bush has always teetered dangerously at the edge of sentimentality and cliché, and her early songs (what one reviewer called her “soft-focus Victorian melodramas”) could have gone all wrong had her bizarre phrasing not somehow let us know how serious she was.
Bush sang melodramas, but she meant them like truth; those “oohs” aren’t filler. The conviction in her voice, the baldness and great crushing desperation of it, is overpowering. It’s the kind of music that grabs your innards and you turn it up, squint your eyes with the strain of it. Kate Bush was younger than 20 when she wrote “Wuthering Heights.” She couldn’t (and still can’t) read or write music, but she knew how to make a song true, how to up the tension with a key change, repeat the chorus with a hardness in her voice.
She was a prodigy, an 18-year-old who looked 35, with an ethereal voice and a knack for inventive songwriting. She looks, in photos of the time, simultaneously naive and defiant, like someone who doesn’t need other people. Much later in life, when she was asked in an interview with Rolling Stone why she toured so infrequently, Bush replied: “The more I got into presenting things to the world, the further it was taking me away from what I was, which was someone who just used to sit quietly at a piano and sing and play. It became very important to me not to lose sight of that.”
In other words, Bush decided early on that our approval didn’t matter. She was doing this from herself and largely for herself and if people didn’t like her, or if they didn’t understand her, well then, screw them.
She did everything herself, and it shows in the absolute precision of her songs. There’s nothing spontaneous about Bush’s elaborately produced arrangements, from the way she weaves her voice around the Trio Bulgarka, in “Rocket’s Tail” on the sixth album, “The Sensual World” (1989), to the way she mixes in sound effects — street sounds, bird sounds, artillery shots, wind, conversations — in stereo, sometimes barely audibly. There’s a decisiveness here, and more than a touch of the perfectionist. Bush was only 21 when she said to an interviewer from England’s Newcastle Journal: “I’ll always be tough on myself. But I find the strength in being alone, fighting a battle and emerging satisfied that I’ve done my best. Perhaps that’s what is strange about me.”
Kate Bush fan sites commonly and adoringly refer to her “getting her way” about everything from the production of an album to the amount of time she has to produce it, from the look of a video to the image on her album jackets. She’s stingy with interviews (and is said to demand veto power over which photos will accompany the magazine articles) and as a result of this and her insistent aloofness, the interviews that do get published inevitably come off a little dull. One Rolling Stone interviewer described the frustration of trying to get Bush to speak about her personal life: “Try to pin her down on a matter of emotional substance and her expression goes blank, a shutter descends — clunk! — and that’s the end of that.”
Kate Bush wants fame the way Greta Garbo wanted it. She pours her guts out in her music and dance and belts out her words with barely a trace of self-consciousness, but the edges of her private life — her relationship with bass player Del Palmer, with her brothers, the recent birth of her son Bertie — have been airbrushed out to a maddening obscurity. It took Paddy Bush, Kate’s brother and longtime musical collaborator (he’s responsible for bringing world music — the didgeridoo, Bulgarian choruses, Irish jigs — to Bush’s music), to explain her reclusiveness so plainly that you almost like her for it.
“I know this may give her a mystique and make the press all the more curious about her, but that’s not the intention; it’s not a ploy to get her more attention. She genuinely doesn’t see why people should be interested in her personal life and she certainly doesn’t like going out to clubs or trendy restaurants. It’s just not her.”
“It’s the music that says it; it says it eloquently enough,” Kate Bush said in an interview with the Toronto Star. Clunk!
“The Kick Inside” was followed quickly by “Lionheart” in 1978, the cover of which features Bush, her penchant for leotards and bodysuits firmly established, on all fours in a furry catsuit, her hair crimped into a mane. “Lionheart” was followed by “Never Forever” in 1980. If “The Kick Inside” offered Victorian novels and Feminism 101 (“No we never die/We keep bouncing back/Because we’re woman!” she exulted), “Never Forever” went dark, winning Bush her goth audience. She was getting weirder too: On this album cover she’s dressed up as a bat, black lace wings outstretched, tongue way out.
She was still young when she made “Never Forever,” and some of her songs gush with a naive exuberance that’s endearing when it works and saccharine when it doesn’t. She’s crazy for Egypt (“Oh, I’m in love with Egypt!”), the violin (“Get the bow going, let it scream to me!”). But it’s the last song on the album, one called “Breathing,” that really brings out Bush at her hugest, most theatrical, over-the-top best.
On “Breathing” she pulls no punches. Her telling of nuclear holocaust starts right at the moment of death, at the last gasp. “Chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung,” she sings with so much anguish that it works. It’s one of the only truly scary songs I know.
What are we going to do without
Ooh, please, let me breathe
Quick, breathe in deep
Leave us something to breathe
We are all going to die
The drastic scale of this song, the way it ends — a single synthesized thud signaling some kind of global death knell — would be a little, well, silly if it weren’t so convincing. Possessed of a confidence so strong, and a sense of self-importance so grave, Bush attacks that song like it’s the last one she’ll ever sing. You could laugh at her, but it would be like laughing at a monk; how do you argue with someone whose conviction is that strong? Can you help finding yourself just a little converted?
It wasn’t until “Hounds of Love” (1985), Bush’s fifth album, that she finally became well known in the United States. Even with the success of that album, she’s better known here as an influence for a generation of young female singer-songwriters such as Jewel, Tori Amos and k.d. lang. “Hounds of Love” was big, but Bush’s U.S. fame never matched what she’d had in England.
It may be that by the time Americans became aware of Kate Bush we’d already decided we liked our women tough. Patti Smith bared her armpit hair on the cover of “Easter” and wore her androgyny like a badge. Debbie Harry pouted and strutted, and Pat Benatar scowled. When Kate Bush looked at us, if she looked at us, she did so blankly, without insult or invitation. She didn’t bother to provoke.
When female American pop stars weren’t tough, they were languid and sexy, two things Kate Bush could never be, and she sounded forced whenever she tried. The early EMI photos do their damnedest to crank up the sex appeal, but there’s something a little cold about them, as if she’s holding back. Kate Bush is beautiful, but at heart, you sense, she never stopped being that overeager girl in drama class, the one with the guitar and the black turtlenecks.
Bush was never funny enough, either. Describing her youth, she once recalled, “I was aware of a lot of my friends being into things I wasn’t into. Like sarcasm. It had never been a part of my family — they still don’t use sarcasm.” That kind of sobriety is what allows Bush to pull off songs like “Breathing,” but sometimes, particularly in her recent work, you want her to take herself a little less seriously.
Bush’s latest album is not very recent; it came out in 1993. “The Red Shoes” was based on the Hans Christian Andersen story about the girl who puts on a magic pair of slippers and finds herself unable to stop dancing. Like “Wuthering Heights,” this is perfect Kate Bush material. It’s got magic and dancing and tragedy, and the vaguely sinister mood that permeates so much of her music.
Bush could have toured “The Red Shoes.” Fans are still awaiting a follow-up to her only tour, in 1979 — an elaborately choreographed costume extravaganza that necessitated the invention of the first microphone headset. But she chose to make a movie instead, opting for the contained and controllable over the interactive, and called it “The Line, the Cross and the Curve.” Like her albums, the video was a Bush-only affair, with Kate singing, dancing, acting (along with Miranda Richardson and others), directing and presiding over the production.
It wasn’t disastrous: Bush’s fans are tuned in to the Kate Bush sensibility, and the thick symbolism of it fits an aesthetic she’s been developing all along. She made a film that’s as laden with emotion and meaning as anything else she’s done, but she’s like someone remembering a dream she had the night before; Bush gets so lost in the story that she forgets whom she’s talking to. She leaves her audience behind.
“It’s not important to me that people understand me,” Bush said in an interview after the film’s release. And thank God for that. Bush may have lost us with “The Red Shoes” and “The Line, the Cross and the Curve,” but it wasn’t the first time she’d taken the chance. She took us to the apocalypse, after all, and if she’d been too concerned with what we’d think of her for that, she never would have made the trip.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)