Like so many music-related happenings in Princeton, this one began at the Record Exchange. With snow on the ground and more coming, it was time to do what I should have done two years ago and buy Kate Bush’s album 50 Words for Snow, along with Paul McCartney’s new CD New, which is already three months old.
Driving into yet another snowfall Saturday, I was counting on the Bush/McCartney blend to keep me going on what promised to be a difficult journey. It was wildly irrational to be traveling to Siren Records in Doylestown under such conditions, except that this was a mercy mission on behalf of my vinyl-addicted son. Rock giveth and rock taketh away. Bathing a baby in the Beatles can come back to haunt you. The albums I was bringing to sell or trade, most of them former inhabitants of the Record Exchange, are by obscure American, British, and European groups from the late 1960s and early 1970s that owe their existence in one way or another to the four young men from Liverpool who arrived in New York 50 years ago, February 7, 1964.
By the time I was driving west on 518, the snow had taken over. Predictions had been for an inch or so. Some “inch” — how could anyone or anything measure the element that was sucking up miles and miles of the world in all directions. With the snow falling harder, the road getting smaller, and the first track on New playing, the windshield wipers were working overtime, the front ones going about half as fast as the one in back, adding a polyrhythmic effect to the song. The lyrics were timely: “In the heat of battle, you got something that’ll save us,” the wipers clacking and whooshing, the heater/AC/defroster roaring fullblast. Between Blawenburg and Hopewell, we seemed to be on a long one-lane bridge to nowhere, the shoulders gone, the center lines going, as we penetrated the relentless totality of that fabulous all-encompassing inch of snow.
On every recent McCartney album, there’s at least one song that inspires thoughts of the Beatles in their mid to late sixties prime. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) had “Friends to Go,” in Memory Almost Full (2007), it was “Only Mama Knows.” At the junction of 518 and NJ 31, when the visibility was so poor I was thinking of turning back, McCartney delivered another winner with the title track. Like the other big songs, “New” is about the Beatles. Spiritually, musically, emotionally, all four are on board. When Paul sings the phrase “All my life,” that’s what he’s saying, and the joy of it is only a more polished, elegant, but no less uplifting expression of the same old undying rock and roll passion, whether it’s driving “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Hey Jude” and “I Am the Walrus.” Look at the video on YouTube and what you see is a group of musicians led by McCartney playing before crowds of unimaginable magnitude, an image that will always spell B-e-a-t-l-e-s.
And what d’you know, as the song plays, I find I no longer need the windshield wipers, the road’s clear, the music’s working, telling me “It’s way too soon to see what’s gonna be.” This new song called “New” soars as it dances, a buoyant marriage of rhythm and melody riding the “fine line between chaos and creation” that Paul has been living on ever since he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” four years before the Beatles had their first number one.
So why not believe that you can snuff the snow with music when a singer’s singing, “You came along and made my life a song” and “I never knew what I could be, what I could do,” and “Now we’re new”? And a few miles west of 31, so we were, no more snow, we were through, over the Delaware with a clear road to Doylestown and Siren.
It was thanks to my son, who was already collecting and playing records at the age of four, that I discovered Kate Bush one day when he was listening to Pat Benatar sing “Wuthering Heights.” I couldn’t, as they say, believe my ears. Right away I had to know who had the audacity to write a song from the point of view of Cathy’s ghost rapping on Heathcliffe’s window. Surely not Pat Benatar. “K. Bush” said the composer credit. It took awhile to find out that K. Bush was a woman who already had recorded two albums of her own, which I found at the Record Exchange when it was still located in a hole in the wall across from Holder Hall.
I gave an account of this discovery seven years ago in a column about Kate’s album Aerial (2005) where I refer to her as a “creature” who “does things witches, elves, alien beings, and ventriloquists can only envy.” Once, when asked who her favorite singers were, she said, “a blackbird and a thrush.” I thought of her tonight watching Veronica Lake as a delightful witch making love to Fredric March in Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch. In 50 Words for Snow, Kate is beyond witchcraft, she’s a force of nature. Bing Crosby sings about snow. Kate Bush becomes snow.
What better than a force of nature “born in a cloud” to see me through the passage home? By the time I left Doylestown, the snow was falling as fast as before and the roads were worse. On the hills outside Lambertville I passed cars pulled over and one stopped in its tracks. All the while, Kate’s hypnotic snow music is playing, she’s at the piano quietly, hauntingly creating variations on the same figure, subtle and suspenseful, just the balanced steady accompaniment you need as you strain your eyes to pick out the vanishing segments of road at 30 m.p.h., focused to the nth degree.
The voice on “Snowflake” belongs to Kate’s son, Albert, the subject of “Bertie” on Aerial, but I heard it as her, or all the voices of the snow speaking though her, “We’re over a forest. There’s millions of snowflakes. We’re dancing.”
“Lake Tahoe,” the story of “a woman in a Victorian dress” who drowned in the lake, suggests this snow-blown song cycle could be her Winterreise, though a less melancholy winter journey than Schubert’s, with that ebbing and flowing piano. In “Misty” she makes love to a snow man. Is there another singer on the planet who would take that one on and get so beautifully away with it? Like Heathcliffe’s window, hers “flies open” as her bedroom “fills with falling snow” and in he comes and “lies down beside me.” Who else could put together such a storybook moment, Goodnight Moon meets Wuthering Heights. It’s beauty seducing Frosty the snow beast, as she kisses “his ice cream lips/And his creamy skin” and wakes in the morning to find “the sheets are soaking.” He’s gone, she opens the window, can’t find him, it’s still snowing, he’s out there somewhere, so she steps on to the ledge.
The Last Stretch
There’s another car pulled over. And another. A coyote leaps across the road five slow miles east of Lambertville. The music’s working, the beat picking up with “Wild Man,” another bizarre love song from the snow queen, this time the object of Kate’s affection is the Kangchenjunga Demon (“Lying in my tent, I can hear your cry echoing round the mountainside”). As we coast into Hopewell, she’s singing a duet with Elton John, and I remember why I passed up buying the album when it came out. I wasn’t ready for that duet, but they bring it off, two lost souls singing through the ages in “Snowed in at Wheeler Street.” In the title song, the 50 words are spoken by Stephen Fry, but it’s Kate’s poem, her way of improvising on the myth that Eskimos have that many words for snow. After some playful words like “lolefaloop/njoompoola,” the last ones say it all for the stretch of road through the windy Siberia between Blawenburg and 206: “vanishing world,” “mistraldespair,” and last of all, “snow.”
Home at last, a cup of tea, some YouTube interviews with Kate with photos of her bundled up and beautiful in snowy attire, and videos from New, including the one for “Queenie Eye” shot at Abbey Road studio where the Beatles made history. McCartney is alone at the piano until the room begins filling with people listening, mingling, dancing, some familiar faces among them. The first one you see is slumped on the floor at the foot of the piano. It’s Johnny Depp. In the video about the making of the video, he expresses his awe, to have entered the hallowed space where all that music was made: “That’s the room that changed the world,” he says.
The quotes from Kate Bush are from a Huffington Post interview. Both records are available at the Princeton Record Exchange. Strange, Paul has just won a Grammy for the Best Rock Song, recorded with surviving members of Nirvana. On the strength of one listen, “Give Me Some Slack” can’t hold the proverbial candle to “New,” not to mention “Helter Skelter.” You can see for yourself in the video from the December 12, 2012 Concert for Sandy Relief, where Paul is playing the “cigar-box guitar” given him by Johnny Depp.