Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue

Mark Mordue was at work on a complete biography of Nick Cave when events in both of their lives around 2015 caused the ambitious project to fizzle out. ‘I’m a different person now,’ Cave said, seeming to draw a line under his long-standing co-operation. Mordue has since returned to his extensive research, but now he zooms in on Cave’s formative years. Boy On Fire looks in detail at every fad and phase, every side of Cave that can be traced prior to him leaving Australia in February 1980. These include the tearaway schoolboy, the dreaming junkie, the tyrannical frontman and the sensitive young soul blindsided by the death of his father. There are other dimensions to the young Nick we might not immediately recognise.

Mordue finds so much that connects with the Nick Cave of 2021, including how he uses imagination to reckon with personal tragedy. In fact, everything is grist to his mill. His early collaborator and girlfriend Anita Lane once told him, ‘If you were hit by a car, you’d reach for your pencil and try to write what it was like before you died.’

For fans it’s thrilling to read of moments and images from Cave’s early days that will surface in his songs years, even decades, later. A very particular stretch of the Ovens River flows from Wangaratta into multiple lyrics, most notably Sad Waters. The hopeful wisdom of Colin Cave underpins Nature Boy.

My father said, don’t look away
You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now
He said, that in the end it is beauty
That is going to save the world, now

A good music bio has you constantly looking up the tracks and bands it mentions. This one also directs you toward painters (Matthias Grünewald, Egon Schiele, Sidney Nolan, the Dadaists) and writers (Dostoevsky, Alfred Jarry, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor). It’s a soup of reference that thickens as Cave assimilates culture like there’s no tomorrow, and feeds it all back into his nascent band, The Boys Next Door.

Mordue has aimed for Boy On Fire to show Cave at the centre of ‘a kaleidoscope of people and stories’. He’s particularly strong on the subculture that congregated in the Crystal Ballroom (a legendary venue in St Kilda, then Melbourne’s bohemian-attracting red light district) to watch post-punk bands in the late 70s.

In one interview excerpt, Brownyn Bonney provides a perceptive account of why it is Nick Cave who became a star, whilst other gifted artists from the time faded into obscurity. She carefully lists all the crucial things that he possessed, and notes that ‘everyone else lacked two or three of those ingredients’. In a single page, she threatens to render the rest of the book redundant, so complete is her sense of the young Cave, and so neatly does it tally with the same artist who has just put out Carnage at 63. Work ethic is again and again pinpointed by Cave’s contemporaries as his great advantage. ‘He works like a demon. He deserves his success,’ insists Bonney. In issue #138 of The Red Hand Files, Cave concurs that it’s mainly that surfeit of sheer energy – ‘a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness’ – that has sustained his long career, above any talent he may have had.

Other participants in the scene that whirled around The Boys Next Door and their clique are more blunt in their assessment, less prepared to balance Cave’s virtues against his vices. ‘I thought they were dickheads,’ remarks fashion designer Alannah Hill.

The ‘Shivers’ music video. Director Paul Goldman remembers Nick Cave insisted on having a mirror attached to the camera so that he could see himself, ‘great narcissist that he is.’

The books ends with Cave and his cohort aboard a flight to London, to them the promised land of indie music, as the 80s dawn. During the flight they elect to change their name to The Birthday Party. I was reminded of Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles bio, which also chooses to stop with its subject airborne and on the cusp of something bigger (the soon-to-be Fab Four flying home from Hamburg for the last time, in December 1962).

If Mordue goes beyond that long-haul cliffhanger and does continue with his epic biography of Cave after all, there are four full decades of restless creativity left to cover, as Cave moves through multiple cities and scenes, collects and discards muses and collaborators, and emerges from addictions and complex private torments. It’s a staggering challenge. Such is the artistic depth and international breadth of that story, the ongoing work could end up akin to John Richardson’s all-consuming multi-volume biography of his friend Picasso. But Boy on Fire‘s brief flashes forward into the 2000s only confirm that Mordue is the man to document the Bad Seeds years — the brilliant biographer Nick Cave deserves.

You need to move with it.

Another great quote from a recent interview with the Australian author Richard Flanagan, whose The Living Sea of Waking Dreams I read this week:

The more I’ve written, the less I think of novels in terms of metaphors and symbols. I think the least important thing about a novel is the intentions you start with and the ambitions you have at the start – and once the story starts to move, you need to move with it. If the writing isn’t surprising you, it’ll never surprise or interest the reader.

Richard Flanagan on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

Tomten Tales

Tomten Tales by Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg

For her 1960 story The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren drew on Scandinavian folklore and the poetry of Viktor Rydberg to create a classic picture book, following it up five years later with The Tomten and the Fox – both tales are collected here in a handsome hardback from Floris Books. They are about a little gnome who is devoted to a particular farm but never seen by its people. In the first story he tiptoes around in the dead of night, in the middle of winter, reassuring the animals that warmer weather is on the way and otherwise helping them through the cold snap. In the sequel, he skilfully saves the hens from a prowling fox.

Harald Wiberg’s paintings of the piled-up moonlit snow, the gloomy hayloft, the crowded sheep barn, the cosy farmhouse and so on are very atmospheric and will have me expecting to spot a tomten out of the corner of my eye all winter.

A wonderful seasonal picture book that doesn’t mention Christmas — so a perfect one to share during a snowy January.

Second draft completed

Over the weekend, I completed the second draft of Margot and the Maelstrom. It became more of a rewrite than I’d anticipated, but I’m really pleased with the book now – it’s much more pacy than a year or so ago, and as good as I can get it without fresh eyes on it.

Finishing an early draft is a bit like reaching the top of a mountain – except as you catch your breath and begin to plant your flag, another, even taller mountain rises up out of the earth before you. The ground beneath your feet shudders. You watch as beloved characters and clever subplots are swept away in some sort of enormous landslip. There goes that lovely but unnecessary paragraph about conkers, buried under the wreckage of the second act.

You pull the map from your pocket and suddenly can’t make head nor tail of how it relates to the journey ahead. A low chuckle comes out of nowhere, carrying across the thin air and mocking you for your moment of hubris.

Somehow, you muster the courage to start climbing again.

Today, I’m still savouring that tiny, triumphant moment at the top of the mountain.

Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor
Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor by Bill Higham

Cultivating magic

Earlier this year, the Studio Ghibli catalogue was added to Netflix. It goes without saying that the films are absolute classics that reward re-watching, but I particularly admire Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Part of that’s down to the setting – a vaguely European coastal city that makes you want to step into each and every frame and take a wander. It’s also got plenty of endearing characters like Ursula, the cabin-dwelling painter, and Osono, the kindly baker.

But what strikes a chord with me is the small, sweet, soulful story about our hero finding her calling in the wide world.

I was curious about the source material, Eiko Kadono’s 1985 book. Bang on time, a splendid new Puffin edition came along – in a fresh translation by Emily Balistrieri, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton.

This part of the author’s introduction struck that same chord:

As I wrote and revised, wrote and revised, I discovered that I loved writing. As long as I created stories, I could live an exciting life with new discoveries every day. And I decided that, if nothing else, I would continue writing as long as I live. I’ll never forget the peace of mind I felt at that moment – I sensed the magic inside myself. I’ve come to believe that everyone has some type of magic inside them. If a person can find their magic and lovingly cultivate it, they’ll truly feel alive every day.

Eiko Kadono

That idea of finding something that you love doing and that will always nourish you is something that echoes powerfully through the book, and it became even more of a theme in Miyazaki’s film.

It’s a feeling I recognise now and am trying to hold onto.

The Ambience of Monkey Island

Around 1991, The Secret of Monkey Island fired up my imagination as much as any book I’ve ever read. I could enthuse at length about the immense influence that this video game and its immediate sequels have had on my storytelling, and I’m sure someday I will.

For now I’ll just share a playlist I discovered recently that has been my writing soundtrack over the past several mornings: The Ambience of Monkey Island.

YouTube user BuzzMoo has made available (at the time of writing) 25 hour-long tracks, featuring the in-game music and ambient sound effects lifted from many of the series’ memorable locales.

Quite different to the incredibly catchy main themes that run through these games, the music here is largely atmospheric, with lazy rhythms and unobtrusive, wandering melodies. It’s designed not to underscore high drama, but to soundtrack hours of exploring, puzzling and soaking up the scenery – also perfect for writing, I find.

On the Plunder Island beach path, gentle surf and clucking chickens can be heard amongst sparse percussion and timorous woodwind. Or perhaps you’d rather wallow in the faded grandeur of the Goodsoup Hotel on Blood Island, where distant storm clouds groan beneath melancholic harpsichord and steel drums. When you consider all of the islands that constitute the series’ twisted, anachronism-filled version of the Caribbean, there’s probably a spot to suit any mood.

As much as the island ambience is helping my work, it’s becoming mighty tempting to start yet another replay of these games. Once I finish this draft…