Sooner or Later, Everyone Falls in Love With Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Last night, I caught Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Forum in Los Angeles. It was the third time I’ve seen them perform live in five years. I’ve been a fan for more than half of my life.
When I was 21 years old, a friend — he called himself “Gig” — who would soon become a roommate and sometimes a lover, sat me down in his living room one afternoon. “You have to hear this record,” he said. “Okay,” I said, after finishing a massive bong hit.
I sat back in the plush and ragged purple chair. It swiveled.
Gig put on “Henry’s Dream” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
And then he left the room. For a long time.
I can still feel the chill of those opening notes to “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry.” The rush was instant. Like a drug addiction. There was no going back.
After that, I devoured everything by Nick Cave I could: I went backward through the catalog, I found rare old video cassettes of the band before the Bad Seeds, The Birthday Party, performing around fires while Nick wore a diaper and painted his body in blood or feces or alien venom? Maybe it was just paint. There were early songs about trash cans and bats and a stripper named Nick? Was that just a coincidence? What was he talking about? Why did I like this music? It didn’t seem to matter. I couldn’t help myself. Just a year before I first heard Nick Cave I had been touring with the Grateful Dead selling veggie quesadillas and organic beer. Nothing made sense anymore.
Gig gave me The Boys Next Door CD for my 22nd birthday. That’s the band that turned into the Birthday Party. It’s dreamy and just about what you can imagine Nick would sound like fronting a boy band before Duran Duran was ever a thing. It was like he covered every possible corner. There was no way not love him.
From the first band to the Bad Seeds, as much as I loved the music — any and all of it — I didn’t much understand it. I still don’t.
Most of the time Cave’s literary references are over my head. His songwriting is eccentric and cryptic just as I’d expect from someone raised in rural Australia in the 1960s and ’70s before being shipped off to boarding school. I’m just a girl from a steel town in Western Pennsylvania with, I guess, a thing for controlled bursts of rage. That’s my entry point to the music. It confuses me. I can’t understand everything about it. But I sure can feel it.
But this isn’t a story about how much I love this music. Or how it’s changed me. Because I don’t think it has. It’s been in my life too long for that. This is about how much everyone else seems to love this once-obscure artist. And why that matters now more than ever.
Back to the Forum.
I should say for context, that I’m a mom now. Nights out are rare, and loud concerts past 8 pm even rarer. The opening act, Cigarettes After Sex, were putting me to sleep. I was scared. What if I can’t handle being on the floor anymore? In my 20s and 30s I wouldn’t even consider going to a show if I didn’t have floor seats. Now? I wondered why the Forum didn’t have La-Z Boys for us old people. A blanket would be nice. It’s drafty down there.
So, there I was, being neurotic, when just two heads in front of me, I recognized one of my oldest friends, Derek. Well, actually. He’ll hate me for saying this, but I recognized his ears. Because his ears are recognizable and that is in no way a bad thing.
But what I also recognized was that Derek was at a Nick Cave concert. And he hates Nick Cave! This is a fact I have known for over a decade. Closing in on two, actually. Derek and I bonded through music. (Some music, that is.) He was the managing editor of a world music magazine in New York and let me write reviews and do interviews. It’s the first place I was published, really. It was a lot of fun. He turned me onto artists from all corners of the world, many of whom are still in heavy rotation today. Both of us are fans of New Zealand’s Fat Freddy’s Drop, who rarely tour the U.S. So, in 2007, we flew to France together to see them perform at a small festival south of Paris. (They were amazing.)
Derek and I both happened to live in Jersey City. He used to catch rides back from Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel with me after we’d be at a club (he used to DJ a lot). He’d very not politely turn off my radio most of the time, and especially if I had Nick Cave on. I remember him once telling me, as “Let Love In” played in the background, that I had terrible taste in music. Did I? I wondered. If I couldn’t understand Cave’s lyrics maybe I couldn’t understand the fundamentals of what makes music good (or bad) to begin with. I swear I couldn’t even technically hear bass lines in any music until I was nearly 30. Yes, I wrote about music, but not from a technical standpoint. I was more like a kid in a candy store giving most everything a sugary thumbs-up.
But then, Derek went and married a longtime Nick Cave fan. A friend of hers took her to a Grinderman concert in New York some years back (it’s a stellar side project by Nick Cave and Bad Seed Warren Ellis) and she, like all the rest of us, was hooked. Apparently, she’s had better success exposing Derek to Cave than I did. They caught a few recent films on the band, and while I’m guessing he’d probably not be a fan of The Birthday Party, Derek finally recognized what he once made me second guess. This Cave guy has something brilliant going on.
But here’s the thing: Derek is not the only person this has happened to. I talk to fans at shows, people who see me wearing a Nick Cave t-shirt (I might have three), or the people I see wearing Nick Cave t-shirts. Many of them tell similar stories: “I didn’t like him at first,” they say. “But now I love him.” People who seem the least likely to be Nick Cave fans are fans. An old neighbor of mine who’s into gardening and acupuncture was up in the bleachers last night.
Why are so many liberal-minded politically-correct organic food buyers jumping up and down as Cave waxes on about a whore’s black book and climbing over women’s body parts? These are people voting for gun reform, marching in #MeToo rallies. Yet, here they are, pumping their fists and laughing as Cave sings about cold-blooded murder.
Why do grown women with children (ahem, it’s just one) rush into a maddening crowd for a chance to be pulled up on stage with the lucky few for what’s now the obligatory performance of “Stagger Lee” where Nick commands his stage guests like they’re disobedient pets only to have security close the gate right when you arrive to the steps and several thousand pounds of rabid fans push into you from behind and jab your ribs (which are apparently made of dry spaghetti noodles), into the metal bars with the tornadic force of Warren Ellis’s screechy violin and Cave’s eternally forceful “Boom Boom Boom” in “Higgs Boson Blues.” Yeah, that was me. Getting trampled alive by the very people who can best understand why I’m enduring their sweaty, filthy adrenaline in the first place. It was like a Nick Cave song inside a Nick Cave song.
Is he an alien? From the future? Jesus?
The BBC has called Cave “a monster and a god!”
Billboard’s charts show that, for decades, the band’s releases barely dented the top 200. Yet the last two records, 2013’s “Push the Sky Away” and 2016’s “Skeleton Tree” both broke Billboard’s top 30.
They’re masterpieces, of course. But so are all of their other albums. Why is the band all of a sudden so popular?
Maybe Steve Baltin for Forbes can explain it better. He was at the Forum show, too: “Remember when rock and roll was supposed to be edgy and dangerous, a vehicle to allow listeners to explore their dark side through fantasy and song? When Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground sang about ‘Heroin,’ when Iggy Pop would be so fierce in his performances he would leave the stage bleeding?”
“Cave does. Just look at the ‘holy s**t’ moment that comes every time Cave delivers the mesmerizing ‘Stagger Lee,’ the tale of a ‘bad motherf**ker’ who shoots a bartender four times in the head. It possesses the same adrenaline rush that Pop, that Alice Cooper and more used to deliver on stage, the feeling this could really happen.”
It’s probably precise. Baltin seems to be better at this kind of pondering than I am (these days I mostly write about food and fashion). But what I don’t understand is why, especially if like Batlin says, there’s a feeling all of this could really happen, I would stand there and revel in stories about people being shot. Or raped. Or wearing patent leather shoes, for that matter (as if). These are not my values; as a mother of a five-year-old little girl, they’re pretty much my worst nightmare. For the love of god. Nick, how about a kid-friendly record for once?
Am I, and fans like me, exorcizing these fears then when we listen to Cave? Or am I subconsciously aspiring toward spending the rest of my life on death row? (Looking at you, everyone driving on the 405 Freeway.)
Why can’t I even answer these questions about what I like about this music so much?
Nick Cave confuses me. He always has. He’s raw and gross and terrifying and then he’ll break my heart into a million tiny pieces that he lovingly puts right back into place. With little more than a whisper. And I can only stand there in awe and wave my red right hand.
“Cave is a true artist,” writes Baltin. “And right now he is at the absolute peak of his artistic prowess.”
I think I understand that. But I’m still pretty sure no one really knows why we love his art. Maybe even Nick Cave doesn’t really, either. And I have a feeling that’s the best part of all of it. Boom boom boom.