Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stepping out, off the page...

It's no secret that Kate Bush is an incredibly literate musician. Her single 'Wuthering Heights' is a literary reference all its own, as is 'Song of Solomon'. She quotes Tennyson in the notes for The Ninth Wave. And she obviously loves James Joyce. Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Ulysses gave me a visceral response the likes of which I've seldom experienced, and I remember my astonishment when I first heard Kate's 'The sensual world' which pays it homage. (As far as Joyce is concerned, one can't forget 'My lagan love', either.)

That obvious degree of literacy is the only reason why this would have ever crossed my mind.

I am on the verge of finishing The Sleepwalkers, a trilogy by Hermann Broch. It's been an interesting read, at times more intellectual than I would prefer in fiction, but a remarkable work, no question. The three inflected sections cover three generations and three world views, setting an incredibly nuanced stage for the rise of Nazi Germany. This is by no means The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich; it traces the cultural, even metaphysical, rather than the political shifts that gradually fomented the culture which supported Hitler.

Near the end of the third section there are a few vignettes that, taken together, made me think of one of Kate's songs. One of the main characters (Huguenau) is a war deserter who scams the town council into a fraudulent investment involving their own local paper. He hosts a town party, during which he dances the waltz on the nearly deserted dance floor near the end of the night. Later, in an act of provocation, he publishes an account linking the local battalion's Major (another main character) to poor conditions at the prison. Shortly after, the Major learns that Huguenau is a deserter, and muses that he had "looked on while the man danced." He reflects:

"Chaos was invading the world on every side and chaos was spreading over his thoughts and over the world, darkness was spreading, and the advance of darkness sounded like the agony of a painful death, like a death-rattle in which only one thing was audible, only one thing certain, the downfall of the Fatherland - oh, how the darkness was rising and the chaos, and out of that chaos, as if from a sink of poisonous gases, there grinned the visage of Huguenau, the visage of the traitor, the instrument of divine wrath, the author of all the encroaching evil." [p. 582]

I know that in interviews Kate has explained that 'Heads we're dancing' was inspired by a friend of hers who enjoyed the company of a man at a dinner party, only to learn later that he was Oppenheimer. [Roger Scott's Radio One interview with her on 10/14/89 is cited.] But I can't help wondering if anything else was sleeping in Kate's subconscious when it came time to write 'Heads we're dancing'.

You talked me into the game of chance
It was '39 before the music started
When you walked up to me and you said
'Hey, heads we dance'
Well I didn't know who you were
Until I saw the morning paper
There was a picture of you
A picture of you, across the front page...

They say that the Devil is a charming man

And just like you, I bet he can dance
And he's coming up behind
In his long tailed black coat dance...

There was a picture of you
A picture of you in uniform
Standing there with your head held high
Hot down to the floor
But it couldn't be you
It couldn't be you
It's a picture of Hitler...

Sting may be the only pop musician out there who has a chance at being better read and more likely to show his literary influences than Kate Bush. Maybe I give her more credit than she deserves as, to quote Henry James, "one of the people on whom nothing is lost." But I am fascinated by the way these passages from The Sleepwalkers resonate with 'Heads we're dancing'.

Kate Bush official website