Breathing

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Breathing
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Comic Relief (’86)

My Patreon is doing tremendously well, having gotten over the $200 threshold thanks to my amazing backers. This is a huge deal for me. It means being able to survive off work that doesn't interfere with my disabilities and allows me to focus on my writing. I can't thank y'all enough. Yet nothing is quite nailed down - $300 is the point where I'll be able to comfortably live off Patreon income until my seasonal job resumes, and the page has stalled at $206. So here's some fun: at $225, I'll cut a podcast with Daniel Harper (yes! the guy from "I Don't Speak German!"), and at $250, Jack (the other IDSG guy!) will cut a podcast on "Alien" and "The Shining." You don't want to miss out on that now, do you? Of course not. Feel free to back, or at least share my work. Every bit helps. Thanks so much.

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“Outside gets inside, through her skin
I’ve been out before, but this time it’s much safer in.”

A refugee of fire and radiation self-sequesters in the only shelter it knows. It’s safe in here, it lies to itself, seeking the consolation of its comforting abode. Mother, where are the angels? I’m scared of the changes. Mother is silent, smothered by the asphyxiating light in the night sky. The being responds accordingly, attempting to preserve itself the only way it can: breathing, inhaling every last respirable substance in its vicinity. There are two possible trajectories: out and in, a cyclical dichotomy of breath its hope for life relies upon. Yet its perambulation towards personhood is mutable and futile. If the being is inducted into humanity, its christening into personhood will be a hydrodynamic baptism by fire. It is the first and the last, the honored and the scorned — its story begins where it ends. This is how Kate Bush imparts the awful truth: the world will end, now, and we will hear every syllable of its last, desperate cries for clemency.

What energy did Kate Bush put into her best song? “Breathing” was her “little symphony,” as Bush diminutively but proudly deemed it. Wrought over three tormented days at the tail end of Never for Ever’s Abbey Road sessions, “Breathing” had a rigorous parturiency. On some days, Bush worked for 20 hours, sometimes stopping to rest (often failing) or get high (keyboardist Max Middleton notes this seemed to relax Bush, rather than helping with any creative breakthroughs). More energy was spent on the sessions than Bush’s, however — far from accepting her band playing instruments like craftsmen, Bush was a spiritual taskmaster, making her session musicians play the song again and again until they “felt it.” Eventually it became a ritual, almost a spiritual transformation, which shaped “Breathing” accordingly. Even poor Brian Bath, who claims that Bush drove him to record his guitar part “about 200 times,” admits that “the song had changed, there was this extra thing happening in it.” Max Middleton insisted on amending his Fender Rhode part for each take, trying to make every performance more unnerving than the last. The result is a work that’s ritualistic in its power — a prayer to the eschaton, a voice greater than that of any one musician. Bush remarked something to that effect years later, referring to “Breathing” as one of her first “spiritual songs… rather than the song being my creation, I was a vehicle for something that was coming through me.”

A title like “Breathing” is canny for such a work. It can be adduced from Bush’s willingness to do what the song needed, almost without autonomy, that for 3 days in 1980, music became a possessive force in her life. Breathing emblemizes the act of being a living receptacle for something greater than yourself. It is a transient act by which an organism becomes a vessel for something that doesn’t belong to them, but vitally benefits it. The relationship of an animal and oxygen is commensal — oxygen doesn’t benefit from the animal’s presence, but the animal dies if it stops breathing for too long. Breath, air, oxygen — none of which are the same thing, but can be ascribed to a phenomena that nurtures life — inhabit us until our bodies break down and we no longer need it. It is a companion, almost a deity in its ubiquitously stealthy efficacy. No servitude, but a healthy reliance on something greater.

“Breathing” is the most unified and conceptually coherent work of Kate Bush’s career. Each aspect of its composition and production strives in a single accord. Its mastering of the techniques it uses can be found as much in its broad strokes as its fine details. Bush’s songwriting makes a huge leap in quality, achieving a new standard. It is one of the greatest British singles of the early 1980s, and its reasonable chart standing (#16 in the UK) is as baffling as it is delightful. Without “Breathing,” there is no The Dreaming or Hounds of Love or Aerial. There are two major discernable eras in Bush’s career: before “Breathing,” and its aftermath.

As a conventional and sane member of society, Bush achieves creative apotheosis through a fetus’s perspective of nuclear fallout. Again, that’s not hyperbole — that is actually what the song is about, if not straightforwardly. “Breathing” contains astounding clarity, with its premise explicitly stated through lyrics such as “outside/gets inside/through her skin,” “last night in the sky/such a bright light,” and “breathing my mother in.” It’s rather clear what’s going on: a fetus (probably human, but easily headcanoned out of specieshood) knows that a nuclear bomb has exploded and is experiencing the slow irradiation of its mother’s body with horror. Its fears are expressed in primal terms. It hasn’t gone to school. Nobody has told it what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All it perceives is a bright light that destroys everything that even its mother can’t protect it from. Bodies are destroyed — the emotional reality takes over, and no rational mind will help.

On a technical level, “Breathing” is Bush’s magnum opus. Her mastery of her own voice is as impressive as the achievements of The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Throughout the first verse, she sounds as if she’s holding her breath (“out-SIIIIIDE” sounds like shallow inhalation), crooning in a way that’s both innocent and haunting. The two refrains largely follow the first verse’s lead, while the second one sees Bush push her range upwards, making “we’ve lost our chance” a guttural invocation. By the song’s coda, she’s outright screaming at the top of her lungs for breath. Melodically and rhythmically, “Breathing” is on similarly breathy wavelengths. It’s in Eb minor, excepting a few detours into Eb major: the verse commences with the i chord (Eb minor), joins an augmented fifth to it (B) to create a VI chord, and then inverts the i chord with its parallel major (a favorite technique of hers — see also “The Infant Kiss”). The verse ultimately comes out largely to i-VI-I-iv-I (with some tricky slash-chord articulates of E flat major). Rhythm is consistent throughout the verse, with shifting time signatures of 2/4, 4/4, and 3/4 changing by the measure, at a pace consistent with breathing. The refrain is almost entirely in common time, excepting its final measure (2/4). The refrain’s breathing is done by its chord progression (i-III-VI), rising and falling, like an agonized chest not quite inhaling enough oxygen to keep living. Sonically, there are echoes of earlier rock songs: the bridge sounds like Bowie’s similarly cosmic “Space Oddity” in places, and a mechanical hum in the second verse evokes memories of Pink Floyd’s luddite threnody “Welcome to the Machine.”

If your reaction to this isn’t “hey, Kate, who’s your dealer?”, you are a liar and you should be ashamed of yourself. But as we aren’t in East Wickham’s social circle of 1980 and thus lack access to whatever strain Bush smoked at the time, we can interrogate more pertinent issues of why the fuck Bush is using this perspective to explore nuclear war. Since the emotional state of fetuses is pertinent to some deluded members of society, we should probably address that particular discourse. If “Breathing” were released right about now, the pro-life crowd wouldn’t latch onto it (it’s much too weird for a group of people who are busy mutilating their eardrums with MercyMe), but one could see its subject matter being twisted for reactionary ends. The song does cope with fetal autonomy, or lack thereof, but it’s incredibly abstract and fails to resemble abortion in any way (the metaphor would be weird, too: “hey Del, you know what abortion reminds me of? The fucking H-bomb!”). Furthermore, abortion, while still a major topic of conversation in the UK, where abortion was only legalized in Northern Ireland in 2019, is a fundamentally different conversation than it is in the United States. Bush was clandestine about her thoughts on abortion, although one can deduce through an interview where she opines “that life is something that should be respected and honored even in a few hours of its conception” that her private opinions on the matter are on the reactionary side. But that’s not the subject of the song. The issue goes deeper than that — to the dredges of consciousness, the origins of human life, and the human mind’s need for survival.

Like a breath, the fetus in “Breathing” inhabits its mother (although unlike breath, it needs its emissary to survive). While it doesn’t treat a fetus like a parasite, the sheer weirdness of having a burgeoning organism inside one’s body receives emphasis (before you ask, Kate Bush did see Alien. More on that in “Get Out of My House” in August). Rather, the fetus emblematizes the earliest vestiges of human form — hints of consciousness, a complete unfamiliarity with the world. Certainly Bush’s fetus isn’t human, and perhaps only semi-corporeal — “I’ve been out before/but this time it’s much safer in” infers extraordinary capabilities beyond what we’d expect from a human fetus. Contemporary quotes from Bush support this reading: “it’s more of a spiritual being… it has all its senses, and it knows what’s going on outside of the mother’s womb.” A clairvoyant specter, one could say. What a weird epistemology.

 “Breathing” contains the body horror of crass jingoism’s mutation of human life. “Breathing my mother in” summates what fetuses do normally while warping it into a desperate gasp for breath. A fetus contains nascent vestiges of human form — we all have to start somewhere. But we have to end somewhere too. “Breathing” offers no hope for survival. Its coda is a macabre apocalypse — Middleton’s dolefully frightened keyboard and Bath’s grimacing, sustained guitar licks underscore predator Roy Harper’s calls of “what are we going to do without?” as Bush’s gasps of "LEAVE ME SOMETHING TO BREATHE!" tear the world asunder. Earlier, the second verse is similarly pessimistic about the possibility that “we’ve lost our chance/we’re the first and last.” This is where it starts and where it ends — the bomb destroys bodies and ends the possibility of life.

It’s worth questioning how nuclear fallout was perceived in 1980’s Britain. According to a contemporary United Nations report, in 1980 there were about 40,000 nuclear warheads in existence worldwide, a quantity that can be academically described as “a fuck-ton” (by comparison, today’s global warhead count of 13,890 is parsimonious). The United States and Soviet Union’s passive-aggressive arm-wrestle of proxy wars for global hegemony was as heated as ever. Nuclear tensions were pretty high, and this was before Chernobyl, the Falklands War, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Iran-Contra Scandal. It was also a primarily American-Soviet affair, albeit with other nations drawn in as well. As a close ally of the United States, the United Kingdom had a non-insignificant chance of being targeted for nuclear playtime. This of course led to some painful discourse which is terrifically summed up in a BBC Panorama documentary called “If the Bomb Drops.” Bush talked about watching a documentary about nuclear bombs at the time, while leaving it frustratingly unnamed, but the timing suggests that she saw the Panorama program. The film blends sensationalist exaggeration and callous understatement — one figure pops up to discuss why protecting British civilians from nuclear war is too expensive to be worthwhile, and someone else suggests that “bands of marauders” will wander a once-British wasteland. Throughout its 53 minutes of weird nationalism (stemming the tide of nuclear fallout is important because the UK needs to retain its national identity rather than save lives, apparently), something is just fundamentally off. The idea of the world’s superpowers destroying the planet in a dick-waving exercise is fundamentally terrifying and absurd. Yet only the absurdity shines through, as one refined gentleman estimates a relatively limited nuclear holocaust casualty count (echoing George C. Scott in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War comedy film Dr. Strangelove: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops!”).

Panorama seems to view nuclear holocaust as a bloodless, anti-nationalist threat without human cost. “Breathing” treats nuclear apocalypse as animistic, stripped of human infrastructure and broken down by the horror of an all-consuming light. There’s even a possible nod to Panorama in the bridge, a slow, diaphanous cacophony of unintelligible sounds pervaded by a subdued, buried report on nuclear war (probably Jay Bush again), clinically and without alarm reporting on the devastation of the bomb.

Sensationalism often takes over conversations about nuclear war. Human casualties are often excused or minimized in the name of military power. Even without taking long-term deaths into account (not to mention cultural trauma), the explosion and firestorm of Little Boy alone are estimated to have killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people in Hiroshima. And that’s not accounting for the immediate deaths in the bombing of Nagasaki, which has a far broader but still ghastly casualty count of 22,000 to 75,000. The victims weren’t merely blown apart either or shot either — they were incinerated, burned alive, hardly recognizable as recently living people. This is the greatest body horror ever wrought by humanity. And nuclear warheads’ harm to people isn’t limited to civilians in wartime either. The United Kingdom gave countless British soldiers cancer, infertility, and children with birth defects in its postwar nuclear tests. Far from being a national security interest, this is fundamentally a weapon that changes the makeup of human biology.

Throughout the years, Bush has sung about the power and vitality of the body. It’s perhaps her most crucial theme: the body is the most beautiful organism we encounter and should be preserved. “Breathing” is fully in line with this idea, and yet it’s a radical departure because the body doesn’t win. It’s turned against itself and destroyed. Never for Ever ends on a note of nihilism.

Where do we go from here? Bush’s dream (of Orgonon?) has been corrupted and will never be the same. The Dreaming reels from the trauma of “Breathing.” The body keeps fighting, but the soul has been weakened. Emotions are less straightforwardly positive than they used to be. But they’re also crucial: “Breathing” is pervaded by emotional reality as well as bodily pain. A scary light in the sky is scary because of its emotional reality.

Bush claimed that the political content of “Army Dreamers” and “Breathing” only served to “move [her] emotionally.” Characteristically, Bush is both wrong and insightful here. The idea that songs are less political because you’re emotionally invested in the political issues they discuss is utter nonsense. But… of course political issues are emotional. Bush even acknowledges this in the next part of the quote, saying “it went through the emotional center… when I thought ‘ah, ow!’ And that made me write.”

Perhaps nothing is more political than personal emotions. Emotions are always present in a person’s values, decisions, choices, and aesthetics. Human beings are ventilation devices for emotions. Perhaps without realizing it, the entity that moved Bush is the radical politics of emotion in the service of bodily liberation. Emotions are political. Everything is political, as no man is an island. And crucially, breathing, and who gets to do it, is political.

Recorded in March 1980 at Abbey Road. Released as a single on 14 April 1980, then as the closing track of Never for Ever on 7 September that year. A censored version of the music video was aired on Top of the Pops on April 14. Performed live by Bush (solo) at a Comic Relief concert in 1986. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, production. Stuart Elliott — drums. Jon Kelly — production, engineering. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes. Alan Murphy, Brian Bath — electric guitar. Larry Fast — Prophet. Morris Pert — percussion. Roy Harper — backing vocals. Image: Hiroshima immediately after the dropping of "Little Boy" (photographer unnamed).

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