CONVERSATIONS WITH NICK CAVE
Sydney Opera House, January 9
“We talk about it all night long/We define our moral ground/But when I crawl into your arms/Everything comes tumbling down.” The Ship Song
On the perfectly palindromic night of 9/1/19, it was clear that emotionally and musically, as much as numerically, with Nick Cave the beginning was in the end and the end was also the beginning.
This unusual and unusually frank blend of very funny chat show, live performance and interactive confessional – he answered questions from the audience, interspersed with songs sung at the piano, for just shy of three hours - seemingly came out of nowhere. Yet its roots are so obvious in retrospect: he needed this, even more than we did.
As Cave explained in an early answer, once he had seen the relationship with the audience as a necessarily combative/confrontational one, and had defined himself as a singer and performer, someone living an “individual life”, by that measure.
However, the shows which followed one cruel end - the death of his son Arthur four years ago - and especially the way the audience lifted him and transformed him, showed him the beginnings of a “second life”, a “collective life”, with us as the other, equal, party.
The connection he felt in those shows, despite the tour taking him to the largest rooms he’d ever played (for example, Sydney’s ICC Theatre which housed nearly 9000 in high-rising seats) was evident then in the physical closeness he sought out. He leant deep into the mosh, he touched as many as possible and, by the latter stages of that tour, regularly invited dozens of audience members up to the stage to dance and be part of his experience. It was, he said several times here, “life-saving”.
But physical closeness was in the end just the start: this tour, refreshingly for him “terrifying” in its unpredictability as much as its openness, became an experiment in building on that by offering emotional closeness in discussions of craft and motivation, morals and inspiration, and seeing what came back at him and what solace or strength it brought. Crawling into our arms in effect, as he sang in the opening number, The Ship Song.
Cave has been an often amused, and amusing, man in an interview for some time now. He’s offered us two films (one blackly surreal; one raw and very real) which followed his personal and creative processes with pore-gazing closeness. And his writings outside of his music – novels, introductions to the gospels, replies to fans online and, if you look closely, his film scripts – have shown us aspects of his spirit and mind. But this was something else, edging closer to understanding.
In keeping with this, the performances this night were by their very nature bare, focused and revealing in their own way.
The Mercy Seat, written in Berlin as a sideline during the drug-fevered time he was writing his first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel (“I don’t think anyone actually got to the end of that book,” he self-mockingly said) has never felt more like Jimmy Webb writing grandly for the interior moral turmoil of the Louvin Brothers. Higgs Bosun Blues was equal parts quiet clamour and urgent respite to West Country Girl’s under taste of bitterness; Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry was as agitating in its undermined faith as Into My Arms was a caress in its willingness to trust in faith.
And yes, faith appeared several times through the night as Cave explained that he doesn’t just believe in the value of belief, whether or not there is a god, but it is at the core of his songwriting. From Leonard Cohen, whose Avalanche (performed early in the night) was on first hearing for a teenage Cave in Wangaratta, like a “coming home”, through Yeats and the King James Bible, on to indigenous writings he devours in his wide reading of poetry, a sense of trust in and simultaneous questioning of meaning (not truth, which he finds less important) underpins everything he writes.
As we neared the three hour mark Cave looked to be finishing with The Weeping Song, which not only would close the circle with The Ship Song that had appeared on the same The Good Son album, but touch on the give-and-take of this show and its source in a deep grief. “Father, why are all the women weeping?/They are weeping for their men/Then why are all the men there weeping?/They are weeping back at them.”
But he spontaneously offered one more, this time the title track from the album Skeleton Tree, recorded after, and infused with all the wracked feeling from, the death of his son. And in its plainness and beauty there was both need and comfort, beginning and end, and beginning again.
“And I called out, I called out/Right across the sea/I called out, I called out/That nothing is for free …And it's alright now/And it's alright now/And it's alright now” Skeleton Tree