My Life in Nick Cave Albums
Part II: Onward and Upward, and Off to Find Love
Apparently I picked an odd time to start liking Nick Cave.
In 1998, just as I am beginning to discover his body of work, Nick Cave has already started to disassemble the mythologized version of himself he’d been cultivating since the Birthday Party, intentionally or no. (Considering that his first post-Party solo tour was called Nick Cave: Man or Myth?, it seems to have at least been somewhat deliberate). Cave had arguably reinvented artistically twice already: first following the demise of the Birthday Party, and then with the release of The Good Son. The former marked a turn towards a more spacious sound and a narrative direction in the lyrics, and the latter a stripping away of Cave’s mad-prophet-of-the-Old-Testament-trash-swamp persona.
By the late 90s he’s grown bored. Bored with heroin, bored with being alone, bored with his creative process, and even bored with The Boatman’s Call. The album which he initially considered to be his best eventually comes to bother him. Its candid and confessional nature feels too personal, too specific. Cave will later be quoted as saying the album “sounds like the moaning of a dying insect.” He finds himself weary of reliving the same esoteric melodrama on stage, night after night. By now he is also a single father, having had a son, Luke, with wife Viviane Carneiro a few years before their separation and ultimate divorce. He maintains part-time custody. (He has another son in Australia, Jethro; they will remain estranged for some time). He attempts to balance being an artist, a father, and a junkie, with faltering results. Something has to give.
Cave eventually packs both the drugs and the songwriting away. He focuses on a new relationship with British model and fashion designer Susie Bick. They marry in 1999. After meeting her, it becomes exceedingly clear the time has arrived for him to give up drugs and alcohol permanently. He does so, and maintains sobriety going forward. Cave works on very little new material as he adjusts.
In 2000, the couple have twin sons, Earl and Arthur. Cave begins renting an office space in Chelsea where he fiddles with his computer and piano, writing songs and stories, working 9–5 and then coming home every night. This new life and new structure suits him.
I don’t hear much from Nick Cave for a while. No matter, as I’ve been gothing it up elsewhere: Bauhaus, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure. The usual (but wonderful) suspects. A Birthday Party live album finds its way into stores not long after I begin college, offering a terrifying listen of the band at their most intense. The group’s only official live release, Live 1981–82 opens with a spine-tingling rendition of “Junkyard.” This might be one of the greatest live recordings ever made (second only to Nina Simone’s performance of “Pirate Jenny”); Cave actually sounds like he’s going to crawl out of the speakers and hurt you. The album closes with a hysterically violent cover of the Stooges’ “Funhouse” . . . appropriate, as I’m listening to quite a bit of the Stooges lately.
In the summer of 2000, I finally track down a copy of Door, Door, the first album by the Boys Next Door. It’s a suitable new wave/punk record, with some fun, catchy songs and an increasingly weird streak as it gets to the second half. But it’s easy to see why the band distanced themselves from the album, and decided to reinvent as the Birthday Party when they relocated from Melbourne to London in 1980. The album completely fails to capture whatever quality made them unique, the anemic production featuring handclaps and keyboards more appropriate for a rock group aiming at the Top 40 and not innocent bystanders. Still, I enjoy the CD and am glad to have it. The band member photos on the back are especially hilarious; Nick Cave looks like a 14-year old juvenile delinquent who just burned your house down and is waiting for you to find out, but who also doesn’t care that much one way or the other.
The only new release that year is The Secret Life of the Love Song, a spoken word CD of two lectures delivered by Cave. The titular piece is about the spiritual power of the love song, and features a handful of musical performances interspersed with Cave’s oration. The second, called The Flesh Made Word, has Cave discussing the significance of literature and language, how they relate to Christ and to the divine, and connecting it all back to his father, who died suddenly in a car accident when Cave was nineteen, and who himself was a man of words. Both pieces are entrancing, almost magical, more of a religious experience than anything I can find in church.
In spring of 2001, Cave finally puts out a new Bad Seeds record, No More Shall We Part. It continues the trend of Boatman’s Call, with Cave playing the role of lovesick piano balladeer, though unlike that album, the arrangements are more lavish than sparse and the lyrics less directly autobiographical. Instead, Cave uses certain facets of his personal life as springboards for his fictional narratives and characters, a happy balance.
By now I’m almost twenty one and working at a music store in a local mall. I had always wanted to work in a record store; less so a shopping mall. Malls are kind of the spiritual toilet of the human experience. The store is part of a failing national chain and we’re lucky to sell a single CD on any given day. Most of the kids who work in the neighboring businesses are teenagers from well-to-do families; they only have jobs so they can earn money to buy weed and meth. Meanwhile, most of the people who work in our store are twentysomething metalhead stoners. One of my managers is a proudly racist Limp Bizkit-loving dudebro who brags about the size of his bowel movements and gives head to one of our customers in the bathroom of the back office. Some days I look out into the nearby food court and ponder the value of pandemics.
I count the seconds until No More Shall We Part is released. I even get to hold the box of CDs several days before the album comes out, though I’m expressly told I can’t open or buy one until the release date. When that day finally arrives, I play the album in-store while I work the counter. I actually cry during the first song, not even remotely embarrassing since there are no customers.
That year I listen to the album on repeat, along with Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood, while I crank out first a novella and then a screenplay. I am writing in record time, almost like racing with death. I submit a short film to my school’s media awards competition, and it wins for best experimental video. The video is scored with a track from Barry Adamson’s first album. Thank you, Barry. (In fact, Nick Cave’s song “The Sweetest Embrace,” a collaboration with Barry Adamson for Adamson’s Oedipus Schmoedipus album, is one of the first Cave songs I ever heard. So, double thanks, Bare).
I make another short film, this one featuring a braindead couple force-fed their own vomit with a turkey baster while a woman with American flags taped over her eyes is strangled by a mysterious figure in a gas mask. The soundtrack is provided by Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan’s lovely cover of “What A Wonderful World.” The project screens as part of a short film series held by one of my production classes. I miss the initial screening, but am told it was followed by awkward silence and several visibly disturbed people in the lobby afterwards. I am gratified.
Depression still lingers, a ghost never too far away. But I can function. I don’t hate myself to the level I once did. Perhaps I am an artist after all.
The record store closes and the chain folds shortly thereafter. An early casualty in the collapse of the record industry. I will then take up a series of jobs in local art-house movie theaters. I truly love it.
Over the summer, I read, and reread, and re-reread Bad Seed, a biography of Cave written by Ian Johnston. A friend has lent the book to me, and though I usually go to great pains to take care of other people’s things as well as I do my own, the spine breaks and eventually the book literally falls to pieces in my hands. For whatever reason I have a thing for rock n’ roll biographies/autobiographies; I often find them inspiring. Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk. The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (Marilyn Manson). No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish (Johnny Rotten). Open Up and Bleed (Iggy Pop). Bad Seed is no exception. Reading about Cave’s evolution from antisocial wannabe-painter (he dropped out of art classes as a teenager, but to this day is not a bad illustrator and makes excellent collages) to assured but self-deprecating rock star/poet proves to be one of my favorite things.
9/11. The weather is gorgeous, an evil contrast to that day’s events. Things change. A palpable sense of fear and dread and loss is everywhere. We all seem to have a renewed awareness of the uncertainty of life. Men cry on television. Our enlightenment will last for a certain period and then evaporate. But I do feel an urge to create, to seize the Whatever while there is still time.
I begin throwing together a screenplay titled Fish in a Bottle, a series of surreal vignettes that coalesce roughly into a feature film. At the moment I am obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, cabaret singers, Mulholland Drive, and the geography of my parents’ house. I’ve also recently hit a deer for the first time and that awful experience finds its way into the script. I’ve never made anything but very short films but I undertake the task of shooting this myself. I do a significant amount of the writing while listening to the recently released Peel Sessions album from the Birthday Party.
I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s terrifying but freeing.
Fish in a Bottle quickly becomes my reason d’etre. I think about it all the time. I know I’m just some lonely weirdo shooting an experimental long-form video in his parents’ basement, but I want it to be the best movie ever shot by a lonely weirdo in his parents’ basement. Satisfactory won’t suffice. (I succeed at the weirdo part: one of my high-school aged friends leaves the script on the library computer and is subsequently suspended for possession of pornography, due to some graphic dialogue. I briefly look like I’m making porn with high-schoolers in my basement before I’m able to explain the situation).
We begin filming around Christmas, and in order to get clean sound I turn off the heat, sequestering my family in a corner of the house and telling them THIS SITUATION IS DO NOT DISTURB, GOT IT. Everyone is nice enough to put up with me. We spend days and days shooting and we get some fantastic footage, but it grows clearer and clearer to me the sheer magnitude of filming anything of significant length. I’m in over my head.
I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s freeing but terrifying.
Panic starts to set in. I can’t sleep. I’m nauseous. Soon I’m not able to get out of bed. This was a mistake. I can’t do this. I’m wasting people’s time. Maybe I’m not an artist. Maybe I’m not an anything. This is my one chance and I’m blowing it. I’m blowing it. Consider it blown. That will be ten dollars and I didn’t swallow.
Things are not right in the house, either. I live at home to save money while I’m in school. Also because I’m afraid of people. My parents haven’t been getting along. A weird icy distance has been gripping the household lately. It’s only gotten more uncomfortable since 9/11. I want to blame radical Islamic terrorism but it’s not working. My mother finally reveals that she and my father are separating and selling the house, and soon. Fish in a Bottle is written around the specific architecture of our stereotypical white suburban subdivision home. It’s one thing when time is running out only in your imagination. It’s another when there is an actual time limit.
I’m frozen. I do not know what to do. I weigh the many possible options and keep coming back to the best solution being that I should kill myself. But that seems impractical and, frankly, inconvenient. Not a viable option. On the other hand, existing feels too daunting. I give up. I sink. I don’t want to go anywhere. I can’t think. I’m back here again. I thought I’d left but perhaps I merely wandered into the waiting room until my number cycled back around.
A know-it-all psychoanalyst will probably say I had experienced a period of mania followed by a depressive episode. Please stop labeling my existential crisis. But I do see a therapist and also a psychiatrist. I like the talk therapy. As for the psychiatrist, I don’t enjoy the way the doctor prescribes five or six different drugs to me without even making eye contact. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing but I feel like a defective product being evaluated for modulation. Have I not been doing an adequate job of dehumanizing myself? Another failure! Oh the agony. Oh the ecstasy.
Maybe I should take ecstasy.
I end up neither taking ecstasy nor the drugs prescribed to me. I continue seeing a therapist and also develop an interest in New Age spirituality and the occult. A sign of desperation, to be sure, but also in line with my fascinations. In keeping with goth clichés, I will pursue an especial obsession with the life and work of Aleister Crowley and his philosophy of Thelema. I unfortunately forget to sit on the bus and make sure everyone sees me reading Nietzsche, but there’s still time.
Somehow I haven’t flunked out of college and I enroll in a screenwriting class. This gets me writing again. My project, titled Love’s Ugly Children (I await your lawsuit, Nick Cave), is an overlong, crude attempt to provoke. Scenes intentionally go on forever with misanthropic characters talking about nothing. In between are graphic moments of sex and violence, usually intertwined. I want to find different ways to assault the audience, sometimes by boring them. I call it CineTorture. My professor is not impressed. Neither am I, really, though I think there’s something worthwhile in there. He finds the script well-written, just poorly executed as a story and as a blueprint for a film and an overall failure. A prophet is never appreciated in his time.
Around now is when I finally witness Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in concert. In spring of 2002 I travel with some friends to Chicago, to see Cave at the creatively named Chicago Theater. He had played a small handful of North American venues in the late 90s during one or two solo tours, as well as a greatest hits tour with the Bad Seeds, but refused to embark on anything major in the US after the disaster that was his experience with Lollapalooza. This time he would be returning with the Bad Seeds, but the itinerary is similarly short, possibly because of the skittish nature of international touring in the immediate months following 9/11.
The show stands as one of the most majestic things I’ve ever witnessed. As the real-life flesh and blood Nick Cave graces the stage, I find myself gripped with that dual feeling of revelation upon seeing a figure of admiration in person for the first time: a mix of “there they are, in all their glory!” and “oh it’s just another human being and whatnot.” The dissonance of those two sensations always creates a sense of disbelief, a feeling of not quite being there. And yet I’m still at rapt attention. Cave lurks and menaces near the edge of the stage, bathed in red light, his shadow cast on the wall of the venue like some twisted demon.
Live, Cave cuts a fascinating presence, a combination manic evangelical preacher, Luciferian seducer, and self-effacing comedian. One moment, he’s gesticulating wildly, screaming into the microphone with an inscrutable amount of energy. The next, he’s sitting at the piano and forgetting lyrics and hiding his face in his hands, sheepishly trying not to laugh. His deadpan interactions with the audience — “We love you, Nick!” “Thank you and I love you as well . . . though probably not as much” — only make him more endearing. The crowded theater certainly indicates his return to the United States is more than welcome.
That summer finds me trying to write again, with poor to middling results. I reimagine Fish in a Bottle as a Gummo-esque collection of non-sequiturs, but it scrapes across my mind as forced and unsatisfying. I feel completely lost, disconnected. I don’t know how to move forward or be comfortable in my own skin and I continue to feel scathing resentment towards everyone else, who I’ve decided must possess some secret that I do not. I proceed to start writing a series of suicide notes (or perhaps suicide emails), each for a different friend or family member, to give them a specially tailored goodbye. I never finish this ghoulish project, nor am I ever certain why I started. Do I really mean to go ahead with it? I never find out. I keep living. Occasionally I experience fits of bizarre paranoia which make no sense to me, but I manage to avoid completely derailing again.
That Christmas, we’ve sold the house and are in the process of moving my parents to separate residences. (Merry Christmas. Your family is over. Get packing). My father chooses a small condo just up the street from our home and I decide to live with him. For the next several days we’re sick and sore from moving heavy furniture through the slush and the cold. Then the shock wears off and I realize the rest of my life has started.
Nick Cave has had a much more productive summer and fall. He and the Bad Seeds record a new album, Nocturama, over the period of a week or two during downtime on an Australian tour. Released in early 2003, Nocturama is initially greeted warmly and considered an early contender for one of the year’s better albums. But in no time at all, many fans and critics will consider it to be Nick Cave’s worst record, hands down. Some particularly scathing reviews even accuse Cave of simply going through the motions on what amounts to a tepid Christian pop album, pinning the former punk provocateur as a stiff and out-of-touch sellout.
To be fair, Nocturama is in many ways Cave’s lightest, slightest album. The lyrics and arrangements are often — not always, but frequently enough — simple and straightforward, even precious. A few tracks up the tempo and rank as the nosiest thing Cave has done since Murder Ballads, but they lack the maniacal biting energy of those earlier songs. They sound more like older people trying to rock than young jerkoffs constantly on the verge of the next overdose.
However, this is precisely the idea. The 80s and 90s are long gone and Cave isn’t trying to relive past highs. The purpose of Nocturama was to record an album very quickly without too much forethought. If anything, the record is freer than its predecessor, the very deliberate and precise No More Shall We Part. That particular work lived in the shadow of The Boatman’s Call, and with the weight of those expectations and presumptions about what Cave would or would not do. Nocturama is liberated from all that. There is no “Tell us what you saw atop the mountain!” anticipation this time around. The album is simply Cave and his band having a good time and seeing what works. Yet the record is not just a spontaneous gesture, either, as the unhinged experimentalism of the band’s early work is nowhere to be found. For many people, this renders the record both too formal and too formless.
The title — which supposedly alludes to the place where zoos pen their animals at night, though I’m not entirely sure Nick Cave didn’t invent the word — is not a reference to delving into the place where the dark things are. In this case, the dark things have been put away. For now.
I order Nocturama from the UK because it’s being released a few weeks earlier than in the States. I enjoy the record, but have and will continue to have an issue with it. My problem has nothing to do with what some critics or fans are complaining about. Nothing of the sort, though I agree this one isn’t Cave at his most challenging. I think of the album along the same lines as David Lynch’s The Straight Story; it emanates a modest, understated beauty, but also rocks in its own way. The issue I have is that this particular album becomes entrenched much, much too specifically in this exact moment of my life.
My parents are on their way to a divorce, the place I thought of as home is no longer home, and I’m looking at a crossroads with too many poorly defined avenues and no solid ground under my feet. In early 2003, I’ve started drinking as a way to relax, and I spend much of my free time buzzed and watching Werner Herzog movies. I’m not necessarily feeling hopeless. But I am feeling profoundly confused as I try to reestablish myself (and Herzog is maybe not helping me feel any better about the universe). Perhaps a bit like Nocturama, I’m trying to see what sticks. For years after, I cannot listen to the album without recalling the very specific sensations, positive and negative, that accompany this period of my existence. It sounds to me like a harbinger of squandered potential and misguided hopes.
Cave and his Bad Seeds return to the Chicago Theater in the spring of 2003. The show is as fantastic as the previous year’s, but also completely different. Following Nocturama, the band saw the departure of Blixa Bargeld, their longtime guitarist and the frontman for industrial pioneers Einsturzende Neubauten. Bargeld’s absence has forced the group to rethink how they perform live. Cave and his band members have a newfound energy at this show, introducing lively reworked arrangements of older songs and adding a sense of unpredictability to the proceedings. The performance closes with “Babe, I’m On Fire,” a lyrically inventive, riotously funny and seemingly endless rock number from Nocturama, through which Cave stumbles in most glorious fashion. (His improvised attempts at recovery are just as good as the actual lyrics: “The koala . . . some fuckin’ thing about a platypus . . . YYYEEEAAAHHH!!!”).
The next couple years of my life are, as the French say, a complete and total goddamn mess of pure unmitigated fucktitude. Still untested in the ways of the flesh, I finally find ways to experience physical intimacy without shaking uncontrollably or vomiting. I embark on a series of ill-fated relationships in which I most likely have no business being, though that probably applies to nearly all relationships. Not that this exonerates me. I briefly get things together enough to write a new version of Fish in a Bottle, culled from older drafts and various other pieces of writing (including my cheese mold script). But often I find that I’m too busy with another bottle. Many of them, in fact.
As time goes on I am increasingly shitfaced, the physical sickness compounding my Fibonacci-spiraling anxiety, depression and paranoia. I experience an intensely upsetting breakup which is largely my fault and begin cutting myself again, this time using broken bottles and leaving permanent scars. I will do this several times over the next few years, the crisscross of white lines across my chest and abdomen remaining like foundational cracks from an earthquake. My relationships take a turn for the unhealthy and everything fuses into one dirty, bloodstreaked snowball endlessly rolling downhill and clobbering Sisyphus along the way.
God, it’s revolting.
Anyway, what is Nick Cave doing???
In 2004 he unveils the double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. For that subset of fans worried that all Nick Cave releases would henceforth be quaint affairs with him sitting at a piano delicately cooing lyrics that work as metaphors for both romance with a capital R and Cave’s own particular brand of Christianity, those fears are here annihilated in one swift gash. The Bad Seeds are simply on fire in a way they haven’t been in years. (“Babe, they’re on fire” do you get it). A mix of gospel choirs, grimy blues, epic odes, black comedy, flutes, lascivious love songs, Nina Simone witchiness, and somethingerother about an ape and a cow and a serpent, there seem to be several thousand instruments playing on any given track, the closest Cave and the gang will come to replicating Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. There is a sense of apocalyptic urgency to the album, like the heavens parted and the record fell out of the sky, turned into a fireball, took out a few cities, and landed in a revival tent where everybody is screwing. Clearly the band has found a way to take that rebirthed sense of purpose from the previous tour and transfer it to disc.
Apparently not satisfied with putting out a double album, the following year the Bad Seeds release a triple album: B-Sides & Rarities. It is a collection of b-sides, and rarities. Cave is one of those infuriatingly productive artist people, and trying to collect every song commercially released by him proves to be a nightmare, and expensive as well. Thankfully this collection gathers nearly all of his more obscure tracks, rounding up the herd in an affordable package.
B-Sides & Rarities reveals hidden dimensions to some of his past records. The excised tracks from Murder Ballads are in most cases as good as anything on the album itself. And the additional material from the Boatman’s Call sessions features faster, more upbeat songs with fuller arrangements, almost another entire album’s worth of leftovers. They also include a lullaby Cave wrote for his son Luke, and the darkly cynical “Little Empty Boat,” my favorite in the entire collection. Nocturama has some stellar b-sides, as well, and stands as one of the rare cases where a record’s title track is excluded from the album proper.
There’s quite a few gems to be found in Cave’s early Bad Seeds work, particularly the Doors-y “God’s Hotel.” Also thankfully included is “Red Right Hand, Pt. 2,” originally used in the end credits of Scream 3 but omitted from the soundtrack album to make room for bands like Slipknot and Godsmack. The redo adds new lyrics and a retro-60s lounge arrangement courtesy of Barry Adamson. In addition, I’m relieved to have the hidden song from The X Files on-hand in a more convenient fashion, one not involving rewinding a CD into negative time.
It is not long after the release of B-Sides & Rarities that I realize my mind and habits are spiraling out of control. Nine Inch Nails made it look more fun than it really is, it seems. To clear my head I opt to stop drinking for a while. I go to a couple of AA meetings, avoid bars, and try to allow the fog to dissolve.
During this period I start writing again. I attempt to turn my mad scientist tale, Angels & Other Freaks of Nature, into a screenplay. The script takes a solid six months, tops out at close to 200 pages, and is a “fucking blast” to write. Unfortunately, it’s still not really there. All those pages and it still only feels like the skeleton of a story and of a world, and the mere introduction to its characters. In order to do this properly as a film it would cost a billion dollars and need to be about 15 hours long. I must reevaluate.
I also pick up the old script for Fish in a Bottle and manage to shoot two of its vignettes. It becomes painfully clear, very early on, that I really have no idea what I’m doing. In addition, I inadvertently cause the death of several fish. I regret this, deeply. But the footage and set photos strike me as quite exciting, and for as much as I did wrong here, I have evidence that some of it went right. But soon the doubt squirms its way through the fissures of my mind, and I begin to hate this project. The whole thing feels dead on arrival, irrelevant, a dusty remnant or snapshot. No. No, no.
I’m still living in my father’s condo. He tells me I need to move out and provides a deadline. He is absolutely right, and I know this. “This is your life, and you’re missing it,” he says. I scrounge together enough in savings to rent an extremely small apartment in a questionable neighborhood. Nonetheless, the place is mine, and I feel the excitement and terror of being on my own for the first time. This coincides with some pretty egregious relationship turmoil, leading to a plane crash of a breakup. The spring and summer of 2006 are charged with a specific sense of starting over, whatever that might mean.
I move into my new place. I get a cat. I watch The X Files a lot.
One of my earliest experiences after moving into the apartment is going to see the film The Proposition, starring Guy Pearce and directed by John Hillcoat. Set in the aboriginal outback, it’s the exact kind of Western I love, brutal and moody and beautiful, everything covered in grit and a Biblical plague of flies. The script is written by Nick Cave, and the score composed by Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. I had read that Cave was working on a Western screenplay, set in Australia, way back during the days of No More Shall We Part, and always wondered what became of that endeavor. It certainly proves worth the wait.
Cave had actually worked with Hillcoat before, going back to the 1987 prison film Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead. For that movie, Cave wrote the early drafts of the screenplay, created the score with several members of his band, and even played a supporting role as an imprisoned psychopath (which perhaps influenced the direction of the Tender Prey album, in progress at the time). He had also contributed music to Hillcoat’s second film, To Have and To Hold.
Cave’s work on The Proposition will solidify him as an in-demand screenwriter and film scorer. He will go on to write and score Hillcoat’s movie Lawless, pen an unproduced draft of Gladiator II, and along with Ellis create the scores for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Road, West of Memphis, Far From Men, and Hell or High Water.
Far be it from Nick Cave to ignore his rock star responsibilities, however. He, Ellis, and a handful of the Bad Seeds go off to form a side project, Grinderman. Embracing a more democratic and improvisational method of working than the Bad Seeds of late, Grinderman is pure greasy sleaze and metallic blues, the raucous, propulsive energy of Abattoir/Orpheus distilled down to its most primitive and prurient state. They sound like a bunch of aging perverts trying to pick up young girls outside of a Black Sabbath/Stooges show. Around here, Cave grows a 70s-style porn mustache, enhancing the ridiculously sexual element of Grinderman a hundredfold. It’s completely unclear if the midlife crisis nature of Grinderman is meant to be a joke, sincere, or some strange mix of both.
When Grinderman’s self-titled debut is released in spring of 2007, I enjoy the record, but it doesn’t quite get the attention from me that it deserves. I mostly listen to it on repeat late at night while on my computer, El Topo or The Holy Mountain playing muted on the TV. (I’ve graduated from Herzog to Alejandro Jodorowsky). I’m excited that Nick Cave is reigniting some of the primal fury of his earlier days, looking back yet at the same time moving forward. But I’m also not really sure where any of this is going.
Not that there aren’t immediate highlights. His lyrics to “No Pussy Blues” are some of the funniest he will ever write, painting the picture of an older lothario at the mercy of playfully disinterested youth and humiliating himself in the process. An instant Cave classic, to be sure. But I don’t instantly connect with the album, and that’s my fault more than anything.
I’ve stopped connecting with a lot of music at this point. A few records that year really grab me — new stuff by Manson, NIN, and She Wants Revenge — but I’m simply less immersed in my obsessions. By all appearances, I’m doing well. I live on my own and am now in a stable relationship. People are excited for me, and I appreciate that. But underneath churns a slow brew of radioactive sludge. More and more, I cease to maintain many of my interests. When I talk, I don’t talk about much of anything. At all. I hear myself giving empty responses, vague evasions, and clichés. I’ve also started drinking again. This wasn’t a problem at first, but as I become increasingly consumed by this relentless nothingness, I find myself drinking into a stupor, sobbing hysterically and confused on a regular basis. By the end of the year, almost every night I’ll drunkenly burst into tears and try to convince my cat to hold me. (He doesn’t).
Living on my own was supposed to be some type of healthy reinvention but I’ve just painted myself into another corner, with a relationship I’m not ready for, a job that barely pays my rent, and no creative direction of which to speak. I feel there is no way out. I can’t make decisions. There is no point in making them. Worse, I have hardly any ideas anymore, and no real urge to write. This sounds dramatic, because it is, but I am a walking void, filling myself with alcohol to experience any brief sensation resembling insular happiness.
By 2008, I am drunk most of the time. I know things are not working with my girlfriend but have done my best to shove this reality so far into the recesses of my brain that I can easily swat it down with drinks. People grow frustrated with me. Friends. Family. Coworkers. I’m not taking care of myself. I smell like a dead mouse. I don’t brush my teeth and some days I forget to eat (but not to drink). My car’s engine explodes on the highway and I try not to think about it.
My apartment building is like an insane asylum, filled with drug addicts, schizophrenics, and elderly people who can’t take care of themselves. I lock myself in my tiny little cove of an apartment and join in their chorus. The world outside doesn’t fare much better. There is a brothel across the street. Someone is stabbed with an icepick in front of our building. Kids beat an old man to death for fun a few blocks away. A junkie dies of an OD and is tossed in an alley dumpster. My apartment becomes infested with roaches and I see them scurrying around in the digital clock of my microwave.
Things reach some sort of grim crescendo one night when I get completely obliterated and walk several miles through bad neighborhoods in a pouring thunderstorm to see a friend’s band. The venue is called Off Broadway and, ten short years before, Warren Ellis and his group the Dirty Three played a show here. In fact, it was the Dirty Three who provided the haunting backing instrumentals for Cave’s “Dread the passage of Jesus . . .” track for The X Files. I had been watching X Files earlier that day. Now I’m here, stumbling into walls. I get in what can only be called the briefest, most pathetic bar fight in the history of bar fights, and am forcibly ejected from the venue. I end the night crying in my apartment and shrieking lines from There Will Be Blood until I vomit and pass out. I will not forgive myself for any of this.
I continue my trend of being utterly useless as I lose my job. The movie theater where I’ve worked for years is changing ownership and needs to close down for several months. I remain without a car or any real employment prospects. Theoretically I should, you know, maybe do something about some of this sometime. Possibly. But I can’t be bothered to fuck with it.
Nick Cave puts out a new record that spring. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! capitalizes on the slimy vitality of Grinderman and gives it back to the Bad Seeds, who in turn transmute that essence into their own specific creation. The record has this strange Vegas strip vibe, a kind of soft porn Soft Parade. The title track reimagines Lazarus as a pop culture sensation whose experience beyond the grave propels him to stardom. He becomes a ladies’ man, unwitting tabloid fodder, and then a drug addict who dies on the streets of New York, an afterthought or a footnote.
I buy the album not long before I lose my job. A day or two after the theater closes down, I listen to Dig, Lazarus, Dig while walking through a nearby park. It’s a beautiful afternoon. Out of nowhere I run into some old friends. We talk about the new record. (“It’s not as sleazy as Grinderman.” “Nothing’s as sleazy as Grinderman”). I then spot my mother and sister and they invite me to lunch. This might be a dark time, but I feel weirdly hopeful after this experience. Everyone seems to think I will emerge from this triumphantly, especially now that my meltdown is behind me. This summer will be good.
It is not good. I have no job and no car and am clearly being devoured alive by what adults call depression. My girlfriend and I are trying to make our relationship work and I know it won’t. Every day I get drunk on cheap beer. Every day I want to not exist, and every day I do my best to make that happen.
My routine for a while is drinking while watching Oliver Stone’s The Doors — which I found on DVD at the local grocery store for just a few dollars — and the director’s cut of Apocalypse Now on repeat. Jim Morrison’s voice seems to waffle between that of a friend who understands my pain and a demon beckoning me into the chasm like a bearded siren. Days turn into weeks turn into months, time simply becoming this weird streak across a hazy window. I drink until I pass out, then wake up and drink some more. Sometimes I’ll drink too fast and my mouth will fill with saliva and I’ll turn off to the side and throw up on the floor and then go back to drinking. Even when I’m sober, this summer still resembles a fever dream, me locked in my apartment away from the sweltering Midwestern heat and humidity, off in the wilderness of my mind.
One of my few genuinely decent experiences in this period is of going with my brother to see The X Files: I Want to Believe, the second X Files movie. I’m glad to see Mulder and Scully still alive and kicking. They seem to have some life left in them, and a future. I wish I could feel the same.
By the end of the summer, I face eviction unless I can act quickly. My landlord had been kindly looking the other way for longer than I had any right to expect, but the sand has run out in the hourglass. I can’t keep picking up under-the-table odd jobs, the meager unemployment checks won’t last forever, and if I don’t do something soon to counter the unraveling of my mind, I might not be able to wind it back.
I pull myself together enough to land an interview — I’m relieved to learn I can still get it together when necessary — with a company that pays somewhat decently. I need to get this job or I will lose everything. The interview goes well. I return for a follow-up. That also goes well. I am offered the job. The dogs waiting to tear me to pieces stand down.
A few days before my start date, I head to Chicago to see the Bad Seeds perform at the Riviera. The week after my job disappeared, a friend had invited me to this show, going so far as to buy my ticket since I had no money. It feels fitting that the summer of my discontent is capped with the actual concert. I consider it a nice bookend. I witness Nick Cave in all his mustachioed glory. I’m reasonably sure everyone in the venue wants to have sex with him. I forgot earplugs but no bother. We’re seeing geezers in a folk band, essentially. Mistake. This is the loudest show I’ve ever been to. After a few songs, the hollering and whistling from the audience transforms into shrieking feedback and I have to keep putting my fingers in my ears as I wince in pain. The Bad Seeds tear through the set ferociously and Cave looks like an evil game show host. This is my third time seeing them. All three shows were entirely different concerts, but equally incredible.
I drive home. I’ve borrowed my father’s car, promising to keep it less than 24 hours. (I can tell he’s nervous). On the way back, I blast Dig, Lazarus, Dig, listening to it three or four times. The road home greets me with dark clouds and endless, gloomy rain. All news outlets are swamped with updates about the collapse of the economy. For a moment it looks like I might not have a job anymore, but that does not come to pass. (I do not want to consider the alternative). From that day onward, I cannot hear this record without remembering that complex set of feelings running through my brain as rain splashed against the windshield on an abnormally dim and foreboding afternoon.
I’ve never had an office job or such a strictly set schedule before, and the process of me getting acclimated must look hilarious. I would like to report a period of smooth sailing but I cannot. My first year with the company is spent enduring bona fide workplace harassment from a deranged coworker. The aggressions are subtle enough to be impossible to prove, but they exist nonetheless. Every day feels like hell. Meanwhile, my long-suffering relationship ends, and on a bad note. We won’t communicate again for quite a few years.
But this job has almost definitely saved my life. I’m not locked in a small room drinking myself to death every day. Becoming a cubicle worker bee has never been a goal, but I’ll accept it as a necessary transitional period. Moreover, and despite my best efforts, I begin to fall in love with the person who sits next to me. We have a frightening amount in common and soon most days revolve around us talking. She loves me too. We both try to deny it for an extended period of time, but eventually it becomes painfully apparent how we really feel. We finally relent and surrender to love.
Of course, love is for fools. God knows I’m still one.