Nick Cave is like carbon. In the 1970s he began emitting words and music and through numerous iterations, transformations and genres, he has continued to spread out through the cultural atmosphere. Like carbon, Cave has been around for a long time, and his music will continue to hang around as well. And, also like carbon, Cave is hard to see, even though he influences and has an abiding presence in rock and roll.
His first band, The Birthday Party cast out 1970s gothic punk that was nearly unlistenable and notable mostly for its unleashed sonic terror as well as the band’s provocative, caterwauling, thumping and slightly scary stage performances.
Drugs, alcohol and exhaustion got the better of The Birthday Party, but following their breakup in 1983, Cave formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a group of masterfully understated musicians. That was fifteen albums and nearly 30 years ago. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are still at it.
And, I should say that, despite the remonstrations of many of my friends who know something about Cave, he plays well with the children. It’s not unusual for my daughter to settle herself into her car seat, rest her head back and say, “Dad, can we listen to that Sad Man?” Her favorite album is the 2014 release, Push the Sky Away. Sometimes, I can hear her singing Cave songs to herself in her room. “We know who you are and we know where you live,” she softly sings, “and we know there’s no need to forgive.”
Cave has written over ten soundtracks, three novels, an introduction to the gospel of Mark and he’s received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Brighton. In the annals of rock and roll and late twentieth/early twenty-first century pop and indie rock culture, Nick Cave is not someone to be trifled with.
Cave is a writer’s writer. His lyrics are densely packed with historical, philosophical and literary illusions. Somehow, though, that never comes off as precious or so much over intellectualizing, mostly, I think, because all of that gets bumped up against quotidian observations and fantastical stories and images that sound like a Dali painting, if it could sing.
Because they take sharp and surprising emotional and narrative turns, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen in a Nick Cave song, even if you have heard it more than once. Take, “Deanna,” a tune from Tender Prey (1988). With its Farfisa organ, thumping bass line and bouncy back beat, the first few measures of the song sounds like something from The Turtles circa 1967. The narrator sings, as if to a lover, “Oh Deanna! Sweet Deanna!” He calls her, his friend and announces he’s not down here for her money, or her love and then after the half beat, admits, “I’m down here for your soul.” Oh no.
I think Cave is at his best when he’s telling a story and the Bad Seeds are droning, commenting and adding sonic touches to the story line. Consider, for example, “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” the opening track of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ No More Shall We Part 2001. Much has been said about Cave’s interest in religion and Cave himself has made public statements about his religious beliefs. “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” like so many of Cave’s songs, transcends the melodramatic, cheap attempts of most rock musicians to deal with matters of the spirit and organized religion. The song is pretty easy to summarize: two people, a man (the narrator) and a woman, sit in front of a window, holding forth on the nature of good and evil. But given that Cave is writing theology more than he is writing rock anthems imbibed with Christian themes (think: U2 in the 1980s). The song gets complicated pretty quickly.
As I sat sadly by her side
At the window, through the glass
She stroked a kitten in her lap
And we watched the world as it fell past
Softly she spoke these words to me
And with brand new eyes, open wide
We pressed our faces to the glass
As I sat sadly by her side.
There are a couple things to note about this opening verse. First, there’s a cat and as the song progresses, the cat gets passed back and forth between the man and the woman as they, respectively, articulate their very different ideas about God and his relationship to humans. The second thing is the woman, who like so many of Cave’s women, is formed in our minds through her thoughts rather than her physicality. Cave is really quite extraordinary in the way he writes about women—they can be oracles, like the woman in this song, or serial killers, like the many female narrator’s in Murder Ballads, or more conventionally, they can become the love interests in some of his ballads. Either way, though, I can’t think of another male rock and roll lyricist who places women in more powerful positions than Cave.
The woman begins the theological dialogue by articulating a long list of identities and natural objects and she introduces the idea of fallen-ness, the major trope of the song:
She said, “Father, mother, sister, brother,
Uncle, aunt, nephew, niece,
Soldier, sailor, physician, labourer,
Actor, scientist, mechanic, priest
Earth and moon and sun and stars
Planets and comets with tails blazing
All are there forever falling
Falling lovely and amazing
There is a lot going on here. First, the dialogue is set up in a way that’s reminiscent of the conversation between Rafael and Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost and/or Krishna and Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, where a transcendent, knowing figure (Rafael/Krishna) appears before a confused mortal (Adam/Arjuna) and reveals mysteries. And I should say that this is no accident Cave has stumbled upon—his body of work pretty consistently updates, re-fashions and re-imagines historical and literary moments in the context of his own songs. The other thing has to do with the idea of fallen-ness. First off, we know that this is probably the central trope of Christianity; that is, the whole world view hinges on the story of the fall and then the opportunity God provides for redemption from that fall. Here, though, the woman introduces the Miltonian idea that the fall is “lovely and amazing,” rather than terrifying and regrettable. This of course is not a new idea, but, let’s face it, in the annals of rock and roll, it doesn’t come up that much and from the pen of a lesser writer, it would fall flat.
Finished with her opening salvo, the woman passes the cat to the narrator, both press their faces to the glass and the narrator reminds her that her perceived loveliness is actually horror for the actors they are observing:
“That may be very well”, I said
“But watch the one falling in the street
See him gesture to his neighbours
See him trampled beneath their feet
All outward motion connects to nothing
For each is concerned with their immediate need
Witness the man reaching up from the gutter
See the other one stumbling on who cannot see
The narrator reminds her that from the street level, our fallen-ness is actually quite horrible, additionally; there is no order, no meaning, no help or redemption offered here. It’s important to note that the narrator is, as he says, sad, about this state of human affairs. He is, after all, sitting “sadly” by her side and we are led to believe he finds human behavior and the lack of goodness in the world regrettable and, while he seems to wish that things were different, he can’t conjure up any ideas to change the situation.
The kitten jumps back to the woman’s lap and Cave allows her the last word as she draws the curtain down, obscuring their view through the glass:
Then she drew the curtains down
And said, “When will you ever learn
That what happens there beyond the glass
Is simply none of your concern?
God has given you but one heart
You are not a home for the hearts of your brothers
And God does not care for your benevolence
Anymore than he cares for the lack of it in others
Nor does he care for you to sit
At windows in judgement of the world He created
While sorrows pile up around you
Ugly, useless and over-inflated
This final theological articulation is in many ways a rewriting of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
It doesn’t matter what we do nor does it matter how we care for others—our fallen-ness has cast us into a position and into a world that is fraught with sin, loneliness and despair. We will never change that equation, despite our perceived will and power to do so.
Finally, the woman turns her head, “Great tears leaping from her eyes,” and the narrator, enigmatically, cannot repress a smile as he sits “sadly by her side.”
Wow. I think I need to go listen to Miley Cyrus now.