Print Issue 197 Summer 2009
The monarch of middlebrow
The deplorable career of Nick Cave
So began, twenty-five years ago, the solo career of Nick Cave and, with it, the slow, unlikely, but now seemingly inexorable rise of a self-exiled junkie brat to become reigning patriarch of Australian popular music. It’s an old habit of Cave’s to refer to himself in royal terms, and he’s living proof that if you believe in your own cant for long enough, other people might eventually start believing it too. ‘I am the King!’ he squawks on 1982′s ‘Junkyard’, one of The Birthday Party’s most powerful songs, as he revels for nearly half a dozen minutes in a perversely apt titular pun on the heroin-ravaged empire of his own mind. ‘I AM the King!’ he insists, wasted and desperately intent on clawing his way to the top of the shit heap. It sounds as if he might kill to get up there – and, in a sense, he has.
‘From Her To Eternity’, the 1984 title track of Cave’s first post-Birthday Party album, remains his single best work. It is, against expectation, a ferociously disciplined piece of music: percussive guitar effects litter the mix with the cold malevolence of spent bullet casings, while a piano ticks out a one-fingered refrain like a doomsday clock. Yet the playing retains just enough of The Birthday Party’s lurching, seasick rhythmic sensibility to suggest that the whole ensemble could go under at any second. ‘From Her To Eternity’ is musically thrilling. It also lays out in candid and concise terms Cave’s most enduring lyrical obsession: lustmord, sex murder.
There’s a girl stalking the floor above the singer’s head; she’s weeping, and he swallows her tears as they fall through the cracks in the floorboards. The singer wants to save her from her demons but he also exults in them – her misery is intensely desirable. She’s all saltwater torment, dripping and dissolving back into that primordial woman-swamp like the Wicked Witch of the West, but she’s also indifferent to – perhaps even ignorant of – the singer’s existence.
‘She’s wearing those blue stockings, I bet,’ Cave muses, an intriguing detail. She’s a smart woman, self-reliant; she doesn’t need him nearly as much as he needs her. ‘This desire to possess her is a wound,’ Cave croons, and then his voice turns hard, ‘and it’s nagging at me like a shrew.’ So the desire for a woman he can’t possess nags at him like the ultimate possessive, scolding woman. And now Cave arrives at the formulation of a paradox that has fuelled his entire oeuvre with increasingly tedious and puerile results: ‘But I know that to possess her is therefore not to desire her/ So that lil’ girl will just have to go!’ He shouts out his conclusion and the song shifts into a hideous death rattle, with Cave’s yelps sounding as strangled as his poor victim’s. He’s probably garrotting her with the stockings.
From her to eternity: the phrase is an epitaph for Cave’s career. He has sculpted for himself, very deliberately, the mask of a timeless artist. Fully embraced now by both the tastemakers and the gatekeepers of Australian cultural life, his ascendancy has been enabled by a metaphorical pile of female corpses.
‘From Her To Eternity’ is, to my mind, an undeniably powerful piece of music. I must have listened to it hundreds of times since I first discovered it, around age fourteen, via Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, the director’s cinematic love-letter to a then-divided Berlin. At age fourteen I thought Wenders’ film filled with profound insights into the human condition. Watching it again recently while visiting Berlin, I was struck by just how platitudinous it was, a kind of kindergarten existentialism. Cave, then a Berlin resident, is filmed in a dingy club performing with his Bad Seeds – the last word in European hipsterdom. His performance is jaded. ‘I don’t wanna tell you about a girl, I don’t wanna tell you about a girl,’ he intones to himself in one of the fragmentary interior monologues that make up the film, before he submits to the demands of showbiz: ‘I wanna tell you ’bout a girl …’ It’s one of the few moments in the film that, this time around, struck me as carrying any emotional truth: even back in 1987 Cave was bored by his own crazy-man schtick, the half-Byron, half-werewolf sideshow act already as threadbare as an old suit. More’s the pity he didn’t act on the insight back then, if only to have saved the rest of us from the far greater boredom of putting up for the next two-and-a-bit decades with his stubborn, adolescent refusal to find a new subject to sing about.
Cave now occupies a curious position in Australian culture. Rather than the Black Crow King of his own imagination, he’s more the Monarch of Middlebrow. His likeness hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; his journals displayed at the National Library. His headline appearances bankroll summer music festivals and arts festivals alike while his early solo albums have been reissued in deluxe packages. You can buy his lyrics as a Penguin paperback. He is a cover star of weekend newspaper supplements and most recently of the Monthly, that over-earnest, reliably dull bush telegraph of all that is causing mild consternation among the nation’s opinion columnists.
Peter Conrad – who shares Cave’s childish notion that big words and ponderous syntax are signs of intellect – compares Cave in his Monthly essay to Christ, to Coleridge, to Baudelaire … but we’ve heard all this before, not least from Cave himself, who has never wanted for self-aggrandisement. Cave is not the first rock star – nor will he be the last – to tread the path of self-styled Romantic martyr, walking on air and writhing in the cesspit at one and the same time. And for Cave, as for his predecessors, women are both far better and far worse creatures than he – but whether they’re saints or sluts he has to kill them. Over and over in his songs, Cave performs this murder. On the one hand because murder puts female perfection eternally out of reach and therefore renders it perpetually desirable, on the other because women’s particular filth – their blood and milk and mucky cavities – represents all that is most base and abject about human existence.
Cave’s extreme confusion over women – one might describe it as an idealised hatred – was on striking display in a recent issue of Fairfax’s Good Weekend. He was glad, he said, to have a new novel to tout around because songwriting was ‘woman’s work’, comparable to childbirth, strenuous and bloody. It was a remark both contemptuous and silly, though it passed unchallenged by the interviewer. Presumably there’s something admirable in childbirth if Cave has chosen to lower himself to it so many times but still it’s messy and undignified, beneath the intellect of a real man. He offered no analogy for novel writing but presumably it would be something clean and cerebral, a lofty sort of data processing.
Cave is both a rampant misogynist and an arch-snob but it’s actually his snobbery that bothers me more – or rather, the way that his snobbery, amplified and encouraged by others, lends to his misogyny an air of respectability, as if it were something to be admired.
Like many women, I have a troubled relationship with the sexism and, yes, misogyny that continues to shape popular music. On the one hand I abhor it and it makes me tired and angry; on the other I love plenty of artists whose sexual politics could at best be described as dubious. Cave was once among them.
A great part of pop’s thrill lies in its creation of a space for highly ritualised transgression: it is one of capitalism’s great safety valves. In song and in image, ordinary people recreate themselves on a global stage as aliens or rebel soldiers, runaways or murderers, and such escapist fantasies make many a dull day bearable. Self-consciously ‘right-on’ artists like Ani DiFranco or Michael Franti, beloved among a certain hippie-ish subsection of the Left, seem to me to entirely miss the point: pop music is not a health spa for the soul but a space for self-mythologising and emotional excess. That’s what makes it fun. It is a theatre in which to act out a spectacular, petty revenge upon a world that doesn’t give a shit, that probably teased you at school for being fat and wearing glasses. Pop stardom is not a noble pursuit, but that isn’t to say that it can’t at times become political. The best artists can bring about a paradigm shift because they reflect and magnify the frustrations of a given era. Hence the self-renewing public obsession with punk, out of which artists like Nick Cave were born: the last gasp of a critically wounded body politic before neoliberalism turned the world into a purgatory of the living dead.
As Joy Press and Simon Reynolds argue in their groundbreaking study The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll, hard nuts such as Cave and his idol Iggy Pop are so powerfully alluring because of (rather than in spite of) their misogyny, owing to ‘the psycho-sexual dynamic of breaking away’. Conrad recognised in his Monthly essay that Cave writes of killers because ‘he admires their god-like refusal to behave’. So long as society remains bound to the conviction that gods are male, that creation – the terrain of woman’s work and childbirth – palls before the power and glory of destruction, then male rock stars will be feted. They embody misbehaviour: a refusal to operate within a cosseted realm of domesticity that is gendered female throughout our culture.
With few places to turn for examples of female transgression, it is more than possible – as Press and Reynolds also point out – to be a feminist and a fan, to identify with the desire to turn the world on its head even when listening to a man sing about how much he’d like to stick a knife through his lover. The difficult, often contradictory, position that women occupy within popular music is well illustrated by the fact that ‘From Her To Eternity’, one of the most dramatically misogynist songs in the form’s history, was co-written by a woman. Anita Lane was Cave’s romantic partner throughout the early 1980s, and she remains one of the very few women whom Cave has ever admitted to partnership on creative terms. He has sometimes referred to her as his ‘muse’, though such clichéd Romanticism belies Lane’s material contribution to songs by both The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. Small irony that it took a woman to distil Cave’s muddled gender philosophy into such potent lyrical form. Lane’s role and influence remain unjustly neglected, for the one female partnership of Cave’s career that has caught the public attention is, tellingly, his 1995 duet with Kylie Minogue, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’.
There are still some, Peter Conrad included, who seem to regard Cave’s brief dalliance with the Top 5 singles chart as a supreme act of cultural subversion, delighting in the apparent frisson of a ‘serious artist’ coupling with a froufrou pop star: the musical equivalent of the country squire fucking the farmer’s daughter. This is the dynamic that the song plays out: Minogue is cast as the trembling naïf, Eliza Day, who passively submits to Cave’s sexual attention and to an eventual fate as his murder victim. As vocalists they match each other for emotional blandness, though Cave is certainly the more tone-deaf of the two, and the music is a syrup of over-processed strings – an ersatz folk arrangement. The accompanying video, which appears to have been filmed with a generous smear of Vaseline on the lens, presents the viewer with the unedifying spectacle of Cave fondling Minogue’s breasts and thighs as she lies in a shallow pool of water, a snake curling its way between her legs.
Cave based ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ (Minogue was not a co-writer) on the traditional murder ballad ‘Down in the Willow Garden’. The latter has been covered by artists ranging from the Everly Brothers to Kristin Hersh to Cave himself, who stuck it on the B-side of ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ with a vocal by his fellow Bad Seed Conway Savage. In his re-write, Cave manages to invert nearly every premise of the original song. Rather than two lovers actively courting, his version has the male suitor arriving as an uninvited stranger at the woman’s door. The murderer’s original motivation was mercenary, with the key verse of ‘Down in the Willow Garden’ running:
My father often told me
That money would set me free
If I would murder that dear little girl
Whose name was Rose Connelly
It’s Rose who occupies the more powerful social position and her lover pays the ultimate price for his usurpation upon the scaffold: ‘My race is run beneath the sun/ The devil now waits for me’.
Cave’s murderer by contrast is not punished for his crime. On the contrary, the song’s narrative is structured to make a listener understand that Eliza Day’s living beauty was the greater punishment, a torment that the protagonist could only escape by possessing her beauty forever, in death.
Much was made in 1995 (and still is) of the idea that ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ somehow revived Minogue’s ailing career by pairing her with a ‘proper’ songwriter. Never mind that Minogue is one of the most commercially successful artists in Australian musical history, at the time hardly in need of Cave’s assistance for a chart hit. The year before, her single ‘Confide in Me’ reached platinum, number one for five weeks. It might, therefore, be more instructive to view their collaboration from the opposite angle: Cave had toiled for years in the semi-wilderness of critical acclaim and mediocre album sales and it was his duet with Kylie that brought him to the Australian public at large. Once again, he needed the woman much more than she needed him.
‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ exemplified Cave’s ambiguous attitude to the music industry, and particularly to success in his home country. He accepted his 2007 induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame while maintaining a haughty contempt towards the honour; he dismisses song writing as ‘woman’s work’ while regularly expounding upon the elevating notion of his ‘muse’, who seems not to mind a chart success or two; and he has become determined during recent years to shape for himself, as he admitted frankly in his interview with Good Weekend, a legacy in the country that he left behind nearly thirty years ago.
In this at least he has succeeded very well: it is hard to overestimate Cave’s continued influence on contemporary Australian music, from ‘literate’ bands such as Augie March to any number of young post-punk revivalists looking to borrow a little bit of his old Berlin glamour. Add this to his revisionist – and widely seen – filmic Western of colonial Australian life, The Proposition, the various national institutions holding exhibitions in his honour, the near-universal critical praise that greets his every album, and the man begins to feel damn near ubiquitous.
If I am honest with myself, it is largely this ubiquity that makes me despise Cave and his work now with the passion that perhaps only a former fan can muster. I can still listen to The Birthday Party and find Cave’s sordid fantasies of woman-pie, kewpie dolls and six-inch gold blades stuck ‘in the head of a girl’ exhilarating and disturbing in equal measure. It hasn’t taken fifteen years for Cave’s misogyny to dawn on me, but at least in 1981 no-one was trying to cover over his sexual obsessions with the tasteful drapery of redeemed Christian, reformed addict, doting father and national icon. Back then, in 1981, Cave dismissed his earliest musical work with The Boys Next Door on the following terms: ‘we made the unpardonable error of playing to the thinkers rather than the drinkers’. But it’s the thinkers he’s gunning for now.
It’s his transformation into an antipodean Elvis Costello – growing old, mild and respectably bourgeois along with his audience – that really makes me mad. Not because I believe that Cave has sold out or betrayed his musical talent – he had precious little to begin with – but because the deference paid to him and to his work grows in inverse proportion to its increasing mediocrity, to its juvenile silliness and self-parody. Witness Grinderman, a mid-life crisis thinly disguised as a Bad Seeds side project, with ‘No Pussy Blues’ or, even more crudely, ‘Go Tell the Women’, which loudly complains: ‘All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning/ And maybe a bit more in the evening.’ Consensual rape, eh? Happy thought, indeed.
One might then turn to Cave’s new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, on which much of his ascendant reputation as Australia’s Renaissance man has been staked. It is, in a word, putrid (though Cave himself would doubtless prefer ‘graveolent’). The word ‘vagina’ makes its first appearance three sentences in and continues to reappear, with wearying regularity, for the duration of the book. I’m no prude – it’s not the word that offends me, but rather Cave’s joyless genital fixation: the same bored, reductive, anatomical attitude towards sex that distinguishes hardcore pornography. Here, women really are nothing more than a series of interchangeable holes and sex like a trip to the ATM: stick your card in the slit, then take it out and walk away. To the sleazy salesman Bunny Munro, the novel’s title character whose wife commits suicide early in the book due to his philandering (but then again, we are reminded many times over, she was crazy), women are either begging for it with their legs apart or, if not, they are bitches and possibly dykes. Cave has nothing remotely interesting to tell us about the complex pleasures of sex or desire: such insight is beyond him as a writer, both on a technical and – if this is not too strange a word – spiritual level. Any reader who thinks that the novel’s obsession with women’s vaginas is a reflection of the main character, rather than of the writer himself, need only look to Cave’s execrably pretentious first novel And The Ass Saw the Angel. In that book, the mute Euchrid Eucrow despises his abusive mother, and his ferocity comes to centre on the inescapable fact that she gave birth to him. The abject hatred that the narrator holds for the female body is an attitude – I cannot help but suspect – that Cave shares. Despite his reputation as a libertine, Cave is in reality much more a Puritan: rather than being a celebratory, central force of human existence, sex is a terrifying, insatiable hunger that must be bitterly struggled against. Submitting to it, which means submitting to a woman, leads inevitably to ruination.
Ah, but Cave’s defenders like to point out, you are forgetting about the man’s exquisite humour! His delicately honed irony! He is a moral satirist without peer! (The subtext to this defence often being, ‘Lighten up, bitch!’) The notion that Cave is being ‘ironic’ has been used to excuse many of his worst indulgences, up to and including his pimp’s moustache. It is simply not true. As anyone who bothers to look up Cave’s press history will discover, the man takes himself seriously, very seriously indeed, and will threaten to break the legs – or worse – of any writer who dares suggest that his work is not nearly as good as he himself is convinced that it is. His snobbery and towering ego both feed into our lingering cultural cringe: we think he’s smart because he’s popular in Europe, and we admire him because his bullish self-confidence is so different to the ritual self-deprecation that marks many Australian artists. He reads books! He lives in Brighton! The man’s a genius! In reality, Cave’s cartoon profanity is no more sophisticated or evolved than the bump’n'grind of gangsta rap which, I would hazard a guess, Europhiles like Peter Conrad love to hate because it supposedly lowers the tone. Child of a literature teacher and a librarian, Cave has at last been blessed with the imprimatur of his own class; no longer a ‘mere’ rock star but a novelist, screenwriter and national hooligan-turned-hero, he’s a prodigal son returned to a comfortable fold. No girls allowed.