Listen to this track by Bexleyheath-born singer-songwriter and art rock innovator Kate Bush. It’s “Cloudbusting”, a top twenty single as taken from her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds Of Love. The song was inspired by the story of psychoanalyst, inventor, physics theorist, and (some would say) kook Wilhelm Reich and his relationship with his son Peter, the story of which Bush read about in the younger Reich’s book A Book of Dreams.
An immigrant from Austria to America, Reich the elder was personally acquainted to and worked directly with both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, arguably bridging their two disciplines of psychoanalysis and particle physics. Reich was a contributor to both fields, interested in how human sexuality and particle energy converged. Particularly in his later years, he sought ways of finding the Life Force as linked to the human libido as an observable physical phenomenon, leading up to his theories of orgone energy, his invention of orgone “accumulators” that would collect and harness that energy, and even ways to use it to manipulate the environment with the invention of “cloudbusters”. This device was, effectively, a weather control machine that was meant to excite the orgone energy particles in cloud formations in order to make it rain — literally.
That seems like an unlikely subject for a top twenty UK hit, right? And yet, Bush found herself drawn into Reich’s story, and that of his son. Even the video (starring Donald Sutherland as Reich!) reflects the drama that unfolded surrounding Reich, his life in rural Maine at his home Orgonon (named after orgone energy, of course), and his unpleasant encounters with the establishment, who eventually jailed him in part for his theories connected to sexuality. What were some of the common threads that tie it all together in this song? Well, amid all the sex and science, I think what this song is really about is perception, specifically from the point of view of a child to his parent.
Also too, I actually do think the subject matter here is pretty rock ‘n’ roll, even if it concerns itself with dottery scientists and their weather machines. The fact is, Kate Bush isn’t the first artist to aim her sites at orgone energy, thought to be the creative force in all nature, connected to our libidos, and vice versa. Both William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac had explored it in their work. And we know how influential the Beat generation were to the trajectory of rock music. Even the figure of Wilhelm Reich himself was something of an anti-establishment figure, which may be why Burroughs and Kerouac were aligned to his thinking. His prolifically published theories on sexual drive and physical energy, along with the machines he created to harness them, were looked upon as a threat to decency, and even banned by the FDA. By court injunction, his books and his equipment were destroyed on not one, but two different occasions. An acolyte of Reich’s transported an orgone accumulator over state lines, and Reich was held responsible. They sent him to jail as a result, where he died in 1957.
But this song isn’t really concerned so much with the anti-establishment aspect of the story, or even the cloudbuster machines as reproduced in the video. Rather, it’s the relationship between the man and his child. The boy doesn’t see him as a threat to society pursued by the authorities, but rather as a figure of wonder, and of affection. Cloudbusting for him is a cherished childhood memory of time with his dad, not a subversive act. The tragedy in the story is not that Wilhelm Reich was a demonized genius unjustly persecuted by the authorities. But, rather that he was a father, viewed through the lens of childlike innocence by his son, with that vision becoming undermined. When he is taken away, the child is left alone with the implications of what happened, having to come to grips with the conflicting images of a loving father and a delusional madman.
The themes in “Cloudbusting” around identity and perception have ramifications that can certainly be applied to the matters of celebrity and fame, and the images and personas that are necessary to their functions. Kate Bush would live it out in her own life when she stopped being “Kate Bush” as seen in videos, on album covers, and heard on records for a while, taking on the skin of a new Kate Bush who became dedicated to motherhood instead. Otherwise, this idea of perception and identity has the same implications as related to the human experience in general. The people in our lives, even those to whom we are most intimately connected, have multiple sides of themselves and are subject to the positions and perceptions imposed on them by others that we will never see, making the business of really knowing them pretty complex in the end. This complex view of human identity and relationships challenges the idea that someone can be definitively known at all.
In some ways this is quite a sobering thing to contemplate. But, in other respects it’s pretty inspiring. It reinforces the idea that within every person is a whole universe, a limitless landscape of experiences, memories, preferences, ideas, dreams, fantasies, flaws, and micro-identities to be shared and explored in kind as we get to know more and more about them. It also denounces the idea that the nature of humanity can be boxed up into an ideology, full of morally hard-coded assumptions coupled with the impulses to persecution and book-burning when those assumptions are not reflected in the thinking of others. This view of things as found in this tune goes above any narrow systems which we would impose upon our identities and natures. Inside each of us is a tempest clashing constantly with our equal impulse to control our world and definitively shape it.
This is a state of being that we can call uniquely human.
Kate Bush is an active musician, songwriter, and record producer today. Explore her work further by visiting katebush.com.
To learn more about Wilhelm Reich and his work around orgon energy and cloudbusters, check out wilhelmreichtrust.org.
And to learn more about cloudbusters and cloudbusting, here’s an article by The Guardian on just those subjects.