As everybody in the world except me seems to have seen Kate Bush’s live shows — against all apparent arithmetical sense — these have been gloomy weeks in the primary Berkmann residence. Even the mother of my children managed to acquire a last-minute freebie, even though she only really likes the first two or three albums and Bush didn’t play those. Admittedly, I would have had more chance of getting tickets if I had applied for some, but no sensible English male turns down the chance to sulk like the teenager he most certainly was when he stuck the poster that came free with Lionheart on his bedroom wall. No doubt everyone under 40 thinks we have all gone mad. If so, it’s a madness that was seeded a long time ago.
What we are giving thanks for is Bush’s survival, and our own. Like one or two of her contemporaries, she has found a second creative wind in middle age, having kept quiet for a few years when it must have seemed that the ideas had run out. From the outside it looks like a career that has been artfully and skilfully managed, although I’m sure it was much more haphazard than that. But long experience, and a belief in her own instincts that never seems to have wavered, have brought her to a point at which it would have been a considerable surprise if her shows had not been as excellent as they turned out to be. We trust her to get it right.
There is luck involved, though: so much luck. I was thinking this recently when the last of the Ramones’ original line-up keeled over. Tommy Ramone, first drummer and later the band’s producer, died of cancer in July at 65. Joey Ramone had died in 2001 of lymphoma. Dee Dee, the bassist, went in 2002 from a heroin overdose. Johnny, the guitarist, was felled by prostate cancer in 2004, aged 55. The four of them had started their career at almost exactly the same time as Kate Bush, playing daggy clubs in New York when she was recording demos in London with David Gilmour. And yet there was no second wind for them, creative or physical. The Jimi Hendrix Experience were the first band of the rock era to check out permanently, but the Ramones were the first four-piece. It’s a record of sorts, if not one you would want for yourself.
There is only one Bee Gee left, Barry, still leonine but ravaged by back pain. Michelle Phillips, aged 70, is the last Mama from the Mamas and the Papas. The Temptations are four down, one to go: Otis Williams (72) is last man standing. Badfinger are three down, one to go: guitarist Joey Molland (67) still tours with the band’s name. Three of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd line-up survive, but two of them left early and were replaced by people who have since died, who were replaced by people who died. Other band members who died have also been replaced by people who have since died. Their most recent album was called Last Of A Dyin’ Breed.
Only Chris Hillman of the Flying Burrito Brothers has made it this far. Iggy Pop has outlived the other three original Stooges (the drummer died in March). The Band are down to two of the original five members, Robbie Robertson (71) and Garth Hudson (77), and they’re probably not feeling very well. There are two Doors left, and two of the Who. The Who two.
There’s only one Kate Bush, of course, which is the strength (and the weakness) of the solo artist. But I suspect that the sheer force of will that propels you into a solo career in the first place also helps you endure the more fallow periods of that career. Leonard Cohen took nine years off between albums, most of which he spent in a Buddhist retreat. Joni Mitchell retires from time to time, appalled by the iniquities of the music business and her own inability to overcome them. Paul McCartney has done exactly what he wanted for more than 40 years.
Perhaps the only way to make a band work in the long term is if it’s your band, and you’re in charge. Bush’s old mentor David Gilmour is resuscitating the Pink Floyd name for a forthcoming album, but he doesn’t have to do that, and no one could stop him anyway. Control over your own destiny: in pop and beyond, it might just be the secret of a long and happy life.
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