Saturday, May 6, 2023

The King of Rock (Nick Cave)

On the subject of Nicholas Cave putting on his smart suit and attending the coronation, someone on Twitter pointed out that in The Sex Revolts we describe him as "the most king-obsessed rocker ever".

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: 


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.

It's not a big surprise really, the signs have been there for a long while (well before the tragedies that might turn anyone to God). 

Just like a bird that sings up the sun
In a dawn so very dark
Such is my faith for you
Such is my faith
And all the world's darkness can't swallow up
A single spark
Such is my love for you
Such is my love

There is a kingdom
There is a king
And he lives without
And he lives within
The starry heavens above me
The moral law within
So the world appears
So the world appears
This day so sweet
It will never come again
So the world appears
Through this mist of tears

There is a kingdom
There is a king
And he lives without
And he lives within
There is a kingdom
There is a king
There is a king
And he is everything

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

My head

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

And of course not forgetting Drunk on the Pope's Blood 

"16 Minutes of Sheer Hell!"

Or the very concept of the "Bad Seed" .

Or "Mutiny In Heaven" 

If this is Heaven ah'm bailin out
Ah caint tolerate this ol tin-tub
So fulla trash and rats! Felt one crawl across mah soul
For a seckon there , as thought as wassa back down in the ghetto!
(Rats in Paradise! Rats in Paradise!)
Ah'm bailin out! There's a mutiny in Heaven!
Ah wassa born...
And Lord shakin, even then was dumpt into some icy font,
like some great stinky unclean!
From slum-chuch to slum-church, ah spilt mah heart
To some fat cunt behind a screen...
Evil poppin eye presst up to the opening
He'd slide shut the lil perforated night mah body
To the whistle of the birch
With a lil practice ah soon learnt to use in on mahself
Punishment?! Reward!! Punishment?! Reward!!

Oh Lord, ah git down on mah knees
(Ah git down on mah knees and start to pray)
Wrapped in mah mongrel wings, ah nearly freeze
In the howlin wind and drivin rain
(All the trash blowin round 'n' round)
From slum-heaven into town
Ah take mah tiny pain and rollin back mah sleeve
(Roll anna roll anna roll anna roll)
Ah yank the drip outa mah vein! UTOPIATE! Ah'm bailin out!
If this is Heaven ah'm bailin out!
Mah threadbare soul teems with vermin and louse
Thoughts come like a plague to the God's house!
Mutiny in Heaven!
(Ars infectio forco Dio)
To the plank!
(Rats in Paradise! Rats in Paradise!)
Ah'm bailin out!
(Hail Hypuss Dermio Vita Rex!)
Hole inna ghetto! Hole inna ghetto!
(Scabio Murem per Sanctum...Dio, Dio, Dio)

The lyrics to "Mutiny in Heaven" always reminded me of that passage in Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, a vision of a cruel and degenerate God  munching on a human corpse, bits of brain in his beard: 

Not finding what I was seeking, I lifted my eyes higher, and higher still, until I saw a throne made of human excrement and gold, on which was sitting – with idiotic pride, his body draped in a shroud of unwashed hospital linen – he who calls himself the Creator!” 

The arc here - prodigal son to taking one's place in the time-honored patriarchy - is fairly classic. 

Similar to Huysmans's arc from Against Nature and Là-bas (aka Down Below - the not nearly as good  as À rebours  novel about Satanism) to the later novels like La Cathédrale, which parallel Huysmans's own return to Catholicism.  

(Mind you the signs were there even in Against Nature - in among the decadent sensualist adventures of the jaded aristocrat Des Esseintes, there's a whole chapter on his obsession with obscure Catholic texts from Medieval and Early Modern era, which he gets printed up in specials editions-of-one that are done to his exacting standards in terms of luxurious binding, paper, typography. Des Esseintes particularly favors the most reactionary and world-hating ecclesiastics). 

That's the point, or one of the points, made in The Sex Revolts - that the Rebel is no revolutionary, the rebellion is against his current subordinate place in the Patriarchy but the aim is to carve out a rival grandeur, an inverted status hierarchy.

But also that blasphemy is simply an inverted form of prayer - a backhanded compliment to the Almighty. "He who fucks nuns will later join the church" as Joe Strummer put it in "Death and Glory". 


In the introduction to a new edition of The Sex Revolts for first-time translation into German, we discuss the trope of kingliness as it figures in the alt-right imagination: 

One of the key influences on The Sex Revolts is the German scholar Klaus Theweleit’s 1977 book Mannerphantasien, a study of the proto-fascist psyche largely based on the writings of the Freikorps in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.  It has been alarming to see the rhetorical tropes that pervade Theweleit’s analysis – swamps of corruption, contaminating floods of immigrants carrying with them disease and crime, the urgent necessity to erect defensive walls to dam up these threatening flows – resurface in electoral campaigns all across the West. Although women can feel the pull of fascist desire, there’s no doubt that men are prey to these anxieties with a particular intensity: as much as they are real political issues or problems, they are also phantasmic proxies and props, displacements and compensations, in the internal psychic struggles of an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.

Given the worldwide rise of strongman leaders who attempt to override parliamentary democracy and the justice system in their various nations, it’s striking that one of the major online sites for the new masculinism is called Return of Kings. Catering to young men anxious about loss of status  and confused about their role in society, it offers advice about how to reclaim one’s “birthright” of alpha-male dominance. As it happens, the symbolics of “kingship” in rock is a theme The Sex Revolts explores. And Klaus Theweleit’s next major work after Mannerphantasien  was a series of volumes titled The Book of Kings.

And we could also have mentioned the whole neoreaction thing with its preference for monarchy over democracy. 



Matt M said...

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:


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.

zarakov d. said...

duke duke duke duke of earl duke duke

Man the Van said...

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.

Ed said...

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.

Stylo said...

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.

Thirdform said...

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?