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Blissed Out: The Raptures Of Rock [1988] by Simon Reynolds Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

This essay/interview was taken from the book "Blissed Out: The Raptures Of Rock" by Simon Reynolds (Serpent's Tail, 1990). The interview was conducted in 1988.

It can be a bit too earnest and academic (in another chapter, on Sonic Youth, Reynolds applies the theories of Roland Barthes to the music of My Bloody Valentine- gulp!), and occasionally it covers familiar ground.

Nevertheless, I think it's very illuminating, and furthermore, it proves that Nick Cave and his work can quite easily absorb and reward academic analysis.


Discipline and Punish

Nick Cave looks the part. Deep gashes of black under the eyes, skin the colour of ashes, a slight wobbliness to his movements. His speech is fastidious, precise in a way that would seem pompous if he were at all ebullient; but with his small, grave voice- sometimes withering, always withered- the impression is of a wary distrust of words and the way they can be misconstrued. But he's much more forthcoming than in an earlier, abortive encounter. Almost affable.

Pardon the ignorance, but what exactly is The Mercy Seat?

"It's the throne of God, in the Bible, where he sits and throws his lightning bolts and so forth. But it's also about this guy sitting on Death Row, waiting to be electrocuted or whatever. It's juxtaposing those two things. A person in his final days, thinking about good and evil and all the usual fare."

So the fallibility and the arogance of human justice is something that obsesses you?

"It's something that interests me a lot. My social conscience is fairly limited in a lot of ways; there's not much I'm angry about that doesn't affect me quite directly. But the prison system- not particularly capital punishment- but the penal system as it is, and the whole apparatus of judgement, people deciding on other people's fates...that does irritate, and upset me quite a lot."

Is that why you got involved in the film about prison life, Ghosts of the Civil Dead?

"It's a two-way thing: I had those feelings long before I wrote the drafts for the script, but the process of writing and research inflamed them. It should be clear to anybody that the basic idea behind the prison system is corrupt and unjust, but the more I worked on the film, the more I understood how extreme the injustice was. This particular film has quite a strong political statement to make, which is something I'm not really known for.

"I was involved in writing the first two drafts of the film, but by the sixth draft there weren't that many of my ideas left. I also had a small part: I play a kind of known provocateur, who is brought into the prison- one of the new hi-tech ones- in order to disrupt the equilibrium. He's a psychotic with some kind of death wish...spends his whole time screaming abuse.

"What angers me about the system goes beyond the unreliability of "proof"... it's that the way criminals are dealt with has nothing to do with rehabilitation and readjusting people who've stepped outside society's norms. The same goes for mental institutions and so forth. But it's also the very idea of someone being judged "criminal" or "insane" because they're unable to fit into what a basically corrupt society considers "social" or "sociable"".

So you take issue both with the very idea of the "the normal" and "normalisation", and with the fact that the authorities don't even bother to fulfill their professed project of "rehabilitation"?

"Yeah, something like that. I did a lot of homework when I started working on the script. The initial plan was to use the prison world to create a certain kind of ready-made atmosphere. But over the eight drafts, what emerged was a particular vision of the whole penal system as almost a plot by the higher powers to perpetuate the whole system of crime, keep it rolling, keep criminals on the streets..."

In order to terrify the population into accepting the existence of the police. All this reminds me of the ideas of Michel Foucault. He looked back to an era (pre-industrialism) before the things we consider "natural"- prisons, asylums, hospitals- had been devised, in order to trace the "genealogy" of pseudo-sciences like penology, criminology, psychiatry and sexology. What he discovered is that these "disciplines" were not really about uncovering truth for its own sake; the "knowledge" they generated was inseparable from and instrumental in "techniques of domination". Later, he shifted his focus from social hygiene (segregation /surveillance /normalization) to study mental hygiene: the ways in which each individual is involved in self-policing. We define ourselves as "normal" by repressing our own capacity for violence or the visionary- just as we suppress and marginalize those people in the body politic who've gone over limits.

Looking back, it's clear that Cave has always been obsessed with this latent other within each individual, that can be catalysed by an extreme predicament. See how he describes his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel:

"It's set in a small valley in a remote region somewhere in the world. A sugarcane-growing valley. It's the story of the people who live there. The fascination of these closed communities and hemmed-in lives, that recur in my work, is that they breed a certain ignorance, can be the breeding ground for very extreme, absurd emotional releases."

In Cave's work, most of the characters are in a sense prisoners- of an obsession, or a claustrophobic environment. But maybe this sounds glib when set against the specific and extreme misery of imprisonment.

"I've been writing songs about prison ever since I started writing songs. But I have a less romantic conception than when I started. The film is in two sections- the population section and the maximum security section. When the film-makers were in America, going from penitentiary to penitentiary, looking in libraries, interviewing people, they stumbled on this amazing story about Marin.

"Over six months, the inmates were subjected to these totally unfair changes of routine, from small things like not getting coffee one day, to next day having their cells raided and all their possessions confiscated. The whole balance between guards and inmates was totally disrupted. The convicts became more and more upset, the guards were afraid, but they kept getting orders from above telling them to maintain these random violations of the equilibrium.

"Until eventually it broke- and a prisoner stabbed two guards to death. This was leaked to the media, who began to clamour for stricter control. Marin was put onto immediate lockdown- which is where no one is allowed out of their cell and all privileges are removed. Twenty-one months later it was still in lockdown.

"The point is that two guards were sacrificed by the authorities in order to achieve this control situation. That's the kind of system you're dealing with.

"The Mercy Seat is about this person in solitary confinement, becoming more sensitive to inanimate objects, and as he sits thinking about human and Divine Justice, finding himself judging these things as Good or Evil."

Some say that The Mercy Seat is the best thing Cave has done for five years, since Mutiny in Heaven. I wouldn't go this far (that would be to devalue all the peaks in the interim)- but the single is stupendous. It's a gigantic, near illegible swirl-surge, a horizontal, disciplined avalanche. With its maddened strings, echo-chamber vocal and the odd filigree of lonesome country whistling, it is vaguely suggestive of the sixties pop-melodrama of Wichita Lineman or Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart. But a sense of the epic driven to such histrionic pitch that it verges on Velvet's white noise and viola hysteria.

"Dignity" is not a word that figures in my lexicon of praise (too redolent of the prattle of soulboys) but with Cave's work since Kicking Against the Pricks, it's unavoidable. A ruined dignity, the courage of someone staring into the abyss with "nothing left to lose".

Here it's the condemned man waiting to "go shuffling out of life/just to hide in death a while". Eventually, the song becomes a real-time simulation of a locked groove, an out of control roller-coaster of dread but also of resilience: "And the Mercy Seat is waiting/And I think my head is burning/And in a way I'm yearning/To be done with all this measuring of proof/An eye for an eye /And a tooth for a tooth/And anyway I told the truth/And I'm not afraid to die." Over and over and over, 'til you think your cranium is set to bust.

From Her To Eternity
Nick Cave surfaced at a time when post-punk's handle on the workings of desire was diagrammatic and programmatic. Punk had bequeathed the idea that demystification was the route to enlightenment. "Personal politics" was the buzzword: the acknowledgment of the "dark side" was always grounded in progressive humanism, the belief that what was twisted could be straightened out, that the shadows could be banished by the spotlight of analysis. The idea was that through deconditioning, unblocking, a ventilation of the soul ("airing your problems"), it was possible to achieve some kind of frank and freeflowing exchange.

Against this view of love as contract, Cave, in The Birthday Party, was almost alone in reinvoking love as malady, monologue, abject dependence, whose ultimate expression could only be violence: the recurrent theme of girl-murder, or at the opposite pole of the paroxysm of desire in Zoo Music Girl, "Oh! God! Please let me die beneath her fists!" Cave was the first writer, in a post-punk climate of positivism, to start using Biblical imagery (sin, retribution, curses, bad seed, revenge)...

"Perhaps I'm kind of emotionally retarded...but basically I've just written about things how I've felt about them, myself, emotionally. Things like revenge, which you talk about as almost an Old Testament feeling, I see as completely now. It's just one of those things this society has repressed, along with any other strong or extreme outburst of emotion. I think there's a certain numbness in the world today...that accepts certain kinds of violence, but is against other kinds of violence."

So you have a kind of ethics of violence? Certain kinds of violence- the crime of passion- have a kind of aesthetic integrity?

"That's one way of putting it...There's something more noble in revenge, than in...sadism, or violence through greed. Maybe there's something more aesthetically pleasing about it, I don't know...I just find those subjects the easiest to deal with: on the one hand, they're the most tangible feelings I have to pull out of myself; on the other, they make me want to make a stronger statement when I ultimately do that.

"I don't deny any feelings of happiness just because I don't write about them. For me, there's just something more powerful in Man's ultimate punishments- whether they're on a humanist level or a more mystical level- than in his ultimate rewards. The rewards of happiness and contentment and security, I see as mostly drawn out of a routine of things. And they have no aesthetic interest for me, or much lasting value.

"But then again, my favourite song in the world is Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. If any song really chokes me up, it's that one. If there's a song that I would like to do, but would never attempt because I wouldn't know how to begin, that's the one. If I could produce the same effect on other people as Louis Armstrong does with that song, then I'd be really happy. But there's something so unintentionally tragic about that song. Although I'm sure that has a lot to do with the way I listen, Louis Armstrong being this all-time winner and happy guy."

Do you resent the arbitrary power that beautiful people have? Something shallow, unearned, but capable of putting you in thrall. Revenge would seem to originate in this feeling of powerlessness.

"You're asking me if I'm some sort of embittered, wounded animal, who only wants to reach out and break things because he can't be happy or possess them?"

No, more generally than that: the idea of beauty as terrorism. Of possession as the delusion we all run aground on. It seems like there's a negativity at the heart of romantic love, because love is nothing if not the always already doomed fantasy of possession. Doomed because of the flux (growth or decay) that is the loved one. You were talking about life's punishments just now, and maybe the fact that love is doomed from the off is one of them.

"There's lots of different angles you can look at things from. I accept all that. Although I don't think it's impossible that it can't be the other way, that two people can't grow toward each other. I don't particularly believe all love is doomed. But I guess, one is usually kinda suffering from some aborted love affair or association, rather than being a the peak of one. I think it's fairly obvious that a lot more suffering goes on in the name of love than the little happiness you can squeeze out of it. But I wouldn't like to dwell on it. Perhaps you could lighten up a bit."

Condescendingly, like an agony aunt or something, he adds: "There are plenty more fish in the sea."

The Singer
Since the death of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave has steadily made a transition from exhibitionist, incendiary live performer to something more stately and, yes, dignified. The fireball has become an ember. Kicking Against the Pricks, an album of cover versions, marked the key shift from poet visionary of sex-and-death to interpretive balladeer, from torched singer to a croon the colour of cinders, from Dionysiac excess to a ruined classicism.

And on Your Funeral... My Trial, Cave and the Bad Seeds were staging their own dilapidated equivalents to By the Time I get To Phoenix and Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart, in the gently obliterating, slowly gathering, morose grandeur of Sad Waters and Stranger Than Kindness. Cave has influenced other kindred spirits to leave behind self-immolation in favour of The Song.

When did he start getting into what he calls "entertainment music, although some might call it corn"?

"I've just found myself usually more affected by the cliches in pop, in art, in life, than I have by the..."

Wilful difference?

"Yeah. I find that wilfulness in itself is enough to make me turn away from something. When people are attempting to be different for the sake of it, I find it incredibly irritating."

Do you have different influences now than when you started?

"I think I've been through being influenced by people. I don't think that could happen to me now, in the way that it did in my formative years. My ideas are self-generating now, they spring from what I've done before. It's all very inward-looking, and a lot of the time I find myself- it may sound unforgiveable- ignorant of what's going on outside me and the influences that are going around. I don't think I'm fully formed or ever will be, but my basic creative journey is now self-perpetuating."

But musically at least, you've moved from Stooges-meets-Beefheart conflagration to something more classically structured: the songs are like the charred and gutted husks of magnificent pop architecture. And figures like Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Tim Rose have become important to you...

"But not as a matter of influence as such. I only look towards someone like Dylan because I see the things that have happened in his career and the conclusions he's come to and the way he's responded to outside forces, the audience, the press...and I recognize a similarity to how I feel in my career.

I have a vague inkling of why Dylan has progressed the way he has, which I don't have about other people. The particular songs of his which affect me have helped me to understand what I ultimately want to make of my music, and what I'm failing to make of my music. What I've found to be the most inspiring of his work have been the songs which are ultimately almost meaningless in their simplicity."

"Take Nashville Skyline. I found the fact that he made that record much more affecting than, say, Highway 61 Revisited. Nashville Skyline was one of the albums he put out after his motorcycle accident, from which the critics concluded that he must have somehow injured his brain...

All the complexities of his lyrics were ironed out...He made some very basic country records. It's these songs, or albums like Slow Train Coming, which affected me more than Blonde On Blonde. The simplicity of the statement, and the bravery...in a way, it requires more courage than making something more 'experimental'."

So you feel the same enlightenment that happened to Dylan has also befallen you? You no longer want to be marginal or difficult?

"I am still waiting for what happened to Dylan to happen to me. I'd be a lot happier if I could disentangle myself from what I've already done and create songs from a completely fresh perspective."

The Bad Seed
When did you first feel different or destined? At school? Later?

"I assumed everybody felt they were different from anybody else...it would be a pretty sad individual who didn't feel that they were unique."

But such an individual usually defines him or herself against a body of people who are meant to be homogeneous and standard-issue.

"I didn't have any great coming out. Perhaps my basic thoughts were externalized by reading Crime and Punishment by Dostoievsky, and realizing that I had a basic Napoleonic complex. That was quite a revelation in those years of juvenilia. That book is all about the idea that the world is divided into the ordinary and the extraordinary, and that the extraordinary shouldn't have to live by the dictates of the mediocre majority. As an adolescent, this made sense to me."

Do you think everybody has the potential to be extraordinary, if pushed over a limit?

"No, I don't, actually. I think everybody probably does feel they do. But I think they're probably deluded. I don't believe that we're all born equal, as lumps of dough that are later shaped by our peers and parents and so forth...I believe in innate inequality."

Did you have an unusual childhood? Was there something to colour your worldview with its tragic perspective?

"I'm sure there was...but I'm not about to start psychoanalysing myself..."

You see it as a bogus science?

"Yeah. Anyway, rather than attributing it to my childhood, I prefer to believe that I was born into the world with greater or lesser faculties than other people and that I can take full responsibility for them. I wouldn't put it down to the way I was manipulated as a child."

Doesn't that mean you have even less responsibility? Wouldn't that make you even angrier with the world?

"I think people get even angrier if they think about this precise thing that was done in their so-called formative years that made them the way they are. I just feel that I can take credit, or blame, for what I do or have done. That it came from within me, not from without.

"I'd rather see what makes me different as something almost congenital. And I have these inklings that what you commit or endure in this world, relates to some kind of justice or balance. Maybe if you get a bad deal in this world, it is because of something you did, or were, in a previous life. Which is why I don't feel sorry for the poor."

Cave's departure from progressive humanism, with its belief in individual and social transformation, is so extreme that his worldview verges on the Mediaeval: the language of curses, bad seed, the worm in the bud. The world is a vale of tears, a giant ball of dung. Even more than Morrisey and his bad memories, Cave's vision is the antithesis of the idea of pop as a remaking of yourself. For Cave, the sole possibility for heroism is in fatalism, a stoic dignity in the face of your plight, the blight that is your negative birthright.
 

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