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The Baudelairean Angel/Whore Bipolar 'Nick Cave Sinner Saint'

An unholy and, more pointedly, holy hybrid of Old Testament fury and New Testament redemption, Nick Cave is the Last Crooner, a rare artist who is able to generate something absolutely singular out of multiple disparate elements.

Nick Cave Sinner Saint:The True Confessions: Thirty Years of Essential Interviews

Publisher: Plexus
Length: 240 pages
Author: Mat Snow
Price: $19.95
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication date: 2011-04

It may seem odd, a book of interviews with an artist famously adverse to them, but if ever there was a musician and writer who was odd in all the best senses of the word, it is Nick Cave. An unholy and, more pointedly, holy hybrid of Old Testament fury and New Testament redemption, Cave is the Last Crooner, a rare artist who is able to generate something absolutely singular out of multiple disparate elements.

In one of the interviews in Nick Cave Sinner Saint: The True Confessions: Thirty Years of Essential Interviews, Cave acknowledges his “kitchen sink” approach, a junkyard aesthetic that this book’s editor Mat Snow, in his blazing introduction, attempts to describe in one breathless sentence: “…a Baudelairean angel/whore bipolar sexual obsessiveness rendered serio-comically in the idiom of the Deep South as it might have been stylised in the music theatre of Brecht and Weill.” That about sums it up.

That description goes some way toward explaining why Cave lacks the popular appeal of some of his peers (what peers?) or predecessors. As Ginny Dougary asks in her 1999 piece “The New Romantic”, why isn’t he huge? Respected though he may be, Cave doesn’t have the immediate name recognition of, say, Elvis Costello or even PJ Harvey, let alone Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen, to name just a few of the influences mentioned in these interviews.

Perhaps it's that serio-comic Deep South idiom Snow describes, which was adopted by Cave without ever having been to the American South. But is an Australian posing as a kind of Southern preacher any worse than the conceit of four or five English lads living out their Black American rhythm and blues fantasies?

More than the blues, I feel this Southern influence evidences Cave’s affiliation with the American writer Flannery O’Connor. Both artists deal with humanity’s spiritual deficiencies and deformations, and just as O’Connor was mistakenly charged with Christian misanthropy, a kind of inhumanity toward her characters, so, too, was Cave infamously labeled a misogynist. Indeed, with things like 1996’s Murder Ballads, Cave seemed to be channeling the Misfit character from O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, taking the killer’s dictum -- “It’s no real pleasure in life” -- to heart. Though in later interviews, Cave is a bit contrite, he remains defensive of his muse’s supra-legal rights: “There’s a violence for women and a violence for men, and when you see a woman subjected to a man-size violence it’s usually quite shocking.”

So is Cave too dangerous for mass appeal, or just too erudite? It’s certainly not for lack of work, as this collection attests. I knew he was prolific, but I can’t think of many other rock stars with a stronger work ethic, that is only outwardly indicated by his omnipresent suits. In more recent days especially, Cave attends to the work of art, the job it most certainly is, with the punctiliousness of a bank manager, literally turning up to an office in the morning and returning to the wife and kids after a hard day’s writing or an even harder day’s not-writing:

“I don’t feel that other people need to have the creative process inflicted on them. It’s not something you do around people you love…The screaming and crawling the walls and tearing your hair out and cursing -- everything that goes into writing a song. I feel there’s something actually noble about coming home and it appearing like these things have just happened…Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s a certain nobility in a day’s work.”

Yet even when he was in the depths of heroin addiction -- a time that pretty much every piece in the book at least touches on if not wallows in -- Cave produced a remarkable amount of material, musical and otherwise. More than any of those aforementioned artists, Cave is a true Renaissance Man (the title of Robert Sandall’s 2003 interview), writing acclaimed songs famously recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash (“The Mercy Seat”), novels (And The Ass Saw The Angel, The Death Of Bunny Munro), film scripts and scores (The Proposition, The Road), even lectures. This guy works.

As the title states, the interviews span 30 years, so inevitably some of the same biographical ground is covered: Cave’s early years in Australia; the tragic car accident death of his academic father when Cave was a 19-year old delinquent, sending him on a downward physical spiral at the same time as an if not upward than sideways professional one; transforming the murky mayhem of the "Birthday Party" into the jammy punk and poetry of the Bad Seeds.

While early in his career Cave was depicted as a critic’s nightmare, some of the pieces here prove the opposite is true, as well. Typical of the period is Antonella Gambotto’s 1985 interview “A Man Called Horse”, with Cave continually and no doubt accurately described as either nodding, slurring or mumbling: “‘I’m not really interested in the audience’s enjoyment,’ Cave mumbles…”; “‘I think,” he murmurs, slumped against the sofa, ‘half the world wants to be kicked in the head.’” Obviously, an intriguing drugged-out rock star makes better copy than a boring sober one, yet taken in conglomeration like this, one can understand Cave’s frustration over the continual focus on his addiction rather than his music, even if that music sometimes alluded to addiction.

“In Australia, you really feel you’re turning decent people into monsters. But look, we’re not setting ourselves up as some kind of demonic force, it’s just that things are generally more successful when they become blind and unconscious, when you feel anything could happen…[w]hen the history of rock music is written -- which, since it’s practically dead, will be soon -- it’ll just be remembered as a sordid interruption of normality.”

Editor Mat Snow has done a fine job sequencing the book, as the interviews build up speed and interest. Read chronologically, they provide a good sense of Cave’s maturation both as man and artist. Though this maturation was partly a consequence of his sobriety, it is more meaningfully the other way around: his sobriety was a consequence of Cave coming to terms with the scope of his artistic aspirations and thus to a greater respect for his talents. In other words, you can’t be truly great if you’re fucked-up all the time:

“What I think is important to me, in regard to my songwriting, is trying to create some songs where you no longer have to listen to them and think, ‘How is Nick Cave doing at the moment?’…Because there came a point where it became clear to me that the weight of people’s ideas of what I was would destroy me. And that was hugely problematic for my songwriting."

This doesn’t mean Cave has lost any of his edge, as his newest material with both the Bad Seeds and Grinderman makes clear. But where the "Birthday Party" especially had the kind of pre-doomed biology of Dadaism -- rigged to explode, its demise written into it -- Cave seems to have reconciled himself to his rabid belle lettre-ism and to the fact of being at least a longer “interruption of normality” than he predicted: “[T]here’s just been this terrible miscalculation that it’s a limited time you have as a rock’n’roller. There’s certainly complacency and we fuckin’ can’t have that, not on this ship!”

Some low points of the book for me were Michael Odell’s piece for Q, an un-incisive Cave-baiting retread, and the piece by Simon Hattenstone, who seems more interested in Cave’s age and hair-dye than his art. But these are more than countered by the hefty interviews with Debbie Kruger (“Nick Cave: The Songwriter Speaks”) and Phil Sutcliffe (“Nick Cave: Raw and Uncut 1 & 2”), both extensively illuminating on Cave’s career and writing process. And it is obvious that all the interviewers admire the hell and heaven out of their subject.


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