THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Prayers On Fire
Mutiny/The Bad Seed
(4AD CD reissues)
Melody Maker, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
typo alert: "uninspiring self-portraits of the artist" should be "unsparing self-portraits of the artist"
NICK CAVE, interview
National Student Magazine, 1987
by Simon Reynolds
Talking to Nick Cave is a bit of a trial. He’s not really a proper person. Like many artists, what makes him a genius also makes him difficult to get on with, to get to. He’s afflicted and empowered by a certain, crucial deficiency of humanity. Or perhaps more accurately, he's drastically, wilfully, estranged from the confining notion of the "human'" that's been installed by the post-Live Aid popular culture – extroversion, civic engagement, the benign totalitarianism of caring/sharing/opening up, the cult of health and efficiency.
Morbidly inward, unforgiving, creating art that is perhaps best seen as a kind of metaphorical automutilation, Cave goes against the grain of the times by being sick but refusing to be healed. His obsessions are wounds he deliberately keeps open, returns to again and again. The reason is simple: as he remarked elsewhere – "my periods of pessimism are far more individual than my feelings of joy, which are fairly commonplace, if few and far between."
Like The Band of Holy Joy, Mark E. Smith and other poets of the abject imagination, he sees the mark of the "real", what makes a person unique, as vested in flaws and scars – any kind of disproportion (obsessions, grudges, neuroses, bigotries, deformity), anything that warps or blinkers a clear vision, and endows the person with a visionary perspective. Beauty or virtue – always tending towards the ideal, the anonymity of the absolute – aren't interesting at all, suggest the bland perfection of innocence rather than the damage of experience. Really, Cave and his ilk are 'agitating' for a broader definition of the human, one that incorporates lapses into the inhuman, incompleteness, a certain delapidation and impoverishment of the soul. They're harking back to an older, more religious notion, one where it's not a question of wholeness of being, but of holes.
Nick Cave surfaced at a time when post-punk's handle on the workings of desire was diagrammatic and programmatic. Punk had bequeathed the idea that demystification was the route to enlightenment. "Personal politics" was the buzzword: the acknowledgement of the "dark side" was always grounded in progressive humanism, the belief that what was twisted could be straightened out, that the shadows could be banished. The ideal was that through deconditioning, unblocking, a ventilation of the soul, some kind of frank and freeflowing exchange was possible. Against this contractarian view of love (negotiation, commutativity, support), Cave, in the Birthday Party, was almost alone in reinvoking love as malady, monologue, abject dependence, a compulsion to devour and be devoured.
For Cave, love was nothing if not the doomed fantasy of possession, and its supreme expression could only be violence. In a post-punk climate of positivism, he dwelt on the tragic and insoluble, was the first to revive the use of Biblical imagery (sin, retribution, curses, blight, bad seed) and to express an interest in country and western's imagery of destitution and betrayal (both of which were subsequently imitated by groups as diverse as the Triffids, Lloyd Cole and the Weather Prophets).
Consciousness-raising post-punk became self-conscious New Pop; "personal politics" developed into ABC and Scritti's seductive deconstructions of the lexicon of love. For some, The Birthday Party were solitary heroes of literate oblivion. As New Pop regressed into a dismal impasse based around a combination of wistful vintage retrospection and a therapeutic revision of soul, Cave looked back even further, over the course of four solo records, to c&w and blues, in search of a more troubled, troubling kind of "authenticity".
The fireball became an ember. Kicking Against The Pricks, an album of cover versions, marked the key shift from poet-visionary of Sex and Death to balladeer, from torched singer to a croon the colour of cinders, from Dionysiac excess to a ruined classicism. On the LP that followed sharply on the heels of Kicking, Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds were to be found staging their own delapidated equivalents to the epic melodrama of 'Wichita Lineman' and 'Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart' – the gently obliterating slowly gathering morose grandeur of 'Sad Waters', 'Your Funeral... My Trial', ‘Stranger Than Kindness' ...
Despite having been consistently and almost exclusively serenaded by sycophantic epiphanies the length and breadth of his career, Cave loathes journalists. The slightest slight is nurtured as a festering grievance. Today, I make a grievous strategic error. When Cave enquires if I have a copy of Melody Maker on me, I say: "Yes." Cave spends about 20 minutes reading my colleague Chris Roberts' cover feature on him, his countenance growing steadily darker, more furrowed and nauseous. Quite why I'm still not sure. But we embark upon the interview with his loathing and distrust given an unusually fresh and pronounced edge.
He's not in the best of states anyway, having just emerged from four 18-hour days in the studio working on the new album. Deep gashes of black under the eyes, skin the colour of ashes, stooped by fatigue. Eloquent body language (what the French describe as coincé). Cave's exasperation is exasperating, his weariness wearisome. There's a sardonic tang behind his civil and fastidious replies, his small, grave, gnarled voice, while all the while his face bears a look as though each question was a plate of your excrement offered under his nose. Often, he starts his replies by repeating the question, like a poor O-Level candidate, as if there's a slight relish in parrotting your own crassness back at you. Then again, if you do think of an unprecedented question, he's likely to answer: "I don't know how to answer that question" – closer to a boast than an apology, because Cave doesn't like the idea of being seen as an intellectual, would rather deny the complexity of his work. There seems to be a grim pleasure in finding the most terse answer, the one that closes off any elaboration most decisively. Still, one bastard genius is worth a thousand affable craftsmen any day. So they say.
Cave is poised for another key shift right now, the transition to other media for expression, acting and writing, that are surrounded by such minefields for the restless rock performer anxious to inflame a settled career. Music can arbitrarily endow with force words that on the naked page might seem forced or gauche or mannered; equally there's no guarantee that the stars aura and presence can survive on film, in music absence.
Was writing always the prime motivation, and music only a vehicle, the most convenient one at the time?
"No, no... the idea to take up writing literature seriously is only a recent thing..."
There was a need to perform, to be an exhibitionist?
"The reason I got involved in music was that I was thrown out of art school... I happened to be in a band at the time (The Boys Next Door, a reputedly execrable power pop combo that mutated into The Birthday Party)... and the band happened to take off. And it hasn't stopped since. There was never any big decision to be a rock star."
Presumably, though, you feel that music imparts a dimension to the written word...
"The writing of lyrics is quite a different thing to writing a novel. I have very strong ideas about how they can be put across in a live situation... "
Do you ever suffer from writer's block?
"It's the general condition. One has to push oneself out of it. It's a state where your mind is always tricking itself... I constantly think that I'm unable to do anymore, that I've given all I've got... this isn't a new thing ... it's been like this for years ... but I always find at the end of the day I'm able to put something out."
Do you find the same imagery recurring over and over? Or is that a strength, your signature?
"The themes I deal with... are not easily summed up, and can be approached again and again."
How long is it before something you've written disgusts you? Is it immediate, as though the page was smeared with your own excreta? Does it get easier to live with the more distant you get from it?
"After the period of disgust, it doesn't have much effect on me, I find it pretty impossible to discuss or have much feeling about it." (This reminds me of his famous statement about the Birthday Party being a slug, nomadic, its slime being its art, "and we are barely conscious of its issue.")
Your first book, though (coming out around now) is a collection of all your writing –lyrics, prose, poetry – all over the seven years. How can you bear all that being aired again?
"That book, King Ink, is more a product of the publisher than myself... I suggested the publisher (Black Spring Press) do it as something to go on... because the novel, which he suggested, has taken almost three years to write, and it was supposed to have been finished two years ago. But it is not so much the writing of the lyrics as the way they are put across that I don’t like. It’s the records I find embarrassing now, not the lyrics."
Do you own the records?
"No, I don't actually. I'm not really in a situation where I'm able to hoard things. I'm too mobile."
The novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, is it febrile and disordered, or is there a narrative?
"There's a narrative. It's set in a small valley in a remote region somewhere in the world – a sugarcane-growing valley. It's the story about the people who live there, based on a series of ironies that bring about a fairly suspenseful conclusion."
Why are you fascinated by closed communities, limited lives?
"They breed a certain ignorance, can be a breeding ground for very extreme emotional releases. Very absurd emotional releases."
One of the things that interests me is your oft-professed indifference to your audience, your lack of interest in how they respond to what you do...
As simple as that?
"It used to be like that... the relationship I have with my audience is probably quite different now... as the audience begin to have a more honest relationship with my work, I actually do respond to the way they respond to me..."
Are you ever intrigued by what it is they get out of it?
"I don't know if it’s necessarily interesting to me... I just try to put as much into it as I possibly can... and that's more for myself than for me... I would hope they would glean something from that..."
Do you worry that they might misrecognise what you're about, respond on a superficial level?
"I've given up worrying about that ... it used to worry me a lot ... I went through some kind of crisis about the way the audience was responding to my performances... "
Do you need to have an audience at all, or would you create even if no one saw it? Is it like a biological need?
"Yes, I think so."
You seem to see yourself as an Artist on High... rather than a participant in a (sub)culture. For instance, you clearly see the interview as an appallingly irksome chore done only for reasons of marketing – rather than an exercise in accountability towards audience who relate to you. Is it just a monologue?
"When I get any real feeling about my audience is in a live situation. Otherwise it's a fairly one-sided thing."
One level of interest that must annoy you is that Goth voyeuristic thing of being into the dark and the uncanny...
"Yes. But I don't think any mass of people are going to understand what I do properly anyway."
Are you in touch with the culture in general... does pop impinge at all?
"To a degree... I follow my instincts... my instincts tell me that there's not much to be involved in."
Was there a time?
"Some years ago the music scene was healthier, it was possible to find some inspiration in that."
Your music's become steadily more structured, stately even... do you have sympathy anymore for the self-immolation school of rock Bacchanalia? If there was a band doing now what the Birthday Party did then, would you think it was redundant, played-out?
"Not necessarily... I would need to know what the music was like..."
Your songs are more like torch songs now than torched songs.
"I respond to that sort of thing now, rather than the other. I listen to the kind of things on Kicking Against The Pricks. Country and western. Blues music. I'm also interested in 'entertainment' music, what some people see as corn. Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, and so forth."
What do you see in them?
"I just find them exciting, I find Tom Jones's voice exciting [with immense, sepia weariness]. I haven't really thought of the reasons why."
Do you prefer not to have a critical consciousness, this parallel layer of awareness?
"Yeah. Or rather... I just don't have it. I find it more healthy to be able to respond to things on a more immediate level."
Healthy is a strange word from someone with such morbid preoccupations.
"I'm not trying to put across the idea that they're a favourable way of being. They just interest me."
Do you ever feel angry about things that aren't concerned with yourself and your immediate environment?
"I don't feel quite so numb about social issues, these days."
Cave makes two forays into celluloid this year. The first is a cameo in Wim Wenders latest film. The Bad Seeds appear at the end, playing in a nightclub.
"Wenders approached me one day, and asked us if we wanted to be in his next movie... . an SF movie... set in 13 different countries. We were to represent Australia, musically. But it would have taken a long time, there were delays, and he embarked on another film in the meantime and gave us this small role."
Cave has a slightly more substantial involvement in the other film, tentatively titled Ghosts of the Civil Dead.
"I have a not very big part, and was initially involved in writing the first two drafts. But by the sixth draft, there weren't many of my ideas left. The character I play is a kind of known provocateur. The character is brought into the prison, one of the new hi-tech ones, in order to disrupt the equilibrium of maximum security life... he's a psychotic with some kind of death wish... spends his entire time screaming abuse... he's a racist."
You've been represented, and have represented yourself, as a misogynist.
"I think I've been stitched up in respect of that."
Women do seem to get it in the neck in your songs, though...
"Yes, but I think men are subjected to the abuse of life as much as the women are. I just find there's something essentially more exciting about seeing women being abused. Possibly because it is usually men you see in films subjected to violence. There's a violence for women and a violence for men, and when you see a woman subjected to a man-size violence it's usually quite shocking."
So women, being repositories for the sacred, are inviolate, and therefore it's a more powerful effect, artistically, when they're violated?
"Yeah, something like that."
After punk's demystifying, secularising influence, you were the first to start using imagery of the sacred and desecration, the Biblical language of revenge and guilt. Is that because you think that language is truer, more primal, what all of us, in our hearts, still believe in?
"I'm not really sure I'm interested in whether people believe in it, or whether it's true to today's standards."
Is it true to how you felt? Have you ever wanted to exact revenge?
"I think the worlds I create are kind of mythological... I don't know if they have much relevance to today."
And is that today's loss? Is contemporaneity impoverished for losing touch with what you're about?
"I think there's a certain numbness in the world today... that accepts certain kinds of violence, but is against other kinds of violence."
So you have a kind of ethics of violence?
"Yes, I do."
Once again I think of River's Edge, the dialogue between Feck the reclusive fugitive from justice, the girl-killer who despises but above all pities the teenage killer because he had no reason to kill his girlfriend. Where Feck killed because of an excessive love (like a Nick Cave character), out of a deluded dream of possession, the teenager killed only to get a stronger grip on his diminished sense of his own being, depleted by media hyper-reality. A dialogue between two different ethics of murder.
Do you worry about your own mortality?
"I have periods where the thought of it is quite frightening. The only consolation is seeing that old people come to terms with it in some way. But I'm no way ready for my death myself."
(A heavily loaded question:) Do you think you're doing the best you can to avoid dying?
There's the slightest of gasps, a tiny glimmer of semi-amusement, and for a moment we're almost communicating.
"Yes... I think I'm doing the best I can."
Pretentious, moi alert: Coincé? Coincé ?!?!1
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY / NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
Heehaw (1980; 4AD 1989)
Prayers On Fire (4AD 1981)
Drunk On The Pope's Blood EP (4AD 1982)
Junkyard (4AD 1982)
The Bad Seed EP (4AD 1983)
Mutiny! EP (4AD 1983)
It's Still Living (Missing Link 1985)
A Collection... (Missing Link 1985)
The Birthday Party: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit 1987)
The Birthday Party II: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit 1988)
Mutiny/The Bad Seed EP (rec. 1983; 4AD/Mute 1989)
Peel Session Album (Strange Fruit/Dutch East India, 1991)
Hits (4AD/Warner Bros 1992)
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
From Her To Eternity (Mute 1984)
The Firstborn Is Dead (Mute/Homestead 1985)
Kicking Against The Pricks (Homestead 1986)
Your Funeral... My Trial (Mute/Homestead 1986)
Tender Prey (Mute/Enigma 1988)
The Good Son (Mute/Elektra 1990)
Henry's Dream (Mute/Elektra 1992)
Live Seeds (Mute/Elektra 1993)
Let Love In (Mute/Elektra 1994)
director's cut, Spin Alternative Guide to Rock, 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged
Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges. But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison. Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic
ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.
The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An awesomely
original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone guitar. After this debut, The
Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor. But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and
string sections. Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity. Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of
obsession, sickness and debauchery.
Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence--figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion. On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's
itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of
"King Ink". Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on It's Still Living and Drunk On The Pope's Blood). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a
rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-
spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes.
Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's. Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of
'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'. The patchier Mutiny peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.
After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These
Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star. Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry
Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity. Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the
Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto"). The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey. Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a
hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.
1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn". A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent
dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over". Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral... My Trial. On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-
hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here). Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.
Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment. As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight. The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain
(the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock. Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically
(the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut. Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of
vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.