Nick Cave at 60: Some Songs That Matter to Me

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Today is the sixtieth birthday of Nick Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter who has gifted the denizens of our planet with albums, film scores, screenplays, novels, poetry, acting and other forms of art for the past four decades. As a tribute, I have chosen to post seventeen videos (ten weren’t enough, and neither were twelve or fifteen); some of these selections represent songs that could be listed among Nick Cave’s greatest hits, while other choices are not necessarily Cave’s most famous or accessible works. But all of the music I have written about has had an undeniable effect on me. They are sounds that are eternally imprinted upon my brain – joyous, sorrowful, frenetic, complicated, beautiful. Take a listen and see if there’s something that you like too.

The Boys Next Door, “Shivers” (Door, Door, 1979). By rights, “Shivers” should be the centerpiece of a discussion of Rowland S. Howard’s music rather than Nick Cave’s, given that Howard penned the composition as a teenager. With melodramatic flair, however, Nick Cave put his own spin on what was originally more of a punk/power pop melody. For better and (if you had asked Howard) worse, Cave made “Shivers” his own; the Boys Next Door’s recording became one of Australia’s finest cult classics. It is, as described by PopMatters, “a song that is the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell.”

The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party, “The Hair Shirt” (Hee Haw, 1979). As the Boys Next Door morphed into the more aggressive and clamorous Birthday Party – both a name change and a stylistic adaptation – one of the group’s best productions was “The Hair Shirt.” Nick Cave barks like a hound, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey contribute the best guitar playing that the two young rebels had to offer, Tracy Pew lays down a solid bass line and Phill Calvert fuels the entire thing with a drumbeat that reminds me of jazz fusion. Whatever “The Hair Shirt” is, it feels revolutionary.

The Birthday Party, “Nick the Stripper” (Prayers on Fire, 1981). I shall always count it as one of my proudest memories of graduation school that I spent so much time talking about Nick Cave in my first semester. I don’t just mean in conversation with the friends that I made; I discussed Cave’s music in some form or another in many of my classes. In a class I took on film theory, there was a day when I did a presentation on Deleuzian time theory and used clips from the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth to illustrate my points; later that same day, on our class blog, I posted the “Nick the Stripper” video with further discussion of Nick Cave and company as subversive artists. The emphasis I really wanted to make was that few people outside of Nick Cave’s fanbase seem to recognize that he has a sense of humor. Much of the Birthday Party’s music has a dark, strange, twisted humor, especially “Nick the Stripper’s” mockery of the music video format.

The Birthday Party, “Fears of Gun”/”Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” (live, 1982). I like to think of this video as the gauntlet for all the listeners who are not totally converted to the religion of the Birthday Party. “Hamlet” is a maelstrom of noise, and my favorite part of “Fears of Gun” is the moment when Nick Cave is dragged into the audience. You can hear in the guitar fuzz from 3:37 to 3:44 that Rowland S. Howard stopped playing – possibly considering doing something about Cave’s situation – but the fact that RSH eventually just went back to performing and left Cave to fend for himself makes me laugh.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986). I love making the transition from Nick Cave’s Birthday Party years to his ascendance as leader of the Bad Seeds with this version of a song made famous by American country singer Glen Campbell in 1967. The album on which “Phoenix” appears, Kicking Against the Pricks, is an assemblage of covers that show Cave’s wide range of sonic influences. Other cuts on the album include “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” (John Lee Hooker), “The Singer” (Johnny Cash), “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (The Velvet Underground & Nico), “The Hammer Song” (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band), “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (Gene Pitney), “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” (a traditional gospel song arranged by the Alabama Singers) and “The Carnival Is Over” (The Seekers). “Phoenix” stands out to me as a particularly special track because I consider it one of Cave’s most touching vocal performances, and the guitar and organ parts were recorded by none other than Cave’s friend and former Birthday Party comrade, Rowland S. Howard.

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Sad Waters” (Your Funeral… My Trial, 1986). My #1 Bad Seeds album is Your Funeral… My Trial, which contains one of Cave’s most iconic songs, “The Carny,” as well as a number of underrated gems. The opening track, “Sad Waters” (Cave’s handwritten lyrics seen above), swirls with beauty. My favorite aspect of the song is that the opening line is taken directly from the country song “Green, Green Grass of Home,” popularized by Tom Jones in 1966: “Down the road I look and there runs Mary/Hair of gold and lips like cherry.” I like that Cave took that line as momentum to move forward with his own set of lyrics, springing forth from that initial inspiration.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “From Her to Eternity” (live, 1989). This might be my single favorite live performance that Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have ever done. It’s not the most beautiful song or the most in-tune, but it is pure, raw emotion and every member of the band is functioning at 100%.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Knockin’ on Joe” (live, 1989). My favorite concert clip in the Bad Seeds documentary The Road to God Knows Where is this concert clip of “Knockin’ on Joe,” which originally appeared on the second Bad Seeds album, The Firstborn Is Dead (1985). Like other tracks on Firstborn, “Knockin'” follows Cave’s obsession with American blues music, specifically the mythology surrounding Elvis Presley. This rendition is more intense than the album version, pausing for an extended break and then building to a fever pitch that starts at the 3:10 mark and fully kicks in at 3:38. As one YouTube commenter wrote: “This performance is too much, just too, too much. I can’t explain.”

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Christina the Astonishing” (Henry’s Dream, 1992). With the aid of an eerie, echoing organ, “Christina” tells a classic Cave narrative, describing the story of a female character (based on Belgian saint Christina Mirabilis) in a style that conveys both pain and grace. It is a song that sounds like it has materialized from out of a dream, perhaps even more so than the rest of the tracks on Henry’s Dream, which has been considered by some critics to be a concept album.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Do You Love Me?” (live, 1994). The studio recording of “Do You Love Me?” holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Bad Seeds songs that I ever heard, making me a permanent fan of Cave and his collaborators; this live staging for “Later… with Jools Holland” is, in its own way, even better. Conway Savage’s keyboard playing sounds even more forbidding here, almost daring the listener (or, alternately, the person who is the subject of the song’s question) to respond.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (duet with Kylie Minogue, live, 1996). Every Nick Cave fan ought to be familiar with this performance, which features a great bit of behind-the-scenes filming from Nick himself at the beginning. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” partnered Cave with Australia’s bubbly pop princess, Kylie Minogue, and although the pairing took her out of her musical comfort zone, it’s clear both on and off the stage that she and Cave had terrific chemistry.

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Nick Cave’s fantastic rejection letter to MTV after receiving a surprise nomination for Best Male Artist, 1996. Here are videos of Nick and Kylie Minogue reading the missive aloud.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Curse of Millhaven” (Murder Ballads, 1996). “I got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming!” If you can get past the first few seconds of maniacal screaming, you’ll find one of this tale of a female serial killer named Lottie to be one of Nick Cave’s sickest, funniest songs. What else would you expect from an album that’s titled Murder Ballads, anyway? Bonus: the “Moron Tabernacle Choir” that sings backup vocals on “Millhaven” includes many of Cave’s good friends from the Australian music community, such as Warren Ellis, Brian Henry Hooper, Rowland S. Howard and Spencer P. Jones.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “And No More Shall We Part” (No More Shall We Part, 2001). I consider this song one of Nick Cave’s greatest triumphs, both as a songwriter and a singer. What more needs to be said?

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Abattoir Blues” (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, 2004). The season one finale of the BBC Two drama “Peaky Blinders” featured “Abattoir Blues” prominently. This was not a shock, given that the series’ theme song is the classic Bad Seeds tune “Red Right Hand.” “Abattoir” shows that even after thirty-five years, Cave still had vitality and fresh ideas for his music; the background vocalists add so much depth to an already poetic song.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (live, 2008). In a review of the Bad Seeds’ Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! album for Uncut magazine, Alastair McKay wrote that “the band has never sounded better, and Cave seems to have relaxed into the hysteria of his vocal style; like Elmer Gantry singing Leonard Cohen at a tent-revival.” With that, please watch and enjoy.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Jubilee Street” (scene in 20,000 Days on Earth, filmed in 2012). This is the clip that I taught in the film theory class that I mentioned earlier in the post. 20,000 Days on Earth’s “Jubilee Street” segment reminds me of one of Cave’s ruminations in the film: “My biggest fear is losing memory because memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive is tied up in memory.” As we watch Cave perform at the Sydney Opera House, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard show us assorted moments from Cave’s career, cut into the action to indicate that every single past experience has informed Cave’s evolution and led him to this present moment. The montage is thrilling to witness.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “I Need You” (Skeleton Tree, 2016). Watching the documentary One More Time with Feeling, in which “I Need You” is featured, is an experience that is half uplifting, half soul-crushing. It shows the creation of one of Nick Cave’s most incredible albums, but the film also discusses the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015. Both in spite of and because of the grief, Cave and his band made one of their most enduring albums. In an interview with The Guardian a few months ago, Nick Cave summed up what the album and the subsequent songwriting experience has been like: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux. So, to apply that to songwriting, a song like ‘I Need You’ off the new album [Skeleton Tree], time and space all seem to be rushing and colliding into a kind of big bang of despair. There is a pure heart, but all around it is chaos.”

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