Music

The Light Within: The 21st Century Love Songs of Nick Cave

Jillian Burt

As the Bad Seeds prepare to release their new album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Burt considers the mythological symbols in Nick Cave's songs and what they say about the time we live in.

She said, "Father, mother, sister, brother,

Uncle, aunt, nephew, niece,

Soldier, sailor, physician, labourer,

Actor, scientist, mechanic, priest

Earth and moon and sun and stars

Planets and comets with tails blazing

All are there forever falling

Falling lovely and amazing"

-- Nick Cave, "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side"

In Nick Cave's first song of the 21st century, "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side", there's a reference, perhaps, to a reading of Revelations as an ending of one time leading to a renewal. Now sitting beside God, Jesus Christ wipes a tear from the eyes of humankind and all troubles, sorrow, hunger and thirst fall away. Cave has written a love song for all of humanity, love as agape, a disinterested love for all creatures.

At the end of the 20th century, it was feared that the Y2K problem, the possibility that the time clocks in computers would spin themselves back to 1900, might bring on the apocalypse as the new millennium ticked over. Planes might fall from the sky. Nuclear reactors might melt down.

In 1999, Jehovah's witnesses walked the streets in my Los Angeles neighbourhood, shilling for an old fashioned fireball and rapture apocalypse. The food store, Trader Joes, was selling a version of its earthquake supplies kit as a Y2K preparedness kit. And William Gibson read from his novel All Tomorrow's Parties at my local bookstore. The world will end he predicted, but we won't notice. Life will seem to go on as usual but something fundamental, spiritually, will have changed.

An old-fashioned watch with hands moving around a numbered dial remakes itself in the final chapter. "History changes", William Gibson said in an interview on Amazon.com last year. "If I could know one thing about the world a hundred years from now, or have access to one train of information, I think I'd want their history of our time, because not only would it tell me a lot of things that I can't know about our time, but it would tell me everything I needed to know about their time, like what they're willing to believe."

Time is now taffy, a stretchy confection. Rituals that once guided us have been unpegged from the calendar. On 10 January 2008, while houses in Sydney were still festooned with Christmas decorations, hot cross buns and Easter eggs were on supermarket shelves. The bohemias that once incubated new ideas that eventually stamp a mood and style on an era now move from creative spark to marketed mainstream commodity to obsolescence in an instant. "The future of that stuff is veal," said Gibson. Music is now an aggregated lump of time on i-Tunes. You're told how many songs you have on file, how many gigabytes of space they take up, and how long it will be before your computer, playing continuously, will repeat a song.

Cave's love songs of the 21st century have made physically recording the passage of time important, again. His one human lifetime moves forward in a line that also stretches back through all human eras. Ancient wisdom laced with fresh insights. He turned off his computer in 2005. In the '90s he'd written his lyrics exclusively on computer, altered and deleted passages at whim, sometimes while in the grip of a transitory mood. "The whole journey to the final creation is lost and in many ways it is this stuff that is the heart and soul of the song," he said.

With the Grinderman album, Cave returned to writing in notebooks and with a manual typewriter. "The great thing about a manual typewriter is that it is so time-consuming to change a line or a verse, as you have to type the whole thing over again and can't simply 'delete', that one develops a renewed respect for the written word. The other thing is that you never really lose anything."

At roughly 1pm on Monday, 22 October 2007, I was driving around Sydney's inner city and North Shore with Cave, listening to the new Bad Seeds album DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!! It was the perfect way to hear it. The sounds of the city are in the dazzling beauty of the musical arrangements, an industrial, engineered sound coming from heavy machines and a sensual groove, the sound, maybe, of sunshine reflected from the surfaces of buildings and water.

Lazarus digs the dark, funky underworld of New York City in the '70s. Maybe he's buying branded "blue magic" heroin supplied by the drug lord in Ridley Scott's new movie American Gangster, who has it sent over from Vietnam in military coffins alongside the bodies of soldiers returning home. Lazarus experiences the spiritual sugar-rush of San Francisco in the aftermath of the summer of love. Joan Didion chronicled this time and readers saw only the treacly reaching for peace and love, baby. But she wrote about the absence of a core myth to guide people. She saw the coming of an apocalypse that W. B. Yeats referred to:

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Lazarus may have been in Los Angeles when a musician from a band making music that sounded like sunshine itself crossed paths with a murderous figure with a messiah complex. Lazarus isn't reborn. He falls on hard times, becomes homeless, goes mad and becomes violent.

At the end of the 19th century, a predatory mysticism exploited the incorporeal advances in science -- the x-ray, recorded projected sound, electricity -- and created a fad for contacting the spirit world. On their website, the Bad Seeds sit at a table in a Victorian drawing room, around an antique ouija board and Cave makes a show of contacting the spirit world. In one session, they conjure up an image of a skeleton on a sheet. In another session, the table moves up into the air, seemingly of its own accord.

There are many Lazarus' to bring back from the dead. The Lazarus Jesus re-animated, who staggered from his tomb with his shroud unravelling around him, looking like a character from a B-Grade horror movie from the '30s. There's Lazarus the beggar, who lived at the gates of a rich man named Dives, who dressed luxuriously and dined on sumptuous food and never gave Lazarus so much as a chewed-clean bone from his table. Both men died.

Lazarus was given a seat at Abraham's eternal banquet table in Heaven. Dives was relegated to the fires of Hell and craved just a drop of water from Lazarus' finger to cool his tongue. Lazarus should be sent back to the land of the living to warn people of the consequences of living without regard for others, Dives told Abraham. The world of the living has its own prophets, Abraham replied, if they won't listen to them, why would they heed the words of a dead man?

In 1883 in New York City Emma Lazarus wrote the poem that was inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty.

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!

With silent lips cries she.

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning

to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the homeless,

Tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

"Love your enemies," said another man who was raised from the dead. "Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization," preached Rev. Martin Luther King on the teaching of Jesus Christ. "Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies."

A Dead Man Speaks

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts -- but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is.

-- Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth.

A dead man explained the significance of Nick Cave's music to me. Joseph Campbell died the year before his conversations with Bill Moyers became a monster hit on public television in America in 1988. "One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit," he said during The Power of Myth. "We're interested in the news of day and the problems of the hour." What we'd lost, he felt, was the enriching quality of mythology, our ability to see in these ancient stories what's timeless and eternal about being human and use these insights to harmonize our own lives with our own societies in our own time.

The middle of the 20th century was a brutal period of social and technological upheaval and things were changing too fast for a guiding mythology to settle in. "When you come to the end of one time and the beginning of a new one, it's a period of tremendous pain and turmoil," said Campbell. He believed the horizon for mythology had changed when we saw the photographs taken of Earth from the moon's orbit by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. Those photographs showed a unified world with none of the walls and boundaries between societies and nations and religions that divided people on the planet's surface.

The astronauts decided among themselves to send a message of inclusiveness and harmony to the people back on Earth, and took turns reading aloud a passage from Genesis during their Christmas Eve radio broadcast. But in 1968, the Vietnam war was in an especially bloody phase and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, who both quoted Greek and Roman mythology and parables from the Bible in their speeches in an effort to unite people, had been murdered.

Earthrise photo by Apollo 8 astronauts

The Long Zoom

Holding that view from space, looking back at Earth from far enough out to take in the whole planet, while at the same time seeing what's around us, where we are on the Earth's surface, and constantly telescoping between both positions, is the perspective of our age. Steven Johnson calls it "the long zoom". This is the perspective of Cave's love songs of the 21st century. "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" is a positioning device.

Cave sits beside his wife discussing a lofty, intellectual definition of compassion while his wife presents a bluntly practical view that all life is suffering, that's just how things are, and we have to be a part of life to be compassionate. Cave could be also sitting beside another aspect of himself. Or God. Or God could be weighing up different attitudes about love. We can place ourselves beside Cave and zoom between his position and our own. The song gives planetary co-ordinates. The rhythm is a healthy heartbeat, and Cave seems to be recalling the conversation while walking.

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