In contrast to the grimly gangling scarecrow that peers from his album covers, singer-songwriter-novelist-poet-playwright and occasional actor Nick Cave seems, at the ripe old age of 41, a relatively happy man, inquisitive and full of dreams. Yes, he's had to work for it; no, it hasn't been easy.
With the Birthday Party, the group that took Cave from Australia to England in the early '80s, he was a hell-bent, demonic cyclone impelled by cryptic obsessions with Jesus and Elvis Presley. Echoing Cave's mania, the band played a loose-limbed, blues-branded evil-rock whose howling hostility - as well as onstage fistfights, skirmishes with the law, and drug and alcohol abuse - knocked the New Wave milksops of the English music scene on their cans. After two great albums, Prayers on Fire and Junkyard (cover art by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth), the group flamed out in acrimony and disappointment at their lack of commercial success.
By the time Cave formed the Bad Seeds in 1984 from various embers of the Birthday Party, with a few additional members, he'd become one of the more literary songwriters in rock. Vengeance, fear and fucking, the sacred and the profane, these were the favored themes of Cave's narratives. Basing themselves in Berlin, Cave and the Bad Seeds made a series of albums full of biblical symbolism and fervent streaks along the Blind Lemon Jefferson-Kurt Weill continuum; the Bad Seeds deal in the beauty of the bleak, basically.
Cave branched out; he acted (Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Till the End of the World, among others), composed film scores (To Have and To Hold) and published his poetry (King Ink, volumes 1 and 2) and a novel (his 1987 epic And the Ass Saw the Angel); he contributed a song to the Batman Forever soundtrack, too. Somewhere along the line he kicked his longstanding heroin habit - it was interfering with his work.
In the past two years, Cave and his band have created two powerful and sharply contrasting documents: Murder Ballads, a sick and darkly humorous bloodbath, and last year's collection of sparse, melancholic love songs, The Boatman's Call, an account of the disintegration of his relationship with his Brazilian wife, Viviane Carneiro, and his short-lived subsequent affair with singer P.J. Harvey. You might say that the link between this, Cave's first really personal, non-narrative-driven record, and Murder Ballads was torture - love as both redemption and punishment.
Though his lyrics have him continually raking people over the emotional coals, in real life Cave betrays an amused realism about love and relationships. "I'm not cynical about that at all," he says. "To be in love is what I want from life, and if I can find a way in which I can live within that world, which to me is a world of inspiration and imagination, that's very much how I'd like to be. I'm an incurable romantic, really."
While Cave's love songs are undeniably pretty - listen to "Are You the One I've Been Waiting For?" or "Into My Arms" on The Boatman's Call - he's not one for pretty little love songs.
"All I'm trying to do is talk about love and the nature of love," he says. "For a love song to be a true love song, it has to acknowledge the potential for pain, and if it doesn't do that, then it's not really a love song at all, it's a hate song, and it shouldn't be trusted. It's a song that denies us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad. We need to respect and understand that there are parts of us that are unhappy and sorrowful, that exist in a world of longing and loss. They don't frighten me, these feelings."
A typical Cave piece nowadays is "People Ain't No Good" from The Boatman's Call, in which a vibrant area is found somewhere between love and skepticism about humanity: "It ain't that in their hearts they're bad/They'd stick by you if they could/But that's just bullshit/ a
People just ain't no good."
"It's not that people aren't any good morally, but they're no good in the end - they're no help," says Cave. "There are wounds that we sustain in our lives that we must deal with ourselves . . . I think other people are pretty much all we've got, really, but quite often they're just not enough."
"Far From Me" details the agonizing, slow death of relations between two people, the emotional spectrum one might feel at such a time, radiant beginning to acrid end. But there's no message conveyed; Cave doesn't write lyrics to put across a philosophy about life. "It's just the residue of particular feelings that I've had about things," he says. His songs are the product of his moods, and the moods vary, and the reasons for writing the songs vary. "Sometimes I'll sit down and write a song with the express purpose of hurting someone else, or getting revenge. Other times, it's a gift to someone. I use songwriting for all sorts of reasons - to flatter and to maim . . ."
Although he's quick to point out that he's not a Christian, doesn't belong to any church, Cave has established a relationship - both romantic and intellectual - with God and the Bible. "There Is a Kingdom" on The Boatman's Call, reads like an overt statement of belief, though it feels like a testing-out of the idea of faith. "Well, I believe in God," says Cave. "I've just not always believed that God is a particularly benevolent force. In my 20s and early 30s, I read the Old Testament a lot and found that I related very much to the kind of God that existed there, a very mean-spirited, jealous, cruel God. And it suited me quite fine."
While Cave says that the foundation of his belief system has to do with doubt, he found the New Testament calling to him. "It became quite difficult to despise things all the time, and hate things all the time. Within the New Testament there is a message of forgiveness, and I found that that began to inform the way I lived. It's a more introverted, sadder message, and that interests me much more."
These days, Nick Cave lives in a small apartment in West London, where he enjoys frequent visits from his two kids, and his studies in crime and theology, and his writing - in longhand, of course. Yet being a writer is for him quite a different thing from being a wordsmith who expresses himself in song. And Cave, known primarily for his provocative lyrical themes and the evocative way his artfully emaciated body conveys them, has become a spectacular vocal stylist, witnessed especially on Murder Ballads, where his role-playing in "Stagger Lee," for example, has a sensuous funk as both the defiant murderer-rapist and his tragically hapless victims; on his pairing with Kylie Minogue in "Where the Wild Roses Grow," he persuades us (perhaps) that there is such a thing as a dignified killer.
Cave takes particular care about how the music itself carries the song, and the Bad Seeds - now comprising former Birthday Party mate Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld (ex-Einsturzende Neubauten), Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis - have become a remarkable instrumental ensemble. "The older we get," says Cave, "the better everything gets, the more understanding everyone has about what we're doing." Even so, knowing that Cave spends a fair amount of his off-time writ-
ing poetry and novels, as well as sifting
through piles of movie scripts to act, I wonder whether, at a certain age, music just
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isn't enough to satisfy the hungry man. Cave doesn't disappoint.
"Being a musician is about the best thing you can possibly be. To write songs is one of the noblest forms of expression there is. It's also a very enigmatic art form. When I read a book, I can generally tell why that book has had the effect it's had over me, and the same goes with painting - I know that my senses have been manipulated by color and composition. But I'm at a loss to understand why one particular piece of music can have an incredible impact, can change my whole way of thinking, from one moment to the next.
"That's the beauty that lives within it. I feel that it's very connected with the divine, and with God. The distance between music and God is much less than with other art forms."
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds appear at the Wiltern on Friday, September 18. Sold out.