Faith, Hope and Carnage

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave & Seán O’Hagan

In this series of conversations with Seán O’Hagan, Nick Cave examines his creative life in years since the death of his teenage son, Arthur, in the summer of 2015. His music since that shattering event has navigated the condition of grief in various ways, and his personal faith has deepened.

Cave has always been prepared to explain his creative methods (the 20,000 Days On Earth film is just one example of that). Lately he has sought to do the same with his grieving process, and his whole system of belief, via his Red Hand Files website, the Conversations tours, and now this book of interviews. He is typically articulate even when he revisits of the early, roaring stages of grief, and of how he has come to understand love and loss are beautifully, terribly intertwined. It is of course all right there in his music (listen to the tale of Kisa at the end of Hollywood), but talking to O’Hagan he matter-of-factly reminds us how ‘this will happen to everybody at some point – a deconstruction of the known self’.

Cave’s never been a complacent artist, rarely retreading the same ground, but he believes the version of him that did survive, did not become a ‘small, hard thing that has contracted around an absence’, is more fearless than ever before.

“I’ve become quite accustomed now to that queasy feeling of stepping into the unknown. I think I’ve learned to trust that sense of discomfort as a signifier that something important may be afoot, that change is happening.”

I feel like I detected ‘feeling of creative terror, a vertiginous feeling’ behind the music when I first heard Ghosteen. It also hovered over the first gig of the Carnage tour, a nervy post-lockdown watershed for artist and audience (“Like, I didn’t know what to do with my hands!” Cave recalls here). He puts his newfound ‘defiance’ in such moments to how he is buoyed, encouraged and emboldened in everything he does by Arthur – not just the memory of him, but ‘an optimistic force, a hopeful force’. He accepts that this, and other things he has experienced, may be something only other grievers can understand.

One of the 17 ceramic figures in Nick Cave’s series The Devil – A Life

The Nick Cave of before is acknowledged – he offers glimpses of his ‘uncomplicated, free-range childhood’ in Wangaratta, tales from junkie days pinging between London and various rehab hubs, and as detailed an account of Blixa Bargeld’s departure from the Bad Seeds as we’ll ever get (a frustrating studio session that ends with the classic kiss-off “I didn’t get into rock ‘n’ roll to play rock ‘n’ roll!”). However, Cave has little time for nostalgia, or indeed biography, and seems mildly puzzled that someone thought Mark Mordue’s Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave was worth publishing (for what it’s worth, I thought it was marvellous). So whenever Cave feels O’Hagan has tricked him into looking back too much, he snaps out of it and enthuses about some current project, like the Staffordshire figures (themed around the life of the devil) he started making once lockdown forced him to cancel a world tour.

It’s that friendly tussle between interview and interviewee that makes this such a rewarding, generous book. For his part O’Hagan tries to pin Cave down on matters of faith, whenever he tends towards fuzzy truisms that might just about fly on The Red Hand Files. O’Hagan is also a perceptive, useful sounding board – speaking to Cave several times during a writing and recording streak, he’s able to trace the subtle influence of Jimmy Webb’s grandiose ballads on the songs of Carnage, and a throwaway remark from O’Hagan is even immortalised as a lyric in Lavender Fields. Along the way we are warned of ‘residual idea’, a comfortable song that comes out easily, but really ought to be cleared away ‘like muck in the pipes’ to make way for something really exciting.

Almost every page has some illuminating, memorable observation, or at least an entertaining bit of background colour or trivia for fans to savour.

Some Nick Cave links

Kingdom In The Sky
40 minutes of highlights from December 2022’s concerts at Hanging Rock.

Nick Cave and the bruises of experience
A recent interview by Richard Fidler for ABC

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Albums of 2022

A good year for new music, I reckon! Here are some of my favourites.

Bats – Blue Cabinet
Gwenno – Tresor
Courtney Marie Andrews – Loose Future
Kevin Morby – This Is A Photograph
Julia Jacklin – PRE PLEASURE
Duncan Marquiss – Wires Turned Sideways In Time
Modern Studies – We Are There
Cass McCombs – Heartmind
Katy J Pearson – Sound Of The Morning
Caitlin Rose – CAZIMI
Spoon – Lucifer On The Sofa
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Emile Mosseri – I Could Be Your Dog / I Could Be Your Moon
Suss – Suss (compilation of Night Suite/Heat Haze/Winter Was Hard/Across The Horizon EPs)
Laura Veirs – Found Light
Jake Xerxes Fussell – Good And Green Again

And some reissues. One is a welcome re-release of an extremely rare EP (750 copies, sold on tour only) I’d never have had the chance to hear otherwise. The other is a bold revision of an album I already knew inside out, as much an explosion as an expansion of one of the more quixotic Manics LP’s.

Broadcast – Mother Is The Milky Way
Manic Street Preachers – Know Your Enemy

As usual for mid-December, I’ve ended up with an equally long list of stuff I somehow missed, cribbed from everyone else’s selections.

Books of 2022

My favourite new books I read this year, from engrossing historical fiction to Jarvis’ music memoir prompted by the contents of his loft – and including a few picture books my son and I have enjoyed endlessly.

The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers
My Name Is Yip by Paddy Crewe
Good Pop Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker
Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve
Mina by Matthew Forsyth
A Good Place by Lucy Cousins
Billy and the Pirates by Nadia Shireen

Return to Monkey Island

Pilchard

I completed Return to Monkey Islandlast night. I’ve savoured it in small chunks over the past month or so, and it’s stirred up many of the same feelings as when I discovered those first two games. An intoxicating atmosphere and a deeply playful, playfully deep world that makes you wonder.

Also, eternal fondness and nostalgia for the saga aside, I have to admire how charming and accessible they made this thing in its own right. It’s impossible to put myself into the shoes of someone entirely unfamiliar with this series, but it seems to me Return goes out of its way to be welcoming and easy to pick up.

On the Switch I found it hard to fault it as a modern adventure game, down to the streamlined interface, intelligent hint book, ‘story so far’ scrapbook, saved game recap dialogue facility, and so on.

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The Manningtree Witches

The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore

Expanding on transcripts from the Essex witch trials of the 1640s, A.K. Blakemore’s first novel gives credible voices to just a few of the hundreds of women accused and condemned.

Rebecca West is an unmarried young woman with an earthy wit and a reputation tarnished by association with her troublemaking widowed mother (who reckons witch is ‘just their nasty word for anyone who makes things happen’). It’s shocking how little Rebecca has to do to find herself at the mercy of Matthew Hopkins, trapped at the centre of the mania he has stirred up in her corner of England.

Although Blakemore is careful not to let the ‘Witchfinder General’ eclipse the stories of the women, as Hopkins has surely done for centuries, he is brilliantly captured whenever he does feature. In her afterword, Blakemore sums him up as ‘at best a serial bullshitter, at worst a compulsive liar’. Her research bears that side of him out — whereas his dreams, part of a vicious cycle of Puritan guilt, are of course all her own ingeniously lewd invention. The way in which she depicts Hopkins’ upward spiral of vanity – while the prigs and sycophants are drawn toward him like flies to dung – is one of the many great dimensions to this book.

Books of 2021

My favourite new books of this past year:

Crow Court by Andy Charman
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue
And Away… by Bob Mortimer
The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon
Barbara Throws A Wobbler by Nadia Shireen
The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius — translated by Peter Graves

I’ve read a lot (just over 50 books), but I fell out of the habit of blogging about everything I finished. Perhaps I’ll get back to that in 2022.

The best older books I got around to in 2021 were Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster and The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

The Lyrics

The Lyrics by Paul McCartney – edited by Paul Muldoon

Dipping into this in between the last of the mince pies, I’m delighted by its many departures from McCartney’s well-rehearsed anecdotes and well-established Beatles lore. This is in large part thanks to the poet Paul Muldoon, on whose extensive interviews with his fellow Paul (50+ hours clocked since 2015) the whole project relies.

We learn that McCartney is mildly embarrassed by Rock Show, and has been meaning to get around to doing Rocky Raccoon live. Reflecting on And I Love her, he wistfully recalls the last time he saw his old flame Jane Asher – a chance encounter many years after their mid-60s engagement, but just a stone’s throw from the ‘garret’ in her parents’ home in Wimpole Street where he famously dreamt Yesterday. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window leads him to describe his synaesthesia, which renders days of the week as distinct colours for him and has many other ways proven ‘fertile ground’ for his songwriting.

If Muldoon occasionally nudges McCartney too far toward some lofty, literary claim — “part of what lies behind [A Hard Day’s Night] is, of course, Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night” being one — that can be forgiven when the book has plenty of off-kilter choices such as Check My Machine, House of Wax and Spirits of Ancient Egypt — none of them songs that McCartney would be likely to expound in any other context.

Even more surprising is the incredible depth of the MPL archive. Of course there’s a wealth of great photography, but there are also postcards, paintings, jottings on envelopes, even schoolbooks from the days before young Paul ever set eyes on the teddy boy John Lennon. A careful selection from a million-plus items makes The Lyrics a lavish visual treat.

And in the end, the love you take

is equal to the love you make.

Occasionally a particular image will leap out with special significance, seeming to capture a creative breakthrough or a major turning point in a wildly eventful life. In a 1969 notebook, underneath the couplet from The End that self-consciously called time on The Beatles’ recording career, McCartney has doodled four hearts pierced by a single arrow, in pink ink. On the facing page of the same notebook, he’s composed Every Night, a gem that turned up on his first solo album, in which he’s clearly sinking into his post-Fab depression, but is mercifully buoyed by his love for Linda.

Albums of 2021

Some of my favourite new music from this past year:

The Beths – Auckland, New Zealand, 2020
The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
The Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust
Helado Negro – Far In
Tom Jones – Surrounded by Time
Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra Vivid Lament
Mouth Painter – Tropicale Moon
Alison Russell – Outside Child

and a couple of excellent reissues:

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
Supergrass – In It For The Money

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis in Poole

I was lucky enough to catch the very first night of the Nick Cave & Warren Ellis tour a couple of nights ago, at The Lighthouse in Poole.

I think they’ve gathered here for me.

Ghosteen Speaks

Nick looked delighted to be walking back on stage after so long, and it was also significant as the live debut of most of the Carnage and Ghosteen songs. Those all worked beautifully with a trio of versatile backing singers – Wendi Rose (who first sang with Nick on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus 17 years ago), T Jae Cole and Janet Ramus. On Lavender Fields they were heavenly, on Leviathan they were mesmeric. On an especially wild Hand of God they became some ferocious, chanting chimera, goaded into it by Warren’s outstretched hands and wiggling elbows. That left the crowd (and possibly Nick himself) astonished.

During 14 or so minutes of Hollywood, the devastating finale to Ghosteen, it felt like a spell was being lifted. But before we were released from the grip of grief into the night, the clock rolled back two decades and we got one of my all-time favourites, Darker With The Day. For this, Warren finally picked up his violin, after having been ‘chained to a synth’ for most of the evening. Nick made him play the solo through twice.

I couldn’t have imagined a more special return to live music, after all this.

And what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier…

Balcony Man

The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

When young Rye Dolan finds himself inside the private library of the mining kingpin Lem Brand, he’s initially impressed by the twenty-foot-high bookcases and the onyx fireplace – but then he is ‘flushed with sadness’. Every injustice and tragedy that has touched him in his nearly 17 years of living comes back to him, and he grieves for ‘All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.’ Such is the gulf between America’s rich and poor in 1910.

It’s moment that cements Rye’s solidarity with the working class, even as he becomes implicated in a conspiracy to weed out certain firebrands and crush the movement for workers’ rights altogether. Rye has already been involved in labour rioting in Spokane, Washington, but mostly just tagging along with his older brother Gig, an idealist who, when he’s not joining protests or carousing in the city’s tenderloin, has his nose in War and Peace (although he only owns volumes 1 and 3).

The one who sharpens Rye’s politics and pulls him into a wider world is not Gig or Tolstoy, but Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – a real historical figure amongst Jess Walter’s great cast of invented characters. Flynn, 19 years old and pregnant but already a veteran when we meet her, was an important activist who focused the labour movement and got vilified by the anti-union press as the ‘she-dog of anarchy’. Walter’s other characters could pale in comparison to the notorious, charismatic Flynn, but he musters some marvellous creations. These include Del Devereux, a murderous, over-the-hill private detective whose every utterance is beyond hard-boiled, but who somehow skirts all the usual clichés.

Walter sustains a balance of finely-plotted fiction and illuminating history throughout. Taft, a lawless boomtown on the mountainous Montana-Idaho border, is a fascinating footnote in the story of the American frontier, and Walter doesn’t need to exaggerate anything to make it so. What happens to Rye and Flynn there, somewhere in the middle of the novel, is surely pure fiction, but it fits perfectly.

One of my favourite new novels in some time, The Cold Millions an earnest celebration of a fierce fight for dignity made over a century ago, but a compelling, unusual thriller too.