Strip away the rockstar and all you're left with is a man, his loves, his traumas, and his soul
“This was intended to be an exercise and intimacy and connection,” Nick Cave tells the sold-out main hall of The Barbican as he introduces the London leg of his Conversations tour. He smirks, “before it ended up being an exercise in revenge!”
For the last year, The Bad Seeds‘ frontman has shunned conventional media interviews and focussed instead on answering questions from fans via his website The Red Hand Files. Responding to all manner of matters concerning the death of his son Arthur, inspiration, morality in rock, the chances of Grinderman reuniting, the “cultural sea change” facing women and his stance on the cultural boycott against Israel, Cave has been unflinchingly revealing more about himself than you could ever have expected – especially from such an enigmatic figure, steeped in mythology. Tonight’s open-floor Q&A is the next step in Cave’s quest for transparency.
“I think the rock star, you gotta be able to see from a distance,” said Cave said in his 2014 dramatised documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. “It’s something you can draw in one line… They’ve gotta be godlike”.
Iconic and vampiric, Cave’s on-stage presence is immediately a little overwhelming, but with a little disarming banter and immediately opening the floor to questions, he quickly sets about revealing the real man behind the myth.
One of the earliest question calls for Cave to play agony aunt to an audience member who asks for advice on how to deal with heartache and loss. His response is to explain that grief and heartache can’t be expressed or solved through platitudes, but that the whole experience is a necessary part of growing and developing a personality. “There’s huge beauty on the other side of trauma and suffering”. You won’t hear that on Jeremy Kyle.
“The difference between losing someone and having your heart broken by someone is that to you can always say ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea’ and ‘time will come and heal you,’ because those two things are true,” says Cave in his answer. “When someone dies, it’s just different.”
Nothing is out of bounds. Later, when speaking of his relationship with his heroes, he reveals that Leonard Cohen emailed him after his son died with a simple message that read, “I’m with you, brother”. Explaining how much these four words meant to him, Cave shares what the tragedy taught him about compassion in others – honouring his friend and bandmate Warren Ellis as “simply a strong force” in his deepest times of need.
“A lot of people don’t know how to be around at those times; a lot of people don’t know how to deal with grief,” he says. “There’s a big difference between being compassionate and empathetic. Empathy is when you feel what the other person is feeling, and in these moments you don’t want to reverberate fear and sadness wherever you go. Someone compassionate will know how to just be around you, make you a cup of tea.”
He later comments: “I often feel the presence of my son. I don’t know if he’s here or not and it doesn’t matter. It’s the same with God. If he exists or not is not really the point – but to feel him is the true connection.”
It’s a humbling privilege to hear him be so real and frank, but you can see he’s getting as much out of it as we are. “I don’t do therapy any more,” he says, “now I do this”.
On inspirations and process
Honouring, Marc Bolan as one of his all-time heroes and “right up for me as a lyric writer”, we’re treated to a piano cover of T-Rex‘s ‘Cosmic Dancer’ – which he then revels to be one of the three songs he’d have played at his funeral alongside ‘I’m Gonna Kill That Woman’ by John Lee Hooker and his own ‘Brompton Oratory’. He explains a great deal about his creative process, noting his need to wear a suit and write as part of a daily office job routine as he “doesn’t believe in writer’s block”. He argues that writers shouldn’t fear exploring the extremes of masculinity as “rock n’ roll is supposed to be dangerous” and instinctive. This is what he was born to do, and he knows that the music is bigger than he is. “It’s impossible to be sad on stage,” says Cave. “The connection that you feel and all the energy between you and the other people takes you to a place beyond these emotions”. By combining his open-heart approach to us with his stirring and stripped back renditions of classics ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Stagger Lee’, an outing of underrated Grinderman gem ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ and a devastating closing of ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Skeleton Tree’, that connection has never felt stronger.
On glittering pubic hair
There are plenty of LOLs too. The biggest belly laugh is saved for when he goes off one about his “pathological disgust for perfume”. At one point he’s quizzed about an old quote that his song ‘Green Eyes’ is about Tori Amos rubbing sparkles into her pubic hair, something he puts down to just “being really fucking bored” in one of an endless run of interviews. “I’m not familiar with that part of Tori Amos,” he concludes.
One of the final questions asks how he feels about his journey from being a “cult NME figure” to the icon he’s seen as today.
“I don’t think of myself in those terms”, he replies. After the experience of tonight, the pedestal has been kicked over. Strip away the rockstar and all you’re left with is a man, his loves, his traumas, and his soul. An artist of his stature doesn’t have to open himself up like this, but we should feel so lucky that he is. Here’s hoping that others do the same.
Nick Cave’s setlist was:
God Is in the House
West Country Girl
Cosmic Dancer (T-Rex cover)
Avalanche (Leonard Cohen cover)
The Mercy Seat
The Sorrowful Wife
Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry
Palaces of Montezuma (Grinderman song)
Into My Arms