BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the beginning, there was the Birthday Party. And it was good. Rock ‘n’ roll as sonic aneurysm: screeching, cataclysmic and cruel. The Birthday Party was scary. Not in the silly Count Chocula way of the Goths who would follow in its steps, but, like, Exorcist scary. Danger was the Birthday Party’s business, and in the early ‘80s, business was good. Nick Cave was the human cannonball at the microphone, the band would light the fuse and run for cover. When the audience demanded blood, Cave could open up and bleed with the best of them. When he got bored with that, he would jump into the crowd for a good punch-up or maybe just drop-kick the head of any audience member who dared to stand in the front row. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Birthday Party nicknamed one tour the “Oops, I’ve Got Blood On The Tip Of My Boot” tour. And there were drugs—bags and bags of drugs. The worst drugs money can buy. It wasn’t long before Cave was willing to cut off his leg to feed his arm, and things only grew more ghoulish and dastardly. He literally wrote lyrics with a blood-filled syringe. Until one day the Birthday Party ran out of blood and the willingness to extract it from others. All things move toward their end, as Cave would later write, and the Birthday Party had stopped moving. So ends the first chapter in the Book Of Nick.
“Things changed when Nick stopped reading the Old Testament and started reading the New Testament,” says Mick Harvey, Cave’s musical co-conspirator since the beginning of the Birthday Party.
You can pretty much understand the entirety of the New Testament by reading the shortest sentence in the Bible: Jesus wept. At some point, somewhere deep in his coal-black junkie heart, Cave did, too. He still had demons to exorcise when he went solo in the mid-‘80s, backed by charter Bad Seeds like guitarist/drummer Harvey, Einerstüzende Neubauten anti-guitarist Blixa Bargeld and bassist Barry Adamson.And yet slowly but surely, the hellfire and brimstone of the Old Testament gave way to the sorrow and the pity of the New Testament. There were still trials and tribulations, to be sure. The quality of mercy could still be strained. One album was called Your Funeral…My Trial, and Cave wasn’t kidding. Another album was called Murder Ballads, and he was totally kidding. Along the way, something miraculous happened: Cave became a great songwriter. While many probably still think he sleeps in a coffin and still blame him for goth, the standard by which he measures himself as an artist is the work of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen—before which, he’ll tell you, he stands humbled. Although he’ll deny it, the songs he’s written and released since 1997’s Boatman’s Call through last year’s Push The Sky Away breathe the same rarefied air of brilliance those iconic songwriters once exhaled. At times stripped nearly to the bone of silence—and devoid of the morbid posturing and dark intent that would occasionally mar his previous work—these psalms of love and devotion lift their skinny arms toward heaven, where they once pounded the sands of the abyss. And it is very good.
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NEW YORK TIMES: “As far as work goes, I’m something of a megalomaniac,” Cave told me later that day. “But a megalomaniac with extremely low self-esteem.” We were sitting in the restaurant of his hotel in Berlin Mitte, trying to have a conversation in the face of frequent interruptions from festival staff, acquaintances and a seemingly never-ending stream of admirers. Tall, gaunt and slightly ungainly, in his snakeskin shoes, chunky rings and rakishly well-tailored suits, Cave resembles nothing so much as a postmillennial hybrid of bookie and peer of the realm. His long, backswept hair, dyed black since the age of 16, frames a face that has been described both as “angelic” and “hideous to the eye,” the latter by Cave himself, in song. It’s the kind of look only a rock star could get away with, especially at his age, but on Cave it seems as dignified — as inexplicably appropriate — as those rhinestone-studded jumpsuits did on Elvis in his later years. Cave’s public persona has been called “theatrical,” but a more precise term might be cinematic. Like many self-mythologizers, charismatics and plain old eccentrics, he has always appeared to be performing in a movie only he himself could see. The closest the rest of us may come to seeing that movie may well be “20,000 Days on Earth.” Cave co-wrote the film with its directors, the artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, with whom he has collaborated on a number of smaller projects — music videos and short films. It’s unorthodox, to put it mildly, for the subject of a documentary to be given a screenwriting credit, but very little about “20,000 Days” could be described as orthodox. As its title suggests, the film is an investigation into the passage of time, into memory and aging and artistic survival, as dramatized by a single imaginary day in the life of its subject, the musician Nick Cave. While working on a song, Cave began to play with the idea of measuring his life in days instead of years, and Forsyth and Pollard, who were documenting the band as they recorded “Push the Sky Away,” saw potential for a film. When I asked Cave what drew him to the notion of Day 20,000, he regarded me dryly. “ ‘Fifty-four Years and Nine Months on Earth’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it, somehow.” MORE
Photo by PETE TROSHAK
If you heard a distant rumble or saw a flash of light on the Northwest horizon last night around 9 p.m., that was Nick Cave, like a bat out of hell, smiting Glenside to a crisp as per his satanic majesty’s request. And it was good. Very good. How could it not be? Everyone knows Heaven has better weather but Hell has all the best bands. Cave looked and sounded in peak form (good hair, great suit, whipped himself about the stage like an electrocuted Elvis), and his voice contained multitudes. Deep, dulcet, and strong like bull. Part angel-headed hipster, part Pentecostal preacherman, part medicine show barker, part lounge singer lothario. All pomade and sweat and jive and Old Testament gravitas.
So too, The Bad Seeds, who these days paint within the lines and with much more subtle strokes thanks in no small part to the addition of The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis a decade back. With his enchanted fiddle on “God Is In The House,” magic flute on “We No Who U R” and his chiming, incandescent, Velvetsoid guitar thrum on “Jubilee Street” Ellis made grown men cry in their souls — this grown man, anyway. Prior to Ellis, the Bad Seeds seemed to come with only two settings: Mellow and Maelstrom. Last night they mapped out all the emotional peaks and valleys in between with nuance and precision.
Cave was wickedly funny. During the gangsta-rific “Stagger Lee,” he mocked a loutish woman up front whose incoherent shouting marred more than song. “Where the fuck is my husband in this fucking place?” he whined, though it was unclear if he was merely mimicking her outbursts or pleading with the missing husband to come fetch his trainwreck wife and spare us all this indignity. When some goober shouted out repeatedly that the stage volume was “too soft” (get a Q-Tip, Goob, they were loud as fuck) Cave silenced him with “‘Too soft?’ You deaf cunt!” Ah, good times. Glad to see that Cave still doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
After opening the show with a handful of long, slow-burning potboilers from the new Push The Sky Away, Cave and co. released the bats and let rip with the classics (“The Mercy Seat,” “Deanna,” “Red Right Hand,” “The Weeping Song”) as well as some deep-catalog nuggets for the devout (“From Her To Eternity,” “Your Funeral, My Trial” and a hellfire-and-brimstone “Tupelo” for an encore). But the real revelation last night was “Higgs Boson Blues,” a song that, sequenced eighth out of nine songs, gets lost on the new album which suffers somewhat from an overabundance of meditative midtempo-ness.
On record, the song is largely notable for the metaphysical cleverness of its title, but last night “Higgs Boson Blues” was a long, sweaty noir-ish hallucination that somehow combined Lucifer, Robert Johnson, the Large Hadron Collider, speaking in tongues, Hannah Montana crying with the dolphins, the assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the God Particle into a dream narrative whose surreal profundities, as they are wont to do, defy literal explanation. But it all ends satisfyingly with Miley Cyrus floating face down in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake like William Holden at the beginning of “Sunset Boulevard.” Let us pray. – JONATHAN VALANIA