Nick Cave, the Shaman
To see Nick Cave live is to see a rock star fulfill his true calling, transporting self and audience to the beyond.
Nick Cave at Greenville Festival, Berlin, 2013. Credit: Stefan Hoederath / Getty Images
I was in Berlin at the Greenville Festival, the summer 2013, and I was having a bad day—entirely the fault of Kaiser Chiefs, an indie rock band from England. It was the singer. There was something small and loutish about him, his songs instantly forgettable, the riot he kept predicting more akin to a brawl in a suburban beer garden. When he told us, "I'd like to make love to each and every one of you," the girl beside me sat on the ground in disgust saying, "Yes, you are a rock star." This was the problem: he was a rock star pretending to be a rock star, a villainy he confirmed minutes later by jumping onto the crowd with utterly unconvincing spontaneity and making his way to the scaffolding at the back, surrounded by bodyguards, from where he dangled. On his return to the stage, his path crossed mine and seeing me glaring at him, refusing to move, he stepped around me while I yelled: "YOU'RE AVERAGE! YOU'RE MEDIOCRE!"
I was calmer by the time Nick Cave arrived. It was dark by then with a full moon. We stood at the front against the barrier while Warren Ellis arrived with his violin and John the Baptist beard, followed by the rest of the balding Bad Seeds, Nick Cave last of all in his bespoke suit, and wide-open shirt, that Gothic, possibly Germanic, mustache thankfully absent now.
His old guitarist, Blixa Bargeld, we were told, was in Berlin that night, but there was no nostalgia in Cave's delivery which, energized by the finger-pointing, chanting audience, went from magnetic to demonic during "Tupelo," a song about the birthplace of Elvis, where 230 people were killed by a tornado in 1936. He began to stalk the crowd, his tailored elegance turning to sweat as he leapt onto the barrier, a murderer on his night off. He used outstretched hands as linchpins so that he could lurch forward, his long arms groping the crowd like a predatory arachnid. And then, quite suddenly, he stepped off the barrier and onto me, his entire body weight on my shoulder for thirty excruciating seconds while I considered pitching him into the crowd but concluded this would have been poor sport and, somehow, blasphemous.
"And some people say it's just rock and roll," he sang. "Oh but it gets you right down to your soul / You've gotta just keeping on pushing / Push the sky away."
This was the title track of his new album, and after he had finished, seconds later, whole sheets of lightning were literally pushing the sky away, the opening sallies of one of the most dramatic thunderstorms I had experienced, destroying tents, forcing drunken fans to run for shelter as we lay on the floor of a van, speeding back to Berlin while a red, horseshoe-shaped bruise smouldered on my shoulder.
To see Nick Cave live is to see a rock star fulfilling his essential shamanic function, transporting self and audience to the beyond. The essence of such performance is the deadly sincerity with which the simulacra is delivered. Myth is a part of this, something he alludes to on "Higgs Boson Blues," one of the tracks on his new "best of" album, Lovely Creatures. There he sings about "Robert Johnson and the devil"—about the legendary thirties bluesman selling his soul in return for guitar lessons. He sings that "All the clocks have stopped in Memphis now" (with Elvis dead); he sings about how Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana "does the African Savannah as the simulated rainy season begins." When the shaman believes his fictions with such earnestness, then we so do we, but if the fiction is broken, we lose our connection to him, and so to the beyond. This is why I was unable to push that leather-slip on off my shoulder, in spite of all the pain and annoyance.
Even when singing the softer, kinder, more restrained ballads from 1997's The Boatman's Call and Push the Sky Away (like "People Ain't No Good" and "Jubilee Street"), Cave remains in character, his famous darkness daubed just a little more thinly. But in his narrative songs, he fully inhabits his theatrical persona, letting out the beast he merely hints at in his ballads. He delivers tracks like "Stagger Lee," "Red Right Hand" and "Mercy Seat," tales of godless exiles and whisky-drinking psychopaths, with raw, sadistic glee, a dark storyteller whipping us into petrified frenzy with his fictions: "You're one microscopic cog / In his catastrophic plan / Designed and directed by his Red Right Hand."
In July, 2015, I learned, Nick Cave's 16-year-old-son, a fraternal twin, had died in an accident. Andrew Dominik's film, One More Time With Feeling, documents Cave's attempts to finish the record while experiencing the agony, depression, and loss of self common to anyone who undergoes such a trauma—the difference being that Cave, in keeping with his vocation, was alchemizing it into art. He describes this on the song "Steve McQueen," which did not make the album cut but was released on March 31 as a stand-alone music video:
And everyone out here does mean
And everyone out here does pain
But someone's got to sing the stars
And someone's got to sing the rain
And someone's got to sing the blood
And someone's got to sing the pain
Cave whispers the words as if too exhausted to sing—a sense that echoes throughout the album—but in spite of the agony in the lyrics, this isn't Nick Cave, the man, whose voice we are hearing. This is Cave the artist, the alchemist, the stylist and performer who, though broken and bloodied—the director describes him as "a battered monument"—has to go on laboring in his vocation until he dies.
This, I believe, is why the Kaiser Chiefs' singer made me so angry, because in him I saw only a self-conscious Englishman in jeans appropriating the codes of shamanism while the sub-millennial audience around him did the same, cavorting in feigned hysteria, a cynical, fraudulent collusion. It was the sham I objected to, the hubris. I understand that not all musicians can or need be shamans. Shamanism is exhausting work. It can only be sustained for hours at a time, after which the shaman must return to the earthly plane and rest, eat, sleep, shit, and cry like the rest of us. But the true artist takes these experiences and transforms them into something beyond mere humanity.
In 2016 we saw this quite starkly in two last, beyond-the-grave works from David Bowie (Blackstar) and Leonard Cohen (You Want it Darker). Skeleton Tree is Cave's, though the grave is not his own. It is the work of a musical warrior, a Viking dying with a sword in his hand, continuing as an artist while the human is sick and diminished inside. I suspect this is what made me buy Lovely Creatures even though I already own all the tracks on the album. It was a thirteen dollar tribute to an artist who has who endured, never severing his connection to us even when his connection to life was at its weakest. It's what gives him the right to stand on our shoulders.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam is the author of three novels: Starstruck, In Beautiful Disguises, and The Dreamer. His work has appeared at The New Statesman, Washington Post, and The London Review of Books, among others. Follow him on Twitter.