Max Ashworth on love, redemption, and the art of murder in Nick Cave’s live performance on the Dutch leg of the Distant Sky tour.
Murder, Nick Cave reminds us, is a cinematic and psychological art form inherited. It is something you get better at doing and describing. Practice makes perfect, and supplies a consistently visual MO, even if motive remains frighteningly unclear. Motive humanises a crime, provides some form of emotional mitigation, some sordid understanding. But in Cave’s dramatic personae of cruel villains, you will do well to smuggle much in the way of overt premeditation, other than maybe half-thought-out crimes of passion, panicked and paranoid responses to perceived emasculation, but mostly just for the hell of it, shits and giggles, and to see what happens. Well, if murder is art inherited, we are not getting any better at justifying it. Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes we just lash out. Just. Now that is frightening.
Murder and death and retribution are never far away, and performing live, there’s still a clear musical lineage to the early barbarity and excess and megalomania and intensity of The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, and the earlier old testament Bad Seeds albums, the unapologetic bombast of a wrecking ball; that Friday night certainty that things are going to get predictably unpredictable, so stay on your toes, people, because Nick Cave delivers swerving dichotomies: the sound is claustrophobic and yet expansive; intimate and suddenly blithe; arrogant and swaggering, then modest and suffocatingly romantic; and this war between succinctness and loquacity (“Prolix – nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!”).
I saw Nick Cave in Bournemouth last September, and he really put the fear of god into me, and not in a good way. £50 to feel scared and paranoid – bargain. Standing in the centre of the auditorium you don’t notice the activity in the wings. After witnessing two panic attacks, I suddenly felt one coming on myself; I was succumbing too easily to the key to his success – gradually engineering disquiet, luring you in with some gentle Skeleton Tree before all manner of Gothic shit goes down. So on the pretence that I needed the toilet and a drink top-up, I left my friends and eventually fought my way out of the throng and recovered to the safety of the wings, several deep breaths and a crafty ciggie outside, where I met many many people also requiring some nicotine relief, especially following the unadulterated drama of “From Her to Eternity”, and “Tupelo”. I’m not sure if this is accurate for all Nick Cave gigs, and I’ve been to many, but this was my first panic attack; the sheer amount of people evicted or medically removed from the Bournemouth gig was hugely impressive, hilarious, and frightening, and not without sarcastic cheers, and maybe indicative of an experience that is utterly overwhelming, especially if this is your first time. And it was my fifth time.
The setlist for Copenhagen was pleasingly similar to Bournemouth, except this time I got to watch it seated in the comfort of The Little Theatre in Bath; the gig was also beamed live to dozens of other locations across the UK, a growing and blindingly obvious enterprise that I hope will continue.
The brash, obsessional, and murderous “From Her to Eternity” marked a move into the back catalogue, followed thunderously by “Tupelo”, a wonderful corruption of some of the American blues, Elvis and Johnny Cash influences. “Into My Arms” is a piano ballad that I more than tolerate – it is a beautiful song about faith and reason, intervention and restraint, enlightenment vs. romanticism, and the only song not given the full Bad Seeds treatment – and in the most beautiful and lachrymal moment of the evening the Copenhagen crowd took over halfway and sung the song to its conclusion, with Cave accompanying on piano.
“Higgs Boson Blues” is magnificent, Warren Ellis’s tenor guitar in fifths, not dissimilar to a violin tuning, creates some huge and excitingly strange sounds from a small 4-string guitar. The percussionists Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos work brilliantly with and against each other, and Martyn Casey’s bassline seems even more slow and sinister and defiant. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that “Push the Sky Away” and “Skeleton Tree” are the Nick and Warren show. “Jubilee Street” is the standout song of the night, a slow burn that explodes into familiar Nick Cave territory with the repeated lyrics:
I am transforming
Well look at me now!
What sounds gentle, comforting and personal on “Push the Sky Away” at home on CD becomes a totally new beast when performed live, brash and swaggering, an escalation into something almost aurally insurmountable, the musical equivalent of being stalked – a punch in the face when you were expecting a hug of reassurance. Like in Bournemouth, for the encore Nick Cave encouraged a peaceful stage invasion for “Stagger Lee” and “Push the Sky Away”, and singled out several members of the audience for his unique brand of intoxicating mesmerism.
“Skeleton Tree” with its sprawling synth lines and fluctuating musical rhythms and descants really takes the Bad Seeds sound to a new level – and to some Bad Seeders discomfort, you can hear Warren Ellis’s growing collaboration; The Skeleton Tree seems a natural extension from the soundtrack work they have done together (The Road, The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
Some Bad Seeders may mourn the loss of various band members in recent times: Conway Savage, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey who were there with The Boys Next Door, then The Birthday Party, then The Bad Seeds, once ubiquitous band members, some may say crucial, and are now exploring their own projects. Crikey, if you listen to Blixa Bargeld’s industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsed New Buildings), you can totally see why he was in The Birthday Party and then The Bad Seeds. (Check out the making of No More Shall We Part if you don’t believe me. Blixa: I did not join a rock n roll band to play fucking rock n roll!). Even Nick Cave called him, “the most uncompromising person you could meet,” although his inclusion in The Birthday Party, with Barry Adamsom, and Mick Harvey, really helped to foster the angry directionless energy, the microcosmic angst of The Bad Seeds. Crikey, the Birthday Party were unapologetic, portentous, squalid, primal, iconoclastic, and their mission statement clearly to provoke a riot; Nick Cave like a drunken preacher, his bare chest daubed ‘Nick the Stripper’, as if such meretricious credentials were required. Welcome to post-punk, and the Heroin Years. Like the narrator of And The Ass Saw The Angel, his first novel, the mute Eucrid Eucrow, almost explodes with a yearning to communicate, and Nick the Stripper similarly vomits a spontaneous rage.
Nick Cave started writing And the Ass Saw the Angel in 1985 (about a religious community in the deep south) which prompted him to read Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, and more significantly for The Bad Seeds, The Old Testament, where the overt piousness and urgent fire and brimstone call to arms and loyalty became even more domestically terrifying on the albums From Her To Eternity (1984) to Tender Prey (1988). By the time the novel was published in 1989, Nick Cave took a sabbatical to Brazil to clean up. He got married, had a child, and seemed to sort of calm down. And when he returned, a new phase of the Bad Seeds launched, a slow but hugely satisfying transition into less Southern Gothic heroin-inflicted rage and into more New Testament material, something closer to home, but still just as uncomfortable, and still inhabited with the usual motley crew of insecure, impotent, confused and complacent narrative voices, as in “Oh My Lord” (No More Shall We Part, 2001):
I grabbed my telephone
I called my wife at home
She screamed, “Leave us alone!”
I said, “Hey, it’s only me.”
While I agree that each Nick Cave album differs from the previous, there are roughly three periods of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: the first, From Her to Eternity (1984) to Tender Prey (1989), which remain consistent while growing in stature and song writing prowess; and later Nocturama (2003) to present day, which, while excellent, lurch about musically and stylistically in what may seem as too obvious an attempt at redefinition and departure. So, I’d like to dwell on the middle period, on transition and longevity, and five Nick Cave albums that are contemporaneously overlooked: Henry’s Dream (1992), Let Love In (1994), Murder Ballads (1996), The Boatman’s Call (1997), and No More Shall We Part (2001). And maybe several songs as well: “Jangling Jack”, “Red Right Hand”, “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”; “Stagger Lee”, “The Curse of Millhaven”, and “O’Malley’s Bar”.
Nick Cave loves to imagine carnage, abandon, recklessness, and in gory technicolour detail, and remind us that we do, too – however, other than the wonderfully nasty Grinderman stuff, and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008), his recent output has been more poetic and charming, elegiac and poignant and, like “Higgs Boson Blues” and “Jubilee Street”, occasionally kicking off in true Bad Seeds fashion, but hardly requiring parental advisory stickers either. Push The Sky Away (2013) was really lovely. Very nice. And I’m sorry, but really lovely and very nice is not what the cosmos demands of a Nick Cave live performance, and bloody hurrah, it’s not what you get; “Jubilee Street” was almost as cacophonous as “The Mercy Seat”, and “Push the Sky Away” as a set closer is inspired.
Even though Skeleton Tree was half-written at the time, it is very hard to separate it from the death of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur, and the creeping suspicion that you are intruding upon someone else’s grief, and that they are allowing you; like The Boatman’s Call (1997), containing some of the most heartbreaking piano ballads in his oeuvre, and ostensibly about Nick Cave’s difficult split from PJ Harvey, delivered his grief on a platter.
But back to murder and its implications. We might also consider murder as art in Hitchcock’s Rope and the self-interested psychopathy in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Haneke’s 4thwall-busting Funny Games (actually Funny Games is a good example – a film in which two young men go house-to-house slowly slaughtering the middle-class occupants, all the while winking to camera, inciting further sadism, needlessly inveigling us, the viewer, to be complicit, because we already are) – however there is sometimes premeditation with Nick Cave (“Where The Wild Roses Grow”, “Mary Bellows”, “From Her to Eternity”) even if the precise reason is left vague, and therefore up to us.
Likewise, Nick Cave’s stage persona of a lapsed but sincere preacher similarly points at and berates the crowd for unseen offenses. The corrupted narrative of “Stagger Lee” is deranged and wilfully undergraduate, but aren’t we onside with the barman when he is unimpressed by Stagger Lee’s violent peacockery, and aren’t we complicit when the barman is murdered and, more worryingly, do we ultimately care? The audience doesn’t and even cheers his demise. Well, “Just count the holes in the motherfucker’s head,” – likewise Billy Dilly, the pimp. With Nick Cave we tailgate the slaughter, rubbernecking, waiting to see what happens, like the cops around O’Malley’s Bar, and whose side are we on when Stag forces Dilly at gunpoint into fellatio and “fills him full of lead”?
Martyn Casey’s louche and evil baseline to “Stagger Lee”, a murder ballad (“Stack O’Lee”) standard that Nick Cave gauchely updates, sounds sexy, but full of vice and sin, like “The House of the Rising Sun”. And let’s face it, if you wanted to be awkward, you might say that “Stagger Lee”, “Jangling Jack” and “O’Malley’s Bar” (and the B-side, “The Ballad of Betty Moore and Robert Coltrane”) are just exercises in random poetic violence – a man walks into a pub with a chip on his shoulder, and a gun, and a crisis of masculinity, an id, and mayhem ensues, and in Murder Ballads a total body count of about 80 – although about half that figure is attributable to 15 year old Lotte, The Curse of Millhaven, “They ask me if I feel remorse/And I answer ‘why of course’/There’s so much more I could have done if they’d let me.”
Nick Cave delights in blurring the boundaries: Is evil banal because of its lack of clarity, of purpose, or is it terrifying precisely because it is thoughtless, icky, artless, and an invitation to rubberneck? Or is it a work of art that we can sit back and pretend not to enjoy? Because Nick Cave villains in the first person are not concerned with reason and excuse – and the frequent one-dimensional and cinematic narratives, rather than being casual displays of grisly violence, invite the listener, or viewer, to raid their subconscious in a desperate effort to fill in the gaps, to supply a lot of the story themselves, and become increasingly more implicated in the details and purpose of murder. And to me, what makes these songs so wonderfully perverted is the unblinking randomness of the violence and the humour attributed to it. It is not surprising that Nick Cave’s most horrific songs are heavy on narrative and explicit violence, and are also among the funniest.
Well from the position I was standing
The strangest thing I ever saw
The bullet entered through the top of his chest
And blew his bowels out on the floor.
“O’Malley’s Bar” (Murder Ballards 1996)
I awoke so drunk and full of rage
That I could hardly speak
A fag in a whalebone corset
Draping his dick across my cheek
And it’s into the shame
And it’s into the guilt
And it’s into the fucking fray
And the walls ran red around me
A warm arterial spray. Hey!
“Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (Henry’s Dream 1992)
Nick Cave delights in hubristic maniacs and their casual and banal and pointless sadism of extreme brutality; his carnival of grotesques is ferocious, often god-fearing, self-deprecating, and self-mythologising, maybe alter-egos for Cave himself. He inhabits a voice so convincingly it’s hard to forget that most of the time Nick Cave isn’t writing completely autobiographically, especially if your introductory Nick Cave album was Murder Ballads.
I am tall and I am thin
Of an enviable height
And I’ve been known to be quite handsome
In a certain angle and a certain light.
“O’Malley’s Bar” (Murder Ballads)
In the gathering storm comes a tall handsome man
With a dusty black coat, and a red right hand.
“Red Right Hand” (Let Love In)
It is unclear why Jangling Jack is killed. He goes into a pub, orders “a Rinky Dink Special, and a little umbrella too,” and is shot by a man sitting in the corner going, ‘Do da do’. That’s pretty much it. Good luck plundering your subconscious to find a motive in that, folks.
But it’s this resistance to interpretation, these narrative gaps, that allow the listener room to speculate, to kind of create their own story, fill in the silence between the cadence and punctuation, and take a psychotic control of the narrative. The random bloodthirstiness of “Stagger Lee” and “Jangling Jack” invite the listener to provide their own unblinking comedy of terrors, replacing lurid with lurid, excess with excess, until excess is excess no more.
It’s a cerebral, hypnotic, and psychotic experience, a hellish Gothic journey full of dark lyricism, dissolute lives and dangerous imagery juxtaposed with occasionally disarming balladry, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds do not intend for us to come out unscathed.
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Max Ashworth is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.