‘I am gone though I am here.’ (Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing).

Yesterday, as normal, I woke ‘with the sparrows’ and ‘[hurried] off to work.’  I taught some kids. I fretted about GCSE coursework folders. I felt sick when I jotted down my ‘to do’ list for the next few days. I ate a banana . I talked about the weekend just gone. But when I taught, fretted, jotted, ate, talked, although I was polite and professional, I was not there at all. Yesterday, much more than is the case on most days, my heart was lost and my soul was elsewhere. I wanted validation, I wanted Love (not love), I just wanted.

All day the experience of the previous evening raced and ached through me like a second pulse. One face, one voice ghosted through the childrens’ and teachers’ faces and voices (picture those Victorian photos of ‘spectres’ where the effect is achieved by two photographic plates being superimposed on each other). The ‘presence’ causing my absent presence yesterday was, of course, Nick Cave, whose Birmingham Academy gig I attended on Monday.

Perhaps, you’re thinking, the intro to this piece is a little overblown. Perhaps it seems that here the violins are just a little too loud in the mix. It’s only a bloody gig, in a sweaty dive at that, with a band of hirsute Australians playing eccentric-sounding musical instruments. Only a gig. But, you see, a gig is never just a gig. It’s a doorway, a fire-starter for the soul. These rock gods, what they do is light the touchpaper and stand back, and most of the time, the flames fizzle out in a day, two days. Or maybe, if the audience-member (or rather communicant) is up to it, is all ears, a different, consuming blaze takes hold.

The opening of the set was certainly explosive. Cave, Ellis et al walked on stage and began with ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters,’ and as they did so it felt like I was under the spell of a crazed preacher as Cave sang ‘get ready to shield yourself’ over and over; an apocalyptic beginning if ever there was one. Unlike the previous gig I had been to (Alexandra Palace, 25 Aug 05), where the venue was lofty and cathedral-like, here the size of the place allowed me to get to within 10 feet of Cave. This meant that, as the band went on to do a suitably ferocious version of ‘Tupelo,’ I found myself able to gaze at Cave’s face and body rather in the way you are supposed to look at Pietas by Michelangelo; with a curiously still and open eye. It’s odd but accurate to speak of stillness here, given Cave’s frenetic movement; during the entire evening, he was only anchored when he briefly sat at the keyboard during the encore, and even then his energy seemed barely contained. But as he raged through his repertoire I drank him in, despite the fact I was dancing at the same time. At all points on Monday night I jumped and wiggled, waved and reached up my hands towards the stage. But at all points I was still. The Bad Seeds’ storm exorcised the storminess in me.

Songs rained down on us in a hurricane. Most of Lazarus got an airing (or rather a thundering) and the tracks I heard are even better (and weirder) live than they are on record. ‘Dig Lazarus Dig,’ for example, is rump-shakingly sexy, and the desire expressed in ‘Lie Down Here’ is alluring but terrifying (oh, the snarl when he sang ‘I’ll build a million of y/ baby/ & every one of them will be mine’). What I’ve heard Cave call Bad Seeds ‘Standards’ were drenching us too: ‘Deanna’, ‘Red Right Hand,’ ‘Get Ready for Love,’ and at every turn that ‘enormous yes’ of the crowd got fatter, sweeter, more abandoned. I was reminded with each tune of the astonishing variety of very very beautiful work this man has produced. Although various punters kept crying out for this song or that, increasingly, I did not care what the band played. Each song had the same manna in it, the same grace.

And as the set stepped up and up in intensity, I also became aware of the face behind Nick Cave’s face: his physiognomy’s weariness and sadness. Yes, as he says, he just wants to move the world, but there’s a paradox in this. The more songs he creates of this quality, and the more people love him, the more they feel they own him. Then, when he doesn’t make a record that sounds like these fans feel he should sound, they’re incredibly let down; ‘moving the world’ also involves such ‘low down bummers.’  They want him to play songs from another band of his — The Birthday Party–(someone asked for ‘Release the Bats’ on Monday and at one point, when there was a glitch with the keyboard, there were so many requests bombarding him that he commented ‘will somebody start the fucking song.’) They want him to be smacked up, rootless, dead. They want him to wreck his life because they haven’t the imagination to wreck their own.  They want him to be immortal, immutable, and, of course, he’s not. He must know that as much as he delights, he must inevitably disappoint. Like every other rock god he’s bound for glory and disintegration. Hence the solitariness that glows in his face, as if his gaze is arriving from light years away. It’s the loneliness of the long-distance singer, one who now has over a quarter-century’s worth of music under his belt, and whose songs are forever slipping out of his fingers and into the souls of his fans. Cave, as he must well know, is inexorably ‘becoming his admirers.’

So much for the state of Cave’s soul. But what might he want in return from those admirers? I’ll hazard a guess that what Cave might need from his audience is the response to art that Rilke said ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo’ demanded:


We cannot know the legendary head

With eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark centre where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of his shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.


Rilke describes the aliveness of a statue. Its beauty is so powerful that it sees into you, it knows you. It doesn’t judge you, but the work of art makes you judge yourself and know yourself. And in knowing yourself you also feel the work of art’s power to ‘change your life,’ –to change it by loving (‘where procreation flared’) and by creating —something. Rilke’s poem seems to say Cave’s desire too. It’s not so much that Cave seems to want you to ruin your life –but that he wants you to move, to Love (not love), to want, to actually live.


href=’https://nicholadeane.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/normal_bw_38.jpg’>complete with nimbus

 ‘Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air’: the line from the song ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ sums ups the way that at least one fan seems to have felt about Nick Cave’s new album of the same name. Tim Russell argued on Facebook that Cave had made a flimsy album, the worst of his career, and that Cave should ‘dump the wife, give Blixa a call, move back to Berlin & buy a big bag of smack’ (Feb 28, 2008 at 4:59 PM). The album stinks, Russell has it, because the Bad Seeds have produced some unsingable melodies and have been ’emasculated’ (he accuses them of weedy instrumentation without the benefit of Blixa Bargeld). Russell also contends that Cave’s lyrics have gone all unfunny and banal (he quotes the line ‘We’re gonna have a real good time’ as an example). Russell’s piece is passionate enough but wrong on a number of counts.

Wrong, first of all, is the idea that this is somehow an upbeat album. It’s not sorrowful like No More Shall We Part or The Boatman’s Call but it is grimy, deliciously sordid, full of terrible jokes (my personal favourite is ‘I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker’), crazed, desperate. ‘Shiny Happy People’ it ain’t. Russell claims it’s not fucked up enough. Not fucked up?

This is an album that has as its beating heart the ghost of John Berryman (1914-71), the US poet who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and missing the water (1). Berryman’s subject-matter is all the kinds of things Cave revels in on Lazarus. This is from the first of Berryman’s Dream Songs:

What he has to now to say is a long

wonder the world can bear & be.

Once in a sycamore I was glad

all at the top, and I sang.

Hard on the land wears the strong sea

and empty grows every bed.

Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, is lascivious, drunk, violent…in other words, a bit like Lazarus in Cave’s song (‘Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene’).  In the lyric booklet which Cave publishes with the album, Cave’s words have the same manic intensity as Berryman’s, and reveal a similar penchant for the ampersand. Berryman uses the ‘&’ to abbreviate, to suggest speed of thought, jokiness, nervous exhaustion (incomplete ideas, jumpy intensities). If anything Cave’s ampersands are even more manic. Take this sample from ‘Moonland’ where

in moonl&

under the stars


under the snow

I followed this car


& I followed that car

through the s&

Berryman ‘s poetry and his biography are attractive to Cave for a number of reasons. There is the suicide (2):

                            Berryman was best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

he wrote like wet papier mache/went the Hemming-way/weirdly

on wings & with MAXIMUM PAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!

But what’s also attractive to Cave is Berryman’s descent into madness and alcoholic indignities, and the lens which this creates, a lens through which Berryman sees America: ‘Seedy Henry rose up shy in de world/& shaved & swung his barbells, duded Henry up,’ writes Berryman in Dream Song 77. Macho, hopelessly pathetic, with a ‘ruin-prone proud national mind,’ Berryman’s antihero journeys restlessly through dirty America, ‘making ready to move on.’

But there are more layers yet to Cave’s album. If Berryman is its beating heart, the roadmap of Dig, Lazarus, Dig is Homer’s epic poem The OdysseyThe last track on the record,  ‘More News from Nowhere’, tells the story of Homer’s epic in miniature. In it appear Cave’s versions of  Circe, the Cyclops and the Sirens. In fact, it seems that Cave’s former lover PJ Harvey is the Siren he has in mind when he sings ‘I saw Miss Polly!!!singing with some girls/I cried,–strap me to the mast!!!!’. Other songs take on aspects of The Odyssey. The song ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’ fishhooks an episode in book nine of Homer’s poem into a howl of junked up political frustration at our ‘catastrophic leaders.'(3) ‘Midnight Man’ retells the story of what happens to Odysseus’s wife when Odysseus is on his travels -Penelope’s suitors are forever ‘comin’ round’ to Odysseus and Penelope’s ‘place’, vying for the chance to be her ‘midnight man’.

If I’ve made Lazarus sound like a poem rather than a record, so much the better. Cave surely intends this to be a poem, a poem not set to music, but married to it. But to neglect the melodies here would be to do Lazarus a grave injustice. Heavenly murk characterises the sound of this badass Bad Seed musical journey through the land of the dead. Tim Russell asserts this isn’t singable record. Yet I find myself utterly possessed by snatches of melody–oh strap me to the mast Mr Cave, if you would. ‘Lotus Eaters,’ for example, has a very trippy sound, in keeping with the narcotic undertow of the lyrics; Warren Ellis on ‘mandocaster’ and ‘loops’ appears to be responsible for part of the effect here, but the vocal, too, is a siren-song on Cave’s part. Yes, we might miss Blixa on this or on any Bad Seeds production. But hell’s bells, Ellis is extraordinary. He and his merry chums conjure up a whole legion of exotic instruments, even the names of which sound like they’re capable of summoning up a few spectres: ‘mandocaster,’ ‘cuica’, ‘loops,’ ‘vibra slap.’ The viola on ‘We Call Upon the Author’ sounds like it’s been ectoplasmically rearranged; the flute on ‘Jesus of the Moon’ levitates, man.

I could go on. But I won’t, at least until I’ve seen the live show in May. Suffice it to say that this is a record with ‘eat me’ written on it. Be sure, however, to take repeated doses. Overdose if at all possible. If you do, I guarantee you’ll find much more Homeric (and other) dark matter in Lazarus‘s beguiling murk. Get out your Homer and your headphones and dig.


(1) go to this page for a biog/bibliography: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/berryman/life.htm

(2) The reference to ‘went the Hemming-way’ refers to the fact that the novelist Ernest Hemingway killed himself at the point where he felt he could no longer write. See http://www.ernest.hemingway.com/marywelsh.htm for more details.

(3)For the poetry anoraks amongst us, go to this blog which supports Barack Obama, and look at the use the blogger makes of Lowell’s poem ‘For the Union Dead’ which takes the idea of  the US state as an aquarium and compare with Cave’s lyric ‘they fishbowled me and toured me round the old aquariums’. Has Cave been reading Lowell too? –Lowell and Berryman were contemporaries and friends.  http://progressiveerupts.blogspot.com/2008/03/for-union-dead-robert-lowell.html