What I am writing now: Nick Cave and death

Almost done with the final chapter of my book on Nick Cave – an alternative interest apart from the usual stuff on Marxism, the Bible and theology. It’s on the uplifting topic of death, in which I draw upon Adorno, Horkheimer and Bloch for some theoretical perspective in dealing with death both inflicted and suffered. Concerning the latter:

The immediate impression is that death suffered – of a solitary individual, usually the singer – is a theme that dominates the earlier material from The Bad Seeds, especially From Her to Eternity, The First Born Is Dead, Kicking Against the Pricks, Your Funeral … My Trial and Tender Prey. A number of themes emerge from this material, such as execution for a crime, the depravity of a life that ends in a sordid death, relief and the escape offered by a death that is better than life, but above all the struggle against being forgotten after death, the struggle for memory and the threat of complete annihilation. In other words, we find a concern for the process of dying, how one approaches death and the ontological status of death itself, with a distinct emphasis on that last category.

Concerning the process of dying, often the victim is or is about to be executed for a crime that may or may not have been committed,[1] or less often he is the victim of a murder.[2] No peaceful passing here, for the end comes as a result of violence, at times in the context of what can only be called total depravity or a sickness unto death. For example, in the early ‘Blundertown’ from Junkyard (Cave 1982) in The Birthday Party days, we find the sordid reality of life characteristic of the drug-fueled punk albums. This was a time when the bassist, Tracy Pew, died of an epileptic fit brought on by the cocktail of drugs and alcohol (Hattenstone 2008).[3] Tied in closely is an apocalyptic dimension to this sense of utter corruption, in which the world is on course to destruction as the subject of the song slips away. For instance, in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), Huck’s death takes place as ‘‘The mo-o-o-on, its huge cycloptic eye / watches the city streets contract / twist and cripple and crack’.[4]

How do these individuals face death? Some do so with an anticipation of release from a dreadful life, looking forward to the peace of not being pursued or persecuted any longer. Thus, in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b), a song that may well have come from the novel And the Ass Saw the Angel (Cave 1989a), the subject of the song is caught in quicksand, desperately hoping, albeit not without some terror, that it will suck him down before his pursuers appear with bloodlust in their eyes. Or in ‘Knockin’ on Joe’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), the singer awaits execution on death row in a mixture of protest at the life lived and relief, since after death ‘You cain’t hurt me anymore’. And in ‘Wanted Man’ from the same album, he mentions the place where he is not wanted any more, namely ‘the place that I call home’.

However, the dominant theme of these songs is death simply leads to total annihilation as a person, with a struggle against the odds simply to be remembered. So, in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ (Cave 1984), the singer searches in vain for some means to remember the executed Black Paul. Everything that he wrote becomes scrap on the street, the ‘whole fucken lot’ going ‘right up in smoke’. Or it may be one anonymous and veiled lover who visits the grave in the dead of night, as in ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a).[5] Even the crows eventually forget a corpse strung up on a pole once they have finished feasting on its rotting flesh (‘Black Crow King’ from The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985)). Yet memory is a fickle beast, just as likely to throw up gruesome and unwelcome reminders, such as the carny’s horse in ‘The Carny’ (Cave 1986b), the corpse of which floats out of its shallow grave during an apocalyptic storm as the carnival grimly attempts to leave the scene. Ultimately, one cannot control those memories, as people dig about for dirt and gossip – so in ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

That fickle memory and the ever-present threat of its loss comprise but one element of the annihilation of death. Saint Huck’s river in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984) becomes a metaphor for the sucking obliteration of identity brought about by the ontological status of death.[6] Alternatively, the devil may take one down, down, down into hell and oblivion (‘Up Jumped the Devil’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988). Or a rock star may find that he or she suddenly undergoes what is known in the fame business as ‘irrelevance syndrome’, as we find in ‘The Singer’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), who fears that suddenly ‘nobody knows me’. Yesterday, the multitude may have screamed out his or her name and cried out for a song, but now he is gone, like the ‘pages of a book’ used to light a fire. All of which is summed up best in the penultimate line from ‘Jangling Jack’ (in Let Love In (Cave 1994): having been shot by the barman, Jack dies slowly in a pool of blood, until at last ‘he vomits and dies’.

[1] As in ‘A Box for Black Paul’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984), ‘Black Crow King’ and ‘Knockin’ onj Joe’ in The First Born is Dead (Cave 1985), ‘Long Black Veil’ from Kicking Against the Pricks (Cave 1986a), ‘Mercy Seat’, ‘Up Jumped the Devil’ and ‘Mercy’ in Tender Prey (Cave 1988).

[2] ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ from Your Funeral … My Trial (Cave 1986b), ‘Jangling Jack’ and ‘Lay Me Low’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994).

[3] We also find this tone in ‘Saint Huck’ in From Her to Eternity (Cave 1984).

[4] So also in ‘Jangling Jack’ from Let Love In (Cave 1994), apocalyptic creeps in as Jack is killed by the barman as he goes for a drink: ‘He sees the berserk city / Sees the dead stacked in piles / Sees the screaming crowd.’

[5] See also ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ in Your Funeral … My Trial, in which memory is held by one, the survivor of a toxic love affair.

[6] As does the quicksand in ‘Swampland’ from Mutiny – The Bad Seed (Cave 1989b).


3 thoughts on “What I am writing now: Nick Cave and death

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