At the University of Michigan, a remarkable 80-year-old American agave plant –a so-called “century plant”—bloomed for the first and last time this summer. It sent up a 26-foot-tall shoot, and workers removed a glass panel from the conservatory’s roof so the aging anomaly would have room to unfurl its many flowers. Century plants were long-rumored to bloom only once every 100 years, but botanists now understand this is hyperbole; most bloom after only 10-30 years. But all perish after their last glorious hurrah. It is as if they have given every bit of themselves to produce something stunning.
News of the Ann Arbor agave reminded me of the soundtrack that played constantly while I worked on my first master’s degree: The work of a talented, quirky Louisianan named Victoria Williams. Williams’ high-pitched vibrato makes her an unlikely star, but her songwriting chops more than compensate for her unusual voice quality. You can find her name on several lists of the best living American songwriters, along with legends like Dylan, Mitchell and Springsteen. Her poignancy nests in stories of the commonplace lives of average folks who turn out to be remarkable in their sagacity.
When Williams croons, shouts and whispers on the track of “Century Tree”, it is as though we have been let in on a precious secret. She starts off singing about the century plant outside her house, but then deftly shifts gears: We never know when we will bloom. She urges us, “Hey, do you want to come out and play the game? It’s never too late.” Williams ends with the story of a man who rediscovers joy after the unexpected heartbreak of his wife leaving him: “Now he brings roses to his sweetheart/she lives most everywhere/ He sees someone suffering/he knows that despair/He offers them a rose/and some quiet prose/ ‘bout dancin’ in a shimmering ballroom/’Cause you never know when it will bloom.” It’s not just about our untapped potential and unspoken reveries; it is the acknowledgment that we just don’t know when we will send up our own spectacular signal.
It was in the midst of my rediscovery of Williams’ work that I learned that another early musical hero of mine, Kate Bush, shocked fans and music critics by announcing a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. She hasn’t toured since 1979. Over 35 years have passed since she shot to fame in Britain as a 19-year-old with her single, “Wuthering Heights”—yes, a musical take on Emily Brontë’s classic. (Only in the U.K. could the bleak tale of Heathcliff and Cathy become a smash hit. It’s hard not to feel like they really are more erudite on the other side of the pond.)
Bush’s recording company had wanted her to release a more pop-friendly tune as her inaugural effort. But she dug in her heels and insisted on “Wuthering Heights”, which climbed to #1 in the U.K. Her musical savvy and artistic sensibilities have continued to serve her well: She is the only U.K. female recording artist to have had a top 5 album in five consecutive decades. And she did so with an atypical piercing soprano vocal quality, videos full of interesting interpretive modern dance moves, and complex lyrics that referenced James Joyce and Tennyson.
She was decidedly not your average pop star. I remember being overjoyed when she toppled Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” from the U.K. chart’s top spot. Art triumphed over artifice for at least a few weeks.
But there has always been that lingering question about her refusal to give concerts or go on tour. Her first and –up until now—last concert series, “The Tour of Life” was a six-week tour de force in the spring of 1979, full of complicated sets, lush dance and lighting sequences, and 17 costume changes. As the years slipped by, she was often referred to as “reclusive” or “withdrawn”. Some of the British press even dubbed her “Miss Havisham”—the withdrawn spinster of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. Others pronounced her a total perfectionist who was afraid to make a mistake.
The truth is a lot less scandalous and salacious: Life intervened and she had to piece together bits of time she could commit to her performance art. The death of her beloved mother, the birth of her son, and the death of a close friend and fellow musician all took their emotional toll. And the sheer amount of time and energy required to raise her son without requisite nannies meant she could not be as artistically productive. Reclusive? Not really; she was fully engaged in the present and the greater world, and yet she doggedly continued to craft her art.
Her fans, especially her stalwart British ones, did not expect that after more than three decades she would launch a tour. Joyous admirers sold out the 22 shows in just 15 minutes. At the opening night last Tuesday, according to the New York Times, fans sat stone silent during the music, only to leap to their feet applauding at every brief opportunity. Eleven of her albums are set to break the U.K. top 100 simultaneously.
We never know when we will bloom.