THE MYSTERIOUS TWISTS AND TURNS of life can move a person in many a strange and fascinating direction. The point is occasionally driven home to me in spades when I see a new record by Nick Cave, an announcement of one of his concerts or a magazine article on the “Dark Lord of Song”, especially ones which call him a “genius”; not to mention a new novel of his or his participation in a movie, whether as a scriptwriter or a soundtrack composer, or both.
The reason for my interest is down to one simple fact: I attended Nick’s 21st birthday party at his family home while I was living in Australia for a few years back in the late 1970s. I had barely heard of the man at that stage. Over the decades, however, Nick went on to become something of a phenomenon.
The invitation to the party had not come from Nick himself, but from his brother’s wife who was a professional colleague of my partner at the time.
I had not met Nick before the big night, but remember going along thinking that this would simply be a social occasion like any other we had been attending in and around Melbourne in those years. This was held in Nick’s backyard with thirty or forty people (I would estimate in retrospect, though that is just a guess) and, yes, the beers flowed.
Then, it was announced that Nick and his band would play for us.
Brother Tim had told me about Nick prior to that night certainly and he had even raved about him, but I hadn’t given him much thought really, since he was said to be a “punk” rocker and I wasn’t.
When Nick stepped up to the microphone with his band-mates, I wasn’t too impressed. Here was a tall, lanky kid with jet-black hair and a very disheveled appearance. He laughed a lot and cut up with his band-mates, but the songs were indeed pure punk (or proto-goth as some critics would later call it), which, to be honest, didn’t impress me either. (His opening song, if one can believe this, was a ripping send up of a tune by an English pop singer named Lou Lou. The song was, “To Sir With Love”. He played it twice that night and, after hearing it for the first time, I was already asking, “Why?” But, of course, that was no doubt the point. To devilishly confound expectations and show musicians who took themselves and their music seriously – as I did – that he didn’t give a damn. He could do whatever the hell he pleased.)
Punk, as a musical movement, was still in its infancy at that time. I had grown up with The Beatles, Dylan and the Stones. As a guitar player myself, I had been playing their songs for years along with “newer” stuff (at the time) by the likes of the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and so on.
In retrospect, of startling and humorous interest, I think, is this: this was not only the era in which punk was in its infancy, but the very days when disco was actually in full flower. A true fact: The Sex Pistols released their groundbreaking, controversial album, Never Mind the Bollocks on the same day as the Bee Gees released their massive, world-wide, super hit, “Stayin’ Alive”.
Could any two styles of music be further apart?
Obviously, Nick was tuned more into the Sex Pistols than the Bee Gees.
For my part, as an aspiring songwriter myself, I had left the party that night thinking that Nick and his band would never amount to much, nor get too far in the world; not with a set list like that and not with a style of music that doubtless had stray cats in the home neighborhood running for their lives.
A year or two later though, I heard about a punk band in London called the Birthday Party and, as far as I could tell, they were just a bunch of hard druggies whose members would doubtless end up dead well before their time.
Years later again, much to my surprise this time, I heard about a singer with a band known as the Bad Seeds whose name was Nick Cave.
Could it really be? I wondered. Could this really be the same Nick Cave who had brutalized “To Sir With Love” with such gleeful, devilish malice?
Yes, indeed, it was one and the same, and his star was on the rise I learned. He had apparently cheated death on quite a number of occasions and had emerged a wiser man. And not just a wiser man, but a more spiritual person, as well. His lyrics were said to contain depth and no small amount of biblical sin, degradation and debauchery. He was playing Dylan at his game.
Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t run straight out to buy any of Nick’s albums, since I knew the genre from which it had been spawned and that genre had never grown on me. Punk performers were much too violent for my taste and its practitioners were boisterously opposed to the overblown “Machine”, i.e. the Record Industry, with its “superstar” bands like the ones that I personally loved. To the punks, the “peace and love” of the hippie generation was a notion to be spat upon. Literally. I found that reprehensible.
Eventually, though, I discovered that Nick Cave wasn’t just a punk figure of minor significance. He was his own man with his own brand of music and he was being hailed as a great artist. He had obviously evolved, I realized.
The first of his albums that I bought was The Boatman’s Call. The opening song on the album is called “Into My Arms”. It is a song that contains some profound lyrics about Nick’s belief that God is not an “interventionist” deity. I found that intriguing and very different for a love song.
Then, someone gave me Murder Ballads, which contained a real shocker: “Stagger Lee”. (Do not play this song for your parents or your children!) It also contains two beautiful ballads, one with Kylie Minogue called “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and one with PJ Harvey called “Henry Lee”. After hearing the last two tunes, I was hooked on Nick’s haunting way with a song.
Then, Nick published a book called And the Ass Saw the Angel.
Now, from way back when, certainly by the time I had attended Nick’s 21st birthday party, I had aspirations to be a novelist. It took me some ten years after that night to finally achieve my goal, but eventually The Dream Illuminati was published in 1988 and The Illuminati of Immortality in 1990. I thought, therefore, that I had at least some measure of success to put up against the famous Nick from all those years ago, but no, Nick got the upper hand here as well. His book was a hardback and his was acclaimed far and wide. Never mind that Robert Anton Wilson had contributed extensive introductions to both of my novels. They were paperbacks and, in short, very non-mainstream, which meant that sales were not in Nick’s league.
With the release of And the Ass Saw the Angel, I realized that Nick had pulled a fast one on me the night of his twenty-first birthday party. I had had him pegged that evening as being a mere punk joker whose music would never appeal to a very large audience, but he subsequently morphed into a “genius” and rocketed out ahead of me so far that, even now, I can barely see him in the distance.
Nick’s evolution as a songwriter and musician I think is one that young, upcoming artists of today can find much inspiration. An artist must expand, must grow, must evolve. Nick did just that and he is now a singer, a songwriter, a performer, a novelist, a scriptwriter and a film soundtrack composer. He’s a “superstar”, but still a rebel, still a “dark lord of song”, still an artist who refuses to “sell out”. He has stayed true to himself, which is what we should all strive to do, whether we are artists or not.
Being true to oneself means speaking your mind no matter the topic. For example, Nick is quoted on Wikipedia as saying, “I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming. But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some divine element going on within my songs.” He is also quoted as saying, “I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it.”
I am in full agreement with these insights and I congratulate Nick on his success, his astounding artistic output, his amazing number of awards in the music industry, his honorary doctorates, his novels, everything. He scaled the Olympian heights and good for him.
In a similar way, we can all stay true ourselves if we try and we can find spiritual fulfillment in our own way too.
And we need to remember: the young guy or girl we happen across somewhere, giving their art an honest lash, just may have more potential in them than we might think in the moment. There can be a quantum leap lurking in their spirit that might well catapult them far above the average man or woman…
Or more to the point… There is a quantum leap lurking in the spirit of each of us. How our dreams will, or won’t, manifest only time reveals, but the many mysterious twists and turns of life can offer many a fascinating and life-altering surprise.
Nick Cave is the proof.