I saw the Devil on stage at the Roseland Ballroom on a night so sultry New York seemed like hell with sidewalks. The streets outside seethed with the ebb and flow of tickets from scalpers, selling one minute, buying the next, Nick Cave stock rising and falling even as the doors opened and the red robes pulled us inward. In the line to give up all one’s possessions to the bouncers, a woman with dyed black hair in black boots and miniskirt told two men that she’d broken the heel of her shoe the night she met Nick Cave when he tried to sleep with her. “Maybe I should have worn different shoes tonight,” she said, “But I smoked three joints while I was getting dressed so I couldn’t make up my mind.”
No one wanted to go into the dark and crowded recesses of Roseland and it was not until we heard the opening strains of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that we reluctantly inserted ourselves into the packing of people. From the farther circles of the crowd and almost immediately, Cave’s fierce energy felt as he strutted and howled, alternately mocking his audience, and then beguiling them with his seductive voice. The devil was just a thin, little man in a black suit jacket, and even from far away, I could see the bones of his shoulder blades as he leaped and paced and writhed across the stage and I wanted nothing more than to get a bit closer (a near impossibility in Roseland that night). After he lulled us all with deceptively wholesome ballads from his most recent release Nocturama, he immediately displayed his raucous, darker side by launching into “Red Right Hand” from Let Love In (1994). The gathering of jaded New Yorkers in black fell immediately under his wicked spell as he sang—in a voice that seems almost like Neil Diamond or Roger Whittaker, should either of them suddenly embark on an unlikely career trajectory or a descent into madness—about murder, human corruption and love.
Decadent and enthralling, he and most of his band commanded the entire room, blatantly defying the sacred laws of NYC and the Almighty Bloomberg by smoking one cigarette after another for the entire show. The endless sucking of nicotine into his lungs clearly had no effect on that powerful voice or that writhing body—proof enough of his true nature. Throughout the concert he said very little except “thank you,” after applause, and indulged in a minor bit of goading in his attempts to get the audience singing “Hallelujah”. His violinist with wild hair stood back, facing towards the audience, adding to the air of musical depravity as the rest of the Bad Seeds performed as if they had been doing it all for more years than some audience members had been alive.
He seduced us further with his sweet and slower poetics, accompanied himself soulfully on the piano, and then sealed the deal with fervid incantations that made clear his intentions—like “Tupelo” (1985) where he shrieked to the crowd of bodies violently enmeshed in his rhythms and announced, “The beast it cometh,” or “Deanna”, where he admitted straight out, “I ain’t here for your money / I ain’t here for your love / I ain’t here for your love of money / I’m down here for your soul.” But Cave has always flirted with religious imagery and alternately played devil and messiah, so the fact that he does this on stage, oscillating between the slow and morbid and the fast and morbid, ought be no surprise. Perhaps the mature Cave depends a bit more on the beauty of his arrangements and less upon the thrust of his anger, but in “Wild World” from the olden Birthday Party days he proved that all that youthful energy hasn’t fallen to the wayside. He ended his performance with the breathlessly ironic and stunningly melancholy, “God Is in the House” (after being called back for two encores). Cave ended his 2003 tour leaving a depleted audience, drained of emotion, to wander back into the soulless hell of New York in summer.
The only hope I can offer to one who descends into the depths and wants to emerge unscathed by the experience of the Bad Seeds and their leader is that he did not play “Babe, I’m on Fire”—the 15-minute, 40-verse paean to love and desire which forms the burning center of Nocturama. For certainly, had he done that, we would have all had to abandon hope and resign ourselves gladly to be damned with Nick.