Nick Cave has always seemed misplaced, of another era. An Australian whose ’60s-retro skinny suits and 19th century face have lived all over Europe, Cave looks and sings like an old soul. His macabre rock ballads of murder and sorrow might be sung by an Edgar Allen Poe narrator stuck in a Flannery O’Connor story. Where his contemporaries have plowed the ruts left by the Beatles and the Stones, Cave has always been more interested in the American blues and country/folk traditions of John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash: religion, sorrow, murder, insanity, alcohol, lust, and depression. Timeless.
I’ve often wondered what kind of personality the author of such lyrics as “this is a weeping song/ a song in which to weep” (“The Weeping Song”) exudes in day-to-day life. Writing stirring ditties about children getting buried alive by snow (“Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow”), a woman who kills a man with a pen-knife and throws him in a well (“Henry Lee”) — can such a person have a sense of humor? Could it be one big joke from start to finish? How seriously does Nick Cave take himself when he’s growling out “Mama, rock your baby” with as much fire and brimstone as Jonathan Edwards? These questions, and many more, have been plaguing my mind since first hearing “Henry Lee” oh, nine or 10 years ago.
Seeing Cave at ease with his bandmates in Uli M. Shueppel’s documentary film, The Road to God Knows Where, confirms that yes, Nick Cave is far more than a humorless caricature. For all his brooding, he’s just as comfortable dancing to Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” before soundcheck as he is belting out rockabilly noir. More important, we see him talking on a giant (it was 1989) cellular phone, which confirms that yes, Nick Cave is of this time period, despite seeming more at home in Yoknapatawpha County circa 1929.
Originally out on VHS in 1991, Schueppel’s film has been re-released on DVD accompanied by two short films and a second DVD of concert footage. Schueppel filmed the documentary in February and March of 1989, during the Bad Seeds’ North American tour in support of Tender Prey, and it stands now as Cave’s Meeting People Is Easy, dramatizing his clashes with the culture industry. Cave is seen visibly suffering as he speaks with and is photographed by journalists.
Today, 13 years and at least as many album and film projects later, the film holds up, if not as a classic music documentary — the sounds is too garbled, the cinematography unstriking — then as a retrospective look at a still-relevant artist first coming to terms with his fame. I’ve always thought of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as a cult band and, in watching the film, found the degree of his popularity in the late ’80s surprising. He sold out most venues and underwent an impressive round of interviews. But then, goth was going over big at the time, and Cave is about as goth as it gets.
The film starts in Philadelphia, with Cave introducing himself to the audience: “I’m Nick Cave, I love you, and I want to tell you about a girl.” From there we get mostly the mundanity of the tour — on the bus, off the bus, in the hotel, backstage, arguing with club managers over money, and occasionally some concert footage. The real gem of the film is its recording of an acoustic version of “The Mercy Seat” at KCRW in Los Angeles — the only time Cave is at ease being interviewed, and the only full song in the film. The surprise appearance of Lydia Lunch backstage is also quite neat.
The two extras on Disc One are worth seeing, the first more than the second. “The Song” is a short film covering the making of “(I’ll Love You) Til the End of the World”, which the band was recording for a Wim Wenders film. The short is beautifully shot, incorporating lyrical images of Berlin into coverage of the Bad Seeds composing one of their most moving songs. Somehow Mick Harvey gets more face time here than in the feature film — but that’s neither here nor there. The other extra is a video for “You Better Run”, which basically reuses scenes from the documentary.
Live at the Paradiso, a concert film shot over two days in Amsterdam in 1992, shows Cave to be an active and incredibly intense performer, pumping and flailing constantly with cigarettes fuming between his fingers. Cave at times affects the pose of a maniacal preacher, even reading from a book at one point, at times that of a ne’er-do-well hanging on his last thread, at times that of a romantic troubadour who has just killed or been killed by his lover. From “Jack the Ripper” to “The Ship Song”, Cave’s work should be on the listening menu for all those emo bands out there switching off between mythologizing and demonizing women. Maybe it’s his eyebrows, maybe it’s the depths of his voice, maybe it’s the unapologetic oldness of his sound, but Cave can pull it off in a way most singer/songwriters can’t.
The concert film doesn’t always flatter Cave’s voice or the band’s sound, but it’s full of fantastic moments. Cave starts “Deanna” with vocals so garbled he can barely pronounce the words, then jumps into the crowd spontaneously and stops the song short as the Seeds stand baffled on stage. Later, he introduces “The Weeping Song” with “this song discusses the very nature of weeping, sadness, sorrow, sexual incontinence, and madness.” All in one go.
But the best, very best part is near the end, when Cave points to a dude in the front and says, “Are you a boy? Are you a boy? I’m sorry. I thought you were a very attractive girl. Can I get a cigarette?” and everyone in the audience starts throwing their cigs forward. The band starts in on “New Morning,” an uplifting hymnal that, for Cave, is entirely uncharacteristc in its positivity, as cigarettes pour onstage like manna.