In Portland though, the light was perfect. In the middle distance, it outlined Mt. Hood and glanced off the water below the crossy bridges: it turned the brick buildings a deep warm umber, dappled the grass beneath the park trees so they looked all glittery in the twilight; it brightened up all the murals so that it was like walking through someone’s well filtered Instagram feed, in 3 D. I parked three blocks from my destination and thought about how sad it is that, for the rest of my life, wherever I live, as long as it is not San Francisco, I will constantly be chanting “Wow, it sure is easy to park here” to anyone who will listen. Then, as I walked toward the venue on Broadway and Main, a man ran into me on his bike. It was on the sidewalk, and he was going super slow so I was fine, but it was so exactly like an episode of Portlandia it was startling.
I was meeting my friends at the bar next door to the theater, and although it was still an hour and a half til showtime, a long long line of aging hipsters in party clothes already snaked around the block.
“What are they waiting for?” I asked Jason.
“To get in.”
“But it’s seated!”
He shrugged. “I guess they just want to sit there and heighten their anticipation of Nick,” he said. Plus, merch lines, drinks lines, taking selfies with the stage in the background, putting on more lipstick in the restroom…there’s much to do before an important show like this one begins, and it occurred to me how nice it is that old people like myself can still act like we’re at a Taylor Swift concert. Because…Nick Cave! I read something recently where called him ‘hokey.’ But Nick Cave transcends hokum. If his act – like an Evil Elvis gone gothic and mad, ranting and preening, grawling and screaming - doesn’t at least amuse you, then you, my friend, may as well just go play dead.
Is Nick Cave’s thing schtick, or is it in earnest? If you want to really think about this question hard, go watch some videos of his first band The Birthday Party, and even now your jaw will drop at the cheerful and crazy audacity of it all. I swear to god, you will swoon: the sight of young Nick will make you love punk rock all over again.
Jump ahead a decade or so, and revisit the question. Now, as a Bad Seed, his musical mood is decidedly more sinister. The tempo is as slow as mud. The timbre is dolorous. And the key is always as minor as it gets, like, as if a minor key could have its own, more minor key. The most frequently used word in every song is ‘blood’, if not guts; and they are written as if in the first person by the psychopathic murderer in a Jo Nesbo novel. Suffice to say that in Nick Cave’s musical world, pretty much everyone winds up dead.
|A wizard from every fantasy|
But then, that is true of life as well, and therein may lie the pleasure going to see Nick Cave. It’s a long walk to the grave, so…you have to keep on pushing. Now, more than ever before. Hence, here we all are at the Arlene Schnitzer theater, at a hundred bucks a pop, and I hope he’s taking home every god damn cent of it. Because Nick Cave doesn’t just stand on a stage, he looms over it …surrounded by his band, which looks like it stepped out of a daguerreotype of the 19th century’s worst criminals, or, as that one famous meme put it, “like a wizard from each different fantasy sub genre.” To step into their world is to step away from ours for a few hours…and that is a blessing devoutly to be wished. At the start of his show in Portland, I kid you not, a whole bunch of supposed grown ups rushed the stage like little babies, just to get a little closer to the flame. They had to be pushed back by the burly guards. Later, on the encore, Nick told the bouncers to back off. He invited the stage rush once again, and then he did more, he took it up on to the stage with him. Stagger Lee, he killed a man, no he killed three…and he did it all in front of me. Stagger Lee!!
Hokey? To fucking hell with you, and back. One thing I can I guarantee you is that Nick Cave’s audience are readers. It is entirely made up of people who can make that leap from reality to imagination in one second flat…and then wander about in someone else’s crazy landscape, one peopled with murderers, whores and demons. Like a good book, Nick opens his mouth and swallows us whole:
“I read her diary on her sheets
Scrutinizing every little bit of dirt
Tore out a page and stuffed it inside my shirt
Fled out of the window and shinnied down the vine
Out of her nightmare and back into mine…”
And of course it’s all wrapped up and nailed down by a maelstrom that builds and moans and stutters to the top of its bent, rising and rising til a white light bursts upon us and we STOMP the ground like we’ve been whipped or tortured, or as if we were pagan infidels, beating out the rhythm of our special rites. Singing:
…You’ll see him in your nightmares
You’ll see him in your dreams
He’ll appear out of nowhere
But he ain’t what he seems
You’ll see him on the internet
Read his angry little tweets…
You’re one microscopic cog
In his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his red right hand…
|look at all them red right hands|
And we roared, and roared again, as the band crashed down in an avalanche of noise. It was two pure minutes – maybe the two purest minutes I’ve ever experienced -- of unadulterated sonic bliss.
Recently, Dwight Garner wrote a book review in the New York Times about some typical rich lady’s travails, and in critiquing it, he said, “It is impossible to read anything in 2017, or to write anything, without thinking of America’s political and moral landscape. It is tendentious to mention it in every review, but I am thinking of it while writing every review.” And although I had to look up the exact meaning of the word tendentious, I must say I concur. There are ways in which Nick Cave is the least moral and the least political of artists. His work addresses, and exists, on some plain above that lowly and mortal coil, and that is what is so enjoyable about it.
At the same time, that is why, when for that single five word moment, his mallet of judgment descended into the real world, it came down all the harder. When it was over, I thought, “Well then. Can we just do that one all over again?”
But of course, they can’t. To do so would violate the unspoken code of the Rock Concert, the one that says that all songs performed live are unique and unrepeatable – but it’s what I wanted and what I still want, even now, because to be honest, that hammer he brought down so hard on the man in question was so very, very satisfying.
And to be honest it was a little surprising. Watching Nick Cave perform in Portland was awesome, but I had been a bit hestitant to go to begin with. The reason was, that there’s this frisson that comes from knowledge of the truly unspeakable thing that happened to him last year, the worst thing that can ever befall an actual human being, the death of his child. Nick Cave sings only of bad things but that’s why bad things shouldn’t happen to him, his wicked songs should keep them at bay, and the fact that it hasn’t haunted me so badly that every time he spake the world child I literally jumped out of my skin. “This is a weeping song…a song in which to weep. Why are they crying? They are merely crying son/true weeping is yet to come.”
Every word, it killed me, dead, and – despite the subject matter - that is not really the way you should approach a Nick Cave concert; you can’t go into it grieving. Nick Cave is a man who laughs at death. He takes the hoodoo off. He doesn’t put it on again. He himself said, in a recent interview on the subject, “I don’t want people to come along (to the shows) and have to involve themselves in someone else’s drama…I want the shows to be inspiring and uplifting, and to walk away feeling better than they came, not some empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk away feeling like shit."
And so it was. There was healing in there, I knew it when I felt it, and that was the contagion that I caught, god bless. Maybe it was in the sonorous way that he intoned ior the hands that have to keep on pushing the sky. Maybe it was the Mercy Seat, or the Jubilee Song, or the interventionist God he doesn’t believe in. Maybe it was just the sight of him up there, actually healing himself. Maybe it was because, even after all these years, Nick Cave still plunges into the crowd and lets it lay its hands on him. He can part it like Moses. He can make it stand and he can make it sit, he pats it on the head and commands it to clap, and of course, he sails atop it, aloft, held up by love and hands, and there’s a part of me that really needs that now, that pseudo religious thing, and you all know why the hell that is.
|Nick Cave tea towel. Nick has some good advice for you.|
It’s because hell is here now, and it’s for real. It is in the red-handwritten words of new health care bill and in the shootings in Portland. It’s in the way that the guilty go scot free and the innocent keep getting shot. It’s in the terrorist acts happening all over the world, and it’s in the Burger King in Castle Rock. But then there is Nick Cave, who in the same interview linked above, said, “The events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards., affecting everything…our present and our future, of course, but our pasts as well.” And this is so true to me: life is like a series of bells, and if you don't find ways to hear them toll, you will find yourself spiritually deaf.