Friday, April 8, 2016

Not on The Wedding List: Kate Bush Gets Snubbed Again

When I choose topics for this blog, I try to pick things to write about that aren’t widely discussed on the internet.  That was the whole reason for starting this thing in the first place, since I wanted to highlight topics that might be under-reported or absent altogether from on-line sources.  I break from that format just this once to write about something that is mentioned fairly frequently on-line, and I’m far from the first person to do it.  You can also reference this site (and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one) to read similar pleas.  But, I always choose to write about things I care about, and that’s where this post is no different from my others, and this week I wanted to add my voice to the countless other music lovers who ask the same thing year after year: Why isn’t Kate Bush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Bush in 1986

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attracts its fair share of controversy, and far be it from me to try to explain it all here.  But one of the criticisms that’s dogged the intuition from the beginning is how inductees are chosen.  Only a handful of people control the nominating process, and they’re often criticized for appealing to their own tastes as opposed to more popular views (to their credit, popular views aren’t always right- Nickelback is very popular but shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Cleveland).  Nominees are chosen each year from all eligible acts, and the year’s inductees are whittled down from that list.  Only acts who are nominated that year can get in.   Any artist who released their first album more than 25 years ago is eligible, and by now that list of eligible acts is huge (and growing).   Acts can be nominated more than once (Chic hold the record- nominated 10 times and still not inducted).  Kate Bush has been eligible for induction since 2003 and has been nominated for inclusion a whopping 0 times.  Yes, that’s right- zero.  None.  In thirteen years or so of eligibility, she’s never even been in the running. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; Kate Bush free since 2003.

Kate Bush fans see this as a bit of a snub.  When considering musicians who came out of the 70s and 80s it’s hard to find anyone who was as wildly original or as influential, and therefore eligible for induction, as Bush.  She’s difficult to classify as a musician, straddling the line between music and art.  She’s a keyboard virtuoso, actress, dancer, and music video pioneer.  I think it’s fair and appropriate to place her on the same level as other groundbreaking British acts like David Bowie and the Peter Gabriel era of Genesis (both in the Hall of Fame, by the way).  They all crossed boundaries between music genres and dipped their toes in performance art, experimenting with elaborate costumes and stage shows.  Musically, she truly pushed the limits of what a synthesizer (a relatively new instrument at the time) could do, and on albums like Never For Ever created sounds that I daresay had never been heard before. 

That perhaps raises another aspect of Bush’s music the Hall of Fame might not fully embrace.  Simply put, Kate Bush’s music is strange.  Her voice can range from a whisper to a shriek to a howl.  She affects accents and plays characters.  She incorporates sound effects in her songs to build moods (breaking glass and footsteps on Never For Ever, birdsong throughout Aerial).  Thematically, her music is just as diverse.  She’s written songs about British composer Frederick Delius, philosopher and inventor Wilhelm Reich, and Adolf Hitler.  The second half of her epic album Hounds of Love is a concept album that describes the final moments of a girl drowning after falling through thin ice.  She has recorded albums that might be considered more “normal” (such as her debut The Kick Inside), but she’s truly at her best when she’s at her most experimental.  Her strangest and most complex work (The Dreaming, Hounds of Love, the double album Aerial), are clearly her strongest, and perhaps it’s this strangeness that’s prevented her from becoming more of a mainstream success in the U.S.    She remains somewhat of a cult figure in the States, and this also might be holding up her nomination.  Other cultish musicians (like Frank Zappa) have been inducted in the past, though, so maybe there’s still hope.

Her recorded work is unique within the music world and remains as lush, strange, and challenging as ever, but it’s her massive influence on others that also makes her eligible for inclusion in the Rock Hall.  Reading through Bush’s Wikipedia page (easiest for us researchers with limited time) the list of musicians she’s influenced is extremely diverse and crosses through musical styles and genders.  Tori Amos is the artist that’s cited most frequently as being extremely influenced by Bush, but the list of her admirers is much more exhaustive and inclusive; Allison Goldfrapp, k.d. lang, Robert Smith of The Cure, Tricky, even unexpected musicians like Johnny Rotten and Tupac freakin’ Shakur.  Her willingness to experiment with image and costume also be seen in the work of PJ Harvey.  Florence Welsh of Florence and the Machine is heavily influenced by Bush, and if you don’t believe me listen to Bush’s “Sat in Your Lap” and “Dog Days are Over”- even the music videos for the two songs are similar.  Joanna Newsom’s song “Leaving the City” could be a Kate Bush song, and the album that song appears on (2015’s Divers) is a direct descendant of Bush’s stranger and more experimental albums like Never For Ever and The Dreaming.

It’s easy to make the case for Bush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to overlook the one glaring issue that may be keeping her from getting in- when it comes to inducting female musicians, the HoF has an absolutely awful track record.  While researching this post, I looked over the inductees to the Hall, choosing to focus on everyone inducted since the year 2000.  I did it this way because Bush has only been eligible since 2003, and I wanted to focus on her era of eligibility.  The breakdown isn’t particularly diverse, and looks something like this:

Since 2000, 103 acts have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.  That’s counting acts, not individuals (most inductees contain multiple band members, though some are solo performers).

Of those 103 inductees, only 8 have been female solo performers: Bonnie Raitt, Brenda Lee, Patti Smith, Madonna, Darlene Love, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer, and Linda Ronstadt.

An additional 6 inductees have prominent female members:  Talking Heads, Pretenders, Blondie, ABBA, Heart, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.

One inductee contains multiple women (but no men): The Ronettes.

In total, that’s only 15 acts that are comprised of all women or some women.  This works out to about 15% of inductees.   If you calculate only the percentage of the inductees who are female solo performers, it’s less than 8% of the total.  8%.  Compare that to male solo performers, and the imbalance becomes even more glaring.  30 male solo performers have been inducted since 2000, making their contribution about 30% of the total. 

O.K., you might say, that’s just the numbers since the year 2000.  Female inductees may be a little scarce lately but surely the entire history of the institution doesn’t look this bad.  Well, not so fast.  Going back all the way to the first year of induction (1986), only an additional 7 female solo inductees can be found (Aretha Franklin, LaVerne Baker, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Dusty Springfield). 

That brings the all time total to 15.  The Hall has been inducting members for 30 years.  Hundreds of acts and musicians have gotten in.  Only 15 of those inductees have been female solo performers.  That averages out to 5 a decade.  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame people, you can do better.  Start by inducting Kate Bush.

Ultimately, what’s it all matter what some music executives in Cleveland think?  Why do Kate Bush fans take it so personally?  After all, not being included in the HoF doesn’t change her music.  We can still listen to it and be inspired by it whether her name is on the list or not.  She’ll keep releasing albums (albeit slowly) regardless of whether or not she’s included.  She might not even care herself.  But fans can take these things personally and see induction as validation for a life’s work- just look at how much fans of the band Rush pushed to get them inducted.  They were relentless in their support of the band and eventually succeeded.  Kate Bush fans need to do the same thing (and I don’t mean to offend any Rush fans, because I know you’re a dedicated lot and I respect that, but Kate Bush is way more eligible for induction then Rush).  Induction also means preservation.  The Hall of Fame is also a museum, and induction means that her legacy, both musical and material, can be preserved for future generations. 

I close with a personal story about my introduction to her music, a story that I think underscores the personal connection that Kate Bush fans have with her music. When I was in college 20 years ago I found a second-hand copy of The Dreaming at the local Salvation Army (on cassette no less).  It cost a dollar.  I knew who Kate Bush was but didn’t really know that much about her music.  I bought it on a whim but was hooked from the first time I heard it.  It was complex and strange and it made me think.  It certainly wasn’t a passive listening experience.  I was studying art and was close to receiving my BFA degree, and I realized that this album was art too.  It had to be interpreted.  It was challenging and dense but also alluring and beautiful.
This is the album cover  I'm referring to.

 I was working as a DJ at the college radio station at the time and I eagerly raided the stacks of vinyl, looking for more Kate Bush albums.  It was always fun looking through the old records at the station since students would often write comments or reviews on the record sleeves.  Sometimes they would be general comments like “this is good” or “don’t waste your time”, and sometimes they’d be warnings to future DJs, like “track 7 uses the F word” or something like that.  As I browsed through the Kate Bush albums I found a simple three word comment written on one of her records that remains one of the most accurate and succinct statements I could ever find on her music.  The record was the 12” single for the song “Sat in Your Lap” and the cover features a bizarre looking portrait of Bush wearing an odd striped costume (see right).  Scrawled across the cover were the words “weird but good”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame holds their annual induction ceremony tonight (April 8) in New York City.  Kate Bush will not be in attendance.  Here’s hoping for next year. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Discovering Burchfield's Buffalo, Part 2

Last June, I posted an exploration of the Charles Burchfield painting called Black Iron.  I’m fairly certain I located the two railroad bridges Burchfield painted in 1935 and documented the similarities between the painting and the existing bridges that still span the Buffalo River (although only one is still operational).  This examination of Buffalo’s industrial past was illuminating, and I decided to look into another Burchfield painting.  I chose the oil painting called Grain Elevators, 1932-38, currently in the collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY.

If there is one type of structure that immediately reminds one of Buffalo’s past as a shipping and transportation behemoth, it’s the grain elevator.  At one point, dozens of grain elevators crowded the waterfront, constantly being filled and emptied as countless freighters and canal boats traversed Lake Erie and the Erie Canal.  The elevators were essentially temporary storage units.  Large freighters coming from the Great Lakes couldn’t travel down the narrow Erie Canal, so their cargo would be offloaded into the elevators, and then loaded on to smaller canal boats for transit to the eastern part of the state.  The process could also be reversed for cargo coming the other way.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Buffalo waterfront witnessed a constant flow of grain and oats that helped feed the country.
Early grain elevators were made of wood or brick.  This material limited their size, so was later replaced with concrete.  Concrete grain elevators were made much larger, and massive groupings of silos sprouted up on the waterfront, capable of holding much more product.  Concrete was also much more durable.  Many concrete grain elevators still exist in Buffalo (although most of them aren’t used anymore), but the wood and brick ones are mostly gone.

Burchfield’s painting shows sort of a microcosm of this development.  The two large silos on the right are made of brick covered with rusting metal panels.  In the center is a squat grouping of six cement silos, and on the left a tall building with the silos built into the side is visible.  Closer to the viewer (also on the left), another elevator lifts grain off a canal boat.  The large scooper arm is extended over the deck of the boat and a cloud of grain dust partially obscures the boatman.

As I started my explorations, there was no doubt that the painting showed a scene from Buffalo, since it was made while Burchfield was living there.  The question was where the view was taken from.  Did any of the silos still exist?  Could I identify where Burchfield stood as he created it?  Not to spoil anything too soon, but the answers turned out to be “No” and “Sort of”.

First, I had to track down the location, which wasn’t as easy as one might expect.  Buffalo’s waterfront is an interesting place.  Some areas haven’t been touched by development in decades, and other have seen huge upheavals and now look completely different.  At the height of the Erie Canal’s dominance of Northeast shipping, the waterfront was a maze of canals and industrial buildings.  Aside from the main canal, dozens of slips and smaller canals perforated the landscape, intersecting each other as well as flowing in to natural waterways like the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.  

There was a good chance that the canal or tributary Burchfiled painted wasn’t there anymore, so historical photos seemed to be my best bet.  Looking at photos of Buffalo grain elevators on line didn’t yield much, since so many of them looked the same or similar.  I was looking through one of my books on Buffalo history when I caught a break. A photo I found of what appeared to be the two large silos on the right of the painting was labeled as the Evans Ship Canal.  Now that I had a name, I could pin down the location.  I found an old map of the waterfront and the Evans Ship Canal immediately seemed like the place.

The Evans Ship Canal, located to the northeast of Buffalo’s canal structures, wasn’t a straight rectangular slip (like many were).  It had a bend in it.  This definitely aligned with what Burchfield is showing, since two canals appear to be interesting in the work.  One canal in the foreground is intersecting another that runs in front of the silos in the distance.  So I was pretty sure I had found the right location, but what about the silos?  A quick check of Google maps assured me the canal and silos weren’t there anymore (more on that in a bit), but what did they look like when they were still standing?  Had Burchfield depicted them realistically?  When I investigated Black Iron, I came to the conclusion that even though the painting was abstracted, Burchfield had created a fairly accurate document of the bridges at the time.  I wanted to see if the same was true of Grain Elevators.

Searching through historical photos and old maps showed me what I was looking for.  Two photos in particular showed that area of the canal, and sure enough all of the buildings Burchfield painted are grouped together, looking like they do in the painting.

In the above photo from 1930, the group of buildings is clearly visible, though shot from the back (I’ve highlighted the area in red).  To the left in this photo are the two large brick silos, then the shorter concrete silos are next to them.  As in Burchfield’s painting, there appears to be a large rectangular structure over these silos (the birds are using it as a perch in the painting).  The tall structure on the end is also visible here.  This photo is also interesting because it shows how the Evans Ship Canal was positioned in relation to the main Erie Canal (visible to the right in this image).

This photo, which appears to be from around the same time, also shows the buildings in situ (also outlined in red).  Not as much is visible, due to the camera angle, but this photo gives a sense of what the canal looked like at the time, as well as how the area was situated in relation to the downtown core of the city of Buffalo.

I wanted to visit the site where Burchfield painted the elevators, and now I knew where it was, but as I wrote earlier in the post, the structures (all buildings and the canal) aren’t there anymore.  So where did they go, you might ask?  The answer lies in the decline of the Erie Canal.  The whole canal itself was necessary due to the presence of Niagara Falls.  Ship freight through the Great Lakes as far as Lake Erie, and you’re fine, but try to go any further and you run into a little bit of a problem.

The Erie Canal avoided the Falls by routing traffic over land.  It worked extremely well until the nearby Welland Canal (in southern Ontario, Canada) was restored and expanded in 1932.  This route made it possible to travel directly from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, then further east right to the Pacific Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Freighters didn’t have to be unloaded (and reloaded) onto canal boats.  The time consuming task of transferring goods through grain elevators became somewhat obsolete.  By the time Burchfield started painting this work , the Welland Canal was open, and shipping goods by train was gaining momentum.  The writing was, as they say, on the wall.  The era of the mighty grain elevators (as well as the prominence of the city of Buffalo in world commerce) was coming to an end.

As traffic on the canals slowed to a crawl, many of them were filled in and turned into roads for a growing form of transportation- automobiles.  Even the main Erie Canal itself, widely celebrated and for a time the main driver of economic growth for the entire region, was scrubbed from the landscape.  It was filled in and became an ordinary and totally unremarkable street.

Behold the mighty Erie Canal
With the canal gone, grain elevators lost their raison d’etre.  Many smaller silos were torn down to make way for other developments.  I should note at this time that many of the great concrete elevators survive to this day.  Abandoned for years, many are now finding new life as tourist attractions.

The silos Burchfield painted weren’t so lucky.  They were torn down, along with several nearby blocks, to make way for the Marine Drive Apartments, a multiple-building housing complex that was built in 1951.  I don’t know if the grain elevators were torn down right before construction of the apartments started, or if they had been torn down earlier, but by 1951 they were gone.

The Marine Drive Apartments are visible here at the lower right.  The Evans Ship Canal is still watered in this photo, though it was later filled in and turned into a street.

So the landscape had changed, but would it still be possible to figure out where Burchfield stood when he viewed the structures in the 1930s?  I examined the painting further and noticed something odd.  It seems to have been painted while standing in the water.  Although there’s a little strip of land to the right, the canal comes right towards the viewer in the center on the painting.  I started examining the canal more closely to see if there were any features that might account for this specific view.  The Evans canal was sort of shaped like an upside-down “V”, and only one arm intersected with the river.  The other arm terminated at a dead end.  If Burchfield stood right on the bank of that arm and looked forward, he would have been able to see the intersection between both of these sections.  By cropping his view slightly in the final work, it gives the appearance that he’s standing in the water.

That gave me a pretty good sense of where Burchfield observed the silos from, but what was there now?  I found a historic diagram of the waterfront and overlaid it over a contemporary aerial view of the same area.  I saw when comparing the 2 images that the place where the Evan Ship Canal ended is now a parking lot.  Sorry if that’s a little anti-climactic, but it’s true.  

This is a historic map of the canal system showing the Evans Ship Canal to the left.

The blue dot towards the left (under the word "slip") is my approximation of where Burchfield stood when observing the silos

I went down there a while back and tried to take a picture from the same viewpoint Burchfield used to show how much the area had changed.  It was difficult because literally no frame of reference from the original painting could be used, since the landscape has been totally transformed, but I think I did O.K.  I ended up with this image:

Cities are always in flux.  Buildings come and go, and once-important features of the landscape can be removed, leaving little trace that they were ever there in the first place.  Burchfield’s painting acts as a record of how this landscape looked, and reminds us of the inevitability of change.