‘For there is nowhere to bide,’ Rilke tells us in the first Duino Elegy. We live, however, as if we have a home, a stopping place, when we are just the movement of a heartbeat through the clockwork hours. And the heart beats counter to the clock. Heartbeat is wrong: life swims in us, rather than beating. The clock is the one who strikes. Dasein, being, is drowned out by the noisy seconds, their inexorable subtractions. Even our English verbs have forgotten this, subject as they are to the slap of minutes and the fist of days.

In England, we talk about where we’ live,’  and there hardly seems to be another verb used for it. In Scotland, friends ask you ‘where do you stay?’  and at least then living somewhere seems to keep faith with the lack of permanence that is its true condition. But in England, the question ‘where do you live?’ has come to mean something about postcodes, mortgages, even GPS coordinates that you can punch into a Satnav. It hardly has the drift of what it really means, less still the urgency with which Rilke, say, might ask the question: ‘where do you live?’

That question is one Rilke asks me now; Rilke, long dead, and yet breathing for me as forcefully as his ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’  ‘Where do you live?’ he asks, throwing his whole voice into the verb. It is not a question I can answer, but one that a line from Hopkins tries to answer for me: ‘deals out that being indoors each one dwells.’ Oh Hopkins. He just assumes that selving happens as a matter of course. ‘Each mortal thing,’ he writes, ‘selves, goes itself,’ as if those mortal things deal out their being as easily as they exhale. Not so, unfortunately.

Where we live and where we dwell is locked within us, an underground river, looking for its resurgence. Our task is therefore not to find a place to lay our heads but to descend to the slipstream and abide there. If you have ever tried to stand upright in a burn in spate you will know how difficult this task is: once in a torrent or meltwater, the ‘you’ is seen for the flotsam that it is. Try to stay standing in it and only your will remains, only your pure attention.

‘To ‘bide’ or to ‘abide’ is hardly possible; biding is fragile defense against the force of life. A parable: years ago, on the Shetland Island of Whalsay, I stayed with J in a cottage once rented by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who used the place as an office in which to write ‘A Raised Beach.’ The owners were a generous and sociable couple who had a thirteen-year-old daughter. One evening, we sat down to our meal, the door open to the warm July dusk. We ate and talked and did not notice that a third presence had approached. A girl (we assumed it was the daughter) was standing on the threshold, watching us eat. We did not know how long she had been there; perhaps thirty seconds, perhaps ten minutes: her gaze was so soft that it took light years to reach us. Realising who she must be, we tried to talk to her, asking her about her life on this tiny island, and about the other islands. Which was her favourite? ‘Bressay…where my aunt bides.’ Bides. In the dusk, that word swung back and forth before me like a candle lantern, and has swung ever since. Who was she, this girl who talked of biding? We could not persuade her to come into the house and we could not suggest that she leave. When I passed near her, she shrank against the wall, even though I was not less than five feet from her. To my shame, I felt afraid of her. She lived on Whalsay, but where did she bide? We had guessed who she was, but at no time did she offer us her name. Looking at us with curiosity, she managed not to stare, as if someone had charcoal-sketched the expression into her eyes. She was an ember made grey ash, slaked by the sea.

Visited by this creature, I was gifted the verb ‘bide’ and its lovely sister ‘abide.’ Full of longing, calling out ‘stay with me, though you cannot stay,’ ‘bide’ and ‘abide’ tell us of reaching out for stillness when the night comes, of desire breathing out and aching for rest.

‘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.