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

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.

Campbell was a friend of the Grateful Dead. He thought the Beatles were heroes who had brought a practical awareness of Eastern religions to a mainstream Western audience that was ready for these stories and insights. He never mentioned Cave, but he would have recognized him as a hero in tune with the uncertainty of his time, the spiritual anxiety that people didn’t want to address or were afraid of.

Cave’s song, “Red Right Hand”, was featured on an X Filessoundtrack album in 1996. Series creator Chris Carter had heard it on the radio while he was driving and pulled over to the side of the road to listen carefully to it, the ultimate compliment in Los Angeles. Heaven and hell are states we create in our minds, the song suggests. This was now the view of the Anglican church, which redefined hell during the ’90s as a void in the soul created by the absence of God.

Darkness and light aren’t always easy to identify. The soft left hand bestowing riches is Satan’s. The bloody right hand is God’s. Carter felt that “Red Right Hand” mirrored the psychological universe of the X-Files, which was balanced between the poles of dark and light, between grasping at mysticism (the existence of aliens and creatures from the realm of cryptozoology and conspiracy theories) and scientific measurement, logic and reason. He said that he thought that what “the wondering and yearning come down to is not paranoia, but society’s increased need for a spiritual touchstone.”

There’s also a hidden song by Cave and Warren Ellis on theX-Files soundtrack, “Time Jesum Transeuntum et Non Riverentum (Dread the Passage of Jesus For He Does Not Return)”. Cave is the canary whose song warns of danger in spiritually dark times. He comes out of the darkness and back into the light and forgets the song. On the CD, “Time Jesum…” had to be found by manually holding the player’s ‘rewind’ button through a long stretch of silence — the machine’s ‘back’ button couldn’t find it.

“That, of course, is a normal experience,” Campbell said. “It isn’t always so much that the world doesn’t want the gift, but that it doesn’t know how to receive it and how to institutionalize it —

“…how to keep it, how to renew it,” interrupted Moyers.

“Yes, how to help keep it going….There is a kind of secondary hero to revitalize the tradition. This hero reinterprets the tradition and makes it valid as a living experience today instead of a lot of outdated clichés.”

Campbell’s insights into mythology have been brought alive in our time by scientists who work with distant robots operated over the Internet. Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, took The Power of Myth with him on one voyage. The technology has made it possible for him to have schoolchildren working alongside him on his explorations, giving their own instructions to the robots, and going on an inward voyage, as well. He often quotes Campbell: “Life is a voyage of becoming, you never arrive.”

Ken Goldberg is a scientist and artist. He creates reliable robot mechanisms and then sets up art projects that question their effect on our culture, projects that anyone can access over the Internet. His projects have a deep and unusual physical and conceptual beauty. There’s a 1:1,000,000 scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, Fallingwater etched atom-by-atom out of silicon. A principal from the San Francisco Ballet danced to a live feed of measurements from the Hayward Earthquake fault that had been turned into sound. “Dislocation of Intimacy” wondered if all we see and perceive through the Internet is a shallow perception of the world, nothing more than the shadows Plato’s prisoner’s saw on the walls of their cave. Ken encourages us to be skeptical about what we discover on the Internet. “I’m trying to facilitate the resumption of disbelief.”

Photo: Steve Gullick

The Voigt-Kampf Compassion Test

Campbell’s life spanned the publication of the Special Theory of Relativity to the introduction of the personal computer, which he described as “an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.” George Lucas mined his books for the spiritual universe of the Star Wars movies. The Star Wars series had put “the newest and most powerful spin” on the timeless journey of the hero, Campbell told Moyers. “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom — the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.”

Star Wars was a fantasy. When stories based on plausible applications of the tools that allow us to travel through outer and inner space began to appear, they were set on a planet Earth humans had destroyed. Ridley Scott’s movie, Blade Runner, was a commercial failure in 1984 but slowly became the defining myth of the computer era. He’d filmed a richly detailed world and people had been “enormously distracted” by this environment he told Wired in 2007.

In Scott’s world, the urban sprawl of ‘San Angeles’ stewed in a broth of acid rain. There was no natural plant or animal life. The only citizens left on Earth were those too old, ill, or stubborn to have been moved “off world” to a colony on Mars. The architecture was a jumble of contemporary ruins. The humanoid robots that served as companions and sex toys and labourers on Mars were implanted with memories and consciousness to make them more interesting to their owners. But some of these ‘replicants’ had become dangerous when they traveled to Earth in search of a real, whole life for themselves because although they could mimic compassion, they had no genuine regard for other life forms.

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The opening line of William Gibson’s first novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, drew the horizon for the computer era. He coined the terms “cyberspace” and “virtual reality” and helped create the lexicon for the era, too. When the Internet settled into its commercial phase, vast wealth was created and then lost by companies trying to move their products and services from “meatspace” into the digital realm.

But Gibson was writing about characters that were ultimately disappointed and destroyed by technologies which failed to make them new gods with awesome powers and uncountable riches. All any of the characters ever ended up with was each other. His novels increasingly developed a spiritual dimension where voodoo gods would manifest themselves, a wholly digital creature would invoke ancient Japanese and Tibetan legends, and the life and death of the jailed male prostitute Shapely, whose strain of AIDS neutralised the disease in others, would be celebrated in a ritual by characters who regarded him as a Christ figure.

Gibson’s strain of science fiction was termed ‘cyberpunk’. His stories took place in the kinds of destroyed and abandoned urban centres inhabited by the musicians of the punk rock era. This is the neighbourhood Cave mapped in “Red Right Hand”. In one of his notebooks, he’s listed a guide to this city; which has boarded-up buildings, a police station, prison and city hall that are concrete fortresses, factories belching smoke, and railroads and an expressway routing people around and away from this ghetto. At the time, Gibson’s stories were perceived in the same way as much of the punk rock music: ungainly and violent and populated with characters who were ethically and spiritually adrift.

In the 21st century, he abandoned the conceit of moving his stories ahead in time and inventing novel uses for computer technologies. He made it clear that his novels are reflecting our world, now, and show how we’re duped by claims made by marketers of technologies who present them to us as a form of magic. On his blog he wrote that he admired Cave’s music and would like to write a novel as good as his album, The Boatman’s Call.

The Boatman’s Call is a marker in time, separating Cave’s youthful records from the mature 21st century love songs that are evidence for a mythology for the whole planet settling into place. He writes intuitively, Cave told me, the significance of his songs only becoming apparent to him some time later. But his albums seem as if they’re a precisely and elegantly plotted trajectory.

In 1994, the Let Love In album began with Cave’s soul imploding and all that he believed in went flying into the air while church bells rang like a fire alarm. The song “Lay Me Low” put his young self to rest in an elaborate funeral ritual where all of the beasts in the world mourned him. The Murder Ballads album was set in the dark Germanic wood of Grimms Fairy Tales, and plotted his soul’s struggle through the darkness and return back into the light and, like Dante’s guides through the underworld, the musicians of the previous generation that Cave admired were only able to go so far with him. The album ended with an ensemble version of Bob Dylan’s “Death is Not the End”.

The moon symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Cave is indicating a spiritual wasteland the moon is in the gutter, has been taken down, trampled on, and refuses to shine.

The young person’s introspective concerns with identity and finding a place in the world give way to an outward view, looking for a place within the community. Cave adjusts to this new outlook on The Boatman’s Call. He’d already moved beyond identifying with the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament and “warmed” to the world by reading the accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark. He now rejected the concept of a mystical, puppet-master God intervening directly in the lives of humans and aligned himself with the notion of inner divinity in The Gospel of Thomas.

“There is light within a person of light and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness,” Jesus said. The Gospel of Thomas is an ancient document that was recovered in Egypt in the ’40s. Thomas’ Jesus doesn’t perform miracles. He discouraged hero worship and instructed his followers to look for answers to questions within themselves.

A Man Walks Into a Bar

“I notice when you tell these stories, Joe, you tell them with humour. You always seem to enjoy them, even when they’re about odd and cruel things,” said Bill Moyers.

“A key difference between mythology and our Judeo-Christian religion is that the imagery of mythology is rendered with humour,” Campbell responded. “You realize that the image is symbolic of something. You’re at a distance from it. But in our religion, everything is prosaic, and very, very serious.”

A paleontologist’s strata drawing comes to mind when I think about how Campbell and Cave might view the world. All of the lines between eras have been erased and all time is alive for them simultaneously, the mythological and the materially human rubbing shoulders on city streets.

The Let Love In album was recorded at a fiercely unsettled time for Cave, but it was possible to see, too, the steadying, load-lightening effect an awareness of mythology had on him. “Thirsty Dog” has Cave sitting in a bar telling his side of a rancorous argument that brings a relationship to an explosive close. Look at it straight on and it’s harrowing, bitter. Look at it sideways and it’s a New Yorker cartoon.

The moon symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Cave is indicating a spiritual wasteland the moon is in the gutter, has been taken down, trampled on, and refuses to shine. The goddess of the moon is Artemis /Diana, who set her dogs on a man who watched her bathing. The goddess of Cave’s fallen moon would be an ornery creature, and I could imagine Cave sitting at her bar, she pouring him half empty glasses of liquor, while Leo Callum’s merciless cartoon canines in business suits glower at him from the other end of the bar, drinking scotch and toilet water. “It’s not enough that we succeed,” one of them might say, “cats must also fail.”

My ideal was a New Yorker cartoon that I had in mind when I watched The Power of Myth when I was living in New York. I’d miraculously hoped that a knowledge of mythology would place me with the Addams Family, grouped around a picture window while a blizzard raged outside. “Just the kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive,” purred Morticia.

I knew the sadness and gloom were metaphorical, that Charles Addams had drawn lightness, happiness, and warmth by outlining their opposites. Here was familial bliss. They loved music, art, and each other. They valued tradition but were hip. They had sound recorders, a multi-armed hi-fi, and a film projector. They were accepting of flaws and strangeness and embraced humans and creatures others would have shunned.

I pasted Addams Family cartoons into my notebook, alongside quotations from books about mythology I’d borrowed from the branch of the New York Public Library across the road from the Museum of Modern Art. But it was only now, seven years later, that I understood by Cave’s example, what it meant to make the leap from reading about life to living it.

I’d begun journalism as a music writer in Australia when Cave was starting his musical career. I’d often written stories about his records and performances, but I had only a shallow grasp of what was going on. I thought I was hearing cleverly quoted stories. The darkly funny dimension of “Thirsty Dog” was a revelation that hit me like a sucker-punch. This was an example of someone finding the courage to face the unbearable.

In considering Cave’s music as poetry and not prose, I started to recognise allegories elsewhere. The courage to face the irrational savage beast within us all, as the Indian boy Pi did when he found himself in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. And the courage to consider what’s in someone’s heart and not judge them by the colour of their plumage, as Bruce Eric Kaplan did in a cartoon where a blackbird says to a dove: “I can’t believe you symbolise peace when you’re such a bitch.”

In music journalism, it’s rare to be able to move from the general to the particular and show the power of music to move people. Cave’s music bears witness to the suffering that underpins life and the transcendance and joy that comes through facing sadness. But there’s no certain reward, life isn’t fair and good people may suffer. In March of last year the New York Times reported that an auxillary police officer (an unarmed, volunteer patroller) who was also a bookseller and was writing a noir novel, was “killed with his partner in the line of duty by an aspiring and apparently delusional horror film director who had just murdered a bartender at an Italian restaurant.” Cave’s song “Abattoir Blues” was played at the funeral.

The Abattoir Blues / Lyre of Orpheus albums wondered about the power music has to move people. Is beautiful music a gift from the gods? held within the lyre of Orpheus, whose music moved inanimate objects, soothed savage beasts, and charmed the gatekeeper to the underworld? Or is it a pact struck with the devil on a deserted crossroads on a moonless night? The language of these albums is gospel, the music of the downtrodden, who tell their pitiful stories, but lift their voices and hearts to the Heavens.

The epigraph to Cave’s books of collected lyrics is “And only I am escaped to tell thee,” the words of one of Job’s servants. Satan goaded God into testing the faith of the innocent Job by killing his servants and family, destroying his lands and disfiguring his body with mange. You can make me fear you, Job told God, but why not inspire me to love you? God embedded himself into the human race through Jesus Christ, and suffered with them. Compassion is the bedrock of Cave’s love songs.

A Blueprint to Re-make the World

At the end of 2007, Cave’s concerns, which had been marginal, shifted to the forefront of daily life. At the end of his sets of Bad Seeds classics on his Australian tour, the Grinderman song “Go Tell the Women” had the authority of a funked-up folk song. It had transcended its author to speak for all people. It spoke, especially, for Australia at that moment in time.

We are a smart people, up on our hind legs and highly evolved. We are scientists, mathematicians, artists. We hold powerful positions. We can modify our plants and animals genetically. But we’d lost our spirit, we’d walked away from problems. We were tired and had nothing to believe in.

A federal election was called during Grinderman’s Australian tour. The country reversed course and put a renewed faith in symbolic gestures. The Kyoto climate-change protocol was ratified, and the intention was announced to make peace with the past, by formally acknowledging the damage that’s been done to indigenous Australians.

Go Tell The Women lyrics by Grinderman

Campbell said the test that proves the power of a mythological artwork is that if the world were to blow to pieces it could be put back together with what the art work contained. He wrote a skeleton key to James Joyce’s 1939 novel, Finnegan’s Wake, showing that it wasn’t fancifully incomprehensible but had a single message, a quote from the Gospel of Paul: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may show his mercy to all.”

In returning to the blazing rock ‘n’ roll sound of his youth with Grinderman, but with wise, mature lyrics, Cave has struck a nerve. We have no means of appreciating rock ‘n’ roll musicians as gracefully aging sages with a humble attitude to the responsibilities of being a useful part of a family and the community. Rock ‘n’ roll is in a state of arrested adolescence. If the world blew apart and were put back together with guidance from the Grinderman album, our sins would be usurping God, creating and destroying at will and not recognising the consequences of our actions. If we are now God can we forgive our own sins? Mythology can show us how to maintain a spark of humanity under any circumstance.

Nocturama is a humane, quiet album. It’s set in an alarming environment, where zoos reverse night and day for nocturnal animals. Switching their body clocks and depriving them of natural light can make them ill and anxious. The tiger is silent, the penguin is face down in the water, and the llama has been forgotten. I wonder if it’s the one “l” lama, the Dalai Lama, whose resolutely non-violent message can seem too quiet to be heard.

Yet Nocturama presents emotional still-lifes, everyday situations and scenarios rendered with an ordinary beauty. The songs create and appreciate honesty, constancy and forgiveness. They promise, and deliver, unconditional love and loyalty. They catch fire in the heart, like the word of God catches fire in all of humanity on the album’s closing song.

Beauty Will Save the World

Don’t play something unless you mean it.

— Miles Davis to Robert Irving III

I’ve been writing this essay for 12 years, and Cave has been almost the only reader of its annual drafts. I’ve been trying to write into existence the natural habitat of his songs, the equivalent of a diorama. Now that he’s donated notebooks he’s written lyrics into, manuscripts of his essays, books from his library (classic works of literature, dictionaries, field guides to animals and plants, compendiums of traditional songs,), artworks from his collection and family photographs to the Performing Arts Collection of the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne, anyone can imaginatively project themselves into this habitat. The exhibition re-creates his “office”.

It could be a time-shifted study of a Victorian naturalist. We see his respect for the craft of writing and how he perseveres, and what a patient endeavour writing is for him. We see that the result of a deeply held understanding of mythology is the sweetness and joyfulness in his everyday life.

“One late spring / early summer morning I woke up in the flat I lived in, in Chelsea, with my now-wife Susie, and I looked up at the enormous skylight over the living room and saw that, yet again, it was grey skies and rain,” he wrote in his weather diaries.

“And I remember standing there screaming at it, something along the lines of, ‘What have I done to deserve this!’ and Susie asking me what I was doing and me explaining that as an Australian I was used to a certain amount of acceptable weather, and where the hell was the so-called ‘spring’ and are we actually going to get any summer? etc. etc. Later that day I bought a lovely up-market notebook and a new rubber date stamp and began to note down the fluctuations in the weather. This weather diary began to become increasingly important, and as any weatherman will tell you, ‘bad’ weather is so much more interesting than ‘good’ weather, so that soon I was leaping out of bed, looking up at the skylight, and crying … ‘O groovy! Darling! Rain!'”

Steve Quinn from the American Museum of Natural History in New York believes that dioramas that suggest the complete habitat of a creature are popular, because “…they evoke the same emotional response to viewing wildlife in nature. That same epiphany that occurs when one experiences beauty and wonder in the natural world.”

I was just a boy when I sat down to watch the news on TV

I saw some ordinary slaughter,

I saw some routine atrocity,

My father said don’t look away, you’ve got strong, you’ve got to be bold now,

In the end it’s only beauty that will save the world now.

— Nick Cave, “Nature Boy”.

Cave’s songs are something I measure the world against. They provide a still, sure point in a shifting world. “When you find an author who really grabs you,” Campbell said, “read everything he has done. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did’ — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can read what he has read. And the world opens up to you in a way that’s consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such a poem — but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

Mythology can show us how to maintain a spark of humanity under any circumstance. Cave’s rigorous curiosity about the world inspires me and takes me beyond the wonders to be found in his own records and back into the world. From his ability to quote sections of poems casually in conversation, as if he were remembering the words of a friend, I learned the patience and open-hearteness to read poetry. What mainstream music journalism doesn’t currently do is capture Cave’s sense of wonder about the world. Journalists call upon the author to explain his work to a wide, general audience who are to be told whether or not a new album is a hip, “must have” object.

Cave’s view of the world and his process of creating a meaningful existence has, for me, played the same role that the books of the American critic Edmund Wilson played for the Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra. Mishra was from the remote Indian city Benares, and had the “furious intensity” of someone from a small town “to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world.”

I grew up in rural Australia reading whatever I could find. Newspapers, agricultural equipment and veterinary supplies catalogues, and out-of-date encyclopedias in the public library of a small town that had taxidermy birds in glass cages that were leaking sawdust. The only music I ever heard came late at night, like messages from the spirit world, bounced around the globe from what seemed to be a New York jazz radio station. I had a self-propelled interest in science and ethics that’s led me to writing mostly on robotics and technology, and the guiding principles of Buddhism and the Hindu epics.

But as a fledgling journalist, interviews with Cave and the other musicians in the Birthday Party opened up whole worlds of religious art, philosophy and classical literature to me. In the months before he died, while drinking beer out of a teacup, Tracy Pew described the world and society of Jane Austen’s novels to me, and unlocked their sly humour. I found a point of connection with Rowland S. Howard’s interest in classic science fiction. And lately Mick Harvey’s albums, and their intelligent admiration of other musicians and songwriters, have guided me in listening to music more carefully and appreciatively.

Mishra didn’t have access to many of the books that Edmund Wilson reviewed by John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, but “all these unread books and unknown writers were coming to me filtered through an extraordinary cohesive sensibility.” Wilson’s devotion to reading and thinking and writing were to Mishra “a promise of wisdom and serenity.” Cave’s deep engagement with his writing is what promises wisdom and serenity for me.

Cave’s music isn’t a product. It isn’t sold-on for advertisements. The more that he recedes as a spokesman for his own work, the more his songs take on independent lives of their own. They’re recorded by other artists, used in movies, underpin dance and theatre performances, and are mentioned in books. The paradox of entertainment journalism is that as Cave’s fame escalates, he’s diminished in the press, reduced to a set of off-beam clichés and he’s become an adjective, too, to transfer these off-beam clichés onto other performers.

We’ve forgotten that music is a simple nourishment. “Music is like bread,” Leonard Cohen told the New York Times in 1995. “It is one of the fundamental nourishments that we have available, and there are many different varieties and degrees and grades. A song that is useful, that touches somebody must be measured by utility alone. ‘Cheap music’ is an uncharitable description. If it touches you, it’s not cheap. From a certain point of view, all our emotions are cheap, but those are the only ones we’ve got. It’s loneliness and longing and desire and celebration.”

The celebrity interview is a moribund form based on a parody of the valuable human ritual of sharing food and delighting in the company of other human beings. Michael Pollan writes in his new book, In Defense of Food, that people in America have cut themselves so adrift from the basic joy of sharing food with others that they no longer know what food is. They look for nutritional values and healthful properties of “food like substances” when they should be looking for guidance from cultures that take “serious pleasure” in eating, the French for instance.

In October 2007, I had lunch with Cave and Ellis at the Quay Bar in Customs House in Circular Quay in Sydney. It’s a French brasserie, a type of restaurant with a generosity of spirit, with good, simple food and drinks and casual, welcoming hours. For several hours we talked about books and art and music and life and I made mental notes of titles of books and pieces of music and the names of authors.

In the last year, being around some exceptional chefs for long periods of time has given me a frame of reference for almost everything else in life. It’s given me a respect for the natural world and fine produce. There are no shortcuts. Skills are learned by repetition, care and deliberate effort until they sink so deeply into the subconscious that every gesture looks relaxed and fluid. The precise beauty of the nicoise salad with intense, clear flavours that Ellis ordered at the Quay Bar was a miracle of simplicity.

A couple of weeks after Cave and Ellis left town, I went to the public library in Customs House and checked out an armload of books and printed articles from the New York Times that related to what they had been discussing during that leisurely lunch. I took them into the Quay Bar and, over a glass of wine, made notes into my notebook. As a writer listening to Ellis and Cave freely discuss what inspires them was the valuable part of the exercise, not the privileged encounter with the musicians themselves.

The celebrity profile mimics intimacy by a journalist sharing coffee or a meal with a celebrity subject. This results in banal journalism, says the Associated Press’ manual of news writing. It’s a dead form, wrote the Washington Postlate last year. “The ur-text of Celebrity Journalism, ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ which Gay Talese wrote for Esquire in 1966, changed the course of celebrity profiles forever. The story — a masterpiece of empirical observation, psychological projection, shoe leather and diamantine prose — is the one writers have been trying to imitate ever since, opening with cinematic ‘scenes’, establishing the writer’s personal proximity to the subject, then with novelistic sweep somehow miniaturizing him to human size while making profound, grandiose pronouncements on his cultural, social, political and historical importance….”

The Talese of the i-Phone is out there, with the technological chops and philosophical insight to create something brand new, something observant and witty, compassionate and detached, ruthless but deeply humanist. Surely, the world is ready for a new celebrity narrative, one that explodes old forms, reveals the subject at hand, and conveys something essential about ourselves.

Maybe the “deeply humanist” profile that “conveys something essential” should be unmediated, transcripts of conversations over a good meal between artists and public figures who really have something to say to one another that’s worth listening to. I’ve been collecting books of transcripts of conversations: between the novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje and film editor Walter Murch; the Dalai Lama and French screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere, who adapted the Hindu epic The Mahabharata for Peter Brook; the screenwriter / directors Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder, and the musican and conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer and critic Edward Said.

I have a list of conversations I’d like to have transcripts of: Cave talking to the composer and music journalist Andrew Ford about the structure and complexity of his musical arrangements; Cave talking to the Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels about the Gospel of Thomas; Cave talking to Michael Ondaatje about research and background and creating compressed worlds that are unlocked by a sharp but unexpected detail.

Authentic Australian Music

While Cave was in Australia in 2007 at the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Awards, he was inducted into the local Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a reflexive response to his growing fame internationally, as well as the respect shown him by his elders: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits among them. He’s never been genuinely valued or appreciated or understood by the mainstream music industry in Australia who almost literally ran many of the punk rock era bands out of the country.

The Talese of the i-Phone is out there, with the technological chops and philosophical insight to create something brand new, something observant and witty, compassionate and detached, ruthless but deeply humanist.

At the ceremony, Cave said that he was there alone, not with the Bad Seeds, because of a technicality, the band includes a couple of foreign born members. Cave formally acknowledged the Australian musicians who’ve been his important collaborators, all of the current Bad Seeds, Harvey, Ellis, Conway Savage and Martyn Casey, and Birthday Party members Rowland S. Howard and the late Tracy Pew. To ignore them is to miss the richness they add to Cave’s songs and how much they’ve achieved in their own right.

The Dirty Three, the instrumental band led by violin Ellis, is well known and respected, particularly, for the burning improvisational intensity of his performances. What’s beginning to come to light, on the musical arrangements for DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!, and the soundtrack that he and Cave wrote for the movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Outlaw Robert Ford, (which was recorded by an orchestra), is how skilful and elegant his compositions are. In 1995 Leonard Cohen told The New York Times that there’s a voluptuous quality to seriousness and that we’re hungry for seriousness, to experience its gravity and weight. Ellis’s recent work is exhilaratingly serious.

Cave mentioned how influential his first band, The Birthday Party, have been. Vestiges of the Birthday Party’s grand thunder can be found in guitarist Rowland S. Howard’s records which have a dramatic, earned melancholy. He’s been recognised internationally rather than at home, with a French label, Stagger Records, being formed in order to make a tribute album of his songs. Bad Seed Conway Savage records albums for his own label, and Casey recently performed at the Sydney Festival with his old band, the Triffids, in a tribute to the late Triffids songwriter and leader David McComb.

Harvey is Cave’s most enduring collaborator, they’ve been in bands together since they were at school. His own records are a form of intelligent appreciation at close range. He records songs by musicians who are a part of his world. Many of these musicians are Australian and he creates something a Hall of Fame doesn’t, a musical map of a world based on merit and artistry. He translates, as a good literary translator might, a work into his own voice without losing the essence of the original. He doesn’t record many of his own songs but they stand in his repertoire as examples of good structure and craftsmanship, songs stripped to their fine bones. He’s a warm and wryly amusing performer with a small band built around electrified acoustic instruments. He leads playing guitar.

Punk rock was an urban phenomenon worldwide, but what Harvey’s repertoire and style shows is how many Australian musicians of that era — Cave among them — were from rural backgrounds, or grew up in small towns. In songs recorded in Australian cities in the punk rock era, there was a yearning to be part of something meaningful, a bigger part of life in the world, for life experience to be deep and rich and complete. Harvey’s quiet recordings strip away the distracting surfaces, what might be known of the wild character and city life of the songwriters and original performers and in the songs can be heard another layer of yearning, of the small town or farm boy or girl who first had to get to an Australian city before considering the rest of the world.

Cave mentioned at the ARIA awards ceremony that the Bad Seeds are out in the world making authentic Australian music. When the Bad Seeds Best Of… album was released at the end of the 20th century, Cave asked Australian painter Tony Clark to paint a landscape for the cover that reflected the music of the Bad Seeds. “Three days later Tony brought to my home an extraordinary triptych of six olive trees blasted by a bloody red light,” Cave said. “It was the Garden of Gethsemane seen through the conflagrating prism of the Australian outback. A beautiful, beautiful painting.”

I saw the Bad Seeds perform in a small theatre in Los Angeles with that painting as a backdrop. It suggested to me something literally Australian, the dirt in some parts of Australia is that coagulated deep red as if an artery had been gashed and life bled straight into the earth, and also something metaphorical about being Australian, something untamed and primal, locked deep in the heart.

The film script that Cave wrote, The Proposition, which has a soundtrack composed by him and Ellis, is set in the early days of the Australian colony when the European settlers tried to overlay the wilderness with the delicate, gracious, mannered way of life they’d brought from England. “In The Proposition, there aren’t real heroes and there aren’t real villains. It’s really a film about failure,” he told the Guardian. “We kind of cling to the edges of the country and build our houses facing out to the sea. We don’t want to know about that huge, vast, mysterious, terrifying expanse that is the middle of Australia.”

We Australians are only now beginning to come to terms with our environment and reconsidering the enlightened figures among the early European settlers who were scholars of science, religion, and philosophy and who approached the new land and indigenous human and animal populations with curiosity and respect.

Cave’s love songs of the 21st century begin to fulfill the hope of Dr. Tim Flannery, an environmental scientist, zoologist and explorer, who spent 2007 in the symbolic role of “Australian of the Year”. He wrote an essay in 2003 called “Beautiful Lies”. “It was a visiting American, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to literature as Mark Twain, who said that Australian history reads like he most beautiful lies,” Flannery wrote. “I think that Clemens felt that way because the histories he was given to read were indeed filled with romantic falsehood. From now on — for the next little while at least — the history we create must be more mundane. It should tell the story of a small country that did the best it possibly could for the people and the environment of the world.”

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