Ian Johnston
Bad Seed: the biography of Nick Cave
Little Brown  344pp.

Robert Brokenmouth
Nick Cave: the Birthday Party and Other Epic Adventures
Omnibus Press 222pp.

Australian Book Review, October 1996, pp. 31-32.

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:

Well, the moon it looked exhausted
Like something you should pity
Spent an age spotted
Above the sizzling wires of the city
Well, it reminded me of her face
Her bleached and hungry eyes
Her hair was like a curtain
Falling open with the laughter
And closing with the lies

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.

Johnston’s account 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 towards things.”

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 peas.”