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

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.”