In contrast to the grimly
gangling scarecrow that peers from his album covers,
singer-songwriter-novelist-poet-playwright and occasional actor Nick Cave
seems, at the ripe old age of 41, a relatively happy man, inquisitive and
full of dreams. Yes, he's had to work for it; no, it hasn't been easy.
With the Birthday Party, the group that took Cave from Australia to
England in the early '80s, he was a hell-bent, demonic cyclone impelled by
cryptic obsessions with Jesus and Elvis Presley. Echoing Cave's mania, the
band played a loose-limbed, blues-branded evil-rock whose howling hostility
行 as well as onstage fistfights, skirmishes with the law, and drug and
alcohol abuse 行 knocked the New Wave milksops of the English music scene on
their cans. After two great albums, Prayers on Fire and Junkyard (cover art by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth), the
group flamed out in acrimony and disappointment at their lack of commercial
By the time Cave formed the Bad Seeds in 1984 from various embers of
the Birthday Party, with a few additional members, he'd become one of the
more literary songwriters in rock. Vengeance, fear and fucking, the sacred
and the profane, these were the favored themes of Cave's narratives. Basing
themselves in Berlin, Cave and the Bad Seeds made a series of albums full
of biblical symbolism and fervent streaks along the Blind Lemon
Jefferson-Kurt Weill continuum; the Bad Seeds deal in the beauty of the
Cave branched out; he acted (Wim Wenders' Wings
of Desire and Till the End of
the World, among others), composed film
scores (To Have and To Hold)
and published his poetry (King Ink, volumes 1 and 2) and a novel (his 1987 epic And the Ass
Saw the Angel); he contributed a song
to the Batman Forever
soundtrack, too. Somewhere along the line he kicked his longstanding heroin
habit 行 it was interfering with his work.
In the past two years, Cave and his band have created two powerful
and sharply contrasting documents: Murder Ballads, a sick and darkly humorous bloodbath, and last
year's collection of sparse, melancholic love songs, The
Boatman's Call, an account of the
disintegration of his relationship with his Brazilian wife, Viviane
Carneiro, and his short-lived subsequent affair with singer P.J. Harvey. You might say that
the link between this, Cave's first really personal, non-narrative-driven
record, and Murder Ballads was
torture 行 love as both redemption and punishment.
Though his lyrics have him continually
raking people over the emotional coals, in real life Cave betrays an amused
realism about love and relationships. "I'm not cynical about that at
all," he says. "To be in love is what I want from life, and if I
can find a way in which I can live within that world, which to me is a
world of inspiration and imagination, that's very much how I'd like to be.
I'm an incurable romantic, really."
While Cave's love songs are undeniably
pretty 行 listen to "Are You the One I've Been Waiting For?" or
"Into My Arms" on The Boatman's Call 行 he's not one for pretty
little love songs.
"All I'm trying to do is talk about
love and the nature of love," he says. "For a love song to be a
true love song, it has to acknowledge the potential for pain, and if it
doesn't do that, then it's not really a love song at all, it's a hate song,
and it shouldn't be trusted. It's a song that denies us our humanness and
our God-given right to be sad. We need to respect and understand that there
are parts of us that are unhappy and sorrowful, that exist in a world of
longing and loss. They don't frighten me, these feelings."
typical Cave piece nowadays is "People Ain't No Good" from The
Boatman's Call, in which a
vibrant area is found somewhere between love and skepticism about humanity:
"It ain't that in their hearts they're bad/They'd stick by you if they
could/But that's just bullshit/ People just ain't no good."
"It's not that people aren't any good
morally, but they're no good in the end 行 they're no help," says Cave.
"There are wounds that we sustain in our lives that we must deal with
ourselves...I think other people are pretty much all we've got, really, but
quite often they're just not enough."
"Far From Me" details the
agonizing, slow death of relations between two people, the emotional
spectrum one might feel at such a time, radiant beginning to acrid end. But
there's no message conveyed; Cave doesn't write lyrics to put across a
philosophy about life. "It's just the residue of particular feelings
that I've had about things," he says. His songs are the product of his
moods, and the moods vary, and the reasons for writing the songs vary.
"Sometimes I'll sit down and write a song with the express purpose of
hurting someone else, or getting revenge. Other times, it's a gift to
someone. I use songwriting for all sorts of reasons 行 to flatter and to
Although he's quick to
point out that he's not a Christian, doesn't belong to any church, Cave has
established a relationship 行 both romantic and intellectual 行 with God and
the Bible. "There Is a Kingdom" on The Boatman's Call reads like an overt
statement of belief, though it feels like a testing-out of the idea of faith.
"Well, I believe
in God," says Cave. "I've just not always believed that God is a
particularly benevolent force. In my 20s and early 30s, I read the Old
Testament a lot and found that I related very much to the kind of God that
existed there, a very mean-spirited, jealous, cruel God. And it suited me
While Cave says that the foundation of his
belief system has to do with doubt, he found the New Testament calling to
him. "It became quite difficult to despise things all the time, and
hate things all the time. Within the New Testament there is a message of
forgiveness, and I found that that began to inform the way I lived. It's a
more introverted, sadder message, and that interests me much more."
These days, Nick Cave lives in
a small apartment in West London, where he enjoys frequent visits from his
two kids, and his studies in crime and theology, and his writing 行 in
longhand, of course. Yet being a writer is for him quite a different thing
from being a wordsmith who expresses himself in song. And Cave, known
primarily for his provocative lyrical themes and the evocative way his
artfully emaciated body conveys them, has become a spectacular vocal
stylist, witnessed especially on Murder Ballads, where his role-playing in
"Stagger Lee," for example, has a sensuous funk as both the
defiant murderer-rapist and his tragically hapless victims; on his pairing
with Kylie Minogue in "Where the Wild Roses Grow," he persuades
us (perhaps) that there is such a thing as a dignified killer.
Cave takes particular care about how the
music itself carries the song, and the Bad Seeds 行 now comprising former
Birthday Party mate Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld (ex-Einst焤zende Neubauten),
Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Dirty Three violinist
Warren Ellis 行 have become a remarkable instrumental ensemble. "The
older we get," says Cave, "the better everything gets, the more
understanding everyone has about what we're doing."
Even so, knowing that Cave spends a fair
amount of his off-time writing poetry and novels, as well as sifting
through piles of movie scripts to act, I wonder whether, at a certain age,
music just isn't enough to satisfy the hungry man. Cave doesn't disappoint.
"Being a musician is about the best
thing you can possibly be. To write songs is one of the noblest forms of
expression there is. It's also a very enigmatic art form. When I read a
book, I can generally tell why that book has had the effect it's had over
me, and the same goes with painting 行 I know that my senses have been
manipulated by color and composition. But I'm at a loss to understand why
one particular piece of music can have an incredible impact, can change my
whole way of thinking, from one moment to the next.
"That's the beauty
that lives within it. I feel that it's very connected with the divine, and
with God. The distance between music and God is much less than with other