25 Years Of Love, Hate, Drugs And Death – The Wonderful World Of Nick Cave by Kris Needs
“People just ain't no good
I think that's well understood
You can see it everywhere you look
People just ain't no good”
'People Ain't No Good'
The black muse of Nick Cave has haunted me for the last quarter of a century, whether exploding in Satanic rage, or glowing with warm, eternal melancholy. He's never been far away, either as an obsession when he's dropped something particularly great, or a more shadowy presence when something of particularly emotional impact has gone down in my personal life, good or bad. His music or written words have accompanied me wile I've been smacked out of my gourd, writhing in withdrawal agony, pissed out of my head, drying out, wanting to kill the many arseholes I've encountered in this world, wallowing in being dumped - or finally falling in love. Only now, with a degree of stability in what I suppose has been a roller coaster of a life, can I sit and play Cave's records with a different perspective - and for reasons other than rampant catharsis or the almost-masochistic accentuation of moods that can only be described as black. I'm now here to celebrate the fact that there has been a rare kind of genius at work in the last 25 years.
Nick's life, with its ups, downs, relapses and, eventually, peace, has uncannily paralleled my own at times. Now I don't touch drugs or even booze, my demons have waved a reluctant goodbye and gone off to bother my mates. This time, I've landed up with someone who I know isn't going to shit on me from a great height. Nick too has moved on to a different plateau of living and is getting acclaim from quarters that wouldn't go near him 20 years ago. He's got there entirely on his own terms. That, in itself, is something of a miracle.
In 2004, he told Andrew Perry: “To get into one of my records, you have to enter my world, an alien, romantic, extreme world of my making. You don't drag one of my records into your world. I think that's why, to a degree, my music will always be marginalized”.
Sorry Nick, but I did drag your records into my world. Or rather, they became a frequent soundtrack, providing a bottomless source of discovery, inspiration and fascination. So, without further ado, welcome to the car smash...
When the Birthday Party appeared in London from Australia in the early 80s, we reveled in the fact that, amidst the foppishness of New Romanticism and tin-pot post-punkism, there was a new bunch of marauders in town to shout 'Flame on!' - and not only carry the torch of dangerous excess - but also fry it to a crisp. Where they came from, shooting smack wasn't regarded much differently from drinking a beer. But then, London was heading that way too, reaching a pinnacle of needle action in the mid-80s. A health kick back then meant settling for a snort.
I first heard about the Birthday Party from my flat-mate, Youth, newly out of Killing Joke, who would hammer their “Prayers On Fire” album. He rated the juggernaut bass-crunch sound of Tracy Pew. Youth insisted I accompany him to a gig at the Venue in Victoria sometime in '82. It was immediately apparent that this scary-looking bunch had inherited the Stooges' title of wildest, no-holds-barred live onslaught around. Cave thrashed about, did that bendy thing from the waist, and spent a lot of time exchanging abuse with the crowd in the grand tradition of Iggy and Alan Vega, often ending up in the throng, crushing microphones and punters like flies. It was like Cave had the Devil himself erupting through his bile-clogged intestines. Meanwhile, the band were a holocaust of senses-battering sonic abuse. The highs and lows of the music and Cave's imagery indicated, quite rightly, that this group were fond of hard liquor and harder drugs.
During his first visit to London in 1980, Nick had seen Echo & the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes at the Lyceum and described the effect as being 'like I'd been gangbanged by a pack of marshmallows'. He was more inspired by the tortured sound of the Pop Group's 'We Are All Prostitutes'. As the Birthday Party became the most fearsomely confrontational experience around, Nick declared:
“I want to write songs that are so sad, the kind of sad where you take someone's little finger and break it in three places.”
In 1996, Cave wrote an essay for BBC Radio 3 called ‘The Flesh Made Word’, where he talked about the influence of the Bible on his life and writing. He blamed the negatively demented attitude of the Birthday Party on the feeling he got from the Old Testament 'of a pitiful humanity suffering beneath a despotic God, that began to leak into my writing. As a consequence my words blossomed with a nasty new energy. My band, which was called the Birthday Party, was all heavy bludgeoning rhythms and revved-up, whacked out guitars and all I had to do was open my mouth and let the curse of God roar through me...Though I had no notion of that then, God was talking not just to me but through me, and His breath stank. I was a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.'
I fell in love with 1983's ‘Junkyard’ album, which remains one of the most incendiary, scagged-out, speed-toasted white knuckle rides of all time. 'Hamlet [Pow, Pow, Pow]' is a killer on the loose, great surges of psychotic intensity with Nick ripping the most evil demon voice out of his ravaged throat. His chilling roar of 'Wherefore art thou, babyface?' is a grandly terrifying moment. The murderer appears again on 'Six Inch Gold Blade', gleefully confessing that he's just stuck said weapon 'through the head of a girl'. Amidst the can-trashing bombast bucks the convoluted riffage of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, if translated by the Stooges. 'Dead Joe', 'Kiss Me Black' and the stomach trawling grind of the title track display dynamics capable of knocking seven shades out of the central nervous system.
In early 1983, I started editing a magazine called Flexipop!. This was what you’d call a proper teeny mag. Like Smash Hits' evil little sister, it would cover popular artists of the day, like Haircut 100, Duran Duran and Culture Club, but with a twist where they were often subjected to degradation and piss-taking. There always had to be an unusual angle. In '82, the mag started covering rock and punk and a more anarchic element started creeping in, partly due to the fact that the art editor was a guy called Mark Manning, who would later metamorphosise into heavy metal rock god space-case Zodiac Mindwarp. He caused trouble by drawing cartoon strips of obese hogs trying to abuse Boy George with salamis or calling the singer in the Human League Phil Porky.
In '82, with Zigzag all but destroyed by the arseholes who'd taken over as publishers, I started writing for Flexipop!, then found myself appointed editor. This coincided with my growing involvement in the Bat Cave. Ostensibly it was a Goth club but a lot more than white faces and black clobber went on. It was a true den of inequity, like the fall of ancient Rome every Wednesday. I was DJ-ing and could get away with everything from Marc Bolan to Grandmaster Flash long before doing this kind of thing was called 'eclectic'. I would also scare the living shit out of the dance-floor by blasting them with the Birthday Party.
My partners-in-crime at the Bat Cave were often Marc Almond and the Some Bizarre crew, who also included Jim 'Foetus' Thirlwell, Einstrurzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave. Nick would rather steer clear of trends but had musical views and recreational pursuits in common with the Some Bizarre bunch. I was already in awe of the Birthday Party and had to have them in the magazine.
The group had just released The Bad Seed EP. Two funereal slowies - 'Wild World' and teeth-clenchingly malevolent 'Deep In The Woods' - and two crazed psycho-rockers - 'Fears Of Gun' and 'Sonny's Burning' - which the band attacked like rabid dogs. Or, as I said then, it 'bit the ears like a six-foot gnat with a chainsaw' [just before I wrote, 'A man is born with a carrot instead of a head']. 'Sonny's Burning' ['like some bright erotic star'] is a full-tilt surge which just stops short of falling into a convoluted heap of crazed ultraviolence while Nick screams 'Flame on!'. The line 'Evil heat is running through me' would much later donate its name to a Primal Scream album. 'Fears Of Gun' rides Tracy Pew's most malevolent bass-line into further cataclysm as Cave sticks his 'fingers down the throat of love' and self-destructs the whole band. Who wouldn't be a bit wary of meeting these men for the first time after witnessing them live and experiencing the apocalypse now of their recordings?
The interview appeared in a Spring '83 issue. Siouxsie and Budgie were on the cover for the launch of the Creatures amidst a stellar line-up including Edwyn Collins, Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, King Kurt, the Alarm, Alien Sex Fiend and Big Country. There was also an interview I'd done with a new American singer called Madonna who was launching herself in London.
Manning was a Birthday Party fan and accompanied me the day we traveled over to Kilburn to meet them - or rather Nick Cave, late bass giant Tracy Pew and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, the man who's set up the lush musical backdrops for Cave's lyrics since the start. Harvey has always been the quiet force behind the Bad Seeds, managing to keep things rolling while everything around him was going off the rails.
It was one of those scary kind of interviews. Cave - stick thin, white as a sheet and sporting a black suit - looked like a junkie undertaker and was obviously smacked out [it takes one to know one]. Tracy Pew was more outgoing but this big, moustachioed Australian dressed up like a Texan oil baron was no less formidable. I'd get to know Mick Harvey better when he formed a side project called Crime & the City Solution, but today the drummer wasn't saying much, which I took for distrust or disinterest.
Meeting in the pub, they are friendly enough but obviously slightly disdainful of this whole interview business. Luckily, me and Manning must've looked like we could have quite easily escaped from the same lunatic asylum with our array of old leathers, obscene t-shirts, rotted denim and drug-addled complexions.
Nick obviously saw interviews as a necessary evil and evil as a necessity, an ancient inheritance that shapes men's lives and someone's got to face. So rather than ask how the band got together, I used that old reliable icebreaker about evil and dark forces. 'Most of the songs deal with it quite blatantly’, he began in a world-weary Australian accent. 'Evil being passed on like a disease. Like "Sonny's Burning" on the new one. It's basically a selfishness that doesn't concern anybody else. Their evilness means they can commit what acts they like. "Fears Of Gun" is based on a character. It's just a straight narrative about a drunkard. The thought of one person being a cuckold who's been stranded by his lover. He's beaten her up and she's gone and he's just sitting in his room, drunk.'
Where did that come from, I venture. Mistake. 'Don't ask such personal questions,' hissed Tracy Pew. I didn't know if he was joking or not. I didn't dare ask. He wasn't smiling. All he would have needed to complete his outfit would be a Derringer - and he probably had one.
Nick: 'I don't use other people's notions as a source of inspiration. Just sometimes you've gone through such an alien phase. What I tried to do is put across the feeling after you've gone through an assortment of rather sordid images. You can't think back about being in love when thinking back about the threat of violence to yourself and to others.'
Tracy did talk freely about the group's recent sojourn in Berlin, which had entered a new era of artistic activity and intensified its penchant for 24-hour decadence. The place, which had entertained Bowie during his ‘Low’ phase, would continue to magnetise Nick Cave for the rest of the decade but the Birthday Party had now returned to London. It seemed like everywhere they went encouraged some form of excess, not least because Nick, Tracy and co-songwriter Roland Howard had been shooting smack and speed as a way of life since Australia.
Tracy, who earlier in the year had done time for drink-driving and shoplifting, got enthusiastic about Berlin boozing: 'Berlin is a pretty incredible city. There's nothing in Berlin except culture and draft evaders. Everyone's doing something - films, music, art galleries. I don't know if going to Berlin reflected on the band. It was different, but in the end it got to be a new routine. In Berlin you can open a bar with nothing at all. You just have to close three times a day. They're open all night. We did a lot of that. The licensing hours over here are terrible. You've got to adjust.'
Nick: 'For some reason in Berlin you just tend to drink an incredible amount of alcohol. You become a drunkard, but drunk in a positive way. It put us in a better frame of mind to create. But we've been back in London three weeks and already the dead wood's started to appear. You just tend to get into a state. It's okay if you're here on holiday, not living anywhere in particular and staying with people, just being a tourist. If you have to live here for any length of time you get creatively damaged. The same thing happened with Berlin. In two months you get damaged and don't particularly feel like doing anything. Once you get to know a place you become part of it.'
If normal questions about the group drew a blank, now Nick was away. He talked happily about witch-hunting then revealed that he'd written about 50 short-stories and plays with Lydia Lunch, the New York agitation-artist who'd shared a record with the Birthday Party in 1982 [‘Drunk On The Pope's Blood’, recorded at the Venue in November '81, which includes the Birthday Party tearing into the Stooges' 'I'm Loose']. Nick said he wanted to collar a couple of kids from New York to intone 'a fairly nasty little story in unemotional voices. We'll help with the longer words.' Unfortunately, this Fame meets The Exorcist plan never got off the ground but it helped sew the Bad Seeds. Cave's artistic aspirations were extending beyond being another self-immolation god for lesser mortals' gratification.
No group could keep going with the ferocity and intensity of the Birthday Party. Predictably, they were lumbered with an audience which just wanted the mad songs and Nick doing his nutter routine on stage. 'I do get hurt,' he said, dolefully. 'I suffer mental injuries and all sorts of problems physically but I'm still alive. I guess I'm just a sturdy young individual. There may be physical harm to the audience but I can assure them I've suffered more than they have - at their hands. I certainly don't enjoy it. I don't enjoy the memory. I don't enjoy the memory of anything.'
That time in Berlin hadn't just been spent in the pub. In March '83, the Birthday party recorded what became their swansong: the awesome ‘Mutiny! EP’. The sessions had been so crazy that their record label, 4AD, did a bunk, leaving Daniel Miller and Mute to step in - probably wondering what they were getting into, but providing Nick's home until the present day. During the sessions, they were joined by Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld, who contributed some of his inimitable guitar surgery.
The song which Blixa appears on is 'Mutiny In Heaven', which could be seen as the first Bad Seeds outing. It's still the most rivetingly surreal and graphic depiction of the desperate elation of smack addiction since the Velvet Underground's 'Heroin'. If you were, uh-hum, sailing in those waters yourself, the song took on its own extra dimension. The heroin imagery is matchless as he sings of track-marks, 'like a ground-plan of hell', with the climax being the rush: 'Well, ah tied on...percht on mah bed ah was...sticken a needle in my arm...ah tied off! Fucken wings burst out mah back...ah took off!' Still induces a cold shiver now. 'If this is Heaven ah'm bailin' out!'.
In a back catalogue of sheer aural evil, 'Swampland' has to walk away with the pig's penis. The eruption into the full song is like having a bucket of cold blood emptied over the head. This song could be seen as a precursor to the deep South fixation which Cave would indulge in for the next few years. He would try and extend 'Swampland''s fugitive idea – where the hunted man is sinking to his death in quicksand, into a film script - but it would eventually mutate into his novel, ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’.
The Birthday Party records of 1983 saw the flowering of Nick's literary talent, which before had been buried in the racket. Though his demonic persona had helped get the Birthday Party noticed, he was now ready to let his immense talent for writing words bust out. Everything was falling into place for Nick and Mick to break away and start the Bad Seeds. Mick Harvey was falling out with Roland Howard, but they'd got on with Blixa and also the former Magazine-Visage bassist Barry Adamson, who stood in when Tracy was in the nick.
The Birthday Party finally imploded on the eve of an Australian tour. Mick Harvey couldn't see a group getting through it in this state. Cave then holed up in London with girlfriend Anita Lane [in the same chaotic block of flats on Brixton Hill as inhabited by Alien Sex Fiend. Some mad nights there!]. He was looking to concentrate on his writing, even if the Lunch collaboration proved too out there and rude [please bear in mind that this is a hazy period for recollections. I saw Nick Cave a lot more than I can vividly recall and he probably wouldn't even remember me now! A popular story of the time has Nick on the Victoria line, caught by sudden inspiration but with no pen. He promptly drew up a syringe full of blood and started scribbling in his notebook with that].
'I had no intention of starting up another group when the Birthday Party broke up,' he said at the time. 'It was the end of it for me as far as music was concerned.'
Nick road-tested one of his new epics, the funereal 'A Box For Black Paul', when he embarked on a tour with Marc Almond, Jim Foetus and, I think, Lydia Lunch. I can't remember when or where. I just remember getting excited because the other song he was performing was a version of Elvis Presley's 'In The Ghetto'.
I'd see Nick at the Some Bizarre offices, which were in the same building in St Anne's Court, Soho, as Trident Studios. By September, there was a band taking shape. Early candidates for names included The Cavemen, the Pleasure Cave and - Blixa's fave - The Sensational Nick Cave Band. They decided on the Bad Seeds.
Blixa was now firmly on board. He decided to take a break from Einstruzende Neubauten, who were then the most extreme live experience around, blowing things up, chain-sawing - and even doing a spot of welding amidst the wreckage. They famously set fire to the stage at LA's Perkins' Palace when one of them thoughtlessly dropped their Molotov cocktail. The group I was traveling with - glam-Goths the Specimen - were on the same bill and Neubauten's set was one of the greatest things I've ever seen. Blixa's approach to the guitar was freeform, anarchic and perfect for the scratchy, deep blues of the nascent Bad Seeds. His attitude was that one three second note might be all that was needed to make a track. Second guitarist for now would be Hugo Race, from Australian group Plays With Marionettes. Barry Adamson came in on bass. 'The music now is based and built on the lyrics, which makes it different from the Birthday Party,' explained Blixa.
Initially, there was going to be an EP called ‘Nick Cave: Man Or Myth?’ In September/October, they recorded 'Saint Huck', 'Wings Off Flies' and 'Box For Black Paul'. There was obviously scope for a whole album, so they went in again the following March and whacked down a spectacular version of Leonard Cohen's 'Avalanche', 'Cabin Fever', 'Well Of Misery' and the title track. They also recorded a version of 'In The Ghetto' which, with Blixa's swooning slide, brought out the despair and tragedy of the song [and made you realise what a brave record it had been for idol-of-millions Elvis to put out as a single]. 'The Moon Is In The Gutter' was on the other side – a casualties howl which might've been what Jim Morrison would've sounded like if he'd let it slip on record that he was a gutter-crawling drunk.
Like I said, it's a bit vague, but I think the first time I heard the Bad Seeds was when I popped into Trident the day after a heavy Bat Cave sesh. I was well into the old Berwick-upon-Tweed and still propelled towards activity the following afternoon. Nick was in the vocal booth doing 'Well Of Misery', while Blixa passed around his ever-present vodka bottle. This liquid gutbucket moan was different to anything I'd ever heard. I suppose I should take some minor inspirational credit for this album as Cave and Blixa sometimes needed some assistance staying up for those late sessions and I was always happy to oblige!
‘From Her To Eternity’ emerged sometime in 1984. It was a band finding their sound but, from the sinister opening crescendo of 'Avalanche', it was apparent that the Bad Seeds were already sprouting into one spectacularly unique ensemble. They did a gig at a little club in Brixton. Nick had forsaken the stripped-down Iggy-Lux personna of the Venue and was now sporting a natty powder blue suit and floral shirt. They did most of the new album, including a riveting trawl through the epic 'Box for Black Paul'. Really just a doomy piano riff, Blixa's scraping sounds and Nick's impossibly mournful delivery building into full-blown howling at the injustice of it all. There was also a top version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 'I Put A Spell on You'. Nods to the past were scarce, although by the time they launched into a crazed 'Mutiny In Heaven', it was apparent that there was a unique kind of chemistry spontaneously combusting between these disparate individuals. The Deep South fixation was in full bloom as they rattled through a towering 'Saint Huck', where Cave's Finn-esque character was going down river to the 'great grey greasy city' to brutally meet his maker.
After the album was finished, Cave went to LA to develop his Swampland idea. The screenplay didn't happen, but now he was going to write his first novel. It started life as a projected ten-part biographic-fantasy about his heroes, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and a 'rampaging Russian marauder called Ballaban'. He signed a deal with Black Spring press and relocated to Berlin, where he crashed in friends' houses and found himself a little bolt-hole where he sat and wrote for days on end, speeding his nuts off. The gestating work was now going to be called ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’ and would take him over three years to write.
Nick was severely influenced by Deep South literature by the likes of Flannery O'Connor, plus what he'd seen in movies and heard in old blues records. He only ever played there once. Probably more importantly, and certainly more long-lasting, Nick moved his Bible reading from Old to New Testament. As he said in that '96 essay, 'It was hard work loathing everything all the time...the voice that spoke to me now was softer, sadder, more introspective..' Enthralled by the Gospels, Cave was imbued with a spirituality which would strengthen over the years but, in 1985, was still reconciling itself with his existing demons and creating a huge, fearful world which right then was centered in the Southern badlands. This all flooded into the next Bad Seeds album, ‘The Firstborn Is Dead’. A cauldron of Nick's current obsessions - religion, the South, the blues and Elvis.
The Bad Seeds were now down to Harvey, Bargeld and Adamson. Released in '85 - the same year as my one and only son Daniel was born - so I didn't go much for the title - it stands as one of Nick's best. Probably the most myth-making wallow of the lot, although he later described it, somewhat modestly, as 'my fucked-up attempt at a blues record.' He must have meant that he and the players were fucked up cause the music's a glorious din, creaking, crashing and whispering like demon's breath when not thundering through the night on a black ghost-stallion with pendulous, flaming bollocks.
The epic 'Tupelo' is loosely based on 'Tupelo Blues', John Lee Hooker's chilling account of the great flood of 1936, but also manages to work in the birth of Elvis in the same town with his dead twin. All cloaked in sweeping Biblical imagery, thunder-storms and clapboard shacks trembling in the inky blackness. The atmosphere established a dark, epic grandeur which always managed to keep an element of the theme from Rawhide or some old spaghetti western deep in its bowels.
'Train Long Suffering' is a locomotive blues, while 'The Black Crow King' sees Cave playing up a typically dark song-scape of scraggy birds and rolling storms. 'I am the king of the blues, I scrape the clay off my shoes, and wade down the gutter and the moon'. 'Knocking On Joe' is an expression used by prisoners when they injure themselves to avoid hard labour. It lands here as a lengthy, tortuous ballad. 'Wanted Man' started life written by Dylan, was recorded by Johnny Cash and then taken by Cave and the Bad Seeds around the whole of the United States. Dominated by a ghostly slide guitar figure and Cave's fugitive-desperate vocal, it's an exercise in controlled psychosis.
'Blind Lemon Jefferson' is the languorous, cliffhanger crawl which closes the album and concerns the last moments of the legendary country blues icon's life. Blind Lemon could be seen as the embodiment of the quintessential blues man with a suitably mysterious death in 1929. A native of Wortham, Texas, he was a formulative influence on the blues with a guitar style it was impossible to imitate. He is described on the sleeve of his ‘King Of The Country Blues’ compilation as, 'the man who is as important within the scheme of the blues as Elvis Presley is to rock'. He didn't play gigs – but played on the streets - or even at the crossroads - where people paid to hear him. He was one of the first country blues men to record - in 1926 - including such items as 'Easy Rider Blues', 'Match Box Blues' and 'Rabbit Foot blues'. 'Black Snake [Hmmm, black snake crawling in my room]' was one of his most famous songs, while his hymnal 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' is said to have foreseen his untimely death. Jefferson is a classic example of the kind of figure Cave could pick up on and use as a springboard at that time, as his newly-freed muse ran riot.
Around this time, I got the impression that all Nick wanted to do was lock himself away from the world to write. He loved the creation - but didn't go much on the promotional side, especially press interviews. Zigzag, my old magazine, which had now changed beyond recognition but thankfully got shot of the thieving tossers who edged me out, put Nick on the cover of the January '85 issue. Poor Antonella Black, a Melbourne Goth, didn't get much beyond severely antagonising a smacked-out, post-gig Nick, who nodded out during the interview. At one point, he sagely observed, 'I would say that I am consistently betrayed by the total lack of rapport between my mind and my body. It was God's idea of a joke, I guess.'
I usually hate covers albums ‘cos they either mean there's a contract to fulfill, a paucity in the creativity department or the artist's ego is telling them that someone gives a shit what they sound like massacring their favourite tunes. But sometimes they're justified and great fun, especially when the artist manages to make the songs their own by plugging in to their very heart. This happened with '86's ‘Kicking Against The Pricks’, which Nick wanted to do because all his lyrical creativity and focus was going into the novel.
I was glad he did this. For a while, I'd been aware that Nick's musical tastes were against the grain. A covers album was a great way of showing and shocking those who insisted on clinging to the Birthday Party instead of where the Bad Seeds were coming from. It showed that Nick was a great fan of late-period Elvis, maudlin country MOR, obscure 60s pop and the deepest blues.
For some years, Cave had a fanzine devoted to him called The Witness. Lots of cool train-spottery back-ground. One issue devoted several pages to exploring his influences and also featuring originals from the covers album. Australia's Rubber Records released a whole CD of Cave-related songs. There's Lefty Frizzell doing 'Long Black Veil', which had also been covered by the Band on ‘Music From Big Pink’, 'The Hammer Song' by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Tom Jones' 'Sleeping Analeah' and the more likely Johnny Cash tribute in 'The Folk Singer' - although Cave did it before the Man In Black was elevated to outlaw cool status in the style mags. This track became the first single, a stark rumble foreshadowing the stripped-down direction Cash would take with Rick Rubin the following decade. In Cave's hands something like 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' became something else altogether, just as Isaac Hayes had taken Glen Campbell's version and stretched it into a broken lurve odyssey. There's a fractious, swirling treatment of the Velvet Underground's 'All Tomorrow's Parties' and also a version of the Seekers' 60s schmaltz anthem 'The Carnival Is Over'. In that vein, Nick also had a stab at the late Gene Pitney's torch standard 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart'. Blues standards like 'I'm Gonna Kill That Woman' and Leadbelly's 'Black Betty' nestled with more religious traditional fare like 'Jesus Met The Women At The Well'.
You can bet that when Nick embarked on his cover of 'Hey Joe', he wasn't thinking so much about the Jimi Hendrix version but the grittily dynamic version by Tim Rose, who is widely credited with coming up the original take on this traditional song. Cave would also cover Rose's 'Long Time Man' on his next studio album. He was a big fan of Rose, who sadly died a couple of years ago, but not before Nick had thrust him back into the spotlight to get some rightful acclaim.
Tim Rose deserves a special mention here. He came out of the New York coffee house troubadour scene in the 60s, lacing his eponymous debut album of 1967 with gems like 'Hey Joe', the anti-war 'Morning Dew' and 'Long Time Man', one of his greatest compositions. It was a stark, gritty contrast to the rampant psychedelia of the time. But Rose was his own worst enemy, letting booze and bad decisions stifle his progress, along with a weighty dose of bad luck. He came through and I spent a couple of afternoons interviewing him about three years ago. A lovely man with a treasure trove of stories who could still turn in a spine-tingling set. He spoke highly of Nick and greatly appreciated the help he'd given him. Sadly, Tim died a few months later.
Nick took July and August '86 off to record ‘Your Funeral...My Trial’ at Berlin's Hansa Studios. Barry Adamson was succumbing to the drug-fuelled craziness around the group and left. He only appears on two tracks, leaving the rest of what became a double set to Nick, Mick and Blixa.
This and the next album were delivered at the peak of Nick's heroin addiction but it's another of my favourites for its dense, dark atmosphere and the escalating descriptive quality of his lyrics. Cave was on a feverish roll. His muse might have been battered and abused but spewed its guts out on epics like the crashing, nightmare waltz of 'The Carny', 'Sad Waters' [with its nod to Tom Jones' 'Green Grass Of Home'] and the haunting sweep of 'Stranger Than Kindness'. The swellingly emotional title track ranks among his greatest ballads while 'Hard On For Love' and 'Jack's Shadow' throb malevolently. The weighty version of 'Long Time Man' is stunning as it builds to a wailing climax. These sessions also produced 'Scum' - Nick's tribute to the press - which was given away as a flexi-disc at gigs.
In October, news came through that Tracy Pew had died from an epileptic seizure. In '87, Cave was still working obsessively on the novel in Berlin, before moving back to London, where he embarked on the next Bad Seeds album, which would become ‘Tender Prey’. They continued to gig, including New York, where I was now living. It turned out to be another time when our lives clashed in uncannily similar circumstances.
My son had been whisked away to New York by his mother and I had followed. We ended up in an apartment on 12th Street in the East Village with Allen Ginsburg and Richard Hell as neighbours. One night, Nick and the Bad Seeds were booked to play the Ritz on 11th Street. I was looking forward to that. Last time I saw Nick was some getting-up-to-no-good type situation a year or so before in London. To be honest, I can't remember again, although I know our night-stalking quests crossed paths on several occasions.
The word got out that Nick had been busted and the gig had been cancelled. We had to wait a few days for the show to be rescheduled but it was still an intense trawl through the emotional spectrum when it went ahead. Standing in the Ritz that night I started fantasizing that this was how the Velvets might've sounded when they started up the road over 20 years before, in terms of overwhelming impact.
The night the gig should've happened, Nick had been caught scoring on the street and banged up. No idea what came out in the music papers, but the same thing would happen to me a little while later. The police were just starting the zero tolerance campaign which would gain steam throughout the rest of the decade and flare up full-strength in the 90s when Major Guilliani pledged to rid the teaming streets of Alphabet City of every junky, dealer, bum and hooker. I was doing the usual nightly ritual of waiting for the man, then joining the throng hoping to cop. I got busted near the corner of Avenue B and Fourth Street, hauled off to a holding cell at the precinct and banged up with a gaggle of Brooklyn Yardies and disappointed junkies. We were then carted off to Central Booking, held for several hours to get registered, then dumped in another secure location to await court the next day. I sported a graffiti-splattered leather jacket and Cave-esque hair. Didn't dare go to sleep, just listened to the other cons discussing what they were going to do to certain guys who'd crossed them when they got out. It was frightening, but I was more concerned with the fact that this was, very inconveniently, forcing me to go cold turkey. You make the best of it and, if you look a bit different, don't get too much hassle. You must be on the same side. When I got out - like Nick with a caution and 'time served' - I made straight for the shooting gallery on Second and B.
Nick needed sorting out too. On a couple of occasions he ended up idly strumming the bass around our apartment on 12th Street. After I'd done the necessary mission, we talked for much of the night. It was fascinating, funny and helped me understand where those marvelous songs came from. The only problem is, I can barely remember a thing that was said! I doubt if Nick does either. Heroin is a deceptive entity which can't be trusted. When you're maintained with a steady supply, you feel like you can take on the world [when you're not getting busted, ripped off or trying to raise funds]. Smack didn't seem to be doing anything to dampen the quality of Cave's work - it seemed at the time - but it made it more chaotic and convoluted to deliver. The ‘Tender Prey’ sessions in London, Berlin and even Australia got protracted and tortuous, starting in August '87 and going on until January '88. By this time Nick had gained a few more Bad Seeds along the way - former Cramps and Gun Club guitarist, Kid 'Congo' Powers, drummer Thomas Wydler and pianist Roland Wolf – but apart from Mick Harvey, everyone was wankered.
Consequently, not every track was a blinder this time - but Nick had one new song which screamed with the potential to be his masterpiece. 'The Mercy Seat' is the thoughts of a man about to die in the electric chair. After countless takes, he got it down. With its frazzled, Velvets-syle sheets of noise and rotating rounds of verse-chorus interplay, the song slammed you against the wall with brute force intensity. 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and anyway I told the truth and I'm not afraid to die,' he declared with escalating panic. I thought to myself, 'Yeah, heroin's a bit like Death Row. The longer you stay on it, the more you don't know when the inevitables gonna happen. You just know it will.' But it's a sentence that can be reprieved.
'I meant to write some classic-type songs, more singer-orientated', Nick told me after the album's release. Today he will dismiss it, telling MOJO's Andrew Perry, 'Things were fucked. I wasn't really up to scratch. It's a very confused, scattered record.'
It wasn't his greatest but is still studded with dirty diamonds. 'Up Jumped The Devil' might've been almost taking the piss out of the group's popular Satanic dissipation, but then came 'Deanna', their snarlingly vicious version of a pop song, which got extracted for single status [along with the non-album classic 'Girl At The Bottom Of My Glass']. 'Watching Alice' and 'Slowly Goes The Night' are slow to the point of somnambulant, but 'Mercy' heaves and pleads. 'City Of Refuge' - inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson's 1928 tune, 'I'm Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge' - is fine but I prefer the acoustic version which appeared on a free seven-inch with the next album. 'Sugar Sugar Sugar' marks a spectacularly-depraved vocal over grinding death-rattle hell-train backdrop, all that tense, brooding menace which made the Bad Seeds omnipotent from the mid-80s onwards. Then finally, it's like somebody pulled apart the curtains as 'New Morning' beams in on a wave of hymnal optimism. There's no way they could have known it, but the track was pointing the way to a new kind of Bad Seeds sound.
Nick got busted for smack for a third time in London in January '88, then returned to Berlin, where he continued sinking further into his habit. He returned to London to stand trial for possession. The New York bust would just count as a 'time served' misdemeanor, but this was serious. He faced jail, unless he agreed to rehab. Like all junkies, he didn't think he had a problem - as long as he had his next hit. He agreed to go in simply to avoid prison - not before one last mega-binge which saw him O.D. with gusto. Finally, Nick admitted himself to the Broadway Lodge clinic in Weston Supermare, where he stayed for seven weeks, after which he emerged a clean man. He gradually forced himself into work again. Luckily, throughout all the madness, Mick Harvey had not only held the Bad Seeds' music together, but looked after their business [and found time to do his other band, Crime and the City Solution].
The first thing Nick did was finally pull together the strands of his sprawling novel. 1988 became both personal watershed and creative landmark. Apart from ‘Tender Prey’, he popped up singing 'The Carny' and 'From Her To Eternity' in Wim Wenders' ‘Wings Of Desire’, playing a psychotic prisoner in Evan English's ‘Ghosts Of The Civil Dead’, published the ‘King Ink’ collection of lyrics and writings and, to cap it all, ‘And the Ass Saw The Angel’ got finished, to appear shortly afterwards. He'd done all this on junk, which recalls what Keith Richards once said about making ‘Exile On Main Street’ and learning to ski when he was on smack. It's not so much doing the stuff, but what it's cut with, the pain of copping or being caught which cause the problems.
By now I had been living in New York for over two years and was well sucked into its sleazy junk underbelly. At the time, I was writing for a Canadian music magazine called Grafitti. I'd written a story about the Lower East Side where I'd made out I'd followed this group of junkies around their daily routine of copping, scuffling and plain surviving - all built around a fictional character who was actually me. In December '88, I was asked to interview Nick and sorted it out with him on the phone.
When I made my way up to Nick's room at the Parker-Meridian hotel, I had just been to the corner of 13th Street and Avenue B and copped several bags of Red Devil from a new dealer I'd found. I was already zonked and came bearing gifts. I'd already spoken to Nick on the phone and knew he was clean but, for all I knew, it could've been similar bullshit to what Johnny Thunders was always feeding me. Be prepared, as they say.
Over the years, I'd seen Nick in various conditions, from speed-crazed verbose to stoned immaculate. That evening, he was open and friendly. More positive. Unclogged, if you like. But still basically the same Nick Cave.
'It was simple,' he said. 'If I'd gone on like that I would have died. I didn't have any sudden urge to clean up. It was forced on me, but I'm glad I did. I haven't touched anything for four months!'
This wouldn't be the first time I’d hear this speech in my life. I know very few people who’ve cleaned up once and stayed off for good, including me. In 2004, Nick told Andrew Perry that when he stopped taking heroin, he wouldn't be able to sleep because all he could hear was voices prattling. 'I was delivered into this place of peace for a while when I took smack. Eventually, heroin just exacerbated the problem so I gave it up six years ago....and I don't have that bullshit in my head any more.'
If you've recently come off dope and are serious about it, the last thing you need is some tosser turning up and pressing the stuff on you. It's every ex-junkie's downfall. So I kept the Red Devil in my pocket - which is where it stayed until I excused myself for a minute. I guess I did shoot up in Nick Cave's bathroom.
As I said, it takes one to know one. It must've taken some guts for Nick to spend an hour or so in the company of an old drug buddy who, although dressed in white shirt and smart suit, hadn't eaten or slept for days and was obviously smacked to the gills. He didn't ask if I had anything. I had enough respect for the man not to try and tempt him. Usually, you kick dope and become an alcoholic. That evening we just drank coffee. At that time, he was deadly serious.
Plunging himself into work had provided the best therapy. Nick said his new sobriety hadn't affected his obsessions or changed his perspective. 'I'm still interested in the same things. I had to look at myself again but I still see the world pretty much as before...I'm quite amazed myself, really. I really was clinging on by the skin of my teeth.
'Basically, I'm a workaholic. I'm only really happy when I'm working. Although, on one hand, it's the hardest stuff to do, it's the nitty gritty work I'm most happy being involved in - writing a song or in the studio or whatever. It's the actual selling of the products that I find most taxing. The work's been done. It's the performance of it.'
‘And the Ass Saw The Angel’ was the biggest project of Nick's life [until maybe his recent venture into films with his script for ‘The Proposition’]. The book takes the Deep South fixation, Biblical imagery and liquor-sodden lowlife to black new depths even old Nick hadn't plumbed before. The brain-rattling verbal and visual barrage stuns, sickens, touches and tickles. The story concerns a simple teenage mute called Euchrid Eucrow, who's been bullied into a sanctum in the swamps by small-town thugs. Cave said it was written in, 'a kind of hyper-poetic thought-speak, not meant to be spoken - a mongrel language that was part Biblical, part-Deep South dialect, part gutter-slang, at times obscenely reverent and at others reverently obscene'. Cave manages to place you in the poor bugger's mind as he suffers redneck abuse from the rank underbelly of lowest Southern pond-life. Persecution and human cruelty with stormy Biblical references and gross degradation. Finally, filled to bursting with messages from God, Eucrid explodes and brings the religious community where he lives to its knees. Nobody in music has ever tried anything like this before or since. Spiritually-awakened, smacked out and speeding, Cave had pulled it off.
'Primarily, writing was the perfect escape from a lot of personal problems I wasn't dealing with,' he recalled. 'I'd just lock myself away for days - perfect for this sort of book because it's about a boy's growing obsessions. A lot of my past themes are dealt with but, more fetishistically, it starts at an all-time low and sinks from there.'
I brought along my copy of ‘King Ink’ and Nick signed it to me and my son's late mother [who even he had trouble dealing with]. It's fascinating to see how songs started life as huge, sprawling epics later to be pruned and sculpted. They were all there from when the Birthday Party first howled at the moon. Cave has been a grossly misinterpreted individual with many a brainless hack dismissing him as some kind of doomed Goth lowlife laundering the blood off his shirt sleeves in public. It's true he has fixated on the rank lizard underbelly of the human condition, but these books revealed him as someone to take very seriously indeed. As a supposed writer, I have rarely encountered such mesmerising image-building, description and sheer atmosphere in the written word as in these two books.
‘King Ink’ was originally put out as a stop-gap when the novel over-ran its deadline. It also included unused song segments, pieces of prose, one-act plays with titles like 'Golden-Horn-Hooligan', a 'fan letter' to Einsturzende Neubauten and the full novelette of ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’, one of the character studies which made up the original novel idea but instead became the twisted blues on ‘The Firstborn Is Dead’.
Nick also talked about his first movie role - as a berserk inmate in ‘Ghosts Of The Civil Dead’. 'I play a psycho, yeah...the basic story is taken from a true account by this guy called Dave Hale, an ex-prison guard, who was forced out of the system after he saw this corruption going on. The administration deliberately provoked a disruption amongst the prisoners by changing their routine. Just in little ways, up to taking all their belongings off them, just provoking them in these insidious ways. Ultimately, the inevitable happened and two guards were killed and it got to the Media, who said, "Well, look at the situation here". Then they got the prison on ‘lockdown’, which is when they're kept in their cell and allowed out one hour each day, or something like that. My role is that I'm put into the prison as a deliberate provocateur by the authorities to deliberately irritate everybody. I'm basically just a nutcase who goes in there and screams out shit all the time and irritates everybody. It's a solid political statement. This particular film is about new age prisons, or super maximum-security prisons. There's a lot of them being built over here. Certain designs and so forth, supposedly built for more humane containment. They're all painted in pastel purple, all done in psychiatrists' colours. They're all very sinister in that way, but they're really bad. They don't work at all, basically.'
Did you have to get up six every morning for photo-calls?
'Well, they didn't do that with me. I think they conveniently placed my times at times I was just about able to manage at that point. It was all filmed in Australia. It's a very unhealthy place for me to be.'
It was nice to see Nick in good shape. It made me think that I should get on a similar path. The following month, I got a job on a magazine and enrolled in a methadone clinic at Metropolitan Hospital near 101st Street in East Harlem. Same place where Billie Holliday died. Only rock stars can afford rehab. It was a heavy daily ritual, queuing with the junkies for the swiftly reduced dose. It was about the fourth time I'd tried that one but it worked and I never went back.
Nick was still unsure how to face the world straight through 1989. Unexpectedly, he found his salvation in South America. That year, the Bad Seeds had been filmed on tour in the US for ‘The Road To God Knows Where’ rockumentary. Following that they played four gigs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he met fashion stylist Viviane Carneiro. Having fallen in love, Nick decided to move there and wrote most of the next album in these totally alien surroundings. He persuaded Mute's Daniel Miller to let the group record it there too. With the added bonus of being the first smack-free Bad Seeds album, it was hardly surprising that ‘The Good Son’ boasted a more controlled sound. In fact, the sun positively beams in through the window compared to its predecessor. The album was notable for Cave's first overtly romantic ballads, which he would now turn into an artform. Many have tried but most fail and come out soppy and goatish like James C***. The way Cave subtly twists his words of love and delivers them with understated feeling over the Bad Seeds' subtle, shimmering backdrops is gorgeously represented by 'The Ship Song'. On its single release, it's non-album flip, 'The Train Song', was another ballad, except windswept, haunting and heart-wrenchingly desolate. Yup, his baby done gone left him.
‘The Good Son’ starts with a Brazilian hymn called 'Foi No Cruz', complete with strings and choir, and ends with an almost-MOR ballad called 'Lucy'. In between, much of the album is slow-paced. Religious undertones appear throughout, although 'The Witness Song' is balls-out rockabilly gospel with Nick gesticulating from the pulpit. But 'The Hammer Song' and 'The Good Son' whip up their emotional surges via the band firing on dynamic interaction rather than full-on bombast.
'I find I can sing better these days,' he told me. 'I used to be flat all the time. That's changed. Everyone thought I'd taken a crash course in voice training.' Not so, although he did visit a singing teacher, who asked him to sing a song. Nick promptly serenaded the elderly lady with 'I'm Gonna Kill That Woman'.
Latin percussion propelled 'The Weeping Song', the next single which came with a great video of Nick and Blixa, obviously pissed as farts cavorting about in a rowing boat. Like many junkies who need to replace the daily ritual with another form of numbing agent, Nick now seemed to be drinking a fair amount. Even though I'd managed to quit smack, I was sinking a bottle of bourbon a day by the time this album came out. I became homeless, sometimes wandering the streets, crashing with acquaintances or sleeping on the subway. That would all become another battle but I never stuck another needle in my arm. Last year, Nick told MOJO that he finally knocked heroin on the head in 2000!
In mid-1990, I returned to the UK after pond life in New York had gone too far with a horrific mugging. I returned determined to put past misdemeanors behind me – and duly hooked up with Primal Scream! But it looked like Nick had finally sorted himself out. Alright Nick, see you in a little while. Although I would always check and revere his work through the 90s, I was too busy riding the ecstasy waves of acid house and all that went with being a globe-trotting DJ and Scream associate to have time to sit in a room self-destructing to Nick Cave, or even pay the music the attention it deserved. But there were still plenty of surprises and unearthly delights to come...
In May '91, Nick and Viviane had their son Luke, but the marriage started falling apart when ‘Henry's Dream’ turned into one of those difficult albums. Kid Congo had gone, but pianist Conway Savage and bassist Martyn Casey joined up. Inspired by Sao Paulo street buskers, Nick wanted a raw, high-energy acoustic album. Unfortunately, they brought in a producer for the first time - David Briggs, who'd worked with Neil Young. He ensured that the brace of rough-shod, up-tempo songs came home smoothed into a US AOR sheen. It wasn't raw enough for the group, who went back and remixed it. The single, 'Straight To You', established the Bad Seeds' grandiose take on a pop song but I must admit it doesn't rank as my favourite Bad Seeds album.
In '92, Nick and Shane McGowan consolidated their mutual admiration with an EP consisting of the pair tackling that old standard, 'What A Wonderful World', plus Nick singing Shane's 'Rainy Night In Soho' and Shane doing Nick's 'Lucy'. 1993 saw the self-explanatory ‘Live Seeds’ album, which spanned and expanded combustively on all the albums.
Nick wrote the songs for ‘Let Love In’ after returning to London when his relationship with Viviane fell apart. Recorded with the same Bad Seeds line-up and released in '94, the album was spearheaded by the simmering widescreen intensity of 'Do You Love Me?'. Another cards-on-the-table killer pop tune. Although still capable of moments of rancid, gutter-level assault - like the almost-psychobilly 'Thirsty Dog' - the overall impression was that Nick and the Bad Seeds had matured and solidified into a new phase of enigmatic, cinematically-atmospheric music which would go on until the present. They weren't following any trends except the furrows they ploughed themselves. Before, Nick usually created characters or personas to convey his songs. Now he was writing about himself. On ‘Let Love In’, the big ones are the tragic 'Nobody's Baby Now', the unsettling 'Ain't Gonna Rain No More' and 'Lay Me Low'. The single harboured one of his great B sides in 'Sail Away'. 'Red Right Hand' is the show-stopping trailer to what was to come. The body count was about to go up.
1996 saw Cave take his favourite subject to its logical peak and cut to the chase with ‘Murder Ballads’. It was originally started as a joke after he'd written an epic called 'O'Malley's Bar' about some bloke walking in and shooting the customers in an Irish bar. With an album title like that, Nick now had a license to kill, in his songs at least. 'I've always enjoyed writing songs about dead women,' he confessed.
The album saw him duet with Polly Harvey on 'Henry Lee', with whom he had a fling, and Kylie Minogue on 'When The Wild Roses Grow', with whom he had a hit. Nick had been a fan since 'Better The Devil You Know' and famously carried round a shoulder-bag emblazoned with her name in the late 80s. The couple's Top Of The Pops appearance was spectacular.
I was still touring the world, now with the Prodigy too, partying like a loon, making techno records, getting blootered with Irvine Welsh and all sorts. Again, quiet, reflective moments didn't come along too often - until early '97 when a relationship turned sour, my son's mother died and boozing turned from fun into another fucking habit, worse than the New York bourbon dalliance. Now it was hours of stuporfied sadness with the bottle and, once again, Nick Cave for company. Welcome back, Nick. I went back to previous favourites like 'The Ship Song', 'Box For Black Paul' and 'The Train Song'. When the vodka stoked anger, out came 'Saint Huck' and even 'Swampland' in the hope I would drown in its horrible black racket.
It was around this time that Nick released ‘The Boatman's Call’. If I'd still had a relationship, these new, transcendentally-beautiful ballads like 'Into My Arms' and '[Are You] The One That I've Been Waiting For?' would have been floating celebrations. Now I couldn't listen to them with the right result and wouldn't until a few years down the line. Nick had come out of a relationship with P.J. Harvey when he wrote this album. He later said that he regretted it being such a confessional. He's heard serenading and then reflecting on the sadness of the split. Viviane and, according to Nick, Tori Amos, inspired other songs. Exactly who is irrelevant, but songs like 'Brompton Oratory' hit my spot because I knew that Nick must have been feeling something a little like me when he wrote it. On the lengthy, desolate 'Far From Me', he lays himself wide open, abandons any flowery dressing and asks, 'Did you ever care for me?' I liked 'People Ain't No Good' which speaks for itself and could be attached to several people I knew at the time. On the most sensitive ballads, Nick reveals a calm sense of pure romantic reflection as he subtly and perfectly delivers every heartfelt line like he's only talking to you. The music, inspired by the minimalist devotional music of Avro Part and Samuel Barber, is the perfect, unobtrusive backdrop. It's the sort of record you cry to, the most intimate he ever got and, as a matter of personal opinion, I have to say it is his masterpiece.
Nick, of course, would later dismiss the album, almost apologetically, when talking to MOJO's Andrew Perry: 'It worries me, using my creative talents to make this grand theatre out of what was really just an ordinary rejection scenario.' Self-critical bugger. Something like 'The Carny' might be considered 'grand theatre'. This was plain beautiful. When Michael Hutchence died in '97, Cave sang 'Into My Arms' at his funereal.
For me, this marked the start of another lengthy fling with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. ‘The Boatman's Call’ had grabbed me by the throat and hurled me back into his world. There was a brief respite before I got stitched up again then went through one of the worst parts of my life between '99 and 2000. Still not smack but vodka, brandy and Tennents Super. Sometimes all at the same time! It got me into trouble, boosted the depression and all I could do was play Nick's albums relentlessly as I sat in the big house I was about to lose watching my career spiral downwards. I went along to see the Bad Seeds play the Royal Festival Hall as part of Nick's curation of the annual Meltdown festival in mid '99. Alone. Missed the last train, ended up round someone's flat, being pinned against the wall and robbed. A little while later, I shattered my right shoulder - don't ask how, because, like the mugging, I can't remember a thing - and ended up in hospital.
Just when things didn't seem like they could get any worse, I met a girl with black hair called Michelle when I took my rabbit into the vets. Apart from rabbits, she was into Nick Cave too. A lovely soul but unhappy in the kind of bad relationship which could have been one of Nick's more morbid ditties transplanted to a housing estate in Aylesbury. At last, 'Into My Arms' and '[Are You] The One I've Been Waiting For' took on a proper new meaning. As Nick said in his essay, ‘The Secret Life Of The Love Song’: 'the Love Song holds within it an eerie intelligence all of its own - to reinvent the past and to lay it at the feet of the present.' Now these songs, along with others like 'The Ship Song', made me happy while I gleefully turned Michelle on to the early Bad Seeds stuff. We're still together and thinking of getting married in Las Vegas..
Still took me a while to sort out those demons though and, while I was, Nick came out with a ‘Best Of’ collection and ‘No More Shall We Part’ in 2001. Another fragile, gentle work but some of it wasn't so sad this time. More like a new kind of calm had set in as Cave sang songs predominantly inspired by the new love in his life, model Susie Bick. The title track said it all. They would marry in summer 2000 and have twins.
The Bad Seeds now consisted of Harvey, Bargeld, Wydler, Casey, Savage and Warren Ellis from the Dirty Three on violin, which added to the atmosphere, which was restrained but sweeping. The first single, 'As I Sat Sadly By Her Side' was deep, complex and reflective. 'Love Letter' was another beauty, first unveiled in '98. It was about just that - hoping it would do the trick and win his baby back. 'God Is In The House' paints a picture of small-town religion. 'Oh My Lord', 'Sweetheart Come' and 'The Sorrowful Wife' are all ballads, although the climactic drama of the latter is still howling under 'black trees bent to the ground'. It might be a romantic album but it's Nick Cave's idea of a romantic album, so things could never be that simple or corny.
My personal life hit a vague parallel with Cave's again as I stayed at home with my new family, knocked booze and drugs on the head, and wrote like a bastard. Still kept tabs on him though, like when he put out 2003's ‘Nocturama’. He played a little showcase at the Bush Hall in Shepherd's Bush, with just violinist Warren Ellis, who was now a fully-fledged Bad Seed. We laid into the free wine with a vengeance and woke up next morning in the local police cells. Looked like Old Man Trouble still couldn't be far away when Nick Cave was involved.
‘Nocturama’ was pretty subdued with familiar themes ['Dead Man in My Bed'], optimism ['Still in Love'], weary worldview ['Wonderful Life']. Same line-up, except Jim Sclavunos - a New York veteran who'splayed with everyone from Lydia Lunch to the Cramps - in on drums now. 'He Wants You' showed that, no matter how many ballads they tackled, Nickand the Bad Seeds rarely failed to move or soothe. When the track was plucked out as a single, it was accompanied by two more - 'Little Ghost Song' and 'Everything Must Converge' - which weren't even on the album. Neither were 'Shoot Me Down' and 'Swing Low', which accompanied the previous single of 'Bring It On' [a widescreen rocker featuring fellow countryman Chris Bailey of the Saints]. Having said all this, after nine tracks of elegant tastefulness, the album goes out with an epic bang for 14 or so minutes of 'Babe, I'm On Fire'. Basically, a long list of surreal characters, from 'menstruating Jewess' to 'the drug-addled wreck with a needle in his neck' and around a hundred more, accompanied by a wild free-for-all built on one distinctive bass-line. It's the Bad Seeds having a party and letting off steam.
In 2004, Cave celebrated 21 years of the Bad Seeds by recording a double album in ten days in Paris's venerable Ferber Studios [which had previously played host to Nina Simone and Serge Gainsbourg]. ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’/’Abattoir Blues’ received his greatest critical acclaim so far and was voted MOJO's best album of 2004. The usually awards-shy Nick was happy. He was now being toasted with similar respect to his heroes, like Bob Dylan.
Sadly, Blixa had departed, leaving Mick Harvey as the only original Bad Seed remaining. James Johnston, formerly of Gallon Drunk, came in on keyboards to join Ellis, Savage, Casey, Sclavunos and Wydler. The album was like a consolidation of Nick's convoluted journey since throwing down 'Saint Huck'. As at peace with the world as he can ever be, he can now stretch out, nod to the great loss of Johnny Cash on 'Let the Bells Ring', but also throw in a great deal of humour. It's always been there, albeit of the blackest hue, but several tracks are highly amusing. Having said that, there are still raging maelstroms and tender love songs. It just sounds like a group at the top of its game and Cave's voice never sounded better
'I see myself, more or less, as a comic writer, these days,' he told MOJO. 'As far as I'm concerned, my songs were always funny in some kind of way, but it is broader on this record.' Mick Harvey reckoned it was their best album yet.
My usual concern - the ballads - are well represented, particularly on ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’ with 'Spell' and 'Breathless'. Anyone else singing lines like, 'I make like I'm a little deer grazing in the flowers' might get laughed at. Marc Bolan was in 1968. But this is in a song called 'Babe You Turn Me On', where Nick declares the contentment he really does have a right to enjoy now. He has said that before he always wrote about the euphoric start and sad finish of relationships, but now he was writing about the middle bit. That hasn't been done much in rock music and, when it has, the results have usually been cloyingly sappy. Instead, this is impossibly strong stuff. There's even a full-on gospel choir on 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World', which includes the immortal line, 'St John of The Cross he did his best stuff imprisoned in a box/And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote "Chinese Rocks"'. Disregarding the fact it was Dee Dee Ramone who wrote it, it's still some kind of ultimate, unexpected knees-up.
Nick still can't resist a good murder ballad, albeit with a Greek twist: 'The Lyre Of Orpheus' itself sees Orpheus killing his missus with a tune. But there are wider themes now, like the state of the world ['Hiding All Away'] and the future [the pessimistic 'O Children']. Every line's a winner, the Bad Seeds are an organic multiple orgasm and, basically, this set will be regarded as one of the great albums.
But then so is ‘B-Sides & Rarities’, last year's 56- track collection of out-takes, radio and soundtrack recordings and those B-sides I've been mentioning throughout this piece. This set, which has been Mick Harvey's baby for years, is meant as a Bad Seeds record. Justifiably so. It’s also Nick Cave’s favourite Bad Seeds release.
As I write, Nick has just seen his first script turned into a film called ‘The Proposition’. Set in 1888, the fictional tale is set at the end of the bushranger era and is described as 'an elemental story of family conflict and primal violence'. It stars Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Guy Pearce and John Hurt and was directed by John Hillcoat, veteran of several Bad Seeds videos. There's also a soundtrack by Cave and Ellis, which is different to anything Nick's ever done with its atmospheric mood pieces. Another ambition come through.
First time I've really tried to re-live and record all this. Phew, that was some journey - and I feel like I've only scraped the surface - especially with the words and the music. For over 25 years, Nick Cave has been singing his songs of love, hate, drugs and death. Thankfully - for him and for me - love won. As Cave once sang: ‘I say it's funny how things go’.
Kris Needs – tMx 24 – 04/06