Larger than life: “Cave is creating a disguise which, ironically, makes him instantly recognisable – and then hiding inside it”. Photo: Brian Rasic / Rex
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Tracey Thorn on Nick Cave: man and bogeyman

Rock's gothic - or comic - bogeyman gives a masterclass in transformation at the Royal Albert Hall.

In my worst ever anxiety nightmare, I am on stage at the Royal Albert Hall performing a concert, when I look down and see that I am completely naked. It’s a classic of its kind, encapsulating a singer’s most basic ­insecurity, and doesn’t take much decoding. I’ve always assumed such terrors are solely the province of those like me who don’t feel themselves to be natural performers, who fear the stage and often end up fleeing it, and so I’ve come here tonight to see the consummate showman Nick Cave partly in the hope that he can show me how it’s done.

He’s known as a stage-owner, a crowd-controller, a larger-than-life shaman of rock, so I don’t imagine he suffers from stage fright, and yet, leafing through his new book, The Sick Bag Song, a collection of diary entries and lyrics written on a recent US tour, I stumble across the following lines, where he describes his feelings before going on stage in Philadelphia – “I was a nude descending a staircase . . ./Into the anticipating dark”. Who knows, maybe there is a fear of exposure behind his carefully constructed look; maybe, after all, it is a suit of armour. In a charmingly self-deprecating passage, he writes about touching up his hair backstage, aware of the semi-ridiculousness of his appearance and its innate artificiality as he tries to make himself look less “like Kim Jong-un and . . . more like Johnny Cash”.

He arrives quietly on stage – no grand entrance, no fanfare – dressed all in black, of course (as am I, out of a sort of respect), and seats himself at the piano. The first time I saw Nick Cave was in 1981, in his post-punk band the Birthday Party at the Lyceum, around the time of the single “Release the Bats”. I think they frightened the life out of me and I think they meant to. But this mature balladeer is an altogether more sober proposition and for the first few songs I’m a little disappointed by how sedate things are. My fault, perhaps – I’ve come here hoping for a masterclass in showing off and here he is being all restrained and sensitive.

Then he gets up and the show comes to life. Prowling the front of the stage, lanky and spidery like Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher, he reminds me of Mark Rylance’s comments about acting – that it is part electricity, going out towards the audience, and part magnet, drawing the audience towards you. Cave has spoken about how the act of walking on stage requires a step up, a gear change, a kind of transformation, and it is when he seems most “in character”, least naturalistic, that he is the most impressive. Working the front row like a boy band or a supper club crooner would, his performance can be hammy as hell, but God it’s fun. Barney Hoskyns recently described him as “rock’s Gothic bogeyman” but there’s also a touch of rock’s comic bogeyman, and Cave seems fully aware of the humour in much of what he does. But it’s not that he doesn’t mean it, more that he knows what works.

And what so often works onstage is an understanding of unreality; he’s a singer who is comfortable with notions of artifice and of performance as play. In The Sick Bag Song he writes about calling on “the nine Muses for assistance”, of the need for inspiration to arrive from outside in order to make something happen:

We call upon them all, this diverse and squabbling army of inspiration, to each breathe their curling tendrils of transmutation and combustion across the stage, so that we can begin, in love, and get this fucking show on the road.

Tonight, in “Jubilee Street”, when he sings, “I’m transforming, I’m vibrating/I’m glowing/I’m flying”, I realise that those who are good onstage have plenty of what Rylance calls the electrical part of performing – a life force that radiates outwards.

To some degree Cave carries this trans­formation around with him in everyday life, having quite early on in his career created a persona that he seems to inhabit much of the time. In last year’s documentary film 20,000 Days on Earth, he played with the idea of there being a character called “Nick Cave”, who may or may not be him. Driving around the East Sussex coastline, he reminded me of nothing so much as Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, a beautiful, exotic alien in the most earthly of landscapes. Recently on Twitter, in another alarming example of the general public behaving like paparazzi, someone posted a photo of Cave asleep on a train to Brighton, the astonished and feverish replies all seeming to embody the same thought: “HOW ON EARTH CAN NICK CAVE BE ON A TRAIN?”

In other words, how can he be real, be normal? And what does it mean for singers that we mythologise them like this? How can they live with the strangeness of people’s response to them? Perhaps simply by staying in costume and in character, creating a disguise that, ironically, makes them instantly recognisable, and then hiding inside it. I was never able to do this – or never thought to do it – and I’m still not sure whether it’s a route to sanity, making peace with your fame, or whether it is in itself a kind of madness, an embodiment of damage done.

But cleverly, and perhaps unexpectedly, Cave has come up with an image that is allowing him to age rather gracefully. The skinny physique, which he uses to such good end, is that of a much younger man, but never does he seem uncomfortable with his actual age, or appear to be straining for something out of reach. And his vocal delivery has matured to the point where the singer he most resembles is Neil Diamond. I mean this as a huge compliment and I know I’m not the first to point it out, but ­really the likeness is uncanny.

Tonight during “And No More Shall We Part” and “The Ship Song”, I drift off into a bit of a reverie, hearing Diamond’s weary, yearning baritone in my ears. I imagine him doing a cover of “The Mercy Seat” and then – oh, even more exciting! – I think of Cave singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, with Kylie or Polly on Streisand’s lines. Now that I would pay to hear.

Tracey Thorn’s latest book, “Naked at the Albert Hall”, is newly published by Virago

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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