Nick Cave: Let There Be Light

Once a holy terror trespassing on hallowed ground, Nick Cave has given over to tender mercies and spiritual hymns. He’s still got the devil inside him, only these days he’s feeling closer to God. By Jonathan Valania. Photos by Trevor O’Shana

He was born like this, he had no choice. Nick Cave was born with the gift of a golden voice. He asked Leonard Cohen, “How lonely does it get?” Leonard Cohen hasn’t answered yet. But Nick Cave hears him coughing all night long, a couple floors above him in the Tower Of Song.

In the beginning, there was the Birthday Party. And it was good. Rock ‘n’ roll as sonic aneurysm: screeching, cataclysmic and cruel. The Birthday Party was scary. Not in the silly Count Chocula way of the misguided goths who would follow in its steps, but, like, Exorcist scary. Danger was the Birthday Party’s business, and in the early ‘80s, business was good. Nick Cave was the human cannonball at the microphone, and the band would light the fuse and run for cover. When the audience demanded blood, Cave could open up and bleed with the best of them. When he got bored with that, he would jump into the crowd for a good punch-up or maybe just drop-kick the head of any audience member who dared to stand in the front row. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Birthday Party nicknamed one tour the “Oops, I’ve Got Blood On The Tip Of My Boot” tour.

And there were drugs—bags and bags of drugs. The worst drugs money can buy. It wasn’t long before Cave was willing to cut off his leg to feed his arm, and things only grew more ghoulish and dastardly. He literally wrote lyrics with a blood-filled syringe. Until one day the Birthday Party ran out of blood and the willingness to extract it from others. All things move toward their end, as Cave would later write, and the Birthday Party had stopped moving. So ends the first chapter in the Book Of Nick.

“Things changed when Nick stopped reading the Old Testament and started reading the New Testament,” says Mick Harvey, Cave’s musical co-conspirator since the beginning of the Birthday Party.

You can pretty much understand the entirety of the New Testament by reading the shortest sentence in the Bible: Jesus wept. At some point, somewhere deep in his coal-black junkie heart, Cave did, too. He still had demons to exorcise when he went solo in the mid-‘80s, backed by charter Bad Seeds like guitarist/drummer Harvey, Einstürzende Neubauten anti-guitarist Blixa Bargeld and bassist Barry Adamson.

Slowly but surely, the hellfire and brimstone of the Old Testament gave way to the sorrow and the pity of the New Testament. There were still trials and tribulations, to be sure. The quality of mercy could still be strained. One album was called Your Funeral … My Trial, and Cave wasn’t kidding. Another record was called Murder Ballads, and he was totally kidding. In 1988, down and out in Berlin, Cave was reduced to dealing heroin to feed his habit, all the while laboring over And The Ass Saw The Angel, his years-in-the-works novel of Southern-gothic fabulism (which finally saw the light of day the next year). Under threat of jail time from the last of countless drug busts, Cave was forced into rehab.

Since then, Cave has tightrope walked on the narrow wire of straightness, though he’ll admit he’s fallen off occasionally. The Bad Seed became the Good Son. He let love in, and unto the world a child was born. And then another one. And then two more. As much out of necessity as intent, Nick The Ripper became Saint Nick. And it was good. The lurid details of his transformation from hypodermic Tasmanian Devil to elder statesman, literary eminence and recently married—to British model Susie Bick—family man have been told time and again in magazine articles that stack as thick as a phone book. (The curious are advised to check out Ian Johnston’s 1995 biography, Bad Seed.)

Along the way, something miraculous happened: Cave became a great songwriter. While many probably still think he sleeps in a coffin and still blame him for goth, the standard by which he measures himself as an artist is the work of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen—before which, he’ll tell you, he stands humbled. Although he’ll deny it, the songs on the recent No More Shall We Part (Reprise) breathe the same rarefied air of brilliance those songwriters once exhaled. At times stripped nearly to the bone of silence—and devoid of all the pretense, posturing and dark intent that would occasionally mar his previous work—these psalms of love and devotion lift their skinny arms toward heaven. And it is very good.

Cave is sitting across from me in a hotel room in Denmark, hours before his appearance at the Roskilde Festival, where he’ll share an audience of 60,000 with the likes of Dylan, Neil Young, Beck and PJ Harvey (with whom he shared a brief romantic dalliance, the rise and fall of which he chronicled on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call). Although he was born in Australia 44 years ago, Cave has lived the latter half of his life in London or on the continent. He is, for all intents and purposes, a European son, and he’s treated like royalty. People take off hats and open doors when he walks by. Ever the clotheshorse, Cave is sporting a cranberry paisley shirt; snug, wood-colored pants wrap his long toothpick legs. He’s tall and needle-thin, his eyes clear and intensely blue. Though Cave has been described as the only man who can pull off a mullet, his hair is bobbed short and, as always, dyed ink black. For the first and possibly last time in his life, he has grown a beard. He’s warm and courteous and, by his own admission, quite shy. He’s also—and this is something he rarely gets credit for—quite funny. Years ago, he would think nothing of punching out journalists if they crossed him, and he still does not suffer fools gladly. Just graciously.

A few years ago, you were invited to speak before an academic seminar on songwriting in Vienna, and the lecture you gave has been published as “The Secret Life Of The Love Song,” which reads, in part: “Writing allowed me direct access to my imagination, to inspiration and ultimately to God. I found that through the use of language I was writing God into existence. Language became the blanket that I threw over the invisible man which gave him shape and form. The actualizing of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist.” First of all, that is profound. Secondly, how did you arrive at that?
I don’t know, but it’s true. Writing is the most reliable way I know to lift my spirits, to make me feel, to make me a better person. I noticed that very early on, and I noticed that with my father. He used to read his favorite literature to me as a child. It changed him as it does me, too. I feel protected by that. It’s the one thing I think I’m really good at.

You have stated in the past that you have always had faith in God and that you pray every day. Is it blind faith or more of a rational conclusion?
The most exciting thing about that to me is that faith is irrational. It’s very hard to defend in an argument. To me, it has to do with the imagination, magic and the absurd. And it excites me … I do have contradictory spiritual beliefs, and I’m often being batted back and forth. But I do have a fundamental belief in God, and I always have. It’s difficult for me to discuss or defend. For me, it’s disorganized religion. In a way, I wish I could subscribe to some systemized belief. But I don’t.

Elsewhere in “The Secret Life Of The Love Song,” you say, “A love song is never simply happy, it must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within their lines an ache or sigh are not love songs at all but rather they are hate songs disguised as love songs and they are not to be trusted.”
Not bad, eh?

And never more relevant than right now.
There is nothing more demeaning or depressing than trying to appear happy when you are not. To me, the great thing about music, which puts it above the other art forms, I think, is that it has the potential to say a whole lot of things at the same time. You have all these different things going on at the same time—the words, the melody, the chords, the way that the words are sung. So you can get a whole lot of conflicting things going on at the same time. So you can have a happy lyric, but it can be very sad at the same time because there are a lot of other emotional instructions going on.

Tell me something you learned about yourself from fatherhood that surprised you.
I’ve been a father for a long time now. I’ve got two 10-year-olds. I’m very intuitive, and I’m good at it. I’m good at being a father. It came naturally, and that surprised me.

Canongate, a respected British publishing house, has been putting out pocket editions of the books of the New Testament and asking respected literary types like A.S. Byatt, A.N. Wilson, Louis de Bernières, Fay Weldon and Will Self to write introductions. They asked you to do the Gospel Of St. Mark, which you describe as, “Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such matter-of-factness and raw economy that they become palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.” Could not the same be said of the writings of Nick Cave?
Well, I think I could have gotten to the point a bit better in my songs in the way that Mark does, and that’s the thing I find so eerie and haunting about that gospel. The urgency of it, this kind of breathless tale spinning towards the death of Christ. Everything is loaded with death, and I find that really exciting. I think what I’m trying to do is get closer to something like that. To strip back language and say what I mean. That’s been a long process for me. Coming back to my father again: He was obsessed with the English language, the beauty of it and its potential. And it was almost as if it didn’t matter what it said as long as it was said in a beautiful way, and I agree with that. Over the years, I’ve tried to strip things back to a clearer meaning.

If or when you write another novel, what will you change about your approach or your methods?
Well, I wouldn’t write it like the last one, which was sort of death by the English language. And I think that there is something that can be really chilling in the way it is in Mark in saying things directly if it is done in the right way. I guess it’s taken a while to understand that.

I’m sorry to throw all of these grandiose questions at you. This is sounding very stilted. I usually just have a conversation with people. But you have been known to beat up journalists or, at the very least, reduce them to tears, so I thought I had better come up with some “smart” questions.
Well, people always come at me with these questions, so the interviews always wind up that way—like exams or job interviews.

You’ve already got the job, so let’s try talking about something a little less profound. What’s a typical day in the life of Nick Cave?
On a weekday, I work. I get up in the morning, get dressed and go to my office, which is a room I rent with a piano and a desk, and I write stuff. I come home around six o’clock and hang around.

I heard you used to keep a diary of the weather.
I live in London, and you are very much a victim of the weather. I particularly love the springtime in London. It’s one of the few times of the year that the weather is tolerable. There was one spring when it wasn’t coming. I have a skylight in my home, and I would look out and there would be no blue sky. The flowers were coming up rather reluctantly, and there was no spring—and it was looking like there wasn’t going to be a spring. I was getting very hurt about this. I took it very personal, actually, like, “What have I done now?” So I started to write the Weather Diaries. When I would go into the office every day, I would document what was happening with the weather. I got really into it. I would carry a pad around with me. Any little change I would jot down. I started to see the weather in a different way. It became very exciting when there was really bad weather because I would get to write about it. It led to all sorts of things. But my one responsibility to the project was to document the weather every day. It was looking good, it was looking publishable: the world’s most tedious book. But then I had twins, and I started going to the hospital instead of the office. So it never got finished—it was going to be one solid year. And of course, springtime was rather lovely in London this year, and I think it’s because I paid it some attention last year. I think the weather needs people to pay attention.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve received from a fan?
I used to get a lot of strange stuff, a lot of letters, extraordinary letters, but I don’t get that much anymore. There was a period when my music might have aggravated the darker side of people and they felt they had a kindred spirit in me, and either they have grown older or sorted themselves out or are focusing their obsessions onto some other poor bastard … There were these wonderful letters written by a girl called Barbie. They were certainly publishable. Very beautifully written and very frightening, very frightening. She was around all the time. She was talking about things that were going on with me that were kind of personal, so she was obviously hanging around. She would mention details of small gatherings, things that she could only have known about by witnessing them firsthand. I never found out who she was. She hated other women, she had this homicidal force. [The letters] were regular and very, very creepy and very exciting. They would come sometimes three times a week. How wonderful and handsome I was and how all the songs were about her and she understood that I had to use other names in the songs to keep up appearances—and then they would just explode: “If any of you bitches at Mute (Cave’s European record label) read this, I’ll fucking come around and kill you all.” Really great stuff. And then they just stopped. I don’t know what happened to Barbie, but I hope she’s OK.

I’m not a psychiatrist and don’t pretend to know you, but the portrait that emerges from your press sounds like textbook manic-depressive. Is that fair, or is it the angle writers always take?
I don’t think I am manic-depressive. I think we all feel like that. I really don’t like being depressed, and I actually don’t feel that I am that much these days. I’ve learned a lot of ways to make myself better. Generally, I feel pretty level in a lot of ways. I get really excited about things. It’s pretty much learning how to switch these things off and on; it’s a discipline. I don’t think that I am a manic-depressive, although I have actually been diagnosed in that way—they call it bipolar. But I don’t think it’s true. People are very swift to make diagnoses and hand out pills, and I don’t take anything like that. I don’t need to.

The reason I ask is because, assuming for a minute that is or was true, are the highs worth the lows if that’s the price of creativity? If you could switch from being a creative person with these intense mood swings to an even-keeled person who is faintly happy all the time, would you do it if it meant no longer being creative?
I actually like things to be kind of level. There is nothing worse than to be kind of incapacitated by my moods. It’s just a fucking waste of time, and I won’t stand for it, really. But I’ve never been the type who sits on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands for days on end. I’ve felt bad at times, but I just get up and do what I have to do. I’ve always been active. I don’t feel very comfortable with that kind of question, because it tends to make something grand or heroic out of the artist type, and I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I know I get really excited and I’m really flying when I’m creating, and I feel it in my whole body. My whole chemistry really changes. But I think that most of us, if we are doing what we should be doing, can have that feeling. It’s not this exalted position of the artist. We all despair at times when we feel ineffectual.

In Ian Johnston’s biography Bad Seed, he cites a passage from Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment as the philosophy that fueled your early work, and it goes something like this: The world is divided into the ordinary and the extraordinary, and the extraordinary need not be tyrannized by the ordinary and the mediocre.
I don’t believe that. We all must live by the dictates of our own hearts, and we all have extraordinary hearts … I think that ordinary is extraordinary. I don’t know what is extraordinary.

I would say, by definition, Nick Cave is extraordinary. I know plenty of people who spend all their time watching television. That’s ordinary. You have at least spent 20 years sweating it out behind a typewriter and a microphone.
I know plenty of people that have spent 20 years lugging bags of cement up and down stairs. I’m not being humble here, I just don’t think one is more extraordinary than the other. I honestly don’t think that what I do is extraordinary. I think I do OK, but I don’t think it’s great. I think it is possible to achieve greatness, but I don’t think I am a candidate for that. It’s always been real hard to do what I do, a real struggle to achieve what I’ve achieved, and I’ve never really been that happy with it.

I think that is part of the nobility of it: the effort. That it doesn’t come easily yet it still gets done.
All I can see is fault and lack.

Well, at the very least, your new album is extraordinary.
But extraordinary with a small “e.” It’s alright.

It think it’s your best album to date.
It’s OK, but it’s just rock music.

Maybe you didn’t cure cancer, but …
You never know about that. Certainly rock music has as much curative power as anything else.

I’m sure you’re sick to death of talking about drugs, but I would be remiss as a journalist if I didn’t bring it up. So I’ll limit it to two questions: Why did you start? Why did you stop?
Well, I started because it felt really great. I stopped because it felt really bad.

That’s even more reductive than my questions.
[Laughs] Well, I’ll put it another way. This is even better and more reductive: I started because it felt right. I stopped because it felt wrong.

You’ve said before that you have no regrets about your drug use. And even though you have been criticized for glamorizing drug use, you’ve never been cowed into doing some phony “stay off drugs, kids” routine, unlike others we won’t name here.
I do have regrets about things, and some of them are about drugs. But who wants to hear someone preach? My regret is that there was a lot of time wasted—the more I think about it and the further I get away from that period and the less time I have left. And also I don’t remember things, and that is my greatest regret: I just don’t remember what happened. If I could have anything, I would have my memory restored.

What can’t you remember? Weeks? Months? Years?
The details of things. It wasn’t even necessarily just drugs, it was just a kind of way of living. There was no sense of thought to what one does; you just kind of barrel forward. Whether you are having a good time or a bad time, it doesn’t matter. For me, there was no reflection about anything. Consequently, it’s just a blur. I have old friends who will talk about the past in a very clear way, and I don’t have the same kind of recollection that they do. I regret that, and I think that has to do with drug taking. In the end, that’s all you’ve got: memories.

Aside from memory, do you feel you’ve lost any sharpness or clarity?
I don’t think that part of my brain was damaged. I’ve read (the Pogues’) Shane MacGowan’s book, and that’s extraordinary in the way that he can remember every little detail. So maybe I’ve always had a bad memory. But anyway, no, I don’t get on my high horse about it.

You are just turning 44. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were 24 or 34?
I don’t think I would have wanted to know the things that I know now when I was 24. No one should know those things—or you would cease to be young. There is a way that I was when I was young that I will never be able to get back. It’s just lost, and I don’t regret that. And I’m not trying to find it.

As Leonard Cohen put it: Do you ache in the places where you used to play?
That’s one of his better lines, isn’t it? But I don’t know what you mean by that.

You’ve led a life that would kill most men—that has killed many men, including close friends of yours—and you appear to have come out of it without a scratch. You are remarkably well preserved.
It’s the beard.

It does make you look a little more dangerous. Speaking of which, I was really surprised to learn that you consider Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to be one of the great songs of all time. It just doesn’t gel with the image of Nick Cave, the man who used to kick heads in at Birthday Party shows.
The Birthday Party, certain members anyway, always used to listen to music that was sort of contrary to what we were doing. I’ve always done that. I don’t know about now, but for many, many years, Blixa was a huge country ‘n’ western fan and knows it real well. I listened to all sorts of stuff when I was in the Birthday Party, like the Carpenters, blues music, country music. I’ve always had a thing for a real classic kind of song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” There are great lines in that song: “Sail on, silver girl.” Great stuff.

Looking back, what do you think the Birthday Party accomplished?
I think there are some really good records there. There is certainly an abandonment and irreverence that’s difficult to maintain, but I think we succeeded on that count. I think, generally, they are really good records. And I only say that because I probably haven’t listened to them in 20 years.

Let’s talk about No More Shall We Part. One of the themes that comes through is the notion of the family unit as a bulwark against the cruelty and uncertainty of the world. That’s a very conservative, middle-class sentiment.
[Feigning a look of horror] It is a reflection of the way things were or are but possibly not the way they will remain. Certainly at this stage of my life, I have needed a certain amount of stability and comfort, but not in a middle-class way. [Laughs] But you make a record like that, and immediately you want to make another kind of record. We have plans to go into the studio next year, without the songs already being written, in a much less controlled environment and the band being much more involved in the songwriting aspect of it. Just to get away from that kind of piano-driven, middle-class approach. [Laughs]

I hope I haven’t mortally wounded you with that middle-class comment. That can’t be good for your image.
I’ll probably wake up in the middle of the night tonight screaming, “I’ve become middle class!” Almost immediately after making this record, I was inspired to make another record, and that is very rarely the case. I felt like I needed to go back to the office and write some more stuff. After Boatman’s Call, I was disgusted with the whole process, I just didn’t feel like writing songs anymore. They just gave me the shits. I would sit down at the piano, and I just didn’t care, really. With both this record and The Boatman’s Call, all the songs were worked out before I went into the studio, and unless something disastrous happened, I knew they were going to be good albums because the songs were good. I would kind of like to go into the studio without that knowledge.

Work without a net and maybe loosen the reins on the Bad Seeds?
Well, definitely.

“God Is In The House,” from the new record, is this devastating, dead-on satire of small-town American life. You’ve never lived in America. How did you pick up on all of that?
I went on a honeymoon there. Bizarrely enough, we decided to drive across America. And it was actually kind of wonderful. We drove through Arizona and stayed away from the main cities and visited a lot of small towns, which I love. But there is definitely this attitude of, “We’re alright here, and all the problems are in the big cities.” But also, they were very, very sweet, I have to say. I mean, genuinely curious, warm people. I actually felt a bit bad about writing that song. You go to the dry cleaner for five minutes and have a conversation and come back a few days later to pick up your clothes and say goodbye, and they would be genuinely teary-eyed.

And people didn’t know who you were?
No. And that was great.

It’s hours later, and Cave is prowling the stage at Roskilde, the infamous festival where 15 people were crushed to death last year during Pearl Jam’s set. Nothing will die tonight, except perhaps the lurking suspicion among long-time fans that Cave has somehow gone soft. Backed by his Bad Seeds, a crack eight-piece outfit that can shift effortlessly from hushed meditation to white-noise crescendo at a moment’s notice, Cave is wrapping up a sweaty, hour-long set before an enraptured audience. He encores with the twisted, destructo-blues of “St. Huck” (which dates back to the first Bad Seeds album, 1984’s From Her To Eternity), tapping into the primal chaotica of his work with the Birthday Party. When the smoke clears, this much is certain: Nick Cave still has the devil in him.

Backstage, Cave and the Bad Seeds unwind around a picnic table. It would appear tobacco is the sole vice they share these days. Cave, who has by now traded his black suit jacket and dress shirt for a T-shirt that reads “Jesus Is Back Just Like He Said He Would Be,” doesn’t even drink anymore. Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis, who’s now a full-fledged member of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s primary musical foil, is completely clean and sober. He’s married with children, as is Harvey. “When I was by myself, it didn’t matter so much what I did,” says Ellis, who’s had his own battles with the needle. “But now I got people depending on me.” The Bad Seeds, it would seem, aren’t so bad anymore.

On the festival’s main stage, Neil Young And Crazy Horse are firing up a set of bruising biker-bar blues and molten roach-clip classics. Both Cave and Ellis are avowed Neil disciples, and we quickly make our way over to watch from the side of the stage. Young is in the middle of one of his patented guitar solos, cradling his guitar like it’s a baby on fire and he’s trying to put out the flames without dropping the child. He never does. Cave and Ellis—and, for that matter, 60,000 others—look on in reverie.

“Sounds like he’s been puffin’ the magic dragon,” says Ellis with a chuckle.

“He’s in the Circle Of Trust,” says Cave, gravely. “Once you step out, you can never get back in.”

And then he does the last thing you would ever expect Nick Cave to do. He smiles.