Features Australia

Cave diving into the culture wars

A rock icon refuses to play the woke tune

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

If Nick Cave is the answer, what is the question? Almost any you might fancy putting to him, as it happens, at least if you have been one of the thousands lucky enough to nab a ticket to one or other of the lean Melburnian’s conversational performances that have been proving as much a bracing cultural tonic for the political times as just another bunch of tunes by one of our region’s preeminent musicians.

‘Experiments in connection,’ is how Cave describes these solo appearances with a distinct difference — no band, no moderator and pretty much no stopping anyone in the crowd from getting to their feet and briefly playing the gimlet-eyed interviewer.

And the artist himself is different, too, light years removed from the premature burnout he was a generation ago — his canyon-deep voice back then like pebbles vibrating in a rusty tin drum, a face already wearing the traces of a little too much hard living. No matter what the new Cave composition used to be, it always seemed to sound like it was written in an apartment where the electricity had been shut off, the curtains kept drawn all day and black cushions piled up next to every door.

He was so much older then, he’s younger than that now. And speaking to the young as well, at least if their rapt attention at the venues has been anything to go by.

These recent appearances haven’t just showcased a veteran simply nattering on about the old hits (although he does play a few on a grand piano as he goes, beautifully phased and phrased on the night I caught the first New Zealand show) or amplifying the usual rock and roll concerns of an artist’s last and next album (although there’s a bit of that, too) or why the music business has gone to blazes in the (can it be possible?) 40 plus years he has been in the game. They have been more mood-enhancing than that.

At 62, one of Australia’s original bad boys is making a little history by diving into the culture wars and landing in places one might not have predicted. For Nick Cave isn’t so much ferociously kicking against the pricks as elegantly inveighing against the wokes; a conservative rebel, almost, at war against the conventions of the unconventional.

Actually, Cave doesn’t really have any grand answers at all. And that’s sort of the point.

Instead, simply by circling around some of the great media-generated issues for which many others believe they have discovered the one true way —whether having to do with the Middle East, environmental certainties or sexual switch-hitting — he’s offering rebuttals to those whose paternalism and doctrinal sureness plainly repels him.

These conversational interludes will be continuing into 2020. After that it’s on to a more conventional tour featuring Cave’s long-time backing band, the Bad Seeds, promoting the sombre charms of a new album, Ghosteen. Predictably, the latest record showed up on almost every insider’s best-of list for the year just gone, but it’s this other aspect of his activity that deserves at least as much notice.

The current tour has also been about promoting a new work. It’s not a recording, though, but an online venture, The Red Hand Files, an ongoing series of exchanges with fans.

Much of the correspondence is deeply personal, as might be expected for an idea that took shape in the wake of the unexpected death of the artist’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, but these days, everywhere, the deeply personal is the deeply political, too. There’s a fair amount of that as well.

‘Living in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, beyond dogma and grand conviction, is good for the business of songwriting, and for my life in general,’ he writes in response to a question about how ‘woke’ he is. ‘Regardless of the virtuous intentions of many woke issues, it is its lack of humility and the paternalistic and doctrinal sureness of its claims that repel me.’

As someone who prefers to live in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, eschewing dogma and grand conviction wherever he encounters it, Cave concludes, he is simply repulsed by such ‘self-righteousness’.

Elsewhere, addressing the seemingly never-ending list of potential apocalypses said to be set to end life as we know it, Cave swerves away from the usual showbiz posturing and cardboard condemnations of the predictable political suspects.

Instead he suggests trying a spot of, well, meditation. ‘I found that it also helps with low-level anger, uncommunicativeness, resentments, impatience, passive-aggression, depression, self-obsession, hatred of the world, blaming others, wanting to murder and maim people and a host of other maladies that I had been dragging around and allowing to define me.’

A self-described American ‘not-man, not-woman, pseudo-dyke fan’ steps up to thank him for being a role model, and asks for the best advice in navigating the trans era. ‘I am honoured to serve as a placeholder until someone more suitable comes along,’ Cave responds balefully.

Another sexually-nonplussed fan, a 16-year-old Italian, can’t stand her body. This ought to be a cue for the young woman to be told that hormones and reconstructive surgery are just what the doctor is ordering. Instead, the rock star’s reply is positively Pauline: ‘Seek out beautiful things, inspirations, connections and validating friends,’ he offers soothingly. ‘At all costs, try to cultivate a sense of humour. See things through that courageous heart of yours. Be merciful to yourself. Be kind to yourself.’ And one more time with feeling: ‘Be kind.’

To an anguished Jewish woman whose mother was killed by a white supremacist: ‘Perhaps, at this time, your anger is a way of safekeeping the spirit of your mother, of caring for her, of seeking her, of calling her to you. It is a pure and holy anger.’

Speaking of things Jewish, he also has a few words for those wondering why he did not sign on to the BDS campaign being promoted by some fellow musicians to isolate Israel, and instead booked a couple of dates (plus a couple more this coming northern summer) to perform in Tel Aviv: ‘I simply could not treat my Israeli fans with the necessary contempt to do Brian Eno’s bidding.’

And on it goes. There are endless subtleties here with a surprisingly light touch for the thoughtful fan to take away — and in many cases no ultimate resolution at all. Which, in this era of cast-iron certainties, is the best sort of rock ‘n’ roll. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to be happening in 2020? Ask Nick Cave.

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