Published Jan 01, 2006From his early days with Melbourne, Australia's post-punk rockers the Birthday Party, through the last two decades spent playing with the Bad Seeds and as a solo artist, Nick Cave is the prototypical literate rocker. With his baritone voice and biblical and Gothic (i.e., the dark underside of the natural world, not bats and vampires) imagery, Cave is often considered a gloomy harbinger of doom. However, time and time again, his songs and those he chooses to cover are speckled with humour and beauty. Cave has recorded gorgeous murder ballads and aching love songs; sometimes the two are indistinguishable. With nigh on 20 albums to his name (not including a slew of live recordings and bootlegs), as well as a young family to take care of, Cave shows no sign of stopping. His latest No More Shall We Part, is an inspired mix of sarcasm, horror and warmth.
1978 to 1979
Cave forms the Boys Next Door, his first band with high school friend Mick Harvey (guitar), as well as Tracy Pew (bass) and Phil Calvert (drums). They are later joined by Rowland S. Howard (guitar) and release one album, Door Door and one EP, Hee Haw before changing their name to the Birthday Party.
1980 to 1982
Cave's primary concern during this period is the Birthday Party an extremely loud, drug-fuelled and out-of-control taste of things to come. Although the music is far more aggressive than he would make later on, Cave's lyrics are already weighing the balance between good and evil, as well as a fondness for literature (especially the Bible, American classics and pulp fiction) and hurting music of various genres. In 1981, Cave relocates to London, where he shares a house with a group of people including fellow Australian Grant McLennan (Go-Betweens). This comes to a sudden end when, according to McLennan in a 1992 interview, he grew tired of Cave "behaving like a pig."
While on tour in Germany for 1981's Prayers on Fire , Einsterzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld becomes the band's third guitar player officially making them the band whose members can boast the coolest names of all time. Also in 1981, the Birthday Party and Lydia Lunch release a split album, Drunk On the Pope's Blood/The Agony is the Extacy (sic). By summer 1982, Lunch is their opening act. This creative partnership includes forming a band, the Immaculate Consumptive (also including Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell and Marc Almond), as well as writing some of the plays that would later appear in Cave's book, King Ink. For a short time Cave and Lunch were romantically linked; Lunch has since made it known that Cave's heroin use was a major factor in the relationship's demise.
Not long after the release of the final Birthday Party EPs (The Bad Seed and Mutiny), Cave introduces his new band, the Bad Seeds. Generally a quieter (often piano-driven) band, the classic (though not static) Bad Seeds line-up is Cave, Bargeld (guitar), Harvey (guitar) and Magazine's Barry Adamson (bass). From Her To Eternity gives people their first taste of Cave's new direction. The album opens with Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" and later features the Mac Davis-written, Elvis Presley-performed ode to the projects, "In the Ghetto." This mining of American pop culture, combined with his own baleful sometimes scabrous takes on love (especially the title track) will be fodder for much of Cave's career. He continues to mine the imagery of Americana on 1985's The Firstborn Is Dead.
A year notable for the death (from complications due to epilepsy) of Cave's long-time friend and former collaborator Tracy Pew. Cave releases Kicking Against the Pricks and Your Funeral, My Trial. Kicking is undoubtedly the best place for aspiring Cave fans to glean some insight into his musical inspirations. An all-covers album, it finds a goose-bump inducing version of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" sidling up beside Roy Orbison's woeful "Running Scared," John Lee Hooker's murderous "I'm Gonna Kill That Woman" and Australian pop outfit the Seeker's "The Carnival Is Over." These songs of frailty, passion and loss as well as various other songs he has covered over the years are the bedrock of Cave's work. Although much of Cave's lyrical content concerns death, he is rarely romanticises it. These are tales of caution more than celebrations of demise.
Cave, who has relocated to Berlin, is seen communicating with an angel ("I'm not going to tell them about a girl") and performing "From Her to Eternity" in German filmmaker Wim Wenders' cult classic Wings Of Desire.
Forever riding the lines between good and evil, rock'n'roller and balladeer, Cave releases Tender Prey, arguably the best work in an excellent career. Prey opens with "The Mercy Seat"; its intense build-up culminates with the hook "And I'm not afraid to die." Prey includes the poppy "Deanna" and "Sugar Sugar Sugar," a poisoned bubble-gum tune that plays out Cave's relentless devotion to an innocent girl. Tender Prey is the first Bad Seeds album featuring Cramps guitarist Kid Congo Powers. That same year, Cave meets future wife Viviane Carneiro while on tour in Brazil and Black Spring Press publishes King Ink, a collection of early plays, sketches and lyrics up to and including Your Funeral, My Trial.
Cave collaborates with Bad Seeds Bargeld and Harvey for the soundtrack to Ghosts... Of The Civil Dead, a film that Cave writes and stars in. He also publishes his first novel And The Ass Saw The Angel. Perhaps more than any recording, this novel gets to the essence of Cave's love of Deep South Gothic sensibility. It is also notable for its length (most first novels are half this ambitious), scope and high quality.
Described by the Trouser Press Guide as "stately material that attempts to showcase him as a singer a crooner even," The Good Son opens with the majestic drinking song, "The Ship Song." He over-reaches himself by singing "Foi Na Cruz" entirely in Portuguese (it doesn't quite attain the desired effect), but it is a nice nod to the influence of his current residence in Brazil.
Viviane Carneiro gives birth to Cave's son Luke, although the two are no longer a couple. A then-unknown Brad Pitt gets a head-start toward coolness when he stars with a platinum-haired Cave (playing Freak Storm) in Tom DiCillo's Johnny Suede.
The cover of Henry's Dream finds a scowling Cave staring at prospective buyers from an enormous billboard that appears to be located in the desert. However, the fact that this huge advertisement appears to be in the middle of nowhere is a humorous jab at the lack of publicity Cave receives, especially in North America; his label support outside of Europe has rarely attempted to push him beyond his underground hero status. Cave is also to blame one legend says he used to require potential interviewers to submit a list of recently-read books before granting the interview. The album itself features some great songs ("Papa Won't Leave You, Henry," "Brother, My Cup is Empty), but instead of mixing things up between slow and dirgy and heavy and poppy, the majority of Henry's Dream maintains a similar, rolling pace that, in the end, makes the listener seasick. Following its release, Cave hooks up with friend and former Pogues singer Shane McGowan for a stomp through "What A Wonderful World," released as a single on Mute.
That same year, Last Gasp publishes the short story collection Incriminating Evidence by former collaborator Lydia Lunch. One story, "One Dreary Night" is a thinly-veiled portrait of Cave as he was when they were together. She paints a tormented picture: "But he was different. It was not totally unknown of him to be a possession of fits of excitement not unlike that of a tantrum. As if the devil himself were dancing hot coals under his dirty boots, legs and limbs would splay everywhere. Hairs would be split, the air would whistle, rip, and disgruntled, get spit like broken glass in the face of those lucky enough to watch." Just in case readers missed the connection to the matured, relatively-sober Cave, the story is "Dedicated in loving memory to the ghost of Nick Cave past."
Back in London again, Cave releases solid live collection, Live Seeds. The first pressing comes with a small hardcover book of tour photography celebrating the Bad Seeds tenth anniversary. This is Cave's version of Henry Rollins's Get In the Van shots of Bad Seeds' fans, cohorts and the band itself taken while on tour. (Rollins has kept much of Cave's back-catalogue available over the years via his publishing imprint and label, 2.13.61.)
1993 also sees Last Gasp publish AS-FIX-E-8, a twisted, pornographic comic and short story collection by Lunch and Cave. Cave has gone on record as saying he never wanted the book published, but Lunch couldn't resist letting it see the light of day.
Moody girls go into hormonal overdrive when Let Love In hits record stores. The cover features a topless Cave baring his throat and hairless chest in what is especially for him a vulnerable position. This vaguely Christ-like pose is offset by the red background, which can be interpreted as signifying hellfire or female genitalia. A mid-career peak, Let Love In includes quotes from Milton's "Paradise Lost" with the devilish "Red Right Hand." The album's closer is "Do You Love Me (Part 2)," a collar-clutching, thunderous song inspired by thriller writer Peter Straub's short story "The Juniper Tree."
Omnibus Press publishes Robert Brokenmouth's biography, Nick Cave: The Birthday Party & Other Epic Adventures. Detailing the years preceding the Bad Seeds, Brokenmouth conducts extensive interviews with the surviving members of the band, as well as Tracy Pew's mother. Cave, however, does not participate in the book. It's assumed that Cave, being an ornery rock star, refused to be interviewed. In spite of the singer's non-participation, it's a worthwhile read, primarily thanks to Mick Harvey's good memory. The same year, Little, Brown publishes Ian Johnston's Bad Seed: A Biography of Nick Cave. This is a reasonably inside work; Johnston is the brother of Gallon Drunk singer and Cave pal James Johnston.
Cave follows up his "love" album with Murder Ballads, which divides fans and critics alike. Some adore the absurdly high count of blood-letting and mother-fucking. Others consider it a mockery of his earlier work. It features guest appearances from the likes of Kylie Minogue (with whom he appeared on the cover of NME), Polly Harvey and Shane McGowan. Cave is nominated for an MTV Music Award as Best Male Artist. In a letter to the station, Cave requests his nomination be repealed saying, "My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes."
Once again, Cave releases a highly divisive album. The Boatman's Call finds him in a kinder, gentler mode. Some say this is due to his relationship with Polly Harvey, who spent her own youth mooning over Cave. The songs are more frail, personal and nowhere near as strong as any previous recordings. Following its release is the publication of King Ink II, with lyrics from Tender Prey to Boatman's.
The Best of... attempts to reduce a large collection of work to a single disc. It's a decent selection of songs, but a mere spit in the ocean.
Cave curates the eclectic English music festival, Meltdown. (Each year, a celebrity known for interest in a wide variety of musical genres is chosen to decide the line-up; previous curators include Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and English DJ John Peel.) Cave's choices include Germaine Greer, Rolf Harris and Kylie Minogue (a particularly oddball part of the Australian night that was likely as much a bit of fun for Cave as an attempt to highlight some of his homeland's most successful imports), Lee Hazelwood, Jarvis Cocker, the Dirty Three, Arvo Pärt and Nina Simone. Rumours of Cave joining Harris for a rousing rendition of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" are largely unfounded. Consortium publishes Maximilian Dax's The Life And Music Of Nick Cave, a photo-heavy look at Cave's career. Cave seems uninterested in providing his fans with an autobiography, preferring to say whatever he feels necessary through his lyrics.
His first release of the new century is the spoken word The Secret Life Of The Love Song & The Flesh Made Word: Two Lectures By Nick Cave. The first lecture finds him deconstructing love songs. The second is an examination of the Bible. It's probably not what the Anglican priests who gave Cave his early religious instruction would hope for his is a secular, historical outlook rather than a faithful tribute but it is essential for anyone interested in the Bible as literature.
Cave opens No More Shall We Part by doing his best Bryan Ferry impression on "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side." No More continues down the path to maturity paved by Boatman's, but it is far more chilling than the earlier album. "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" is classic Cave with a Tubular Bells-inspired piano line that sticks in your brain for hours. The follow-up, "God Is In the House" treads well-worn Cave territory in its depiction of the hypocrisies of small-town life. Cave still manages to hit his targets square between the eyes. Even though he's now a happily married family man, his words of love aren't without qualifiers. So it is that "And No More Shall We Part" begins with the bad news before sneaking in the good: "The contracts are drawn up, the ring is locked upon the finger/And never again will my letters start/Sadly, or in the depths of winter."