Every Time It Rains: How Kate Bush and Patti Smith Immortalized Wilhelm Reich in Song
Inspired by Wilhelm Reich's "energy of orgasms", Kate Bush is stylized, controlled, lush, and multi-layered in her approach; Patti Smith, on the other hand, is ferocious and driven.
In 1978, a 20-year-old Kate Bush released The Kick Inside, an album of deeply strange, moving music she had recorded at various times from 1975-1977. Bush's soaring, dramatic four-octave range soprano soared through songs about kites, saxophones, strange phenomena and a man with the child in his eyes (all on side one.) The track "Wuthering Heights", a gorgeous realization of the classic Emily Bronte novel sung to Heathcliff from Cathy's perspective, was typical of what Bush represented in those days.
This breathtakingly beautiful young woman with a thick mane of lion-like hair and large brown eyes was a dancer, a singer, and equal parts seductive and lethal. In those pre-MTV days, Bush was less a video star than a cinematic musical savant who could give birth to a song like "Them Heavy People" that opened with childish lines (Rolling the ball/ Rolling the ball) and in the middle dropped references to Gurdjief and Jesus. The remarkable and distinctly original presence known as Kate Bush had started, and her artistic children Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, Bjork, and PJ Harvey (among many) were furiously taking notes.
By 1985, seven years into her recording career and four years into the MTV era (when the "M" in that cable network's name stood for "music") Bush released Hounds of Love, a remarkably rich sonic exploration of love, senses, loss, and desire. The sound of such tracks as "Running Up That Hill [a deal with God]" is very much of the era: synthesizers and drum machines and textured echos. Side two (before streaming and CDs and when artists were able to construct things this way) featured seven linked songs featuring a character stranded on a slab of ice in the middle of the ocean. Bush's triumphant 2014 Before the Dawn concert appearances in London marked not only her first concert performances in 35 years but also a stunning realization of that narrative.
Parts operatic, dramatic, and all theatrical, Hounds of Love came alive again in 2014 but its heart was already beating in 1985, its release year, and vital for those willing to surrender to it. In particular, the song "Cloudbusting", the final cut from side one, stood out above the others. "It's about a special relationship between a young son and his father," Bush recalled. In 1973, Peter Reich had written and published a memoir (Book of Dreams) about life with his father Wilhelm, best known for his belief that an energetic connection he called "Orgone" was shared by all living beings. Wilhelm developed a device he called an "orgone accumulator" and its goal was to collect the energy. As a result, US government officials confiscated his material and sentenced him to two years in prison in 1956 for contempt of court.
"What astounded Dr. Reich… for over two thousand years… this orgone energy… was overlooked… [he] discovered… the energy responsible for the biological pulsation of life on earth (and possibly the universe.)" -- Alex Denney, Dazed
The video for "Cloudbusting" was rich and cinematic in its time, and while it might seem awkward today (Bush dressed in dungarees and what one writer noted a "red Dennis the Menace" wig), there's a sweeping beauty in its seven minutes. Bush the esoteric auteur is in full-force here. Friendly with director Terry Gilliam, whose 1985 classic "Brazil" was released 6 months before the video, "Cloudbusting" opens with a shot of actor Donald Sutherland (as the scientist father) and Bush, as the young song, pushing a giant machine up a hill. There are pipes, levers, pistons, and as they aim it towards the sky we wonder what they're going to capture. Bush (as the boy) embraces his father and pulls from his jacket pocket a copy of Peter Reich's A Book of Dreams. Innocence is captured in the midst of all those rolling hills and the emerald green Oxfordshire countryside.
The video covers the connection between father and son -- government officials capturing the father, and the son's eventual triumph. The father is driven away into an unknown fate, and the son runs up to the machine, still atop the hill, and manages to make it work. "It's like the son's coming out," Bush sings, "your sun's coming out." The clouds burst and the rain falls down like a baptism cleansing those who would interrupt progress. The innocence of the video's story can't get deep into the life and times of Wilhelm Reich, the radical Austrian émigré psychoanalyst who wanted to capture the energy of orgasms (or, as he called it, "orgone"). What it does accomplish is to match the driving pulse of Bush's melody, the lilt of her voice as it soars above the rolling hills, and the promise of reunion for a separated father and son.
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It was fortuitous that Bush tracked down Sutherland to play the Reich role in this video. "Everything about Reich echoed through me," Sutherland noted about his decision to take on the role. "He was there then [as Sutherland prepared for his role in the 1976 Bernardo Bertolucci fascism epic "1900"] and now he was here." (Matt Simon, Wired) The idea of focusing a song on the research of a psychologist and psychoanalyst whose life's work was about harnessing organic energy might seem grandiose, esoteric, and more than a little flighty, but Bush was more than up for the task.
Grandiosity has always needed a champion, and this story about harnessing the roots of the ultimate human intense energy seemed tailor-made for Bush, but Patti Smith had already gotten to the story. In her 1975 album Horses, Smith mused about a scene from Peter Reich's memoir in which the writer at a boarding school -- there ostensibly to wait out his father's prison sentence -- believes a series of flying saucers had come to rescue him. Her song "Birdland" is a nine-minute poetic semi-improvised piece with lines like "And he saw his daddy 'hind the control boards… He was very different tonight/ 'Cause he was not human, he was not human."
The brooding, atmospheric fear was perfect for Smith, dark and defiant, but there was more to the story. What was it about the story of Wilhelm Reich and his Orgone Accumulators that became so perfect for Kate Bush and her brand of theatricality? Patti Smith intoned a piece of the story and made it perfect for her world, but there was still more to say. "It's a song with a very American inspiration," Bush noted. "Unfortunately, the father was imprisoned because of his ideas. In fact, in America, in that period, it was safer not to stick out."
If we watch "Cloudbusting" today, or the 2015 performance Patti Smith gave of "Birdland" at her 30 December 2015 birthday performance, we see two drastically different styles. Bush is stylized, controlled, lush, and multi-layered. Even in live performances (of which there are only a 1985 version is readily available on video), she is completely in control of her goals. She will not fall apart.
Smith, on the other hand, is ferocious and driven. She intones, dramatically, standing behind a microphone stand. She rips pages off her lyric sheet, throws them on the stage, eventually crumpling her last page into a ball of fury. Halfway through her nine-minute performance she pulls off her black-rimmed glasses and puts them in the pocket of her suit jacket. The styles are drastically different not just in the artists but also the sound of the music. Bush will return with another slice of beauty, but Smith throws everything into her performance, spitting on the stage a few minutes to the end, and eventually calming down to bring it to a quiet conclusion. She may seem in chaos, but her control is remarkable. Watching these two women draw personal inspiration from the story of Wilhelm Reich assures us that Orgonon is alive and well.
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