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Nick Cave's Two Decades Of The Rosary
With the release of The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, it's obvious that someone's been rummaging around in the grim annals of ol' Nick's extraordinary back catalogue. But who? Interview: Peter Murphy
Peter Murphy, 29 Apr 1998
Prologue: Release The Bats
I first encountered Nick Cave in a cold dark bedroom 16 years ago. (Relax, my friends, it wasn't like that.) Bundled under the covers, ear pressed to a bashed transistor, monitoring the John Peel show, my callow senses were assaulted by something entitled 'Release The Bats' by The Birthday Party. Wanton, wild and charged with blasphemous lust, the obviously unhinged singer's rantings scared me out of my little britches. I would discover years later that, as Birthday Party tunes go, I was broken in gently.
Now I'm standing outside the door to Cave's flat in West London, finger poised before the buzzer. A hockspit away from Portobello Road, the singer's residence lies in the heart of the district's black community. Here, they spliff on the main street. Ancient wizened characters with dreadlocks as thick and matted as rope slouch around like Old Testament prophets, impish kids sprint in and out of the estates, strangers bum cigarettes for the purposes of herb rolling. "I feel a part of my neighbourhood around here," Cave will tell me later. "I understand where I'm living very well and it does feel, as much as anywhere has, like home." At four in the afternoon, all is calm. Things won't get edgy until after dark, when the hardchaws rise from their beds. It ain't upmarket. But then, neither is Nick Cave.
I press the buzzer. Immediately, a voice barks its response through the intercom. Male. Australian. He's home, all right. Inside, the singer's personal manager Tara-Jane greets me on the stairs. Cave's six-year-old son Luke peers curiously over the bannister at me, the spit of both his Antipodean father and Brazilian mother. I salute him. He shyly returns the gesture before bolting to the relative safety of upstairs.
Cave himself is in the living room, calling a cab to take us to a nearby office where our interview will take place. He's tall, thin, and more handsome than one would expect, dressed in pinstriped black pants and a white vest, his bespectacled features an almost delicate contrast to the contorted snarl of the live shots or the big-browed broodiness of the publicity stills. The trademark dyed black hair is dramatically swept back, giving the singer the appearance of an underfed Shakespearean actor.
He shakes my hand and indicates that I should take a seat. I choose a comfortable red armchair and am left alone to look around the room. It's furnished with a black table, phone, large fireplace, TV and video, and rugs laid out over the wooden floor. A piano occupies pride of place in front of packed bookshelves. A deluxe edition of The Bible and a copy of Homer's The Odyssey vie for space with kids' videos, illustrations of grinning cats playing fiddles and a selection of drawings that look suspiciously like the singer's own (Cave attended Art School after he matriculated, fascinated by religious paintings by Grunewald, El Greco and Tintoretto). The flat looks homely and lived in, but bears the unmistakable air of an artist's garret.
The cab arrives. Cave stalks back into the room, snatches a box of Marlboro Lights from a duty free-sized package on the floor, shrugs into a black crombie, and we leave. Tara-Jane and I sit in the back, while the singer adjusts the front seat to accommodate his gangly frame. He picks up the cabbie's paper and chuckles over the tabloid headline ("The Sun confronts Gary Glitter in Cuba bolthole"). Then he opens the window and lights a cigarette.
Ten minutes later we're holed up in the office, dispensing with the pleasantries. Cave is guarded but not unfriendly. Notwithstanding the fact that during last year's press duties for The Boatman's Call the singer could swing from frank revelations about that painfully personal record, to veiled warnings to tread softly, for you tread on his very nerves, I wasn't overly trepidatious. Cave has had a long and troubled relationship with the press, but surely this was a more stoic and tolerant model than the one who was apt to kick the crap out of NME hacks? The one who once dubbed journalists "perverters of language"?
Well, maybe not.
"I've been through two interviewers today," he casually remarks. "One walked out on me, and the other started crying." He shakes his head, incredulously. "The guy was weeping. I was criticising his interviewing technique."
One must be very careful when framing questions for Nick Cave. His short-term memory may be in ribbons, but he's not slow to round on any untidy lines of inquiry. Not that he ever actually got testy with me, but you can tell from the way he takes great pains to determine exactly what it is you asked him, and the halting but deliberate way with which he goes about supplying the answer, that this is not a man you can throw a half-formed idea at and expect him to pick it up and run with it.
Band Of Holy Joy
The reason we're here today is to shine a light on Nick Cave ... The Bad Seeds' Best Of collection. A greatest hits effort is one of the last things one would expect from an act whose supporters are generally acknowledged as being fanatic enough to possess every stray bootleg the band ever made. To their credit, then, they haven't tried to spice it up with outtakes and previously unreleased material. And it is an impressive collection, albeit one that is as much remarkable for the quality of the songs that had to be omitted ('Lament', 'Papa Won't Leave You Henry', 'I Love You 'Til The End Of the World') as for the more obvious inclusions.
"Everyone would have different favourites," Cave admits. "The way we actually went about it was that each member of the Bad Seeds was invited to come up with 16 songs that they thought were appropriate, that seemed to span our career evenly. Mick Harvey was the only one who handed in a list (smiles), so his version was it, actually. I put in 'Straight To You' because I like that song a lot. I hadn't listened to these songs since they were recorded, so for me the whole idea of a Best Of record was quite terrifying. The last thing I wanted to do was start scraping around in the grim annals of our back catalogue, so I left it up to those who were a little more interested in the project.
"But what actually happened was that because I was doing press for it, I thought I'd better listen to the advance copy of the CD that was sent to me. And I put it on with a great deal of trepidation because, for one thing I was sort of terrified that I just wouldn't like the music, and it was something that I'd worked on for a long time. It could've well been the case. But what actually happened was that I was really struck, quite honestly, by what a brilliant band The Bad Seeds are, what a brilliant bunch of musicians. I thought this Best Of record, which I really like, shows a really kind of ingenious, versatile, competent, subversive, very, very strange band at work and I was very happy, very proud to be a part of it."
Indeed, Cave's main concern throughout the early part of this interview seems to be to ensure that The Bad Seeds are given their due. I have no quarrel with that. Coming to prominence in an era of utterly vacuous music, his band's brand of consumptive melancholia crawled under the skin of the over made-up '80s like a pox. At the time, only fellow Aussies The Triffids were speaking anything like the same language.
But then, only a handful of bands have ever had the same sense of charisma, myth and drop-dead menace as this itinerant troupe. The Fuck-Off factor is the key, and with their Latin-pimp pallor and dead reservoir dog apparel, Cave and comrades have it in spades. But also, they've belligerently stuck to the fringes, stalking the backroads and roundabouts of Delta blues and European avant garde, capable of playing it brutal (From Her To Eternity) or bare (The Boatman's Call) to equal effect.
"I think the Bad Seeds deal in a kind of currency of economy and necessity," Cave continues. "I've been writing about this recently, actually. They know the kind of melancholic potential of absence as opposed to actually playing. They know that to sit back and do nothing has its own power, and I think that shines forth throughout the songs. If you look at something like 'From Her To Eternity' for example, Blixa's guitar playing on that is extraordinary. I haven't listened to that version of that song since it was recorded, and I was just aghast, really. His playing on it is just incredible. He doesn't play anything for the bulk of it, but when he does it's just these very vicious, nasty attacks on the fabric of the song. It's really splendid guitar playing."
Although other like-minded cowboys such as Kid Congo Powers and Barry Adamson have passed through the Bad Seeds' ranks, Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey and Cave have constituted the core of the band since its inception. However, the singer and his lieutenants are markedly different characters.
Mick Harvey is the straight man, the spine of the band, a master arranger and multi-instrumentalist who for many years was willing to play whatever instrument it took in order to keep the band together.
It was Harvey who held down a job while his fellow Birthday Party-ites were living in hellacious squalor in London in the early '80s. Harvey was there to plug the gaps during the recording of Your Funeral . . . My Trial, when Cave refused to play piano and Thomas Wydler developed RSI and could only drum with one arm. It is Harvey who writes scores for films, collaborates with Polly Harvey and has his own solo career, releasing two (excellent) albums of Serge Gainsbourg songs. "If it comes to a traffic jam, I think everyone still looks to me to sort it out," he ruefully admitted during the Let Love In tour.
Blixa, on the other hand, occupies a rather different role, that of the melancholic aesthete with an interest in Flaubert, "holy minimalist" composers such as Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli, and Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino. He is also Cave's close confidante and comrade in arms. "Blixa's very wise and understanding about things," the singer has observed. "He can tell you what's the right drink to drink when you're not feeling good. He's a great authority on alcohol."
Although Bargeld's musical contributions to The Bad Seeds often verge on the skeletal, his imperious spirit infuses the music with a certain palsied majesty, subverting even the most conservative arrangements. But the flamboyant musician's busy schedule can sometimes cause problems (as well as a longstanding tenure with German arch-experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten, Blixa oversees a literary theatre project, The Execution Of Precious Memories, and has even undertaken a guest German Literature professorship in Vienna).
Although Cave attributes the band members' freedom to pursue extra-curricular projects as being crucial to their longevity, the singer was despondent when theatre commitments prevented Bargeld from joining The Bad Seeds' ill-fated 1994 Lollapalooza jaunt. He was deputised for by Gallon Drunk's James Johnston, but that tour seemed to represent a major trauma to the group's psyche.
"We were damaged by Lollapalooza for a while," Cave concedes. "We were really knocked around by that tour. It was such a nightmare. It was too long, too . . . I don't actually wanna go into why, but it took a long time for us to recover, and we learned a lesson in that it's just not worth pursuing things unless they're gonna be enjoyable. I think we've put a lot of work into establishing something that is very strong, but at the same time it's easily hurt. The Lollapalooza thing really taught us about how you really have to look after yourselves and your music, and not subject it to situations that are gonna eat away at it."
Whatever the circumstances that made Lollapalooza so intolerable - and one imagines that having to go on at two in the afternoon to a stadium empty save for the odd Chili-dog-sucking jock must've been a substantial factor - the band are not about to let that experience repeat itself.
"We have an incredible lack of ambition that runs in our group," Cave admits. "I think this is something to do with us being Australian, and it seems to be part of the Australian make-up. It's not a lack of drive, because we have plenty of energy to do things. But I'm confronted with, when I come here (the London office), this constant need to get further.
"I guess the record company see their function as to make us more and more successful, and my goal musically is to get into a situation where I have complete freedom with what I do, that I don't have to compromise about things. That for me is success. Fact is that we actually do sell quite a lot of records, which is a happy coincidence that seems to have run along with it."
Such an apparent lack of conventional showbiz values was well in evidence when I last saw the Bad Seeds live at the SFX on the Henry's Dream tour. The ensemble shambled onstage like drunks out of a late-night poker 'n' whores session, hollow-eyed, besuited and loose. So loose, in fact, that they seemed to be making up the set-list as they went along, nonchalantly smoking their way through the many gaps and breathers between tunes. But when they were on, they were on, blistering through songs like 'The Mercy Seat' and 'Jack The Ripper' with almost unbearable intensity.
At one point on that baleful night, Blixa's amp packed up. As roadies performed emergency surgery on the lump of equipment and shunted a replacement on stage, the guitarist seemed about as phased as if one of his bootstraps had come undone. In fact, I'm not sure he noticed at all. Elsewhere, pianist Conway Savage had to begin 'The Ship Song' three times before happening upon the right key. Later on in the set, Martyn P. Casey broke a bass string. There was no spare bass guitar. His comrades casually mooched around for all of five minutes while the instrument was restrung and the astonished audience looked on.
However, The Bad Seeds' music is truly unmistakable, characterised by their leader as "a real rollicking, drunken ramshackle sort of sound". In a way, the musicians' solidarity is all the more remarkable given that they don't always agree with the sentiments expressed in the songs. Cave has admitted that certain aspects of The Boatman's Call, particularly the personal references and religious imagery, were hard for band members to swallow: "I've had to persuade them to stand by the songs, to see them through to the end - and they have," he confessed shortly after its release. Now, almost a year later, he can fully appreciate their restraint.
"I'm ranting on about the Bad Seeds because I'm actually talking about them quite separately from myself," he explains. "I'm sort of standing back and talking about them as a band, and I think it's something that I've tended to take for granted over the years because they just sort of go into the studio and get on with things and record the music and there's very little talk, very little comment about it. And I've always been very much involved in trying to get the lyrics right, and trying to get the music serving the lyrics appropriately, so in a way this record was a kind of eye-opener for me, just to see how good the band actually was."
The Boatman's Call: Blood On The Tracks
The songs on Cave's last original album, The Boatman's Call, chiefly focus on the breakdown of Cave's relationship with Brazilian fashion designer (and mother of his son) Viviane Carneiro, and his liaison with Polly Harvey. And for a man as private as Cave, discussing such raw subject matter makes press duties even more purgatorial than usual.
"It's been a particularly uncomfortable record to talk about in interviews," he warned one interviewer from The Guardian last year. "I've done a couple now, and they've generally ended once they've tried to talk about who the key players are, that sort of stuff."
Or, as he dryly pointed out to another journalist: "People work their way up to the big question about Polly Harvey by talking a little bit about Viv, who no-one's actually interested in at all, because there's no copy in it."
Certainly, not since Dylan documented the break-up of his marriage on Blood On The Tracks, or Leonard Cohen sang of Janis Joplin "giving me head on an unmade bed" in 'Chelsea Hotel No. 2', has a major figure laid himself as bare on public record. But Cave- today, at least - seems to accept that if he's gonna write it, the world and its wife is going to ask questions about it.
"That's part of the whole thing," he says, philosophically. "That's why I don't listen to my own music really. Once you've written it, part of the process is that you give it up, you hand it over to the world and you hand it over to people's interpretation, or misinterpretation of it. But part of making an actual record is the process of giving the songs away, and you've got to kind of accept that. And my part of accepting it is to get on with some new stuff."
Do the people he sings about, such as Viviane and Polly, comment on the work?
"They really do," he affirms. "When we were kind of going out together and stuff like that, Polly heard a lot of these songs, and she had things to say about them, but she came to those songs very much as a musician. She is very brutal, very honest and very polarised in her views of things, doesn't really see any grey area; things are either great or they're the opposite. So a certain amount of those songs she would give her opinions about, but in quite a detached way."
Would it bother him if somebody else sang about him as explicitly on a record?
"I dunno," he considers. "It depends who was singing, really. But I think it must be in some way flattering to have songs written about you. Because what goes into actually writing a song is a lot of thought and a lot of energy. Part of the reason that I write songs about women sometimes - often women that I am no longer with - is that I write it to be with them. One of the things that writing does, and this happens also in writing love letters for example, which is a similar thing, is that it's a period of intense meditation on that particular person and it actually serves as a way of being with that person. There's an intimacy about The Boatman's Call that I really like, and the vocals were sung very softly, very much with the people in mind."
Even in songs as impassioned as 'Are You The One That I've Been Waiting For?' ("We will know, won't we?/The stars will explode in the sky/But they don't, do they? Stars have their moment and then they die"), there's a strong sense of love being ultimately a transient force. Should relationships be sustained if they're such a struggle?
"I dunno if they should or not," he replies. "What I long for in life is the kind of partner for all time, but the reality of life so far is very different."
Did he find being married difficult?
"I actually was never married," he corrects me. "I mean me and Viv more or less lived as husband and wife, I would say, with everything that that brings up. And that had its difficulties, yeah. It also was quite wonderful, too."
Cave trails off, obviously uncomfortable with where the conversation is going. He sets about opening one of the office windows to clear the thickening Marlboro mist, erecting one smokescreen by dispelling another. I ask him if the act of singing these songs helps to put a balm on the often painful origins of the subject matter.
"No, I don't think that they help much at all, songs," he considers. "They are gifts, for me, they can be the fruit of these relationships. I'm happy that I'm a songwriter, that I get something concrete out of some of these relationships, that at the end of the day I get some good songs out of them. But that's certainly not the reason why I have relationships."
Cave has described The Boatman's Call as a more "compassionate record" than his previous work. "I never had a lot of sympathy for the human race and I think that record is kind of a change in a way," he professed recently. Yet at times the album is as lacerating as it is sad, particularly on songs like 'People Ain't No Good' ("I'm not saying that people are bad; I'm saying that people aren't any help - that ultimately, we're no use to each other"), 'Far From Me' and 'Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere'. But the overall impression one is left with is of a solitary man brooding on love lost, kneeling in the Brompton Oratory in South-West London, wishing he was made of stone like the statues of the apostles, the smell of his lover still on his hands as he sips from the cup of sacramental wine.
I remark that a key line on The Boatman's Call seems to be "There'll always be suffering/It flows through life like water" from 'Lime Tree Arbour'.
"Sounds Irish, that line, doesn't it?" he observes. "It's actually probably just 'cos you're Irish."
Was it difficult to forsake the rich language of previous work and pare it down into something much more spare, expressing exactly what he meant?
"I think that I found that language was getting in the way a little bit," he admits. "It's great fun. I mean, you're a writer, so you'd know the fun you can have with it. But you can get kind of bogged down with words as well, and with the events that were going on in my life at the time, I just really wanted to try and get at the truth of them, to make sense of them through the songs. A lot of purple prose or flowery language was going to get in the way of that, and I just felt that the songs sat much better, simply said." n