The Man with the Child in His Eyes

Hello all. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The writing process of this essay has been fraught with challenges both in the text and in the non-blogging parts of my life. Sorry to any Orgonon-starved readers, but real life comes first. Hope you enjoy this new post, which is dedicated to the brilliant and supportive Ilana Correa.

Album version
Music video/single
Efteling performance
Tour of Life
Xmas special
Dusty Springfield cover
Hue and Cry cover
Natalie Cole cover

It’s a song that’s as striking for what it is as what it isn’t. It’s simple and incomprehensible, childlike and mature, populist and intricately niche. And it just works — “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” is as deliberate and intelligent a song as Kate Bush has recorded so far. It lingered in obscurity and exploded into the light. That’s probably as apt a metaphor for the Bush story in this era as anything.

“The Man with the Child in His Eyes” resembles little else Kate ever produced in its content or historical context. It’s one of only three songs in the earliest years of Kate’s career to be professionally recorded, and one of two that wound up as an album track. “Saxophone Song,” the other Kick Inside song whose recording predates 1977, has a straightforward legacy as a non-single album track—a well-liked one, but “Saxophone Song” is rarely hailed as a classic Kate Bush song. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” is in the tricky follow-up position of being the second follow-up single to “Wuthering Heights,” (the first follow-up being “Moving”). Audiences who’d listened to the album were already familiar with the song. Having been composed much earlier than the other songs as well as already being an established album track, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” shrugs off the role of “unheard new” single and focuses on being a quiet standalone work, deliberately working on a small, intimate scale. Releasing a polar opposite her smash hit first single was a counterintuitive yet strangely savvy move. And yet it paid off. A song that’s basically another Cathy demo won an Ivor Novello Award for its lyric, peaked at #6 on the UK charts, and spawned decades of covers. Bush is doing strange things, but they’re worth listening to.

But we’re not there yet. We’re in the era where Kate is a precocious unknown, venturing into the recording studio for the first time and staking her claim to it. The most commonly remarked-upon aspect of “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” is Kate’s age when it was written. The song’s recording date and release date are spaced out by about three years, putting the creation and publication of the song in entirely different worlds. I’m not going to quibble with exactly how old she was at the time (13 or 14 according to popular accounts, and 16 by Kate’s own memory, which would dates its composition some time before the ’75 AIR London session), but there’s a point to be made here: discourse around on this song tends to point out Kate’s age at the time and leave it at that. And it’s hard to fault that—it’s unheard of for someone in their early-to-mid teens to write pop songs this good. The song stuck out to everyone during production—everyone from ubiquitous beneficiary Dave Gilmour to EMI manager Bob Mercer knew they were hearing something special. But plenty of artists record hits at a young age. What makes “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” stand out?

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The answer presents itself immediately—most young artists in the Seventies didn’t write their own hits, and their hits were rarely so good. The only other UK hit single written by an under-18 female artist by the time of “Child” that I can find is “Terry,” an a lugubrious piece of grimdark pop from 1964 by 16-year-old Twinkle. Apart than that, young singers didn’t (and probably weren’t permitted to) write their own songs. The lack of songwriting royalties certainly didn’t hurt precocious young stars—Helen Shapiro recorded hits without writing them, and Little Jimmy Osmond hit number 1 at the age of nine with the agonizing “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.” Picking on these young artists who sang some micromanaged mediocre hits four to five decades ago would be petty at best and mean-spirited at worst, so we’ll eschew that, but all this shows just how odd “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” was. It was as far from micromanaged as possible. Its inception and recording predate its public release by about three years, and Kate was mostly left to her own devices while creating it (her family helped her procure business deals that would basically allow her to do whatever she wanted creatively).

So what we’re given with “Child” is that ever-so-rare thing in pop music: a young person’s vision of the world, undiluted by executive interference. In it Kate sings about a strange, wonderful man, older than herself but with an adolescent spirit that’s not unlike hers. The song is somewhat impenetrable, like any artistic work by a young person beginning to navigate the world, and it’s accessible and applicable and gorgeous. It’s rare for artists to pull this off successfully so early on, which may account for the limited amount of in-depth analysis on “Child”—Ron Moy finds little to say on the song in his book Kate Bush and Hounds of Love, and Deborah M. Withers’ classic Bushology text Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory skips the song altogether (frankly the best reading of the song hails from this Tumblr post). The most useful critical take comes from Graeme Thomson’s seminal biography Under the Ivy:

“[Kate] is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates, or generally gives men the brush off. She has never been feminist in the bluntest sense — she wants to preserve and embrace the differences between the sexes and understand the male of the species. Many songs display a desire to experience fully what it is to be a man; she invests them with power,  beauty, and a kind of mystical attraction which is incredibly generous.”

Thomson is straightforwardly doing his “male writer gotta male writer” thing (one has to eye-roll at his audible sigh of relief when he talks about how nice Kate is to men), but there’s a key point in there. Kate’s music is very generous to men, perhaps overly so (perhaps best demonstrated by “Babooshka,” in which the main character’s husband gets off scot-free for an attempt at infidelity). In interviews, Kate has made it clear that the song talks about just that internal spark. “It’s something I feel about men generally… that a lot of men have got a child inside them, you know. I think they’re more or less grown-up kids,” she explained in a 1979 appearance on the BBC One children’s programme “Swap Shop,” to an amused Noel Edmonds (yes, *that* Noel Edmonds) and vocal studio crew. Kate grasps the fine line between being childlike and childish (the latter being perhaps a more common quality). What she’s talking about is a childlike sense of adventure, a desire and willingness to play games and believe in fantastic things. “Nobody knows about my man/they think he’s lost on some horizon.” Only she gets him; this is a part of the man’s internalism he only shares with her. Nobody gets this. He’s at an age where his fantasizing is considered adolescent enough to be an eccentricity.

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And the singer is at that transition point where the storyteller becomes as much of a point of interest as the story. In part, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” is about someone learning what it’s like to have a person to themselves for the first time. They’re experiencing that magical feeling of being with someone who understands and who makes sense to them. It’s not clear what their relationship is—there’s an adolescent ambiguity to the song. “Maybe he doesn’t love me/I just took a trip on my love for him,” sings an almost-certainly-stoned 16-year-old in her award-winning lyric. But despite her lack of sure-footedness, there’s no danger here, no exploitative or sexual dimension to this relationship—it’s a mature but innocent dynamic, and a genuine, human, unmanufactured one.

In this blog, we’ve often talked about the theme of seeing, a huge preoccupation of early Kate Bush. As  a young person, Kate is acutely aware of the horrors of being seen as well as the complex emotions of hiding in the shadows. The unusual part of this is how she quietly subverts that position by injecting it with empathy, acting as both spectator and friend. Even Kate’s darkest early songs have a core of benevolence and a belief in the best of people. There’s an obvious element of naïveté to constantly holding onto the innate goodness of humanity, but it’s hard to argue that it’s a negative. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” finds wisdom in naïveté—simple views of the world will often catch basic truths. Kate is as keen an observer as exists, conjuring up pictures with music, as any good child of glam rock does.

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So it’s no surprise that her first recorded hit features eyes (a motif that’s recklessly over-signified in the single’s packaging, which at least clarifies that this isn’t a horror song about an unfortunate man experiencing ocular childbirth). We find eyes romantic and beautiful—there’s an aesthetic thrill to them as well as the excitement of seeing someone’s emotional state reflected in them. The old adage about eyes being the window to the soul is a tedious aphorism because of its obviousness, not because it’s not true. The singer of “Child” is discussing their point of view, but also finding joy in the perspective and experiences of someone else. It’s a straightforward dynamic, expressed obscurely. Few details are imparted about the titular Man at all—the singer is interested in capturing their spiritual essence. There’s an implication of the picaresque to the song, particularly in how the singer refers to the object of their attention as someone “telling me about the sea,” suggesting someone who’s embarked on adventures, probably imagined ones. Reality isn’t what counts when you’re young—it’s the inner landscapes you’ve traveled.

There’s a nice lack of dependence to the song as well. Kate leans on no one here—the song’s protagonist places themselves at a safe distance from the Man, and Kate herself has even more control of the affair than she’s probably aware of. She doesn’t lean on male-pioneered rock or ballads—she offers her spin on the genre by discussing her experiences as a woman. As we’ll see, Kate Bush isn’t above gender essentialism—she’s written countless songs about the supposed central human dynamic of relationships between men and women. But she walks a strange line—she mediates a discussion between poptimism and rockism. Kate Bush is that relatively unusual thing in 1970s popular music—a creator of bestselling singles who immediately moves into the role of albums artist. She’s one of a handful of women at the time who takes both singles and album charts by storm. And she’s on fire while she’s at it.

The song is strikingly unadorned, its arrangement relatively simple—Kate sings and plays piano with the accompaniment of an orchestra. Even the music video showcases this uncharacteristic minimalism, with few video effects and no setpieces. Kate mimes to the song without props or extravagant costuming, content with some simple yogaish choreography arranged by herself (this is probably the one moment Kate Bush ever looks like a child star). My favorite visualization of the song comes from her Dutch Efteling special, which poses her in front of a pond which somehow serves to be more atmospheric than the official music video. This song needs room to breathe, and it was always assured it in performance.

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Musically, MWCIHE is Kate’s most significant accomplishment to date. It’s easy to see why Dave Gilmour wanted it released. It’s the first Kate song to really work melodically—it’s cleanly structured, gorgeous, organic, and uncanny. She manages to balance ethereality and hummable melodies while keeping her more experimental drive. She finally develops a memorable hook, an arpeggiated E minor chord (B-G-E-E). The song continues by displaying Kate’s propensity for unorthodox key changes. The first part of the verse (“I hear him before I go to sleep” through “when I turn the light off and turn over”) in E minor with a progression of i-III-VI-III-iv (E minor-G-C-A minor). The second half of the verse moves to E minor’s dominant key, B minor, before shifting to Bb major, doing some things in G, and shifting to a chorus in C. The song is not static—it’s organic, it breathes like a person.

Andrew Powell’s often hit-or-miss production works here. Usually he’s at his best when he takes a hands-off, simple approach, and that’s what he utilizes on this song. He arranges the orchestra himself, and no instruments are heard outside it apart from Kate’s piano, which leads the way (as it does in all her best early songs). For all Kate’s admitted terror at playing with an orchestra, she shines here, sounding perfectly confident and even outshining the gentle ensemble of strings accompanying her song.

It’s rare to find guts like that in a song by an older artist, which is perhaps why this song doesn’t work when sung by older artists. When Hue and Cry sing it, it’s too dour, and even Dusty Springfield doesn’t imbibe it with a new life. Kate sang it for the last time in 1979, when she plays the song for the last time on a BBC Christmas special. It’s a strong performance—Kate’s haunting and soulful voice had significantly evolved across four years, and it lends the song a fitting maturity. There’s a sense that this is the end of its tenure, that this is as far as it can go. It’s hard to imagine a hypothetical 80s Kate Bush concert where “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” would fit in a setlist alongside “Breathing,” “Suspended in Gaffa,” or even “The Big Sky,” which is an older adult’s song about being a child. It belongs to a moment. Kate may have already grown beyond it when it was released as a single after “Wuthering Heights.” It’s a 1975 song that detonated as a 1978 one. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” is likely the last Cathy song, but maybe also the first Kate Bush song. It dwells in a liminal space on its own. “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” as a popular song was at a distance from its inception where its creation was a relatively distant memory. Art is a snapshot of a moment. Sometimes its creative gestation periods last a while. Kate Bush has mastered the slow burn. She didn’t hastily release this song—she set it free.

Recorded: June 1975 at London AIR Studios. Released on The Kick Inside 17 February 1978, and as a single on 26 May 1978. Personnel: Kate Bush-vocals, piano. Production and arrangement: Andrew Powell. Engineering: Geoff Emerick.

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2 thoughts on “The Man with the Child in His Eyes

  1. Pingback: Wow | DREAMS OF ORGONON

  2. Pingback: The Wedding List | DREAMS OF ORGONON

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