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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2016: Part 2

Chicken People. Directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes. Notes from September 26: This delightful and informative documentary about the world of Americans who raise “show chickens” for competitions is sure to captivate you. Even if you don’t know anything about the animals in question, you will immediately love the birds which come in so many breeds and varieties. It is obvious that the human protagonists – the film focuses on three in particular, Brian Caraker (who is also a talented jazz/show tunes singer), Brian Knox and Shari McCollough – have lasting bonds with the feathered friends who give unconditional, nonjudgmental love to their somewhat eccentric caretakers. Director Nicole Lucas Haimes, cinematographer Martina Radwan, editors Sara Booth and Kevin Klauber and composer Michael Hearst have created a warm, sympathetic portrait of their unusual but lovable subjects, making Chicken People my favorite film of the year so far.

Ghostbusters. Directed by Paul Feig. Notes from September 13: OK, so I finally saw the Ghostbusters reboot, two months after everyone else did. I probably made a critical error by not seeing it in 3D, but what’s done is done and all I can do is review the 2D version. Simply put: it’s boring. There was so much potential for fun and most of it went down the drain, which is a shame because I root so hard for Leslie Jones to succeed, Kate McKinnon is currently the funniest cast member on SNL, Melissa McCarthy was great in Paul Feig’s last film (Spy, which is hilarious all the way through) and Kristen Wiig is growing on me (I usually hated her over-the-top stuff on SNL, but she’s a good actress when she’s not doing a zany comic character). It’s sad for me to say, though, that the funniest person in Ghostbusters was probably Chris Hemsworth, who plays the bimbo secretary, Kevin, almost faultlessly. (My only real criticism is that his Australian accent occasionally made the dialogue difficult to understand.) I wish that the script, written by Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, had been stronger and a lot funnier; the four stars deserve so much better. I’m sure the 3D effects would have made certain scenes a lot more enjoyable, but I can’t do more than lament my having missed out. We also don’t really know anything about the film’s villain, played by Neil Casey. At least I experienced one true morsel of joy: the opening scenes with my favorite weird-funny-guy, Zach Woods, as the museum tour guide who has a spectral encounter. Sure, he’s no Alice Drummond (she played the NYPL librarian back in ‘84), but then again, who is?

One More Time with Feeling. Directed by Andrew Dominik. Notes from September 9: This one-of-a-kind, mostly black-and-white (except for one color sequence) documentary accompanying the release of the new Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree (available as of midnight on Friday, September 9), was an absorbing experience for everyone who sat in the theater at the IFC Center at the 9:00 pm screening on September 8. I assume that everyone in the audience was a devoted fan of Nick Cave – given that it was a show that sold out months ago, I have to assume that everyone was there because they really wanted to be – and so we all knew that the key influence on the look and feel of the film, including the music, was the death of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, last summer. (Arthur’s twin brother, Earl, and Cave’s wife, Susie, appear in the film.) It feels a bit mean-spirited to criticize the film too much – it all comes from a real place, observing the introspective nature of Cave, his family and his music while also capturing occasional glimpses of warmth. So while I consider 20,000 Days on Earth more successful for a filmmaking standpoint, particularly in its use of a somewhat scripted narrative to depict Nick Cave’s “reality,” the improvisational quality of One More Time is much more intimate, ultimately leading to a heartbreaking gut-punch of a finale as the album’s final track, “Skeleton Tree,” segues into one last choice of song for the soundtrack (which I won’t give away here). I haven’t yet had time to sit down and listen to the Skeleton Tree album through headphones, but because of how memorable the film experience was, some of those featured songs are still resonating through my head even after the first listen. If you love Nick Cave and you have a chance to go to an encore screening of One More Time with Feeling that is planned for select theaters worldwide on December 1.

P.S. About twenty minutes before the end, the film stopped and we had to wait a few minutes before it could resume. I think we missed a music scene, but I can’t totally remember. Oh well, maybe when the film is available on DVD…

P.P.S. Interestingly, the friend who went to the movie with me chose to take her 3D glasses off early on; she found the use of that technology distracting. Personally I liked the 3D, which is incorporated less for a “popping out of the screen” effect than for a sense of depth and dimension within the shots, usually to sharpen the focus on Nick Cave while many other elements in the frame are blurred.

Additional Notes from Later on September 9: One thing I didn’t discuss in my review of One More Time with Feeling – this is a subjective element which isn’t physically a part of the film itself, so I wasn’t sure that it was completely germane to my cinematic analysis – was that while I was watching the film, I kept thinking about the Sick Bag Song reading I went to at the Alliance Française’s Florence Gould Hall in April 2015. (The friend who accompanied me to One More Time last night was also with me for this earlier event.) Seeing Nick Cave live for the first time, despite being in a non-musical setting, was such an extraordinary thing. But what was even more significant, in retrospect, was that both Arthur and Earl Cave were in attendance.

There was a moment, either during the moderated discussion with Nick or at some point during the Q&A portion, when Nick pointed out that his two young sons were in the audience. Naturally we all turned around to see them, but given how big/dim-lit the auditorium was, the fact that the boys were standing in the back (I think) and that I was sitting pretty close to the front of the theater, all meant that I couldn’t actually see them. And yet, they were there. I wondered if they had ever been to New York before or if this was their first trip, and how exciting that must be.

So as I was watching One More Time with Feeling, I thought about how you can feel a person’s presence in a space. Even when you can’t see the person, somehow you know they are there, either because you have heard so (like at Florence Gould Hall) or because, in the case of this film, the person’s spirit and memory are very much a part of what is happening in the here and now.

Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone. Notes from October 1: I don’t feel the least bit guilty about using a coupon to get an almost free ticket (there was a $1.50 fee) to watch Snowden at the Regal multiplex in Union Square; many filmmakers deserve my support, but Oliver Stone is not one of them. Given that I have not yet seen Laura Poitras‘s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour (2014), I could not compare her work with Oliver Stone’s; perhaps that allowed me to like Snowden better than I otherwise would have. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a solid, committed portrayal of Edward Snowden, even with his distractingly mannered way of speaking, so that made the film very easy to get into and enjoy. The problem, though, is Stone’s dated approach to storytelling, making the narrative more concerned with Snowden’s relationship woes (Shailene Woodley does the best she can as Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay) than with the issue of the intel being shared. Stone never bothers to explain why Snowden chose Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson) as the journalists he decided to trust with his information; at least we are told that Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) is a filmmaker admired by Snowden. Most of the supporting performances are merely adequate, although the Regal theater audience certainly got a kick out of seeing Nicolas Cage as one of Snowden’s CIA mentors. I don’t know what to make of Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s first teacher at the CIA, though; the work is equal parts unsettling and weirdly hammy, including a scene where he spends the entire time mugging for the camera in a bizarre close-up during a video conference call with Snowden. (View at your own discretion.) The most bizarre part is that when the film closes with a scene showing the real Edward Snowden in his Moscow exile, that appearance by a non-actor is so compelling that you’ll wish you had watched the man himself in Citizenfour instead.

P.S. During the packed screening I went to, the couple sitting to my left never stopped talking (including talking on a cell phone during the end credits), the elderly couple in front of me also gabbed quite a bit and a guy sitting somewhere on the right side of the theater let out the loudest burp I have ever heard in my life (something he seemed to be inordinately proud of).

P.P.S. This IMDb user’s observation on a message board sums up the strangeness of Nicolas Cage in Snowden: “Nicholas [sic] Cage’s role seemed to resemble his career: the once A-lister, critically acclaimed actor/leading man, now playing a guy who was a star of innovation, relegated to an obscure museum of sorts at a training academy. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.“

Triple 9. Directed by John Hillcoat. Notes from September 17: The intersecting dramas of several corrupt Atlanta policemen and a vicious Russian-Jewish mob boss are brought to confusing life in this disappointing spectacle from the director of such recent films as The Proposition, The Road and Lawless. There is never sufficient time spent with the huge number of actors in the cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet (as the ruthless, Star of David-wearing mafia queenpin), Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Clifton Collins Jr. (probably my favorite performer in the film, quietly committed to an underwritten role that he breathes life into), Michelle Ang, Terri Abney, Luis Da Silva Jr. There is some occasionally excellent cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (especially in indoor club or restaurant scenes) and some typically good editing by Dylan Tichenor, but the crime/heist content is never satisfyingly exciting (it’s certainly nothing new) and you get the feeling that all of these worthy performers are being sadly wasted. It is also exceedingly frustrating that our “hero,” Casey Affleck, has no personality, seems to be chewing gum annoyingly in every scene and he gives the viewer an impression of being particularly dumb for a cop. Aaron Paul deserves some points, though, for having a hair/eyeliner situation that makes him look and sound like a hillbilly goth.

Friday Music Focus: 6/10/16

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Rowland S. Howard with his collection of records and books, photographed in 1999.

Today we look at a few examples of some of my favorite artists doing cover versions of other people’s songs. As Tess Duncan wrote for Paste last year: “There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.”

Cyndi Lauper, “When You Were Mine” (live at the American Music Awards, 1985 + live on tour, 2016; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) [originally by Prince, 1980]. In honor of Prince’s birthday, which was on June 7, here are two examples of Cyndi Lauper covering one of my favorite songs of his, “When You Were Mine” (from the 1980 album Dirty Mind). Obviously the version from last month has a particular poignancy to it, but even back in the 80s, Cyndi had her own twist on the song that was almost as uptempo as the original while also being more bittersweet. My favorite part of both performances is that she sings the high-pitched electronic synthesizer solo heard in the recording from her debut album, She’s So Unusual.

Manic Street Preachers, “(Feels Like) Heaven” (live on BBC Radio 2, 6/3/2016) [originally by Fiction Factory, 1983]. It was worth sitting through all three hours of DJ Chris Evans’ hideously annoying BBC Radio 2 breakfast show (it airs 6:30-9:30 am, UK time) just to hear the Manics do a few songs from Everything Must Go (which is, as has been mentioned on this blog before, an album currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary) and also this rendition of Scottish group Fiction Factory’s one-hit-wonder single from three decades ago. Speaking of fiction, I thought I would also include a minute-long snippet from an interview with Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire from December 1991, talking about the power of literature. Looking at Edwards’ and Wire’s wonderfully gaudy fake-fur coats, I’m reminded of this quote from musician Danny McCormack: “Richey and Nicky were inseparable at one point – you’d never ever see them alone. It was like two big leopard-skin jackets walking towards you.”

P.S. One of the most fun paragraphs I’ve read all week, courtesy of Wales Online writer David Owens in his review of the Manics’ recent home-turf concert at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea: “Head down and into the home straight, the forecast torrential rain finally arrived at the precise moment Nicky Wire re-emerged after his third costume change of the evening, bedecked in a Welsh flag skirt and musical note knee socks underlining his status as possessing the best pins of any fortysomething man in rock ‘n’ roll – and giving the front row quite the treat into the bargain.” (Photographic evidence here.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (appears on the album Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986) [originally by David and Jonathan, 1967; popularized by Gene Pitney, 1967]. I did a lot of listening to Nick Cave last Thursday and Friday because of the announcement that a new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, will be out this September, in addition to the release of a partly-3D documentary about the making of the album (a one-night-only event on September 8 for which I already have my tickets, of course!). But last Saturday I was surprised and delighted to hear the song “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” sung by actors Olivia Colman and Garry Mountaine in the new film The Lobster, which I saw at BAM Rose Cinemas. Even though the song is thought of as a Gene Pitney classic, I know it best from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks, an album comprised solely of covers. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call “Something’s…” one of Nick’s better vocals from his early years; he did a lot of atonal shouting when he fronted the Birthday Party between the late 70s and 1983, so the fact that he could do quite nicely with a good melody probably swayed people who had previously been on the fence about his musical abilities, and nowadays it serves as a good introductory tune for people who have never listened to his work at all.

Rowland S. Howard, “The Passenger” (appears on the soundtrack for the film He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, 2001) [originally by Iggy Pop, 1977]. It is sometimes hard not to think of Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard being joined at the hip since the Boys Next Door/the Birthday Party was really the beginning of making music history for each of them (although to be fair, Rowland’s version of “Shivers,” done with the Young Charlatans in 1978, is still the definitive punk take on that song before Nick turned it into a moody ballad in ’79). Each man has a separate style, so it’s not like their recordings necessarily beg comparison to one another, but one thing that has always amused me in judging their oeuvres side by side is that Rowland had a knack for covering songs in a high-spirited way that Nick has never done. (I don’t expect Nick to start now, particularly with the painful year he has had, but this is an observation based on the entirety of his career with the Bad Seeds. With few exceptions, lightness is not Nick Cave’s specialty.) But Rowland could finesse a rock or pop-rock song into something just as snappy yet in his own inimitable voice, and his interpretation of one of Iggy Pop’s most famous songs is first-rate. There is a sense of humor there. You can hear an unmistakably raised eyebrow.

Courtney Barnett, “New Speedway Boogie” (appears on the compilation album Day of the Dead, 2016) [originally by the Grateful Dead, 1970]. Coming back around to recently released covers, here’s a little something by Courtney Barnett, the best artist to emerge from Australia in the last couple of years (as well as being a fan of Rowland S. Howard, who influenced her guitar-playing and whose song “Shivers” she covered last year). I have never cared for the Grateful Dead, the one exception being their late 80s pop hit “Touch of Grey.” So when I listen to Courtney’s cover of “Boogie,” I hear it as new – a slow-burning but foreboding landscape – rather than as a reworking of the old, which is ideally what you want out of a successful cover anyway.

One More Bite of Sound for 2014

“He’s a pin-up poster high school crush/He’s a full-sugar UV gloss/He’s a new dance, he zips me up/He’s changing all the boys into girls…” (“(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny,” 2009)

The nice thing about most forms of art is that they are often so intertwined with their influences, contemporaries and successors that it is easy to discover all the links backwards and forwards. Such has been the case with my music-listening for the past few months. I know I usually focus my writing here on film, but I think when something changes your being so extraordinarily, the thing in question deserves a bit of a moment in the sun. No, I’m not writing about 20,000 Days on Earth or Nick Cave again, though I’m headed in a related direction. If you read my sort of recent post about Wings of Desire, you may recall the laudatory space I carved out to mention the scene featuring a Crime & the City Solution concert. Herein lies the hero of today’s piece: the virtuosic Rowland S. Howard, whose presence I praised in that scene in Wings. A poète maudit in all senses of the phrase, his transition from the lead guitarist in what a lot of people tend to call “Nick Cave’s first band” (The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party) to his work in the aforementioned Crime & the City Solution, then as the frontman of These Immortal Souls and later as a solo artist, provides the fuel for this brief tribute. A few paragraphs can’t suffice to explain why Howard’s music has transfixed me so, but it will have to do for now.

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Photo on the back of Crime and the City Solution’s Just South of Heaven EP, 1985.

Music is vital to me in a way that even my greatest love, film, is not. The right song at the right moment – or maybe any moment at all – can unlock a bolted door in my brain, wrap a comforting embrace around my heart or eat away at an already fragile bundle of nerves. One chord can drag all the constellations in my galaxy into perfect alignment for four or five or however many minutes. It’s the feeling of something greater than myself being able to strike the depths of my soul. I wish I could recall precisely which Birthday Party song was the catalyst for my realization of Rowland S. Howard’s talent, but at some point I recognized that I was paying attention to more than Nick Cave’s vocals. All of a sudden I was aware of this astounding maelstrom of feedback and sharp little slices of melody that could only have been given life in the six strings of Rowland S. Howard’s beloved Fender Jaguar.

Rowland S Howard of the Birthday Party, Auckland NZ May 1983

Photographed by Jonathan Ganley in Auckland, New Zealand, May 1983.

Henry Rollins is quoted in the documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard: “He looks like that guitar sounds… this spectral man suffering from malaria. Rimbaud, pulled from Africa and given a guitar.” Howard always appeared like a figure that had stepped out of a Weimar painting; tall, spindly, displaying pronounced and sharply-defined facial features, closer to Nosferatu than to any of the guys in AC/DC (the latter certainly being Australia’s biggest musical export of the 1970s and 80s), eyes shaded by makeup.

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Howard played guitar like a bard crafts odes: blisteringly, romantically, religiously. When you browse his discography – the adolescent sneer of the Young Charlatans’ “Shivers” (penned at the tender age of sixteen and later balladized by Nick Cave when he sang it in the iconic Boys Next Door version), the endless crunch of the Birthday Party’s “The Friend Catcher” and “Sonny’s Burning,” the sultry carnival-gone-mad “Some Velvet Morning” cover duet with Lydia Lunch, the yelping shockwaves of Crime & the City Solution’s “Shakin’ Chill,” late-90s standout “Breakdown (And Then…),” etc., etc. – you realize more than ever the gaping chasm between the rock songs that become popular and all the other music that has, for whatever reason, a limited audience. Consider the capital-a Artist who morphs into a progressively more accepted performer (see: Nick Cave), then consider the little-a (but no less important) artist who does not sell out or discard the musical style that he believes in. I think that’s what you get with Rowland S. Howard: an unfailing sense of This is who I am and this is what I do.

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Photographed in the late 2000s.

There is a common thread tied throughout his music, a personal and identifiable stamp put on everything from the occasional lead vocal for the Birthday Party (“Ho Ho”) to the keyboard-laden anthems of These Immortal Souls (“Marry Me (Lie! Lie!),” the self-mocking “So the Story Goes”) to more reclamations of songs from various genres (Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”; The Shangri-Las’ “He Cried” changed to “She Cried”; The Gun Club’s “Mother of Earth”; Velvet Underground/Lou Reed’s “Ocean”; Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”). One has to smile sadly and sigh a little at the differences between how Cave and Howard each ended up a quarter-century after the Birthday Party split up: Cave’s epic pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth ends with the Bad Seeds playing a packed theater at the Sydney Opera House (I doubt that Cave as a twentysomething rabble-rouser ever could have predicted that he would do that… or that he would want to), while in November 2008, Rowland S. Howard played a gig at the Famous Spiegeltent, an impermanent structure that was on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House at the time. I guess that that’s not literally just a tent on the lawn, but symbolically it might as well have been. Nick Cave is now a seen as a veteran rock star and he has sold out stadiums around the world; Rowland S. Howard, by comparison, was scheduled to be the opening act for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at a Melbourne concert the night before he passed away. It’s not quite the same. If this were a term paper, I might put forth the thesis that Cave’s career wouldn’t be a fraction of what it is had Howard not joined the Boys Next Door in ’78 and caused the band to evolve from merely another New Wave group into a unique tempest of post-punk vitality.

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Photographed by Jaakko Filppula, 1987.

I am chagrined to admit that I heard of Rowland S. Howard years before I actually became a fan of his work. Five Decembers ago I read a reference to his passing either in Pitchfork or some other general news service. Howard’s name rang no bells for me and when I listened to his 1999 cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” it made so slight an impression on me that I didn’t listen to it again until a few months ago, when I was solidly on my way to becoming a real devotee of Howard’s career. Seventeen-year-old me didn’t ask Who is this man? What was his impact on the music world? It took me so long to get around to wondering. Twenty-two-year-old me is grateful that the accessibility of the Internet and the resurgence of LPs is giving me a chance to get to know this long-overlooked performer. (In recent years the American bands Divine Fits and Against Me! have covered “Shivers,” introducing it to a whole new generation.) For the holidays I bought myself the recent Rowland S. Howard vinyl compilation Six Strings That Drew Blood; I can’t wait to fill the house with thirty years’ worth of beautiful sounds. (Thank goodness I found a seller that will ship merchandise from Australia to Brooklyn.)

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(A page from the magazine Uncut, currently taped up on my wall.)

When I develop an enthusiasm for any creator of great art – it could be a singer, a director, a short-story writer – I have a persistent desire to publicize my admiration for the person with everyone within earshot. I don’t know yet if my friends are tired of seeing the name of the same Australian musician repeated endlessly in my recommendations of music, but I don’t know how to stay quiet when I feel so compelled to share the joys of experiences that I hope others can have too. If one person listens to a song that I have linked to and likes it enough to return to it sometime, that’s a wonderful thing. You allow yourself to venture down a path that you might not have known existed. And that’s what all the fuss is about.

Making Memories on Earth

As of October 7 I have seen 20,000 Days on Earth, the recent docudrama about Australian singer-songwriter and post-punk icon Nick Cave, twice. Since first seeing the movie at the Film Forum on September 25, I have recommended it to all my friends, sharing the dark and occasionally deranged – but sometimes also fun! – sounds of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. (I’m not entirely sure if that has helped or scared off potential viewers.) If you live in the New York City area and you have not yet ventured to the Film Forum for this particular motion picture, you still have time: 20,000 Days on Earth will be playing until Thursday, October 16.

And why might you want to see the film? It’s difficult to come up with an answer that would fit every moviegoer. For some it might be beneficial to be familiar with Cave’s discography prior to seeing a film which spends a fair amount of time describing and displaying his songwriting and recording processes. “Higgs Boson Blues,” for example, might not be to everyone’s taste. Some might not “get” the style. If you’re familiar with Cave’s earlier band, the raucous group The Birthday Party, you’ll find that the film does not showcase that era. The film does not dwell on clips of Cave’s previous stage and music video performances, except for brief flashes in the montages in the opening credits and toward the end of the film, nor does the film burden itself with talking head segments. For newcomers, the film might serve as an exciting gateway to exploring the rest of Cave’s career, both musical and otherwise. (I recently read his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, which is by turns grotesque, comic and heartrending.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds perform “From Her to Eternity” in Wings of Desire.

I fall more into the second camp; I have been aware of Cave for nearly a decade, ever since seeing the band in their one scene in Wim Wenders’ romantic odyssey Wings of Desire (1987). I was reminded of how great that scene is when I saw the film again a few months ago. Because of my reconnection with Wings, my interest was piqued when I heard about 20,000 Days on Earth. Seeing the trailer at the Film Forum confirmed my wanting to see the movie. I listened to a couple of the Bad Seeds’ albums before seeing the film, just to get my feet wet, but I was not familiar with the music used in the film (all from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away). I was nevertheless hooked, thanks not only to the magic of the songs but also to the innovative ways in which directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard put the narrative together.

Even more than the music, the film is about the influences of time and memory on growth and day-to-day life. How much can someone else’s music, literature and other types of art inform the shaping of our minds? How often do we care about the recollection of a person from a specific place and time more than we care about what the person is actually like now? How do we mythologize certain moments in our lives? If we could, would we ever want to “reinvent” ourselves? I see these questions as much wider-reaching than the usual topics brought up in musicians’ documentaries. They’re definitely considerations I have had for my own creative projects.

There’s also something riveting about capturing the rock god as simultaneously fantasy and reality. Such an image can be self-designed based on popular stars of the past and present (for Cave, it’s Elvis) and it may be thought that that is a façade which is not the same as the real person underneath the persona. Even so there is something very real in how the performer and the audience interact. Joy, sweat and tears – those of Cave, the other band members and the concertgoers – coalesce in the film’s thrilling finale. The songs “Stagger Lee,” performed at the club KOKO London, and “Jubilee Street” at the Sydney Opera House raise the volume to a thundering loudness, the music buzzing through your feet and pulsing through your head and heart. Astute viewers will take note that the film’s purported “day in the life” is pieced together from scenes in multiple staged locations in multiple countries (with the exception of the opening scene in Cave’s actual bedroom, I think all the other non-recording-studio interior and exterior locations were chosen for aesthetics and practical purposes), but that doesn’t dilute the film’s power. 20,000 Days on Earth is not merely about memorable lyrics and catchy melodies; it’s about getting into someone’s head – and whether that can even happen anyway when the subject tries his best to wear a metaphorical mask in front of the camera.