What then are we to make of the remarkable changes Cave has gone through since the demise of The Birthday Party? How did a man, seemingly at the very edge of annihilation, step back from the brink and begin to sing another song: and what is that song and what does it mean?
It is possible that what we see is the long, painful process of maturation -- a growth of the self into an autonomy that recognizes its own connections with an Outside.
Cave began with a fear of connection, a repulsion for the soft darkness of the feminine, a repulsion that was all the more insupportable for the attractions and obsessions of Desire. It is at this point that love becomes bound up with violence and assault. This is Cave's struggle against himself, the point or nexus out of which the demons of his alien body begin to rise. Thus sex becomes morbid, as in the dark flutter of sticky wings under a woman's skirts ("Release The Bats") or in the punning identification of a woman's name, Quixanne, with the shapeless suffocation of quicksand ("Swampland").
At this point, the songs cannot be seperated out from Cave's addiction and the terrible paradox of trying to speak out of a place in the Soul that has no language but the chemical articulations of total and absolute Need.
"The Bad Seed" and "Mutiny" are then a bottoming out for Cave. A year or two earlier, it had been far different. "King Ink" was Cave's projection of a Self that could accept both himself and a morbid, rotting world. He still felt, as in "Nick The Stripper", like a repulsive bug but suddenly he could turn that identification to powerful use: "A bug crawls up the wall/ King Ink feels like a bug."
Cave is projecting himself into something alien. In this sense, the projection is an act of mastery and control -- he is creating images and tropes as a way of controlling the world. Writing itself is an act of control and mastery, of power and vitality: "Express thyself, say something loudly."
A bitter humor surfaces in the song, contrasting the sordid details of his room ("sand and soot and dust and dirt") with the pleasure coming to him through art -- in this case a song heard on the radio: "Oh! Yer! Oh! Yer! What a wonderful life/ FATS Domino on the radio."
In this song, the feeling of sovereignty, of kinship, is only partly ironic. There is a genuine feeling of celebration that arises out of the immersion in the detail, the flux and dirt, of the world. Here the total hold of Junk, the Algebra of Death, has not taken over.
We see the same feeling of life and motion mirrored in another song from the same album, "Zoo-Music Girl."
This is Cave's first complex love song, filled with dense, surreal imagery set in an intricate web of tensions and unresolved conflicts. first of all: what is "Zoo Music"? It is the body and its noise of life, the din of blood and appetite. The band, the music behind the words, are at best a poor substitute for the reality of bodies in motion; and Cave orders, "Don't drag the orchestra into this thing." What Cave hears, what he wants, is the body and its cry, its music.
Now, that music is not comfortable or normative. The modern pop love song has evolved into a purely formal evocation of Desire; smooth and facile, there is nothing left in it of the noises of the body.
In his song, Cave demands that we "Just let it twist, let it break/ Let it buckle, let it bend/ I want the noise of my Zoo-Music Girl." This music is not merely fascinating and desirous: it is very dangerous and drives Cave nearly out of his mind -- "My body is a monster driven insane." Note the schizophrenia of body and voice here. It is as though Cave somehow stands outside of his body and looks on in fear and wonderment and growing revulsion as his body becomes more and more alien, a place dark, powerful and horrific.
Thus even in a song that celebrates the animality of pure living, violence and the convulsions of desire and repulsion creep in. Sex is a contest, a conflict, a war between body and body, between body and soul, between body and voice: "I murder her dress till it hurts/ I murder her dress and she loves it." The displacements of metaphor allow Cave to say something very difficult: my love for you is so powerful that I'm afraid it will kill you (that it may also kill him is something we will take up later). Love is a fire that burns everything away -- most especially the flimsy contructions of the merely Social. Here we are seeing a man enact an essentially eternal awakening, a re-living and re-telling of that moment that must come to us all when we realize that what we are being taught to say about our body and its experiences are not the same thing as the Body and its experiences; that in fact what we are taught, what we are allowed to say, is a diminishment and a lie.
This wild confusion -- or profusion -- of the imagery of sex, violence and repulsion will thread its way through most of Cave's work, tying together his various themes: the recovery of innocence, the privileged role of art, the impossibility of a love that does not kill, the inextricable complexities of self-expression and self-destruction, the paradoxical needs of community and isolation, the failures of God and religion and the terrors of the Artist as Messiah and Martyr.
"Even signs must burn." -- Jean Baudrillard
As indicated earlier, "The Bad Seed" and "Mutiny" EP's, the last fevered gasp and shudder of the Birthday Party, represent the darkest, most dangerous moment of Cave's work.
Morbid, grotesque and filled with self-loathing, the songs from this period have collapsed Need and Desire, Love and Addiction, into a single, mortal wound. Obesessed with a mythical South drawn from William Faulkner (esp. "As I Lay Dying" and "Light In August"), Cave explores the dead-ends of his life -- like a blind man in a charnel house, he finds himself crawling across a floor slippery with blood and viscera as he outlines a map of hell using bodies as landmarks.
Like Marlowe's Faust, Cave too finds there is not escape; and where, four hundred years ago, men were taught that everywhere is evidence of the Fall -- "Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it" -- Cave knows that we have forgotten our post-Lapsarian postion: This is the Heaven of the Modern, a fantasia of goods, services and entertainments. Life is easy and survival assured; comfort is universal and all that is required is complacency, obedience and acceptance -- and a blind, stubborn refusal to see the core of death, decay, disorder and ruin that centers the Good Society.
Cave's journey, in this sense, is from the Suburbs to the City, from innocence to experience, from repression to expression. His first steps were backward, toward the recovery of an originary Self that could feel and perceive with the immediacy of a child. But we can neither remain a child nor return to being one. That is the significance of the Birthday Party: the celebration of another year's growth and all that implies in terms of learning, adapting and surviving. The birthday party is a ritual of innocence and experience, each year a marker on a long road that stretches from the Body of the Mother to the Body of the World. And each year, we look both forward toward a future we at once dread and desire, and backward at a past we both regret and long for.
Note: Top photo by Peter Grouchot; Bottom photo by George Ericson.
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