I wrote a feature article about Nick Cave around the time of the release of his “The Boatman’s Call” album in the late ’90s. It was published in an art’n’fashion mag called Sin under the title “Nick Cave – Songs of Love and Hate” (a title I didn’t compose and never liked).
The original title I submitted the article under was:
Nick Cave: I Wanna Tell You About A Boy
When you stop to think about it, the bronzed action bloke isn’t the only archetypal Australian man. If he was, where would great Aussie men like Robert Helpmann, Barry Humphries and Brett Whiteley fit into the picture? Cultured, intellectual, artistic men who found mainstream Australian society had little place for them until they’d somehow “proven” themselves overseas first. Add to this list, one Nicholas Edward Cave.
Having been part of the Australian subcultural consciousness since the mid-’70s, Nick Cave is finally oozing into mainstream Australia’s consciousness, too. Two best-selling books about him and his bands have hit our bookstores. The ABC/SBS have indulged us with documentaries and retrospectives. One Melbourne commercial radio station put “Where The Wild Roses Grow” on high rotation. Every mum’s favourite singer, Denis Walter, did a cover of “The Ship Song”. Even our newspapers have worked out who he is. True, it appears to be something of a morbid fascination, but the fascination at least exists now.
So, when did Nick Cave become acceptable? How did it happen that a man who was once berated as a purveyor of “sleazy art” (as an art-school teacher did, shortly before young Nick was kicked out) become a songwriter whom TV weatherman Denis Walter would seek to record the work of? That everyone’s favourite Girl Next Door, Kylie, would want to be alone in a studio with?
For a start, he’s not a heroin addict anymore – that scores him big points with the Acceptability Police. To be a reformed drug addict is to be seen as a person of strength and will-power, someone who’s seen the nastiness of life and taken great, often painful measures to rise above it. To remain drug dependant is to be seen as indulgent, sleazy, without constraint. It’s easy to see which is more respectable to the public at large.
‘It lurks in the back of my head all the time,’ he says, when asked if he’s afraid of returning to his old ways. ‘I feel very, very tempted at times, yes. Unfortunately, you can’t destroy yourself without destroying other people. I pretty much don’t care if I destroy myself, but all the people around me become victims, and that is something I would prefer to avoid. [But] I’ve learned, amongst other things, how to make the most out of the good things in me. And I know that even if the demons are shaking me, I won’t be destructive for the rest of my life. I’m more in control now.’
(Ekstra Bladet, 1996)
Then there’s the fact that Cave is now a responsible and doting father. This may well be the same individual who pranced around a Melbourne tip in a loincloth with “Porca Dio” painted on his bony chest, or the drunk guy arrested for pissing off the back of a ute in country New South Wales onto the car bonnet of the local policeman’s wife. Of course it’s him, but try telling your Denis Walter-loving mother that! No, this Nick Cave is a nice man – he wears suits and ties now instead of loincloths or leather jeans, and has a definite air of trustworthiness about him.
‘I’m not happy all the time, but I have access to a newly found joy, which my son is mainly responsible for. Becoming a father has helped me a lot. I couldn’t do drugs and at the same time take care of my son. He’s a big part of my good side. Something I’ve made which is really good. I used to wake up in a terrible panic about dying… but I don’t anymore. I think that was more to do with a kind of chemical residue in my body or something. Now I just feel that if I can make as much out of this life as possible, then it’s not going to be such a worry. I feel there is something… but at the same time, I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I certainly hope that I’m right in that respect.’
(Rolling Stone, 1995)
Perhaps the overriding reason that Nick Cave seems to be becoming more acceptable and popular in his homeland now might be that it took us this long to catch up with him. His ideas have always been slightly ahead of their time, though he says he simply does what he wants to do, without regard to acceptance. The fact remains, though, that he and his fellow Boys Next Door / Birthday Party members were fiddling and twisting with the bounds of the punk movement in the mid-’70s. They helped inject a movement which was (until then) a largely British working class and New York art-scene with some suburban horrors and spitting cynicism that were uniquely Australian. Their influence was far reaching, if mainly outside Australia. While the majority of Australian music listeners were buying Cold Chisel and Aussie Crawl records in truckloads, Nick, Mick, Tracy, Rowland and Phil were impressing the pants off the “seen-it-all” audiences of London and Berlin.
Australia had produced something it didn’t know what to do with. We had to look at this screeching monster with ten legs assaulting the ears of the Old World and be forced to admit that this thing had somehow come out of us. With our cringing kulcha hugged to our collective bosom, we steadfastly ignored them. We applauded the Little River Band lurching into the American Top Five. We patted Air Supply on the back as they peddled their homogenised lerrve ditties across the North American continent. But we hoped that if we overlooked The Birthday Party long enough they might do us all a favour and go away. They did. Firstly, in a physical sense by spending less and less time back home, and then in a very final sense by disbanding in 1982.
With their next band, The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave and Mick Harvey have continued to spend most of their time out of Australia. Berlin, London and Sao Paolo are the cities that have nurtured and encouraged Nick Cave and his wide-ranging talents, instead of Melbourne or Australia as a whole. But everything happens for a reason. Without Berlin, The Bad Seeds would be a drastically different band, as Berlin gave the talents of Germans Blixa Bargeld and Thomas Wydler a place, paradoxically, in the history of “Australian music”. Berlin, also, is the city Cave credits with instilling him with confidence in himself – that Berliner attitude of making the art you want to make, of believing in what you are doing.
‘I don’t see my job as an artist is to sit around and write happy songs that congratulate the world for the way it is. I think the world is fucked, and I think that there are a lot of humans behaving very badly in this world. One side of me feels that very strongly. On the other hand, I do have quite a broad sense of humour about things. I’m an Australian, I have an Australian sense of humour, and I like to give that a bit of breathing space as well.’
(Rip It Up magazine, 1996)
One of the paradoxes about Nick Cave that I’ve come to love is his undoubted Australian-ness, which stands so stridently (so yobbo-like, perhaps?) next to his widely travelled, widely read, cosmopolitan sophistication. So what was the big change? Perhaps we needed a prodigal son like Nick, a man who can be both tenaciously Australian and cosmopolitan, to teach us we can be ourselves overseas without being dickheads. That a bloke could be into art and books and stuff without being “a poofta”.
‘I often have it in the back of my mind to [move back to Australia to live], because I love Australia immensely and I think it’s an incredible country. But it’s too difficult for me to operate a career out of there, really.’
(Australian Style, 1994)
Here’s a man who loves his beer, who has the height of an Aussie Rules footballer, whose accent is barely (if at all) modified despite his considerable time away from our shores, and just might, one day, end up being regarded as one of our greatest poets.
And I’m off to find love / Do you love me? / If you do I’m thankful.
– Do You Love Me? (Part 2)
He’s a sensitive man, this hard-living Australian. We see this readily in his lyrics and writings, in the pained expression he so often wears and in his easy, almost goofy, grin. Less readily, we see it in the familial structure of The Bad Seeds – more than just a rock group, this is a family unit, a support machine with fluid, moving parts but always with respect at its core. Despite Cave being so obviously the father figure of this post-nuclear family, what is it about him that makes other talented men – each remarkable and notable in his own right – so pliant, so yielding to his authority?
‘Well, obviously Nick’s the head of the group, but when it comes to deciding about things… if it’s anything that is relevant to everybody else, it gets discussed with them, too. They’re all band members, they’ve got to like what we’re gonna go ahead with, too.’
(Mick Harvey – “Straight To You” documentary)
‘Each member of the band is quite free to express themselves however they like and are tolerated. We find the idiosyncrasies of each member quite interesting, quite funny really, so there’s very little bitching going on between us.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)
There is obviously something about him, something that makes other gifted individuals acquiesce to his plans and visions. Witness Blixa Bargeld, a giant of European music, a pioneer of the Industrial subculture, a man of deity-like status to thousands of loyal followers. Like Cave, on the surface he can seem manic and frightening, a man whose art involves much Teutonic screeching and bashing the fuck out of any inanimate object at hand. But also like Cave, he has a quick, mischievous smile and a penchant for ridiculousness (just watch what fun he and Nick are having in “The Weeping Song” video – is it just me, or are they really dancing like fathers tend to at family parties?) For many, Blixa is the personification of the genius of avant garde music-making. He is also one of Cave’s closest friends, a relationship which allows him to take up his support role in The Bad Seeds with ease and good will. Obviously, he believes in what Cave is doing and is pleased to play a part in making it happen. It’s a similar story for every Bad Seed – past, present and undoubtedly, future.
‘I get inspired by people that I know and often see it as my job, in a way, to somehow document the types of people that they are.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)
Cave (and friends) note that he hates to be alone, that he needs to be surrounded by people, but also that it takes him a long time to trust others, to build a friendship. Once those friendship are struck, however, he appears a loyal, unbending companion, extremely generous with his talents. What greater gift can the artist give loved ones than a piece of his art, which is at once a piece of the artist himself and his metaphorical child? Cave gives these pounds of flesh away magnanimously to those he loves and admires – an album of songs to friends in German band Die Haut; countless songs, vocals and studio assistance to ex-girlfriend Anita Lane; numerous soundtrack pieces to film-making friend Wim Wenders; an achingly beautiful vocal for Kylie Minogue to sing, simply because he admired her beauty and her voice.
Do we love him like he loves us, he wanted to know in “Do You Love Me?”. Best-selling albums and books, sold out concerts, surely these should tell him? Vulnerability is understandably common among artists – they give birth to metaphoric children and send them into the world, only to have a fair percentage of people tell them their babies are ugly. But our Nick is quite a battler, quite capable of getting back on his feet, dusting himself off, giving a disdainful shrug and getting on with the job. Yes, we love him. We love him for his fortitude and vision, for the many lovely gifts he gives to us, for the roguish grin he does so much of it with. And we also love him for that endearing look of vulnerability we often see about him.
Sensitive, loyal, magnanimous, vulnerable. Quite a different picture of the man than we’ve been used to in the past, isn’t it?
‘Nick Cave – No more myth, a nice guy.’
(The Age EG, 1987)
Cave’s 1989 novel “And The Ass Saw The Angel” was advertised upon its release as “the second greatest story ever told”. Quite a rap for a first time novelist. But Cave had been sharing his stories and characters with the world for many years before his novel saw the light of day.
This is the essence of his art – he is a story teller. His characters live and breathe with colour and roundedness, despite their often complicated stories being told in the confined format of popular music’s average three and a half minutes. Nick the Stripper is “a fat little insect” of a man dancing in his birthday suit. John Finn’s wife has “legs like scissors and butcher’s knives, a tattooed breast and flaming eyes”, commanding every man’s attention. The man for whom the devil jumps up possesses a heart “blacker than the chambers of a dead nun’s heart”. Cave’s version of Stagger Lee would “crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole”. And the jailer of “Mercy” speaks with a voice “thick with innuendo, syphilis and greed”. All succinct, potent images that leave vivid etchings on the listener’s mind.
With his two most recent albums, “Murder Ballads” and the brand new “The Boatman’s Call”, Cave told a story in every song, each based around a common theme. On “Murder Ballads”, obviously, that theme was murder. On “The Boatman’s Call”, Cave is telling love stories.
‘Murder Ballads was such a disgusting record to make, you kind of remedy the situation by writing a whole lot of very different sort of songs. Some kind of re-dressing the balance.’
(Rip It Up magazine, 1996)
Some of the most heart-achingly beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard were penned by Nick Cave. But even here, dealing with the rhetoric of tenderness and love, his words still throw up stark images of violence and tragedy. In “The Ship Song”, he murmurs “Come loose your dogs on me” before telling us the time is nigh “When I must remove your wings and you must try to fly”. “Straight To You” brings words of Biblical-Armageddon proportions where “the seas will swallow up the mountains”, “the saints are drunk and howling at the moon”, “the chariots of angels are colliding” and even “the swallows have sharpened their beaks” – but he’ll come running straight to us, even though he’ll be crying. And in “Slowly Goes The Night” he watches “the moon get flayed anew until the moon becomes the skinning tool, I send the skins of my sins out to cover and comfort you”.
Images of doom work in love songs because of the all-encompassing, cataclysmic sensations love induces in us. Even if we can’t articulate how it is our lover can make our heart leap to our throat, our stomach churn with nerves, our head swim sickeningly, we can still listen to “Straight To You” and nod sagely – yes, chariots of angels WILL collide, the sea WILL swallow up the mountains. We understand this notion deep inside ourselves, that the fall into love is a dangerous and thrilling ride, that the future of the world is dependent upon this perfect feeling.
With the new album, “The Boatman’s Call”, the imagery isn’t quite so catastrophic. This is an intimate, personal album telling languid tales of people drifting together and drifting apart. Even so, in “Are You The One?” he is arguing with himself – “stars will explode in the sky, but they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment and then they die” – and in “Brompton Oratory” he tells how the world has gone to war outside his window, then accuses his lover “No God up in the sky and no devil beneath the sea could do the job that you did, baby”.
Everyone from Shakespeare to Leonard Cohen has recognised how well it works to use the irony of words of pain, death and destruction to describe the beauty and tenderness of love. Cave also knows the incongruous worth of so-called ‘swear words’ for describing scenes of gentleness, a fine example of which appears on “The Boatman’s Call”:
In the colonial hotel
We fucked up the sun
Then we fucked it down again.
– Where Do We Go Now
Word play and sophisticated symbolism aren’t the only traits which make Cave a great poet though. He also brings the musician’s gift for tempo and pace to the flow of his words. Look closely at the meter of “The Mercy Seat”, for example. I still smile every time I hear him sing this – the language is so perfectly manipulated, the words so utterly his tools. The beat (bolded here) falls perfectly on every second syllable without fail:
I hear stories from the chamber
Christ was born into a manger
Like some ragged stranger died upon a cross
And might I say it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade
Young writers could do far worse than to study how Nick Cave uses language.
How many Nick Caves are there? There’s the songwriter, the singer, the musician – we’ll all familiar with those three by now. But there’s also the actor, the artist, the author, the film-maker, the poet, and these are just his “public” personas! Something they all have in common is that they turn forty years old this year. Would it be at all appropriate to suggest, even for a nanosecond, that a man who has lived as wildly and unconventionally as he, is only just approaching the age at which ‘life’ is supposed to begin?
‘As you get older, you get hooked into your own idiosyncratic habits and eccentricities. I like that.’
There’s no sign yet of Nick Cave ‘slowing down’ in any respect. When he glowers onto the upturned faces of an adoring audience and grumbles “I wanna tell you ’bout a girl” before ripping into “From Her To Eternity”, one could barely pick his age – he looked the same performing that song in the early ’80s as he does now in the late ’90s. Well… the hairstyle’s changed a bit.
When “The Good Son” was released in 1990, some observers complained Cave had sold out or grown old, using the slow, intimate songs of the album as their ‘proof’. But two things proved them wrong. Firstly, live, The Bad Seeds positively blister their way through even the most drowsy and unhurried of recorded ballads – the energy of their live performance is undeniably fever-pitch and very nearly tangible. Secondly, they followed “The Good Son” with first, “Henry’s Dream” and then “Let Love In” – would anyone like to try and cite “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” or “Jack The Ripper” or “Loverman” or “Red Right Hand” or “Thirsty Dog” as examples of a man who has grown old and sold out?
I think the crux of Cave’s secret is that all he ever wanted to be was an artist. His parents encouraged him to become one, he told his teachers that’s what he was going to be, Berlin taught him to believe in being one. I don’t believe he’s in any danger of slowing down while his desire to explore his art remains. Obviously, his explorations won’t always be to everyone’s taste, but he just moves along, doing what he wants and occasionally he might rub shoulders with fashionability, then he moves on again (“he went on down the road”). The artist, by his very nature, is the observer, the chronicler of the lives of others – but where does this leave the artist’s life?
‘Most people learn to deal with life and deal with relationships and become “real” people in a way. The artist doesn’t because he’s unable to spend the time doing that. My personal life tends to remain in a state of chaos.’
(Nick Cave – “Straight To You” documentary)
They will interview my teachers
Who’ll say I was one of God’s sorrier creatures
There’ll be informative six page features
When I go
– Lay Me Low