|Person-Elle: Nick and Noah  Elle Magazine|
|Sunday, 13 August 2006|
A musician who dabbles in acting and an actor who dabbles in music. What would happen if Nick Cave met Noah Taylor? With help from Qantas, two Australian legends from opposite ends of the same generation come face to face. Ruth Hessey narrates the plot.
About 12 months ago, the young movie star had had enough of being interviewed. He's just made two films, the soon to be released Secrets (with Dannii Minogue) and Nostradamus Kid (with Miranda Otto), and the publicity machine was after him.
"I don't mind talking to you," he said in that soft, earnest way. "I just think it's really unhealthy, all these people following me around and scribbling down everything I say." He had a point.
So we looked at Noah Taylor the myth (yes, at 22, he's already surrounded by one) and realised there was one way we could make it more interesting for him.
Noah does not live in a dark cubby full of spiders. Pale and spindly he may be but his reputation as a cute cockroach with a passion for dark subjects (coupled with an odd habit of retiring from acting every second day) has been partly fueled by an uncanny resemblance to another Australian middle class, Nick Cave. It's a resemblance Noah himself (being more a fan of Lou Reed than Saint Nick) has done little to promote.
"It's other people's ideas about some sort of nonexistent cosmic bond that we're s'posed to have," Noah pointed out. "Total strangers have been coming up to me for years saying 'You're trying to be like Nick Cave', while I'm buying a sandwich!" Like a lot of the attention he's received since he shot to international prominence at the tender age of 14 in The Year My Voice Broke, these jibes were something he learned to shrug off.
Cosmically enough, Nick was claiming our attention at this time to. He'd written a critically acclaimed novel and he was about to release yet another remarkable album with the Bad Seeds; he'd made an appearance in the new film Johnny Suede; he'd retired from Berlin, was living in Brazil and, with his Brazilian girlfriend, had produced a baby Cave.
The charismatic junkie incarnate for a whole generation had survived the batterings of excess. Far from dying or subsiding in the mire of his own murk, this Wilde-ish icon of late twentieth-century decadence was maturing into a whole new era of creative output with his IQ intact.
What would happened, we wondered, if Noah met his doppelgänger?
"All I can say," said Noah after the escapade, "is that it was interesting but I didn't expect or want anything."
There was a girl crying in the international airport near Gate 25 when Noah Taylor arrived. He was traveling light. Just a tiny green airlines bag. She fell over her suitcase, stumbled on her shoelaces, and hurriedly wiped her face. A frown of concern crinkled his forehead. He helped her to her feet. You don't have to explain tears to a sensitive soul like Noah. He has a philosophy about making a fool of oneself in public. "I do it all the time," he said comfortingly. "I haven't been able to go out to dinner since I was 14 without knocking over the wine."
Flying Business Class (apparently, Qantas is a fan of both Noah Taylor and Nick Cave) made the take-off easy. "I never want to get so jaded I can't enjoy this sort of thing," Noah said, as the sun set spectacularly outside our window and the steward poured champagne. He lent me Lou Reed's Magic And Loss. I gave him half my sleeping pills. We went down the back and puffed on Camel non-filters. He was in love. I was out of it. We were on our way to meet Nick Cave.
Somewhere over darkest Asia, Noah, lost in thought in a corner of his lounge-like seat, mused that the endless comparisons between him and Cave "could have something to do with the fact that neither one of us has a chin."
Dublin, Ireland. God's own country. In this grey-blue town of churches and U2, where a band can be heard practicing above every street corner and IRA graffiti blooms as thick as spring tulips on ancient stone walls, Nick Cave was in town to kick off a Europe-wide tour.
On Irish TV, the abortion debate raged but inside the pub in Blooms Hotel, merry Celts licked the cream from their glasses of stout. The Bad Seeds smouldered in a dark corner like so many half-smoked elves in Tolkien's hall of the mountain king. Looking preoccupied and suitably unkept, Nick Cave lolled, Smaug-like, over a Guinness. There was not a goth or a groupie in sight. Having overcome the slightly irksome feeling of someone who'd won a lucky dip-and-dinner with Nick Cave, Noah was now quite chirpy.
Neither smoothie crooner nor demented punk, the thirtysomething Cave is a powerful drawcard, even after 13 years on the road. If a lot of the music he made in Melbourne with The Birthday Party was "rubbish", as he called it, there is no arguing the band's impact once they left Australia. They say the devil himself is a gentleman, and the same amused aura of dark majesty surrounds Cave and his Seeds. Where The Good Son wallowed in lush melancholy (seducing a new audience which brought Cave to the brink of mainstream success), the new material from Henry's Dream (a thoroughly uncompromising album) thrashes at heartstrings that will not break.
For the Irish, they play barely any old material. Cave rocks up and down like a religious fanatic, as if pleading with himself, or some internal demon, to come out. The silhouette of Bono hovers briefly at the back of the hall upstairs. When it's all over, the crowd unleashes fervent applause.
Dublin on a Saturday night is like a film set for some forlorn, unfinished film. As Dubliners spill into the wet street, the smallness of the town and the hugeness of grim human toil seems particularly suited to this visit from The Bad Seeds.
The band are off to a local nightclub where Bono usually holds court but Noah's had enough for one evening. To this day Noah Taylor retains the horror of Friday and Saturday nights. "I can't pinpoint why, but every time you hear from someone in Melbourne, they've murdered someone or killed themselves," he mutters, shaking his head. "It's just a part of youth, like surfing. A kind of bloody initiation. Friday and Saturday nights represent winding up in a hospital to me."
Not that Noah grew up in a particularly roughneck quarter. He was, like many a middle-class Melbourne boy, sampling the city's darker wares. Like Ben Mendelsohn. Like Michael Hutchance. Like Nick Cave.
"Maybe it's the grey skies," he ponders. "Maybe it's just that people are more romantic there. It's miserable weather so there's more living in fantasy land. I think that's where the violence stems from. People just lose their sense of reality. Like 'I'm not just a plumber in Frankston. I'm a serial killer.'"
Having "escaped", as he says with a grin, to the brighter traps of Sydney, he is now happily staying at home most nights to be with his girlfriend. "I just hate going out, even though I worry it must be boring for her." He is no longer fascinated by gruesome murder stories or people like Charles Manson. "I used to lap them up to store and analyze. But I physically can't take any more. They make me feel sick.
Our plane is held up while Cave skulls a Guinness at the airport bar. On board, he flicks through a book on serial killers like other passengers skim the duty-free brochure. Asked why this stuff fascinates him, he snaps that it doesn't and closes the book. Fair comment. Having made it, he immediately reopens the book.
Mid-flight, he and Noah swap heroes. They're both fans of Jim Thompson and his cult exposé of male psychosis, The Killer Inside Me. Nick also loves Kylie Minogue.
"I'd like to do a song with her," he drawls. "Something sad and aching and long and slow." He says it's her indestructible innocence that makes him a fan.
We arrive in London and catch a cab to the hotel. Blakes Hotel is part Greenaway film set, part Grimm fairytale. Mysterious and elegant, its subdued interior lulls Cave into an unexpected state of obeisance. We decide to retire to my boudoir for the final analysis.
The Final Scene
There he is - Melbourne's most famous purveyor of his own private hell, stretched out on a four-poster bed swathed in gold and black silk taffeta, sipping beer, chain-smoking cigarettes and suffering alternating fits of intense weariness and deep thought. His mood swings are like his sense of humour, flaring in lugubious fits and starts.
The gold pillows are rumpled. Noah is curled up at his side. In the shadows of the four-poster, they certainly look like a negative and a positive of the same id. Compared to Nick, who's eminence has a grimmer underbelly, Noah has a kittenish grace.
We listen as the priestly echo of Nick Cave's voice, like the heavy rain, fills the room. Words, he tells us, are the most important aspect of his work. "I really feel I do have the ability to change people by writing them. Certain songs, which I don't really care to name, have literally changed my life. I understand the power."
Despite his present happiness ("Having a baby is much easier that I thought it would be"), Cave has the aura of a haunted man. "I do feel responsible for some terrible things that have happened. That sort of thing doesn't go away. You have to live with your guilt."
Then he shrugs. "I don't want to get too morbid about it really," he says. "I dwell on that sort of stuff because it's easier for me to write about, that's all. Who needs to write about happiness?"
We wouldn't recognize him if he did. But conversation turns to subjects far from the pessimistic and terminally adolescent ravings of a cutthroat rock'n'roller. He now, for example, proclaims himself "pro-family".
"I don't think my work is anti-family. I feel I have a very moral point of view," he says. "I live in a country like Brazil, where family is very strong. Even though Brazil is a very fucked-up country, politically and economically, the thing that makes Brazilian people so much more spirited and so much more alive in a way is their strong sense of family."
"Everyone's desperate for that family life thing," pipes up Noah.
Which brings us to Berlin. It is a place, recalls Cave, who spent much of the mid-Eighties on the western side of the wall, where "the adults had all gone away and left the children to go berserk. I hear it hasn't changed much."
"Berlin," whispers Noah reverently. He went there aged 18 to make a bad film, and loved it. "It's a fairytale that people go to Berlin to live this strung-out, fucked-up life."
There's a faint stirring on the Cave side of the bed. "That's why I went there," he says softly. "In the first week, I met 15 or 20 people who became really good friends. People who were all completely crazy. They never slept! Bars open 24 hours round the clock. It was a constant party but a lot of creative stuff came out of it. It was a really amazing period of my life."
So why did he leave? The is another long pause during which Cave does not mention heroin addiction, detoxification or various other painful milestones.
"I just had to leave," he says finally, sighing heavily. "I had other things to do." He left Melbourne. He left London. He left Berlin. When punk died, he didn't. He went on to pen a novel. And The Ass Saw The Angel, and a collection of poetry, King Ink. He has also appeared in films as diverse as Ghosts Of The Civil Dead, Wings of Desire, and the imminent Johnny Suede, in which he plays a hard-boiled spiv with two story silver hair.
This role however, inspired so much embarrassment in him that he has no further plans for acting engagements. "I'm still trying to get over it," he says, looking uncomfortable. "I'm not an actor really. You have to really apply yourself and I don't have the time."
"But acting is straight-out prostitution," says Noah passionately. "At least you have some control in music, but in acting, basically you're paid to sign over your body and mind to someone else's ideas."
"I would have thought it was similar to singing in a way," responds Cave, looking at his doppelgänger sympathetically. "It's a real pain in the arse, but I'd imagine when you're totally involved, it must be pretty exciting."
"That's a rare thing," Noah mumbles.
There is a commotion at the door. Rayner, Nick's manager, has returned to round up his charge. He comes bounding into the room and the fragile spell is broken. Nick and Noah shake hands. There's been some talk of them doing a film together for a couple of years. Not a bad idea, from whosever side you look at it.
But Cave has one last parting shot: "Next time you do something like this, how about getting me together with Kylie Minogue. In Fiji. Can you do that?"
Special thanks to Emile St. Claire for the article and the photos.