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Tuesday 18 September 2018

Agony and the ecstasy of the man Nick Cave

Nick Cave comes this way on June 6. There's not a seat to be got for the show, which promises to be the gig of the summer

Nick Cave's songs possess poignant, even painful, inner clues about the human condition
Nick Cave's songs possess poignant, even painful, inner clues about the human condition
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The tall, shrieking Rimbaud-like rake with spectre-white skin who spouted Old Testament-style hell-fire from behind his microphone stand. The teller of sordid stories about death, murder, pain and insanity, redemption through love. The Antipodean master of alternative male introspection. It's Nick Cave.

On Far From Me from The Boatman's Call album in 1997, try this lyric: "It's good to hear you're doing so well/But really, can't you find somebody else that you can ring and tell?/Did you ever care for me?/Were you ever there for me?/So far from me."

Cave's lunatic phantasmagoria was often a terrifying sight to behold, but he was nothing but unpredictable. Cave's out-Martin Amis-ing book The Death of Bunny Munro in 2009 begins with a suicide. The priapic anti-hero is on a drug binge with a hooker in a seedy hotel room when he rings his unsurprisingly depressed wife Libby to tell her. She doesn't take it too well. She takes her own life.

"'I am damned', thinks Bunny Munro in a sudden moment of self-awareness reserved for those who are soon to die."

In Cave's debut novel in 1989, And the Ass Saw the Angel, doomed mute Southern inbred Euchrid Eucrow, says: "Mah father loomed over me like a crooked stick."

Born Nicholas Edward Cave, on September 22, 1957, in Warracknabeal, Australia, there is no one quite like Nick Cave. You either love him, or there's plainly something wrong with you.

Cave is a sublime user of words. He writes songs that possess poignant, even painful, inner clues about the human condition, meditations on pain. It is not difficult to see why Johnny Cash covered The Mercy Seat, Cave's classic about a biblically unrepentant man on death row, unafraid to die:

"A ragged cup, a twisted mop/The face of Jesus in my soup/Those sinister dinner meals/ The meal trolley's wicked wheels/A hooked bone rising from my food."

Like Cash, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Bono, Cave in his songs praised the Lord, yet twisted grimly like a broken marionette under the Lord's vengeful wrath.

"You're one microscopic cog/In his catastrophic plan/Designed and directed by/His red right hand," he sang in 1994's Red Right Hand - inspired, naturally by Milton's Paradise Lost: "His red right hand to plague us?" - which was also used in the theme song to Peaky Blinders.

Playing Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin on June 6 (with support from Patti Smith) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are one of the greatest live experiences. Although, as Cave put it himself in his 1999 introduction to the New Testament Gospel of Mark, "you no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity," Ol' Nick can still carry a tune with the agony and the ecstasy beyond the emotional and psychological reach of today's singers.

That agony is at its most pronounced on Skeleton Tree, Nick & The Bad Seeds' 2016 album; not least because Nick was halfway through writing the album when, on July 14, 2015, his 15-year-old son, Arthur, suffered a fatal brain injury after falling on to the underpass of Ovingdean Gap in Brighton.

The first line of the first song - Jesus Alone - on Skeleton Tree will break your heart: "You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur. Flowers spring from the ground, lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers." And then on Girl In Amber, this: "I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber 'til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/I don't think that any more."

In One More Time With Feeling, Andrew Dominik's film about the creation of Skeleton Tree, Nick says: "People say he [Arthur] lives in my heart. I say 'yeah', but he doesn't live at all."

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