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.

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

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.

Bad Seed TeeVee

In Spring, Nick Cave should have been embarking on his European tour with the Bad Seeds. Frenzied fans from Antwerp to Zurich should have been screaming the words of ‘The Mercy Seat’ back at him, touching the hem of his Gucci suit, and hearing just how the extraordinary, ethereal Ghosteen was going to work live. We’ll have to wait a while for all that.

Instead, Nick launched Bad Seed TeeVee, a 24/7 YouTube channel that rotates a generous selection of music videos, interview clips, outtakes from films, ferocious live performances, and other odds and ends from the Cave archive.

I’ve dipped into this channel many, many times since April. In the early weeks of its existence, fans in different timezones were swapping notes on how long they reckoned the loop of footage to be. Some of us were setting our alarm clocks for the next chance to catch an engrossing, previously unseen 40-minute jam from the Skeleton Tree sessions, ‘Life Per Se’. Since then, the channel has evolved, and kept on surprising. There have even been weekends devoted to fan-made music videos and fan cover versions. On 26th November, Nick will be joined by ex-Bad Seeds Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld for a Murder Ballads listen-along commentary.

Beyond the non-stop delights of Bad Seed TeeVee, back in July Nick beamed a solo piano performance entitled Idiot Prayer into our homes. Recorded in an eerily empty Alexandra Palace, it was a gig like no other – song after beautiful song plucked from his back catalogue, punctuated only by the shuffle of Nick’s lyric sheets and the clink of his gold rings on the ebony of a gorgeous Fazioli grand. The whole thing is soon to be released as a double live album.

Nick Cave performing 'The Mercy Seat' in an empty Alexandra Palace
Nick Cave performing ‘The Mercy Seat’ in an empty Alexandra Palace

Nick has also continued to field questions on his agony uncle blog, The Red Hand Files. The answers are often hilarious – I loved the string of posts about his attempts to secure a piano like the extremely expensive one he used in Idiot Prayer. Just as often, they have humbly suggested ways we might cope with these turbulent times.

We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files #89, What Do We Do Now?

Nick Cave’s work has long thrilled and inspired me – I’ll sometimes just watch the final monologue from 20,000 Days On Earth when I need to borrow a jolt of creative energy. I needed as much of that as I could get in 2020, so I appreciate how Nick’s managed to find these new ways to connect with us throughout this difficult year, across the void.

I can’t wait to see him live again, someday, and thank him in person.

Things that helped is my series of posts about the stuff that kept me going in 2020.