On Nick Cave, and Elvis Presley as Religious Experience
(Photo illustration by Braulio Amado)
Recently Nice Cave was interviewed by David Marchese in the latter's ongoing interview series in the New York Times. Marchese is a good interviewer, and Cave is invariably thoughtful and eloquent. This is as well, because he's currently promoting a book based on forty hours of conversation with journalist Sean O'Hagan, one in which he covers, amongst other things, the role that music and performance has played in coming to terms with the death of two sons in the past few years.
I like what Cave has to say about art and cancel culture, early in the interview...
DM: In the new book, you say that your experiences over the last few years, and particularly your work on The Red Hand Files, have made you more empathetic, which you also say is not in your nature to be. That’s interesting to me, because empathy is often thought of as being one of artists’ great gifts, even almost a kind of prerequisite. Is that a false or overly romantic notion?
NC: God help us if art is simply done by virtuous, empathetic people. Our compulsion toward making art is to get to the better end of our nature. That’s certainly the case for me. We often come up against “How can I listen to or read these people who are revealed to be bad?” To me, sometimes the poignancy of their art is the distance traveled from it and their worst selves. That’s the thrilling thing about art, and also about reading and then responding to the letters I get in The Red Hand Files. They reveal something about myself that I didn’t even know existed. The Red Hand Files became a way of articulating the journey toward my better nature... So going back to problematic artists: Certainly within music there seems to be some correlation between creativity and transgression. It’s not an accident that the greatest musicians are so often problematic characters. I understand that people have different views on this and that I come from a generation of musicians where it was our moral duty to offend people. It’s why we did anything: to cause dissonance and disruption. To me, there seems to be self-evident value in that. When you look at people who often make extraordinary music, it feels that the journey from the person to the thing they made might have something to do with stepping into this creative realm that is itself valuable and good, regardless of the faulty human that has the courage to make it. I get a little tired of this casting around for bad actors and exposing them. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It feels like the ideal of it is justice and mercy, but the weaponry being used is injustice and mercilessness. That is very uncomfortable to watch, and quite obviously it’s creating a lot of boring, self-important and morally obvious art.
But I was particularly struck by his response to a question about Elvis Presley, in which he speaks of the power, and more specifically, the meaning for him of a late Presley concert performance of American Trilogy.
DM: This is semi-random but did you see the Elvis movie from this year?
NC: Yeah. I was confused by it. Elvis is my hero. There was an aspect to the story of his later years that is almost religious to me. The final Las Vegas concerts were the Passion of crucifixion and redemption and resurrection. In the film, the later years didn’t work in that way. I felt there was a missed opportunity. You see it in the bit of footage that they show of Elvis in the end. There is a man who’s suffering on such an epic level to be onstage and to perform and to live. I found that incredibly inspiring. They shouldn’t have had to have shown that footage. They should have got there on their own. The end was saved by that piece of footage. That’s not even the best footage from that period. There’s the end of This is Elvis. The last 20 minutes of that film, starting with him doing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” where he [expletive] up the lyrics and the camera gets closer and closer to his face and you see that he’s [expletive] up on every level. His eyes are terrified. It’s an unbelievably painful piece of footage. Then it goes on to the footage of the motorcade when he died, and the song American Trilogy which maps out, as far as I’m concerned, the crucifixion and the resurrection. That changed my life as an artist. It was the most stirring thing that I’ve ever seen musically. There was something that was happening at those shows that I’ve never seen anywhere else. When you think you don’t want to do it, you don’t really feel like it tonight or whatever feelings go on when you’re on tour, I often think of Elvis’s commitment to his act. It’s extraordinary. I wonder if the director loved that period of Elvis or whether he was afraid of showing it for the tragic splendor that it was. That’s what I felt he missed.
When I was growing up in England, Elvis was revered in much the same way there that The Beatles are here in the US. Because without Elvis, there wouldn't have been any Beatles. And one of the reasons I was so struck by Cave's explication of American Trilogy is because it's a performance that's always struck me in religious terms too - even as someone who isn't religious.
Many lifetimes ago, I tried to write a novel about two English lads who move to Los Angeles in the early 90's and fall prey to the city's hedonistic spirit (not an entirely original concept, I know). I wrote a scene towards the end of the book in which the lads go to the funeral of a friend who has been murdered while working as a rent boy, prostituting himself. Tony, one of the two protagonists comes to realize that he and the narrator, Macka, drove by the
murder scene in the early hours of a Saturday morning, on their way back from a night of music and drugs in downtown Los Angeles. The realization occurs in a bar, post-funeral, when American Trilogy randomly comes on the jukebox. I wrote
plenty of rubbish while trying to complete a couple of novels (and in fairness, writing rubbish is a natural part of the process). But reading this chapter again for the first time in many years, I gained a sense that perhaps I hadn't wasted my time completely.
Here's the pertinent excerpt:
After the wide open spaces of Forest Lawn and Mike’s lot at the base of the hill, completely overwhelmed by heat and the burning sun, we took brief refuge in a cool pit-black dive bar lurking anonymously off Glendale’s main strip.
We both drank Jack and coke. I don’t actually like Jack Daniels, which for some reason seemed to make it all the more appropriate. At the end of the bar on the other side, a burly woman, a burlesque woman, sat behind the counter in matching ear-rings and sweater of jade green, chewing on a straw and going through the horoscopes in the National Enquirer.
Scorpio - A close friend or relative is going to die around the 24th, and you’ll feel like shit for some time after.
Tony raised himself from his bar stool, pulled his shirt from inside his pants, flapped and tugged at it so that the thin white cotton momentarily distanced itself from the layer of sweat clutching it towards the centre and bottom of his back.
“One more, yeah?” he said.
The bartender rolled off her seat and poured. On the jukebox Elvis Presley’s American Trilogy was playing - recorded Madison Square Garden, New York 1972. I’d glanced at the jukebox on my way inside and considered throwing in my fifty cents for REM’s Losing My Religion – REM being Mike’s favourite band. It’s a great song and besides, it’s how I’d been feeling for a while myself now. Still, it seemed too heavily loaded with symbolism and sentiment even for me, so I left it alone.
Tony’s neck was sunk deep into his shoulders, his hands wrapped around the cold wet comfort of his glass. His gold sovereign ring flickered, muted and heavy in the darkness, and through the grey falling dust I could see his eyes red, heavy with tears. I’d never seen Tony cry before, not ever, not until the funeral. If you can think of anything more moving than someone you love and care deeply about showing you their heart, open wide and broken, then it’s something I’ve yet to experience.
“You know we saw it, the end of it anyway, right?”
I didn’t quite hear him. I was listening to the music, the climax of American Trilogy. There’s that moment where Elvis sings just above a whisper So hush little darlin’, don’t you cry / You know your Daddy’s bound to die / And all my trials Lord / Will soon be over. The music stills then, a hush saturates the audience, interrupted only by a lone female fan screaming out, quickly joined by other frantic screaming voices: and I’ve always thought the audience must have been experiencing this vision then of The King fading before their very eyes, taking his final leave, for now, for always and forever. When the horns kick in ecstatically behind him, it’s as though in accompaniment of his final glorious ascent up towards his kingdom of heaven, and in the dark emptiness of the bar, with the supernatural aura of those horns pouring from the speakers, every hair on my worthless scrawny body stood on end, chills swept up and down my flesh, and I closed my eyes, lifted my head and hoped that the tears would roll back where they belonged, where they needed to stay, at least for now.
“The cop car, the yellow tape, the motel,” Tony said. “Last weekend. That was Mike. We just missed him.”
The cop car, the yellow tape, the motel. Mike.
I remembered the details, remembered picking out landmarks, the way you do when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings, areas that you’re unused to. I could see the ambulance pulling away, red lights swirling, bouncing off the motel wall, fading, fading…
“Let’s drive over there,” Tony said. “I wanna see where it happened and everything. Do you mind, our kid?”
“Course not Tone,” I said. I raised my glass, knocked back the remainder of my drink, embracing it’s sour electric chill. “Come on, let’s go,” I said.