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

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 This hero reinterprets the tradition and makes it valid as a living experience today instead of a lot of outdated clichés.”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.