The Boatman's Call cover

At my first Nick Cave gig in 2005, I happened to be standing behind two very drunk fans who began to heckle even before the band had walked on stage. I can’t remember exactly how they phrased it, but their humorous banter went something like ‘get your Bible out Nick, have a good pray. Hallelujah!’ Refraining, but only just, from kneeing them in the bollocks, I contented myself with the thought that Cave must be used to, and even thrive on,  taunts like this. Cave’s unbelieving religious fervour is nowhere better exemplified than in his passion for ‘Amazing Grace.’ On the tourbus, years back, he was known to become physically violent if anyone so much as whispered during the playing of this hymn. He might not ‘believe in an interventionist God’ but he knows his Bible, and to such an extent that his lyrics are saturated in its language: he worships the Bible’s drama whilst rejecting its consolations. Exactly the quality, of the passionate agnostic, that makes him my kinda guy.

Passion, suffering and sexual, hedonistic and holy, is his subject, and there are many examples of songs in the Bad Seeds’ repertoire that have received considerable critical attention for their fusion of depravity and grace. But there is one unassuming song, a ‘stone the builders neglected,’ that is worthy of considerably more attention than it has yet received: ‘Brompton Oratory,’ a quiet wonder nestling at the core of a near-perfect album, The Boatman’s Call (1997).

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‘The reading is from Luke 24

Where Christ returns to his loved ones’         Nick Cave

‘But they constrained him,’ Luke tells us in Chapter 24, ‘they’ being the disciples. They are speaking to the risen Christ, whom they still do not recognise, ‘saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent’ (Luke 24: 29). After the vast sorrow of the crucifixion comes this meeting and the King James makes it unbearably sweet. Look at the disciples’ tenderness to Christ: ‘abide’ has to count as one of the most lovely verbs in the English language, deriving from the Anglo Saxon ‘bidan,’ meaning ‘live with,’ ‘remain,’ ‘endure without yielding’ and which is ‘akin to the Latin fidere (trust) and the Greek peithestai (believe).’ (1) ‘Abide’ has more than the force of prayer here because the supplicant is praying without knowing it  and praying to an unknown god at that: the desire is greater than the man who desires. A spontaneous prayer that is both with and without the object of its adoration, it is coupled with the weary beauty of ‘the day is far spent.’ The King James can often catch at the reader’s breath with its poetry, but this phrase ‘the day is far spent’  feels like championship free-diving, like the longest, slowest held breath you have ever taken. In the space of that breath are the distances, the desire for rest, the need to hold the others, hold them and uphold them.

Biblical exegesis isn’t normally my thing, but when looking back at ‘Brompton Oratory,’ it does the song more than justice to read the passage from Luke alongside the erotic lesson delivered by the lyrics. Cave wants his audience to get the references, although he doesn’t demand that they do—even if you do not know and appreciate the poetry of the King James version of Luke 24, Cave does enough in the lyrics to suggest it. But the precise chapter reference indicates that he wouldn’t mind attracting an audience who respond to the Bible as he does because he wants the eroticism of the song amplified as much as possible. Understand the emotional force of the sacrament and the flitting sweetness of Christ’s return and you understand the thirst in the lines that follow on from the reference to Luke:

I look at the stone apostles,

think that it’s alright for some.

And I wish that I was made of stone

so that I would not have to see

beauty impossible to define

beauty impossible to believe.

A beauty impossible to endure:

the blood imparted in little sips,

the smell of you still on my hands

as I bring the cup up to my lips.

Two sacraments fuse here, two Eucharists. Suddenly, the absent ones are present; one in the chalice, one on the uplifted, scented fingers. A prayer has conjured both these presences, a negative prayer: Cave wishes he was ‘made of stone’ and could avoid seeing ‘beauty impossible to believe.’ The force of his longing is such that he asks for it to stop, but it does not, cannot, because it has gained such momentum that it is completely beyond his control. Saviour and the woman’s sex are equivalent sources of desire and desolation. Both return but do not, ultimately, abide.

(1)  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bide

[Below are two versions of ‘Brompton Oratory,’ the first being a slightly tongue-in-cheek MTV recording (Cave plays a Casio keyboard on his knees and it all looks a bit wobbly). The second is the album version, set to a fan’s photomontage of stone Christs, angels and apostles, and mercifully complete with the sigh of the original ending: ‘forlorn and exhausted baby/by the absence of you.’   You can also clearly hear the ecclesiastical-sounding organ on the album version, something that Warren Ellis swamps with his violin on the MTV clip.]

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