Denis Meikle

Born: 1947 | Birthplace: Glasgow | Educated: Alleyn's School | Spouse: Jane | Children: Sarah, James | Resident: East Sussex

There was a time - 1985, to be precise - when I was going through a very bad period in my life. I had just separated from my first wife after sixteen years of marriage; I'd lost a business, a house, and whatever it was I'd been working towards for the last decade and a half. I had no money, no prospects, and no future that I could see, and I was living in a one-bed flat in South London. So I started to write. That summer, New Age songstress Kate Bush released her fifth album, Hounds of Love, one of the tracks on which was 'Cloudbusting' - an epic 7-minute pop operetta whose choral anthem - 'I just know that something good is going to happen, I don't know when' - and life-affirming optimism in the face of adversity was exactly the fillip I needed to sustain me in my bleakest hour. It was the devine Ms Bush who saved me from the darkness and despair; in my eyes, she can do no wrong.   


'Cloudbusting', Kate Bush

      ‘I still dream.. of Organon.’
—Kate Bush, ‘Cloudbusting’, Hounds of Love (1985)
On October 14, 1985, the most original, inventive and artistically aspirational pop video of the 1980s was initiated by a line reminiscent of the opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and released to cinemas as a warm-up featurette for a new time-travel fantasy starring Michael J Fox, called Back to the Future. The video had been made to accompany the release of a second single from Hounds of Love, the fifth studio album from sylph-like, Kent-born musical muse Kate Bush, whose unlikely storming of the British pop charts had begun seven years earlier with her trilling atonal take on Emily Brönte’s Gothic romance of 1847, ‘Wuthering Heights’. Bush had gone to extraordinary lengths to provide an appropriate visual accompaniment to the track, which was itself the result of a random purchase in a secondhand bookshop, namely A Book of Dreams by Peter Reich, the son of an Austrian psychoanalyst, sexual revolutionary and student of Sigmund Freud named Wilhelm Reich, who had been prosecuted by the United States Federal authorities during the 1950s over his dabblings in occult science. Among those involved in the film were director and former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam and the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland. But beyond the human drama of a boy’s memoir about a father lost to him at an impressionable age, the aspect of the Reich story that most appealed to the wistful New Ager in Bush was the scientist’s experiments with a machine that he believed could make rain through the stimulation of a force that he had christened ‘Orgone energy’ in the Ionosphere, or upper atmosphere. Reich’s strange contraption - an array of steel tubes on a mobile platform - had been given a more colloquial name for the benefit of his neighbours in Rangely, in the Northeastern US seaboard state of Maine, who were occasionally privileged (or bemused) to watch it in action, and Bush had employed its derivative verb for the title of her song, and accompanying video: ‘Cloudbusting’.
      Kate Bush’s music hitherto had been nothing if not eclectic, borrowing from a wide range of cultural sources - the title track from the Hounds of Love album even famously sampled the ‘séance’ sequence from Jacques Tourneur’s black magic thriller of 1957, Night of the Demon, but ‘Cloudbusting’ was a pot-fuelled plunge into the philosophically esoteric, even for a svelte songstress who had trained in dance under Lindsay Kemp and whose influences included the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger production The Red Shoes (1948), the James Joyce novel Ulysses and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.
      A Book of Dreams, ostensibly a recollection of childhood spent in the unpredictable shade of an eccentric parent is, contrary to the freewheeling meander implicit in its title, a fastidious mix of memoir and literary fiction, its porings over the kind of detail which most mere mortals would have forgotten (or unconsciously altered) in respect of their own lives owing more to the latter than the former. But its precisian prose and illusory nature immediately endeared it to critics and the artistic community alike when it was first published in 1971, and Kate Bush had already encountered it during her teenage years of musical pursuit at the family’s farm in East Wickham before the secondhand bookshop reacquainted her with Peter Reich’s elegiac echo of JD Sallinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
      ‘It was just calling me from the shelf,’ Bush said of the memento mori. ‘I was very moved by the magic of it. It’s about a special relationship between a young son and his father... But it’s very much more to do with how the son does begin to cope with the whole loneliness and pain of being without his father.’ Terry Gilliam had to decline Bush’s request to direct what she envisaged as a pop featurette due to an ongoing battle with Universal over the release of his film Brazil (for which Bush had recorded a version of Ary Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil) but he had recommended his regular editor, Julian Doyle: ‘Kate came to me with a storyboard, which I remember had the sun coming up with a face on it,’ Doyle recalled. ‘I also knew about Wilhelm Reich, because there was interest in him among the new women’s movement and I was close to the women involved.’ The video was to be a vignette of Reich’s life, contrasting the cloudbusting experiment with his arrest and ultimate detention by the Federal authorities but ending on a positive note as others take up the cudgel in his place. The location chosen for the siting of the ‘cloudbuster’ was Dragon Hill in the Vale of White Horse in Oxfordshire, and the machine itself was designed by Bush and Gilliam and constructed by art director Ken Hill, while the fictional Reich’s mad lab was the work of Hill’s son, Bruce.
      Given that the video was a promo for her song, Kate Bush had to stand in as Peter Reich, but she had in mind an actor of stature for Reich himself: Donald Sutherland. Sutherland had turned the role down, however, but Bush had traced him to his habitual British haunt of suite 312 in London’s Savoy Hotel and presented herself at his door. ‘She sat down and said some stuff,’ Sutherland said. ‘All I heard was “Wilhelm Reich”. I’d taken an underground copy of his The Mass Psychology of Fascism with me when I went to film Bertolucci’s Novecento in Parma... Everything about Reich echoed through me. He was there then and now he was here. Sitting across from me in the person of the very eloquent Kate Bush. Synchronicity…’
      Doyle’s film was to have a synchronicity of its own. Bush’s 5-minute audio recording had to be expanded to accommodate the cross-cutting of the video’s twin themes and, as a result, the insistent rhythms of ‘Cloudbusting’ were allowed more time to build to a climax of joyous release. Bush had not known exactly how to end her track, but Doyle knew only too well how to end his film - by keeping faith with Reich the sex-therapist: its 7-minute duration matches the length of time established by researcher Alfred Kinsey that it takes for a woman to achieve orgasm during sexual intercourse, a statistic subsequently enshrined in popular lore by Irving Wallace in his 1969 novel, The Seven Minutes.    
Some of the simplistic ‘sun with a face on it’ conceits of Bush’s original vision had been abandoned by Doyle during the shooting in favour of a more socio-political tone to the piece, and this divergence in approach continued into the edit. ‘A conflict developed and I became the mediator,’ Gilliam said. ‘Kate knows exactly what she’s doing; she knows what she wants. She’s the sweetest person on the planet but she’s absolute steel inside!’ ‘Kate wanted to change the edit,’ Doyle explained: ‘I thought they were mistakes - so in bringing in Terry, it stopped her making bad changes as she accepted what Terry said.’ In deferring to wiser heads so far as the final cut was concerned, Bush once again showed herself capable of absorbing influence from wherever it sprang, and the result of their joint endeavour was an epic in miniature that married fact with fancy to conjure what almost amounted to a New Age myth in the making: the cloudbuster is positioned high atop a hill and aimed at the sky; agents of the state arrest its creator before he can attempt to prove his theory; as he is spirited away, his progeny fires the device in his stead and nature responds, rain falls…
      ‘..Every time it rains, you’re here in my heart…’  
—Kate Bush, ‘Cloudbusting’, Hounds of Love (1985)
      The video of ‘Cloudbusting’ was inspired by a very specific incident in A Book of Dreams - whether real or imagined is unclear from the text (though Peter Reich has since confirmed it in interview): while in conversation with a boyhood friend, he states, ‘Last year when we were back East, in Maine, there was a drought, and all the blueberries were drying up. You know, that’s where they grow blueberries… So these blueberry growers heard about the cloudbuster and called my dad up. They said they’d give him ten thousand dollars to make it rain. Twenty-four hours after we worked the cloudbuster, it started the rain. The weather bureau had said there wouldn’t be any rain for a couple of days and then, wham.’ The event in question took place in the summer of 1953 and grew fixed in the mind of the 9-year-old who witnessed it: ‘I was along for that operation and helped crank the levers,’ he elaborated later. ‘A most vivid memory: being aroused in the early morning hours just before dawn and led to an open door to observe a steady rain…’
Peter’s rose-coloured reminiscence of boyhood days filled by the wonder of skywatching and aiding his father in strange experiments beyond his understanding is but one aspect of A Book of Dreams, however; the other is the back story which enabled the sense of enchantment to begin with and which is only alluded to in the text, as in a child hearing a snatch of parental conversation from the other side of a closed door. And despite her New Age credentials, Bush also chose to forego - or perhaps ignore, for fear of being a target of the same odium that had come the way of Wilhelm Reich - the real rationale behind the ‘cloudbusting’ machine, which was neither to represent the triumph of hope over adversity, as Bush has it, or even simply to make rain, but to engage in ‘full-scale interplanetary battle’ against the ‘Energy Alphas’ whose alien craft emitted Deadly Orgone Radiation so as to pollute and destroy the Earth!
      Now you know. And now ‘Cloudbusting’ will never seem quite the same again. Even Peter Reich, in print at least, appears to have been unaware of precisely what his father’s intentions were: his mention of ‘EAs’, supposedly an alternative of Wilhelm Reich’s to the more widely-used ‘UFOs’, goes without further explanation in A Book of Dreams, as does a casual reference to Lieutenant Edward Ruppelt, the officer in charge of Project Blue Book, the US Air Force’s Pentagon-authorised official investigation into Unidentified Flying Objects, or ‘flying saucers’. But if the Food and Drug Administration took exception to Reich’s experiments because, in its eyes, he was committing a large-scale fraud by selling his steel-box ‘Orgone accumulators’ on spurious health-benefit grounds, while speculating on the side that he was a quack, a ‘bunko-artist’ or simply mad, what it failed to realise (or did, and tried to suppress it by other means) was that his real madness went far beyond the alleged cures for cancer and sexual impotence. It stretched out to the stars.
      After his untimely death in 1957, Wilhelm Reich had become something of a cult figure in liberal circles; his pioneering views on female sexual emancipation had anticipated the sexual awakening of the 1960s by some thirty years, and his quest to find a universal ‘life force’ had endeared him to the same decade’s adherents of mystical doctrine. To say that his past - both personally and professionally - was chequered would be something of an understatement. He had fallen out with his analytical mentor, Sigmund Freud, when Freud refused to underwrite a fanciful theory about orgasmic potency; he had joined the Communist Party in 1928, but later rescinded his membership when he failed to align the theories of Marx with those of Freud; he had relocated to Norway, only to find himself the eventual victim of a concerted witch-hunt in both scientific circles and the popular press; he had then fled from Austria to the US in 1938 on the last ship to sail before war was declared, to escape Nazi persecution, and he had set up a clinic in New York specialising in sexual therapy. In the early 1940s, he had tried to establish a working relationship with Albert Einstein but the grand old man of physics was having none of it, rejecting Reich’s advances with the patient disdain of a tolerant tutor for an enthusiastic but unqualified pupil. On the ‘lighter’ side of his scientific endeavours, Reich had indulged in affairs with a number of female associates and had demanded abortion as the price for their unplanned consequences; Peter was the child of his second marriage to Ilse Ollendorf, but he was to divorce her as he had his first wife, Annie Pink, in 1933, hypocritically accusing her of the same proclivity to which he himself was seemingly compelled.
The 1950s were a final turning-point for a career which had gone from pioneering medical advance and peer respectability to controversy, mania, increasingly extravagant theories and the derision of colleagues and the scientific community alike. By 1954, Reich was alone - but for his son and the still-revolving door of the casual affair. But something had occurred in the recent past which gave renewed vigour to his theories about the Orgone, and it would set him on a last course of philosophical investigation, as well as enshrine him as vanguard of an area of metaphysics which as yet defies any rational explanation. In June 1947, businessman and experienced search-and-rescue pilot Kenneth Arnold was in his own light aircraft over Mount Rainier in Washington State when he spotted nine disk-like objects in the sky that seemed to be flying in formation. When he reported his sighting, and the odd way in which the objects appeared to manoeuvre - like saucers ‘skipped’ across water, the tabloids soon came up with a populist term for Arnold’s aerial anomaly. And the ‘flying saucer’ was born.
      Flying saucers, or UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) as they were later more accurately designated, had been around for some considerable time before Kenneth Arnold and the mass media brought them to the attention of a wider public: strange lights had been reported in the sky since the dawn of recorded history, and the 1890s had borne witness to a rash of sightings of mysterious ‘airships’, whether related to balloon experiments or simply a delusional side-effect of the publication of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. But in July 1947, only a matter of weeks after the Arnold sighting, an actual ‘saucer’ was alleged (initially by the US Air Force itself) to have crashed in a field at Roswell, New Mexico; that sighting was soon debunked and the whole notion of ‘little green men from Mars’ was about to return to the pages of the pulps when, in January 1948, the F-51 Mustang of Captain Thomas Mantell was brought down mid-flight, supposedly by a saucer, resulting in Mantell’s death. Two more ‘close encounters’ that year, both of them reported by experienced pilots and corroborated by radar, or witnesses on the ground, stemmed the laughter of sceptics and, despite the lack of any concrete evidence to support such a contention, flying saucers were suddenly regarded not only as fact but to be of extraterrestrial origin and to represent a clear and present danger. As more and more people came forward to state that they too had observed strange craft in American skies, the USAAF established Project Blue Book to investigate the phenomenon of UFOs. It was the start of the flying saucer ‘scare’, encouraged by a raft of sensational exposés in print, such as the books by former Marine Corps pilot and pulp fiction author Major Donald Keyhoe (The Flying Saucers Are Real, 1950; Flying Saucers From Outer Space, 1953).
      Films on the subject typically followed, but innocuously so at this early stage: The Flying Saucer (1950) went with the pervasive rationale of a secret Soviet spy plane, while The Thing From Another World was based on a pulp novel which had been written by John Campbell Jr in 1938; not until 1953 did the possibility of extraterrestrial invasion really take hold, when cinemas were themselves invaded by a glut of movies on exactly that theme - It Came From Outer Space, The War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars and more. Coincident with this ‘boom’ in interest, saucer sightings, which previously had been recorded in the dozens, now began to arrive at Blue Book’s headquarters by the hundred. In May 1954, one of those who professed to have witnessed UFOs in the sky above his home was Wilhelm Reich. More than that, he claimed to have neutralised them with his ‘cloudbuster’.
      According to a biography of Reich by Ilse Ollendorf, he built his first cloudbuster in July 1952; to this prototype were added two more, constructed to his exacting specifications by a factory in Portland, Maine. In essence, the machine was a collection of metal tubes connected by flexible hoses to a source of water, which Reich believed was a ‘grounding’ element able to drain DOR from the atmosphere - quite a far cry from the Gilliam-designed Heath Robinson contraption of the Bush video. A real cloudbuster can be glimpsed in Serbian director Duŝan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), a polemical homage to the doctor which concentrated its docu-dramatic energies on the sexual politics of Reich’s Orgone engineering at the expense of either sense or sympathy for the scientific principle behind it.  
      Reich’s mental state had been in question for some time. He was, by many accounts, a charismatic and seductive figure, but to others, he was volatile, unstable, even psychopathic. The rejection, by Freud, of the psycho-sexual theories that he had developed in his search for a fundamental ‘life force’, the persecution that he had experienced in Norway before the war, and the later disinterest in the Reichian science of ‘Orgonomy’ which had been expressed by Einstein, had all contributed to a growing paranoia which reached a peak when a journalist named Mildred Brady penned a damning article in The New Republic entitled ‘The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich’. This set in train a series of events which led to his investigation by the Food and Drug Administration, over sales claims for his ‘Orgone accumulators’, and the FBI, over his pre-war visits to Russia and former links to the Communist Party. Assailed on all sides, Reich became increasingly insular and ever more subject to grandiose delusions, such as having powerful friends in the American government who would protect him in the event of his enemies trying to take him down. And all the while, he and his son Peter would scour the skies over Organon, their farm in Rangely, for the UFOs that he now believed were a form of life emanating from our own world but emitting negative energy for purposes as yet unknown. (This non-ET theory of Reich’s would eventually catch on big-time with writers such as John A Keel, whose own studies of UFOs - Operation Trojan Horse, The Eighth Tower and more - would expand it into a veritable mythology about ultra-terrestrial, inter-dimensional entities whose purpose is one of human deception, like demons of old; Keel is probably best-known outside of UFOlogy circles as the author of the source-novel for the Richard Gere paranormal opus The Mothman Prophecies, made in 2002.)
      Reich elaborated his theory about the ‘invaders’ in Contact With Space - ‘I had hesitated for weeks to turn my cloudbuster pipes toward a “star”, as if I had known that some of the blinking lights hanging in the sky were not planets or fixed stars but SPACE machines. With the fading out of the two “stars”, the cloudbuster had suddenly changed into a SPACEGUN...’ Outlandish this may have been, but the idea was promptly picked up by the writers of Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), who employed a similar weapon to defeat Ray Harryhausen’s animated UFOs. Not so easily circumvented, however, were the apparatchiks of the FDA, in the Red-baiting days of McCarthyism and its Un-American Activities Committees, who moved an injunction to have Reich’s accumulators trashed and his books on philosophy burned. (The parallels with Nazi Germany would not have been lost on him then, nor us now.) In 1956, he was arrested and incarcerated. And in November 1957, having been transferred to the state penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he was found dead in his cell bed. Reich had passed away during the night, of a cardiac arrest. The events of the last few years of his turbulent life were dramatised in 2012 in Der Fall (aka The Strange Case of) Wilhelm Reich, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, a romanticised treatment of his persecution by the US authorities that was geared more to promoting the far-sightedness of his various therapies. ‘I’m so curious where all this is heading,’ Brandauer’s Reich declares, while staring at the night sky. The same could be said of Antonin Svoboda’s film, which blended fact with much wishful fiction and skirted around the UFO-chasing, but it did at least furnish its viewers with faithful facsimiles of his cloudbusters. (Facsimiles of Reich’s accumulator are another matter. Contraptions similar in concept have appeared under the guise of Durand-Durand’s pleasure-machine in Barbarella [1968] and as the ‘orgasmatron’ in Woody Allen’s Sleeper [1973], but these are caricatures at best; the healing potential of the device was widely accepted in the early 1950s and mention of it can be found in the novels of writers as diverse as Evelyn Waugh and Jack Kerouac.)
      When it came to ‘Cloudbusting’, Kate Bush was having none of this mumbo-jumbo about Ethereans and elemental forces beyond the veil of human vision; what she took from Reich’s philosophical conjectures was the idea of spiritual energy, and what she crafted symphonically from A Book Of Dreams was a hymn to the power of positive thinking that exists in each of us. Whether she meant it as such, or merely put Peter Reich’s childhood remembrances to music, Bush’s stirring anthem to the dream of a brighter tomorrow, penned at a time of social unrest and political upheaval, was not just a naive ode to happy endings far removed from the harsh truths of life: it was a call to arms, struck from the perseverance and dogged determination of her own career, from which all with the eyes to see past its fairy-tale disguise could draw the inspiration to aspire, and strive, and ultimately achieve the goals that their hearts desire. Only John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ exists on a similar evangelical plane of quasi-religious fervour for the human potential to change things for the better.
      Reich’s thinking on sexual freedom has since come to pass; his views about the Orgone, or something akin to it, may yet be proved correct. In his work and his life, like all good scientists, he challenged the orthodoxy, questioned received wisdom, and set his face against ignorance, prejudice, preconceptions and the bigotry and abuse of closed minds. He had been a threat to the scientific establishment of Europe, and he became one again in his adopted homeland of a supposedly more enlightened America. In a country that professes to venerate free speech, the words of Wilhelm Reich were a freedom cry that was felt to be too radical by half.   
      Like the works of Reich before it, Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’ was initially greeted by a mix of rapture and ridicule: what Melody Maker considered ‘a dreamy, gentle, intense Sousaesque marching tune’, Record Mirror thought an ‘infuriatingly catchy bit of stringy nonsense’. The NME was also predictably out of whack - ‘A rotten boring tune and some orchestral wittering,’ it decreed. In 1985, Kate Bush was a novelty songbird whose talent had first been proffered to the public through a poster that emphasised her cleavage; today, she is a musical icon if not a national institution.
      Many of the great thinkers of history were derided for their beliefs in their lifetimes, only to be canonised for their insights long after those of their persecutors had been forgotten. The insanity of Wilhelm Reich might have been that of a paranoid megalomaniac - or it might just have been an obsessive intellectual curiosity, banging its tired and tormented head against the mindset of the mob. Reich has been recognised for his work on sexual health - ‘Make love, not war’, as the counter-culturalists used to have it. There is still time for a proper consideration of his search for the cosmic ‘spark’.
Time enough to dream. An eternity, in fact.
      ‘..I just know that something good is going to happen. I don’t know when...’   
—Kate Bush, ‘Cloudbusting’, Hounds of Love (1985)
NB. On a personal note, I was attempting (but ultimately failing) to write a science fiction novel in 1985 - Lightfall by name - and had researched the work of Wilhelm Reich with a view to incorporating some of his ideas into the plot. As it happened, Kate Bush had evidently been doing much the same, at much the same time, and ‘Cloudbusting’ became the serendipitous musical backdrop to a summer of literary pursuit. The jury is still out on Reich’s theory of the Orgone, but something can certainly be said for Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious…