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Musical Musings - An Evening with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“I pass a million houses
But there is no place that I belong.
All I knew to give you
Was song after song after song.”
~ ‘The Singer’
On a Monday night, April 1st of 2013, my father, my girlfriend and I went to see the recent tour for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ newest album, Push The Sky Away, at the Chicago Theater. I’ve gone on before about my interest in seeing live shows and concerts being cut short due to issues of time, money, and scheduling. However, right around the time word got out that Nick Cave was producing and releasing a new album with The Bad Seeds after five years, my father mentioned a tour coming out right around the same time that the new album would be released (I believe it was late November when I found out). This was an event that didn’t take long for me to make a decision on. My answer was an immediate yes.
Many who follow my articles and my blogs regarding music and concept album in the last year have probably taken notice to the massive hiatus that has been caused since I’ve seen this concert. I have my own reasons for this, namely attempting to focus on schoolwork, college work, relationship work, job work, and overall life work. But one of the other major reasons for what has kept me from writing as often as I used to for this blog had been this very article you are reading right now. Approaching the topic of not only seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing live but the impact they have had on my life is a daunting and somewhat arduous task. No matter how much I could write about Nick Cave, there will always be something I get completely wrong about him, about his music. To me, there is almost no perfect way to describe his music and to try define it and talk about it at length would be too personal, not articulate enough, instantly boring, and utterly fanboy-ish in the most disgusting sense of the term.
Nick Cave is my favorite musical artist, as if that hasn’t been made clear by now. I will go into the details as to what attracts me to his work so much, but let’s leave it at that for now. To write about one’s favorite artist in a way that is both celebratory of their brilliance and yet well-balanced enough to give a proper, unbiased review of their work is challenging. However, I feel that it is the only way it can be done properly. My intention is to make as much of a fair and equally captivating article as I can about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I’m certain that there will be plenty that I will regret in terms of writing this, but as far as I’m concerned, I’d prefer to get this little article over with already and get back to writing as often as possible for this blog.
At any rate, onward…
“On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man,
In a dusty black coat with a red right hand.”
~ ‘Red Right Hand’
As a young child who was still in the beginning phases of his musical development, my father was always the man in charge of the radio on our little rides in the old station wagon we used to own. Because of his patience, he’d often let me and my younger sister choose what we’d listen to on the radio while also throwing in a CD of his own on occasion. I’ve said this before, but it certainly bears repeating again here: my father’s sensibility and taste in music has greatly influenced mine from a very early age. Many of the tunes he’d played were played often enough or were catchy enough that they became engraved in my subconscious for a long period of time. Though, even as a child, I loved playing my own tiny music collection of film soundtracks that I got into all on my own (namely Danny Elfman’s The Nightmare Before Christmas). But when I grew tired of my own minute selection of songs, I’d let my father put something into the radio and phase in and out to the song. For the most part, my father has been the major supplier of my favorite music even today.
In fact, there was one certain song he’d play often enough for me to fall in love with it as a child and claim it as my favorite song at the time. It was a piece that opened with the fiercely sharp chime of a bell followed by a bluesy bass riff, a warbling and paranoid little organ section and the echo of a small flame burning from a cigarette lighter. The low, slick, and deep voice of a man came into the song, crooning quietly and eerily like someone hiding in the shadows of a lonesome alleyway. And though I was still young and I couldn’t quite make out what the man was saying, I knew it was something wicked and malevolent, frightening and subtle. I could make out the chorus of the song clear enough: “His Red Right Hand.” From the whistling to the organ riff to the frightening crescendo at the end, this song instantly became my favorite at the time. It was villainous, creepy, mystical, and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. The image it brought to mind for me as a child was a man made of thick, dark smoke walking down the streets of an abandoned town, his hand a gnarled, red claw. I would ask my father to constantly put that song on when he could and I’d stare off in a trance.
And while this song was the most direct hit to me as a child, there were two other songs that my father played from the same CD that were equally just as mesmerizing. Both had lyrics that I probably phased out on more than “Red Right Hand”, but I still understood the chorus of the song and, thus, was able to keep images playing in my head. One was “Let Love In”, a song that moved like a horse stampeding through heavy winds, the sky gone red from the setting sun, angry smoke rising and eclipsing the sun and fields of green below it. The other was “Do You Love Me?”, an apocalyptic tango of a love song from a pathetic insect of a lover, bringing imagery of fire pouring down from the night-sky over a church, two faceless lovers staring at one another. Sadly though, since most of the lyrics or the imagery in the other songs were rather risqué for a child, my father would only play those three for me. Still, that was enough. I would constantly ask my father to play “Red Right Hand” whenever possible and just lose myself.
Then, after a while, I simply fell out of Nick Cave’s music. Perhaps my father simply got tired of playing that one song so often, perhaps we lost our CD after loaning it to a friend for an overly long time. Every once in a while, one of Nick’s songs popped up very unexpectedly, in a film or from my father’s stereo system, but even if the song was beautiful, my interest faded very shortly afterwards, probably because I didn’t recognize it as one of Nick’s songs at the time. I loved his music, but for whatever reason, my interest simply didn’t stick long enough. As I grew older, I started branching away from my father’s music and into various different artists that my friends listened to. All through my middle school years, the name Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and their music were both buried in my subconscious and would stay there until I came into high school.
“Hey little train, we’re jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom.
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun.
The train ain’t even left the station.”
~ ‘O Children’
Right in the middle of my freshman year of high school, I began to truly delve into the world of rock, going beyond film soundtracks and modern bands that were deemed popular in my circle of friends. I’d just discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall that year and sought out as many other classic, older rock bands and rock albums (preferably rock operas) that I could lay my hands on, fascinated by the power of music from time periods other than my own. Amongst all of the Led Zeppelin and The Smiths and The Who that I was indulging in at the time, I came across a double album with a particularly familiar title: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Hearing that name again was like having a million light-bulbs flash on again in the dusty basement of my subconscious. I wasted no time and played both albums, Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus, especially intrigued by the fact that Lyre of Orpheus was supposedly a rock opera.
I recognized Nick’s voice instantly. I recognized the hard rock, the blur of heavy guitars, the boom and thrum of the bass lines, the clatter of drums, and the cat’s howl of the organs. The Abattoir Blues disc was brimming with beautifully loud rock, from the gospel-inspired opening track “Get Ready for Love”, the cool and bluesy “Hiding All Away” and “Fable of the Brown Ape” that were both coupled with shrieking, moaning organ choruses, and the softer piano and guitar pieces of “Let the Bells Ring” and the title track “Abattoir Blues”. Finding something like this was like revisiting a childhood home that had been falling apart when you left and that had been repaired beyond your expectations since you’ve been gone. And this was only the first disc! And certainly not every track was instantly enthralling for me, it was a warm welcome back to Nick Cave’s music and lyric-writing, especially since I had extended my vocabulary since I was a five-year-old and, thus, could understand Nick Cave’s music a little better.
The next day, I listened to The Lyre of Orpheus. I intend to talk about this album in greater detail as a concept album/rock opera in a different article. But what I will say is that The Lyre of Orpheus was and still remains one of the biggest aids for me as a writer. To find this album during freshman year when I really started to take writing seriously, this was practically a gift from Heaven. The lyrics were beautifully crafted, seeping with a perfect dose of metaphor and symbolism, all the more poetic and beautiful. And yet, for all of the roses and flowers and beautiful blue skies that were colored over the atmosphere of the album, there was a constant feeling, a constant ghost of grisliness, darkness, and brutality. The atmosphere was like watching fog seep in over a cold, misty lake, with the hazy glow of lighthouse burning all too far away (The only exception to this description of the album would probably be the title track, “The Lyre of Orpheus”, which seems to be a bit more of a hold-over from Abattoir Blues). This album, the writing in it, the atmosphere it created, the world it lived in, was exactly the kind of world I wanted to write for a story. Beautiful and lush yet not overly sappy or melodramatic. It meshed it’s sorrow well with it’s gruesomeness. Without The Lyre of Orpheus, I probably would’ve given up writing altogether.
“ ‘No’ said the stars to the moon in the sky
‘No’ said the trees that started to moan
‘No’ said the dust that blinded his eyes
‘Yes’ said the rider as white as a bone.”
~ ‘The Rider Song’
The words that I’ve used to describe Nick Cave and the works that he’s been involved with may be trite, overused, clichéd, repeated countless times before and, as I shall soon prove, repeated countless times in the future. There is very little about Nick Cave that I can say that hasn’t been said before. Even more challenging is finding a particular style or niche to comfortably put Nick Cave in and to focus or elaborate on. Nick Cave is a multi-faceted musician by and large. An evolving artist much like David Bowie.
A gentle giant, a hunter with the words LOVE and HATE written on the knuckles of his fists. An ill-tempered, crawling, insectoid creature who belts and whips his curses and prayers at his onlookers, a vampiric and phantasmal entity. An Australian trapped and enraptured in the world of the Southern Gothic, an angel observing a land where corrupt hicks, gunslingers, and sins against nature commit the vilest of inhuman acts out of the most intense and primal acts of human emotion. A punk sorcerer who summons forth his own brand of hallucinogenic ballads and demonic howling. An incubus, a seducer in his black suit, wild and grassy mane of black hair, his permanently intimidating and angry eyebrows (set underneath a sometimes humorously ominous forehead). A dour priest of shadow and light, chanting his sermons in a single, flowing, ratty robe in a wrathful thunderstorm. An apostle of Blues, Folk, and Punk, a product of Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, John Lee Hooker and David Bowie, Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. A storyteller, a God who relays the details of his worlds rife with murder and madness, longing and guilt, misery and regret, forgiveness and love.
Nick Cave’s music doesn’t always come with deep morals, radical political ideas, or magnificent profundity. He doesn’t create groundbreaking material, nothing incredibly new in the way of creating musical genres or inventive sounds (or at least, not ones that haven’t probably been used before). What draws me so greatly to Nick Cave is that there are few, so very few musicians or bands like him. And there are almost none who match how powerful his songs are, how rich in atmosphere, how unique they are. For me, it is the kind of music that no one else produces that I’ve always wanted to hear. There has been only one other musician whose work has consistently made me think to myself, “Wow, I wish I made that!”
For this and more, Nick Cave is my favorite musician and will probably stay so for a long time to come.
“I am alone now
I am beyond recriminations
Curtains are shut
The furniture is gone
Look at me now
Look at me now.”
~ ‘Jubilee Street’
Seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds not only reunite this year to release a new album, Push The Sky Away, but go on tour across the United States was an opportunity I didn’t dare pass up. Once again in the Windy City, my father, my girlfriend, and I went to see them play at the massive, sprawling Chicago Theater. Considering the patrons that night and the scope of the building itself, there were surprisingly few problems to be had with the group at large around us (honestly, it was sort of fun to hear the crowd shouting and hollering in joy, some of the throwing out song requests, including the long-dead Birthday Party tune ‘Nick the Stripper’). Not much could be said about the opening act, sorry to say, but the action kicked in almost immediately when the Bad Seeds took to the stage, followed by Nick Cave in a remarkably casual and nonplussed attitude. Throughout the show, his interaction with the audience seemed just perfectly natural, off-the-cuff, and quite nonchalant. Without even asking for any attention, the man simply has a commanding presence on stage.
Another odd factor for the show was the sparse number of songs played from the nine-track album that the tour itself was named after. Still, not really a complaint. The songs themselves were performed with the magnetism that just exudes Cave and the band. He flows and sways like a man possessed, his hand waving out in his audience’s faces like a religious nut, a duo of beautiful, Cohen-like back-up singers standing statue-esque behind him on songs like ‘We No Who U R’ and a gentle rendition of ‘Your Funeral…My Trial’ (my favorite of these songs might’ve been the finale, the titular ‘Push the Sky Away’). Then soon afterwards, Cave would writhe and slither like a reptile, kick and brunt like a mule, bellowing out his blues in the form of fiery rock.
To where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (if he even does anything with The Bad Seeds again) will go is both uncertain and somehow quite clear. My immediate thought is something dark, perhaps grisly, perhaps somber, perhaps a return to more story-oriented music for Cave, but doubtlessly powerful. But with the release of Push The Sky Away, things seem to be a little more up in the air for Cave and his music. It is an album that seems so familiar, so clearly a Nick Cave album, recognizable besides from the debut album From Her To Eternity to the piano ballads of The Boatman’s Call. And yet it is entirely different from these albums, a beast of a wholly different breed. A meditative album, quiet even in its loudest moments, a dreamlike yet brutally realistic. As if Cave trapped a phantom inside of an album. I never imagined that I would hear something like this from Nick Cave’s repertoire. Hell, I didn’t even think that the Bad Seeds would form again after the advent of Grinderman.
Then again, I think Nick Cave has always managed to surprise his audience this way over the years, always managed to evolve and reshape himself so subtly as to be almost unnoticeable. Whatever may come from him next, I look forward to it.