Here's the bit in the chapter I Am The King where we discuss rock, regal symbology, Bataille's concept of sovereignty and then examine Cave's king fixation:
THE KING OF ROCK
Rock is full of kings. Some are self-proclaimed despots (e.g. rappers); others are elevated and crowned by their followers (Elvis). There are variants on the regal theme: the Boss (Springsteen), rap's gangster chic, the shaman, prophet or Messiah (Bono). So why does rock lend itself to the kingly posture?
On one level, to be king means simply to be the best at what you do. On another, it's the logical culmination of the self-aggrandisement inherent in showbiz. But in a wider sense, the king represents total possibility, the zenith of the imaginable. In the same way, the rock star is the incarnation of his fans' forbidden desires and impossible dreams. When Johnny Rotten compared himself to the Antichrist and declared he wanted to 'be anarchy', he wanted to be a law unto himself. This was the meaning of the Pistols' version of anarchy: not workers' councils and self-criticism tribunals, but the right to be your own tyrant.
Actually, one anarchists' commune in 1850s America practised a doctrine of 'Individual Sovereignty' that was pure Rotten: each person was 'the absolute despot or sovereign' of his life. The concept of sovereignty assumes a special significance in the thought of Georges Bataille; it was his term for a supreme state of being. Sovereignty (equivalent to Lacan's 'phallus') is a pinnacle of unalienated, uncastrated wholeness of being. For Bataille, sovereignty is marked by extravagance and excess, as illustrated by societies whose hierarchy was organised around the squandering of resources. Examples include Aztec sacrifice and Native American potlatch, a form of ritualised gift-giving in which rank was determined by the ability to waste wealth. The modern equivalent of potlatch is rock stars trashing hotel suites or wasting a fortune getting wasted on drugs. From all this, Bataille concluded that there was a fundamental human drive towards prodigality and 'expenditure-without-return'.
True prodigal sons, rock stars have always styled themselves as dandy playboys, always cultivated an aesthetic of excess. Their values are aristocratic, a rejection of the bourgeois creed of deferred gratification, accumulation, investment. Historically, the aristocracy have been the class most able to devote their lives and resources to extravagance (dandyism, combat, gambling, art, 'perverse' sexuality).
Sovereignty is defined by the consumption of wealth because productivity is always servile, according to Bataille. A sovereign existence is one that isn't subordinated to utility, that doesn't involve the employment of the present for the sake of the future. And so the bum or hobo ('king of the road')is as much a sovereign as any monarch, despite his apparent destitution. For the defining mark of the sovereign is that he is, rather than does. Unlike Sartre's revolutionary (who wants to get rid of hierarchy altogether, and who sacrifices his present to work slavishly for that utopian future), the Rebel just wants to usurp the King's place. He wants it ALL and he wants it NOW.
Rock is crowded with these rebel-kings, upstarts turned monarchs....
Iggy is the bridge between the Lizard King and the most king-obsessed rocker ever, Nick Cave.
Cave's regal fantasies began with 'King Ink' on Prayers on Fire (1981). Cave's anti-heroic alter-ego is the king of bohemia, presiding over a realm of squalor and torpid impotence. On the Birthday Party's next album Junkyard (1982), 'Hamlet Pow Pow' turns Shakespeare's Oedipal psychodrama into a cartoon. The dead king's son charged with vengeance against the throne-usurping uncle, who spends most of the play shirking the duty of regicide, Hamlet has long been seen as the archetypal male adolescent outsider; Cave is happy to step into his angst-ridden shoes.
Another kind of ruined king that has haunted Cave's imagination is the pop idol who's seen better days or the rock prophet abandoned by his unworthy flock. He's spoken of his fascination for the late-era Presley, a bloated travesty of his rebel self (Cave's first solo single was a cover of 'In the Ghetto', Presley last gasp of brilliance before the twilight of his creative life really set in). On his second solo album, The Firstborn Is Dead, Cave reappears as 'The Black Crow King'. The album's pastiche ethnological liner notes suggest that the chorus of voices is 'a king surrounded by followers who have learnt to imitate him'--Cave ridiculing and repudiating his Goth cult following? Deserted and preposterous, the Black Crow reigns over 'nothing at all'.
This melodramatic posture--the prophet without honour--would be reprised on Kicking Against the Pricks with his cover of Johnny Cash's 'The Singer', where a messianic minstrel rues his abandonment by a fickle, shallow audience who don't understand his vision.
Of course, self-aggrandisement is intrinsic to rebel rock; singers from Johnny Rotten to Morrissey have resorted to the posture of the martyr, the crucified or spurned saviour. Cave seems particularly fond of the delapidated grandeur of the fallen king. The key song here is 'Junkyard'. 'I am the King' intones an obviously wasted Cave amidst a cacophonous turmoil of brackish guitars that at the time (1982) felt like the final self-immolatory throes of rock'n'roll. Once again, Cave's kingdom is in ruins--literally a junkyard. The title is an inspired pun based on Cave's heroin addiction. The junkie feels like a king, omnipotent, cocooned and resplendent in his solipsistic invulnerability (especially if the heroin is cut with the ultimate megalomaniac euphoriant, speed). He thinks he's God, oblivious to the reality of his surroundings. 'Junkyard''s lyrics revolve around violently compacted opposites: king/junkyard, honey/garbage, heavenly body/brutal violation. The crucial line is: 'there's garbage in honey's sack again', which evokes both heroin's wombing nirvana and the horror of mainlining toxins. Cave's voice disappears into a seething quagmire of purulent sound.
The junkie as twentieth-century king? Bataille never considered it, but it's a plausible development of his notion of sovereignty as sterile splendour. ('Heroin' comes from the German word 'heroisch', meaning strong, powerful, heroic.) Bataille's final paradox was that the sovereign's last word is 'I am NOTHING'. Heroin addiction is a return to the invulnerable self-sufficiency of the foetus, a total escape from the ignominy of the productive world, the purest form of wasting your life. Robert Bly argues that drug addiction is a perverted expression of the yearning for kingly prestige: 'As Romantics we long for that oceanic feeling we felt in the womb, when we were divine and fed by ambrosia. Addiction amounts to an attempt to escape limitations and stay in the King's Room.'
His style model?
Talking of the monarchy, it's always a good time to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with "The Monarch of Middlebrow". Penned by Anwen Crawford for the Australian literary magazine Overland, it's a regicidal tour de force, which dissects Cave's misogyny and tracks his "transformation into an antipodean Elvis Costello... old, mild, and respectably bourgeois" (while still giving fevered imaginings from the early days like "From Her To Eternity" their due).
A few months ago I was in England and staying chez mum, who likes to get in the Sunday papers, and to my surprise, lo and behold, there on the front cover of The Sunday Times Magazine was Nicholas Cave sat in the pews of a church alongside Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Inside, the clergyman interviews the singer about his return to the Church and the role of faith in his life.
I remember when I interviewed Cave back in 1988 he talked about nearly undergoing a conversion during a very long, harrowing flight from the UK to Australia, or Australia to the UK. He'd got seated next to some born-again true-believer, or maybe it was a priest - at any rate, a lot of alcohol had been consumed, some kind of long dark night of the soul had set in, and he became vulnerable to his fellow passenger's pitch, they started praying together. This is going from memory, I can't be arsed to dig through the original cutting, but that's the gist - he was on the brink of accepting the Lord into his heart.
On the one hand, this wasn't so surprising, given that he'd been talking in recent years about how his favorite thing to read was the King James version of the Bible. Religious imagery, a parable-like cadence, had been creeping into the Bad Seeds songs.
On the other hand, it was only a few years since The Birthday Party, where the vibe was much more about sacrilege and defilement.
Like this song:
Second: I gagged it with a pillow
But awoke the nuns inside
They pounded their goddy-goddy fists
(From the inside - so from the outside)
And then the advert for the sex-vampire Goth dancefloor smash "Release the Bats" proclaimed: "Dirtiness is next to antigodliness"
Back in 2009ish, I saw a production of Shakespeare's* The War of the Roses**. At the end of the Richard II section, when Bolingbroke is crowned as Henry IV, they played "Junkyard" over the speakers - with "I am the king" ringing out through the auditorium. A shame that Charles didn't borrow that idea for his own coronation.
I've never really seen Nick Cave as someone particularly progressive or interested in social change. And his seeming lifelong obsession with religion makes his return to the Church unsurprising. Perhaps the only surprise is that he chose the Anglican Church, the most boring church there is - lacking both the ritualistic excess of Catholic and Orthodox and the performative intensity of non-conformists. Altho I can understand a middle-aged man experiencing profound loss and wanting something, well, undramatic.
And I never really thought of Nick Cave as fucking nuns. Writing a book in which nuns were fucked - sure. After The Birthday Party, his transgressions were always kept at an aestheticized difference.
*Rather than Danny Devito's.
**This one: https://www.benedictandrews.com/the-war-of-the-roses-/-richard-ii
That's funny about Junkyard and Richard II,
Nun-fucking, as a metaphor for transgression and blasphemy, seems to be very much what the Birthday Party were about. Swastikas on the record sleeve, drinking papal blood. There's humour there, but it doesn't feel particularly distanced. I think they were on a serious fin de siecle poet style trip: systematic derangement of the senses, toppling the super ego and letting the id run riot. Flower of Evil etc. Silencing the nuns inside your head aka the conscience. Then it shifts to Southern Gothic, Faulkner, etc, but same kind of impulses at work.
Their whole thing pivots around the sacred / sacrilege polarity - a kind of interchangeability or reversibility.
He's never been a progressive, true. All that language of sin and retribution and curses and damnation etc. It's a fundamentally anti-modern worldview.
duke duke duke duke of earl duke duke
Cave es uno de los artistas más pretenciosos que ha dado el rock, no es de extrañar que acabe en la coronación. El que escribe el artículo tampoco se queda corto.
That final excerpt from the introduction to The Sex Revolts makes me think about another early example of king-discourse in rock: A Farewell to Kings by Rush. The theme of the song, the title track to the 1977 album, is that the world is no longer ruled by great wise kings, but by "scheming demons dressed in kingly guise" who are "beating down the multitude and scoffing at the wise." It laments the loss of "the minds that made us strong", and ends with a call to find "the minds to lead us closer to the heart". That's an allusion to a song later on the album that advocates social change led by "the men who hold high places". Not exactly fascist, maybe, but definitely exploring some adjacent psychological territory.
As recently discussed, Neil Peart was not always a great lyricist... He was clearly still deeply in his Randian phase at that point.
On the other hand, Kill the King by Rainbow, released the same year, seems to have the pretty straightforward theme that regicide is cool.
Hasn't John Lydon essentially repudiated the whole republican message of God Save the Queen, even though he'd insist he's never contradicted himself at all? At least Steve Jones would be consistent in dismissing the royals as a bunch of wankers.
He seems to have aged his way into thinking of the Royals, or at least the Queen, fondly, respecting her for having been a plucky old tenacious survivor.
I actually can see where Lydon is coming from, there is no republican message in God Save the Queen as such, it's a diatribe against the way the royals were elevated and treated. It's quite 18th century moral economy, in fact, and quintessentially petit-bourgeois as a result.
You're more likely to find outright republican sentiment in This Heat's deceit album or Nine Funerals of the Citizen King, but they don't have the explosive gut punch of God Save the Queen. Too arty and weird.
I recon this is why the British working class have had a love relationship with Black American dance music (especially hip hop and acid house) cos it provides that instantaneous thrill without the self-aggrandising. If it is true that under capitalist society proletarians can solely see themselves as insipiently bourgeois (without their class institutions) through being proprietors of their labour power, the aspirational nature of black american musics become far more contextualised. Why talk about how prole you are when there's no workers political party? All you end up doing is fetishising your own subjectivity and pawning it off as radical. Why not just centre your subjectivity then, be that the realism of blues/soul/reggae/rnb, or the asocial surrealism and nihilism of hip hop and ultra minimal jack trax acid?
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