Born in Wangaratta, Australia, in 1957, Cave was surrounded by literary influences from an early age. His father Colin was an English teacher who planted the seed of his young son’s literary aspirations by reading him excerpts from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov, icons who would go down as three of Cave’s personal heroes. At the same time, the elder Cave drew issue with his son’s affinity for rock music of the 1960s and ‘70s, telling him the music “was hardly an art form, that it was the bottom of the fucking heap”. Going the standard teenage route, the younger Cave rebelled against his father’s distaste for rock in the most extreme fashion—by joining a punk rock band.
Rather than abandoning his literary rearing at the door, Cave instead set out to marry his love for literature with the melody-lacking, avant-garde group he fronted, The Boys Next Door. This inclination was made clear from the outset when Cave changed the band’s name to the Birthday Party, claiming the new moniker was an homage to a scene in Crime & Punishment (1866). Though no such scene exists in the Dostoevsky classic—and one can infer Cave’s assertion to the contrary was but an intentionally esoteric joke—“the conscious literary reference in their name signaled their ambition and determination to provide something that was non-mainstream in a different way from most punk music.”
Cave followed up on the promise of his band’s new name in several of their songs, most notably with “Nick the Stripper” from the Birthday Party’s full-length debut album, 1981’s Prayers on Fire. Though virtually all of Cave’s lyrics from this period amount to baby steps when compared to the heights achieved later in his career, “Nick the Stripper” stands out as it showcases Cave essentially aping Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), remaking it as a Dadaesque pastiche yelped and barked more than sung atop his bandmates’ atonal cacophony.
By 1983, Cave’s training ground of the Birthday Party finally collapsed under the weight of their manufactured madness and came apart at the seams. Unwilling to go quietly into the good night of obscurity, Cave rebounded by assembling a rotating door of musicians to serve as his backing band, the Bad Seeds. With Cave as the ringleader, this new troupe served as the vessel by which his creative experiments could run wild. Continuing with the precedent set by “Nick the Stripper”, Cave once again showed off his literary leanings on the Bad Seeds’ 1984 debut LP, From Her to Eternity, reimagining the exploits of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in a far more disturbing narrative in “Saint Huck”.
In the following years, Cave expanded his creative palate and let his muse run rampant across the musical canvass conjured by the Bad Seeds. In a string of albums starting with 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead, Cave wore his influences on his sleeve—the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament, the Southern Gothic writings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, a nearly obsessive fascination with American Deep South culture in general, the records of Mississippi Delta blues singers such as John Lee Hooker and Blind Willie Johnson, and a rampant heroin addiction serving as his paramount inspirations throughout the mid-‘80s and through the mid-‘90s. Integrating these influences, Cave continued the legacy set by his favorite authors, in turn encouraging his fans to investigate the source material for their favorite songs.
“What Nick has done is re-braille Southern Gothic symbols for a new generation,” commented critic Jillian Burt in a 2010 article examining Cave’s artistry. Not content to merely blend and recite the legacy of Southern Gothic/biblical imagery, Cave cast himself as an actual embodiment of said mythology, becoming the characters he wrote about and channeled, both onstage and in the recording studio. To better sell the authenticity of the narrative voice in songs of this era, Cave took on the persona of a crazed, circuit-riding preacher coming across the scorched earth from the other side of Judgment Day—a guru that knew the truth and was driven mad by it—a character straight from the pages of an early Cormac McCarthy novel.
Several songs from this point in Cave’s career exemplify the synergy between these diverse sources, chief among them “Tupelo” and “The Mercy Seat”. In the former, amid a backdrop of thunderclaps and torrential rains, Cave relates the birth of Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin brother, likening the incident to the tale of Cain and Abel with all the requisite Biblical imagery. With the latter song, Cave employs the Faulknerian standby of shifting points-of-view, alternating between condemned a death row inmate and a fervid priest. Again, biblical references abound, with Cave comparing the electric chair to both the Ark of the Covenant and God’s holy throne. In this context, the electric chair is not a means of punishment at all, but a form of clemency, shuffling the resigned criminal out of a cruel world. The lyrics’ closing lines also contain a kernel of New Testament inklings, the condemned man stating he will only be hiding in death for a while, exemplifying Cave’s recurring notion that death does not amount to a period on the phenomenon of existence, but a comma.
Beyond even “Tupelo” and “The Mercy Seat”, “The Carny” stands apart as Cave’s most daringly literary song of the era, possibly of his entire career. More a spoken word piece than an actual song, the work is a fairly straight-forward narrative in which Cave describes a wandering circus troupe as they attempt to carry on in the face of their titular colleague’s disappearance. Cave’s evocative prose is carried forward by a lush yet macabre and inherently unnerving soundtrack of strings, glockenspiel, xylophone and other instruments seldom found in popular music, the aural collage more indicative of Germanic opera than rock and roll. It is likely the accomplishment of “The Carny” bolstered Cave’s confidence in his writing prowess, serving as a stepping stone of sorts for his next major undertaking—his first novel.
Published in 1989, And the Ass Saw the Angel, took Cave an estimated five years to write. Set in the American Deep South (a place Cave had not so much as visited in person, but had read about incessantly), the novel is the culmination of its author’s obsession with Old Testament themes and imagery, Southern Gothic tropes, and blues music. As author Jason K. Friedman put it, the book “cobbles together its Southern setting out of the lives and music of Cave’s Southern musical heroes—Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Elvis—while the novel’s Southern voice reflects the influence of Southern gothic [sic] writers Poe and Faulkner.” Motifs, characters, phrases, and scenes that first appeared in Cave’s songs abound throughout the text, supporting the notion that the work is a sort of distillation of all the artistic ideas running through Cave’s mind at the time. The act of pouring his influences and own impulses into the novel format could be interpreted as a means of exorcising such obsessions from Cave’s system.
The novel’s protagonist is one Euchrid Eucrow, a mute imbecile who lives on the fringes of an anonymous town in the fictional Ukulore Valley, composed primarily of a Christian religious sect known as Ukulites. Spawned by generations of inbreeding and his psyche stained by abuse suffered at the hands of his vicious parents, Eucrow’s attempts to become part of the town go unfulfilled. He manages to sleep with the local prostitute, in the process fathering a little girl whose birth is heralded by the townsfolk as a blessing from God as years of torrential rain end on her birthday. As the novel progresses, Eucrow becomes increasingly obsessed with his progeny, observing her from afar, his twisted mind spiraling downward into a miasma of psychotic impulses and religious fanaticism. Believing himself a vehicle for God, Eucrow attempts to kill his child and is thereafter targeted for revenge by the townsfolk, interpreting his attack as a blasphemy on their faith. The novel ends with the antihero sinking in a pit of quicksand, the entire novel having been narrated by him from this vantage point.
The novel is far from an easy read and cannot be dismissed as Cave’s attempt to get on the bestseller list. Written from the perspective of a mentally challenged and disturbed narrator, its language is oftentimes as difficult to comprehend as any page from Finnegans Wake (1939) or The Sound and the Fury (1929). The author himself described the prose as “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.” All the hallmarks of the Gothic model are also present—incest, murder, grotesque characters, religious allusions (the constant rain saturating Ukulore Valley harkening to the Great Flood, Eucrow possibly representing a demonic counterpoint to, or Gnostic version of, Christ, etc.), the blackest of black humor. In parts, the work is so exaggerated in its debauchery that it becomes a self-conscious parody of many Southern Gothic concepts.
And yet, the novel is not merely an exercise on Cave’s part, an attempt to emulate his heroes’ work and continue in their model without adding anything nothing new to the mix. The work is rife with Cave’s unique brand of symbolism and moral/religious ambiguity. For example, the nature of humanity’s interaction with the Divine is depicted in multiple forms, each of which is deplorable. The primary conflict of the tale—Eucrow’s relations with the Ukulites—is defined by the two antagonists’ perceptions of God’s will. Both interpretations are carried out in violence, rendering absurd the very concept of a human attempting to speak on behalf of a silent, and presumably benevolent, God. With this central theme, the novel amounts to a thesis of sorts, Cave’s outlining of his views on God.