Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nick Cave: Watching Bewitched, dreaming of Jeannie, in awe of Nina Simone

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A siren is wailing outside the jungle-print hotel room where Nick Cave has been drinking tea, and flinching, visibly. Too late, I have asked about one of the songs on his new LP. The song, There Is a Town, is written in short words, in which the singer recalls the town of his birth, "far far away/across the sea". In that town, he would dream of leaving, and crossing the ocean. So he left, and now he walks the dark streets of a new town, and dreams "that one day/I’ll go back home".
It is not a song which invites close analysis. It is about restlessness, and the fact that home is always somewhere else. The answer - more of a weary shrug than a prescription for happiness - is in the chorus: "And so it goes/And so it seems/That God lives only in our dreams/In our dreams."
Cave is shrugging slightly. It is, he says, as obvious as it appears.
"Memories become myth in a way, especially if you do interviews where you’re constantly regurgitating your youth, and it becomes something alien to what it was. And I have a certain yearning for that myth. When things were simple and the lines were clean. And you could roam freely through life."
He almost sings this last line, then pulls himself up. "I always know when I’m getting tired because I start seeing the words written in front of me... ‘Roam freely…’"
When things were simple and the lines were clean, Nick Cave was born in Warracknabeal, Victoria. According to the Warracknabeal Herald, it is the economic centre of the Shire of Yarriambiack. Cave, an Australian who couldn’t wait to leave, has no memories of the place, but understands it was "a street with a couple of houses and a pub". Now, "it’s really gone to ruin. They tried to start a prisoner rehousing scheme there which went to hell, and, from what I hear, it’s one of the baddest places you could ever end up."
His memory kicks in when his family moved to Wangaratta, a rural city 235km north-east of Melbourne. "It was a country town," he says. "We did country sort of things."
At Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, he joined a covers band called Concrete Vulture, which would mutate into The Birthday Party. "It was just something we did," Cave says. "I was the singer ’cause no one else wanted the job. We just blundered through, played church and school socials, got a bit of attention from our sister school. It had its benefits." When the "psychotic bass player" with his Blue Cheer obsession disappeared, the band started to play songs by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The Glaswegian showman is a rarely acknowledged influence.
"Alex Harvey was where it was at, man. And the band were extraordinary. Living in Australia as a kid I never knew what a fuckin’ Scotsman was, let alone had I heard one. And his lyrics, which are just the most twisted thing… the places he went, nobody went…"
The influence of Harvey, a vaudevillian who played soul revues and, in the time before mass TV, earned a living as a Tommy Steele impersonator, is more helpful in understanding the career of Cave than a musical timeline, which would put The Birthday Party at the junction between the punk’s fury and the back-combed theatricality of goth.
In the 20 years since The Birthday Party split, Cave has established himself as a writer of singular vision. Comparisons are often drawn with that other gloomy balladeer, Leonard Cohen, though there is more of the Old Testament about Cave. Then there is Johnny Cash, who recorded Cave’s The Mercy Seat, and recently duetted with him on Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
There was, says Cave, an affecting moment in the studio. Cash had lost his voice the day before the session, and had prayed. He told Cave: "I got down on my knees - and I never told God nothin’ in all of my life, I never asked him for nothin’ - and then I said: ‘Look, you gave me this voice, but it’s gone, and I’m gonna come in to LA and I’m gonna sing, give it to me back!’ And I woke up this morning, and listen to me, I’m singin’ like a bird!" And, Cave recalls, "[Cash’s wife] June Carter’s goin’ ‘Yeah!’ It was one of those moments, just fantastic. And he was singing like a bird."
To Cave, Cash represents one of the irreplaceable voices of popular music, to be filed alongside Frank Sinatra and John Lee Hooker.
"He’s pretty shaky. But he obviously loves sitting down and singing a song. He really comes alive when he does it. I saw that with Nina Simone when she played at the Royal Festival Hall. She came on, she was real frail, it took her five minutes to get up the stairs to get to the piano, and by the end she was just hammering at this thing, screaming her lungs out, and it was the most extraordinary transformation I’d ever seen. That’s the beautiful thing about music."
Cave’s reluctance to explain himself was hinted at in the self-mocking note he sent to MTV in 1996, when refusing an award nomination.
"My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves - in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgment and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel - this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!"
He has, however, gone some way to illuminating his thoughts in readings and lectures, such as the one he gave to the Vienna Academy of Poetry where he explained, with typical melodrama, that his songs were "lifelines thrown into the galaxies by a drowning man".
He is slightly dismissive of the lecture now, but is happy to be reminded of the passage where he implied that the songs had the ability to control his life. "I liked that bit too. That the songs were calling the shots, and were actively engaged in ruining my life. And they refused to allow themselves to be written until the catastrophe had actually happened. There was a certain amount of comedy in that, but it’s not untrue at times.
"The songs are my way of connecting with the world. The flipside to that is that in order to write these songs I feel I have to cut myself off from the world. I find it more and more difficult to find anything that’s authentic and truthful, I suppose. I feel I’ve managed to do that within my office. It’s a place where I’ve managed to connect with my imagination and my inner world in some way, and create an alternate world. But, by doing that, I feel that I am actually sending something out to the world and doing my bit."
He is not, he admits, the kind of writer who picks up a guitar and goes, "Well, baby…"
AT another point in the Vienna Academy lecture, Cave refers to the importance of his father, Colin, who died when the singer was 19. "Language," he wrote, "became a poultice to the wounds incurred by the death of my father."
"It seemed to me," he says now, "and I don’t think this is accidental, that around that time, all my responses and reactions and loves and hates I had towards life were formed, and I don’t think they’ve changed at all. A lot of that hangs on the distant voice of my father and what he instilled in me."
Cave’s father was a teacher, who impressed on his son the importance of reading. In a moment of irritation, he also asked him an impossible question: "What have you done to assist humanity?"
"He was a trip, my father, I’ll tell you," says Cave. "I was only 11 at the time." (His answer was: "What have you done?")
"But I do know as a father myself, and with an 11-year-old son [Luke, by designer Viviane Carneiro], the most extraordinary things come out of my mouth, that I think, did I really say that? And I see that little face looking up at me incredulously."
Cave’s early songs were decorative in their use of language, but his recent work has been less floral. His emotional statements have been unambiguous, most impressively on his 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call, which was a stark memorial to lost love. The new album, Nocturama, gets simpler still, comparing love to the Rock of Gibraltar (steadfast, but capable of being betrayed). This reflects the change in his circumstances. He married the model Susie Bick in November 1999, and is now the father of young twins, Arthur and Earl.
Marriage was easy. In his artistic life, he has separated from the world: "Marriage was almost like pulling the shutters down and creating a similar situation in my personal life."
He was, he says, happy to subscribe to the institution. "I’m a hopeless romantic, reactionary and conservative by nature. And distrustful of progress. Or possibly not impressed by progress. And I found marriage to be… it was just a sigh of relief.
"Vows are made. I liked that part of it. That before God you commit yourself to something. Which I took seriously."
Did your wife promise to obey?
"Well," he says, "she does. My wife feels that there is some nobility in raising children and looking after her husband. Which I’m pleased about."
At this, I attempted to engage Cave in a discussion about the nature of love, and he sighed wearily. What do you look for in a woman, then?
"Well, I don’t. I’m married."
What did you find?
"My wife."
Where were you going wrong before?
"I was just lucky with my wife, you know? When I saw her it was all the things that had ever excited me, even from being a child watching Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, to things I’d seen on billboards, to things I’d seen in the movies, on TV, in magazines, all these things just collided when I saw my wife, and there she was."
Bewitched was a sex thing?
"I would have though that appealed to a lot of young boys. Samantha - not the daughter. Please! Or the husband. I would have thought a lot of young boys had their sexuality awakened by Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden. I certainly did. Think of the things they could do."
What physical attributes do you look for?
"I’m always hugely interested in a woman’s profile. My wife has the most extraordinary profile I’ve ever seen. She has a wonderful nose. Which is a step forward. The thing I always used to like about a woman was her back. And watching her walk away. So, I’m progressing."
As Cave pours tea, I ask about sincerity.
"What do you mean? Am I being sincere?"
He rattles the china. I find myself wittering about Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry.
"There’s way too much information about our heroes, about our gods, which in all humbleness is what we should be - the musicians and the celebrities. I remember as a child buying the record and looking at the sleeve, and that’s pretty much all the information you got. You played the record and you stared at that cover endlessly. Just looked into that cover, didn’t matter what it was. And that’s all the information you had, and the imagination did the rest, and these people were like heroes. I didn’t want to know what they were actually like or what their homes looked like or who they were going out with. Nowadays there seems to be this desire to know everything, and in the end you find out that everybody is just like the average bloke. Who wants their heroes to be average blokes?
"That was one of the reasons why I was happy to get out of Australia, because there’s this thing in Australia where you’ve got to be an average bloke.
"But, having said that, I don’t think I write these songs and then go home and am this other person who is nothing to do with what I’m doing. I feel deeply connected to those songs. As a body of work I can’t get my head around what kind of a character they describe. Maybe it’s not a truthful, rounded view of what I’m like, but in a lot of ways it’s quite accurate."
Kylie Minogue, who collaborated with Cave on Where the Wild Roses Grow, plays with artifice, I say. But, although she’s everywhere, she’s unknown.
"That’s very true. But she is exactly how she appears to be. She’s rare in that she is a born star. I know that that smile doesn’t slip off her face as soon as she’s out of the limelight."
What makes a natural star?
"It’s that absolute belief in yourself, although that can be a horrendous thing as well, of course. I don’t have that. And there’s a lot of things I have to do to keep that in check. I don’t listen to my own music, for example. I don’t look back at things. I have a vague pride in what I’ve done. I’m impressed that I’m in my mid-40s and I’m still doing stuff."
Susie Bick walks through the door, and I catch sight of her extraordinary profile. Speaking more quickly now, Cave tells me his approach to music is intuitive, and that while he hopes his audience can understand his work, he realises that this may not be the case. Sometimes, the listener knows more than the writer.
He tells me that his twins will not go to sleep at night without listening to Bob Dylan’s last album. "So I’ve listened to it every night since it came out. And I’m sure I’m more in touch with those lyrics than he is."
In his recurring dreams, Nick Cave is always being pursued, and always getting away. More than that, he’d rather not say. "John Updike says: ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’ I always thought that was good advice."
Interview by Alastair McKay, from the Scotsman magazine, 25 January, 2003

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