(purchase Tender Prey)
First, a free-association when I think of Nick Cave.
Blood. Carcuses. Riverbanks. Trials. Bones. Hard rain. Dirty. Grins. Yellow Teeth. Whistling trains. Hammers. Whale dick. Run. Breath. The Road. Devil. Imps. Bodies floating. The circus. Lard. Murder. Church. Black birds.
Since his days with the Birthday Party and throughout his career with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has had a flare for haunting, gruesome storytelling. Actually, it feels better to say he spins yarns, often bloody ones. His characters pulse and ooze color: preachers on soapboxes, icky carnies, criminals on the run, slime balls in seersucker suits wielding knives and chewing toothpicks, worming along riverbanks and lingering in their own smoke. Cave’s subjects suffer and dish out suffering. A good many kill and die.
It’s no secret that Cave is one of the best narrative songwriters of our time: his imagery and metaphor is wild and his handle of sound device is bold and deft. He is Australian but his settings and characters feel American Gothic with possible influences like Sam Shepard, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, delta blues and Elvis mythology.
“The Mercy Seat” (the opening number from 1988’s Tender Prey) is a confounding, harrowing take on an execution after a prison sentence of unknown length.
Strap yourself in. It shocks, scares, and twists.
The players warm up like a team of executioners: a guitar rumble, a violin scrape, a sledgehammering drum and a finalizing, decisive chord on the piano which repeats throughout the song as if to say to the subject: “Wipe away that shit-eating grin because this is final you sad son of a bitch.” Cave’s criminal/victim's first words are wry mumble in a low baritone, “It began when they took me from my home and put me on dead row/Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know.”
“nearly wholly innocent, you know”? You can see the sad and doomed s.o.b winking at his guilt through sooty crow’s feet. Then the drums whip into a march, and he reflects on his final meal.
The face of Jesus in my soup
Those sinister dinner deals
The meal trolley’s wicked wheels
A hooked bone rising from my food
All things either good or ungood.
Over seven minutes long, “The Mercy Seat” is minimalist in structure and more spoken-word poetry--assaulted with instrumentation--than song. Cave’s collaboration with Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld peaks on “The Mercy Seat”, with frightening industrial impact at the start and guitar hovering and shrieking like wraiths throughout.
Cave foresees a dizzying, seering finish to death. In a chorus that repeats itself over ten times.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of proof.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.
The violin abandoned earlier comes back raising the stakes and the wattage. Our subject’s pitch rises, and he is choked into some semblance of sincerity as he discards his earlier wry tone for steely resolve.
And the Mercy Seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning.
And the guilt that seemed a sure bet earlier through his cockiness is now somehow up for doubt with a cynical, exhausted comment on the justice system and its link to the Old Testament.
And in a way I’m hoping to be done
with all this weighing of the truth
an eye for an eye a truth for a truth
and any way I told the truth
The line “and anyway I told the truth” is replaced with “and anyway there was no proof”, “and “I’ve got nothing left to lose.” In the end, however, the replacement is a stunner: “and I’m afraid I told a lie”. And then our subject is finally bereft of words, his body succumbs, the choked keyboard rises and we have a dead man in a chair. Guilty
Is this final line the subject’s way of reaching out for a last-ditch attempt at Christ’s forgiveness--of whom he is so cynical earlier--or is out of respect for whoever has been listening this whole time and their right to know the truth? It’s a hell of an exit and I imagine this doubt is what is left at the end of any execution. I wish I had seen Cave when he decided on this finish. Having played in bands and knowing how little band mates listen to the vocalist’s lyrics, I wonder how long it took the Bad Seeds (Mick Harvey, Bargeld, Kid Congo Powers, Rowland Howard) to realize what Cave had done in that final line.
Nick Cave had a huge impact on my own writing when I was in college. Through his own audacious character sketches, he taught me to shoot for the most extreme imagery possible, no apologies necessary. In one of my favorite college poems I wrote, the reverence of Cave is unquestionable and a little embarrassing: “His skin pealing/not appealing/his lungs wheezing like Billy Ray’s Hammond organ/singing notes that are squealing like a neglected red balloon preaching the lord’s good word: ‘Have another drink’”. There was a guy I worshiped in college who worshiped Cave. Kevin was long and wiry like Cave and walked around in black suit jackets, always with a book tucked under his arm. He wore shiny black boots and a constant sneer because he knew he was smarter than most everybody around him.
I saw Cave once or twice. The first time was in 1991 when I took a train back from Prague to see him in Berlin. One ticket was the same price as three days in Prague (room and board and beer). I struck up a conversation with a German kid my age on the train.
Him: Why are you going to Berlin?
Me: To see Nick Cave at the Hippodrome.
Him: Ah you got a ticket?
Me: No, I’ll just pick one up there.
Me: No, I’ll just pick one up there.
Him: (laughing) This isn’t America.
I did see the show. From outside the huge tent for two hours I jumped up and down on old sneakers to catch tiny glimpses of Cave careening and plunging forward. It was worth it, one of the better shows I’d seen. And I recall him singing Johnny Cash’s (who actually covered "Mercy Seat" a few years later) “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.”, which drew the disbelief and jealousy of Kevin three months later.
I’m still unsure if I told a lie.
The second time I saw Cave was Lollapalooza in Milwaukee in 1994 on the Henry’s Dream tour. It was daylight and the crowd was only 30% full. Cave destroyed the Midwestern audience that wasn’t ready for or didn’t really understand him. Later on MTV I remember him being interviewed about his Lollapalooza experience.
VJ: What’s it like to be playing with such a plethora of performers?
Cave: What do you mean ‘plethora’?
Cave: I know what it means. I just wanted to know if you knew.
VJ: Yeah. Huh.
Cave: I’m glad I didn’t bring my son. He’d be embarrassed by these crowds.
I never was sure what Cave meant by this. Playing in stadiums to huge crowds (assuming Milwaukee attendance was an anomaly); playing in front of empty daylight crowds like Milwaukee; or crowds that simply didn’t get him.