I WENT TO A SHOW: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

                                            Nick Cave in Wings of Desire, 1987

There is a photograph of Nick Cave in which he is a young man hunched over halfway to standing in the small room his occupancy overwhelms, the ceiling too low or his body too long for him to stand upright; the length of him unwieldy in this space cants forward, one hand where the white wall bends into the whiteness of ceiling, the other hand presses against his knee to hold crooked the weight of the bony plate of his chest, his concave abdomen, as if he were midway through lurching an exit from this room now invaded by another, whoever has come to take his picture. This room is windowless; in place of windows pages of text are taped to the walls, handwritten scrawl on sheets of typewriter paper and pages torn from books, busy with underlining; in one corner a stack of books towers precariously; a chaos of strewn books and papers covers the floor. Three cuts of long black hair hang in coils from an exposed pipe. This room that contains the young man is not like a room in which a human being is meant to live; it is a diorama, a tableau, like a habitat someone built to house a taxidermied animal in a museum. The animal is Nick Cave. His limbs the longest possible and all sinew, his nocturnal pallor, his mass of dark hair disheveled and spidering greasy over eyes shadow-rimmed beneath the black slashed arches of his brows, something primal in the thick-boned extremity of that browline, the jut of his jaw, the nightmare lushness of his mouth, wet and sullen and jarring, how his lips parted the surrounding gauntness. This man an animal like Death born in boy-form, brutish and dissolute and dressed in black jeans, ripped denim iest, white wife-beater like the freak runaway son of some disintegrated blue collar home, a suburb lost to the desert now ruins the dust will bury: I saw his photograph when I was young, I saw him as the brooding tenant of a white crypt of a room crowded with words, he lived holed up with heaps of books but he was not bookish, as in incorporeal: he was physical intensity’s limit realized in bone and hair, smoldering with the silken night-black currents of ash I imagined must be his body’s substance. I thought the books he read must radiate the scent of sweat. Pages stained by bloodied fingertips. I saw this photograph of this man when I was young and my heart slammed hard into my mouth and stayed there, fattening on my tongue, unshakeable; I gagged on it. This was the man I wanted to become, but I was not a man. I could not be him. This was the man I would permit to devour me.

Nick Cave is a man I have loved.

I loved him, his beauty was violence. I was destroyed by it: in the video for his cover of Elvis’s “In the Ghetto,” he staggers, listing towards collapse, in his jacket with its sequined lapels, he is taller than anyone, how could he be human and be as tall as that, with his eyes glowing like that, pale bluish, tinged greenish, glassy, unfocused in the bright light like something unfamiliar, he runs his hand through his black hair framed in a halo of blue smoke, avoids eye contact—I watched this video and I felt sick with wanting, clamped my thighs together more tightly to quell the sickness that shuddered through them. The most conspicuous piece of décor in my bedroom when I was a 15-year-old child was an enormous poster of Nick Cave. His eyes turned heavenwards. From whence he had descended: Milton’s Satan, or an Evil Angel, stumbled out of Baudelaire. He who haunted the lakes of my blood. And I was a loser girl in the dregs of black stockings, more holes than nylon, determined to get myself killed one way or another, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey playing loud in the car, my mother frowning as the man snarled, “I come a death’s-head in your frock” while I grinned inwardly at the idea of this flawless display of affection, or what I counted for affection then. My harshest longing went to Nick Cave as he was during the Birthday Party era, squawking “BITE!” in the voice of heavy thrash, the song’s tachycardic din assaultive, the man inhuman, and I was undone.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds played the Wang Theatre in Boston on Saturday, June 10. I was there; I could not stop myself from going, hard as I tried to convince myself that my conscious resolve to renounce the Nick Cave imaginary – a universe of murdered women, murderous men, romanticized carnal cruelty, and desolate, tortured, hopeless eroticism – was enough to dissipate an adoration endured for over a decade. I told myself, you are not who you once were, you do not wallow in men’s violence against you now, you do not want this, you cannot go see Nick Cave, he is bad for you. It was not enough. I wanted to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, badly. I bought my ticket, I went; as if I were a teenager desiring attention again I even dressed up: black silk kimono, black satin slip, bone baubles and the bat earring, black hair braided, lips blood-claret. I felt my choice to go to the show and my preparations for it as symptomatic of reversion, as if I were betraying myself, so mortifying, like the shock of guilt that stabbed into me when I admitted to my friend I was going to see Nick Cave and they exclaimed, “Oh, no…”, inciting an angry eagerness in me to explain away such an obvious transgression of my principles, but I couldn’t. There was no justifying my undying love for this egoistic man with his celebrated oeuvre of alternately thuggishly misogynist and reverentially misogynist sex-murder ballads. I thought of my friend’s “Oh, no…” again when the Bad Seeds came on stage, a bunch of middle-aged white men, self-satisfied, men in expensive shoes, expensive jackets, confident of their place in this world, which is theirs, which is not mine. I was also reminded of a profile of Nick Cave I read in the New York Times several years ago, wherein the male NYT writer, Nick Cave, and Bad Seeds’ member Warren Ellis were reflecting on how Cave writes for women, with a woman’s voice at heart—an awe-inspiring exhibition of bullshit. I sat back in my seat in the opulent gold-and-coral theatre and wondered how I had allowed myself to pay to see these Men. Then Nick Cave came out. 

What first drew me to Nick Cave was the savage uncompromising intensity of his physicality, its mutant grace, the unlikeliness of the human form that barely upholds or contains him, out of which he seems continually on the verge of shaking loose, clawing himself free, overflowing. It draws me still. I think of his body as something impossible: all sinews, blue veins, nerves twanging hot white wound together in a taut mesh wrapped around bones, no organs, nothing slack or sodden. He is alive and vividly himself in every cell; there is no empty unclaimed space; there is only Nick Cave: the man, his vital body. I could not conceive of living in my body – messy wet disordered within and belonging to everyone but me – as he did. I longed for his body. To be so close as to dwell in it. For my body to emulate his, his body becoming mine: a girl’s dream. When he stalked onto the stage it struck me that, bodily, Nick Cave was unaltered. The presence of his physical being in the same room as my own caught me off-guard, suddenly breathless. He began the concert seated, performing a song from Skeleton Tree, the most recent album – I’ve hardly listened to it and was not especially interested when I did – but when he stood, for the next song, he began to move, his body was the same body that I had obsessed over for years, it was animated by the same bizarre mixture of languor and perpetual tensity, I recognized each elegantly ungainly gesture, he threw himself around with the same recklessness, and I could not feign indifference nor could I appear unfazed: I was, once more, reluctantly, captured.

I was captured by a 60-year-old man who very clearly believes he is God. And I was embarrassed for us both. Worshippers in the expensive seats in the orchestra pit raised their arms outstretched desperate to be touched by the hand of Nick Cave; when he would deign to touch someone, he laid hands upon them with the air of man bestowing an honor the gravity of which was not lost on him. Condescending in his generosity. He glided down from the stage into the crowd, his congregation, long arms held spread high over his head as if he were calling down the light of the vaults; he climbed onto a chair and sang about becoming the bride of Jesus. A sea of fawning mortals in the boring garb of sycophants closed in around him clutching at his sleeves, stroking his legs, clinging to his ankles, generally basking in the glory of their Savior; when I leaned over the railing of the mezzanine, I could almost see them weeping. Confined to the mezzanine, I was relieved to be unable to participate in the rites of supplication carried out in tribute to Our Dark Lord, prevented by distance from feeding the man’s megalomania. I observed the religious roleplay enacted below by both parties, star and grovelers, and deemed it distasteful. No man is God to me. There is no God I would worship. Meanwhile I was also itching rabid with envy of those whose money had placed them nearer to Nick Cave than I could be. If I had been down among them, wouldn’t I have been helpless not to rush forward, to be blessed by the desired body?

Nick Cave presented the cloth he used to wipe sweat from his face to a young woman at the edge of the stage slinking through the hip-twitch-and-squirm of scripted feminine sex appeal seeking his divine sanction and I could have puked at the man’s trite rock star arrogance when he rewarded her. The triteness of the whole scene. The sweat-rag like the Veil of Veronica. The young fan, a mass-market Mary Magdalene. When I would dance at shows I would hurl my body into the center of the crush to be consumed battered between the bodies of strangers heaving and twisting until I cracked open vaporized pure heat released from being a thing to be seen and I could be reborn distilled to palpable force, collision, skin, sweat, hair, nails, muscular clench, spasm. Sexless, sensate. In these moments, I felt natural in my body; I never did otherwise. I came to crave this way of existing as my body from watching Nick Cave. I am a pacifist now but I’d punch him in his beautiful face before I writhed for his dirty laundry. How pitiful to believe he could want such obsequiousness from anyone—yet I wasn’t shocked: bootlicking sexiness is what men expect and what men want from women. Not for us to become as wild as they are.

Nick-Cave-the-Jaded-but-Mostly-Benevolent-God is not the figure I closet in an obscure but fixed recess of my tenement heart. The man who lives there is Nick Cave, 1984, feral, the rawboned lycanthropic swamp-Elvis hiding out from daylight in a squalid motel room spying through peepholes like the anonymous creep of Barbusse’s Hell, the sexually obsessive psychotic criminal animal Nick Cave. I should be immune to the romance of this image. I am not. When Nick Cave growled “I want to tell you about a girl…” –  the opening line to the title track of the Bad Seeds’ first album, From Her to Eternity – I trembled; I had not recovered, was trembling still when they launched into a slow-burn version of “The Mercy Seat” (off of Tender Prey) and was in agony trying to sit unmoving in my mezzanine red velvet seat pretending to be an adult and not the morbid girl-creature infatuated with bloodlust, hungry for disaster, decimation, that I was when the song first knocked its way into my skull. I have learned to channel my zeal for intensity more constructively since then but I have not ceased burning. It is 2017, Nick Cave is almost 60 years old, he crouched yelping on a stage underneath a false sky of white enamel angels; my pulse fused to the sound; I screamed for the encore along with everyone else. I cannot evict him from my heart.

I am uneasy letting the man continue his residence there. If someone sees him in me immediately I feel I must explain myself, or do penance. I’m sorry, feminism; I say my thirteen Hail Marys: pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death. I am painfully aware that Nick Cave’s mythos is retrogressive; he peddles masculinist fantasies of romantic brutality, he’s what Andrea Dworkin would call a “rape celebrationist,” and I have contempt for what he’s selling, what people desire from him and deify him for; too many of his songs leave me rolling my eyes, otherwise raging, for his juvenile elevation of violence and for how he talks about women—as sex objects, symbols, victims, one-dimensional; they look good, get fucked, feel fear, die. That’s his act, it’s garbage, actively harmful: I get that. I would not try to defend Nick Cave. There is as much of me that loathes him as loves him. It is uncomfortable to love him and if I do not think about his body my loathing almost overcomes my love. Sometimes I just think he’s ridiculous, below loving, as when he sang some newer song that references Hannah Montana, and it was stupid, reminded me of the excess of things that making living in the twenty-first century seem like a pointless endeavor. Loathing overcame love again during the encore, when Nick Cave picked out women to get onstage to dance behind him, and I looked up at the ceiling rather than watch the horrorshow of sexual parody the women and Nick Cave performed together. The women were thrilled to have been chosen by the man, to be placed on the pedestal in front of everyone established as viable sex objects, to have the conceited man playact lecherous interest in them, like such was the proof of their worth. He was singing “Stagger Lee,” a song about men shooting one another, the women synced their undulations to Nick Cave’s ejaculations of the phrase “motherfucking head” and I was disgusted to be present bearing witness to this spectacle, to be a woman, to have loved the man. Though I could not have danced as the women danced, acquiescent to the etiquette of self-display – I didn’t have it in me to play along, I was too fractious – there was a time I would have been proud to be among his chosen objects, the closest I could come to being the man himself, to making his beauty, his body, mine. I would have convinced myself that he chose me because he saw I was like him. I would have been wrong. I stared up at the salmon-colored, blue-lit ceiling; I stared at Nick Cave’s shoes and wondered whether it was possible to sever the tameless corporeal intensity men are allowed to possess from the tedious pomposity of their masculinity and predacious egoism, or if this intensity is necessarily the product of masculinity and egoism, and I cannot have the former without the latter: Nick Cave could not but be an asshole. As I was thinking about these things, Nick Cave was getting to the climactic bit in “Stagger Lee” where the titular character demands “you better get down on your knees and suck my dick” and one of the chosen women dropped to her knees because of course she would suck his dick and a man in the orchestra pit was approaching Nick Cave, his head level with Nick Cave’s groin, like he was offering to comply with the barked demand and suck the singer’s dick, and Nick Cave pantomimed accepting the proposed blowjob, contriving to unzip his fly, thrusting his pelvis toward the face of the man in the audience. I imagined Nick Cave, the man, expecting someone to take his penis into her mouth because he was a man and a genius and he was entitled and I did not love him.

There is a photograph of Nick Cave, older, scowling, in a blue t-shirt with white letters reading “Suck My Dick.” I do not love him at all.

The concert ended with Nick Cave leaping onto his piano bench to stand with arms upraised again in Our-Lord-Our-Savior pose over the accumulation of congregants he had invited to join him and his dancing women on the stage. He blew a kiss to the mezzanine and I blew one back, in spite of myself, thinking, fuck you, Nick Cave, you are not my God, I don’t buy your legend, but your body is real, its vehemence and ferity, fierceness which is incorruption, purity, you live in yourself beautifully, I love you for it. Savage beauty is the latent potentiality native to every living body: your body was among the first to make me believe this. You showed me what I could be, if I could call forth from my own body the spine to stop being a Woman. Stomp out the Little Girl deference. And I will. I am doing it now. But what I become will be nothing like what you have become.

My friend who’d said “Oh, no…” when I told them I was going to see Nick Cave  asked me afterward if I’d enjoyed the show. I answered I was afraid to confess I did, though I was acutely conflicted, and I could not nor would I let myself forgive Nick Cave for being a Man in the worst way, and my love for him is confusing, something I have to work through, deconstruct, but nonetheless real and stinging. They said they were shocked. I can explain: what I am is hungry, what I am is flawed.