AUSTRALIAN MUSIC - NICK CAVE
Book Review, October 1996, pp.
How many Australians
publish a first novel which sells 30,000 paperbacks and is translated
into half-a-dozen languages? Seven years later and the author’s name
is still to appear in the annual bibliographies of Australian
Literary Studies. Australian
Book Review failed to notice the best-seller. The same writer has
performed his verse in more venues than the Community Arts Board has had
applicants. Between times, he laid the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.
The author is Nick Cave
and his novel is And the Ass Saw
the Angel. Cave would not be surprised by such neglect because he
knew from the start that Rock is the most despised area of the arts.
Indeed, from the late 1970s, the group to which he first belonged,
“The Boys Next Door”, set out to prick that prejudice.
Cave also merits the
attention of theatre scholars since his performance style transformed
relations between band, roadies, bouncers and audience. His gigs were
Brechtian in as much as the musicians were not the only ones with a
licence to impress. After violence between the band and the crowd became
an attraction, anything could happen. Cave was scarred by cigarettes.
Yet when he launched himself onto the heads of audiences they passed him
around before depositing him back on the stage from where the front row
clamoured for him to belt their heads with his mike. Risk of
electrocution was high.
In an era when popular
culture is the rage in Cultural Studies, the overlooking of Cave is at
first sight paradoxical. One reason is that neither his music nor his
writing is pop. If his medium has had any message, it is that aggressive
rock can be intelligent. To read his novel demands concentration and not
just the scholar’s ability to identify which debt is to Flannery
O’Connor and which to William Faulkner.
Cave’s lyrics became
short stories, even one-act plays. Some couplets are repeated as is the
way with song, but his inventiveness can stretch over fourteen verses.
The sour quality of his lyrics can be tasted in this stanza from Papa
won’t leave you Henry:
These two books about
Cave and his groups complement each other, making both essential for an
overview of their talents and terrors. Johnston’s Bad
Seed spends more time on the years since 1983, whereas the
Brokenmouth book fades away at the point when the old gang splits.
comes with footnotes and catalogues of the recordings, films and
publications. He is perceptive on Cave’s novel as he is about its
evolution from songs such as Swampland
and an eponymous film script. Brokenbouth is critical of Cave while
apologetic for the self-indulgences of the others, perhaps because his
text includes so many slabs of their taped interviews.
Brokenmouth evokes the
feel of the music which touched bodies as much as it struck ears. Words
are necessary because recordings never captured the sound. Studio mixes
and fiddling overlaid the impress of the raw concert. However, some
disks do present Cave’s voice at a frontier of noise-making. The
outside world is in these books mostly as avenging coppers. Social,
political and economic forces since the oil crises are barely glimpsed,
even when Cave was living in Sao Paolo.
As their self-mocking
name implies, “The Boys Next Door” were from the wrong side of the
Yarra. In the contest between subversion and hedonism, they were paid up
self-indulgers. The idea behind it was to change moral attitudes.
According to their roadie:
They’re all private
schoolboys, a bit like Hugh Grant, Upper middle class, close to peerage,
don’t know the seamy side of life.
They learnt. In
performance, they were more often drunk, reserving drugs for relaxation.
The band did not consider themselves to be heavy users, no more than a
hit a night and three lines of speed to keep awake. Their soberest
member was the most psychotic because he could see what was going down.
A further point of
interest for cultural studies is Cave’s expatriation since 1981 which
counterpoints the drifts away from the assumption that Australians must
go to bloody abroad to fulfill their talents. The other “Boys” came
home to stay, or die, in the early Eighties. Cave can still call
Australia home: “When I’m in Australia, for instance, I laugh all
the time”, he told a British reporter in 1992. “I feel I’m
understood a bit more there because I have an Australian sensibility
St Kilda around 1980
was replete with expats at home. When “The Boys Next Door”
first returned from London they were rating higher here than when
they had left. Perceived success over there – of which they had had
none – was still the criterion for acceptance among those who prided
themselves on not being provincial. “The Boys” had found English
audiences to be as responsive as a “spilled half-packet of frozen