Gripped In His “Red Right Hand”: An Evening at Church with Nick Cave
When I was ten years old, a friend of mine hosted a sleepover and her mother agreed to let us rent some scary VHSes; I was deemed the expert on such matters, the other little gremlins deferring to me, so I roamed the Blockbuster aisle with authority, selecting boxes that would impress and horrify my less-seasoned friends. At the new release wall I stopped, eyeballing something called ‘Scream’. Wes Craven’s name was what made me pick it up; what ten year old didn’t love Freddy Krueger films? Later, as my friends huddled under blankets in the this-house-has-too-many-damn-windows dark living room, squealing over how cute Skeet Ulrich was and how the killer was probably that one cop (why did they show his boots if it wasn’t him?), a certain song played over a specific scene and I paused with popcorn halfway to my mouth. The song had a weird chiming melody and dark, rich vocals the likes of which my pre-teen self had never heard before. I hunted down the soundtrack on CD and begged my mom to buy it for me; I remember it was around $30 and she balked at first, being a single mom who worked a million hours to keep me fed and clothed, but I begged, promising I’d listen to it nonstop. She gave in and I kept my word; for months on end the ‘Scream’ soundtrack stayed in my three-disc-changer stereo, and I kept going back to one particular track over and over again, fascinated by the poetry of the lyrics, the dark menace of the voice, that strange musical arrangement and soaring instrumental parts. Soon, I had hunted down everything I could find by this singer; by the time I was leaving middle school, I had a nice collection of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums as well as his earlier project, The Birthday Party. Needless to say, none of my friends loved Nick Cave; they were obsessing over Backstreet Boys and NSync, the edgier ones into Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. I was already firmly in ‘weird’ territory, being in love with Bowie and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. But Nick Cave was an animal all his own, somehow like those singers I loved but also so different I couldn’t explain him to people adequately.
The first time I saw Nick was a reverent experience; I was in my late teens and I flew out of state and camped out hours early in order to get a good spot on the barricade. He toured every few years but tended to stay in other countries, particularly South America and Europe, so I wasn’t about to miss him on native soil. I still wasn’t expecting what I saw; the show is a blur to this day and I’m grateful I have the set list to remember it by. I just remember peering up at him smiling so hard my face ached for the entire two-hour set, singing until my throat was raw. Years later I saw him again, this time in Austin with a good friend; once I moved into my twenties I was able to find other friends who liked the same troubadours I did, and my friend and I sang every word along with the powerful man onstage. It was less like a concert and more like a tent revival; Nick shouted and railed and waved his arms and hammered on his piano as if he had a personal grudge against it, then caressed his microphone, crooned words of love and loss and devotion and religious heartbreak, and we all stood enraptured. He was a force of nature we’d never seen the likes of before, and maybe wouldn’t again in our lifetime.
Through the years of his long career, Nick Cave evolved like a madman; he went from a goth-punk icon with teased hair and a surly snarl howling “Release the Bats” in dank, dark deathrock nightclubs to a dapper, well-heeled gentleman writing novels, collaborating with comic book laureate genius Warren Ellis to score movies, and creating albums that wove poetry with haunting imagery and rhythms. With the era of his album “Murder Ballads”, Nick spun tales of madness and woe and death and love in legendary tracks like “Stagger Lee”, “Stranger Than Kindness” and “O’Malley’s Bar”. Guest vocals from PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue and Anita Lane among others helped catapult Nick’s particular brand of obscure oddity into the spotlight, with heavy airplay on MTV for his duet with Kylie called “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (an anguished love ballad about an ill-fated maiden and her sinister suitor) and even earned Nick a nomination for an MTV Award for Best Male Artist. Despite this brief tickle of commercial success and nearly unanimous praise from critics, Nick stayed on the fringes, too weird for mainstream music and too wild to tame down his work to become more palatable to casual consumers. Nick flourished in the shadows for decades, cultivating a massive fanbase worldwide and essentially doing as he pleased; whether it was album, novel, or audiobook, the products he put out were as eccentric and unexpected as the man himself, keeping fans on their toes as they reveled in his strange world. A few years ago, Nick faced a terrible personal tragedy when his young son died suddenly, plunging him into grief and despair; when he returned with the album “The Skeleton Tree”, fans were privy to a level of personal torment and anguish, but also healing and hope, that was unprecedented in Nick’s long and decorated past body of work.
His latest tour came without much fanfare; I was actually stunned when the mailing list informed me that he would be in Dallas in only a few weeks and the tickets would be going on sale in a few days. If I hadn’t gotten that email I would’ve missed it entirely until the tickets were sold out. The show was at a large but still intimate venue, much smaller than the auditorium I’d last seen him in in Austin, and I bought tickets the moment they went on sale. It’s impossible for me to miss someone like Nick Cave, especially with the recent loss of icons like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. The number of true ‘artists’ left are dwindling as pop stars and soulless autotuned robots take their place and digital media blots out many of the less ‘trendy’ artists, but Nick has found a recent resurgence thanks in part to the hipster crowd. When I arrived at The Bomb Factory in Dallas on October 23, I was greeted with a mixture of older fans in comfortable dark clothes and younger fans dressed the way Nick himself does; sharp, slim-cut suits, shiny dress shoes, statement socks perhaps. The crowd had an elegance, but also an excited hunger sharp as blades.
Ominous ambient music similar to a John Carpenter score was piped through the venue as fans filled in every inch of space leading up to the stage; rather than barriers, Nick’s team had assembled scaffolding and catwalks for him to stride out into the audience, since he paces and works the crowd while he performs, and people leaned against it with excited anticipation. He came on fifteen minutes late, lit with moody spotlights set low on the stage wings, and the fans went berserk; the roar of approval was deafening as the other photographers and I scrambled to get shots during the very limited and restrictive window we were given by his team.
The stage presence of Nick Cave must be seen to be believed; even though he’s been doing this for around forty years now, he rips into a song mercilessly or caresses it like a lover. He has an uncanny ability to read a crowd’s mood, to feed off their energy while fueling it with his own. He paced, whipped his lanky body around, threw himself to the floor like a pastor in a snake-handling cult. There’s a wildness to Nick leftover from his punk youth that no amount of dress shoes or hair pomade can hide. His rendition of “From Her to Eternity” had him roaring as he writhed around on the stage, his band thundering around him like the horsemen of the apocalypse; when he sat down at his piano to soulfully croon “The Ship Song”, the girl next to me sobbed openly, clutching her jacket around her like a hug from someone she lost ages ago. The entire crowd sang “Red Right Hand” and threw fists in the air at the loud bonging chimes, shouting back at him during “Do You Love Me?”, “Tupelo” and “Loverman”, but they stood in silent worship when he sings “Push the Sky Away”. Nick has a commanding presence, a scarecrow man in sparkling silver socks and patent Gucci loafers that hint at the playful, whimsical, ‘I do what the fuck I want’ nature that has defined Nick Cave from the moment he arrived on the scene in 1973. He is larger than life, and when his set finally ended with a crashing encore that resulted in a few dozen fans standing on the barrier singing along with him, I was left breathless, staring up at him in wonder. He had summoned something powerful and unnameable in this day and age of digital anonymity and passive-aggressive laissez-faire. He had conjured soul, channeled passion and pain and love and fear and a depth of emotion from an audience that were likely numbed into near-complacency by their everyday lives and jobs and responsibilities. There was nothing numb in that room when the house lights came up, and Nick was a ghost like a character from one of his own songs, vanished backstage and leaving us in stunned, adrenaline-spiked recovery as we trickled to our cars. He had delivered us from something, something we so desperately needed, but we didn’t know it until we were standing at his feet, and 32-year-old me thought of that “Scream” VHS tape and that crooning, strange voice on the soundtrack and smiled a little, remembering.
For new fans of Nick Cave, Amanda recommends:
1. “Red Right Hand”: Perhaps the most widely known Nick Cave song thanks in part to its recurring inclusion in the “Scream” franchise, this song features Nick introducing fans to a certain cloven-hooved charming man who might offer to fulfill their wildest wishes and more. His answer to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, this is a cautionary tale about the Morningstar that fits right in with films like The Devil’s Advocate and Bedazzled.
2. “The Mercy Seat”: Famously covered by Johnny Cash as a commentary about innocent or reformed men on death row, this song is a southern bluesy rock tune about a man set for execution and him coming to terms with his inevitable walk down the green mile. The song draws parallels between the electric chair and the throne of God as described in the Old Testament, bringing in Nick’s fascination with religion and the concept of Heaven and Hell. Nick calls it his ‘signature song’ and the one he’s most proud of from his career, and Rolling Stone magazine listed it in the top 1000 songs of all time.
3. “Where the Wild Roses Grow”: Nick’s most commercially successful song with heavy airplay on MTV, this duet with Kylie Minogue features the two Aussie singers going back and forth as they weave a haunting murder ballad about an innocent, naïve young woman named Eliza Day and her doom at the hands of a mysterious new suitor. Kylie’s pleading and crystalline vocals pair eerily with Nick’s gravely purr and the two together tell an unforgettable tale.
4. “Tupelo”: If you like southern Delta-blues inspired rock and the comparison to Nick as ‘evil Elvis’, then “Tupelo” is a song you can get behind. A spooky and rousing song with lyrics that get under your skin, it’s a toe-tapper all the way through and Nick’s vocals wail and snarl beautifully.
5. “Into My Arms”: is a song that could be either considered a love song or one of terrible loss; I know people who’ve played it at weddings and others at funerals. The chiming piano intro is solemn and beautiful, and the song soars elegantly as Nick, an atheist, informs his love that they’re the only thing that could make him question his absence of faith because if they exist, then angels must be real. It’s a lovely, heartfelt song that has been covered and played in many iterations, but the stripped-down version with just the songwriter at his piano, voice hushed, fingers strong, is the most powerful to me.
6. “Release the Bats”: is Nick’s first big hit from 1982 and has been featured on dozens of goth anthologies and dark rock compilations over the years. It was a huge staple in goth clubs and remains in heavy rotation on many DJ turntables even today, with a very young Nick wailing and shrieking and doing a serpentine, spastic shirtless dance while howling into his microphone. He had the energy and presence of a young Iggy Pop even then, and it never has faded; check out this clip from almost forty years ago to see how little has changed when it comes to Nick’s ability to hold an audience.
All photos copyright Amanda Rebholz of DarkroomLament.com for Ghastly Grinning