From Her to Maturity

Melody Maker, May 1997

Interview by Jennifer Nine
Typed by Daniela

Murder, misery, misoginy and malevolence - that's what NICK CAVE is made of, right? Well, not any more. In Paris we find King Ink in a mellow mood, atoning for his past sins and happily facing the future as a 40-something.

All they wanted was the usual holiday snap of hell. But there was a human being standing in the way.

Let me explain. We are in the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris, standing in front of the sculptor's massive, slate-black masterpiece, The Gates Of Hell. Nick Cave, rail-thin and besuited, bounds up the steps of its platform until he's looming right up against those bleak, twisted portals that point to some human-forged abyss of godless night.

Knowing what I used to think I knew about Nick Cave, it's the perfect photo opportunity. Though only if you're unaware of The Boatman's Call, which is both the most astonishingly, fearlessly gentle record of his long and brilliant career and the most considered refutation of elements of his own back catalogue by any artist I can think of. But if you did consider only that seductively savage back catalogue, you'd figure there'd be no songwriter more suitable to be captured on film in front of an inferno: Milton's, Sartre's, the Old Testament's - take your pick.

As it happens, the Dutch tour group behind us, clutching their cameras and craning over Nick's angular shoulders, give no indication they know who he is. So the carpe diem moment passes unseized.

Anyway, this isn't the sculpture Nick wanted to show me.

"It's up this way", he says.

And then, as though it were the most plausible thing in the world, Nick Cave takes my hand. My hand, not knowing quite what to do, scrabbles back. And we go up the stairs into the museum, creaking on our 30-something knees as children clatter around us, until we reach a cabinet in a corner.

Nick crouches almost double to show me what's inside.

A small, seemingly unfinished pietà in rough plaster, in which an agonised, recognisably human Christ on a brutally truncated cross is enveloped by the rounded, pitying form of a naked Mary Magdalene.

"That's my next album", says Nick simply.

I think this is what's known in the trade as A Clue.

Though it's not the first clue, in fact, or even the 12th. That honour goes to the dozen rich, warm and meditative songs on The Boatman's Call. It's still Nick Cave - that velvet baritone, those effortlessly articulate lyrics, the elegant accompaniment of the gifted Bad Seeds. But it's not a Nick Cave record like any other. Held up against the previous output of a man known, in both The Birthday Party and now, for mayhem-filled performances and a lexicography of gleeful savagery, it's quieter, more melodic, more vulnerable. More human. You might even say, it occurs to me as we dawdle over tea in the museum's outdoor cafe, that it's not even the work of the same man.

You'd be hard pressed to deny the visceral beauty and musical influence of Nick Cave's recorded output. At the same time, you'd be hard pressed not to notice that this brilliance has frequently been a vehicle for some of the cruellest, and most seemingly misogynist, scenarios in music. This is, after all, a man whose last album Murder Ballads, all rollicking penny-dreadful carnivals of violence, led less respectful critics to ask why the previous eight albums didn't bear the same name. Condemning Nick Cave for the frequency with which women get stabbed in his songs mightn't be the most cogent of critiques, but it's one I haven't been able to talk myself out of so far. And, given that Nick claims to remember everything ever written about him in the English music press good or (especially) bad, he probably knows it too.

And, as I'm humbled to realise, I'm greeted with a generosity and graciousness rare in any man or artist, let alone Saint Nick. We drink the tea he offers to pay for. We make little jokes and laugh at each others'.

Nick tells me, "There's a hole in my life called football, a football-shaped hole," and we giggle like truants escaping from Lad World. He smiles, sadly or maybe just tiredly; he tells me he's sober now but almost winces at the thought that I might ask a supplementary question. So I don't.

He pats a passing wayward child - about the age of his six year old son Luke - but jokes that having a child has made him more irritated by other children, rather than less, even if he has "infinite patience" for his own. And then he tells me astonishing things.

"No, I never thought I'd be able to carry an album on vocal strength", he confirms of the sparse settings of The Boatman's Call.

"I've always lived with the fact that I can't sing, but in fact it's not actually true. It's just that often I'd not been in any condition to sing. And I guess with this record and with these shows, it requires a certain restraint and sobriety to pull it off. It just doesn't work any other way."

Some people will always think a loud noise is more exciting than a yearning, vulnerable one.

"Well, I've always been of that school", he admits. "I've done that to protect myself, I think, over the years. Now I wonder what I was trying to protect myself from. There was an incredible amount of bluster, and a way of using words in order to hide behind them, to obscure what I was actually saying. To use characters, and storytelling this was all a form of protection. It was a world I'd invented which I could escape into; my own little mythological world full of stock characters and a certain type of woman, with certain personalities and pursuits. And I think that this particular record is stepping out of that; just making a record about the way things are and have been over the last couple of years. Without hiding behind metaphor."

He pauses and looks straight back at me. "It's quite difficult to talk about it. I feel quite exposed about it. But it's kind of a relief as well..."

In the past, some of what you've written has seemed incredibly contemptuous of women, I say carefully. There's no hesitation in his reply.

"Well, I feel that... I feel bad about that, actually. I feel that I've misrepresented women in my songs and I've actually misrepresented the way I feel about them. I invented a type of woman that I used artistically in order to dump all my ill feelings and suspicions on. And that's actually not the way I feel about them."

So, what would you take back?

"You can't take back what... no", he shakes his head. "But I do feel the need to apologise about some of it. There was deliberate perversity and vindictiveness in a lot of what I wrote. I wrote a lot of stuff for the wrong reasons, I think, in order to hurt people. Used the fact that I could make records, so that other people could hear what I thought about particular people."

It's a great platform.

"Yeah", he nods. "You can get up there and... and they just have to be the object of your vindictiveness; quietly sit there and take it."

Which is great for boys, I say doubtfully.

"Well, a lot of women responded to it, strangely, very positively," Nick counters. "Or maybe not positively," he smiles a little. "But they were attracted to it in some way."

Women write letters to serial killers, too.

"Yeah," says Nick, nodding. "Yeah, that's right."

Has that platform ever been used on you?

"Oh yes," he nods. "And we're playing a song live now which is some sort of, uh, penance for me - Stranger Than Kindness - which is a song [ex-girlfriend and Mute artist] Anita Lane wrote about me. Seems to be," he shrugs. "And it's a very pissed-off song, but very beautiful, too. So yeah, I have been the subject of those kind of songs." He pauses. "And I'm sure there's more to come, too."

He doesn't say where those might come from. It's commonly thought that the songs of failed and star-crossed relationships on The Boatman's Call which are not about Cave's ex-wife Viviane might be about a "West Country Girl" named Polly Harvey. No, I don't mention her name. No, of course he doesn't, either. You've always surrounded yourself with creative women. Have you ever felt you neglected their creativity in favour of your own?

"Yes. I guess a lot of the creative women around me suffered through the drive I had - were consumed by it, in a way. Anita, especially, is an incredibly talented person and gave a lot of ideas. Gave them to me; she was very generous. And after a while, that seemed to become her role. To give over herself to me while I just raged forward. I didn't do it deliberately," he adds. "I guess the pattern of my past relationships has been that I've met very strong women and, through the course of our relationship, have exhausted them in some way. And it's something I've had to face up to: why is this happening?"

"I'm in a fairly unusual situation now of being, um, single," he adds suddenly.

"And that, for me, is pretty much the first time since I started all this..."

He waves a hand. "So, maybe that gives me some kind of opportunity to look at what's going on." Nick stirs his tea. And begins again.

"I've painted a picture of past relationships, a pattern, but there have been newer relationships where I have invested a lot of time and interest and care, and put my whole heart into it. And then found that it availed me of nothing. And I was left with - um..." He looks away. "Well, I was left." He laughs the smallest, saddest laugh I've ever heard. "And that is a difficult lesson. That all the love you have, sometimes it just isn't enough."

So, love can't move mountains after all, I mutter.

"I believe it can," he replies. "It's just finding out a way to do it."

I assume the women these songs are about can see themselves in them. Not because you put their home addresses in, or anything...

"No, journalists put their home addresses into them," Nick laughs, a little bitterly.

Didn't it make you feel vulnerable knowing that we would?

"A lot of those songs are written specifically for a person or... began as poems to a person," he explains, delicately hovering around the word "person" like it's a haven of privacy in this most unprivate of conversations. "And then I thought, I can't just allow that to be a poem, I'd better put some music to it and stick it on a record. But they did begin as letters or poems, to a particular person, in order to... to show that person how I felt about her."

Did it work? Nick sighs almost imperceptibly.

"It worked, in its way. But all the songs are different; They're talking about different times within a relationship. I mean, it's my form of communication. I'm not very... I find it quite difficult to communicate in other ways. Or I don't feel that I'm actually getting it right. But I can sit down and write about it, and I feel I am getting it right. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, to write these songs and to record them and sing them. I don't regret it now, because I love the songs. But they are private messages to people. To a person..."

Nick Cave turns 40 this year. Though, even in the sunlight, I still think he looks like a little boy in his father's suit.

Did you ever think that age would alter things?

"I've always been terrified of burning out. I mean, I've looked at other people and seen what happened."

And you have been known to stay up late yourself.

"I have stayed up late in my life," smiles the man whose visceral performances were frequently thought to have been part of the classic more-drinks-more-chemicals superhuman rock schtick. "But I don't have that fear anymore. Not that I don't think I'm going to burn out, but it doesn't worry me so much if I do. I think I have a kind of realistic enough grip on things to know when to stop."

At 25 the idea of being a burnt-out case might seem appealing.

"It never appealed to me. The thing about being young is that you think you're the final product in evolution. You are invincible. And nothing can hurt you. And people don't count."

Ah, the solipsism of youth.

"Yeah. You can say I said that if you want," he laughs. "Though I can't even pronounce it. And that's fantastic. But I've had a kid and I understand I'm actually not the be all and end all of everything. I mean, it's something that young people quite rightly don't have to deal with and that's a great thing. But I do feel kind of more insignificant now. Though I still run to what I do, and hold it up and say 'Look, I know I've done all this stuff, but look, I also did this. I made a record.'"

Do you worry about being alone when you're old, through not having been good to the people around you?

"I haven't been that bad," he chides, gently.

Do you feel like a grown-up yet?

"I dunno," he shrugs, then laughs. "Do I appear like one? I find it very easy to come down to my son's level. That's the secret of child-rearing, and I find it particularly easy to do. I think that's something my father and other fathers had difficulty doing - to be childlike."

What about adolescence?

"Well, there's that," he grins. "I'm trying to rid myself of my adolescence, and I think I'm doing a kind of reasonable job of it now. But that took quite a while. I don't like being adolescent, I don't like adolescents. I don't really like young people, actually. I mean, I spent 40 years getting away from young people, and I'm quite happy for it. With my music, I feel I'm talking to people my own age," he says frankly. "I don't feel I'm talking to the youth of today. They may respond to it in some way, but..."

Would your 18-year-old self have agreed with your views?

"Probably not, no," he admits. "Would have been horrified. And if he was sitting here now listening to me talk, he'd probably gob on me or something. But there you go."

Are you frightened, or interested, by the way bodies decay as we get older?

"I'm kind of interested in where I'm going in that respect," he says.

"I quite like the things about me that set me apart from being young, physically. And I'm looking forward to accumulating some more," Nick Cave smiles.

"I always find the knee drops are really easy, it's just the getting up that's increasingly hard and embarrassing! I guess the idea, in a metaphoric way, is to dispense with knee dropping at a certain age. No, I still manage to sort of stand and waddle around the place," says the man who'd need another four stone to be "filled out", let alone waddle.

But some fans still want you to be that brilliant adolescent.

"I don't want to be," he says firmly. "I don't want to be what I was. I'm tired of what I was. I mean, you'll see at tonight's show; we're doing a very different sort of thing."

But perhaps people who remember your illustrious past will say, 'I liked it better when I thought he was going to beat the f*** out of the audience.' Nick shrugs, and then smiles mischievously.

"Yeah. But they've been saying that for years."

And then Nick Cave walks back past The Gates Of Hell, and out of the Rodin Museum, and into the Paris spring.


Body counts in the
Nick Cave discography
(all figures approximate)

"Ah read her diary on her sheets/
Scrutinizin' every li'l piece of
dirt" -From Her To Eternity

Murderers: Two
Murder victims: Two
Untimely deaths: Three
Voyeurs: Three

"I kick every goddamn splinter/
Into all the laughing eyes/
Of all the girls in the world"
-Train Long-Suffering

Murderers: One
Murder victims: One
Untimely deaths: Five
Divine retribution: Four
Misery: Omnipresent

"Tell me God forgivin' everything
you do/But I don't care what people
say/I'm gonna kill that woman"
-I'm Gonna Kill That Woman"

Murderers: One
Murder victims: One
Murderous rage: Two
Infidelity: Four
Bad women: Three

"Murder takes the wheel of the Cadillac/
And death climbs in the back"- Deanna

Murderers: Three
Murderesses: One
Murder victims: Four
Capital punishment: Three
Devils: Four
On the side of the angels: New Morning, Slowly goes the night

"I've seen your trick of blood, your trap of fire/
Your ancient wound, your scarlet moon/
And your jailhouse smile"- Lament

Murderers: Two
Fratricide/patricide: One
Suicide: One
Wailing and lamentation: Eight of nine tracks
On the side of the angels: Foi Na Cruz, Lucy

"Into the house with its blood-red bowels/
Where wet-lipped women with greasy fists/
Crawled the ceilings and the walls"
-Papa Won't Leave You, Henry

Murderers: Three
Murder victims: Three
Towns without pity: Six
Whorehouses: Three
She-devils: Three
Female saints: One
On the side of the angels: Straight To You, Loom Of The Land

LET LOVE IN (1994)
"I found God and all His Devils inside her"-Do You Love Me
"Darling, you're the punishment for all my former sins"-I Let Love In

Murderers: Two
Murder victims: Two
Untimely deaths: Three
Rapes: Two
Castrations: One
On the side of the angels: Sail Away

"And the last thing I heard was a muttered word/
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist"
-Where The Wild Roses Grow

Murderers: Seven
Murderesses: Three
Murder victims: 66 (includes one terrier)
Celebrity murder victim: Kylie Minogue
Celebrity murderess: Polly Harvey
On the side of the angels: Nothing at all

"And all the world's darkness can't swallow up/
A single spark/Such is my love for you" - There Is A Kingdom

Murderers: None
Murderesses: None
Murder victims: None
Broken hearts: At least two
God (Interventionist): One
On the side of humanity: Nick Cave


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