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Nick Cave: “I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous”

The musician on why Morrissey matters, his deepening faith and grieving for his sons.

By Kate Mossman

For two decades there have been plans for a statue of Nick Cave in his birth town Warracknabeal, 200 miles north-west of Melbourne. Cave was to be cast in gold, riding a horse and naked to the waist, wearing a loin cloth. He cooked up the idea in the late Nineties with the sculptor Corin Johnson, who also built the private, columned memorial to Princess Diana at Althorp.

This was a lifetime ago, when Cave wore a drooping moustache and a medallion, and looked like a porn star on the slide. It was a glorious era of family contentment, living with his wife, Susie Bick, the model and fashion designer, and their twin sons in Brighton, enjoying the commercial and critical success of his album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, a sleazy, humorous rock bombshell that was praised as one of many career resurrections on its release in 2008. Cave’s plan was to turn up to Warracknabeal with the statue on the back of a lorry and leave it there in an act of “extreme generosity”. If they did not want it, he’d put it in the desert. But they have hit a snag with funding, it seems. The Australians don’t exactly celebrate their famous, wayward sons, he says: they’re more likely to yell “f*** off” at you out of their car.

Cave weaves his way through the tables of a family-run restaurant in Holland Park, west London, which has been opened for our purposes, a peaceful place with no other diners. Before he arrived I asked the restaurant to put some music on, fearing it would be too quiet.

He is wearing one of his bespoke suits, of a black, satiny sheen, most likely cut by his regular tailor in Soho. His hair has been blue-black since he started dyeing it at sixteen; there is an inwardness about his posture, but every now and then he’ll sweep a look up under his big eyebrows, whenever he is saying something dry. The week we meet he had spoken to the Church Times. “A whole world has opened up from a perspective that wasn’t open to me before, where I basically got Mojo,” he says, before adding politely, “And I can still talk to Mojo, too.”

What is there to say to a person who has recently experienced the worst thing that can happen to someone, not once but twice? One of Cave’s sons – Arthur, 15 – died in the summer of 2015, and his first-born – Jethro, 30 – in summer 2022. In the last few years he has begun to provide a kind of public function, talking about grief with unusual clarity. “People often say they can’t imagine how it would feel to lose a child,” he said not long after Arthur’s death. “But, actually, they can – they can imagine what it is like.” The loss enlarged his heart in some way, he has written, and it confirmed his religious sensibility, revealing that there was energy, not failure, to be found in the ongoing struggle with faith itself.

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In his new book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, a series of conversations with the journalist Seán O’Hagan, Cave addresses his guilt about his younger son, who fell from a cliff in Brighton after taking LSD: “He was my responsibility and I looked away at the wrong time… I wasn’t sufficiently vigilant.” Being forced to grieve in public saved him, he has said. But what about walking down the street today, still carrying grief like a flag? Is it not the one thing people see? Cave orders a cup of tea and asks them to turn the music down.

“That is still difficult,” he says. “I’m quite private, I know it doesn’t look that way, and people talk to me sometimes like I’m a walking agony aunt. I’m trying to learn how to be a bit more boundaried. But it’s a condition of being in that state, that you’re not protected, or the normal way of protecting yourself is taken away, to some extent. You’re just this walking open wound, and people respond to that – because most people, on some level, are.”

Cave was always distrustful of the way in which a journalist tells your story and slots your quotes into their own idea of who you are. He once described the process as “speaking a lot of shit to some fool”, adding, “I only trust somebody when I feel they are genuinely on my side.” These days of course, most people are on his side, but the anxiety about being taken out of context came to a head after Arthur died. “I decided I wouldn’t do any more interviews until I’d at least worked out how to do one,” he tells me, which is something to hear from a man of 65 who must have done many hundreds.

On his website, the Red Hand Files, named after a song inspired by Milton’s vengeful God, Cave opened the floor to questions from fans, and practised figuring out what he actually thought about things, from God to free speech. Where once there was abrasiveness or mythmaking, he revealed an honesty that can at times be difficult to read.

In July this year one fan asked him about a “cryptic” line from a song on his 2019 album Ghosteen: “The kid drops his bucket and spade and climbs into the sun.” Cave thanked the fan, started talking about a place “potentiality adjacent to meaning”, then broke off – always politely, these days – saying: “Looking at them now, these lines are perhaps not so obscure, and without wanting to take away their power by attaching my own meaning to them, their intent seems fairly clear. They mean, the child stopped what he was doing and died.”

[See also: Nick Cave’s second coming]

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently selected Faith, Hope and Carnage as his New Statesman book of the year. I asked him why he found it particularly moving. “There are various familiar ways of putting together the language of faith and the experience of appalling suffering,” he told me. “Some people simply treat faith as consolation: things look terrible but it’s going to turn out fine. Others say that the experience of atrocity negates all possible reference to the sacred or the divine. Nick Cave refuses both sorts of simplicity. For him, the extremity of pain and loss releases something; it pushes you over the edge of whatever limits you had taken for granted and uncovers a kind of imaginative energy, not always welcome.”

Cave’s book is perhaps unique in drawing connections between faith, grief and creativity. His God “lives here”, Williams told me, “where the God of the Book of Job or of Elie Wiesel or Dostoevsky lives, not consoling but overwhelming and generating. Not a rationale for suffering or an excuse for looking away but a resource for standing in the middle of it all without complete disintegration of mind and heart.”

Brighton became “too sad” for the family after Arthur died. Cave, Bick and their son Earl moved to Los Angeles for a while, but found that too sad as well, before returning to London, where they now spend most of their time. They have put their beachfront Regency house on the market, with its purple, green and red interiors; Cave seems rueful that the Sun dug out the estate agents’ photos and published them.

For many years Cave’s relationship with the press was uneasy. “I didn’t know how to express what I wanted to say,” he recalls. “There was just a deep contempt for everything, and that shuts you down. I’m a naturally disagreeable character at times. I enjoyed that.”

In 1988, after a show in Hamburg, he took a swing at the head of the NME journalist Jack Barron and tried to boot him in the groin in an attempt to retrieve an interview tape. He called Barron a “filthy little prick”. Barron described “this lanky piece of literate shit” whose lyrical concerns “rattled like skeletons in shallow graves”.

Cave’s band the Birthday Party were billed by one European promoter as the most violent in the world, which Cave pointed out was an open invitation to get punched by fans. When the band first moved to the UK from Melbourne in 1980, writers on the NME were sick with excitement: Cave was completely feral on stage, lurching around like an early incarnation of the character he went on to play in the 1988 film Ghosts of the Civil Dead – an Australian backwoodsman in a maximum security prison. The journalist Mat Snow, who attended many of those gigs, tells me that forty years ago Cave appeared “genuinely crazed with a misanthropic rage, which over time became stylised”.

He was a heroin addict for most of the eighties and nineties. Snow rented him and his then girlfriend Anita Lane a room in his house in Brixton, and recalls their “Terry and June” bickering, with Cave criticising Lane’s addict’s diet of Dairylea triangles while he himself subsisted on a tub of piccalilli. Cave was always writing at the kitchen table, Snow recalls, no matter what state he was in: “I think his biggest addiction is his workaholism.” After their brief time as flatmates, Snow gave Cave’s second single a brush-off in the NME, calling it a “wan effort”, and shortly afterwards found himself the subject of a song, “Scum”, which ends with Cave unloading a pistol into his eyes.

Well my un-friend, I’m the type that holds a grudge
I’m your creator
I think you fucking traitor, chronic masturbator,
Shitlicker, user, self-abuser, jigger jigger!
What rock did you crawl from?
Which, did you come?
You Judas, Brutus, Vitus, Scum!

By the mid Eighties there was, Snow says, a feeling among certain staff on the NME that there was something “almost evil” about the Birthday Party. “What was voiced a lot, but because of the things that have happened in Nick’s life is no longer a discussion, is that you don’t have to be Leavis to spot a fantastic amount of violent misogyny in the work. Everything since has wiped the slate clean – and of course it’s not a reinvention he would have ever wanted to make.”

In the murder ballad tradition that Cave adored (his band the Bad Seeds released a whole album of them) women are, of course, the recipients of most of the murdering. Cave would later split his creative persona in two with his musical alter ego Grinderman, a stoogy, sleazy id who performed the darker tasks as he himself moved into elegant middle age.

On the Red Hand Files, fans question his violent musical past. “These days, some of my songs are feeling a little nervous,” he told one in 2020. “They are like children that have been playing cheerfully in the schoolyard, only to be told that all along they have had some hideous physical deformity… But what songwriter could have predicted thirty years ago that the future would lose its sense of humour, its sense of playfulness, its sense of context, nuance and irony, and fall into the hands of a perpetually pissed-off coterie of pearl-clutchers? How were we to know?”

One of the subjects on which Cave has recently ordered his thoughts is cancel culture, and what he describes as its asphyxiating effect on creative society. “I think the divisive nature of the cultural argument these days is religious in temperament,” he says, “and the worst of religion is puritanical, superior, self-righteous.” I ask him about Morrissey, now considered a pariah for his nationalist sympathies. “The hypocrisy is ridiculous,” he says. “I don’t care what Morrissey’s views on things are, but I do care about his legacy. I think they’re some of the most beautiful songs ever written, and they meant an enormous amount to people when they came out. Those songs saved lives. His songs talked to these lonely, disenfranchised individuals, and certainly they had a voice.

“I think we need to be careful with these sorts of things, when we’re looking around for the bad actors. The music that really inspires me is almost always made by the most terrible characters. Not necessarily cancellable, but just not very nice people. I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous.”

Who does he listen to, when he wants to feel most moved, most in touch with the important things in life?

“I listen to Van Morrison records, which is a case in point,” he replies. “Ha ha ha! Music is essentially good, and it has the capacity to make things better. It is transcendent by nature because it moves away from who you are into something greater. It improves manners, and we discard that at our peril. If we’re going to insist on living in a secular world, then we need to hang on to the things that are sacred. Music is one of those things. It’s religious by nature, but it’s also secular and of immense value to the world.”

[See also: Nick Cave’s new album Ghosteen has completely floored me. In a good way]

When he first arrived in London, Cave lived in Earl’s Court – “because I was an Aussie” – and unlike many other struggling musicians in Thatcher’s Britain was unable to claim the dole. He worked instead, among other things picking up rubbish at London Zoo: “I don’t know if they still do it, but if you need a bit of money, you can stand outside the zoo at six in the morning. They come out, and they tend to pick young people because a lot of the other people are old or alcoholic or whatever.”

For a long time, when drugs ruled his life, he was not attached to one home or another, and lived in Berlin and São Paulo (where another son, Luke, was born). How does he get by as a globetrotting fringe artist, Q magazine asked him in 1992? “It’s a terrible, terrible situation to be in!” he deadpanned. “I don’t have any property, and I don’t have a car, and all my travelling gets paid for, so the money just goes into a bank account and earns interest! So if anyone out there needs any money…” His sense of humour remains Australian.

Warracknabeal is a small farming town – mock Tudor post office, one church. Cave’s father taught English at a technical college and his mother was a high school librarian; at nine, Cave joined the choir of Wangaratta Cathedral. The family moved closer and closer to Melbourne over the years. In a moment more dramatic than anything he has written, he was informed of his father’s sudden death in a car crash when his mother came to bail him out of jail. He was nineteen – and “not at his best” when his father saw him for the last time.

“It was not such a good time because my life was spiralling out of control,” he says. “So in no way did I hold any promise of anything. I was just bad news.”

What crime had he committed?

“I’d broken the window of a hotel. I’d gone into the lobby and taken a chair I thought looked good. I ran down the street to take it back to my house and I was caught by the police. I was with a mate. But he got away and I didn’t because I was carrying the chair.”

He laughs. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to take the chair.”

If the death of his father was Cave’s original hurt, has he understood his feelings better since the death of his son?

“I’m not so sure about that. I think grief, in general, is a cumulative thing. When someone dies, all the other griefs collect around it, and I have a feeling that that’s what growing older is. We are defined and joined by our sense of loss, or brought together. I can’t think of the word – we are bonded by our sense of loss: there you go. You can fix that sentence.”

He has learned something else, too. Colin Cave, a huge presence, was the pinnacle of eloquence, a teacher who prized poetry over all other art forms, and a great raconteur who would say – Cave spreads his fingers wide – “ ‘How was your day?’ and then when you couldn’t answer” – he mumbles, head down, imitating his teenage self – “he’d say, ‘Well, here’s what I did with my day…’ and it would all unfold.”

So even as a teenager, there was a concern with not sounding fluent?

“Yes, I think it’s because of my father. He spoke beautifully about things. I would sit at the dinner table, and he would talk about his day, and he would do it in an incredibly impressive way. So I think there’s a lot of my father sitting there.”

Faith, Hope and Carnage, based on some epic back-and-forths with O’Hagan over the phone during the pandemic, taught Cave how to argue, and to appreciate the difference between being strident and actually being informed. “I started to recognise this almost erotic feeling of arguing, with the wind in your sails, about something you don’t know very much about,” he says. “And I noticed that the more shrill and certain I got, it was generally about things I knew less about. I think the more volume, it hides a basic lack of knowledge…”

These days he seems content to exist in a place of uncertainty. He used to sit down to a working day of lyrics in a home office but when Arthur died, he shut the office down and hung around the house with his wife instead, thinking up lines on the window seat in his bedroom. In fact, the whole concept of narrative no longer seemed to make much sense.

“I think that certainly was true,” he says today. “But I wonder if, in time, that narrative reasserts itself. Several periods of my life, particularly around Arthur, there was a complete obliteration of the self, and that’s something I get from a lot of people – they turn into something different, or they reassemble themselves into something. It feels like the idea that life is a pleasing narrative is just ludicrous.”

People who see him perform live now describe it as a semi-religious experience, whether or not they were moved by his songs in the first place. The disdain he once felt for other people extended to his audience: he had no idea what the people who came to see him were like, he said in the Eighties: “I don’t know what their reasons for doing anything are.” At Glastonbury in 2013, years before his personal tragedies, Cave clambered aboard the crowd and communed with fans like a preacher. But he wasn’t really feeling anything. “It was like, ‘Here it comes’, and the audience were just this thing that I threw myself at. It used to be exhausting to do that, just to scream in people’s faces. A guy up there, and some sort of anonymous flock that they were shrieking at.

“I don’t see it that way any more. It feels more like receiving something. There’s this exchange that’s going on with the audience, and they’re throwing things back in a very beautiful way. It’s an outpouring, and incoming sense of love, and it’s beautiful.”

Is it draining? “Not at all – it gives me energy.”

I ask him when he last went to church. “Er… last night,” he says, looking up from under his eyebrows with an almost apologetic smile. “It was All Souls’ Day, and they read the list of the dead. I’m not quite sure how it works but they mentioned my children, and it takes a long time for them to do this, and it’s unbelievably moving, the music, the singing, the shape of the service. It was theatre. It was the church next door to my house.”

Cave had begun a relationship with Jethro, whose death is still being investigated, when he was seven or eight – Jethro grew up with his mother in Australia – but had not seen him for three years when he died. In talking about grief Cave, once an assemblage of gothic frightfulness, up to his knees in imaginary death, has gone some way to handing back his fans’ projections. In another way the events of the last few years have taken his personal myth into another dimension. Like his country music hero Johnny Cash, the family tragedies give him an awful authenticity. He no longer needs to make up stories: he just needs to express himself right.

[See also: The conservatism of Nick Cave]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince