- 22 Sep 21
Happy 64th Birthday, Nick Cave! To celebrate, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's classic interview with the legendary singer-songwriter – originally published in Hot Press in 1998. Photo: Anton Corbijn.
Inevitably, The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds can only hint at the scope of the band's back catalogue. But if one listens to the group's ten studio albums chronologically, there are no gear-grinding changes of direction or radical overhaulings of the sound, all the more remarkable considering the amount of personnel that passed through the line-up.
Even so, it would've been hard to predict that the raging bull battering the walls of 'Mutiny In Heaven' would eventually produce something as holistic and hymnal as 'Into My Arms', a song that shares the same troubled gospel waters as Van Morrison's 'In the Garden' or Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. (The Leonard reference is pertinent in that, like the Canadian, Cave's black humour is often mistaken for mordant melodrama. Indeed, the bard had high praise for The Bad Seeds' demented deconstruction of his 'Tower Of Song' on the 1991 I'm Your Fan tribute.)
But whether one considers the scarlet-lettered interpretations of the ballad form that were seeded on Kicking Against The Pricks, flowered on Henry's Dream and eventually yielded their ultimate bounty on Murder Ballads, or the tender splendour of 'Straight To You', or the mournful Spanish machismo that sweats from 'Loverman' and 'The Weeping Song', Cave could well be considered alongside the likes of Springsteen and Dylan as one of the most important male songwriters of the last 30 years.
And it looks as if the singer will continue dwelling on the soul rather than the flesh in the near future. Speaking recently, Cave commented, "A lot was learnt from that record (The Boatman's Call) and I think that it will have a significant effect on future records. A lot of my dreams were realised in the making of Murder Ballads, but there's no emotional commitment to those songs. They're enjoyable to listen to, and they're funny, but they don't really mean that much to me, whereas The Boatman's Call does."
Certainly, recent outtakes such as 'The Bridle Path' and 'Wife' suggest that Cave will continue to mine the New rather than Old Testaments.
Don't Spook The Muse!
However, Cave hasn't quite forsaken the art of making an atonal noise just for the hell of it, as anyone who witnessed the singer's cockeyed Cage-meets-Cale rendition of 'Dead Joe' at the Liss Ard Festival last September will testify. And in an era when similarly evolved bands take aeon-long sabbaticals between albums, the Bad Seeds have been consistently releasing highly-regarded records at a rate of roughly one every 18 months. So, will the well ever run dry?
"I used to look at other artists and say, well, that's what happens - you reach a certain age, and then you run out of ideas and everything goes horribly wrong," Cave reflects. "There were, of course, exceptions. But the more I carry on with what I'm doing, the more it seems that if I do the basic things that are required of me as an artist, and that's really just to turn up at the piano, to turn up to the page, then the work comes, the ideas come. It's my duty to try to remain open to them. I think it's about remaining honest about you do, and if you can somehow hold onto some integrity, then you will be given the ideas.
"I know it all sounds a bit twee and a bit . . . whatever, but I do see ideas and inspiration as simply that, as a gift," he continues. "I think it's something that there's a lot of, and it's given freely as long as you treat it properly, as long as you're not abusive to your imagination, or to inspiration, or to your muse, your God, however you want to put it.
"I know how I could dry up, and that would be if I started to exploit my own music, if I started to use music in order to make money, to become more popular. If that started to be the point behind my music, I know I wouldn't be given songs for much longer, or if I did, they'd be bad."
In late 1996, Cave requested that his nomination for the award of MTV's Best Male Artist be withdrawn. In a letter to the station, he explained, "My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times, and I feel it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves - in this case, this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horserace and, indeed, if she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel - this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!"
The singer considers this now, and firing up another Marlboro Light, admits: "At the end of the day, what was behind that note was that I just didn't want to go to the MTV Awards. I mean, who would want to spent the night at a fucking awards ceremony? But at the same time, I am a part of MTV. I'm not sitting here and saying that I'm above MTV, or MTV is for those people and I'm kind of different. I'm in league with them as much as anybody else is: I send them videos and they play them or they don't play them. I just don't feel I have to go to their fucking ceremonies."
Prayers On Fire
In 1985, Cave went to live in Kreuzberg, Berlin, where, as well as performing and recording with the band, he spent the next three years writing his first novel. (While immersed in the city's artistic enclave, the singer became acquainted with German director Wim Wenders. The Bad Seeds are captured in all their live glory in crucial scenes in Wenders' stunning hymn to Berlin, Wings Of Desire. "We were just told to come along and perform the song," Cave recalls.
"There was very little direction. It was very easy to do as far as I remember.")
And The Ass Saw The Angel was published in 1989 and was well-received by critics and public alike, going on to sell a respectable 50,000 copies. Simon Pettifar, Cave's editor at Black Spring, described it as "very traditional in its structure and time-sequence, in its plotting. It's more like a Victorian novel than any trendy, late 20th-century postmodern fiction." Certainly, the narrative style itself was startlingly accomplished, combining Old Testament overtones with black Huck Finn humour and the skewed sensibilities of the Southern Gothics.
But aside from the yarn itself - the tale of mute Euchrid Eucrow, a hillbilly outcast living on the perimeter of the puritanical Ukulite community, which he eventually brings to its knees - what was most astonishing about the book was its language. Cave's parabolic, baroque and quite revelatory prose was, as The Daily Telegraph put it, "As if a Faulkner novel had been crossed with Whistle Down The Wind and then narrated by a stoned blues musician".
"For me, Euchrid is Jesus struck dumb," Cave wrote in The Flesh Made Word, his essay on language and the Bible, broadcast by BBC 3 in June 1996. "He is the blocked artist, he is internalised imagination become madness."
Here is a passage where the unfortunate mute describes his mother:
"Mummy was a swine - a scum-cunted, likkered up, brain-sick swine. She was lazy and slothful and dirty and belligerent and altogether evil. Ma was a soak - a drunk - a piss-eyed hell-bag with a taste for the homebrew. Ma's drunks worked in cycles, consciousness following unconsciousness like to enormous hogs each eating the other's tail - one black, fat and unbelievably obscene, the other hoary, loud, with two crimson eyes, mean and small and close together - and these cycles she rigorously adhered to."
Euchrid's voice would continue to find its way into The Bad Seeds' repertoire for years to come, most notably on songs like 'John Finn's Wife' ("They seemed to yawn awake, her thighs") and 'When I First Came To Town'. Interesting, then, that for all the Southern-fried psychosis of the prose, the singer has only ever spent one night there, passing through Georgia.
Cave has published other literary works since, including the collections of lyrics King Ink and King Ink II, but has yet to return to the novel. Attempts to film the book have come to nothing. "There were a couple of people who offered to do it but we didn't go with it," Cave tells me. "We didn't think they were going to do it properly."
Alongside his heroin habit (there are grisly tales aplenty of smack excesses in Ian Johnston's Bad Seed biography, including the oft-cited urban myth of a horsed-out Cave writing lyrics on the tube with blood from his syringe), the writing of the novel dominated Cave's life in the mid to late '80s. Did the success of his literary debut make the prospect of writing a follow-up too daunting for comfort?
"After that I really started enjoying songwriting much more," Cave counters. "And I have been, ever since really, enjoying the process of writing songs more and more, feeling like I was getting really good at it. So I haven't had a desperate urge to write another novel. I've had a story that's been growing in my head for years now, particularly recently it's changed quite a lot, and it just grows and grows.
"It's quite strange, it's not like me to hold onto something and not actually get down and do it. But I just haven't felt the need to write it. At the moment I feel very fulfilled with what I'm doing with music. I will write it one day, when that is I don't know."
When Cave was a boy, his father (who died in a car crash when the then 21-year-old singer was spending a night in the cells on a charge of drunk and disorderly) would read him extracts from Crime And Punishment and Lolita, revelling in Dostoevsky and Nabokov's mastery of language.
"Yeah, I think what my father was doing, and I'm much like him in that respect, was that I don't think it even crossed his mind about the morality of Lolita or the murder scene in Crime And Punishment," he conjectures. "I just think my father was truly excited by the way those books were written, by the use of words. He, on a number of occasions, took apart the first chapter of Lolita, which is the very small chapter, basically a kind of rumination over her name. And he taught me about alliteration and all the poetic devices which were all within that little chapter, and he took great delight in showing me how these words played off each other and so on. That Lolita was morally suspect I don't think ever entered his mind."
One of the interesting things about the Murder Ballads album is that it adopts a similarly amoral stance, at times almost gleefully describing wanton acts of carnage. It has the air of a child playing wargames with no sense of the consequences of the violence being play-acted out.
"Yeah, violence is fun," Cave deadpans. "That's the beautiful thing about art really, for me anyway. I don't really believe we really have a responsibility with what we do artistically. I think we all have our own personal sense of what is right and what is wrong, but that differs from person to person, so I don't think there can be a uniform morality imposed over what is said within songs or paintings or novels or whatever. So, for me, with the Murder Ballads thing, because I didn't feel that there needed to be any statement or message about violence put at the end of that record, I could allow the songs to go any way they liked; where violence was pointless, or seductive, or abusive, or cruel.
"That record is really much more about storytelling and the love of words," he elaborates, "and there is, yeah, a kind of child-like playfulness about the use of words that go on there. A lot of it was just sort of . . . funny, I thought. I mean, violent words really excite me, I get a real kick out of writing about the details of violence in a kind of poetic way, there's something about it where the content doesn't sit quite right with the form, and there's a kind of tension that exists within that I find really exciting. And I love playing around with words. You can't imagine my excitement when I find out that 'confetti' rhymes with 'machete', or whatever. Perhaps I'm just, deep down, really immature."
That seems to be alluded to when the protagonist in 'O'Malley's Bar' admits "My dick felt long and hard" in the midst of his killing spree.
"Yeah. Well there's... yeah," he concedes, somewhat reluctantly.
This Mortal Coil
As Cave sardonically pointed out when Murder Ballads was released, he'd been writing songs with a high body-count for donkey's years. But in 'Lay Me Low' from the Let Love In album, the singer envisions the aftermath of his own death ("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"). Being a spy at one's own funeral is a common fantasy, and not only among the death-obsessed and the dyed-black.
"Once again, it's a comic song," he all but shrugs. "There's a playfulness about that song, a self-deprecating sense of humour."
But as he enters middle age, does the awareness that, as Martin Amis observed in The Information, "Nature's done with him" weigh heavier now?
"Of course it does, yeah," he responds. "You wake up and you see that you're actually physically deteriorating and you have a real understanding - I'm sure that this gets more and more intense as you get older - that you're actually gonna die. I know my feelings towards death are completely different than they were when I was 20. I mean, I knew that I was gonna die, but I actually didn't feel it, and now I do. That can be quite frightening at times."
Did Michael Hutchence's death ram that home?
"Yeah, that sort of thing always does," he admits. "But particularly I think with Michael for some reason, I'm not quite sure why... his death was particularly upsetting. It was the last thing anyone thought was gonna happen."
Cave trails off at this point, seemingly unsure of how to proceed with this, if indeed he wants to proceed at all.
"Michael was the genuine article," he eventually resumes. "We were good friends for the last, I dunno, three or four years of his life, despite musical differences, despite really operating in completely different universes - his world was very, very different from my world. But we became very close, and for me that was really about Michael as a human being. He was just an incredibly genuine person and it's a rare commodity these days."
Speaking to Hot Press two years ago about his days as a drug-abuser, the singer confessed that, "When you come out of a clinic you're just confronted with the damage that it actually causes. It takes away a lot of the pleasure that you get out of just fucking up." Does he still miss that sense of abandon?
"No, I still have that," he insists. "Fairly regularly. I probably said that under the shadow of those sorts of things a lot more. A lot of brainwashing goes on in those places, and some of it is very beneficial, some of it keeps you alive. But to me it's also a part of me growing and learning how to live life, to give a lot of that nonsense up and to live by my own rules, not those laid down by other people."
Was he subjected to the infamous intervention process?
"I have been subjected to some of the most rigorous recovery programmes you could imagine," he affirms, "but I feel good, I feel healthy, I feel that I live my life in my own way, and I don't have to answer to anybody about it. That's how I feel these days."
More recently, Cave remarked that "the purpose of drug taking is just to sort of shut down shop... to stop the voices and stuff that go on in my head." Was he speaking metaphorically or...
"No, I'm not, actually," he chuckles.
When do these voices come?
"Particularly when I'm really well," he says, lighting another cigarette. "When I'm physically healthy, working very, very hard, I get a very rapid thought-speak that goes on in my head from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep. It acts like a kind of... a little observer of life, another party that sits in my head and just chatters away. (laughs) It's quite a creative voice as well. It gives me a lot, this voice, but at the same time I just have to shut it up. It gets on my nerves."
Songs like 'I Had A Dream, Joe' are thick with images such as "A shadowy Jesus flitted from tree to tree". Is he prey to nightmares?
"That was stolen, that line," Cave admits. "That was... Flannery O'Connor, I think. I go through periods, I have a lot of vivid dreams, I guess they're nightmares, although I don't seem to worry too much about what's going on in them, but when I recall them they are horrific. But there doesn't seem to be any sense of panic that happens within them either. I just seem to be observing horrendous things from a detached point of view, I don't know how to describe that very well. Like I don't wake up screaming, type of thing. I mean dreams are incredibly powerful things, they can really influence you, re-emerging through the day. I find that quite unsettling."
It's getting dark outside. Cave remains attentive, but it's clear that there are places he'd rather be. To his visible relief, the tape winds to a stop. I pitch him one last question, related to how so many of the Bad Seeds' videos ('Do You Love Me', 'Stagger Lee', The Weeping Song') feature the band members themselves in various states of dance (or un-dance), which makes for a rather seedy atmosphere.
"Yeah, we're like a whole lot of old businessmen in a disco or something," he smiles.
Is he a fan of dance music?
"I actually like it, yeah," he says, perking up. "I do like dancing. Ol' twinkletoes."
Outside in the corridor afterwards, the singer confides that he's been spending a considerable amount of time on Veith Turske's estate in Liss Ard, Co. Cork ("I sort of live there, if you want to put that in your article").
As we share a cab part of the way towards Heathrow, Cave proudly thumbs through the advance artwork for the Best Of album, drawling "handsome maaan" at the shot of Conway Savage, chuckling over the lunatic pic of Barry Adamson.
"That was when he went into the asylum," he remarks.
"Seems to be a pre-requisite for this band," I reply.
He indulges me with a good-humoured grunt.
Talk turns to Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy. "I loved the book," Cave enthuses. "I read it when it came out quite a while ago. I loved this story, it kind of reminded me of The Catcher In The Rye gone horribly wrong, but I didn't actually like the film very much. But then, I don't see how the book could've been done justice through the film, I think it was just too difficult a task to take the kind of dream-speak, the thought-patterns that go on inside this boy's head, and try to visualise them cinematically. I don't think it could've worked really. I like Sinéad, I liked her Mary, I thought she was good at that."
He goes on to rave about Kylie's Minogue's performance at the 1996 Poetry Olympics, describing her spoken-word rendition of 'I Should Be So Lucky' as "heartbreaking". Then, as London turns its lights on, Cave directs the driver to pull over, and he's off into the evening in a flurry of limbs and farewells, a lofty man in a long black coat.