Features Australia

Cave’s cautionary tales

Will rock stars be the next victims of cancel culture?

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

Mr Nick Cave is an Australian rock star, sensationally good at his job in my musical opinion, blessed with the looks of a vampire and possessed of a remarkable talent, at his best, for writing up a lyrical storm and riding on it with great baritone flair. When I last saw Cave in concert with his longtime band, the mean-as-blazes Bad Seeds, he seemed to stand at least eight-feet-tall on the stage — matching suit, black hair swept back, face white as chalk — looking out with unalloyed pleasure at the enthusiastic crowd in my New Zealand hometown of Wellington.

Well, hello, and welcome to the nightmare. A few years on, speaking recently in Copenhagen, the same artist is still looking out, only this time with bemusement. Today he beholds a rather different crowd, yonder on the horizon but drawing ever closer, a revolutionary mob making an all-out assault on the citadels of the popular culture, the sound of tumbrils rolling along Jubilee Street as they carry more and more important works of art and literature to the guillotine.

In a recent press conference, his first in five years, the sixty-three-year-old warned that the times are about to become trying for many of the contemporary musicians who until now have generally been immune from the wrathful winds blowing through other parts of popular culture, toppling old icons and even laying entire careers to waste.

The taller they have stood, the harder so many are currently falling, he says, and just because rock and rollers have generally been ‘a little bit immune’ to the trend, ‘I would say it’s coming for music, too.’ No prizes for guessing the name of one relocated Melburnian he might have in mind.

Cave has been in the business of exorcising demons for five decades now. He knows a terror in the night when he senses one. He also knows that the artists most at risk of having work abruptly ‘cancelled’ are more often than not liberal-minded figures who may have simply strayed from a perceived party line here or there. As writer Jonathan Kay recently noted, there are numerous popular writers and broadcasters who promote deeply conservative themes without attracting any notice from the mob, but woe betide the left-field eminence who gets caught out on a minor ideological infraction.

This can only be a huge potential problem for somebody like Cave. He is a writer in the tradition of his well-chosen heroes, William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, submerging himself in the difficult but rewarding task of creating socially marginal characters who are largely unlike him, but whose stories are tied up with a larger point he is trying to make about life. These themes he often drives home with hammered fragments of blues-tinged guitars or the gentle, gorgeous keyboard flourishes that have come to dominate so much of his recent work.

Over the course of his own liberal-minded career, Cave has crushed out 18 albums (Carnage, the latest one he produced with longtime sideman Warren Ellis, is a dark gem), along with a bunch of soundtracks, books and plays. A new book, Stranger Than Kindness, which has just been published, fleshes out much of this activity with unusual photographs, copies of his original lyrics — including one set he wrote in blood while he was the gaunt young frontman of the Birthday Party — and elegant comments from the artist himself. The new folio complements a well-received exhibition of the same name, which was recently held in Copenhagen, featuring more than 300 of Cave’s objects.

For anyone yearning to take offence, there’s an embarrassment of riches here to choose from. You really don’t need to look far. ‘Saint Huck’, the first song Cave ever recorded with The Bad Seeds, for their debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, in 1984, comfortably fits the bill. This track has the singer in the character of Mark Twain’s most ‘controversial’ literary creation, replete with the racially loaded asides that are essential to the original story.

Many critics have applauded Cave for his instinctive — and, for a provincially raised Australian, unusually empathetic — understanding that, beneath its surface folksiness and comedy, the novel Huckleberry Finn is a tormented meditation on the American South as it was in the 1880s, its fevered prejudices, ghastly restrictions and, beneath it all, yearning for freedom.

But seeing into such things is no longer the cultural style. If the works of Faulkner, O’Connor and even Mark Twain himself can arouse the ire of the revolutionary prosecutors for doing as much, why shouldn’t musical items created in the same tradition also be tossed into the tumbril?

Next up on to the scaffold could be pretty much any of the recordings Cave produced from the 1980s onward, including The Firstborn Is Dead; a rendezvous with the blade surely awaits what some might describe as that album’s ‘culturally appropriated’ homage to Blind Lemon Jefferson, for starters. Another delicious track, ‘Stagger Lee’, offers the choice to the easily offended to take umbrage at its rampant murder story or else the possibly insensitive lyrical depictions of man-on-man fellatio. Elsewhere, on the crooning ‘Loverman’, for example, similarly problematic ideas abound. Mostly, though, it seems to me, and more to the point it appears to the artist himself, it’s the overriding point of these compositions that could be the ultimate problem.

Cave, everywhere, is really singing about people who make mistakes, who fall down rather large holes, yet manage to get back on their own feet in the end and find some kind of redemption or at any rate forgiveness. Characters, you could say, who are not unlike the artist himself, and maybe you and me, too.

Why is this sensibility important? ‘If we don’t have forgiveness, we don’t have the freedom to speak our minds, we don’t have freedom to make mistakes,’ he explained at the press conference.  ‘And the way we grow as human beings is to make mistakes. We make mistakes and we learn from them. If we make a mistake and our lives are suddenly over, our lives are cancelled, then we don’t have freedom to grow and we don’t have freedom to grow as a society.’ While the idea that we can somehow purify the past by removing such characters and the artists who create them from the cultural record strikes Nick Cave as perfectly ‘crazy’, the evidence of the popular culture right now offers a bigger word of caution: get ready for a haircut.

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