Nick Cave: On Mongrel Wings

"No one has ever written or painted, sculpted,
modelled, built, invented, except to get out of hell" - A. Artaud

The strange saga of Nick Cave continues. His latest metamorphoses might be billed as Kafka's Hunger Artist Goes To Las Vegas. (This essay was written in 1991 and was printed in Waste Paper #30).

Singer, lyricist, self-immolating performer, playwright, actor, junkie and author. Thoughout his career Cave has been a living allegory of Artaud's notion that the artist is a man being burnt at the stake and signalling through the flames a desperate and perhaps incommunicable message.

The intensities of experience, the desire to act out a daily suicide in the face of an uncertain and questionable re-birth, the compulsion to burn away all the wicker of the socially woven masks our families and communities demand we wear, the immersions in pain and pleasure that take brute feeling past all points of endurance and the arrogance of total marginalization, the refusal of a Utility that measures the individual only to determine his/her productive capacities: somehow Cave has survived all this -- and more: is still searching for a performance that is a language at once private, personal and interior that can be understood by the audience, the Other, that haunts his darkest, most solipsistic, nightmares.

"The writer is a phobic who succeeds in metaphorizing in order to keep from being
frightened to death; instead he comes to
life again in signs." - Julia Kristeva, POWERS OF HORROR

No one in contemporary music has written lyrics quite like Cave's. They are the words, the images, the syntax, of a schizophrenia that fissures the Real, crumbling the brittle verities we rely on to get us through the day. They are a gigantic and hallucinatory "No! Not that... but This & This & This..."

The lines' violent surrealism is not, like Dylan's, elegaic even when angry: they are the vocabulary of a rabid and joyous annihilation: what he writes is a language that is determined to burn itself up, a language that once spoken can never be repeated for it has turned on itself and consumed its very being: nothing is left but the fine ash of memory and loss.

And thus it is that this language must be made up anew each day -- and not drawn from divine inspiration or from some transcendent source -- but drawn out, inch by inch, from the wound in his belly, a tangled, knotted rope of gut, the only thing left that ties him to, keeps him in, this world.

The performances that became the site of this speech, of this utterance, at least early on with the Birthday Party, took on the trappings of the miraculous; they marked the trajectory of a life lived only in its particular moments of frenzy, rage and collapse, for on the stage, we, the Audience, Cave's Other, were witness to, in a sacred sense that is completely opposed to the juridical meaning of mere verification, a sacrificial burning up of Being, a wild and molecular vaporization of the mere dross of a man. Gone were the structures by which we believe we recognize someone -- what we saw was the burned out hulk of an individual -- everything that was him is mere charcoal and waste; what is left standing is monstrous and alien. The terrible paroxysms, the convulsions that threw him about the stage were the outward signs of a seizure more terrifying for its voluntarism than its inevitability.

Let us risk the obvious: what these songs are about is junk and love. Writ large and absolute: Need and Desire. And it is here that we must grapple with the notion that addiction is not merely an illness, a weakness, a flaw in the character that, whatever its etiology, is to be found out, coerced and made uniform with a set of expectations that can only come from the outside, from the Social that for its own reasons demands a total and unwavering obedience.

Addiction is the name we give to a grief that cannot be spoken because that language has no 'human' form: it is mute, dumb, mineral. It is spoken at a level we can no longer gain, and we hear it only dimly as it is dissolved in the corrosive grammers of our Masters -- it is the language that haunts the one we speak even now, its shadow and its ground; its ghost and its actual body.

It is, then, the language of an extinction, forever on the edge of a suicide that begins the moment we are born.

What we are taught is to conserve; what this language demands is to burn, to consume, to devour, to sacrifice. It is the language of what we were, spoken by the body that must die.

That we cannot hear it even as we speak, or are spoken by it; that we are dumb to its rattle and howl, is why we dream, for this language belongs to the night, to the massive subterranean vaults we have built our little lives upon.

Junk and Love. Need and Desire.

"We are using our own skins for wallpaper
and we cannot win." Gottfried Benn

The conflagration and disintegration that was The Birthday Party at the end could not have a more suitable epitaph than the songs from their last two EP's, THE BAD SEED and MUTINY.

"Mutiny In Heaven" is, by any measure, an extraordinary piece: language, music and performance here coalesce into something far greater than its constituent parts.

Cave, a broken angel whose needle damaged arms display "long thin red ribbons... Like a ground-plan of Hell," tries to rise on tattered wings from the Ship of Heaven, the Ship of the Soul, the Ship of his Body: "If this is Heaven, ah'm bailin' out."

The voice is one of icy delirium, a long anguished howl of paranoia from a man whose very Self is being dissolved in unchecked hysteria and the corrosive solvents of total and absolute Need.

It is immaterial as to the nature of those solvents: Are they illegal? Of course, how could they not be; Are they perhaps the means to a suicide? Perhaps -- but how do you kill your Self when you are already dead; Are they an escape from the responsibilities of the Real? That depends upon what is Real: the death you feel, or the death you are taught.

The Child in the Soul, immobile and mute, is that anomaly in the continuum of the Social that exists as pure Absence -- it is the negation of everything we are able to say we are: for it is always, both before and after, the silence out of which we speak, a silence whose only image is Death, and the shadows of Death: Love and Addiction: Desire and Need.

William Burroughs wrote of junk and the Algebra of Need in NAKED LUNCH. In that equation, Junk has become the perfect commodity: it is consumed wholly, no residue is left over -- it must be replaced in its entirety after each use in quantities as great as before or, more often than not, in even greater amounts. Its use is, as they say, hardwired into the consumption process -- it schematics of Use lying deep in the flesh of the User.

For Burroughs, Junk is not a means to an End: it is not Entertainment; it is Taking Junk: and nothing else.

But if Junk is Evil, it is Evil only in the sense that all Absolutes are Evil: Purity is a plague whose vectors are the Needle, the Bible, the State, the Race.

Purity absorbs our little Selves and replaces everything in them with the slow and inexorable sedimentations of the smaller deaths: indifference, hate, obsession, the cankered tranquility of domestic life and the fevered varieties of the Displaced Orgasms that we experience through television, movies, books, restaurants, clothes, haircuts, tattooes, cars and professional sports: dying is what we do all the time: and it is not Entertainment: it is Dying.

Addiction then is this complicated thing: unspeakable and yet garrulous; inexplicable and yet all too easily understood.

The addict stands in the ruins of his body and says, "Yes, well, I'm an addict because I have an addictive personality... My mother didn't love me and my father beat me and my genetic structure needs it..." And of course, this is all True... It's just that this is not all of what is True...

It is in this sense that Cave's performances and songs are an attempt to speak the rest of what is True about Addiction and Love, Need and Desire.

Note: Top photo is from New Musical Express, 11/12/83; Bottom photo was taken at Aztlan Theater by George Ericson.

Jump to Part Two  Or back Home