|"Murder he said"  Rolling Stone (Australia)|
|Sunday, 13 August 2006|
Tall, skinny bloke with raven coloured hair walks into a bar. He greets the barman by name, orders a drink and discreetly crosses himself. His face is well known here; the regulars hardly blink. Until he pulls out his gun.
Twelve minutes later, O'Malley's Bar is a bloodbath. The cops have the place surrounded as our hero stands alone among the entrails of his ex-neighbours, cooly holding the pistol to his head and thinking, long and hard, about dying.
"I loathe this character," Nick Cave declares with no small amount of passion. "He imagines himself to be this winged nemesis, an angel of death. In his own mind he's just trying to do what he thinks is right, but in fact he is a dribbling fool with a gun, a moral coward who doesn't have the imagination to do anything better with his life.
"As much as that is a comic song," its creator says, "I worked at getting a definite sense of outrage in regard to that particular character."
Anyone wishing to fathom the enigma of Nick Cave might begin with the disturbing contradictions at the core of O'Malley's Bar, the sprawling bloody climax of his forthcoming album Murder Ballads. A long-mooted collection of gritty, poetic narratives with the Bad Seed's distinctively chilling accompaniment, Murder Ballads is simultaneously Cave's most gruesome and hilarious record. The two concepts were at the heart of this writer's work when Quentin Tarantino was still working a video checkout, but this time their presence is so bold and their juxtaposition so perfect as to constitute "a kind of full stop", Cave says, in his 18-year career.
"I think the reason it is funny is because it is gruesome," he offers, his intensity threatening to buckle in either direction. "It is so relentlessly gruesome that it can't be taken seriously. But there is a very broad, open kind of humour in it as well. It's not all black comedy. Some things are just funny in anyone's language."
Ah yes. "Kylie Strips For Satanic Video", for instance.
When the idea was floated well over a year ago, the suggestion of a Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue duet was ready-made for tabloid consumption: unbelievable but true, equal parts titilation and outrage. GIven the two Australian-international pop icons' wildly divergent but equally cartoon-like public images, Where the Wild Roses Grow was always going to resonate well beyond its simple story of true love and murder.
"Both of us are very aware of that, but at the same time there was a great respect between us as well," Cave points out, immediately on the defensive. "I've done a video with her and I've got up and sung with her a couple of times [at UK summer festivals] and the whole thing was done with great respect. The whole idea was very pure.
"Now that it's been realised I'm sitting back and watching this very pure idea being systematically debased. I've just read The Daily Mail," he scoffs, "in which the headline was 'Kylie Strips in Satanic Video: Nick Cave, known occultist, bla bla bla'.
"It's quite good in a way," he concedes with a short laugh, "but what I'm trying to say is that the idea was very pure and very respectful." The purity of his intentions is a point Mr. Cave can't seem to stress enough. His desire to work with La Minogue dates back seven years, he says, which lends weight to an urban myth circa 1990: A friend of a friend found herself sharing a group house with Nick Cave in London. She poked into his attic bedroom one day to find it ludicrously replete with Kylie posters and paraphernalia (axe under bed optional).
"This song, even though it's a murder ballad, is dealing with a kind of obsession I had with her - on a professional level, but an obsession - which is about her beauty and her innocence, in a way," Cave confesses carefully, intent on being understood.
"Her un-cynical approach to things in the face of what I guess she goes through...There was something very much about the person she was, that she was able to maintain, in a quite honest way, this un-cynical kind of person. I really admired that. I admired her strength in a way. I'm not really articulating this very well."
Nonetheless the lush, brooding ballad was quite articulate enough to gain Kylie's immediate approval when Cave finally nailed it down and mailed it off to her late last year.
Upon their first meeting in a Melbourne recording studio, Where the Wild Roses Grow was recorded in February.
It was six months before the obsession climaxed, as the world's media reliably reported, with Nick rubbing Kylie's breasts in a video shoot in London.
"I did, yeah, I admit it," he confirms jovially. The shoot was subsequently described by the song writer as "close to a religious experience."
Kylie may be a first-time victim, but Nick Cave is no newcomer to the murder rap. Johnny Cash's homicidal Folsom Prison Blues was one of Cave's early loves, according to Ian Johnston's imminent biography The Bad Seed.
Violence has characterized the songwriter's work since his pre-Birthday Party years. Death Row was striking on the cover of the Boys Next Door's 1979 debut Door, Door, and Cave's characters were still slipping over in their own blood and vomit as recently as Jangling Jack on last year's Bad Seeds album (their eighth), Let Love In.
His extraordinary novel of 1988, And the Ass Saw the Angel, is bursting with gore of every conceivable derivation, from cannibalism to self-mutilation to torture, murder, suicide, amputation and lynching. In fact, the writer's fascination with what he calls "the language of violence" dates back to the book of Genesis itself.
"I enjoyed the Old Testament because of these wild stories, these terrible, unjust stories. I thought this concept of God was a bit of a hoot because of how much people suffered under Him," Cave smirks, tracing his endless enchantment with the Bible to the church choir at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne. "I always appreciated it, I loved the way it was written. It basically started out as just enjoying the turn of phrases that were used."
Cave describes the allure of violence similarly, in terms of the richness of the Bible's prose, not necessarily empathy with the subject. "It's to do with the language of violence, the way certain things can be written about. To me it's very exciting to write about those things, literally to choose the words. I like the idea that there's some kind of horror that exists, and you give a certain amount of information and the rest is left up to the imagination."
It's the details, Cave explains with academic fervour. The kitchen knife. The electrical tape. The sleeping bag. The circular saw in the garden shed. The handyman's head in the fountain of the mayor's residence.
"In a lot of cases the song is really simple. A guy walks into O'Malley's Bar and shoots everybody. He knows everybody, it's his local bar. Little things he observes, the way he is in awe of what he does, what a bullet can do a person, all that kind of stuff. That's very much what storytelling is about, for me. Those nasty little details."
Whatever its subject, it's the storyteller's art which is squarely at the heart of Murder Ballads. The dramatic tension of Where the Wild Roses Grow lies in the two characters contrasting viewpoints (not to mention inspired casting). Elsewhere it's the mystery element which makes for compulsive listening. In the ingeniously framed Song of Joy, the key to the killer's identity lurks in the pages of John Milton's Paradise Lost.
"It's quite obscure really," the author laughs apologetically, describing the six-minute Gothic horror story as the album's most "genuinely frightening, disturbing song."
"The pieces of music were deliberately simple, rhythmic things to take the story on its way and hence you get quite a lot of styles of music that we normally wouldn't play around with. The Curse of Millhaven for example. Is that a polka or something?"
Whatever it is, it gives the song an hysterical, comic flourish as a 15 year old girl gleefully recounts her crimes from the lawn of a mental institution. We are looking at a Parental Advisory sticker here, aren't we Nick?
"I bloody hope so. I've been aiming for one of them for 15 albums or something. Finally!"
Which begs the question, how does Nick Cave's sense of parental responsibility sit with his artistic impulses? In recent interviews he has described the mellowing effect that his son, Luke, has had on his world view, but his vaguely defined "certain behavioural modifications" apparently don't yet encompass his work.
"Well, he's like four, you know, " Cave senior responds, just a tad impatiently. "I wouldn't mind, to be honest, if he listened to this [album]. It's not going to change the way he is. He might question what his father is, possibly, but I think there are much worse influences over children. It's watching fucking TV constantly that makes dysfunctional people."
And perhaps more importantly, what's Kylie going to think!? The PJ Harvey duet Henry Lee is of similar traditional bent to Wild Roses, but most of Murder Ballads is low on lilting string, big on graphic gore and obscenity. The standard Stagger Lee, in particular, is presented in the most brutally X-rated of its many forms.
"Kylie's sung on another track called Death is Not the End with a cast of thousands on it", Cave says (the Dylan cover also features Shane MacGowan, Polly Harvey, Anita Lane and more). "But no, she hasn't heard the rest of it. I think she'll like Stagger Lee cause it's got a kind of groove to it."
But back to O'Malley's Bar and the bloodthirsty monster within, the moral coward with one bullet left after gunning down his neighbourhood. The man whose head is reeling with questions of mortality, free will and moral culpability. A man twisted by obsession. A man Nick Cave appears to know disturbingly well.
As much as he despises the shackles of his simplistic, "gloomy and doomy" public image, the sheer depth and passion invested in Murder Ballads is hardly likely to distance the creator from his monsters in the mind's of the public. Is there a connection?
"I would say there is," Cave says after careful consideration, "because what I do as an artist I think is a spiritual thing. It's a way of elevating my life beyond normality and tawdriness, and I think that's basically what a lot of killers do. It's a kind of spiritual act, to kill, it adds a bit of meaning, a bit of quality to their lives.
"I mean, for me, it's disgusting that people go around killing each other," he hastens to add, "but I think from that person's point of view it is something entirely different.
"People are basically good things. The fact that they can end up doing these horrific acts means there is something terribly, terribly wrong. That is a social thing."
But surely if mass murderers are evidence of a society gone wrong, so is our obsession with them?
"I truly believe that, but having said that - and they can stick this in The Daily Mail - I think there are a hell of a lot worse things than murder. This idea of the serial killer being the ultimate atrocity is bullshit. There are far worse things happening in the world and this attention that's been put on the serial killer is a distraction from the political horrors that are going on.
"But I didn't make this record as a statement about murder, or about what makes a murderer suddenly tick," Cave suddenly snaps. "It's basically just a theme I found exciting at the time - and I'm finding it increasingly less so.
"What always happens with [The Bad Seeds], once we get hold of an idea we really run with it. We kind of ran with this beyond reason, in a way. It's a monstrous thing in the end, and in my view quite unlistenable, but at the same time I guess it's kind of a nice record to have.
"It's very much a kind of full stop, this record, a sort of cleaning of the house. Unless I regress terribly over the next couple of years it's definitely that last thing of this nature that I'll do. I feel very much that I want to move on from a lot of these themes. I feel less and less in touch with them really."
Obsession(s) quelled, the road before Nick Cave is forked in every direction. The Bad Seeds won't be touring in the foreseeable future, leaving their leader free to investigate a mountain of offers "from TV stuff to doing an art exhibition to film music, acting roles, writing another book..." with adventures in rock & roll apparently low on the agenda.
"It's basically an incredibly, mind-numbingly boring idiom," is his considered appraisal. "There's this huge, massive, monstrous thing and there's certain individuals who survive in that and use the fact that they do something quite brilliant. The Bob Dylans and Leonard Cohens of the world. Van Morrison. But in general it just stinks, really."
And, miraculously, the stench of dead things has finally exhausted its allure for Nick Cave. But not in time to escape the ultimate question. "I used to wake up in a terrible panic about dying," he recalls. "I used to wake up going [death rattle, Edvard Munch face] like that. But I don't anymore.
"I think that was more to do with a kind of chemical residue in my body or something," he laughs. "Hangovers always made me feel that way. Now I just feel that if I can make as much out of this life as possible, then it's not going to be such a worry."
And as a man intimately acquainted with the holy texts, what happens to Nicholas Edward Cave after that?
"I have a general feeling that there's some kind of divinity in the world, something I really can't put my finger on, but something that prevents me from saying that you just die and it's all over and prevents me from saying that uncategorically there's no such thing as any higher level of spirituality or whatever.
"I feel there is something like that, but at the same time, I don't believe in heaven and hell," he concluded, pausing with a deadly serious sense of timing before the punchline. "I certainly hope that I'm right in that respect.