I thought I’d take a walk todayNick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Oh My Lord”
It’s a mistake I sometimes make
I don’t know if I know any casual fans of Nick Cave. People who like Nick Cave really seem to love Nick Cave. Call it envy or FOMO, maybe, but I often want to participate in those kinds of things—the things that people really, really love. For example, I trained myself to like olives and oysters because people who like olives and oysters really love them. And in both cases it worked for me and expanded my gustatory world. Castelvetrano olives! Cerignola olives! Dirty martinis! Grilled oysters! Raw oysters with mignonette sauce! Oh, the bountiful world in which we are so lucky to live! I love all of it so much more because—thankfully—I learned to love it. I arrived late to those parties, and then I never left.
The Nick Cave fans I knew described listening to his music as a deeply personal experience. But they also spoke lovingly about his live shows, in which they were able to enjoy their typically private experience with a crowd of like-minded people. A community. A party. Two friends of mine separately told me about how they were moved to tears at two different Nick Cave concerts. One of them recalled that strangers wept and hugged each other after a recent performance at Stubbs in Austin, TX, and that it was the most cathartic experience of his life. I believed my friends, and I was moved, but these stories didn’t move me to the record store, though. I hardly—even in the age of being able to listen to anything, anytime, anywhere—I hardly even attempted to listen to Nick Cave until pretty recently. I’d catch a song here or there somehow, but I probably wouldn’t even listen to the whole thing. And this is the question I want to write too much about here: Why not? Why the resistance? Why did I hear about this particular party and think, “Nah, I’m staying in tonight?” And what made me think, at last, “Okay. I’ll see what the big deal is.”
One answer has to do with a sense of already arriving far too late. As I recall, my friends made me think I’d flat out missed my opportunity to develop an appreciation as deep as theirs—that I had not dedicated any part of myself to Nick Cave’s music when it would have been especially vital. I don’t know what I mean by that now as I write it, but that’s how I remember feeling. I was convinced that I wasn’t just late to the party. I was sure I had missed it entirely.
Another answer has to do with a certain cynicism and a lack of openness to culture that I’ve struggled with throughout my life. This is the answer I want to explore a little more here. I’ll come back to Nick Cave in a minute. Please bear with me.
While I was thinking about all of this, I happened across novelist and critic Zadie Smith’s essay, “Some Notes on Attunement,” in which she writes about her own lateness to the Joni Mitchell party. She wonders how she could’ve despised Joni Mitchell for so long before finally coming passionately around to her. Smith chalks up her resistance to Mitchell partly to her own issues with trusting others when they try to give her cultural advice. “I will admit,” she admits, “that in the past, when I have met connoisseurs, I’ve found it a bit hard to believe in them entirely. Philistinism often comes with a side order of distrust.” Smith and I—Philistines that we are—both acknowledge that this distrust is our own problem. We both admire the connoisseurs who set aside their resistances and enjoy good stuff, and it would be nice if we could get out of our own way from time to time and join them. She continues:
For some people, the door is wide open, and pretty much everything—on the condition that it is good—gets a hearing. And I am indebted to my friends of this kind who have, after all, managed to effect some difficult and arduous change in my taste. I’m grateful for the re-education, while still fearing that my life will never be long enough to give serious consideration to all the different kinds of wine that can be squeezed out of different kinds of grapes.
Smith concludes that, when she finally decided to open up to Joni Mitchell, she had finally properly “attuned” herself in a way that allowed Mitchell’s work to resonate at the right frequency. And she observes that she doesn’t have to do this “attunement” with other forms of media. While she’s always open to any kind of literature, she notes that, when it comes to music, “I seem to have formed rigid ideas and created defenses around them.” I can relate.
I am open to literature and poetry, to visual art, and to food. I require almost no attunement to dive wholeheartedly into any of these things. I am closed off to most movies, television, and video games. When it comes to those sorts of things, I like what I know. Or, I guess, I like what I know that I like. And I think I know what I like. And I require quite a lot of attunement to give any of these kinds of media any of my precious time. With music, I’m semi-open. I require some attunement to give a new artist or album a chance. For a lot of us, I think this might’ve been what we use (or once used) the AV Club for. The expert opinions of connoisseurs like Sean O’Neal, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and Sonia Saraiya helped me adjust my frequencies to properly enjoy some new music, movies, and television. Now, I think a lot of us use the Avocado for the same thing. We’re a whole community of connoisseurs!
Finding Nick Cave
Okay. So Nick Cave.
In December 2019, I came late to the Nick Cave party via Warren Ellis. I’ve loved The Dirty Three—the mostly instrumental trio that Ellis fronts with his violin—for twenty years. I was watching a Dirty Three performance on YouTube on my TV while working from home. Gradually I set my work aside and just stared at the television. And when my wife, Grumproro, got home I wanted her to listen and see how fucking cool Ellis is.
And so we left the video running while we prepared and ate dinner. The video ended, and the next video auto-played. It was a full Nick Cave and the Bad Seed concert from 2001 when they were on their God is in the House tour. I made the connection in my head that Warren Ellis was in the Bad Seeds. It was one of those facts that I knew, but I wasn’t sure how I knew it.
The show started with the bass line for a song called “Do You Love Me,” and, still thinking that Nick Cave was probably just not for me, I thought about turning it off to watch some Star Trek or enjoy something else to which I was already properly attuned. But then a trebly chord shimmered out of Blixa Bargeld’s guitar. A pipe-organ-sounding synth hummed. The mood turned very noir there in that instant. And then the piano took over the melody. And I decided to pay attention.
And then Nick Cave sang. And Nick Cave danced. And he flailed. And he leaned over the edge of the stage, seemed to lock onto a particular audience member, and he pointed directly at them:
He growled and moaned and belted. And Grump and I lay on the couch and watched the entire 1 hour, 28 minutes, 15 seconds of the concert. And I totally got it. I got what my friends were talking about. I was deeply moved and haven’t gone a day since without thinking about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
His performance is sublime. His style is confrontational and exhausting. I kept thinking, with almost every song, that he couldn’t possibly go on like that. But he just kept going. An hour into the show, “The Mercy Seat” built and built and, impossibly, built to a frantic conclusion. I was stunned.
Cave then catches his breath, sits at the piano, and, without even a bit of banter, plays a simple set of chords. He croons: “I don’t believe in an interventionist god / But I know, darling, that you do.” The entire audience sang along with chorus: “Into my arms, oh lord / Into my arms.”
I understood how strangers—in Austin, TX, no less—might cry together and hug each other. It’s a song that makes you need to tell the people who you love that you love them.
That was my entry to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But what had finally attuned me in such a way that I would actually finally listen to them?
A little constellation of several things near and distant, I think: My friends’ love of this stuff from years ago (it would’ve been probably around 2003); my love of Warren Ellis and The Dirty Three; the YouTube auto-play feature; the particular mood of that December evening; our very comfortable couch. And also—a little bit, somewhere in my brain where it would take me days of thinking, writing and revising to find him—David Lynch.
What had kept me from attuning myself earlier? I think it’s dread. Or, maybe, my own dread of dread.
Possibly part of the reason I was not properly attuned to Nick Cave’s frequency earlier was that I wasn’t ready to deal with the dread evoked in some of my now-favorite Cave songs. I’m thinking here of “The Mercy Seat” and “From Her to Eternity.”
It’s been a strange experience walking around with “The Mercy Seat” repeating in my head for the last month. It’s a song told from the perspective of a convict thinking his final thoughts as he’s strapped into the electric chair. It’s dark and full of, you know, dread.
And the mercy seat is a-waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof
Of an eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
But I’m afraid I told a lie
And it reminds me of a passage in the George Saunders short story, “Victory Lap” (which I saw him read live in Cleveland one time and—like a Nick Cave concert—bring the entire audience to tears). In the story a very evil man faces death as a younger man prepares to brane him with a large rock. Saunders writes:
Then he saw that the kid was going to bring the rock down. He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept growing at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.
I have never died at the hands of another person, nor have I been put to death by the state, but I believe Cave nails that feeling “of a terrible dread welling up” inside of a person when this is about to happen. The inability to collect one’s thoughts; the inescapable circularity; the panicked grasping. I didn’t do it; I told the truth; I am not afraid to die. I didn’t do it; I told the truth; I am not afraid. I didn’t do it; I told the truth; I may have told a lie.
Nick Cave’s “From Her to Eternity” is a story similarly told from the perspective of an, uh, unreliable narrator. In this case, it’s a man who’s dangerously obsessed with the woman who lives in the apartment above his. It is a psychotic song told from the perspective of a psychotic man. The experience of listening to it is unnerving, and the plunky piano line forces you—if you’re willing to move along with it at all—to move along with the tune’s angular off-ness. And just like “The Mercy Seat,” the music and lyrics work together to create a strong sense of dread.
I realize now that I may have avoided Nick Cave earlier because I thought this kind of dark and dreadful subject matter was distasteful. It grated against my sensibilities. But my sensibilities have changed, and I feel rewarded by listening to Cave’s music. I am not a psychopath nor a murderer—I promise—so what do I get out of songs that give me insight into the minds of such characters?
In a post on his Red Hand Files—a website where he answers some of his fans’ questions—Cave discusses his and his wife’s grief after their son’s death. This essay is getting a little long, but bear with me here, please, because what he writes is beautiful and illuminating (I added the emphasis in the quote below):
I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie [Cave’s wife] in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.
I was not attuned to darkness, dread, and grief for much of my life. I avoided it and shut it out, and I think now that that was a mistake. Two years ago, I arrived late to Twin Peaks and the David Lynch party more generally. Lynch is another artist known for creating a sense of dread in his work and who dives deeply into the minds of psychopaths and murderers. But part of Lynch’s point, I think, is that we do ourselves a disservice by choosing to look away from these people, their thoughts, and their actions.1 We need to pay attention to humanity’s worst qualities to better understand and appreciate humanity’s goodness. The sweetness of a piece of pie is enhanced when enjoyed alongside a cup of bitter coffee. The brininess of the olive juice cuts through and elevates the richness of the vodka. The sharp vinegar of the mignonette sauce plays well with the creamy oceanic oyster. When these things are combined, a balanced flavor is created that is greater than the sum of its parts. Cave and Lynch have helped me understand that when we confront human darkness directly, with care and craft and artistry, the sense of dread they create trails bright phantoms in its wake.
I think we perceive those bright phantoms when Cave concludes his frantic wailing of the final thoughts of a condemned murderer and sits down at the piano bench to play a simple chord progression and croon “Into My Arms.”
Like Zadie Smith, “I’m grateful for the re-education” that Cave and Lynch have guided me through. But, like Smith, I also know “that my life will never be long enough to give serious consideration to all the different kinds of wine that can be squeezed out of different kinds of grapes.” There are so many grapes out there and so little time. Or maybe there’s plenty of time. I dunno. In any case, the sad, dreadful grapes are worth tasting just as much as the happy ones. In another post to The Red Hand Files, Cave responds to a fan who did not find his latest album, Ghosteen, particularly sad, and who seems perplexed at the critical consensus that it is a very sad album. Cave notes that he set out to make Ghosteen an uplifting album, but he adds:
If there is sadness in Ghosteen, perhaps it is the recognition that we are often blind to the splendour of the world and indifferent to its attendant wonder. Perhaps the sadness is the recognition that the world is indeed beautiful, that it spins within the palm of our own hands and its beauty is available to all, if only we had eyes to see.
Or if only we had the ears to hear it.