Tracey Thorn on Nick Cave: man and bogeyman

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

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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