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

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.