Death Becomes Him
Nick Cave Acquires A Taste For Murder

Rolling Stone, May 1996

by David Fricke
Transcribed by Blake Cotton

For someone who has just released an album of songs entirely devoted to the dark art of murder, Nick Cave hasn't had much hands-on experience with firearms or dead folks. His one close encounter with a corpse, back when he was a schoolboy in his native Australia, didn't even give him much of a fright.

"I was riding my bicycle home from school, and I found this dead guy in an alley just by the river that went past the school," Cave recalls between swigs of milky tea in a Manhattan hotel room. "I had a few moments to poke around at the body before I raced back to tell the teachers about it."

As for guns, Cave briefly owned a pistol several years ago while he was living in Germany. "A drug dealer gave it to me- he owed me," he says flatly of the transaction. "It was kind of difficult to use, so I gave it to someone else. I hope he used it appropriately."

Cave has been on the wrong end of a heater - twice - and didn't like it much. "It was in L.A.," he explains. "I was scoring drugs both times, and it all went wrong. I just had to give over my money and then it was, 'All right, fuck off.' I found that deeply humiliating."

Still that's small beer compared to the rain of blood and bullets on Cave's recent homicide suite, Murder Ballads, his 10th album with his long-time band The Bad Seeds, the compellingly grisly apex of his artistic obsession with the deadliest sin. The body count over the course of the record's seven new originals and two public domain narratives, the dark lullaby Henry Lee (a duet with Polly Jean Harvey) and the venerable blues Stagger Lee, is truly breathtaking. By the time he lapses into the sniggering solemnity of the closing hymn, a cover of Bob Dylan's Death Is Not the End, Cave has dispatched more than 60 men, women and children to violent, untimely ends - more than 20 in the hilarious barn dance The Curse of Millhaven. The long, lean pistol-packing bastard in Cave's 14 - minute epic O'Malley's Bar wipes out a dozen people before the song is two-thirds over.

Cave who is 38, has been writing and singing vividly, enthusiastically, about vengeful abuse and misanthropic obsession since his early '80's tenure as the cadaverous frontman and hellfire voice of the notorious Australian band The Birthday Party. His extensive solo work with the Bad Seeds, beginning with the blackhearted 1984 masterpiece From Her to Eternity, is a gripping catalog of base instincts and poisoned passions vivified by the dark, gnarly sound of the Bad Seeds (particularly the clawing, convulsive guitar of Blixa Bargeld) and the heated, eccentric intimacy of Cave's language. "I jammed the barrel under her chin / and her face looked raw and vicious," he sneers exultantly before pulling the trigger in "O'Malley's Bar." "Her head it landed in the sink / with all the dirty dishes."

"I have a certain way with words when it comes to violence," Cave says without apology, looking like a hip, Dikensian undertaker in a snazzy dark-blue pinstripe suit supplemented with a long, knitted scarf. "I just enjoy ruminating over the details."

What is remarkable about Murder Ballads, though is the mad genius of it's dynamic extremes. Cave retools Stagger Lee with a homosadistic endgame that would make the Ghetto Boys blanch, then shifts unflappably into the sultry villainy of Where the Wild Roses Grow, a brilliant pairing of Cave's macabre crooning with the sweet maiden sigh of the Australian pop thrush Kylie Minogue. And there is no mistaking the broad comic streak running through the confessions of Lottie, the serial murderess in The Curse of Millhaven: "They ask me if I feel remorse, and I answer why of course! / There's so much more I could have done if they'd let me.'"

"If my own family had been murdered I wouldn't be able to write such a flippant record as this," Cave admits. "In that respect, this record could offend a lot of people who have had direct experience with this sort of thing."

But he insists Murder Ballads "was designed to offend, to be like one of those records like Bob Dylan's Self Portrait, where people just go, 'What the fuck is this load of crap?' In fact, it didn't work out that way." Much to Cave's chagrin, Murder Ballads is a major European smash. Cave doesn't have any false hopes about the albums prospects in the United States but figures "Americans need a reason to laugh don't they? Well buy my record, it's full of them."

Murder Ballads would have been a more serious, even spiritual affair had Cave made the record when the idea first came to him - more than ten years ago, while he was working on his 1985 album The Firstborn is Dead. He'd written an eerie, chant-like song of revenge called Crow Jane and envisioned what he describes as "a greatest-hits record, but it was only going to be murder songs. I'd write a few new ones, throw some old ones on as well." Grinning, he says, "Even back then there enough murder songs for an album."

But by the time he started writing and recording in earnest (O'Malley's Bar was conceived during the mixing sessions for the 1993 album Live Seeds; he came up with Song of Joy while working on 1994's Let Love In), Cave's "attachment to the subject" as he wryly puts it, had changed. "I ceased to be interested in murder as a way of finding out about the way human beings are. I'd exhausted interest in murder as a metaphor for things. Consequently this album is very lighthearted."

Well, that's one way to describe the X-rated, Iceberg Slim-meets-Sam Peckinpah bloodletting in Stagger Lee. "It's the kind of song where you try and outdo all the versions that came before," Cave says, shrugging. "I was just reading this book edited by the poet W.H. Auden, a collection of light verse. And he had a great version of Stagger Lee in there; it was a real surprise to see him get into that. He had Stagger Lee going to Hell and fighting with the Devil and winning, which shows Stagger Lee really is a bad motherfucker."

Cave was a pretty bad motherfucker himself during the 1980s, maintaining a hard-core appetite for heroin that was almost as legendary as his mad-dog stage performances with The Birthday Party (like the time he allegedly yanked a syringe from his arm while riding a London subway train and used it to write a letter in his own blood). By 1989, Cave had kicked his drug habit and channeled his mordant energies into the blues-noir drama and backwoods art-songs of his early solo records, as well as a kinetic novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, in which he freely indulged in his powers of graphic allegory.

When Cave wrote the book's pivotal murder scene, he explains, "I wrote it many many times, in many different ways. [The main character, a deformed mute named Euchrid Eucrow] kills the little girl in the same way, but it was always different in the way I wrote it. After a while, I had to stop and decide on one way to say it." In much the same spirit, Cave recently overhauled O'Malley's Bar for a special radio performance in Manchester, England, writing 20 new verses for the song on the train ride from London. "New things happen, new people get killed," he notes cheerfully. "I found it very easy to write."

But what if Cave had recorded an album of, say, rape ballads? Would we be so entertained by his colorful metaphors and raw dialogue? Or does Cave recognize lines of morality and propriety that even he is not prepared to cross?

"That's a difficult one, really," he concedes after a long, thoughtful pause. "On one hand, that's a very tempting record to make. On the other hand, I wouldn't make a record like that because I don't actually have those feelings. There are times when I feel I can go and murder somebody. Definitely. But I've never felt that I could rape a woman."

Nevertheless, he adds quickly, "it irritates me more than anything that my music or creative ideas should be put through some filter of political correctness. I find that offensive and fascistic. I believe that I sit down and write as honestly as I can. It's not easy for me to write a mysoginistic song. There's quite a lot of pain involved in doing that."

Contrary to the image often projected by his work, Nicholas Edward Cave - born September 1957 in the small town of Warracknabeal, in Victoria, Australia - was raised neither by wolves nor psychotic white trash. His father was a mathematics and literature teacher; his mother was a librarian. Cave says that when he was a teenager, his father read him the first chapter of Vladimir Nobokov's Lolita and told him, "Look, this is what literature is all about." On another occasion, Cave remembers, "he read me the murder scene out of Crime and Punishment. He said, 'Loo, if you're going to read this other trash, here's a murder scene that's beautifully written.' And both of those books are to this day two of my absolute favorites."

Cave - who currently lives in London and has a 5-year-old son of his own, Luke (Cave and his wife Viviane, are seperated) - is already at work on songs for a new album: love songs, he says with a straight face. "And they're great love songs," Cave boasts. "My favorite songs to write are when I'm in love or when I've fallen in love, which I have recently.

"I don't think I could ever write a straight love song in the sense that it's truly optimistic," he continues, "because I don't have that relationship with love. I'm always conscious of the way it's going to end from early on, from the tiny cracks that appear. There's always that feeling running through my love songs."

But compared with Murder Ballads, Cave insists, the new album will "really be beautiful. Very personal."

So, no one gets killed?

There's a pause, then a smile.

"Not yet."


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