The Germination of a Bad Seed

The Biography of Nick Cave
By Ian Johnston

(Little, Brown & Company, 344 pages, $26)

by Johnny Walker

All of the great works of art, it seems to me, are the ones that have a total disregard for anything else; just a total egotistical self-indulgence.

­­Nick Cave, singer/songwriter.

I think what happened with The Birthday Party is that they were reaching the physical extremity of rock and roll, verging on death. It had happened before with Iggy Pop.

­­Evan English, filmmaker.

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Nick Cave is an extremist, a man who believes that life should be lived not in the middle but at the limits of existence, and that art should reflect the turmoil of such a life. His first band, The Boys Next Door, which eventually became The Birthday Party, probed those limits with reckless abandon, proving that while a bunch of working- class Brits led by a conniving middle-class manager (The Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren, respectively) could raise a ruckus, a gang of delinquent middle-class Aussies in free fall, determined to plumb the utmost depths of degradation, could nearly raise the dead. It is in its gripping account of the career of arguably the most important rock band of the 1980s, and the subsequent resurrection­­against all odds it seems­­of its nihilistic, audience-baiting, smacked-out lead vocalist as a respected singer/songwriter­­that Bad Seed succeeds, bringing to mind in style and substance Transformer, the recent bio of Lou Reed by Victor Bockris.

As Johnston's bio makes clear, Nick Cave has from his earliest days perceived himself as an individualist in a world comprised mainly of acquiescent sheep, leading to the outright hostility, both musical and, in Cave's case, physical, that The Birthday Party often exhibited toward its audience. The young Cave, Johnston notes, felt with some justification that the parents of his friends "felt he was a corrupting influence," and thus began to hero-worship Australian folk hero Ned Kelly, an outlaw who muttered "Such is life" moments before he was hanged in Melbourne (from whence The Birthday party would lurch forth) for various crimes. This "symbol of Australian anti-authoritarianism," of the "anarchic individualist standing beyond the law" seems to have permanently stamped itself upon the Cave psyche, leading to petty criminal behaviour, a heroin habit, and the creation of one of the wildest bands in rock history.

Johnston's well-researched account of the until now murky history of The Birthday Party is the strongest part of the book. Refreshingly, although the author never loses sight of his raison d' etre for long, other members of the band often shine forth here in their own right, perhaps aided by the fact that, as in Bockris's book, the actual subject only speaks through previously published statements, leaving others who were close to the action to fill in the gaps. Thus, the enigmatic bass player Tracy Pew ("the one male genius I've ever met" said Cave upon Pew's death in 1986), a cowboy-hatted intellectual capable of guzzling booze in (literally) staggering amounts, and the stolid multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, the son of an Anglican priest who keeps his head as all about him are losing theirs (mainly due to their copious smack ingestion), both emerge in many ways as spiritual equals to Cave within the basically democratic confines of the de facto manager-less group. Says long-time fan and mascot "Bingo": "Most bands are controlled by a manipulator, but no one had any control over The Birthday Party. They were complete nonconformists and individualists."

And of course, there was the music: a mutant amalgam of The Stooges, The New York Dolls, and the damaged psycho art-blues of Captain Beefheart (a key influence often semi-denied by the band, Johnston doesn't do enough to pin them down on this topic once and for all­­a flaw which appears throughout the book), all of this fuelled by the liberating spirit of punk. Problems arise, however, when the band arrives in London in February of 1980, and find in punk's wake not freedom and acceptance, but what Johnston depicts as a politically correct atmosphere shaded by a shallow neo-Marxist philosophy. Suddenly, the ethos of "sex drugs and rock n' roll" that The Birthday Party was ready and willing to live out to its ultimate death-limit was seen as uncool, or "rockist . . . the all-important buzz word of the period." This was the proverbial red flag being waved, and Cave and company respond with some of the grimiest, most cacophonous rock and roll ever recorded, from the all-time scaghead death-trip classic Junkyard to what both Harvey and lead guitarist Rowland S. Howard both rate as the band's musical high-water mark, The Bad Seed EP, not to mention chaotic live performances which rate with the heyday of The Stooges for sheer confrontational audience-baiting and public self-immolation.

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"Junkyard and the whole rock n' roll monster thing which we had put forth came out of control, not just to the press but also in our personal lives" recalls Roland S. Howard, as The Birthday Party finally splinter, "having reached the limits of mental and physical exhaustion." Yet, freed from the inevitable constrictions of a group situation, Cave not only doesn't disintegrate, but is able to rapidly accelerate his artistic development as a solo artist, and as the leader of the aptly named Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, all of this despite an ever-increasing heroin habit. Work and drug consumption are usually seen to be diametrically opposed, but Johnston, in a strong bit of analysis, sees them as being related, at least in Cave's world: the singer's "deep compulsion to work,' he explains, "was rooted in his fear that if he stopped he would become just another ordinary person, that his work elevated him from the ordinary to the extraordinary . . . his writing and drugs insulated him from the outside world." Perhaps the most blackly comical portrayal of this odd combination of muses is Johnston's image of a smacked-out Cave sitting on the London subway, scrawling lyrics in his notebook, using a bloody needle for a pen.

The latter half of Bad Seed charts Cave's solo progress, as he metamorphoses from the screaming banshee of The Birthday Party into a solo artist more closely aligned, in sensibility at least, with personal heroes such Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash, artists who deal with emotional extremes in slightly more traditional musical formats. High points include his blues-based sophomore solo effort The Firstborn Is Dead (unfairly maligned in the British rock press, who were at the time in he midst of one of their periodic fits of political correctness concerning Cave's "corrupt" lifestyle), with its eerie symbolic recasting of Elvis as Christ in "Tupelo," to the album of often stately cover versions, Kicking Against The Pricks, which, with songs like "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (inspired by Isaac Hayes' version), was most responsible for Cave's shedding of his Birthday Party persona.

Finally, in the latter part of the '80s, Cave attains near-mythical status as he kicks junk (though not entirely of his own free will), releases his greatest song to date, "The Mercy Seat" (from the equally inspired Tender Prey), which describes a prisoner on death row contemplating his crimes and "three systems of judgement: society's, God's and his own," and a novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel,, a Faulkneresque parable which garners generally favorable reviews despite its extremely idiosyncratic style. Still, success or no, the Ned Kelly persona thankfully remains, as Cave only barely escapes a lynching at the hands of a band of rabid Parisian feminists incensed by the portrayal of women in his lyrics. "Such is life" indeed.

The only real problem with The Bad Seed occurs late in the book, when the generally cleaned-up singer settles into a more stable lifestyle, falling in love with a Brazilian art director and fathering a son. Here, Johnston's lack of access to his subject makes for slightly tedious reading, as he is mainly forced to rely on accounts of players on the often unremarkable recording sessions for albums like Henry's Dream for material. The book also suffers from an overall lack of perspective, an unwillingness on the part of the author to try and place Cave's contributions to rock in some sort of perspective when measured against those of either the singer's peers or his heroes. Too often it seems as if Cave's career is taking place in a vacuum, no doubt in part due to his reticence to engage with a "rock scene" he really doesn't relate to. So although the definitive Cave biography is probably yet to be written, Bad Seed is still invaluable as a history of The Birthday Party, and of the ultimately triumphant first half of Cave's solo career. Only time will tell if, as Cave affiliate Chris Carr predicts at the conclusion of the book, "the best is yet to come." So far, so good.

Copyright 1996 Addicted To Noise,
the on-line rock & roll magazine,

ATN's article on Nick is located at


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