Part IV: The Bells in the Chapel Go Jingle-Jangle
Our wedding is full of death.
It takes place two weeks before Halloween. Our bride and groom portraits are snapped in a graveyard. I kiss her in front of a headstone, surrounded by fall leaves. We hold the ceremony in a chilly, supposedly haunted cellar, the remnants of an old brewery converted into an event space. The reception takes place upstairs, and we sit at a table with the statue of a small skeleton. Everywhere stands some reminder of death. We love it. Maybe this looks like some hipster wedding or what have you, but it’s very us.
We walk down the aisle to Nick Cave. Individually, we had each picked “Into My Arms” as our top choice for this moment; there was simply no contest when it came to that song. Everyone stands as Cave’s somber piano begins to play over a blutooth speaker of uncertain dependability. “I don’t believe in an interventionist god,” he sings, his voice echoing throughout the haunted cavern. “But I know, darling, that you do/But if I did, I would kneel down and ask Him/Not to intervene when it came to you.” We say our vows, surrounded by most everyone we love, but in that moment there is only us, as selfish as that may sound.
The wedding takes place in Washington, that small town where I bought Junkyard on CD so many years before. An album recorded when Nick Cave was a very different person. I remember the person I was when I bought it, a desperate, lonely, solipsistic nightmare imagining different ways to kill himself. My wife had gone through a similar state, and our wedding tonight shows us how far we’ve come. We can go further still.
The reception offers almost a summation of our lives up until this point, a cross section of family and friends from throughout different periods of our existence, now thrown together for the first time. But instead of the strident discord of worlds colliding, there is mostly harmony, the night possessed by some kind of weird, irretractable magic. Everything makes sense, tied together with a hidden and perfect and unquestionable rationale. This is the kind of mawkish nonsense I usually threaten to vomit all over, but it is indeed the greatest night of either of our lives.
I feel loved.
I am loved.
We are love.
The demons in my mind lied, and tonight they have no power, and can wait bound and gagged in the cellar for as long as they fucking have to.
We want it to last forever, and in some sense, it does.
A few days later, the problems begin.
We’re on our honeymoon, or the closest thing we can afford to a wedding getaway until we save money for a proper vacation. We’re enjoying a great time at a small, creepy cabin in the southern part of the state. We’re having a nice dinner somewhere when I suddenly lose my appetite, my heart starts pounding, I begin sweating and feeling nauseous. It’s like my nerves have shot into overdrive. We go back to the cabin. I calm down.
But the same thing happens again a few days later. And the next day, and the next. Soon, I’m losing my appetite and feeling sick whenever I try to eat. Then it begins to happen even when food is nowhere near me. I have to keep leaving work early because I’m dizzy and sick to my stomach.
I’ve been on a heavy dose of antibiotics for several weeks, prescribed by a dermatologist to help rid me of my facial infections before the wedding. The meds seem to have done the trick, but I learn that long-term use can result in sudden, serious, long-lasting nausea, as they meddle with the inner ear and also cause extreme acid reflux. On the doctor’s advice, I stop taking the antibiotics as my outbreaks have long since disappeared, but it takes a solid month before the vertigo and nausea are no longer noticeable.
During this time, my anxiety and hypochondria are off the charts. I’m convinced I’m dying, of many, many different things. I break out into tears constantly. I cannot stop panicking. I am a jittery, frightened mess. My wife is constantly having to reassure me, until she rightfully can’t stand it anymore.
Around Thanksgiving, I feel something change. Some thing, somewhere, disappears. My wife and I both find ourselves sleeping constantly, an inexplicable sadness having settled over us. Most certainly it has to do with what the purveyors of rational explanations refer to as “seasonal depression,” which occasionally afflicts one or both of us around this time of year. For some reason, it seems to have hit me harder than normal. I feel asleep even when awake. I stand in the shower like a zombie. I do not understand what’s wrong with me, or why it has to be like this.
I go to my doctor, who agrees I’m suffering from severe anxiety that has worn me into a period of depression. She wants me to take Prozac, just until I regain my balance. I’m not thrilled to be on more medications but at this point I will do anything. I take them dutifully. I begin to experience side effects. I feel a tightness in my entire body. My hands shake and cramp. My legs are wobbly and I keep almost falling down. My joints swell and my body aches. I feel like an old man. Some of these effects stabilize after about two months, but I can never quite regain my energy. And there seems to be a disconnect between my mind and body, which makes my sex drive almost nonexistent, the exact thing any newlywed person would want.
No, none of this is how I pictured married life.
Time wears on. A new year. David Bowie dies. My wife and I cry profusely, holding each other at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’ve never been so affected by the death of a famous person before. Many other people I admire will die this year — Prince, Alan Rickman, Edward Albee — but Bowie’s death just stuns me. It now feels like anyone, anywhere can die.
A new season of The X Files airs, 14 years after the series ended. It is not received well critically, but all the same I really dig, Lazarus, dig it. Feels like The X Files to me. No Nick Cave songs, but one episode makes incredible use of Billy Ray Cyrus, Tom Waits, and the Lumineers (not a sentence I ever expected to type).
A new year. Same old shit. I try this, I try that. Soon it’s been six months. I still do not feel like myself. It’s like whoever I really am is just on the cusp, barely out of reach, but out of reach all the same.
I can see that this is impacting my wife. Of course it is. I’m supposed to be her husband, her partner, and at times I’m barely present. At others, I’m a wreck, and no matter what we do it keeps coming back to what I need. She pulls away. She seems depressed herself. I worry that she feels more like my caretaker or my mother than a person in a stable marriage. I know it has always been this way, to some degree. I have always been held together tenuously at best, and she’s had to be patient with me as I constantly collapse into jigsaw pieces. I don’t mean to be this way. I have never meant to be this way. I don’t know what to do.
I write. I write a short story about a jester who sells his soul to the Devil for something he already has. I write a 70 page essay about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, to fill some college credits I’ve owed for thirteen years. I write notes for Angels & Other Freaks of Nature. I will write my way to saving myself.
In the spring, I stop taking the Prozac, after learning it’s the one antidepressant that can be quit cold turkey without fear of a depressive crash. To counter, I continue walking and making sure I get a decent amount of sleep most nights. I’m determined to be a better husband, and to restore some semblance of stability in my mind and in my soul.
“I can’t stay married to you.”
She says these words tearfully.
She has thought long and deeply about this.
Somewhere this awareness had always shuffled in the back of my mind. Hers as well. Adrift in the depth of the unconscious where the inevitable likes to hide. It took getting married to force it to the surface. She’s become someone else. So have I. We’re wearing the costumes of people who no longer exist.
I want to blame it all on her. I want it to be her fault. I want my righteous indignation.
I want to hold her. I want her to hold me. I want to cry. I want to never let go.
I want to push her down the steps.
I have no doubt that she likewise wants to hold me, kill me, kiss me, throw me down the stairs. I imagine these are the bizarrely standard thoughts to which we instinctively default when love fails us.
I want to disappear. I want to wake up from myself.
I want to stop thinking in histrionic goth poetry.
I want this to be her fault, and it is. It’s also my fault. And our fault. And, most demonically, nobody’s fault. Yet again I cannot blame radical Islamic terrorism.
I go outside and try to trim the yard and end up smashing the weedeater on the front steps of our house.
It was a terrible machine, and I’m glad it’s gone.
I return the destroyed weedeater to the garage. Her wedding dress hangs there bagged like a corpse in the morgue freezer. This is not goth poetry but a fact.
Just a few weeks following this fairly fucking awful development, my mother undergoes a series of tests after experiencing severe back pain. The doctors find a mass in her lung. Like my grandmother, she’s always been a smoker, so we understand fairly early that this is most likely lung cancer. The tests reveal that not only is it stage 4 cancer, but it has already spread significantly. The prognosis is not great.
Perhaps we overdid the death imagery at the wedding.
. . .
In spring of 2016, Nick Cave’s camp announces a new record, Skeleton Tree, due in September. Also announced is a documentary film titled One More Time with Feeling, to screen globally the evening before the album’s release. Directed by Andrew Dominik, who had worked with Cave on the Jesse James film, the movie takes a look at Cave’s creative process in the wake of the tragedy of Arthur Cave’s death.
Cave had actually completed a portion of Skeleton Tree before his son died, and forced himself to go back to work several months later, not knowing what else to do. The result is both an album and a film that prove pretty difficult to dismiss, forget, or in any way easily shake off.
By the time both are released, I am personally in a state I can’t quite define. It’s been almost exactly a year since we lost Leo. His ashes rest above the fireplace, the mantle dripping with grief like condensation. We get used to stepping around the puddles, but it’s still too soon. It’s always too soon. (You might be thinking, But, it’s only a cat. And I might be thinking, Fuck you). After months of stress and depression and physical illness and feeling like my mind and my body are both actively working against me, the smash-in-the-face that is the end of my brand new marriage, and the most important relationship I’ve ever had, leaves me in a daze.
But if I’m in a state of shock following that — and also drowning in the rising sea of harsh noise with so many voices clamoring to tell me what I need to do in this situation, all of them well-meaning but all of them irrelevant at the end of things — then the news about my mother puts me in a place of complete uncertainty, some alien planet where I’ve been dropped and no one has given me a travel guide. None of us is ever ready to confront the mortality of our parents, but, and I don’t mean to be picky, the timing of all of this just seems particularly egregious. And I’m not the only one in my immediate family in a state of imperious flux, either. I’m uncertain if our bloodline perhaps pissed off a witch or some evil wizard. Whoever it was, I hope they had a great outfit . . . just boss, man.
(Yes, you may use Imperious Flux as the name of your shitty groove band. Now go, and be well).
One More Time with Feeling screens locally at an art-house theater called the Tivoli, one of several where I used to work. I love going there. There is only one showing of the film in St. Louis, even though many bigger cities have added additional screenings. I don’t want to miss it, even if right now I’m shocked and saddened to the point of numbness. I go by myself. I figure I need to see something like this. Need to see an artist I admire as he struggles to create through grief. This feels important.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is its stark honesty. As an artist, Nick Cave is someone who’s always been able to obfuscate whenever he chooses. He might be confessional at times, even brutally candid or self-eviscerating, but he continuously dwells within the nebulous zone that is Nick Cave the Personality, Nick Cave the Celebrity, Nick Cave the Multi-Disciplined Creative Messiah, or whatever. But he is very private when it comes to matters of his family, or how he spends his day-to-day life, or moments of personal vulnerability that don’t need to be shared with the masses. He’s also incredibly self-conscious about his voice and appearance. For these reasons, he agrees to participate in projects like this only if he has final approval over his cinematic depiction.
Here, however, he allows himself to be shown in his more precarious moments. Cave stumbles through thoughts, struggling for the right words, often unable to quite say what he means or realizing halfway through speaking that he doesn’t even believe whatever it is he’s attempting to communicate. He looks uncertain, out of his comfort zone in a way he would normally never appear publicly. This is clearly a person that’s experienced great emotional trauma and has no idea what to do with it, or if anything can be done. He’s resumed recording an album not as a grand artistic statement about triumphing over loss, but because he’s a grieving, overwhelmed father who has lost his son unexpectedly with no opportunity to say goodbye, and that fact will continue to bare itself and remain true no matter what anyone says or does, including himself. He simply has nowhere else to go.
But the film isn’t some curious, bitter slab of grief porn, either. Cave and his wife are never shown bursting into tears, breaking down in anguish, or crying to the heavens. Indeed, these things most certainly happened at one point or another, but Dominik chooses not to portray it, nor to use any takes where the discussion may have gone in that direction. Susie Bick and Nick Cave’s way of dealing with their loss remains private, hidden from view of the audience. Yet we can often see the aftermath of such things, scenes where Cave and Bick appear to have recently been weeping, or are on the verge of doing so, or are recovering from attempts to be interviewed which faltered. This works towards the context of the film as a whole, which is about aftermath.
One More Time with Feeling is also not merely a straightforward documentary, despite how it may appear. It stands as a constructed work, as much self-aware artifice as it is cinema verite. Dominik films mostly in black & white, a nod to works such as D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, but the photography itself is 3-D, which gives an otherworldly depth to the images that would be missing in a typical gritty b&w presentation. Portions of the film serve as music videos, and play as such, even sometimes switching to color. One music sequence involves the camera tracking through a hole in the wall and into the world outside. Another cleverly edits so that it briefly looks like Nick Cave is watching himself perform from the studio control room. Another scene takes us into outer space. These videos are beautifully filmed and stylized, far from an intentionally roughshod point-and-shoot approach.
A handful of moments involve attempts to setup certain scenes which ultimately aren’t utilized in the finished product, such as Cave getting dressed in the morning or Bick rearranging the hall furniture to match continuity with a previous shot. We never see the final versions of these scenes, only the attempts to create them. This allows One More Time with Feeling to become about the making of itself, as if it’s a showcase of outtakes from a documentary which doesn’t actually exist. Dominik even intentionally allows himself and his crew to be photographed and reflected, drawing them into the movie to the point where they too are characters.
Is Nick Cave dismantling his persona to reveal the suffering human being underneath? Not exactly. He still remains an enigma, a mythic figure, delivering narration and spoken word pieces which may be the troubled thoughts of Nick Cave or may be the thoughts of a character he’s writing. He’s still performing for . . . us? Himself? Cave understands the sacred wall that exists between artist and audience, particularly in rock n’ roll; that unspoken promise not to spoil mystery and legend by injecting too much of the everyday ordinariness with which we’re already too acquainted. Dominik doesn’t seek to break this wall. Yet these factors contrast with moments where Cave isn’t necessarily trying to portray or embody anything. He is just a man who depends on words, suddenly unable to speak.
Much of this complication is most likely an attempt to sidestep the obvious issue, which is to not be exploitative towards Arthur Cave’s death or the grief of his family. You can even feel Dominik struggling to remain respectful while addressing the elephant in the room. Indeed, one can ask why Cave commissioned this film at all, considering that his family life is often (and understandably) so vociferously kept private. One external factor is that Cave no longer operates under the auspices of a major record label, so production, distribution and promotion of his work now fall partially on him, and not the machinery of the failing record industry. Apparently Cave contacted Dominik after he realized that he would be expected to do press for the new record. Not wanting to sit through even one interview about his son’s death, let alone scores, he intended this film to be his one and only statement regarding the matter.
Watching the film, I’m prepared to see a portrait of a creative person dealing with the loss of his son. I have no children. I have not experienced the death of someone I helped bring into this world. So I expect to see a man experiencing deep sorrow, and though I too am experiencing sorrow — for the loss of my relationship and marriage, and for my mother’s uncertain but difficult future, and for Leo whose life I couldn’t save — I anticipate some distance, some factor of remove. I will cry, might be overcome with emotion at times, and then it will be over.
This is not what happens.
All the talk above about Nick Cave’s persona and post-modern deconstruction and sacred walls and so on is lovely and everything, but while watching the movie becomes reduced to total horseshit. Whether the Nick Cave onscreen is the real man, a character, a refraction of a reflection, I don’t fucking care. At the heart of this film dwells the very essence of grief, of sudden loss, of worst fears mercilessly coming to fruition. It frankly does not matter if you’re experiencing precisely what Cave and his family are experiencing. If in any manner you might be struggling with some element of life having been irrevocably altered in a way that leaves your very sense of self in question — often the byproduct of such events — there is simply no barrier here between that sense of grief and yours.
I find the film uncomfortable, at times excruciating. There is no escapism. I feel less like I’m seeing this towering artistic figure address his torment and more that I’m at some type of survivors’ meeting and it’s simply Nick Cave’s turn to speak.
Most difficult are the moments where Susie Bick and her husband grapple for words, or stand there in silence. My mind still does not know what to do with the scene where the parents show a landscape painting which Arthur made as a child, one which includes the very cliff from which he fell. Bick hands the painting to Cave, and he can’t decide where to set it, and for some reason I find this heartbreaking. Or when Cave says, despite how often people remind him that his son still lives in his heart, “He’s in my heart. But he doesn’t live at all.” Or when Cave confesses to feeling like they failed Arthur as parents, pointing out how this experience didn’t just happen to them. It happened to Arthur, as well.
I haven’t gone through any of these things. But in the past year, life as I know it has been shot in the face and I wasn’t ready and there is nothing I can do to change it. That same feeling of raw helplessness seeps out of the screen, engulfing anyone who can’t withstand the impact.
But all in all, I think it’s a pretty good film!
Skeleton Tree is released the following day. It takes the better part of the afternoon for me to locate a store which carries the CD. Finally, I find one. It’s the only copy in the store.
The album works as both a life support system for the movie made about it, and as its own separate organism. As a record unto itself, it operates somewhat differently than One More Time with Feeling. The film is very specifically about the absence of Arthur Cave, and is in many ways dependent upon the existence of Skeleton Tree. But the album doesn’t demand any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding its creation. It lives on its own, as it should, as any decent record will maintain its own inner life.
The songs have an ethereal, mystical quality to them, building on the more open, ambient, and atmospheric touches from Push the Sky Away. If that particular record seemed to draw from Cave’s soundtrack work with Warren Ellis, Skeleton Tree goes one further, feeling less like the Bad Seeds and more like an exclusive collaboration between the two musicians.
Far and away, this is Nick Cave’s most electronic album, establishing its songs through Ellis’ manipulations and textures. Static loops, New Age-y synths, and ominous drones decorate various tracks, embellishing mood and giving Cave a wide space to impart and express. Cave’s vocals here are mildly strained at times, a contrast to the more dynamic singing he developed after getting sober, but the additional thinness of his voice adds to the sense of vulnerability. (He wonders in One More Time with Feeling if he’s losing his voice, an observation both literal and figurative).
Many of the eight songs on offer here are steeped in some level of melancholy, reflected sufficiently in the arrangements. Opening track “Jesus Alone” crawls through an industrial-esque landscape, sounding almost like a haunted but slowly dying radio signal, Cave adding somber warmth with his piano and his gentle petition “With my voice, I’m calling you.” Meanwhile, “Magneto” has a retro-noir feel, the soundtrack for walking a neon-lit alley on a rainy night. “Anthrocene” conjures a dark, sweeping vision of something on the horizon, a pagan cosmic force preparing to envelop the Earth. And “Girl in Amber” features a desperate but resigned Cave, his voice slightly distorted as on a long distance call, intoning lines like “The song, the song, the song it spins since 1984” as the lyrics and music loop back into themselves, trapped.
Other tracks offer a less gloomy energy, at least sonically. Cave almost raps the lyrics to “Rings of Saturn,” over a vaguely hip-hop beat, shimmering keyboards dotting the background. “I Need You” is a sorrowful but gorgeous plea, Cave’s voice full of tense soul as he declares “Nothing really matters, when the one you love is gone.” And the title track sounds almost like an embrace of hope, Cave’s minimal, abstract lyrics ultimately reaching the determination “Nothing is for free/And it’s alright now.”
But the real stunner here is the second to last track, “Distant Sky.” A duet between Cave and Danish singer Else Torp, the song describes the perspectives of two lovers who prepare to depart for good, possibly leaving our world for the next. Augmented by spectral synths, the track feels like something Angelo Badalamenti might compose for a David Lynch movie, capturing the otherworldly sensation of transcendence and of letting go. It is at once both assuring and strangely cruel, as if the song from the end of The Return of the King is slowly stabbing you through the heart while offering a long, gentle kiss.
Of course, it’s almost impossible not to hear the album filtered through the real-life grief which Nick Cave endured while recording it. And yet, in an odd way, this does almost a disservice to Skeleton Tree. By and large, these songs were written before the death of Arthur Cave, and to reduce them to the status of odes to the departed is to force the record unnecessarily into one meaning, to box it into one interpretation, when the beauty of art is that it doesn’t have to be tethered to its creator’s identity or personal life, or to the conditions involved in its birth.
Perhaps, though, this is partially the point. Cave didn’t intend to write an album about his loss, and initially he didn’t. But that experience, so traumatic and powerful, invariably colored the proceedings, forcing its way into the matrix of the record and leaving a permanent mark.
The CD has minimal artwork, the cover simply appearing like text in a word processor. Cave has indicated the songs are more embryonic than usual, less refined or fully formed than he would typically allow for a finished album. And even the title, Skeleton Tree, suggests a minimizing, things shaken down to bare essentials. For better or for worse, the album becomes a snapshot of an artist forcing himself to continue, even when the prospect of creating art might seem silly or pointless in the face of such unimaginable hurt.
The first time I listen to the album in my car, I end up crying while parked in front of an Australian-themed restaurant. (Synchronicity with Nick Cave’s nationality not intentional. I will later enjoy the stuffed toy koalas and kangaroos on the bar. Sadly, the employees don’t hit random patrons with boomerangs). I had been reticent to hear the songs for the first time in the framework of the movie, where images are already attaching themselves to the music, but I’m thankful to realize this doesn’t take away from the record at all. The songs have a beauty that really can’t be swayed by anything outside of them, for me.
In this time of extreme uncertainty, I feel relieved to have a new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, itself founded in uncertainty.
Skeleton Tree feels weirdly appropriate in 2016, the same year that David Bowie released Blackstar, his final album. Unveiled on Bowie’s birthday and two days before his death from liver cancer, Blackstar stands as one of the finest albums of his varied career, right alongside classics like Hunky Dory, Low, or Scary Monsters, a wraithlike embrace from beyond the grave and the stars. Bowie’s impending death, and the reverberations of that acknowledged mortality, run deeply throughout the whole record without the songs necessarily being written about the subject. Much in the same way Arthur Cave haunts Skeleton Tree, regardless of intention. Along with Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop, Bowie has always been one of Cave’s primary influences, and in this odd pop cultural moment, Blackstar and Skeleton Tree occupy the same tent in the carnival.
We can’t help but gawk, and we’re willing to pay the coin.
We can’t help but cry, and we won’t look away.
“Nothing is for free/But it’s alright now.”
In One More Time with Feeling, Cave discusses his move away from narrative songwriting, stating that he no longer believes life unfolds with a well-thought-out and easily defined beginning, middle, and end. Dominik counters that life is still a story, one about birth and death, a trajectory that we all follow and of which we each have our own version. Cave catches himself unable to disagree. To be sure, the film itself is still an attempt to impose a narrative, to find some sense of meaning in tragedy, even if the narrative is that there is no narrative and even if the meaning is that there is no meaning.
It’s tempting to impart a circuitousness to this most recent event in Cave’s life, given that his father died unexpectedly in a car accident, a bookend of sudden loss. The death of Colin Cave propelled his son forward, freeing Nick Cave to become an artist both as a means of advance and of escaping this grim event. Likewise, Cave recorded Skeleton Tree partially as a coping mechanism, albeit one that ultimately provided no catharsis. It’s also difficult not to see the parallel between Cave’s childhood experience of jumping from a dangerous bridge into a river, and Arthur’s fall from the cliff while exploring his own adolescence.
But armchair analyzing about the tragic poetry of life is still an attempt to impart meaning, to create narrative, where there may be none. Yet it’s also almost unavoidable given a figure like Nick Cave, whose intentional mythologizing of himself demands narrative. Storytelling is the very essence of myth. Cave struggles throughout One More Time with Feeling, wondering if life is a random series of events, and if stories exist so that we might create the illusion of meaning. Of course, there is no answer, one way or the other.
Cave has commented several times, including in the documentary, about his wife’s superstitious nature, particularly regarding his songwriting. Susie Bick often fears her husband’s lyrics could prove prophetic; fictional toss-offs that might become all too true down the road. Even Cave recognizes that this can happen from time to time, as if the creative impulse springs from what we secretly know to be true, those fears and events which our unconscious mind knows will one day be actualized. As almost every review of Skeleton Tree has pointed out, the opening line is “You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur,” a certainly eerie lyrical foreshadowing. But Cave also rightfully points out that all this talk of prophecy should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, it might not be any different from seeing Jesus in a bowl of soup.
“I can’t stay married to you.”
Despite my many anxieties and paranoias, this is likely my greatest fear, hearing these words. It’s haunted my dreams and squirmed through the underbelly of my brain, this affirmation that no matter what I do, I will not be good enough, I will poison everything around me, and that I am truly alone and will always stay that way.
When I hear these words, my first thought is, My life is over. I am everything I ever feared, and this is what I deserve.
My second thought is, Now I have no excuse not to finish my book.
My third thought is my first thought.
All artists are to some degree charlatans or tricksters, and in some cases it almost feels like our mark is life itself. Life deals an unfortunate, even vicious hand, and part of the mind can’t help but see it as prime material, or at least remains aware that if we live through this, we will hopefully turn shit into gold.
I have to imagine Nick Cave felt this way during many of the awful things he’s experienced. And yet I very much doubt anything like this crossed his mind when his son died. Certain events shut down the creative mind, if only for a time. In the movie, he talks about how trauma disrupts the creative process. The myth of the tortured artist who immediately transforms tragedy into some great work is often just that. Every day life can impede the creative undertaking; a phone call or checking email can completely derail things, let alone a traumatic experience.
“All things move toward their end/I knew before I met her that I would lose her,” Cave confesses on “Do You Love Me?,” seemingly a reference to his first marriage. I have always related to that line, no more so than right now.
We specialize in self-fulfilling prophecies.
I really don’t understand where things go from here.
If I could point to one moment from the past year and a half where I felt truly blissful, truly at peace, it would of course be the night of the wedding. But now that particular Eden-like island in a sea of cess feels contaminated, tainted with the knowledge of what was to follow. Part of me almost wishes it had never happened, or that I could apologize to everyone who participated, returning their presents and their money and their time and their well-wishes and their joy. Part of me now feels that it was a lie, a glammer brought to life for a brief while before collapsing into mist not long after.
Of course, this isn’t true, and I hope one day some of the luster and wonder is restored, because I know they still live somewhere, even if they’re not available to me at the moment.
We did focus quite a bit on death and the spookier aspect of things, and maybe that was appropriate after all, not just for our sensibilities as people but also for the wedding itself. Maybe our wedding was not, in fact, the start of a new life together, or the ritual establishment of the bond my wife and I have shared. Maybe instead it was a celebration of the time we had together and the transformative experience of our love, as we became the people we needed to be. Even soulmate doesn’t necessarily mean forever. Not in this life, anyway. Change is pain and change is cruel and change is necessary.
We would have stagnated had we not met each other.
We would have gasped for air on the deck of the ship until we drowned.
We gave each other love so we could breathe.
I hope the best for her and for me.
My mother continues her cancer treatment. She’s resolved to at least live long enough to see her next grandchild, currently on the way courtesy of my sister. (The life/death symbolism here is overwrought and obvious, but the goth-punk in my soul remains fond of heavyhanded imagery). The future remains unknown. We talk in the strange code used by those impacted by life-threatening illness. There are “good days.” There are “bad days.” Even as the sickness and its treatment savage my mother, she will do what she can. Whatever is necessary in order to enjoy the life she has. And all of us are by her side whenever possible. I promise not to cue up “Death is Not the End” unless she requests otherwise.
She’s always bugging me to make sure I’m writing again. I have to believe I’m fulfilling my end of that bargain here.
I don’t know if I’ll ever film Fish in a Bottle. I hope so. Still working on the script. The novella I wrote last year is actually the first portion of Angels & Other Freaks of Nature. The short stories I’ve written are also part of the fabric of that novel. It’s been twenty years and I do, indeed, have something to show for it, meager and misshapen and deluded but Some Thing nonetheless. These ideas have been with me for so long and have changed as I have changed, and have also stayed the same in many ways, as I’ve stayed the same.
Hubert Selby says that being an artist is not a choice, but a sentence.
I accept my sentence and am serving it gladly.
Love is the law, and there is a war coming, above and below, and it’s alright.
The young man who wanted to tear himself open and spill his blood on the world still looks for ways to do so, but now he remembers to remember love. He’ll clumsily drag his beer-bellied lacerated torso from one day to the next, trying not to add to his scars intentionally. He still keeps that box cutter but only as a souvenir. Love is for fools and all fools are lovers and god knows he’s still one.
I finally picked up The Death of Bunny Munro again, and this time finished it. I’m sorry it took the length of an entire relationship to do so, but the book continues to live no matter what happens. It’s proof of life after. I loved it. Of course.
My wife had also bought 20,000 Days on Earth as a gift for me last year, and now seemed the appropriate time to finally give it a viewing. The film makes a compelling double bill with One More Time with Feeling. As in the latter, Cave both builds up and deconstructs his myth simultaneously, but in this there is no weight of tragedy, no burden of an absent center. And yet, what is to come can’t help but cast a retroactive shadow on this film, such as during a moment near the end where Cave eats pizza and watches Scarface with the twins, his arm around Arthur. That moment is now charged with a feeling that didn’t exist before, to be answered by One More Time with Feeling. The two films seem almost destined to live alongside each other.
In “Distant Sky,” that gorgeous sucker punch to the soul and Skeleton Tree’s penultimate track, Cave’s character is mournful but also cynical, concluding “They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.” This line in many reviews has been conflated with Cave’s grief over Arthur, seen as a rejection of religious sentiment or the soothing prospect of some afterlife. And perhaps it is. (The lyric itself predates the tragic event, however; a variation of it can be found in The Sick Bag Song).
And yet Else Torp’s response contains no such scorn or bitterness. “Let us go now, my only companion/Set out for the distant skies/Soon the children will be rising, will be rising/This is not for our eyes.” Not only does this touch upon change, and how the new invariably replaces the old, but it also comes off as a metaphor for ascension into the beyond, the accompanying synths a tearful but acquiescent goodbye.
This captures the off-kilter, bipolar aspect of grief. In the moment we only know our pain, and the world around us becomes constructed from that pain, built on pillars of seemingly inconsolable agony. We feel like we no longer believe, and can never again believe. And yet another part of us remains unchanged, aware enough to know that not all is lost . . . and also looks forward with some sense of tenacious, irrational hope, even if only a glimmer.
Nick Cave has always wrestled with the idea of God in his work. Sometimes when asked if he believes in God, he says yes. Other times, no. Occasionally he’s identified as a Christian, but his contempt for organized religion is also well documented. Cave isn’t trying to be slippery with his answers — and not that an artist’s beliefs should be necessary in understanding their work — but the reason he seems inconsistent is because he admits to doubt. He is consistently inconsistent. Cave never claims to be an atheist because at the end of the day, the possibility of God always remains for him. Sometimes that possibility is closer than others.
Perhaps something like God does exist. Perhaps not. But in the world that Cave has created through his music and his writing, God can be real. “God is a product of the human imagination, and God is that imagination taken flight,” he says in The Flesh Made Word. Certainly, Nick Cave doesn’t hold much prospect for the existence of a personal, anthropomorphic, religious god. Nor do I.
But the creative endeavor, the experience of bringing something forth from the abstract, can itself be an almost mystic encounter, a visionary plumbing of the depths which seems to reveal occluded connections, obscure secrets, beautiful lies and scalding truths. And it gives a sense of meaning in the process, at least at the best of times. Because of this, Cave can never fully shut the door on God. He doesn’t necessarily believe. But being an artist has shown him that there is more than just this mundanity, even if that awareness is fleeting.
Nick Cave is a famous and successful artist. I am not. But being an artist has shown me the same things.
Like Nick Cave, I want to believe.
Discography (studio albums)
The Boatman’s Call (purchased March 1998, Streetside Records, University City MO)
Henry’s Dream (purchased April 1998, Borders, Ballwin MO)
Mutiny/The Bad Seed EP (purchased May 1998, Borders, Ballwin MO)
Murder Ballads (purchased July 1998, Best Buy, Ellisville MO)
Let Love In (birthday present, July 1998)
From Her To Eternity (purchased September 1998, Streetside Records, University City MO)
Tender Prey (purchased October 1998, Borders, Ballwin MO)
Your Funeral . . . My Trial (purchased December 1998, Camelot Music at Chesterfield Mall, Chesterfield MO)
Kicking Against the Pricks (Christmas present, December 1998)
The Firstborn Is Dead (purchased December 1998, Vintage Vinyl, University City MO)
The Good Son (purchased December 1998, Sam Goody at the Galleria Mall, Brentwood MO)
Junkyard (purchased somewhere between November 1998 & January 1999, Music Biz, Washington MO)
Prayers on Fire (purchased January 1999, Vintage Vinyl, University City MO)
Hee-Haw (purchased online February 1999, CDNow)
Door, Door (purchased online July 2000, Mute Records website)
No More Shall We Part (purchased April 2001, NRM Music at Chesterfield Mall, Chesterfield MO)
Nocturama (purchased online February 2003, Amazon UK)
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (purchased September 2004, Best Buy, Ellisville MO)
Grinderman (purchased March 2007, I have no idea where because my life is a disaster by this point. Either Best Buy in Brentwood MO, or ordered from Amazon)
Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (purchased March 2008, Best Buy, Chesterfield MO)
Grinderman 2 (purchased I don’t know when or where, again either from Best Buy in Brentwood MO or ordered from Amazon. Sorry, Grinderman. I promise this is not a reflection on you)
Push the Sky Away (purchased March 2013, Best Buy, Chesterfield MO)
Skeleton Tree (purchased September 2016, Barnes & Noble, Des Peres MO)