My Life in Nick Cave Albums
Part III: All Things Move Toward Their End
2009 seems to go swimmingly for Nick Cave.
Just a year or two before, he had mentioned his uncertainty regarding a further Grinderman album, dismissed the idea that he would ever write another book, and swore that although he’d given up most of his vices, quitting smoking was not on the table. Flash forward to 2009 and a new Grinderman is in the can, Cave has written a second novel, and he no longer smokes (though I’m not sure if the latter development sticks).
His book, titled The Death of Bunny Munro, tells the story of the titular Mr. Munro, a door-to-door skin product salesman living in Brighton, England. Bunny is a pill-popping alcoholic and sex addict and all-around clueless narcissist, attempting to seduce his way across his female clientele and mostly looking like a fool in the process. He unexpectedly finds himself on a road trip with his son, who loves and admires his father even though the feeling is not quite reciprocated. Their travels grow increasingly surreal, with possible hints of the supernatural, as Bunny hurtles towards his eventual demise. Meanwhile, a serial killer wearing devil’s horns terrorizes Southern England with a garden tool. It ends poorly.
It’s impossible not to see the influence of Grinderman in this, as the libidinous nature of that artistic venture appears to have been contagious, like a particularly aggressive venereal disease. Bunny Munro is more or less the literary incarnation of the lothario from “No Pussy Blues,” a wreck of a rake failing in the tatters of age and the ravishes of addiction and overindulgence.
The book began as a script for John Hillcoat, before Cave ultimately adapted it into novel form while on the road. (Not drinking or doing drugs leaves one with much free time while touring). A certain element also seems vaguely autobiographical, as by now Cave and his family had relocated to Brighton; the novel makes reference to a handful of actual places and events, such as the 2003 fire on the city’s West Pier. He includes some in-jokes to his own life, including a moment inspired by Susie Bick’s habit of moving the furniture in their home on a semi-daily basis. And Bunny’s best friend, Poodle, is partially based on Freak Storm, Cave’s ridiculous rock star caricature from Johnny Suede.
It is in many ways a very different novel from And the Ass Saw the Angel(1). Gone is the obsession with a mythic, Old Testament America. Instead, the book brims with references to contemporary pop culture, written in an absurd, wry, intentionally lame-brained observational style (the phrase “or something” is repeatedly used as a sentence closer) which reflects Bunny’s train of thought, a collision somewhere between MTV and Kafka. It recalls the merciless pop satire of Bret Easton Ellis, or perhaps the more blackly comedic existential works of Hubert Selby Jr., such as The Demon and Waiting Period. But like Euchrid Euchrow, Bunny is doomed from the start. Both are tragic figures lacking in self-awareness until it’s too late, their deaths a foregone conclusion. And both meet appropriately Biblical fates.
The book is incredibly well-received. Not long after its release, my girlfriend surprises me with a copy, because she is wonderful. I read the first handful of chapters and I am lolling out lol. Then I put the book away; I want to save it. Sometimes, certain movies, books or albums will sit on my shelf for years before I finally visit them. It has nothing to do with their quality, but everything to do with wanting to delay gratification, the obsessive collector’s version of tantric sex.
2009 hasn’t been too bad for me, either. In addition to my new relationship, that summer I begin writing again. Instead of scripts or stories, this time I focus on spoken word, mine being an odd jumble of stream of consciousness, fascist pop slogans, wordplay, and quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo. I want it to sound like Adrien Veidt’s wall of televisions in Watchmen. I do one performance, which feels fumbling and low energy compared to the rehearsals I dashed off alone in my apartment, but it’s a start. I also write new scenes for Fish in a Bottle, the great white goldfish of my creative life.
The roach situation in my apartment comes to a long overdue end. My tiny kitchen had become overrun with the things, particularly during a period where the light wasn’t working properly, and now every day I find myself confronting this nightmarish swarm scampering and scurrying in all directions. The landlord sends over an exterminator, who sprays the kitchen with what seems like a gallon of poison. For the next half hour, I hear a roach holocaust through the closed kitchen doors, their bodies finally giving up and perishing in concert, falling from the ceiling and hitting the floor in a series of dull, sick thuds. It reminds me of rain. I didn’t know a sound could be so disgusting, so soothing, and so satisfying all at once.
Things with my girlfriend are going well. She even helps me clean up the soaking wet piles of dead roaches, thousands of them. It’s become quite clear quite quickly that we mean to spend our lives together. She tells me I’m her soulmate, even though she had never believed in souls before. Looking at pictures of her from throughout her time on this planet, I experience an inescapable feeling with no words to do it justice. A mix of love, awareness, and sadness. She looks so familiar to me, as if she’d always been brimming on the outer edges of my life, and me hers, waiting for one of us to finally summon the other from the periphery.
Not that I’m a great boyfriend at first. I still have problems and can be a total shit. I’m also not ready for such a serious and committed relationship and am clearly overwhelmed. But I’m trying, and she is patient. So patient.
During the holidays we make quite a few trips to Washington, her hometown. This would be the same town where I purchased Junkyard ten years before. Sadly, Music Biz is now out of said biz, but the memories remain. A brief trip to Walmart — ironically, and unfortunately, part of the reason places like Music Biz no longer exist — yields a handful of very cheap DVDs, including The Assassination of Jesse James, a film which has been recommended to me numerous times but I’ve so far failed to see.
That night, I toss the disc in the player in my freezing cold apartment, trying to forget the frigidity. I’m transfixed. How this movie did not win every award ever is beyond me. Andrew Dominik’s direction manages to turn this from a historical drama into a living piece of history . . . some kind of haunted photograph, and a surprisingly relevant meditation on identity and celebrity. No less forgettable is the music by Cave and Warren Ellis, a ghostly, soothing, quietly trance-like score that sounds like the slipping of time, the same way a stream slowly erodes stone. (Nick Cave’s cameo near the end as a barroom singer is also quite amusing, though it would have been nice had he shared a scene with Brad Pitt for an impromptu Johnny Suede reunion).
It’s also around this time that we go to see The Road, John Hillcoat’s much-delayed adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel. The melancholy soundtrack by Ellis and Cave — which at one point Harvey Weinstein considered replacing — is [fill in blank with various adjectives also used to describe the Jesse James score]. The movie gives me nightmares.
2009 closes on somewhat of a sad note, however. Rowland S. Howard, former guitarist of the Birthday Party and author of some of its most memorable songs, dies of liver failure related to liver cancer and cirrhosis (caused by a Hepatitis C infection acquired during his heroin addiction). He awaits a transplant that never comes; his final live performance sees him coughing up blood between songs.
Rowland Howard and Cave had endured a difficult working relationship while in the Birthday Party, as Cave overshadowed Howard as chief songwriter. Most of the bad blood seemed to dissolve in the following years, however, with the guitarist making the occasional contribution to Bad Seeds recordings. Howard went on to release material with These Immortal Souls, Crime & the City Solution, and Lydia Lunch, as well as his own stellar solo albums. He joins Lux Interior from the Cramps and Ron Asheton from the Stooges in a trinity of my musical heroes who die that year. (Birthday Party bass player Tracy Pew had already passed away in 1986, following an epileptic seizure).
The year actually began with Nick Cave saying goodbye to another friend, long-time Bad Seed multi-instrumentalist and arranger Mick Harvey. They had worked together since their days in the Boys Next Door, Harvey playing the straight man to Cave’s unpredictable personality, often taking over managerial duties and reining Cave in when the singer threatened to go too far in his drug and ego-fueled excess (not that Harvey always succeeded). Following the tour for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Harvey decided to move on, and a 35 year collaboration came to an end. I will always remember the last time I saw Mick Harvey, at the Riviera show the previous year. For the first few songs, he looked so pissed off (presumably about a sound problem) that I honestly thought he was about to deck somebody. Once that issue resolved, Harvey looked to be having a fantastic time, and it amazed me to see someone who’d been playing these songs for so many years still enjoying it to the point of abandon. He’ll always be a Bad Seed to me.
The following year brings us Grinderman 2. The band continues to serve as the reptilian id to the Bad Seeds’ more dignified ego, but the album is more diverse and assured than its predecessor, experimenting with new sounds and somehow managing to produce one of the loveliest songs Nick Cave has ever written (“The Palaces of Montezuma”). The whole thing ranks as possibly the most balls-out fun record in Cave’s entire catalogue, music for late sweaty nights with the promise of something magnificent or frightening.
We mostly listen to Grinderman 2 in the car and although I say something like “oh wow this is really cool” it will be a few years before I have the religious epiphany which leads me to declare that this is, in fact, a great fucking album.
Unlike Grinderman, I really don’t have my mojo at this point. I’m not even sure I know what mojo means, or if that’s a word I should be using. It is like I am always in gear number two, as a wise poet once wrote. The overtly self-destructive behavior of the past has been replaced by more normal, average, acceptable self-destructive behavior. I eat a lot of burgers and fries. I stay up too late. I still imbibe, but no longer do I cry for no reason or become convinced I have demonic powers. My sloppy habits exist firmly in the realm of the thirty-year old adult in denial of their mortality. I gain a lot of weight and feel sluggish, but at least I’m somewhat content.
And yet, as the years roll on, it becomes clear (especially to my partner) that I’m not well. I live in some kind of vaguely self-hating murk, unable to communicate my feelings or talk about them, prone to streaks of anger that I allow no one to pry from my hands. I occasionally become very difficult to be around. I’m like a blocked vent, a running engine filling the garage with noxious fumes and no way to open the garage door, or some other similar metaphor that sounds good, whatever.
Three years into our relationship, my girlfriend and I decide to move in together. I say goodbye to the cramped hellhole that became my odd little sanctum, but forget to leave my troubles there. After cohabitating for a month or so, my girlfriend lets me know that things can’t continue with me being the romantic partner equivalent of a sinking rock. She wants me to go back to therapy. I always say I will, and never do. I don’t think anything will help. Besides, I’m an artist. My work is supposed to be my therapy. No, I haven’t written anything in years, but I will start tomorrow. Leave me alone. Snooki is on the television and she is saying something.
But she insists, because otherwise she will leave. This is serious. An appointment is scheduled. Trepidations are had. Classical music plays in the waiting room. I meet with the therapist. We get along fine. The session is fine. I am fine. I see the therapist every week. My past is discussed. I realize that I’ve been needing an uninvolved third party with whom I can talk through my feelings, alleviating this insane amount of self-applied psychic pressure. I’ve been ridiculous. Snooki is ridiculous. My girlfriend is ridiculous but not about this.
I love her. I would do anything for her. She deserves more than the approximation of a Buddhist monk passively immolating himself in protest of nothing in particular.
The weeds of my mind, which I have so lovingly watered and tended, begin to whither. Some come out by the root. Others prove harder to kill and find ways to snake their tendrils further, wrapping themselves around certain memories and experiences like children who won’t let go of their toys. These require additional work. I’m not good at gardening but we’re doing a passable job. I become a more tolerable person.
It is alright. It is alright. Everything is going to be alright. Just dance.
After six months of therapy sessions every week, I start to have ideas again. I write them down. This tempts the beast further and they continue to come. I practice writing by making notes, summaries, brief descriptions, anything. I find that I am excited. Genuinely excited. Therapy isn’t causing me to be more creative or even giving me material to write about, but it’s helped to clear the space so these ideas can form. I also begin walking some local nature trails. The time outside, in the woods, by myself, acts almost as a form of meditation, and I find the ideas appear much easier. David Lynch compares this to fishing and I agree this is an apt description, though I know less about fishing than I do gardening.
Maybe I should start reading fishing and gardening magazines.
Elsewhere, things begin to stir again on the Nick Cave front. He writes the screenplay for the John Hillcoat film Lawless, released in 2012. Cave and Warren Ellis again provide the soundtrack. Unlike his experience writing The Proposition, Cave has a difficult time with the Hollywood studio demanding script changes, which ultimately puts him off screenwriting for a time.
During post-production, one of the film’s stars, Shia LaBeouf, works with Marilyn Manson on a short film titled Born Villain, created to promote Manson’s upcoming album of the same name. Cave is invited to the Born Villain premiere, resulting in a photo of my two favorite musicians hugging.
Teenage Me has to change his pants, but he’ll need to get in line behind Adult Me.
Also during this period, Cave’s “O Children,” the closer from The Lyre of Orpheus, is memorably used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.1. It features during the tender scene where Harry and Hermione dance, and you complain to me how this moment wasn’t in the book and how Harry and Hermione would never dance together like that, and I stop listening. (This proves to be one of the oddest cameos of a Cave song since his ode to the futility of love, “People Ain’t No Good,” popped up in Shrek 2).
In early 2013, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds finally release a new album, their first in five years. Push the Sky Away emerges as a completely different record than Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! The absence of Mick Harvey, similar to when Blixa Bargeld departed a decade before, forced the band to develop a new process.
This time around, Warren Ellis becomes Cave’s prime collaborator, and they bring much of what they’ve learned from creating soundtracks to this new record, giving the proceedings a more cinematic air than usual . . . which is really saying something, as most Bad Seeds records could easily be described as cinematic. By now, Cave and Ellis have settled into largely the same pattern as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who alternate between creating soundtracks and making rock n’ roll albums(2).
Push the Sky Away is well-received, but some critics and fans are reticent about Cave’s softer approach in comparison to the previous few records, as if this exact thing hasn’t already happened before. Meanwhile, Grinderman slumbers in some dark cavern, having temporarily served its purpose, with Cave abruptly announcing their hiatus at a festival performance in 2011 by saying “We’ll maybe see you all in another ten years, when we’ll be even older and uglier”.
The sound of Push the Sky Away ditches the 70s fuckparty feel of Lazarus and opts for dreamy and at times menacing atmospherics. Cave has started to move away from narrative songwriting and instead begun to re-embrace cryptic and abstract lyrics. This culminates in perhaps the best thing Nick Cave has ever created: “Higgs Boson Blues,” a surreal apocalypse poem contrasting various religious, scientific, and pop culture images, from diseased monkeys to Miley Cyrus to Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Geneva hadron collider. A depiction of complete and total spiritual chaos. (I may also be partial to the song considering my work does a similar thing, albeit minus attention or money or being hot like Nick Cave).
Right around the release of the album, I’m focused enough to begin, in earnest, yet another draft of my film script Fish in a Bottle. I decide that this new version will contain bits and pieces of all the others, as well as portions of additional stories and ideas I’ve been working on for fifteen or so years. This creates an unusual experience, where I am editing work done when I was a teenager and also writing brand new material meant to go alongside it, and yet the whole thing feels of a piece. It’s as if I’m traveling through time, visiting different versions of myself and getting them together in the same room, finding this strange undercurrent of continuity and meaning beneath. It feels like magic.
I become obsessed with another Werner Herzog movie, Encounters at the End of the World. It’s been almost exactly ten years since I was listening to Nocturama and obsessively watching Herzog, and I appreciate the circularity.
One night I am writing the script, listening to Push the Sky Away on repeat, and it begins to pour rain. Being in this creative workspace, with Nick Cave playing, and the sound of the rain hitting the roof puts me at absolute peace. (Absolute peace being an uncommon state while writing). The room becomes a womb and maybe I can gather it all back up and start over again.
My girlfriend and I head to Chicago to see Nick Cave in concert, again at the Chicago Theater. I have gout or something and am forced to limp to and from the show, walking like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Before the performance, I keep yelling for the Bad Seeds to play “Personal Jesus,” and I know they will not(3).
The show is, again, terrific and, again, totally different from the last three. Early in the set, they perform new song “Jubilee Street,” and as Cave sings “I’m transforming, I’m flying,” there is a tangible feeling which sweeps through the place, some type of energy unleashed. You can sense the electricity igniting the audience, everybody being swept up into the small tornado of charisma that is Nick Cave. It feels like a spiritual experience, and is perhaps the most rock n’ roll moment I will ever witness in person. (I also note the return of Barry Adamson to the Bad Seeds; this is my first time seeing him in person and I quickly become a giddy fanboy).
That summer I lose the plot somewhat. My producer friend and I, working to get Fish in a Bottle in motion, haven’t made a lot of progress, mostly due to my slow way of working and the fact that I’m attempting to regain years of lost confidence (which I never possessed in any strong measure in the first place). I fantasize about having Amanda Palmer, one of my favorite musicians, involved in the project. My friend actually emails the script to her people. They message him back hoping I am the same Charles Evans who produced Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator. I am not that person. They pass. (In the future, I will remember that if anyone ever asks if I produced The Aviator, I say yes). I get distracted and write pages and pages of notes for another project entirely. Perhaps I am a frustrating experience but at least I’m creating again.
By the end of the year, I’ve shelved Fish in a Bottle temporarily as I follow the theoretical muse onto other paths. I don’t know where we’re going and there’s a dangerous thrill in that, maybe like trying drugs or black magic for the first time. I begin writing new spoken word pieces. Quite a few of them. For the next year, I spend most of my evenings practicing these new bits, first by reading aloud and then forcing myself to memorize them, something I’ve never really done before. The absolute Everest of the bunch is one that takes about 20–25 minutes to perform. It changes and expands the lyrics to Marilyn Manson’s “Arma-goddamn-motheruckin-geddon,” combining them with Lady Gaga songs and my own writing, and mixing odd scraps of Yeats and the Book of Revelation, as well as allusions to Aleister Crowley, Kanye West, the first atomic bomb, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, the JFK assassination, and the Wizard of Oz. My apocalypse poem.
In the middle of 2014, my aunt passes away suddenly due to complications from emphysema. My siblings and I take a hastily assembled trip back east for the funeral. While there, I visit my grandmother’s grave. I had visited for the first time the previous year, while in town for a wedding. It only took me fifteen years to work up the nerve, and I was a wreck. This second time goes much easier, despite there being an added sense of grief due to my aunt’s death.
Similar to my grandmother’s death, my mother struggles greatly with the loss of her sister. She and her niece — my aunt’s daughter — decide to see a psychic some time afterwards. We are all somewhat skeptical. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I’m not 100% convinced that anyone can literally communicate with the dead. My mom and cousin take precautions to make sure the alleged psychic doesn’t have access to much personal information about them. During their session, the psychic repeatedly mentions something about lights, the sky, the spirit, a tree. It all sounds very vague and religious and reassuring.
It later transpires that my deceased aunt was partial to a particular lyric from Bob Dylan: “For the tree of life is growing where the spirit never dies/And the bright light of salvation up in dark and empty skies.” My aunt loved Dylan, and he once performed to her during a concert and gave her his harmonica afterwards. My mother and my cousin are both spooked by the psychic’s accurate message, regardless of whether it’s been delivered supernaturally or fraudulently. The song being quoted is, of course, “Death Is Not the End,” to which my mother had such an adverse reaction after her own mother died. It’s now come to mean something very different to her. I’m still not sure she can forgive Nick Cave his cover version, though.
Meanwhile that summer, Cave’s lanky, tailor-suited frame graces movie screens in the film 20,000 Days on Earth. Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, with whom Cave has collaborated on a handful of visual projects, the movie acts as a documentary, ostensibly about one day in the life of Nick Cave as he and the band record what will become Push the Sky Away. Of course, many of its scenes are staged or take place in fictional contexts, or were filmed over longer periods of time, but this works in the film’s favor.
20,000 Days doesn’t offer a glimpse into Cave’s supposed real life, but instead blurs the line between fiction and reality, and the mask of the celebrity versus the person underneath. When Cave performs a rough version of “Higgs Boson Blues” to an adoring audience while wearing a suit that could’ve been snatched off the wall at Graceland, it’s not necessarily a different person than the man sitting at a typewriter all day and then coming home to his family. But at the same time, it’s not that man at all. Identity — fixed identity — becomes difficult to discern, maybe even nonexistent.
And yet there are many startlingly honest moments, depicting Cave seeing friends with whom he hasn’t interacted in quite some time (Proposition actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, and most notably Blixa Bargeld, who hadn’t spoken to Cave in ten years) and also answering revealing questions posed by a psychoanalyst. At another moment, Cave, struggling to keep a straight face, stumbles across his first will and testament, in which his twentysomething self rather pompously declares he wants all of his work and belongings donated to the (nonexistent) Nick Cave Memorial Museum. Throughout the film, Cave delivers narration which nails some of the finer points of the creative process, expounding on the roles of memory and experience and how they trans-substantiate into art.
I don’t see this movie when it comes out because it’s not playing anywhere near me. Oddly enough, the closest screening is in Kansas City, where we’ve just gone to see Nick Cave that spring. Somehow, Cave was convinced to stage a large tour of the US and Canada in 2014, playing over twice as many North American dates as he normally would. The KC show played out similarly to the Chicago performance the previous year: “Jubilee Street” managed to repeat that exact same feeling of ecstatic transcendence, proving it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. During “Higgs Boson Blues” and many of the other songs, I sat there, endlessly twirling over the words of my own apocalypse poem, both inspired by Cave being literally in front of me and also acutely aware that I would be doing this anyway.
Just one disappointment: we almost witnessed a show-closing rendition of “The Lyre of Orpheus,” which happens to be at the top of my list in terms of Bad Seeds songs I want to hear live. But sadly the Kansas City zoning laws caused the show to be cut short by one song, a fact not made known to Cave until he’d already started to perform it. His abrupt exit thusly went: “Orpheus sat gloomy in his garden shed, w — . . . . oh, good night.”
Since the release of Push the Sky Away, Cave has lately had one or two prickly interactions with journalists, the occasional pitfall of interviewing him. The Guardian sees fit to republish an older article written by Jack Barron in 1988, painting Nick Cave as a childish, gangling, delusional ruin of a person. Cave, already tempestuous around music journalists, grows increasingly distrustful of Barron during their interview sessions. When the subject of drugs rears its head, his response is frustrated and tinged with an unintended sadness. “I really think drugs are quite an evil thing and I really wish I hadn’t become involved with them myself because I’m in a situation now where it will take quite a concentrated effort to live without them and it will require quite a major life’s fight to stop taking them.”
Their interactions devolve from there, with Cave somewhat understandably enraged at the suggestion that others have become addicts and even died trying to emulate his lifestyle. The final interview ends with him attempting to physically assault Barron. “You scum-sucking shit!” Cave yells, flailing about in an effort to grab the interview tape. The whole thing comes off as embarrassing and extremely disturbing, unflattering on many levels.
I also think it’s fascinating. There can be immense value in seeing the failures and failings of your heroes, and having some grasp of what they may be like at their worst. This article captures Cave at a very tenuous time in his existence, shortly before his court-mandated rehab, entrenched in the throes of addiction but also afraid of what his life would look like without the aid of smack and speed. The Nick Cave of 2014 no longer has these concerns. He might seem curmudgeonly during an interview, but he’s no longer writing revenge songs against particular journalists or threatening to hire gangsters when someone gives him a lukewarm review. And the drugs have been left behind . . . not in an act of redemption, but of preservation, maybe even transformation. The drugs outlived their usefulness. And Nick Cave outlived them.
Life has taken some exciting turns in 2014. My girlfriend and I are engaged, fiancé and fiancée, our wedding set for October the following year. I do a practice spoken word at an open mic night and it goes well. I continue writing. My rehearsals, which involve me yelling into an empty beer bottle in the basement during the late evening, seem to be getting better and better. I’m finding a voice and an energy and coming alive, even if only my cat is there to witness it.
Right before Thanksgiving, I participate in a monthly event called Undercurrent, which showcases local bands and also spoken word and video artists. I’m originally part of the December lineup but get moved to November. It turns out to be the most sparsely attended event in the series, likely due to the upcoming holiday. No matter. I perform an abridged (only 15 minutes!) version of the apocalypse poem in front of a crowd most likely there to hear a band perform. Behind me, a friend of mine projects strange video distortions, and I look kind of like a homeless person from outer space screaming about the end of the world.
A drunk guy playing pool in the back keeps heckling me. “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?” he hollers. “Play some music!” This IS music, you fuck, I yell back, definitely paraphrasing a response made famous by the poet Steven Jesse Bernstein when confronted with the same request(4). During the performance I have to let out a scream, an otherworldly shriek that rattles the inside of my head, and I step forward and direct it at my heckler. I’m focused, and I deliver the piece the exact way I mean to. At the end, I receive an extra hefty round of applause from the very small audience, most likely because of my trouble. I’ve never appreciated a sound more. For about twenty minutes that evening, I am the artist I always dreamed of being.
I thank Marilyn Manson and Lady Gaga, and exit the stage.
If karma is real and all highs and lows must be equaled out to a balance of zero, I immediate start paying my debt the following week. I wake up with a slight itch in my nostril. It continues to bother me throughout the day. Soon it’s a dull pain. Then a pounding ache. It mutates into a particularly large pimple, a throbbing boil, and finally a full blown staph infection. Within 24 hours I am trying not to scream.
Due to a slight immune deficiency, I am prone to such skin infections (folliculitis). Usually they amount to nothing, but have been plaguing me more frequently in recent months. But this is beyond. This is excruciating. Over the next several days, the infection does not drain and heal on its own and instead continues to spread. My nose and my face begin to swell. I can’t get any sleep because it feels like someone is hammering a nail into my nostril. My appendicitis felt better than this. An urgent care visit proves useless. My doctor finally has an opening to see me, and she immediately sends me to an ENT specialist, who is concerned that the infection is so advanced I might need to be hospitalized. He lances the abscess, I shriek and bleed everywhere, and spend the next two weeks recovering with a handful of antibiotics. The bacteria tests positive as resistant, meaning I technically have MRSA, a truly hilarious cosmic prank for a certified hypochondriac. I will nickname my infection MRSAstapheles.
In the two weeks before Christmas, a very close friend dies of a heroin overdose. I had written a spoken word piece for her and was about to send it as a belated birthday present when I get the notice she’s dead. She had only recently told me about her addiction, but I’d been worried about her for quite a while. I really hoped she would find her way out of those woods.
One of my favorite memories of her is from a few years before; I was attempting to drive my new stick shift, acting like I totally knew what I was doing, while she laughed and made sarcastic remarks as the car kept stalling. Disc three of B-Sides & Rarities played in the background. I would ask her if Nick Cave inspired her drug problem but I am currently unable to ask her anything ever again.
The following week, my fiancée’s aunt dies of organ failure brought on by decades of alcoholism. The next month, I get rear-ended by an SUV while on my way to therapy and our car is totaled. (Ironic, as I could have really used that therapy session after getting into an accident). Hello, 2015.
My infection clears up and my nose tries to heal, but within a few months it returns and I proceed with another course of treatment. It finally goes away in my nose but migrates elsewhere. The infections begin occurring on my face. Every few weeks I will notice some minor irritation on my chin, which will then become large, pulsating boils. I am constantly oozing blood and pus from the part of my body that everyone is required to look upon. Each time, the abscesses are knocked out by a cycle of antibiotics, only to eventually return. The antibiotics in some instances annihilate my stomach, killing my ability to properly digest anything and taking weeks to recover (by which time the infection will be back again). I occasionally break out in weird burning rashes, particularly on my hands, and no one can quite agree what’s causing them, be it stress or the medications.
In the midst of all this, my fiancée and I are both preparing to move and are planning a wedding. My anxiety is spiking constantly, and my hypochondria totally out of control. I’m a live wire. Zap. Heh. Hehe.
That spring, I notice our cat seems to have lost a lot of weight, and isn’t eating as much. I try to convince myself he’s fine and that my anxiety is simply sending my brain into false panic mode. We take him to the vet, where they diagnose him with chronic kidney disease. By this point, his kidneys have mostly failed and he may not make it through the weekend. Eventually, his numbers stabilize, but he at best only has a few months to live. It becomes an endless ordeal trying to convince him to eat or drink, and to give him meds. We watch our happy fat cat get scrawnier and bonier, wasting away while his body betrays him.
It feels almost as if we’re running through a checklist of greatest fears and worst case scenarios.
But all is not despair, ye miserable wretch!
The first half of the year sees the publication of Nick Cave’s third novel, The Sick Bag Song. The book began as notes he scrawled on airsick bags while en route from one city to another during his 2014 North American tour. It took on a life of its own, transforming into a type of epic poem, a combination of song lyrics, prose narrative, tour diary, and letters to his wife. The book even features photo replications of the actual paper bags from each city(5).
Continuing the trend of both mythologizing and demythologizing himself, Cave mixes factual minutiae and observations from the tour with clearly fictional and at times parodic details about a singer named Nick Cave traveling through the landscape of America. The novel represents a marrying of the two most distinct phases of Cave’s career, that of his fascination with a fabled American South & Midwest through which history strolls like a ghost, and the more recent Nick Cave who deconstructs his own fame and cultivated persona.
Moreso than either And the Ass Saw the Angel or The Death of Bunny Munro — and despite the fact that the Nick Cave here is fictionalized — this book has a strong push of the autobiographical. Its opening scene depicts a boy preparing to jump from a railway track into a river, a moment directly from Cave’s youth in Australia, which becomes a recurring image throughout the novel. At times, the “real” Nick Cave even breaks the narrative to mention how certain previous events in the book never actually occurred. A repeated figure throughout Cave’s work is that of the wanderer, a shadowy rootless character never in one place for too long. In this instance, that person is a version of himself.
I spend the $70 or whatever ridiculous amount on The Sick Bag Song, exclusively available through Cave’s website in several lavish editions. (It will later be made available in a less extravagant version for standard release, but I refuse to wait). I love it right away. Haunting and funny. Erudite and crude. Poignant and ridiculous. I find it inspiring.
Despite the chaos, I’ve also kept busy, even if I lack the luxury of airline barf bags on which to compose. Over a period of a couple months, I write a short story, followed by what turns into a novella. My mind is at least somewhat clear. Clear enough to write, anyway. I’ve been eating well, walking, abstaining from any alcohol. I’ve lost some weight and routine blood tests come back normal, even if my hands feel like they’re on fire. I’m officially not dying. (But I might be dying, though).
This is the most new material I’ve written in years. Meanwhile, I’ve been revisiting my ideas for Angels & Other Freaks of Nature, collected scattershot across computer files, email drafts, handwritten scratches and my unruly overstuffed mind. I make copious notes about character details, histories, the geography of the various locales, who once owned the corner store and why, etc.
The momentum is disrupted by both the process of moving and also our cat’s terminal illness. It’s a wonderful thing to believe that art can always be created from upheaval, but sometimes the opposite reveals itself to be true. Losing a sense of solid ground can throw the act of creating into a tailspin, and you’re left paralyzed to watch the whole thing crash and scorch.
I enjoy our new home, if not the stress of getting there. We’re barely settled before it seems we’re constantly rushing the cat to various vet appointments and emergency animal hospital visits. The excessive amount of weight loss has given him a new lease on life in terms of spryness and curiosity, and we do our best to make him comfortable every day, but each day ticks by too quickly and is one more we can’t get back.
Our new house is located a mile or two from a street called Anita Ln. I pass this street most days, and can’t help but think of Anita Lane, Nick Cave’s former girlfriend and a songwriter herself who was part of the earliest lineup of the Bad Seeds. We always drive by Anita Ln on the way to the vet’s office.
After three months of staggering all over the prognosis map, one day it becomes clear our cat is near the end.
Leo. His name is Leo. And he’s going to die.
That morning I find him in our new home’s sunroom, watching his final sunrise. His discomfort is obvious. His organs are in the process of shutting down, he’s so overcome with nausea that his mouth constantly drips with foul-smelling drool, and he can’t stand for very long. Lately when we put him into his carrier, he won’t want to come out. To coax him, I like to sing a variation of Cave’s “God is in the House.” (No, not a hip-hop gospel dance song from the early 90s, but a satire about small town America). I sing to him “Leo’s in the house, any day now he’ll come out . . .” Leo’s vet turns out to be a huge Nick Cave fan who once followed Cave on a tour through Europe, so he appreciates the humor.
At the final appointment, Leo is injected with a chemical to stop his heart, a familiar moment for anyone who’s been through this experience with a pet. We hold our hands to him, feel his final breath, feel the moment when he transitions from Leo to That Which Used To Be Leo. We can feel him cease to breathe. We can feel his heart stop.
We can feel him leave.
“I’m transforming, I’m flying . . .”
The sidewalk regrets that we had to kill them.
Everyone always remarks about the crushing absence you will sense in the home after the mortal departure of a loved one. No amount of intellectual knowing can prepare for the actual sense of someone missing, the true resonance of loss. An empty corner can send you over the edge.
Leo had been an especially important presence in my life. I adopted him right after I moved into my first apartment, and he had been there through the worst of the worst, never a complaint unless I failed to refill his food dish in a timely manner (in which case he had absolutely no trouble issuing complaint). Then one day he’s a pile of chalky ashes and a memory. Sorry, Leo.
Our vet messages us a link to the video for Cave’s “The Mercy Seat,” a song about death row(6). Though I don’t think Leo spent his final moments pondering crime and punishment whilst seeing visions of Jesus, the gesture makes sense in the grander scheme.
We cry. We grieve. We must get back to preparing for our wedding.
The wedding. The wedding. The wedding.
Two weeks before Leo’s passing, Nick Cave also experiences a loss, this one incomprehensible compared to ours. In July of that year, his fifteen year old son Arthur falls to his death from a cliff in Brighton. Seemingly within no time, the media is swarming with reports. It will later be revealed that Arthur Cave and a friend had tried LSD for the first time shortly before his death, a fact that may or may not have played any real factor in his accident. This will be seized upon by nearly all media reports, and some publications will irresponsibly attempt to draw connections between Nick Cave’s own past drug abuse and fascination with darkness, and the death of his son.
I try not to pay much mind to celebrity news, or the personal lives of famous people. But it seems somewhat different when it involves someone whose work you’ve admired throughout your life, and when you’ve respected them as a person as well. I believe in the distinction between the art and the artist, at least when it comes to public consumption. And yet I find myself at a loss for words at this news. It moves me, deeply.
I’m aware from interviews and articles that Cave is close to all four of his children. In more recent years he’s made a successful effort to have a relationship with his son Jethro, and he’s been part of his other kids’ lives since they were born. He is a notoriously devoted parent, and proud of his sons. I’ve been reading about them from afar as they’ve grown, an incidental occurrence as I’ve followed the career of their father. I don’t know any of these people. I will never know them. But I feel for Nick Cave, Susie Bick, and their family. There’s nothing else to say.
Lights. The sky. The spirit. A tree.
. . .
Now for the incongruously lighthearted footnotes:
(1) Cave also found time to revise And the Ass Saw the Angel for a 20th anniversary edition published that year. Various sections of the novel were reedited, clarified, or removed altogether. While I support an artist’s right to tinker with their work and have no problems with Cave publishing a new edition, I will never part with the original version of the book, since it made such an impact on me.
(2) Like the duo of Cave and Ellis, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have made award-winning film scores (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) while also splitting time between their main band (Nine Inch Nails) and a side project (How To Destroy Angels). Additionally, Ross has worked on several Barry Adamson records, and even sampled the Birthday Party in a track for his band 12 Rounds.
(3) Not as bizarre a request as it might seem. Quite a few parallels exist between the careers of Nick Cave and Depeche Mode, and I’m not referring to the heroin addictions of Cave and DM singer Dave Gahan. Both bands were signed to Mute Records and had their careers nurtured by Mute founder Daniel Miller. Both worked quite a bit with veteran record producer Flood, have been featured in iconic pictures by rock photographer Anton Corbijn, and had videos directed by John Hillcoat. Both bands took a break after putting out a record in 1997, and didn’t release their next album until 2001. In that instance, both albums in question (No More Shall We Part and Exciter) featured a flower on the front cover, and each included a song that makes use of name-dropping various apostles. Head DM songwriter Martin Gore has also covered Cave’s “Loverman.” Cave has not returned the favor and covered “Personal Jesus,” but I’d like to mention that Marilyn Manson went ahead and did it, so at least someone’s on the ball here. (Manson has covered Nick Cave as well: he and Holy Wood programmer Bon Harris recorded a version of Cave’s “Hard-On For Love” for Harris’ project Maven. The track remains unreleased).
(4) Barry Adamson also used the American tour as artistic fuel, creating a photo album that would inspire his latest record, Know Where To Run.
(5) This moment occurred while Bernstein opened for the band Big Black during their infamous final show, at Seattle’s Georgetown Steamplant in 1987. His off-the-cuff response to the heckler has become a noted part of that evening’s lore, since it was sampled and looped during the performance.
(6) In 2000, “The Mercy Seat” experienced a brief wave of popularity when it was covered by Johnny Cash as part of his American album series. Similar to his treatment of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” Cash infused his own sensibilities into the song’s words and arrangement. Cave, a huge Johnny Cash fan, was honored by the nod from his hero, and went on to contribute some vocals to Cash’s American IV album. Cave obliquely alludes to this experience in The Sick Bag Song.