THE KING IS DEAD / LONG LIVE THE KING – Nick Cave, Politics & The Lash

As I write this Nick Cave, iconoclast, free-thinker, arch-contrarian, also seminal musician and songwriter with The Bad Seeds, is warming a bench in Westminster Abbey in attendance at the grand spectacle of the first British coronation in 70 years, where Prince Charles III finally ascends to the throne.

It was quickly leaked that Cave appeared on a (very short) list of notable ‘Aspirational Australians’  invited to attend the service, sparking a pile-on of shock, encouragement and outright horror from fans, journalists and critics. With Cave no-doubt receiving multiple emails questioning his decision he responded –as ever– by writing back through The Red Hand Files he explained attachment to the Royals in his ‘cute’ and ‘quirky’ terms: “the strangeness of them, the deeply eccentric nature of the whole affair that so perfectly reflects the unique weirdness of Britain itself.” 

Cave decision to attend the coronation of Charles III has met with much criticism, some fans declaring somewhat histrionically “I’ll never listen to a Nick Cave record again” as if he had placed the crown on ‘the king’ himself. While others commended Cave’s single-minded indepence not to bow instead to weighty public pressure to boycott the event as a Republican protest against the monarchy. Cave made a point of declaring his right to open-minded thought by choice (and implicitly free speech?) – though he claimed not to be a royalist; and attending the event out of sheer curiosity, offering a slightly faux-naive argument that to do otherwise would suggest a lack of interest in the world, arguing that he is not: “so spectacularly incurious about the world and the way it works, so ideologically captured, so damn grouchy, as to refuse […]”  suggesting that to skip the event would be an act of ignorance in the face of wonder – the armour of sentimentality wears thin against real-world concerns of what Cave called: “the interminable but necessary debates about the abolition of the monarchy”.  Regardless of your views, the choice to attend and tacitly support the event carries some political weight, just as politely refusing the invitation would do so. Ultimately I doubt Cave cares much what people think either way:  ‘Head high and fuck em all’ as the Cave Things merchandise declares – and ultimately fans and critics should respect his personal choice – they are free to draw their own conclusions.

This is not the first time Cave has stepped forward to bear witness at climactic and world-changing events. The Bad Seeds 1985 track “Tupelo” uses the metaphor of the Tupelo-Gainsville tornado and subsequent floods that hit the small Mississippi towns in April, 1936 to coincide with the birth of Elvis (1935) as the second coming of the new Jesus Christ; and therefore the arrival of the future King Of Rock and Roll. Cave’s lyric extends far beyond the original John Lee Hooker song, moving from a call for mercy towards a cry of self-loathing damnation to reimagine the song as a completely new track, But that’s another blog post…

After looking over years of interviews Cave consistently expresses himself as an intelligent, independent and articulate thinker, which I think is part of the reason the Red Hand Files is written so well and works so well on the page. Cave’s interview responses are often suitably nuanced, poised/posed, as to leave room for flex and certain ambiguity; by many accounts he listens far more than he speaks in these discussion, taking great thought and care in how he answers questions. In the direct communication of The Red Hand Files Cave goes to some lengths to be empathetic in his responses, exposing something of his own pains in trying reflecting other people’s situations; even where he finds a dead-air space of disagreement. Though Cave talks well, it is never with exacting detail; neither excusing or seeking permission for his choices, personal, political or artistic. It is on the hill of open and rational discourse (in good faith) that he claims to make a stand; without the wish to appear so dramatic as to die upon it. 

Many fans have noted a recent shift in Cave’s views toward the right-wing of politics, entertaining more established media organs than anything left of field, some more outlying than others, for example, “Conservatism is an aspiration” Quillette, “Loss is a thing that we become” The Spectator (great interview), “Christ, the Devil and the Duty To Offend” Unherd; contrasted with The New York Times reflections on death and loss and his excellent Church Times interview and elsewhere with Rowan Williams for The Times, which is more humanistic than evangelical, BBC Newsnight and The New Statesman, traditionally considered a more Leftist magazine.

At times Cave’s frustrated and grumpy rhetoric about how modern discourse ‘ain’t how it used to be’ edges closer towards the myopic anti-censorship free-speech arguments that we are more used to hearing from the Daily Mail and GB News. However, I’ve always admired Cave’s open admission that the value of free speech comes with the price of very serious real-world responsibilities – where the speaker must be willing to face-up to the consequences of their words and expect to be called-out and challenged, not as a dog whistle, but to expect scrutiny. This remains a perennial issue often ignored or swept under the rug by extremist politicians and commentators in the UK obsessed with an imagined ‘culture war’; who call for open debate but can’t stand to have their views challenged – witness a certain cabinet minister blethering about the value of freedom of speech being more important than people in working poverty who can’t afford to heat their homes or feed their children. 

Casual extremism seems to become more common to older rock stars but where Van Morrison has become a lunatic anti-vax conspiracy campaigner ( I love 1974’s Veedon Fleece so much!) and Roger Waters has gone full-’The Wall’ as a megalomaniac neo-liberal campaigning for peace in Palestine, against Ukraine in favour of Russian aggression, while claiming total creative responsibility for the musical legacy of Pink Floyd (wilfully erasing Syd Barrett and his other bandmates in the process). Nick Cave is still well-short of such political and mental disarray – he remains ever lucid, witty and sane – moving more freely with an independent tack on singular issues without tying his flag to any political party mast (while in Brighton, Cave was surely a Green voter..?) 

Like most artists or musicians moving toward the later part of their career it is a common downtrend of aging males to retreat into varying degrees of nostalgia towards social norms and assumed ‘traditional’ values that feel safe and familiar simply because that was what they grew up with, or fought against in, their own youth. Creatively, Cave has never been such an enemy of promise; the renaissance of Push The Sky Away has seen him reimagine the possibilities of the ‘Bad Seeds sound’; maintaining the constant revolution of the band. I love Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen as savage and beautiful and brilliant testaments to love beyond death that gradually becomes a reckoning of living with grief – what could be more confrontational, terrifying and powerful? People who say demand a return to the ‘old Bad Seeds sound’ – to regurgitate another “Stagger Lee” or “Tupleo” – I tell you there is no such thing. But looking over the many, many years of past interviews with Cave from a near 40-year recording career there have always been leanings to an ‘extreme centre’ position; Cave has made an avowed defense of Israel’s right to exist and the Bad Seeds determination to play concerts in Tel Aviv when most other major bands have actively boycotted that city state, even though it might be considered unfashionable, or even morally irresponsible to do so while young people on compulsory military service with the Israeli Defence Force barely out of their teens tote guns and shoot kids even younger than themselves. Cave would also point out some fundraising efforts for Palestinian charities, though he clearly felt this was explained under some duress (suggesting it was something he rather not declare outright, as if virtue-signalling). More commonly he would attack the conflict itself – not the citizens on all sides caught-up within it. 

Cave would make his position explicit as a Conservative with a small ‘c’; aligning himself to values such as kids playing rough outdoors without rules, pushing against the age restrictions on edgy culture such as Scarface and Lolita, praising the sanctity of marriage and the valuable communion of religion as church and shared faith that can underpin a wider social values – church and state being separate but mutually sustaining (sound familiar?). The somewhat mythic idea of returning to more old-fashioned values quite common to white Christian anglophone societies is a necessary part of the conservative construct, The problem with these stiffened views as that they can easily edge into a desire for harsher jail sentences (public protest can now yield the same jail term as grievous bodily harm); jingoistic nationalism (Brexit!); and general xenophobia towards cultural change (outright racism), reflecting more a Britain of the (still) recent past – 20, 30, 50 years ago. These latter viewpoints are not advocated by Cave; but they highlight the dangerous extremes of sliding towards right-wing edgelord attitudes.

By virtue of inhabiting a very vulnerable public position all millionaire rock stars have to struggle with the mantle of exclusivity, wealth, public image and the unrelenting gaze of the media and popular opinion – such that Cave and his wife were hounded by paparazzi as they went to the inquest over their son Arthur’s death, as Cave said, a mixed-blessing of being “forced to grieve in public”. Praise can just as quickly turn to mud-slinging; where in the age of social media reputations are chiseled apart by zealous splintering factional social media ‘debate’, with fans often tearing other fans apart on political allegiances; while dissent on the best Nick Cave album rarely has anyone keen to draw blood (the Bad Seeds discography is remarkably consistent in tone and quality compared to many of their peers) – the broader polarization of fandom is sad and strange to me. 

Over the years Cave has steadily drawn more fire for his extreme misogynistic positions in his song lyrics. For the first two decades almost obsessed with extremes of emotional love and its seeming opposite of sexualised violence (almost always against women) -for example – the lyrics of 1994’s Let Love In album are full of masochistic relationship trauma; breaking apart and coming together again in love born of chaos, but also allusions to rape, emotional abuse and sexualised violence  – the album makes much shadowplay with Cave’s lyrics painting-in the exaggerated persona he chose to adopt in and out of scenarios as both victim and predator of heinous acts; shifting through a blurring masquerade of wild and passionate romance. All that being said – for me – it’s still a great fucking Nick Cave album.

Nick Cave interviewed by David Peace – 2009

Increasingly Cave would accept the charges of misogyny against his songs, but not himself. Along with the interrogation of the more toxic “reptilian” end of masculinity he frontloaded in the 2009 novel The Death Of Bunny Munro (funny and dark, as only Cave can) while acknowledging the gruesomeness of earlier lyrics such as The Birthday Party’s “Deep In The Woods” with some sense of disgust. Placed alongside the casual sleaze of Grinderman, does it all become tongue in cheek, just a bit of fun, no harm done? The great thinker and writer, Mark Fisher noted this tendency extemporized in Cave’s music that could quickly curdle through mass absorption: “One of the great values of those early Bad Seeds songs, and those of the Birthday Party, was the way that they pathologized masculinity. Masculinity was no longer some invisible normativity, but came into view as something diseased, grisly. As I’ve often remarked, if women want to know what it is like to be inside the body of and brain of an adolescent male, they can do no better than listen to these songs.”

Of course Cave embraces irony as a vague defense; and more recently as necessary flex to make art; there must be valence, and wiggle-room for listener interpretation against the author’s original idea. Equally, Cave would state in the recent conversation book with Sean O’Hagan Faith Hope and Carnage that he hates old interview quotes from 10, 20, 30 years ago being thrown back at him – who wouldn’t – they are easily broken out from context and overexamined, but they remain testament to the songwriter trying to speak to their work, and maybe sometimes struggling to find the right words to fully explain their intentions. Ultimately any proof of darker motives rests in the songs, which can stand-up for themselves, without Cave needing to explain them away to nothing. Don’t like “Stagger Lee” and its trade-off of 50 bad pussies for one good asshole? He’ll give you Blixa Bargeld howling like a wolf with rock drill guitar and the band cracking-up in the studio. Don’t like the blown summer skirts of young girls broken bodies carousing across Brighton; he’ll give you the life of the mind in teenage lads on the lash with nothing but a quick fuck and the death of love on the tips of their tongues. Hate the way women always seem to get murdered before/during/after sex in Bad Seeds songs? He’ll give you a spurned (pregnant?) woman stabbing her lover “Henry Lee” with a penknife and stuffing his body down a well,  shortly after which P J Harvey would break-up with Cave — breaking his heart in the process and helping to give rise to The Boatman’s Call.  The tangle of such extreme works is how the individual artist can remain anti-establishment in their music and but still move easily within the upper reaches of society a position enjoyed by wealth and outright fandom verging on national treasure status – to peek-in on Royal appointments as a quaint relic suggesting a mere shrug at the extreme privilege of their (unelected) position of pure power and entitlement – can the the spectator as critic have it both ways?  

Detail from Charles I – Jean-Michel Basquiat – ‘Most Kings Get Their Head Cut Off’

Again Mark Fisher had deep-rooted thoughts: “The class dimension that Anwyn [Crawford – see her excellent Overland article on Cave’s Lustmordhere] points to the snobbish self-loathing becomes important here, because, as Cave moves from being bohemian-addict Junkyard king to middlebrow fixture, the attainment of a certain kind of respectability is in danger of making the misogyny respectable too.”

For some people, art provides a liberating force of self-expression; others would argue that this should be tempered as an opportunity to make political points and improve representation of social ills; others would prefer to enjoy art free of propaganda, a position plainly repeated by Cave –art is for art’s sake–  that is why it is not bricklaying, journalism or politics – separate vocations. For me it’s a hard debate where I’d prefer to excuse myself and sit somewhere in the middle (?!), not entirely uncomfortably ‘on the fence’, but simply because I don’t have an outright answer.

I think it’s fair to say that we  expect too much of our artists, as fellow human beings they are of course flawed, confused, and can change their mind one day to the next. It is the work that enshrines them in a stuck position, or to be pinned by the darts and arrows of one comment delivered poorly or even dragged out of context. The minimum you might expect is to be ‘entertained’ but for an artist’s values to align with your own; to like and claim to know them as a person through their music or art, to imagine them as a ‘friend’ is just too much to expect  — and why the hell should they be ‘liked’ or deigned towards — you can love the song just as much as you might hate the singer. Anyone can play to the crowd but to create art for its own sake, to zig and zag rather than bend to your audience, or an imagined idea of their expectations, an approach that might yield popular work in the short-term, but it will often be bad, disposable art, soon forgotten. (equally, we need both the high and low of culture to have a healthy lifeblood in art; neither entirely ‘bests’ the other, though they might flow contrariwise to one another)

For me music and art are as much about emotional resonance (a kind of truth) as they are escapism (the willingly inauthentic). I like the non-time-stamped musics of artists like Cave and David Bowie; there might be outrage but there is no agit-prop or dated cultural references that weigh the songs down to history and the burden of facts – the song exists purely in the here and now of our listening and feeling. Through Cave’s songs sometimes explore murderous minds, ecstatic flights of wordplay or deep-hearted grief, the music and lyrics are more universal, reaching from the personal to the universal, that’s why the songs work and that’s why art endures. It is curious to see how much Cave is a fan of bands like Gang Of Four and The Pop Group – highly politicized and musically revolutionary post-punk – they are also shot through with fierce Marxist rhetoric – suggesting Cave loves the energy of such music, if not the direction of its anger.

I am consistently reminded of the excellent The Birthday Party track “King Ink”; where we hear Cave rolling and roiling on the floor, screaming into the mic: “say something; express yourself” if ever there was an open-war declaration of the power of art – free from deadweight political rhetoric – this remains a high water mark of the blood-dimmed, wine-dark tide. 

My book Darker With The Dawn: Nick Cave’s Songs of Love And Death is forthcoming 2023

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