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 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.
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