Some of my favorite songs ever I heard for the first time in my high school music room. This was pretty common at time. This was the early 90s. I lived in a town without a college radio station (even the pop/rock station had gone Full Country at the end of the 80s). Most of what I got, I got from magazines and MTV. Sometimes I’d overhear cool things at the coffee shop or over the PA at the store where they sold zebra print creepers, Manic Panic and incense , but in the pre-smart phone days finding out what was playing required talking to the older and infinitely cooler person behind the counter (it was usually The Cramps, by the way), a paralyzing prospect.
In the clamorous half hour or so between the dribbled-out end of lunch and the actual music-teacher-banging-a-chord- let’s get to this, folks beginning of chorus practice, nobody was minding the stereo system behind the piano. So if you got there early you could host a breathless Debaser dance party, teach exchange students the correct US pronunciation of Scenario, or watch a lot of people fail to act like they hated Tears for Fears.
Things were not always so upbeat, of course. Our high school chorus was stupid big (at peak there were about 100 of us, in a total student body of just under 200). And because we contained multitudes, the various tastes jockeying for a track on the stereo also included popular hits like Went to the Horde Tour And It Changed My Life, “I don’t feel comfortable with the way that couple is dancing to the Black Crowes in daylight,” and, my personal bete-noire Dude Who Always Plays Dan Fogelberg and Tries To Shush Everyone For The Whole Song.
My friend the Dryad was a semi-regular stereo wrangler. Her taste ran toward the kind of things you’d want to hex someone to in a peaceful forest glade at midnight, so it should surprise no one that she skedaddled out of lunch early in our Junior Year to cue up Running Up That Hill and by the time I got there, she’d already ascended that road, that hill, and had at least partway scaled that building.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Kate Bush. I’d heard that song of hers during the saddest scene in the weirdest John Hughes movie. I’m pretty sure I saw the Running Up That Hill video on MTV and probably, at ten-ish registered it as part of trend of hilariously inscrutable interpretive modern dance videos that I was simply too young to understand. But that day in the music room was the first time I heard Kate Bush. I was the perfect age. It was the perfect moment. I was exactly the right flavor of over-dramatic, drug store red hair dye-addicted sixteen-year-old, who was dedicated to a personal style that matched puffy shirts with velvet blazers and purple high top Chucks, and still secretly imagined she might grow up to have a torrid love affair with a dangerous man in a stately home with dark secrets on a wild and unforgiving moor. And, as the Tik Tok generation discovered last week, hearing that song at the right moment can feel epic.
I couldn’t even wait for a dubbed copy. When I left school that afternoon, I drove to the bookshop downtown, on the hunch that “Hounds of Love” would bfit right in with their highly idiosyncratic inventory (mostly weird records by women, traditional Irish music, and albums by or featuring Bela Fleck). I was right. I shelled out the 12.99 or whatever for the cassette, and let it blare it from my passenger seat stereo. By the time I got home, I was a true believer.
We lived a little ways up a mountain around the corner from a giant resort hotel. First semester junior year, I’d still come home from school in the evenings and try to force myself into a run in the damp orange October twilight. I’d slide Kate into the Walkman and jog the hill, wishing I could will my fat legs into the sprint necessary to take flight in the way the music demanded. I imagined myself soaring out over the foggy golf course and over the city. I imagined myself becoming so fast and graceful that I could shed my unfortunate teenage skin and become some perfect fusion of the Waterhouse Lady of Shalott and, like, Heathers-era Winona Ryder floating around in the moonlight. So I could become something that looked not unlike Kate Bush herself.
One of those nights, just prior to Halloween, I’d made all the way through to Side B, alternating walking and running, and was up the hill from the house, maybe an hour past actual sunset, not far from the hotel, when Jig of Life fiddled into action in my left headphone. In case, you haven’t listened recently: If I were to say the phrase “Deranged Celtic Witch Party” and ask you to describe what that sounds like, my guess is you’d land somewhere near the Jig of Life cauldron I wasn’t really a witch person at sixteen. Too much time spent around chipper Fleetwood Mac Wicca moms trying to push carob desserts on me had almost entirely negated the seductive appeal of the dark arts. But I liked the witchy vibe of that song in that moment. And the wind was brisk and the sky was overcast and bleeding purple at the margins, and I could swear I felt my thin, straight chin-length hair flow out behind me in some luscious pre-Raphaelite situation. I felt myself become silvery and Goddess-like, elusive and infinite
And then, I heard the dude’s voice.
So there’s this part of Jig of Life where it goes from creepy jig-inspired pop song to actual creepy jig, kind of an Irish Suspiria territory, then the jig ends, repeats a line –“I put this moment here”–twice against silence and on the third iteration, she is answered by a dude (her brother, Paddy, as it turns out), who then goes on to recite a poem against the backdrop of the fiddles backup singers doing an appropriately occult “Sha-na-na.”
But I wasn’t expecting the dude, or rather, I wasn’t expecting the way the dude’s voice would sound through my headphones. Because it sounded like it was coming from a place other than the music, from a place maybe deep inside of me, or perhaps direct from Hell, and in the moment, in the woodsy darkness down the hill from the hotel, my heart stopped and all I, a child raised in a liberal, secular household but nonetheless during the Satanic Panic years, could think was Oh holy shit, demons are talking to me. And so distraught was I that I stumbled as I tried to remove the headphones to arrive at some conclusion about whether my entire understanding of the whole metaphysical fucking plane of existence had just been inalterably shattered. I hit eject, I stumbled, then launched and landed almost face-first on the asphalt. As I was going down, I realized too late that 1) the voice was part of the song and 2) solid odds I was about to break the Walkman.
This latter bit was truly devastating. More devastating than the scrapes on my palms and knees, deployed just in time to spare my pimply face. My fateful choice to the hit the eject button just prior to falling also meant that I’d lost sight of the cassette, so I was fumbling around on the side of the road, when I realized there was a light on me, and an actual, probably non-demonic human dude in a hotel branded van was asking me if I was okay.
“You were weaving all over the place jogging down that hill, and then you fell, “ he said. “I thought maybe you were drunk or sick.”
I was quite sober, crushingly sober, and so very abashed, that my graceful, bewitched flight down the hill had just looked like I was weaving around like a drunken idiot. I stood up and tried to pretend like nothing hurt and I was absolutely fine.
He asked if I was a guest and offered to give me a ride back to the Inn. I had a solid policy of not accepting rides from strange men in vans, even if they were hotel vans, so I said no. He puttered away. I found the tape in a puddle, so wet that I was afraid to play it, but seemingly otherwise unharmed.
The Walkman survived the fall, even if it ended up being a little wonky on the Fast Forward. I still listened to Kate Bush, but I didn’t listen to Kate Bush while running as much and I certainly listened less to Side B of Hounds of Love. Not because I worried it would unsettle me again, but because it made me embarrassed to think about how easily I’d been unsettled.
Kate Bush, still one of my favorites, even now, is a solid gateway drug to next level weird, like, weirder than the Upside Down, weird, kids. From Kate Bush, my immediate path went something like Angela Carter to Patti Smith to PJ Harvey to Kathy Acker to being uncomfortably over-aware of Cloudbusting samples in songs that got played at college parties. But I could have, just as easily, ended up way into astral projection, snake-centered burlesque performance art, or deep into a conspiracy theory about King Arthur being an alien prophet who will one day float out of the earth in Glastonbury and teleport all gingers to Vampire Merman Atlantis (seems reasonable).
As a point of interest, the same day I bought Hounds of Love, I also picked up a copy of the Cocteau Twins Blue Bell Knoll, which would also prove to be a pretty important record for me at the time, and, for better or worse, has not led to injury.
f you’re interested, an accompanying playlist of everything referenced and alluded to (for better or worse), is here