My Life in Nick Cave Albums
Part I: A Mindful of Tyranny & Terror
A woman is tied and bound in the trunk of a car, blood streaking the cloth gagged in her mouth. At the wheel sits a lunatic, or prophet, pursued by angels and demons visible only to him. Pulled over for speeding, he apologizes and casually puts a bullet into the police officer. The madman drives away, late for his communion with the otherworldly forces which call to him.
I am fourteen. On the television screen is an episode of The X Files, my favorite show. The episode, titled “Ascension,” features the kidnapping of the venerable FBI Agent Dana Scully by an alien abductee named Duane Barry. Throughout the proceedings, it remains unclear if the aliens are real, or figments of his imagination. The scene above is accompanied by a strange song I’ve never heard before, but in its eeriness seems somehow familiar. A deep voice croons over a demonic-sounding organ, delivering a paranoid litany which describes a shady messiah and the desperate personalities he attracts. The scene in itself is riveting, but the music takes it over the edge.
What is this song?
This is 1994 and the only people who use the internet are, largely and somewhat ironically, computer savvy X Files fans. I am not computer savvy. We also do not have the internet. I have no way of knowing the title of this mysterious song (though from the lyrics I glean the name is most likely “Red Right Hand”), nor the band/artist who sings it. I check the music stores for an X Files soundtrack album. It does not exist.
Two years later it does exist. Music in the Key of X, the official soundtrack to The X Files, is released in spring of 1996. The song which captured me so completely is performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I have never heard of Nick Cave, or the Bad Seeds, but l’ll take it. I immediately fall in love with the CD, “Red Right Hand” far and away my favorite track on the album. (Though I’m quite taken with the whole thing, especially a duet between Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper). A mysterious note in the CD booklet mentions that Nick Cave would like to remind me that zero is also a number. I do not understand that at all.
Some website says — we have the internet now — to rewind the disc beyond the 0:00 starting point of track one. I do what the internet tells me. Indeed, there are two hidden tracks which can be found this way, including a new song performed by none other than Nick Cave. A haunting spoken word lament accompanied by mournful violin. Nick Cave intones “Dread the passage of Jesus, for he does not return,” and I immediately dread the passage of Jesus, and know he will not be returning.
I remain forever indebted to Duane Barry for his compulsion.
. . .
My true acquaintance with the work of Nick Cave begins the following year. In early 1997, he releases his tenth album, The Boatman’s Call, a collection of piano-driven love songs and ballads documenting his recent divorce and its aftermath, as well as a brief but passionate relationship with fellow singer PJ Harvey. The record is also heavy on the religious exploration, as he ponders new ways of seeing God, Christ, and the Bible, all the while remaining doubtful. Ultimately it stands as a document of both romantic and divine love. Considered to be his masterpiece, The Boatman’s Call acts as an about-face in his songwriting at the time, which had often traded in tales of murder, lust, and despair.
I find a review of the album in a local magazine. It explains the above to me and I accept the narrative. By now, “Red Right Hand” has appeared in not just The X Files, but also Dumb & Dumber and, quite prominently, Scream. Nick Cave has even contributed to the Batman Forever soundtrack (though most likely he’s been overshadowed by U2 and Seal). Meanwhile, his hidden contribution from Songs in the Key of X has seemed to influence the score to Millennium, Chris Carter’s hit follow-up series to The X Files. Cave is far from a household name in America, but he’s creeping around our pop cultural backyard.
Another year later. I visit a record store while on something vaguely resembling a date with a girl who I like. She also likes me. I have no idea why. I do not know how to date anyone, but I do my best impression of someone who does. Not a good impression, I might add. (Things progress badly when she tries to kiss me during Alien 3 and I do my best not to throw up on her).
At the record store, we wander around, and I discover Nick Cave tucked away in the C-section. I stare at the handful of CDs, unsure of which album to buy. Already I can see he has a large catalogue. I am intimidated. I spot The Boatman’s Call, the album I’ve already read about and whose context has already been explained to me and digested by my mind. I will buy The Boatman’s Call, I decide, dimly aware there is no other decision. Later I listen to the album on my discman. The opening line of the record is “I don’t believe in an interventionist god.” It only gets better from there. Beautiful and melancholy, heartfelt and cynical, angry and tender. At this age I’m more accustomed to listening to the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, and yet the album still grabs me. In fact, it’s not so different from the sentiments expressed by those other artists, just presented in a more stripped down, graceful way.
Apart from its confessional nature, the most striking aspect of The Boatman’s Call is its appeal to some sense of the divine. Much has often been made of Nick Cave’s religious leanings, or lack thereof. On this record, his is the voice of the cynic who can’t quite not believe, or perhaps the unbeliever who has found a non-supernatural God, but God none the less. Cave’s grip on this very personal form of spirituality is slippery, tenuous, and eaten with doubt. It is also beautiful.
As a 17-year old angry goth kid, I’m not totally certain how to react to this record. Like anyone at that age, I’m in the process of figuring myself out, trying to assemble the jagged puzzle pieces of a personality and a worldview. They will never completely fit together, but at the time I don’t know that. Few of us do. One thing of which I’m certain: I am a writer. An artist. A creative person. The realization is both exhilarating and sickening. What could be better than having a mind endlessly ticking away at universes no one else can see? But what could be worse? At best you are considered a genius. At worst, a lunatic. As a teenager I’m not aware of anyone calling me either of those things, thankfully. But already I know that my mind walks a teetering tightrope between spinning new worlds and spinning into oblivion. Sometimes one looks like the other. Sometimes I am confused. Sometimes I am mistaken.
The author Hubert Selby Jr. says that being an artist is not a choice, but a sentence. Already at seventeen I seem to know this. I have written two screenplays, and am working on a short script about people in a purgatorial waiting room watching mold grow on cheese. It turns out well. I am fueled with dreams of writing and filmmaking. I also have no confidence. I cannot relate to people. I resent them for enjoying life, for knowing how To Be in this world. The world makes no sense to me. I hate it and I hate myself. But when I write, when I create, my mind enters a different place and I feel connections forming. I see the sense in the world. In my world. I feel God reveal itself.
I find The Boatman’s Call mildly off-putting. Who is this person? Why is he making a mix of church music, medieval folk ballads, and jazzy soft rock? Why is it so goddamn lovely? Who is Nick Cave, really? All I know of him are these melancholy love songs and the creepy 70s horror leanings of “Red Right Hand.” Must investigate further.
I peruse the CD racks and purchase another album, seemingly at random. Henry’s Dream. It sounds nothing whatsoever like The Boatman’s Call. Cave’s seventh album with the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream is a collection of searing acoustic punk and evocative tales of romance and longing. The opening moments of the record are just a jolt of energy, Cave wailing about walking through an apocalyptic landscape, the narrator growing increasingly debauched and corrupted as he goes onward. I am so excited I want to smash the windows in the kitchen.
The album had been recorded in the early 90s and documented Nick Cave’s feelings of isolation and disgust while living in Sao Paulo, where he resided with his wife at the time, Brazilian stylist and journalist Viviane Carneiro. He sought to create a raw, violent sound without relying on the clichés of music often described in those terms. Unfortunately, he failed to see eye to eye with the album’s overbearing producer, and by all accounts the process was a nightmare. Cave remains disappointed in the record. But I don’t know any of this, and none of it matters. I instantly love the album. I also love that Henry’s Dream is somehow from the same person who made The Boatman’s Call. This clearly isn’t just some rock star who writes the same record over and over and cashes his checks between drugs and blow jobs. This is someone with artistic integrity who cashes his checks between drugs and blow jobs.
I need more.
The review of The Boatman’s Call had mentioned Cave’s previous band, the Birthday Party. I am not familiar. But the article quoted some lyrics from their songs and they seem like the kind of pissed off nihilists I would enjoy. I buy the Mutiny/Bad Seed EP, a combination of the Birthday Party’s final two releases. “Hands up, who wants to die?!” screams Nick Cave on the opening track. (Between that and “I don’t believe in an interventionist god,” he seems to have the Greatest Opening Lines of All Time covered). The songs are a military march of swampy goth-punk and depraved junkie excess. Recorded in ’82 and ’83 as the Birthday Party flamed out in a burst of drugs and bickering, the whole thing is abrasive, stupid, unsettling, and terrific.
“Deep in the Woods” quickly emerges as my favorite song on the album, and a contender for favorite of all time. It imagines failed romance as an act of murder, the narrator burying his love in a boggy forest while offering sardonic puns like “I took her from rags right through to stitches.” The track ends in a clanging burst of feedback as Cave sings “Love is for fools and all fools are lovers/It’s raining on my house and none of the others/Love is for fools and God knows I’m still one/The sidewalks are full of love’s lonely children/The sidewalks are full of love’s ugly children/The sidewalk regrets that we had to kill them/End.” This marks the conclusion of The Bad Seed EP. Yes, that is correct. It begins with “Hands up, who wants to die?!” and literally ends with “End.” We should not underestimate this.
I now own three entirely different Nick Cave records. So different they might as well have been made by three different bands. I’ve been getting into a lot of different music lately. Rammstein. Genitorturers. Patti Smith. Barry Adamson (the former bassist of the Bad Seeds). I am doing okay. By now junior year of high school is ending. I spent much of high school afraid of senior year and afraid of graduating — because I fear all things, but especially the future, and change, and new responsibilities — but I’m now oddly hopeful for no particular reason. The air is full of promise. Spring of 1998. Two thumbs up.
That summer, I spend most of my time anticipating Fight the Future, the first X Files feature film. I see it three times on opening day. But when not obsessing over The X Files, I obsess over Nick Cave.
I close the gap between Henry’s Dream and The Boatman’s Call. Let Love In, the original home of “Red Right Hand,” is a mélange of different sounds and styles, all tied together with production that sounds like demons having a nervous breakdown in an abandoned cathedral. Cave recorded the album during the collapse of his marriage to Carneiro, turning to it almost as an act of desperation. This comes across in the lyrics, which at times seem to address the situation directly, a precursor to the laments on Boatman’s Call. But far from simply exploiting his own melodrama, Cave looks at his life as a kind of sick but amusing tragicomedy. He wasn’t lacking for material. Around the time the album was recorded, Cave had returned to using heroin, from which he’d been clean for several years. The liner artwork consists mostly of pictures of Cave’s scribblings and lyrics, plastered all over the studio with threatening notes not to move or touch them. Like a mad scientist, he had thrown himself into his work to escape everything else.
The record’s release was followed by a disastrous tour of America with the Lollapalooza music festival in 1994, which saw angsty grunge-inspired teenagers largely ignoring Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for more popular MTV acts, driving the frontman crazy in the process and increasing his bitterness towards the music scene in the States. A hilarious clip of Billy Corgan attempting to interview an irritated Nick Cave provides a glimpse into Cave’s mindset at the time.
Let Love In is followed by Murder Ballads, originally released in 1996. Here Cave perfects the art of singing about killing people, for which he’d been practicing since his days in the Birthday Party. He examines murder from every angle: killer, victim, loved one, bystander, motivation, the act itself. By turns disgusting, tragic, and humorous, Nick Cave seems determined on getting this particular obsession out of his system once and for all. His hysterically macho and intentionally obscene take on the folk standard “Stagger Lee” is a particular highlight, Cave somehow managing to create his own version of gangsta rap, revealing the connection between old and new musical genres. (He also deserves some type of award for the lyric “an ashtray big as a fuckin’ really big brick”).
On this record he duets with Kylie Minogue for “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” which becomes his most popular song in the UK. In the track, his character seduces and kills hers. He also duets with PJ Harvey on “Henry Lee”; this time, she kills him. This was the beginning of the brief relationship between Harvey and Cave, adding fuel to his Boatman’s Call songwriting, a project he was already undertaking while recording the less personal, more narrative and fictional songs of Murder Ballads. Cave admits at one point that he feels Murder Ballads is a one-note joke which got out of hand, and he has no real desire to listen to the record again.
I get both albums around my eighteenth birthday. I proceed to torture my family’s household with nonstop Nick Cave. Murder, death, Jesus, love, murder, repeat. It becomes rare to not be subjected to the Bad Seeds or the Birthday Party in one part of the house or the other. At the time, I’m unaware of the fact that our city (St. Louis) is where the historical Stag Lee did the deeds which made him famous.
Like the suffocating humidity, something hangs in the atmosphere that summer and it’s impossible not to take it in. My grandmother has recently died. About six months before. Lung cancer, complicated by advanced emphysema. She and I were very close. I practically lived in her room when I was a child. I declared sanctuary there, and could watch all of the R-rated movies I wanted, away from my father’s objecting eyes. My grandmother was like a third parent.
We moved far away some years before, but visited whenever we could. I last saw her over Christmas; she was only semi-coherent from the pain and the painkillers. She would say odd, nonsensical things at times. I put some of those into the script with the cheese mold, in honor of her. She would have laughed. The last thing she said to me was, “I’ll see you at Easter.” We both knew it wasn’t true.
I couldn’t bring myself to go to her funeral. Six months later and everything makes me think of her. Murder Ballads closes with an ironic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End,” with Cave, Harvey, Minogue, Shane MacGowan and various members of the Bad Seeds taking turns singing, a la “We Are the World.” Irony aside, it’s still quite affecting and meant to be so. I get emotional the first time I hear it. To call the song funereal would be an understatement.
My mother is not handling her mother’s death well. She absolutely can’t stand this song. She tells me to turn if off whenever it begins. Like a total goddamn shit, I am always playing it anyway. Finally she yells at me. She rarely yells. Later she tells me why this particular song bothers her so much. Apparently, she associates it with her mother, since it was always playing during the period where my grandmother was dying. This isn’t true. I owned no Nick Cave albums while my grandmother was sick. That being said, I stop listening to it around the house.
I start my senior year. Honestly, I’m feeling giddy. Silly. Smiley face. Not sure why. Summer transitions into fall and everything feels okay, like I’m high on something. I’m excited about Mechanical Animals, the new Marilyn Manson album. It’s fantastic. I’m fantastic. Life is fantastic. Until it’s not.
I crash. And burn. The fire spreads. I’m fucked up, I guess. Confused. I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want. My head is full of half-imagined romances and triumphs and failures that exist there and only there. I feel like a rotten delusional mud-caked cosmic doorstep that only just now got a glimpse in the mirror. I’m alone. I’ve never felt so alone. Abandoned by . . . uh, nothing in particular. I have no idea why I feel this way. There are no external reasons why any of this should be. None. I have a good life and enjoyed a happy, stable childhood. Sure, I experienced some relentless bullying, and maintain a sometimes strained relationship with my father, but these are fairly common events growing up. So why do I feel like a dysfunctional failure?
I can’t talk to anyone about this and there is no one to blame, which leaves zero options to direct any righteous, justifying anger. Over the next year I sink into a quicksand of self-hating rage and gnarling bilious misanthropy, defining myself by my own unhappiness to the point that I should just cut to the chase and dress as a weeping clown who repeatedly throws himself in front of cars.
But my Nick Cave collection has never been better.
Wanting to get more of a sense of Cave’s earlier days, over the next few months I amass most of his previous records. The first two Bad Seeds albums, From Her to Eternity and The Firstborn is Dead, continue in the same needle-pricked vein as the Birthday Party left off. Swamp-goth dirges and ghoulish sea shanties mix with a mutant form of country and blues, creating something difficult to define, a mythic version of the American South that exists nowhere but the imagination of Nick Cave himself. The Bad Seed and Mutiny EPs had started a trend towards narrative songwriting, and Cave followed that trail into his post-Birthday Party work. But whereas the Birthday Party were all fury, the early Bad Seeds slow things down considerably, focusing more on mood and sound, making more of an effort of easing you down before slipping the knife into your wherevers.
Kicking Against the Pricks is a covers album, reimagining songs by a wide variety of artists including John Lee Hooker, the Velvet Underground, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Alex Chilton. (The title, an out-of-context Biblical quote, was supposedly intended as a reference to Cave’s highly acrimonious relationship with the British music press at the time). The color scheme of the record is red and green, perfect since I receive the CD as a Christmas present. Sometimes the album feels like a sinister creature which crawled out of the dark recesses of the Mississippi; at others, it feels like easy listening. This is only Cave’s third release with the Bad Seeds but already he’s set his own template for what is to come.
Born on the heels of the covers record comes Your Funeral . . . My Trial, originally released as a double EP in 1986, the same year as Pricks. Creepy and atmospheric, the highlight is the eight minute epic “The Carny,” a horror tale about dwarves burying a horse named Sorrow in a torrential rainstorm. Cave and his Bad Seeds followed this with Tender Prey, a strangely all-over-the-place but brilliant offering combining random elements — industrial noise, garage rock, piano ballads, gospel — almost as a highlight reel of the band’s capabilities.
At this point in the late 80s, Cave started to burn out. His heroin addiction had begun taking a toll in a way it hadn’t before, and he found himself arrested and facing court-ordered rehab. His egomania was also out of control, resulting in bizarre, paranoid fights with journalists and band members.
Much of this had to do with the fact that Cave had entered a sort of prolonged form of temporary, partially drug-induced madness. For several years, he’d been typing away at his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, whenever he found time away from making music. The book became an unhealthy obsession for him; appropriately enough, as it’s a story about obsession. The novel details the life of Euchrid Euchrow, an abused backwoods mute coming of age in a fictional community in the American South dominated by a fanatical religious cult. He grows dangerously infatuated with a child named Beth, whom the townsfolk believe to be some type of prophesied savior. Euchrid himself becomes consumed with megalomania, hallucinating an angel and deciding he’s been chosen by God for a special purpose, all the while devolving into cruelty and murder. It ends poorly.
Beginning life as a screenplay deemed too expensive to film, in many ways And the Ass Saw the Angel puts the cap on everything Cave had written until then. The book draws upon various images, phrases, scenarios, and characters from Cave’s work dating all the way back to the Birthday Party. Euchrid narrates the novel while sinking in a swamp, an allusion to songs on the Mutiny/Bad Seed records, particularly “Swampland” (the story’s original title). Sorrow the horse makes an appearance. And Cave’s “Tupelo,” a track from The Firstborn is Dead which compared the birth of Elvis and his stillborn brother during an apocalyptic rainstorm to the birth of Christ, is directly called upon throughout the book.
Certain songs on Tender Prey feel almost like a parody, as if Nick Cave is trying to out-Cave himself, and at times on the record he speaks in the invented Southern drawl featured throughout the novel. Clearly, the book represents some type of climax for him, messy and diseased though it may be.
Not consciously aware of the connection between the two, I buy the novel and Tender Prey on the same night. (That same evening I also get a used VHS copy of Johnny Suede, an independent film starring a pre-celebrity Brad Pitt, and featuring Nick Cave doing a parody of the parody of himself from Tender Prey. I jokingly refer to my take that evening as Multimedia Nick Cave). This is the weekend my depression really begins — inasmuch as such a thing has a beginning, which it doesn’t — when my obsessions and delusions catch up with my consciousness and I come to doubt everything about myself, realizing I’ve been wandering a melodramatic teenage Bardo Thodol.
Tender Prey unintentionally transforms into a very specific soundtrack, Cave’s anger and sadness and longing reflecting exactly my own emotions, despite the fact that wherever he’s coming from probably has little to do with whatever I’m experiencing. This is a part of the magical transference of music to listener, I suppose, perhaps a type of vanity, where we see ourselves in the singer or songwriter whether or not that inclination is supported by the lyrics or the perspective of the song itself. But I like to imagine he was as fucking angry as I am.
Later I read the book. It immediately becomes one of the most prized and important pieces of writing to me. All I seem to know lately are obsession and rage, romantic illusions and bitter disappointment, resentment and fantasies of revenge. It’s been this way on and off for years but for some reason now that I am a supposed adult it seems to be bubbling out of my skull like lava. The novel is all of these things writ large. It could have no main character other than Euchrid, a self-hating outsider wanting to punish the world for the turmoil within him. I’m taken with everything about the book: story, setting, Euchrid’s madness, the endless rainstorms, and especially the language, this pseudo-Biblical, Old Testament severity smashed against a redneck mangling of words all pulped together with a Shakespearean dose of drama.
The timing is quite eerie, as for the last year or two I’ve been fiddling with my own, vaguely similar story. Titled Angels & Other Freaks of Nature — the title is not a reference to Cave’s, yet another Bible phrase taken hilariously out of context, but alludes to a specific image which inspired my story — I imagine it as a mad scientist tale set within an ancient, decaying bog populated by witches and inbreds. There is also a spooky carnival, and I’ve been toying with adding a mad preacher. My whole life I’ve shown a predilection for things like swamps and freakshows and religious mania, and Cave’s music just immediately clicks as an automatic soundscape for the world I see in my mind. Angels & Other Freaks began as a series of half-finished short stories, but now I dream of turning it into either a book or a screenplay. I’m not sure what to do. But I’m only eighteen. I have time.
I find it quite nice I have all this time, since writing has become almost impossible and I’m getting absolutely nothing done. As I’m consumed more and more by self-loathing, I can barely sketch a sentence in any manner of storytelling, and any periods of productivity prove brief at best. It’s all shit, shit, shit, to quote Lula Fortune.
I complete my Bad Seeds collection with The Good Son, which I purchase on New Year’s Eve on the cusp of a giant snowstorm. Cave’s follow-up to Tender Prey sees him post-rehab, post-heroin, now married to Viviane Carneiro and living in Sao Paulo (following a handful of drugged out years in Berlin). Wanting to get away from tales of backwater junkie maniacs, he instead takes a page from Burt Bacharach and crafts an album of romantic ballads, crooning at the piano while singing gently over lush strings. To parallel Leonard Cohen: if Cave’s previous career was mining the territory of Songs of Love and Hate, The Good Son is firmly in the tradition of New Skin for the Old Ceremony. This type of sea change is definitely the ancestor to The Boatman’s Call, and it proved divisive among critics and fans when first released in 1990. But I think it’s great when I first hear it; I will maintain a very, very specific memory of listening to the CD in my family’s living room, a fire in the fireplace while it snowed like hell outside.
It is also around this time that I round out the Birthday Party discography, an equally necessary thing, in my eyes. Hee-Haw is a collection of singles and B-sides, and also of the original Hee-Haw EP, recorded when the band was still known as The Boys Next Door. The songs are quirky, jangly and experimental, the group still trying to find its voice. Prayers on Fire, the Birthday Party’s first full-length album under that name, finds them fully clicking. A new wave record full of weird rhythms & time signatures and manically tribal drumming, the album showcases Cave’s absurd, surreal lyrics, which at this point are more like some abstract DaDa prank.
The next album, Junkyard, is where the band fully cranks into the red, and also begins the convulsions that will ultimately lead to its death. One of the most intentionally terrible sounding records ever made, the whole thing feels like it was created with rusty discarded instruments in some needle-strewn trash heap. The guitars and cymbals are warbly, trebly, shrill nightmares. The bass seems as if it’s trying to fuck you through the speakers. And Nick Cave is utterly unhinged, shrieking and vomiting odd phrases into the microphone that are less lyrics and more suicide note graffiti transferred into song form. “I am the King! I am the King! Junkyard King! Junkyard King! KING! KIIIIIIIING!!!” he declares on the title track, a forebear to Euchrid Euchrow. But this is also the beginning of Cave’s work hinting at narrative structure, even if most of the stories here are difficult to precisely pin down.
I buy the Junkyard CD at a place called Music Biz, located in Washington, MO. Washington is a small conservative Midwestern town but somehow they have this amazing music store full of rare CDs. I’m there with my high school bowling team. Though I hate sports, somehow I joined the bowling team. It makes no sense but gives me something to do on Sundays, and I like hanging out with my friends. (I am not very good at bowling and will later win the 110% Award for the season, also known as the You Tried. Didn’t He Try, Everyone? Bless His Heart award). On the opposing team is a girl named Deanna. I keep getting the Nick Cave song “Deanna” stuck in my head whenever we play her. And also “The Moon is in the Gutter,” which is where my ball often ends up.
In certain ways, the Birthday Party is almost more important to me than the Bad Seeds, at least at this juncture. They are filled with contempt and puke-spewing rage. And also a particular sense of humor. The only thing they hate more than people who don’t take them seriously are those that do. At times, they seem to actually despise the songs they’re performing, even the mere act of having to play instruments. Cave spits out the words like he can’t stand the taste of them. The band cannot last. The center will not hold. They deserve to fall apart and they know it.
I have a self-destructive streak at this age despite the fact that I appear very reserved. My mushroom cloud is directed inward, thank you. I don’t act out in the usual ways a teenager might. I’m still a virgin, I don’t do drugs, and it’s years before I’ll ever know what it’s like to be drunk. But I understand the urge towards destruction. Often I’m drawn to music with singers who exude that brand of chaos: Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Lux Interior, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson. Not just pale gaunt white men with a propensity for substance abuse, but people who weren’t afraid to have an antagonistic relationship with their audience, or at the very least could provoke simply by stepping onto a stage. In the Birthday Party, Cave would hit people with the microphone and the mic stand, throw lightbulbs at the crowd, wrap the cord around their necks, punch and kick and bleed in all directions, play the snare drum with his head. A disaster in human form. I wish I could have seen it in person.
(Years later I will get the Birthday Party’s home video, Pleasure Heads Must Burn, on DVD. It features a performance of “Junkyard” on Dutch television, the band standing on a Top of the Pops-style stage with neon lights and cylindrical platforms. Bassist Tracy Pew is dressed like a New Romantic-gay-cowboy-serial-killer and the guitarist, Rowland S. Howard, is so thin and frail it’s possible he may not have eaten ever in his life. Nick Cave saunters around like some deranged lounge singer, holding a drink and a lit cigarette, his head an explosion of hair as he writhes and screams and growls. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen).
The Birthday Party are the embodiment of what I call a clawing wretchedness, a kind of bemused disgust mixed with an undifferentiated hatred and a need to tear yourself open and spray the awfulness any and everywhere. I have so much psycho-spiritual sludge welling within me and no way to vent it. I start cutting myself, taking ripped soda cans and using the edges to carve my chest and my abdomen. Sometimes I slice my fingers open and draw all over my body in blood, writing messages to myself, my pale torso and face a canvas for this exciting new art form. (Nick Cave could sometimes be seen using his hypodermic needle to scrawl words in blood when his pen ran out of ink, and I resent him for getting there first). I take wire hangers and beat and scratch at my chest with them. I fantasize about going to school and slitting my wrists or my throat in the lunchroom. It’s not pleasant but a bloodletting ritual is about all I have to give the demons an escape route. I don’t think I want to die, but I don’t necessarily want to live in this world, either.
It all becomes very topically depressing right before I graduate. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walk into Columbine high school and kill a handful of students and teachers before turning their guns on themselves. A debate ensues about violence in the media. Outlets such as Fox News mistakenly report that Harris and Klebold were dressed like Marilyn Manson, or wearing Manson t-shirts. They were not, of course. They dressed in typical 90’s industrial-goth fashion: black trenchcoats and boots. They listened to Rammstein and KMFDM.
Adults don’t understand most of this so they continue to blame Marilyn Manson. I love Marilyn Manson. I love Rammstein. I love Nick Cave. Given that Cave has an album called Murder Ballads which, among other things, features a song where someone very similar to Harris and Klebold commits mass murder in a bar, and another track where a teenage girl kills people in her small town for fun, it’s clear Cave could just as easily be blamed if his music were more popular. Goth subculture comes under heavy suspicion, as do video games, violent films, and heavy metal.
I would never kill anyone, but a small, subterranean portion of my brain is for whatever reason a frustrated narcissist with delusions of grandeur. Possibly all artists have this particular slug crawling around their minds, somewhere. There really is not much of a difference between many creative people and those who snap and commit murder to get attention. It is 1999 and I understand to some degree why Harris and Klebold have done what they did. I also hate them, not just for taking lives they didn’t deserve to take but for helping to cast suspicion on those who choose to use their demons as fuel for creativity, or who would rather hurt themselves than anybody else, or who took refuge in goth or punk or metal subculture to escape being tormented.
Nick Cave doesn’t use guns. He shoots with words (which are admittedly sometimes about guns). We are all the better for it.
That summer I turn nineteen. At my birthday party, I develop a stomachache. By early the next morning I’m doubled over in pain. My father is convinced I drank something I shouldn’t have, but again this is still years before I start drinking. At the hospital, they tell me I have appendicitis, a condition my hypochondriac mind has been convinced I’ve had for the last half-decade. My appendix, close to bursting, is removed without further incident. I am given painkillers for the first time in my life. And for the first time I can remember, the storm inside my mind calms and even ceases. I spend the next several weeks looking forward to each dose of Vicodin or whatever knockoff I’ve been prescribed. Everything is groovy, as Nick Cave sings. Everything is fine.
I had been working at Kmart as a night stocker. I was supplied a box cutter as part of my job, and earlier that summer I would catch myself sitting naked in the bathtub, debating whether I should slit my wrists. I never did. I have to quit my job at Kmart following the appendectomy. I do not miss working at Kmart. I steal the box cutter. I run out of painkillers and throw things at people, then I get over it.
I mistook the box cutter for a surgical tool to remove my pain.
As summer winds to a close, I start college. I begin to write again. A one-act play. A film script. Even writing papers for class is sometimes enjoyable. I eventually start writing them in screenplay format. I still feel alone and confused but am able to function, and my mind begins to order itself. The stasis dissipates. I almost forget whatever it was that had me so distraught.
Hands up, who wants to die?
My hand stays down. Writing.