ROCK and religion don’t, as a rule, go together. That handful of rock stars who do God tend to fall into two categories: those who are just so famous they have the freedom to wander where they like — think Bob Dylan in the 1980s with his much discussed but uncommercial series of religiously inspired albums; and those whose best days are long behind them and who retreat into what feels like a cosy, God-lined parallel musical universe — think Cliff Richard.
And then there is Nick Cave. God is definitely there on the Australian-born but British-based rock star’s new studio album, Nocturama, most obviously in the track “He Wants You”. And he’s there even more prominently on its 2001 predecessor, No More Shall Part, in songs like “God is in the House”. Yet Cave fits neither the Cliff nor the Dylan model.
That said, among his large following the 45-year-old Cave inspires cult-like devotion. His albums sell upwards of 500,000 copies each, and he is currently on a short tour of Europe with his band the Bad Seeds (the name is taken from the Book of Psalms), ending in three nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. It’s not bad for someone who used to wonder how he’d ended up as a musician.
In the flesh, Cave is not remotely self-satisfied. Sitting in an anonymous, empty studio at his record company’s London headquarters, his face alternates during our conversation between looking slightly cross — “the way it was made”, he says — and a broad, dazzling boyish smile, emphasised by his big, slightly mournful, blue eyes. He has all the presence of a rock star, but none of the attitude.
“When we started a band together at school,” he says, “ I was the unmusical one, so I became the singer. I could play a bit of piano, make the chords and stuff, but it was always acknowledged that I was the unmusical one. That stayed with me.”
Cave’s first ambition was to be a painter. That never worked out, but in the process of making 14 albums Cave has picked up several other careers along the way. The distinctive Gothic lyrics from his songs have been collected and published as poetry under the title King Ink.
Then there’s his 1989 novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, and an independent film, Ghost . . . of the Civil Dead. Last week he played at Tate Britain as part of a series of live arts events. His biggest chart success was in 1996, when he joined up with his fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue on his song “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.
CAVE’s wide-ranging output makes him something of a paradox. And perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that, in the secular music and arts worlds that lionise him, he gets away with his own unfashionable blend of rock and religion.
“I don’t know how people who buy my records or come to my concerts think about things. I don’t worry. Hopefully, the majority of them see a song that is worthwhile, whatever it is about. If something is put artfully and is beautiful in some way, then it’s a beautiful song. And if it’s God-conscious, then perhaps that doesn’t come into it.”
There are moments when these worlds collide. “There is for me a certain pleasure in having a Nick Cave solo thing and getting up in front of drunken Scottish crowd and talking about religion, when they’ve come along to see a gig. It reminds me of tire old days, only now I do it with . . .” The sentence thrifts away into the silence of die studio.
We both know to what he is alluding. His past is well documented. In the late 1970s when he was an art student playing in a celebrated Melbourne punk band, the Birthday Party, Cave became addicted to heroin. His habit continued through the 1980s and 1990s, when he was based in London, Berlin, then London again. Legend has it that Cave was once spotted on the London Underground writing a letter using a syringe loaded with blood.
No one had him down for making old bones. He performed at the funeral of his friend Michael Hutchence, and later at that of Paula Yates. Five years ago, though, he gave up what he has called “bad working habits” after meeting his wife, the former model Susie Blick, by chance at the Natural History Museum.
Giving up wasn’t easy. He once remarked that he could “write the Michelin Guide to detox centres”; but he now gets his highs — the word “excitement” comes up repeatedly in his conversation — through work.
In an age in which music stars are anxious to be seen as bland and clean-living (in public at least), Cave’s archetypal rock-star past has made him something of a pin-up, especially for the more laddish magazines. He has come to represent the last of a dying breed, the one who got away. But this image can create its own ironies, as Cave recounts.
“The journalists come along and are told beforehand by their editors, ‘Don’t let him start on God.’ It’s not edgy. They don’t want some guy waffling on about the Lord. You can see them steering away from that. But actually, most of the time I’m quite happy not to talk about it.”
The discomfort his beliefs cause is easy to see. Some just choose to pretend they aren’t there. In a full-page review of Nocturama, one critic managed to avoid even hinting that there might be a spiritual side to the work. Instead he infuriated Cave with musings about the challenges for an ageing rock star caused by hair-loss and having a family.
“The line I remember,” Cave says, his tone turning harsh for the only time in our meeting, “is ‘How’s he going to write about getting ready for the school nativity play?’ I’ve been trying to think of words to rhyme with nativity ever since.”
Another magazine profile picked through all the drug stuff and Cave’s previous relationships with Tori Amos, P. J. Harvey and the mothers of his two older sons. The writer waited until the penultimate paragraph to drop in the God-bit, and added hastily, in case too much be made of it that Cave has no faith.
Does he, I ask; or is there just a voyeurism in his lyrics?
“One of the things that I guess excites me about belief in God is the notion that it is unbelievable, irrational and sometimes absurd. So to put your hand up and say ‘I believe in God’ seems a difficult thing to do, particularly given the way things are going in the world. But that’s what is also so exciting. It is about imagination and mystery. And for me that is what art is about as well. So the whole dung is very much tied together.” Caw’s words flow more easily.
Is he, I ask. religious in any formal sense? “As a kid I spent three years singing in the cathedral choir in Wangaratta, the town in Victoria where I grew up. And I went to Sunday school and heard the stories. More recently I have wanted to be involved in some kind of organised religion. It would all be so much more practical and neater. People would say, ‘What do you believe’ and I could say, ‘I’m a Catholic,’ or whatever, and there would be no further discussion.
“The problem is, I’ve tried organised religion but I’ve never managed to stay. I enjoy the ritual. Some part of me does like that there is a community of people there, coming together with the same belief. That is a comforting thing. But there’s another pan of me that wants to run a million miles away from that.”
I try to imagine Cave dropping in each Sunday to his local church in Brighton, where he now foes with Blick and their two-year-old twin sons, Earl and Arthur. His appearance would certainly cause a stir. Today he is wearing a scruffy jacket, white shirt undone at the neck and white tie, but his usual colour of choice is black. Rail-thin, with those piercing eyes and his mop of jet-black hair (which shows no sign of thinning).
“I’d love to be a community person,” he protests, “but as much as I want to say ‘Peace be with you’ to someone, I find it quite difficult to do that. A shudder goes through me.”
So instead Cave sits alone and reads the Bible. It began at art school, as a result of being drawn in by religious paintings, but back then it was just the Old Testament. Its “great bloody yarns” are the source, he acknowledges, of some of the violence that characterises his lyrics and often offsets their tenderness. Subsequently, he came to the New Testament.
A few years ago he joined unlikely luminaries, including Louis de Bernières, A. S. Byatt, Will Self and Fay Weldon, and wrote an introduction to a favourite book of the Bible for the series of Pocket Canons, published by Canongate.
“With the Old Testament, I was an observer. It was exclusive. The Gospels were inclusive. That had a huge impact on the way I then started to write. Up to that point I had been storytelling in the same way that the Old Testament is. When I started to read the Gospels, I found myself trembling at the things that Christ said and at the stories themselves. I was incredibly moved by them. And still am.
“With the story of Christ, you’re met with a very powerful human being who rages at things, who is desperately unhappy about things, who doubts at times. All of these things are within this one person. At times the things he talks about are shocking, at others incredibly comforting, at others utterly baffling. It seems to me to speak about humanity in some way, and that is really exciting.”
Here, perhaps, is the reason that Cave remains a one-man church. “It was the humanist side that drew me in. On the one hand, I’m a very rational person. On the other, I have committed myself to a life of imagination and mystery in which God plays a significant part. But there are certain things at the beginning and end of New Testament that I am still very ambivalent about: his birth and his death, and what happened after his death. I guess the more I read it, the less it was important to make that leap of faith.”
I’m struck by how odd it is to be having this sort of discussion with a rock star. Does Mute, Cave’s record company, ever try to steer him away to other more palatable subjects? “No. They’ve never said that. They may hope for it, but they don’t say.”
Of course, there is so much more to his output than God. He averages, he says, a new song a week (”if I’m able to go into the office every weekday”). He has an office along the seafront from his home, and he goes there early each morning. “It’s not that I don’t want to be subjected to my kids, it’s that I don’t want to subject my kids to the creative process. Or my wife. It’s not something that they need to be around.” He pauses, still unsatisfied that he’s made the point clearly enough. “It’s undignified.”
When Nocturama came out, much was made about how someone whose songs have been so full of violence could adjust to the process of being happily married with kids. The inclusion of a song called “It’s a Wonderful Life” left some open-mouthed, but mere is also a complex irony in Cave’s lyrics that can hide away behind his dark, rich voice. Sometimes, he admits, he’s not sure himself when he’s being ironic.
Cave says he can only write about what is happening to him, and that isn’t all slippers and contentment. “What I’m increasingly interested in are Edens that are trembling on the point of collapse. Which is very different from what I used to write about, which were hells to begin with. It is the crack there that makes you see the beauty of it even more. Does that make any sense?”
Brutality and tenderness have always been juxtaposed in his work. Part of his duet with Minogue was a dream about smashing in her head with a rock. “The happiness that we manage to collect is a very fragile tiling. Marriage is a very fragile thing, and a very conflicted thing. It’s a very unknown thing.
“What is interesting to me at the moment is to be involved in a reasonably successful and satisfactory marriage. I’ve written endlessly about the beginning of love, and certainly about the end of love,” (his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call came soon after the break-up of his relationship with P. J. Harvey) “but I have absolutely no reference point to the middle section of it, which is enormous, and I’m in it. To me that is an exciting thing to look at. It doesn’t exist within rock and roll at all. If it doesn’t exist because it’s boring, then why do people do it?”
After religion, it appears Cave is about to add another unfashionable departure to his writing — songs for married couples about how hard it is to stay married. It may challenge even his prodigious gifts.
This interview is reprinted in What we Talk About When we Talk About Faith, a collection of Peter Stanford’s interviews, published by Hodder & Stoughton.
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