Mother Stands For Comfort

I wrote this piece for the epiphanies column of Wire magazine in 2010; it’s included in the Epiphanies anthology, edited by Tony Herrington.

In the summer of 1985 my mother died. I had just turned sixteen. My parents had known for weeks that the autoimmune disease that pinched and harrowed my mother’s flesh for years had finally turned on her major organs, and there was no hope. My two younger brothers and I were not informed. But we knew that things had altered for the worse – there must have been a reason that my father kept us from the hospital this time. Meanwhile, relatives gathered and maintained a quiet version of normality. On Saturday the 13th of July my brothers and I sat dazed in front of the spectacle of Live Aid. My father came back late and went to bed, but we carried on watching into the night.

Four days later the hospital phoned and we were rushed to our mother’s bedside. She died shortly before noon. Of the weeks that followed, I remember mostly silence. My father, a reticent man destroyed with grief, spoke of my mother once (‘pray for her’) and never again. We took his lead – I didn’t talk to my brothers about her for twenty years. Instead we had music, the sole currency by which we expressed what had happened to us. And even music, in the aftermath, seemed too much for our mute household to bear. It was October when I dared to buy a record: the second single from an album released in the autumn as I went back to school and faced the public shame of being semi-orphaned. ‘Running Up That Hill’ had been the first hint: a darkling ecstasy erupting in the dog days on tea-time television. But it was ‘Cloudbusting’ – in the aerated, insistent mix that accompanied its video – which finally opened a wound of sorts in the atmosphere at home. The single itself, when I played it in our sitting room with my father unspeaking behind his newspaper, seemed brisker and more tightly structured, but no less scandalous: a preternatural hymn to hope and loss. Though it was not true, it seemed that Kate Bush’s was the first female voice that sounded in our house since my mother died. Playing the song to my father, I dimly knew, was at once an act of spite and desperation.

The album, Hounds of Love, came later. The cassette was a gift from a friend at school. We were not the closest of friends. He was guitarist in a band I would shortly be thrown out of for total lack of musical ability and extreme pretension; our friendship consisted mostly of rancorous debates regarding the relative merits of our musical heroes, and things had lately reached an impasse when I pitched the Jesus & Mary Chain against his love of all things touched by the hand of Mark Knopfler. I wonder now about this tentative brotherhood of suburban Dublin boys, making ribald jokes about Kate and her dogs on the cover of Hounds of Love, yet wholly seduced by the rigorous exhilaration of that album’s first side. We were sure that something vastly strange and technically unprecedented had happened to this artist we remembered as an oddity, even an embarrassment. (We were wrong about that, of course, and not quite right that she was suddenly sexier than recalled.) But mostly, because (unsurprisingly) we never spoke about it, I wonder if my friend had paid much attention to ‘Mother Stands for Comfort’.

For a year or so, Hounds of Love was the secret medium in which I processed my mother’s death. That is putting it too crudely: it’s not that the record got me ‘through’ anything, if only because there was much else in the way of reckoning to come. Rather, the album was an education in various ecstasies I was too crushed to admit, as much a promise of love as of loss, quaking fear as riotous invention. The metaphoric scope of the ‘Ninth Wave’ song-cycle is well known: it’s a record in thrall to images of capture and release, judgment and guilt, petrified feeling and ice-shattering desire. But far more convulsing was its texture: those moments of delicate yearning suddenly accelerated into expansive apprehension of bodily and cosmic being. And all of this was deeply instructive as well as embarrassing – listening to Hounds of Love was a compulsively shaming pleasure.

I knew at the time that there was another language for this record. It was the album on which Bush parlayed her kooky folk-hippy (but completely mainstream, children’s-television) persona into something approaching the apotheosis of post-punk. If the record, sonically speaking, matched the best of what was possible with the machined palate of mid-1980s pop, it also sat uncannily easily alongside Foetus’s Hole and mid-period Cabaret Voltaire. If such company sounds unlikely, consider the singer’s stated admiration for Public Image Limited – the writer Michael Bracewell has spoken of hearing ‘Running Up That Hill’ for the first time and being convinced it was the best record since PiL’s (mother-haunted) Metal Box. Bush seems to have briefly embraced her status as faintly malevolent avant-gardist: in 1986 she appeared on TV flanked by massed Fairlights and lab-coated operatives to perform the dystopian ‘Experiment IV’. All of this is true, and all of it inadequate to this particular epiphany – because Hounds of Love is also the record that taught me what feelings might feel like when I finally got round to having them.

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