February 28, 2019

Musings on Art and Legacy with Nick Cave and VengaBoys

Concerts & Grog Fests, Rage against the manuscript, Writing Runes

conversations with nick cave

A few weeks ago, I attended ‘Conversations with Nick Cave’ at the Auckland Town Hall. You may not be familiar with my Nick Cave obsession. If not – welcome. My name is Steff and I like writing smutty books, roast potatoes, and Nick Cave.

Cave has spoken at length about how the Skeleton Tree album release and tour have connected him with his audience in a way he’d never experienced before, and how – after the death of his son, Arthur – he realised how much he loved that connection. That’s inspired a couple of recent projects of his. In the Red Hand Files, Cave answers questions from fans on music, art, poetry, grief, chaos, life. He chooses the questions at random from the thousands of fans sending in for his thoughts. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is to have your hero/muse/person you deeply admire sharing their intimate thoughts and challenging their own assumptions in your inbox every week. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but I love the discussion.

The other way Cave has been fostering this communication between himself and his audience is with the intimate ‘Conversation with Nick Cave’ shows, where Cave answers questions from the stage in between playing solo, accompanied only by piano. I attended the Auckland event and, yeah … wow.

At the doors to the show the ushers randomly picked around 30 people to leave their assigned seats and sit up on the stage with Nick Cave. I am a bit jealous of those people, but also, they all looked as excited and overwhelmed as I would have felt if I’d been chosen, so I’m not going to hold it against them.

The show was equal parts irreverent and beautiful. I adored the spontaneity of it. He entered the room to a recorded recitation of the Steve McQueen poem that served as the opening credits for the film One More Time With Feeling. The line, “someone has to sing the stars, someone has to sing the pain,” gets me every time. I started crying and didn’t stop until the end.

“God is great, chances are
God is good, well I wouldn't go that far

I'm Steve McQueen the atrocity man
With my strap-on blood porn dream

But mostly I curl up inside my typewriter with my housefly and cry
I tell my housefly not to cry
My housefly tells me not to die"

He opened with The Ship Song. This intimidating, formidable man played his songs of beauty and lust and lies and pain and death and life, and in speaking he was quick of wit, sly of tongue, friendly, and also unable to tame his bullshit-o-meter when confronted with some of the more rambling or annoying questions.

Cave spoke about every person living two lives. The first life is when you are becoming the person you’re supposed to be – you’re learning and building and creating. It’s about the self. The second life is the life you enter after a great sorrow, a ‘luminous sadness’, and he said it comes to all when they’re older, but some much younger, and that this second life was different. The luminous sadness is about connection. He related many questions back to this idea of the two lives.

In the last question of the evening, he told the story of how he met his wife, Suzie. She walked past him at a fashion show and her beauty and poise arrested him. He couldn’t focus. He got her number from a friend and asked her out, which he said he’d never had to do before because “I’m in rock n roll. I don’t ask girls out.” Said with a wink. “That’s not how it works.” He took her out to dinner and had a wonderful conversation and too much wine. At the end of the night he called her a taxi and as she was getting in, “I did something that would’ve got me in a lot of trouble in these times. I kind of lurched at her and kissed her. Luckily, she liked it.”

Another conversation was about the transformative power of music. Nick recalled recording with Johnny Cash toward the end of his life and how the music was all that was keeping him alive. How he met Bob Dylan and wanted to ask him about the meaning of his favourite song but instead just mumbled at his shoes but then later decided it was a bad idea anyway because if Bob said it was ‘just a song’ or something he wrote while high that didn’t mean anything, Nick would be sad.

A teenage girl painted him a tiny picture and he let her come up on stage and give it to him. He said, “it’s actually beautiful. And SMALL. I appreciate that.” He then mimed people who come backstage at his shows and give him enormous ugly artworks.

And he played songs! The Ship Song (my favourite ever), playing the most stunning version of The Mercy Seat, West Country Girl, Far From Me, Mermaids, so many others. He closed with Love Letter.

Recently, a Red Hand Files reader pushed back on a question from the Brisbane event, where Cave stated that it didn’t matter to him what he left behind. “A body of artistic work, that has also had an enormous personal impact on the lives of many people – given meaning, comfort, joy and hope, and shaped their world views – is a legacy to be acknowledged and respected,” the fan countered.

Cave’s response has been deep in my thoughts lately. I could paraphrase it, but I think I’ll just quote his words.

“I very much take your point – my answer was dismissive and unhelpful. As you point out, it undermined the relationship with my work that other people may have. I’m sorry about that. I very much appreciate you writing in and pushing back against my statement.

What I should have said is that I am still actively engaged in the business of songwriting and doing everything in my power to stay afloat. This is not as easy as it may appear and involves a certain amount of self-deception. Part of that process is to occasionally affect a dismissive attitude toward my earlier songs, as if my best work is still ahead of me. How could I continue to write if I believed otherwise? Here, most probably, truth collides with necessity. We look to what ought to be rather than what is. The newly formed song needs all the support it can get to front up to the impossible weight of the hundreds of songs I have already written. Indeed, how can the new idea ever hope to compete with the deep attachment that people seem to have with those past and treasured songs?

I am dancing on water lilies when I write and one’s heritage can have a terrifying tonnage. I must remain one step ahead of the songs, optimistically hopping from lily pad to lily pad, and doing my best to ignore the great dark wave of work that is building up behind me. How many artists have we seen stop and turn around to look, only to literally drown in a pool of their own legacy?

I am sure a time will come – perhaps in the not too distant future – when I can sit back like some loony old patriarch and cast a weepy eye over my legacy, as they wheel me on stage to receive my ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’, but not this year, please, I beg you, not this year.

With Love, Nick Cave

I’ve been pondering this ever since, especially since I also attended another show this month – So POP! A 90s pop extravaganza featuring all the bands I listened to in my youth before Metallica showed me the error of my ways. Aqua, Vengaboys, B*Witched, Eiffel 65, Lou Bega some boy band called Blue… I went with some girlfriends and we danced and sang all night and it was fun.


So POP cashed in on nostalgia, and for the majority of bands on stage, that meant looking back at hits that have long-since faded from the charts and careers that are well past their prime. B*Witched only had two original members. No one played new material – instead, they looked back or they looked to sing-a-long covers to keep the energy up.

I loved it. They’re great, fun songs. But Cthulhu help me that is what I become as an artist.

I think about Nick Cave standing on stage as ‘an aging rockstar’, throwing himself at the mercy of his audience and letting us catch him. I think about the two lives. I think about the fact that it’s what you do in life that must matters more than how you’re viewed in death.

Remember that the artists with legacies we remember were largely motivated by paying their bills. The paintings and sculptures of the renaissance – that we consider to be the height of artistic achievement – was made as work for hire in art “factories” where the master would manage a team of apprentices to create the works. They innovated materials and techniques out of necessity, out of the pedestrian need to see the rent paid.

I think about artists like Bif Naked and Melissa Marr and Lady Gaga and Francesca Lia Block and even Eminem, still pushing boundaries with their work, still growing as artists and surprising and challenging themselves even as their impressive careers loom ever large in the background.

Creativity burns in the veins like acid. You can’t just turn it off. There’s always more to do. I used to worry that if I used up all my ideas in one book, I’d have nothing left for the next one. But now I realise that cannot possibly be true. As soon as I finish a book, I start writing another. I can never entirely eradicate the acid. It’s always burning. And Cave is right, as soon as you turn around and look back, that’s when you drown.

Legacy is what you build by continuing the work. Legacy is that unique voice you lend to everything you do, that makes people recognise your touch even as you switch mediums or modes. You can’t think about what shape that legacy will take because you’re never done with the work, and you’re never around to witness your legacy.

The closest thing to a living legacy, perhaps, is hearing directly from your audience or from other creatives how your work has inspired them. But even that isn’t the same. Nick Cave inspires me, but I think no one will read my books to uncover his legacy.

One day, I want to be standing on that same stage as an older woman, facing down a new challenge in my second life, baring my luminous sadness to the world. My body will be aflame in creativity as a great looming shadow of work creeps up behind me. I will turn my back on it, and leap into the unknown. If I’ve done my legacy right, someone will catch me.

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