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Nick Cave’s divine rebirth His suffering was an opportunity for resurrection

Hope is “optimism with a broken heart” (Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Hope is “optimism with a broken heart” (Jim Dyson/Getty Images)


September 21, 2022   6 mins

Nick Cave defies rock music’s law of gravity. A few weeks ago I went to see Cave and the Bad Seeds headline All Points East in Victoria Park, London and came away thinking it was the best I’d ever seen them, but then I often think that. In terms of range, chemistry, intensity and sense of occasion, the Bad Seeds are, I believe, the greatest live band in the world.

Earlier in the summer I saw the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park and that was a good night out but nobody in their right mind would claim that the Stones are better now than they were in 1969 or 1973. Yet the best time to see the Bad Seeds, who formed in 1983, is right now. Though Cave is about to turn 65, the refinement of his craft has required no ebbing of conviction. When he inhabits a murderer on Death Row in “The Mercy Seat”, or a mad prophet retelling the birth of Elvis Presley in “Tupelo”, he still goes all in. The quasi-industrial brutality of “From Her to Eternity” is as persuasive as the naked pleading of “I Need You”. When I went back to the studio versions over the following days, I found them somehow lacking by comparison. Between songs, Cave radiated warmth and good humour. Most frontmen pick a moment to commune with the crowd from the edge of the stage but I suspect Cave could have happily spent the whole show down there, arms outstretched.

Until I read Cave’s new book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, I found it hard to put my finger on why the Bad Seeds have become so much more potent and popular in recent years. Their only Top 20 entry is “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, a 1995 duet with Kylie Minogue. Two of their most popular songs on Spotify, “Red Right Hand” and “O Children”, owe their position to appearances in Peaky Blinders and Harry Potter. Many of their live highlights weren’t even singles, let alone hits. Since the creative nadir of Nocturama in 2003, the Bad Seeds have enjoyed a series of rebirths: the explosive maximalism of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, the slower, subtler Push the Sky Away and the lambent prayers of Ghosteen.

That last transformation was enforced. Seven years ago, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died after falling from a cliff near Brighton. Cave’s grief was etched into Ghosteen and its predecessor Skeleton Tree, the making of which was chronicled in Andrew Dominik’s gently shattering 2016 documentary One More Time with Feeling. This incomprehensible tragedy suddenly became the signal fact of Cave’s life. “The loss of my son defines me,” he says in the book.

After a period of necessary privacy, Cave chose to make his grieving public. In 2018 he started answering questions from fans on his website under the name “The Red Hand Files” and on the road with his “Nick Cave in Conversation” events: an experiment in radical transparency and fostering a community of the bereaved. The first entry in The Red Hand Files was about how he resumed songwriting after tragedy. “Creative people in general have an acute propensity for wonder,” he wrote. “Great trauma can rob us of this, the ability to be awed by things. Everything loses its sheen and appears beyond our reach. We were surviving, but we were surviving in exile on the perimeter of our lives, way beyond anything that mattered.” His lifelines were “work and community” — a means of connecting with the suffering of others in order to feel less alone.

As you can tell, Cave is one hell of a writer. As the author of countless spectacular lyrics, two novels, an epic poem and an unproduced screenplay (a berserk take on a Gladiator sequel), he could surely write a classic memoir but Faith, Hope and Carnage is something else: a series of conversations with his friend Seán O’Hagan, an Observer journalist. Kudos to O’Hagan for having the idea and Cave for running it because it’s an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind book. An alternative title might be God, Grief and Art.

Cave may claim to hate interviews but he is a miraculously fluent talker, incapable of a dull line. Many of the sentences have an aphoristic punch. Creating art is “the act of retelling the story of our lives so that it makes sense”. Hope is “optimism with a broken heart”. Twitter is “just a factory that churns out arseholes”. On lyrics: “A dishonest line tends to deteriorate somehow after repeated singing; a truthful line collects meaning.” On death: “If you have been fortunate enough to have been truly loved, in this world, you will also cause extraordinary pain to others when you leave it.”

Cave’s songs have always been saturated with religious imagery and language — first the Old Testament, later the New — but it was never clear how much of a believer he was. Now, he says, he is emphatically religious in the sense of feeling a “deep inclusion in the human predicament”. That sounds just like Leonard Cohen, another great songwriter whose wisdom derived from an idiosyncratic relationship with the divine and an underrated sense of humour. To call this a self-help book would horrify everyone involved but I suspect many readers will find it useful, especially those who have known catastrophic grief.

Cave describes the loss of his son as nothing less than an annihilation of the self. He has been broken to pieces and remade — born again, you might say. His songwriting, too, has required reassembly. He considers Skeleton Tree, mostly written before Arthur’s death but recorded afterwards, as an “unholy” record which he struggles to revisit. But making Ghosteen, via long improvisatory sessions with Ellis, was a “holy” experience in which his son’s spirit felt literally present. “Arthur was snatched away, he just disappeared, and this felt like some way of making contact again and saying goodbye,” Cave says. Over the course of these conversations, which began with lockdown in March 2020, there are other losses: his mother Dawn, his ex-lover Anita Lane, his friend Hal Willner and, most recently, his oldest son Jethro. Covid-19 gives the book an eerie backbeat.

O’Hagan is a sensitive interviewer — really more of a conversationalist. Cave says that he finds relating his own history “unbearable, mostly”. What’s more, it feels to him like someone else’s life — that of a man who had not yet lost his son. So why look back?

Still, O’Hagan occasionally manages to lure Cave into the past. His idyllic, outdoorsy childhood in Wangaratta, Australia, gave way to a delinquent adolescence, which was blown apart by the death of his father, a teacher of literature, in a car accident when Cave was 19. He was already taking heroin, an addiction that he relates, perhaps surprisingly, to a conservative need for routine rather than the thirst for chaos that animated his music for many years. After the hellfire post-punk of the Birthday Party came the Bad Seeds. Cave remarks that Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, band mainstays from the beginning until the 2000s, were domineering personalities like himself. “The potential for disharmony is enormous! It’s like having Hitler, Stalin and fucking Mao Zedong trying to make a record together.” Warren Ellis, who joined in 1997, is more like a brother: an equal partner in the studio and a remarkable friend. On the topic of friendship, Cave’s affection for Coldplay’s Chris Martin is delightfully unexpected. “Obviously, there’s a fair amount of daylight between the kinds of music we play, but who fucking cares? I have always been drawn to his generosity of spirit, his engagement with the world.”

When he was younger, Cave thinks, he had too much disdain for the world. Now it inspires awe. He cherishes humility, mercy and mystery; he loathes dogma, cynicism and the morally obvious. He is therefore stronger than most on the subject of cancel culture, to which his objection is more personal than political. He recoils from the punitive impulse; the failure of empathy and forgiveness. I would argue that forgiveness needs to be sought and earned but I think he’s right to say that the online ritual of denunciation can be merely “a kind of sadism dressed up as virtue”. I hope this section doesn’t get clickbaited as “Cave slams cancel culture!” because it’s more about the particular view of human nature that he has arrived at: “I rarely see badness in people; rather, I see layers of suffering.”

The context is obvious. Towards the end of the book, Cave finally talks about the night of Arthur’s death, and how he and his “astonishing and oceanic” wife Susie negotiated the immediate aftermath. Hard to read, it must have been infinitely harder to speak, but emotional availability is essential to everything he does now. The most common question submitted to The Red Hand Files, apparently, is “Does it ever get better?” To which Cave can now reply: “The answer is yes. We become different. We become better.” Instead of being diminished by loss, he has been enlarged. “I became a person after my son died” is a startling line.

It is impossible to overstate how unusual it is to find this depth of self-analysis and wisdom from a rock musician. Faith, Hope and Carnage makes most rock memoirs look like skips full of rusty anecdotes and grudges. Among other things, the book finally helped me understand why Cave and the Bad Seeds keep getting better. Cave’s growing hunger for “communal awe” makes the shows feel genuinely necessary. And he believes himself to be a more generous and expansive person than he was before, so he has more to give.

“We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around,” he tells O’Hagan. “Maybe the younger self finds it difficult to inhabit its true potential because it has no idea what that potential is.” He knows now.


Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.

Dorianlynskey

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Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

“I found it hard to put my finger on why the Bad Seeds have become so much more potent and popular in recent years.”
For me personally, it’s because he’s a highly intelligent, articulate, and empathetic person who doesn’t take any woke schidt.

CP Pienaar
CP Pienaar
1 year ago

Started to listen to Cave when I watched Peaky Blinders. I could never understand my connection and love for his music, till today after I have read this article. My daughter died 13 years ago in a car accident. The experience left me to redefine myself, deeply faithful with no fear of talking the truth about the truth… I am also 65. Son of a teacher. Would like to have a cup of coffee with Nick Cave.

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
1 year ago

He is simply awesome. Nuff said.

Karlo Tasler
Karlo Tasler
1 year ago

Amazing. The fact that this kind of story has found a place on Unherd makes me joyful. Well done Unherd for this one.

Karlo Tasler
Karlo Tasler
1 year ago

Amazing. The fact that this kind of story has found a place on Unherd makes me joyful. Well done Unherd for this one.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

He’s the son of a preacher man..
I’ve been a fond follower and buyer for decades from ‘birthday party’ wow.. to the Berlin days. His music has seen me through some great losses Especially in the 90’sand now …? .. his tortured days behind him in the last few years since he lost his young son, he administers balm. I get the ‘red hand files’ posted to me, he never puts a foot wrong or raises the difficult always complex and wise. I miss his uncompromising self, I wish sometimes he would rip off the plaster and say something controversial. I used to find his bald expressions of rage cathartic. I think he’s going for utter worship which is a bit troubling. I miss the angst.

Last edited 1 year ago by Christine Hankinson
Nicholas Browne
Nicholas Browne
1 year ago

Nope. Cave’s father was a teacher and then adult education lecturer. You may be confusing him with ex-Bad Seed Mick Harvey who was the son of an Anglican vicar.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

I read it…probably by him.. in his Gospel of Mark…somewhere but I can’t check too busy this is distracting enough..and I’m sure you’re right. so edited above…to an extent. I can always listen to EN for Blixa fix.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

I think he said his father was a lay preacher

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

I’ve got over it. He’s become a National Treasure. And so he should. I hear he’s selling up I wonder if he will stay here? Be interesting to see.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
1 year ago

“the author of countless spectacular lyrics, two novels, an epic poem and an unproduced screenplay”.
What about “The Proposition”, which starred Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone?

Nestor Diaz
Nestor Diaz
1 month ago

“I would argue that forgiveness needs to be sought and earned”, what a philistine statement! And said in front-or even conceived-of Nick Cave!! Repent!

Nestor Diaz
Nestor Diaz
1 month ago

“I hope this section doesn’t get clickbaited as “Cave slams cancel culture!”– Would you prefer “Nick Cave slams sadism”?

0 0
0 0
1 year ago

All that and more

Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds
1 year ago

Good artist of fortune. A good, old soul – the success and fortune has not corrupted him too much. He’s not one destined to rage at the dying of the light when his actual death approaches or happens.
Nick Cave is not my very favorite one, but as a singer/writer myself I have some good interest in people like him. I actually know Chris Difford via Zoom Workshops – what a lovely man, and also a man of fortune ever since Squeeze blasted up in his youth. Grace and kindness, and it is entirely real. I just don’t encounter people of middle age like him around, generally.
The Nick Cave of this time in his life is a lot like Difford. A negative comp, an artist of fortune without that soul, without God, just too corrupted – I see a Woody Allen.

Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
1 year ago

Music for people who are much too “into themselves” Sixties babies know very little about contribution or how relatively little their self- indulgent thoughts mean in the real world

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

He sounds like the voice and soul of the times….god help us.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

He has too much insight and plain common sense for woke morons like you.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Harsh

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

I’ve stopped being polite to woketards.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

But true. Cave’s Q&A e-mails – the Read Hand Files – are excellent. Been a fan since c 1982. Remember like yesterday buying their first LP, “From Her to Eternity” (the one with Blixa Bargeld), in 1984. That much intelligence and self-awareness may be at a premium in the general rock / pop / hip hop world, but it was far from uncommon in the indie music of the golden period from late ‘70s British punk to the early ‘80s. Joy Division wore their literary influences on their sleeve, as did Japan, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Psychedelic Furs, Talking Heads, Stump, The Jam, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Marine Girls, Billy Bragg, Latin Quarter, Tom Waits, Microdisney, etc. And one of the greatest new wave bands which sprang from that era, The Fall, were named after a Camus novel, and started out as a drunken working-class poetry reading group in Manchester.  And two eccentric poets, John Cooper-Clarke and Ivor Cutler, were perennial favourite support acts on both the John Peel Show and on the punk and new wave gig scene. Different times …

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I saw Joy Division live a few weeks before Ian Curtis’s suicide. It was at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park at a Rock Against Racism gig headlined by the Stranglers – minus Hugh Cornwell, who was in prison.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Peter Hook said that JJ Burnel was his fav musician .As regards the Stones live their records went downhill after Wood joined but he improved them visually on stage.Taylor never moved and Wyman always seemed bored.Despite saying that their 1969 live lp Get ya yas out is fantastic.Their concerts with Jones were ruined by the screaming teenyboppers

Nestor Diaz
Nestor Diaz
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Wel certainly hip-hop dumbed down everything. Killed the spirit.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I will always cherish the scene in Wings of Desire wherein the angels wander around the stage of a Bad Seeds (or was it Birthday Party) concert in berlin – priceless and maybe prescient ??

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

I’m a JSB man personally

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Aaron/Sandford/Galeti woke??

Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Nick Cave is a really good artist – there are many – more than anyone could time to listen to seriously. Jarvis Cocker, PJ Harvey, the guy who is the Eels, Genevieve Artadi, etc etc. I love this guy named Daniel Boxx..he sounds like Lennon sometimes, but he isn’t really in the industry or much known.
There really isn’t a voice or soul of the times. But it isn’t good when crap like Drake floats to the top. Taylor Swift and Sheeran are massive. Some people believe Swift speaks for them and the believe that is how it should be and there should be classes with her lyrics being presented for study. But I’d not want her to be considered a voice of any times, I don’t really like her too much – she’s very self-oriented (to be polite about it). But don’t be like Damon Albarn and actually say you really don’t think she’s so great.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

never heard of the bloke

0 0
0 0
1 year ago

Uh – you heard of Mozart, Bob Dylan, the Pope?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  0 0

Yes, and people who quote the great Greek philosopher Testiclese…

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
1 year ago
Reply to  0 0

Many people over 50 will never have heard of Nick Cave.They will have heard of George Michael , Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Music in the 80’s became about the quality of the video.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  SIMON WOLF

“Many people over 50 will never have heard of Nick Cave.”
Thats a pretty weird statement. Nick Cave is 65. In the early years I imagine his fans being the same age. And they’re still around.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

He might mean under 50.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago

This guy wasn’t ever in the Beano, was he?