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BOOK REVIEW: The Birthday Party & Other Epic Adventures [1996] by Jayne Margetts Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

"ELVIS struggled to establish a happy medium between what he wanted to be and what he was expected to be. This Is Elvis shows Elvis run down and fighting to be what he was supposed to be, and failing because he was not the public Elvis. His hypnotic public decline was emotionally powerful, captivating and it follows that Nick's public position, with all its contradictory forces, would present a similarly powerful spectacle..."

So saith Melbourne author and biographer Robert Brokenmouth of Saint Nick Cave in his tribute and parable, Nick Cave, The Birthday Party & Other Epic Adventures. Should Cave, himself, have agreed to contribute his own perceptions of himself to this biography then it would be interesting to see whether he agreed with the analogy and comparison.

Two years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Cave for the release of his tortured and gutturally raw album Let Love In. It was a sultry and humid 39-degree summer's day. The location was the Mediterranean port town of Fremantle in Western Australia. Nick, in his usual temperamental and volatile manner, sauntered into the tea rooms of the New Edition Bookshop looking alternatively cool and flustered.

Clearly he was not happy.

He pouted and grimaced and sniffed that he didn't want to do the interview. But after a firm glance in his direction and the suggestion that maybe he should "chill". He agreed. What followed was a metaphysical and inspirational epiphany into the domains of the savaged, dark angel's music, life, literary endeavour And The Ass Saw The Angel , that lived up to - and far surpassed - any expectations one could have when faced with the potential wrath and passion of Melbourne's cult god.

Cave enjoyed the thrill of the chase. He was elusive without descending into the domains of opaqueness. He was fiery, volatile and one of the most magnetic and beguiling personalities to spar and share coffee with. But what Cave seemed to fear above all was the ability for any one person to burrow beneath his carefully constructed suit of armour to what lay beneath. An there was an unspoken decree that should the conversation become too personal he would lash out and live up to his reputation of fire and brimstone retaliation.

Melbourne, home to Cave and The Birthday Party, has an underlying essence of darkness both in its nooks and open expanses of land. The Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, even on a quiet weekday evening has the same feral and sleazy residue from its sticky carpets, peeling archways, battered stages and PA units through to its walls adorned by posters announcing weekend gigs of the likes of Tex Perkins.

The sniff and legacy of The Birthday Party is felt all round and to Brokenmouth's credit, he has captured that very ambience and motivation that spurned The Birthday Party onwards towards not only the history books, but as purveyors of a sound that has been imitated and long regarded as the quintessential "Melbourne Sound".

Interviewing the survivors, guitarists Mick Harvey and Rowland Howard, drummer Phil Calvert, close friends of their late bass player Tracy Pew and producer Tony Cohen, Brokenmouth has assembled a critical and meticulous homage to - and diary of - the rise and fall of The Birthday Party through to the genesis and realisation of The Bad Seeds.

The picture that emerges is one of the archetypal and oft sprouted sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but it also the story of an enigmatic frontman and the struggles between personalities, creative recognition and the self-destructive purging that they all succumbed to on a regular basis while constructing a snapshot of the cultural ramifications and the sights, smells and sounds of the late '70s through to today.

The chronicle begins in Melbourne 1976 and a chapter titled Out After School in which Brokenmouth via Calvert, Tracy Pew's mother Nancy, Mick Harvey, Keith Glass, Dave Graney and fans construct an insight into the events that would shape The Boys Next Door as a band and their effect on the live scene amid the heady reign of The Saints and Radio Birdman.

Seen through the eyes of a fan, Brokenmouth extracts a sense of the humble origins of The Boys Next Door; "Nick was so dynamic, always striking a pose. He wore eyeliner, which made his body look more emaciated and scarecrow-like than ever, nattily dressed in a suit and white shirt and no tie. He's look elevated, helpless, enraged and finally alien by stages."

By March 1980, The Boys Next Door had changed their name to The Birthday Party and embarked on the next phase which saw them arrive in London, ride the highs and lows and making a name for themselves on the British live scene ...

From this point onwards Brokenmouth immerses himself wholeheartedly into The Birthday Party's musical involvement and analysis of their recorded works, and paints a rounded picture from the band members of what really happened during those turbulent and defining years.

Fundamentally, Nick Cave, The Birthday Party & Other Epic Adventures is rich and pungent in seedy atmosphere and traces with meticulous ease the complexities and musical, biographical rise to prominence and fame. It is also a pulpit in which, the other members of The Birthday Party and Mick Harvey vocalise with raw honesty their true feelings about that phase of their lives.

Robert Brokenmouth has done a remarkable job on a very difficult biography. He has captured the spirit, the colour and the personalities at play in one of history's most influential bands.

The irony however of a project such as this is in the fact that Nick Cave is unable to refute or agree with Brokenmouth or band members summations, yet he was always the voice for The Birthday Party.

If there is a suspicion that lurks it is that Cave was approached by Brokenmouth to be a part of this historical piece of literaryism. But knowing that cool and detached look Cave is notorious for, he more than likely dismissed the idea and sniffed "No!".

The burning question remains however, what will be Cave's response? And if he does respond, well, that could catalyse a whole other book.



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