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Let there be light [2001] Telegraph Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Nick Cave has long inhabited the dark underworld of rock'n'roll but at 43 his mood has shifted. Jessamy Calkin talks to him about fame, fatherhood and fashion.

WARRACKNABEAL is a small town 180 miles north-west of Melbourne. It would probably be overlooked in the great scheme of things, apart from one significant fact: it is the birthplace of Nick Cave, singer, songwriter, author, who with his band, the Bad Seeds, has achieved enormous acclaim in the UK and heroic status in Australia. In fact, in a recent issue of the magazine Australian Style, he was awarded - along with (even more implausibly) Kylie Minogue - the title 'Australian of the Century'

ImageCave has plans for Warracknabeal. He has commissioned a statue of himself atop a rearing horse, and hopes to erect it in the town square. And not just any old statue; this will be a life-size bronze made by sculptor Corrin Johnson, the man responsible for two Christian martyrs above the main entrance to Westminster Abbey, and the man who constructed the Princess Diana Memorial.

The statue will be cast in Britain, shipped to Australia and then driven across country to Warracknabeal. The Australian director John Hillcoat is making a documentary about it: the statue's trip in a U-Haul, the attempt to get the mayor to agree to it, the unveiling, the flock of limos and the velvet suits, the disgruntled locals.There will be a plaque, of course, which will read, 'Birthplace of Nick Cave'.

Is he serious? Well, that is the question. Nick Cave likes to ride a very fine line with his humour, which is dark and convoluted and heavy with irony. He likes to provoke and to subvert the obvious. It is a principle which can be equally applied to his new look. He describes it as New Labour: a cross between Tony Blair and Tony Montana (Scarface is one of Cave's favourite films). Today he is wearing - and let's not underestimate this - a toffee-coloured cashmere checked jacket; a brown woollen tie purchased at Selfridges; an almost imperceptibly striped white cotton shirt, a pair of dingo-coloured soft suede loafers. He is also wearing a pair of jeans, and they are from Gap.

Which is ironic, considering that a few years ago Gap asked Cave to appear in one of its advertising campaigns, and he replied with a letter: 'Dear Gap. I might put on a pair of your jeans if you were to pay me a L1 billion, but even then I would have serious reservations. Signed Nick Cave.' And now he has to buy his own.

In the beginning, in Cave's wardrobe, there was a pair of leather trousers and a T-shirt saying 'Jesus'; there was a carrier bag full of flowery see-through shirts more often than not made out of his girlfriends' dresses; there was a green suit with trousers so tight that when he was strip-searched at an airport once he couldn't get them off; there were cowboy boots so pointed that the toes curled up completely, like elves' shoes.

In the late Eighties there were cardigans, white patent-leather loafers and loud checks; a few years later there was a baby-pink Take That T-shirt for the video of Stagger Lee. And running through this collection was an endless array of elegant suits and implausible ties. Cave has been described as 'the tapeworm that ate Elvis'. Gap just didn't fit into this sartorial equation.

But the main reason for this spurning of Gap is that Cave doesn't do advertisements, or allow his music to be used for them. He was not tempted by the sanitary towel manufacturer that wanted to use his song Red Right Hand for its television advertisements. If he were to lease his music out for commercial gain, he says, his muse would desert him.

'I get letters from people telling me they got married to The Ship Song,' he says, 'or that they buried their best friend to Into My Arms, and I don't want them to look at the TV and see that they buried their friend to a Cornetto ad or something. I feel some sense of responsibility about that, even though they wave enormous sums of money at you. That's where my muse puts her foot down.'

We are sitting in Cave's office in Chelsea and his muse is all around. His muse, the creative impulse, whatever you like to call it, is what separates him from his contemporaries, what elevates him to the heights of the truly great songwriters, what keeps him sane - though in the past it has nearly driven him insane - and what has probably saved his life. It sustained him through days of starving and freezing in London squats in the early Eighties with his first band, the Birthday Party, through endless touring with the Bad Seeds, through hangovers and overdoses, through addictions and clinics, through rootless years in Sao Paolo and Berlin. It was a lifestyle that could have claimed much lesser constitutions and warped much lesser spirits than Cave's.

'I think I have always had a pretty strong creative impulse,' he says carefully. 'And that has probably saved me from abandoning myself completely. I just don't think I would have allowed it.' But it is a dark gift of the gods and Cave is a driven man. In the old days he would write all the time, anywhere - lyrics on scraps of paper, in countless notebooks. He would even cart around carrier bags of books and papers covered in his spidery writing. For three years in Berlin he laboured over his novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, tapping away on a manual typewriter in a cubbyhole in someone's flat. Sometimes he would wake up the next day with letters imprinted on his face from where he had slumped, asleep, on to the keys.

But now Cave has tamed his creative impulse; he has disciplined it for many reasons. When he starts writing, he says, it's almost as if a physical change comes over him; he feels very disconnected from everything, lost in his own world, and it can sometimes take hours for him to reconnect. 'It's almost like a chemical reaction. I feel different in my body - something changes, and I feel very isolated and estranged from things.' So these days he is very organised; he has become nine-to-five man.

It was here, in his office, from nine to five, that he wrote his new album, No More Shall We Part. 'I'd gone through a bit of a slump after The Boatman's Call [his last album]. I wasn't blocked but I felt a bit disgusted with the whole thing and I didn't really feel like writing. A couple of years later, I wanted to write again and I needed a place to concentrate in, so I got an office. And it has just grown into a place of retreat. It's a very protected environment, completely about my work, and I really like it here.' It is part of a large industrial building in Chelsea, divided into units, and there is a photographer working beneath him who frequently complains that the plaster is raining down on him from the ceiling. It is just Cave's fierce foot-tapping while he plays the piano.

The office is a large, cold room, dominated by a Napoleonic camp-bed thoughtfully placed there by his wife, Susie, and a 100-year-old Steinway piano which was a wedding present from her parents. There is an antique desk covered in bottles of Evian, ashtrays, piles of books (Pascale's Pensées, a poetry anthology) and an iMac, at which Cave is peering, keen to get back to the task in hand, which is writing a film script for his friend, John Hillcoat. It is set in the outback.

The name 'Samuel Stoat' is visible on the screen. 'Stoat: Flies? Don't worry about flies. You kill one, Charlie, and a dozen more turn up for the funeral.' Samuel Stoat is one of the film's main characters: a filthy, big-nosed, long-haired, bad-complexioned man with a beautiful voice - based, so Cave tells me, on Tony Cohen, the Bad Seeds' wild and wildly talented engineer.

Cave eyes the tape-recorder quizzically; he has always hated interviews, although recently he has become much more adept at them. 'In fact, I only talk in quotation marks now. It's the other sort of talking I can't do.'

The trouble is, he says, that journalists seem to think they have to ask him certain questions - you know the kind of stuff. Drugs. Murder. God. 'People think I'm a miserable sod but it's only because I get asked such bloody miserable questions.'

Whereas he'd much rather talk about, well, lighter things. Like fashion. So how do you like women to dress?

'Miserably,' he yawns. 'No, I have a thing about knees actually. I do like the hem of the dress to. . . glance upon the knee.'


'Yes, smart. I like a dress that's tight in the body. . . and shoes that are not too high - but I like a heel that flexes the calf muscle.'


'I'm not big on hats. Although Susie did have some kind of hat on when I first met her - a Philip Treacy creation - which I thought was kind of fantastic. . . with a tiny veil and little black feathers.'

In the summer of 1999, on the day of the eclipse, Nick Cave married the English beauty Susie Bick. Susie, 34, is epically sweet and endlessly feminine. She is the kind of girl who always serves tea in china teacups with roses on and lights scented candles everywhere; her curtains are made of velvet; the furniture is covered in ribbons and lace; she wears pale-pink cashmere and summer frocks; and she is all green eyes and black, black hair with skin like cold white marble.

They met, says Cave, at the Natural History Museum, under the tail of the brachiosaurus. At a fashion show, then?

'Er, yes.'

And did you fall in love with her straight away?

'I did, yes. I thought that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. And continues to be. Even elbow-deep in baby shit she looks pretty good to me.'

Did you feel a sense of destiny that you haven't felt before?

He grunts a little, looking pained. 'Something very different has happened with Susie. It's the realisation at 43 years of age that a relationship isn't something that just sort of blazes with fire for two months and then hits the decline and carries on downhill until the whole thing lies exhausted in the gutter. I've discovered that things go up and down and you can actually work through things and love the person more, stuff like that - it's quite extraordinary.'

Do you think it's because you've got older? Or you've met the right person?

'It's because it's the right person. I've found someone who really likes being with me. She thinks I'm really great. And just likes me the way I am. . . I think.'

They now have twin boys, Earl and Arthur. Although they own a houseboat in Chelsea, for the moment they live in an ordinary terrace house in an ordinary street in south-west London. In the sitting-room a fire burns; there are pictures by Cave's favourite artist, Louis Wain (the mad-cat painter) and a piano with its middle keys worn away.

Sometimes when Cave comes home he feels a bit disorientated because Susie tends to move the furniture around a lot; it's one of her eccentricities and her husband speaks fondly of it, sings fondly of it, in fact, in a song called The Sorrowful Wife. But today he is sitting securely on a bottle-green damask sofa reading a newspaper, an item which he never used to even glance at, but which now, he admits slightly sheepishly, gets delivered daily. 'Tell me,' he arches an eyebrow. 'Do people read the whole thing?'

He has enjoyed the newspaper experience, he says, seeing where everything fits in the world, piecing together its politics. 'I think people just assume I'm a kind of cretin about things like that. Or that I have no interest, that I'm just locked away in my little world, tapping away at the typewriter.'

And to a certain extent they would be right. It has very much been his own world. In the early days, Cave's lyrics revolved entirely around a world he had created, a world full of retribution and desire and violent, vengeful gods; obsessive, poetic tales of love destroyed and innocents smote down. They were epic, literate stories coiled within a song.

It was the Old Testament Nick. Now Penguin is publishing his collected lyrics, more than 20 years of work, and Cave recently had to proofread them. It was the first time he'd seen them like that, all together on paper, clinically divorced from the music, and though he was in many ways impressed, he was also shocked by how fixated he'd been on a particular theme in song after song.

By Let Love In, released in 1994, it had all become a bit more personal, and by the time of The Boatman's Call, three years later, the lyrics were agonisingly intense, so, eviscerating in painful detail his break-up with his Brazilian girlfriend, Viviane Carneiro, and his short-lived, emotive affair with Polly Harvey.

'My lyric writing reached some sort of hysterical crescendo about the time of The Boatman's Call, reporting what was going on in my life in the most melodramatic way; ordinary stuff magnified to heroic proportions. And I find it very difficult to listen to that record now because of that.' He thinks that, in many ways, it is quite a beautiful record and that he'd probably like it if he hadn't made it himself 'but. . . ' he screws up his face, 'sometimes it sounds like the moaning of a dying insect.'

No More Shall We Part is, lyrically speaking, more open to the world. Cave's songs seem to have a higher intelligence about his life. The album has its surreal touches - Cave must be one of the few people who can get away with beginning a verse, 'I'd given my nurse the weekend off. . . ' - but it is a beautiful record, full of sad melodies. It is in many ways a love letter to his wife; she certainly fares better in it than his previous girlfriends have in past records. And the one constant through all of Cave's albums is his love songs.

He has even lectured on the subject. 'The Secret Life of the Love Song' originated at the invitation of the Poetry Academy in Vienna in 1999. 'The peculiar magic of the love song,' he wrote, 'if it has the heart to do it, is that it endures where the object of the song does not. It attaches itself to you and together you move through time. . . ' He delivered the lecture and then went on to teach 15 carefully selected aspiring writers for a week-long workshop on the love song.

'I have very clear memories of being about 12 years old,' he said in his lecture, 'and sitting, as you are now, in a classroom or hall, watching my father who would be standing up here, where I am standing, and thinking to myself, "It doesn't really matter what I do with my life as long as I don't end up like my father." Now at 43 years old, it would appear that there is virtually no action I can take that doesn't make me more like him. At 43 years of age I have become my father, and here I am, ladies and gentlemen, teaching.'

Nick Cave grew up in Wangaratta, a large country town in Victoria. His father was a teacher of English literature who went on to become director of adult education in Victoria; his mother was a school librarian. Cave spent most of his time outdoors, hanging out by the river, jumping over train tracks, tying up his younger sister, that sort of thing. He and his friend Eddie Baumgarten would be driven into the bush by Eddie's father, issued with a six-pack of beer and a shotgun and told to shoot anything that moved.

'We shot rabbits,' says Cave wistfully. 'Rabbits with myxomatosis that couldn't see us coming so we would walk up and shoot them, executioner style. Poor bunnies.' When they were 12, Nick and Eddie started the triple A club (Anti Alcoholics Anonymous); they would get local taxi drivers to buy them drinks then hole up in a garage somewhere, get drunk and throw up. It was Eddie's sister, Anne, who introduced Cave to Leonard Cohen, and they would sit in the dark, listening to Songs of Love and Hate.

Constantly in trouble at school, Cave was sent to boarding school in Melbourne; later his parents moved there and he became 'a day scab'. At school he met Mick Harvey, his long-term collaborator, and they started a band. Cave's father - who had planted the creative seed in his wayward son by introducing him to good literature - was beginning to wonder what on earth he'd created and, as Cave grew older, he found himself competing with his father in a way that wasn't entirely healthy. 'I would look for things he didn't know about, holes in his knowledge. I would read up on lots of obscure French literature and take it to him and say, "Have you read this?" But he was pretty clever, my father, and he would always win and I would walk away with my tail between my legs.'

When Cave was 19 his father was killed in a car crash, a tragedy which he learned about at the police station where he was being hauled over for some minor misdemeanour. After his father's death, says Cave, he just took off and didn't stop or look back for 20 years.

What do you mean, took off?

'Left. Just sort of blasted forth, out of Australia. I didn't really feel anything for a long time, I just took off. It was as if I couldn't stay still. It was the suddenness of it, and the fact that things were really incomplete and very confused for me at that time.' People who have an absent or dead father often have remarkable motivation, an insatiable drive. 'I'm sure that's true of me. It was as if I could never do enough.' It's only now, with children of his own, that he feels better able to understand his father.

In London, Cave's band, the Birthday Party - who were wild and poetic and apocalyptic and mad - was signed by the revered Daniel Miller to his newly formed label, Mute Records, in 1983. Six weeks later, they split up and Cave and Mick Harvey created the Bad Seeds. 'At the first Bad Seeds gig ever, nearly 20 years ago,' says Miller, 'I remember having my breath taken away. Both bands were like gangs in a way, but the Bad Seeds seemed like a gang with a massive purpose.' Warren Ellis, who now plays violin with the Bad Seeds, also remembers meeting Cave around this time. 'I first met Nick in a Melbourne house I used to frequent. One of the women living in the house wouldn't allow anyone else to sit in the chair he had sat in - I was very impressed by that.'

Eleven albums later, credit must go to Harvey for keeping the Bad Seeds together all these years, both musically and practically. An arranger and very talented musician, in the old days Harvey would play virtually everything in the studio (and indeed on-stage, at one time or another): drums, keyboards, guitar, bass. He attributes the longevity of the Bad Seeds to the fact that the band don't see much of each other because they all live in different countries and that almost all of them have their own separate projects, musically. 'And,' says Harvey laconically, 'we don't have that problem of democracy that other groups have. We're all perfectly entitled to our opinions, but if Nick really wants to do something, he'll do it.'

Having known Cave since their schooldays, Harvey says that although their relationship has changed over the years, Cave hasn't: 'He's always been an egotist, he's always craved attention - and he's still like that. He's always been very creatively driven, with quite high ideas about what he could be, he's always had this wild streak, and he's always been very generous and lovable.'

But outwardly, things have altered. The crazy, drug-fuelled days are over and have been, for some years. Cave is calmer, more open. 'I'm doing pretty much what I want to do, and there isn't that horrible sense of panic that I used to have about everything. I used to feel that I was just clinging on to something, which was primarily about my work, but also about the relationships I was in. I felt that I was hanging on by my fingernails to everything, and that it was all just slipping away.'

The high esteem in which Cave is held culturally has enabled him to broaden his interests. In the summer of 1999 he directed the Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre, putting together 10 days of music and performances from his favourite artists, from Lee Hazelwood to Les Patterson.

In 2003 he will be musical director of an extravaganza to be put on by the Sydney Dance Company. Musically, Cave is neither mainstream nor superstar (the Bad Seeds have never done particularly well in America) but in the particular niche that he occupies, he is very significant indeed. His concerts always sell out and his albums continue to sell substantially, long after their release. Despite an acrimonious relationship with the press in the past, acclaim for Cave's albums has grown stronger and stronger, with some critics rating him alongside Dylan, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen as a songwriter. Among his contemporaries he is unusual in that, from a very promising start, his work has just got better and better with age.

Bob Dylan sought him out at Glastonbury in 1998 and wandered over to tell him he liked what he did ('It was as if God came out of heaven,' Cave said later); earlier, Dylan had even allowed Cave to add to the lyrics of his song, Wanted Man. On his last album, Johnny Cash paid him the compliment of covering Cave's song, The Mercy Seat, and Leonard Cohen said of Cave's version of Avalanche, 'I really like it. He really goes out with it, makes the song alive. Not that I've ever abandoned it. I've always felt good about that song. Or bad. Whatever the feeling is.'

The Bad Seeds' bestselling album was Murder Ballads (1996). It sold a million worldwide, partly because of the single Where The Wild Roses Grow, a duet with Kylie Minogue which reached the top 20 in Britain. 'It started as a joke,' says Cave. 'It wasn't supposed to be an important record, and it sold way more than anything we've ever done. It was almost a hit,' he adds worriedly. It is a dark collection of droll little songs, like O'Malleys Bar, in which a psycho wanders into a bar and shoots everybody. ('Well, you know those fish with the swollen lips/ That clean the ocean floor/ When I looked at poor O'Malley's wife/ That is exactly what I saw/ I jammed the barrel under her chin/ And her face looked raw and vicious/ Her head it landed in the sink/ With all the dirty dishes. . . ') Murder Ballads was a comic opera of a record, and mostly it was taken in the right spirit, except, predictably, in America, where one journalist asked Cave, 'What are you going to do next, an album of rape ballads?'

A few days later, in a studio in Battersea, south-west London, a video shoot is being set up. As I Sat Sadly By Her Side is the first single from the new album. John Hillcoat, who has directed many of Cave's videos, is in charge. It is a song about seeing the world in two different ways. A row of mirrors has been set up to reflect the projected footage: multiplied images of planets exploding, roses blooming, kittens fighting and a carousel out of control, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. The strains of the song and its plaintive vocals are all around, along with a regiment of technicians, assistants, cameramen and hair and make-up people.

In the middle of all this stands Nick Cave. It is cold and he is wearing a rather incongruous item, a sort of blue-and-white padded jacket like you might find at a yacht club.

'It's very you,' says one of the technicians.

'Isn't it,' says Cave in a deadpan and slightly camp way. 'I'm a chameleon. Like David Bowie.' He takes the jacket off to reveal a black suit and stands there, only slightly self-conscious, with his awkward gait and big hands, overblown gestures, furrowed brow and his funny little tapping dance.

Later, his nine-year-old son, Luke, comes to visit the set and stands watching in his school blazer, swaying slightly to the music. He looks very much like Cave, although his colouring is that of his mother, Viviane Carneiro, who split up with Cave several years ago but still lives in London with Luke.

Having children, says Cave - who is a very hands-on father - makes you feel connected to the world. To Luke, having a famous father means that his dad is invited to his school in west London to take part in the Week of the Voice. The idea was that he should educate the children about rock'n'roll - along with Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, whose son is in the same class. Dickinson, it has to be said, holds slightly more sway, having been on Top of the Pops, 'while I'm just some gloomy old git who sits at the piano moaning on about this and that. . . '

Luke, says Cave, has never really known his father do anything else and is quite bored by the whole thing. He prefers Green Day, a recycled punk band. Sometimes, in the car, Luke will say, 'Listen to this, Dad. Did you ever play real music like this?' And Cave will reply, his knuckles whitening on the steering- wheel, 'No, son, I never played music like this.'

Next month the Bad Seeds are going on tour again, and although Cave won't be doing any more kneedrops (years of doing them have taken their toll on his knees, and his spine has suffered slightly from the backflips he used to do onstage with the Birthday Party) he sees no reason why he can't go on performing live indefinitely, 'as long as I can do it with a certain amount of grace'.

In the past, he would cling on to things in the fear that they might evaporate. Now his life has attained some sort of order. He has just a handful of friends ('Why is that?' he asks. 'What's wrong with me?') and he has his family and work. When pressed, he says he has no guardian angel. 'But I have something which seems to be a marriage of my conscience, my muse and God - and maybe it's all the same thing, I don't know. But I feel protected by that.

'That and the missus.'

Used with permission from, thanks to Patrick Wilcken


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