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

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.