Say Something! The Grand Guignol Spectacle Of The Birthday Party

In an exclusive extract from his new book, *Darker With The Dawn — Nick Cave’s Songs Of Love And Death*, Adam Steiner tracks the early days of the bad seed of Australian rock

A tall, gaunt man marches onto a stage and yells out “who here wants to die?” The crowd cheers, the band jump into the frantic, slashing rhythm of ‘Sonny’s Burning’. Judging the mood just right, the spider-crooked figure calls out “is everybody having a bad time?” Turns out death in a cramped, sweaty, black box is lots of fun, perhaps too much fun. Nick Cave wears a crooked smile; half-grimace half-grin, his songs bear the ironic tragedy of facial symmetry bent sinister, every joke in his lyric is delivered askew, twisted and distorted by orchestrated violence, crippled ego and body horror. Only half the audience get it. The rest are shocked into gasping silence: confused by the band, shocked by the lyrics, scared of the singer – but they all love the song.

It would be the upbeat macabre display of Nick Cave’s second band, The Birthday Party, (evolving from the short-lived high school outfit, The Boys Next Door) that would give momentum to the dark-winged ship of The Bad Seeds in the early 1980s. Feeding on their bridling reputation of gothic allure, Cave and his then-band managed to display a practised contempt for all sides of the musical spectrum: pop, punk, post-everything; critics and audience alike. Cave would then steer The Bad Seeds toward a more even keel, making his humour equal parts bawdy over-the-top grotesque and burning, vicious satire.

In The Birthday Party’s full pomp Cave was aligned to his own Grand Guignol nosedive – all for the love of live entertainment – but with The Bad Seeds this excess was tempered, moodier, and subtly less assured. Speaking with much self-effacement about his early years in Melbourne and London, Cave said “I had, without any supporting evidence, a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness.” A combination of joie de vivre and positive nihilism spurred Cave into the act of fulfilling his artistic desire – writing songs and being onstage was simply the creative mode that stuck.

There is much theatre in Cave’s pure spectacle of bodily performance: leaps into the air, bringing forth the ecclesiastical weight of preacher knee drops and backflips, landing just right, disbelieving of his own luck; or crashing in a heap on the floor, collapsed into failure. Behind all of this was the tension of a band at the edge, jerking their way through songs, edging out of tune and only just holding it all together – reaching for the great sublime of the united front. The audience love to see the bloodsport thrust headlong in forward motion – the horrorshow must go on.

Where The Boys Next Door named themselves after gentle domesticity, an art school reaction to the purposefully offensive punk bands of the late 1970s, The Birthday Party adopted a more cruelly ironic tone in their band name that would be realised in the atrocity exhibition of the band’s live shows, combined with the death, drugs, and mayhem of their songs. Guitarist Rowland S. Howard claimed the name expressed the band’s celebration of extreme realities, as Cave’s lyrics sought to ruin false illusions of the “normal” everyday world. The band aimed to bring revelation to the bored and bourgeois setting of their upper-middle-class Melbourne neighbourhood, dragging behind them the dissolute free spirit of the nearby St. Kilda beachfront area, known primarily for “whoring and scoring” it also played host to the band’s first unofficial ‘residence’ at the Crystal Ballroom, a mainstay venue of the local music scene. Cave argued that in spite of their ferocity the band combined the spirit of being both “aggressive and intelligent.” Bassist Tracy Pew embodied this dichotomy: an avid reader who seemed to absorb the damage of drink, drugs, and fistfights as he burned through transgressive novels and works on psychoanalysis and philosophy, he would often be seen strutting about, variously in leather trousers, a string vest, frilly pirate shirts (a la Seinfeld), or a ten-tonne cowboy hat, while sporting a pencil moustache, through a knowing self-irony deflating the band’s hard and heavy themes.

Though Cave cared less about audience satisfaction, the band was trapped together in the radical experience of deconstructing the standard format of the music gig where ‘having fun’ was not necessarily the band’s idea of a good time. Baiting the audience to engage, Cave would refer to live gigs as a “full-on attack” adopting tried and tested performance methods throwing striking silhouette shapes and climbing the rigging of the stage. After coming up as darlings of the Melbourne scene, and eventually being accepted into the post-punk fold of early-80s London, this soon became a battle of wills between artist and audience where Cave was forced to return fire with objects thrown onstage, concluding the exchange by making a kamikaze dive into the crowd.

One of the major reasons The Birthday Party would fall apart, aside from physical, mental, and drug-fuelled exhaustion, was the intensity demanded of them in live performances. People went to the gigs expecting to see a car crash or to start a fight, either with the singer or each other. While the band could sometimes be viewed as props, cracked actors channelling the uneven motions for Cave to get lost in self-flagellation, he praised them for holding the performances together. Speaking of The Birthday Party years later, Cave observed, “Our audiences were starting to make demands of me, it made you feel like some sort of geek, with chicken blood running down your chin…covered in feathers.” Cave paints himself into the notorious 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks, a living spectacle edging the limits of humanity. But he nonetheless became the voyeur’s dream by choice, while later trying to shed the persistent caricature that grew up around him, playing to the crowds but always moving forward towards a heightened artistic level.

As early as The Birthday Party’s ‘Deep in the Woods’ Cave manages to create horrific, haunted imagery while the song revels in cartoonish acts of torture and mutilation, bringing the grotesque and the ghastly to the limits of good taste. Acting-out in wordplay and exaggerated vocal snarls, the characters speak through the song, while others hear his most extreme lyrics as promoting violence against women. Speaking in 1988 he said, “But I find a lot of my work grotesque and tasteless, in a lot of ‘Mutiny,’ that particular song, and ‘Sad Waters.’ Just a couple of moments here. Things like ‘Deep in the Woods’ are diseased with grotesqueness.”

Elsewhere, the band offered agitation without physical propaganda. On the Mutiny/Bad Seed EP, Cave produced his own cover art. Surfing the wave of easy rebellion, he painted a winged skull, thorny heart, crucifix and a swastika, garlanded with full blood roses – Cave stalled as the final finishing date for the artwork grew closer. Already pushing at the locked doors of controversy for its own sake long after the forced outrage generated by The Sex Pistols in 1977. On the song ‘Kiss Me Black’ he sings of a girl who “sleeps like a swastica [sic].” It’s unclear if this is simply a case of crazy distracted posture; two bodies curled up holding another, or just a tasteless and self-serving nod toward aesthetic symmetry, the association is both striking and pungent. Cave opens the 1983 Bad Seeds song ‘Saint Huck’ with the militarised phrase: “Achtung” (German for ‘warning’/’look out’) a post–Birthday Party indulgence, the same phrase in English would not carry the same shock value, but by 1983 it was a shallow pose already out of date.

Nick Cave and the various Australian members of The Bad Seeds have long traded in behind-the-scenes joking, used both to provoke and defuse tension, a dynamic which many non-Australian musicians who passed in and out of the band found both refreshing and at other times isolating. Founder member and bassist, Barry Adamson would recall the shifting intensity of relationships within The Bad Seeds, maintaining a fraught studio atmosphere, where everything happens fast; pieces of a song come and go. In the 20,000 Days on Earth documentary film, Cave would consider the necessary tension in lyric writing: “Counterpoint is the key. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly,” a point that for Adamson could equally be applied to the Bad Seeds working relationships. His bandmates impress upon him their arch sarcasm, half grins, and shifting eyebrows; he marks the intense chemistry of the studio as a place for mistakes with no right answers, only the guideline of intuition, feeling-out the song that would absorb the atmosphere this dramatic and hard-nosed work ethic: “They used conflict as a means of creation, negativity as a source of power.” For his part, photographer Bleddyn Butcher would remember the shared sparks between The Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard and Cave: “Very funny, very fond of teasing. They’d tip over any situation if it was getting po-faced, bring to it that Australian sense of humour, brutal and harsh. The band were full of sound and fury, but there was a great ironic intelligence to their work, which I found inspiring.”

When questioned about his mocking address to God on the Abattoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus album from 2004, Cave replied: “I consider myself to be first and foremost a comic writer…that’s not to say my songs are not addressing serious concerns and things that are very meaningful to me. But a necessary part of it to me is the humour.” Walking a highwire divide between stand-up performance and laughter at the funeral party, Cave’s songs demand that above all we are able to laugh at ourselves.

2004’s ‘Hiding All Away’ throws acts of extreme sexual violence against small-town mundanity: police with greased truncheons, paper-thin dresses, and greasy-eyed chefs clash with big-fisted butchers; comical ranks that could have appeared in Franz Kafka’s kinkiest nightmares, all emerge from the shadows as we hear Cave trying to escape from a sado-masochistic fever dream where he is neither victim or perpetrator but witness.

Elsewhere, Cave is more subtle and guarded in landing his punchlines. The 2001 track ‘Oh My Lord’ is presented as a confessional for a man demanding redemption as he wanders through a broken life, alienated from his family and himself. Having a haircut at the barbershop and watching the world go by, pedestrians stare back at him like a goldfish in a bowl. Suddenly he is noticed by a man wearing plastic reindeer antlers who presses his naked bum up to the glass, to the narrator’s great shock and bemusement. Cave would admit that this was a true story: “As with most of my absurd lyrics I just wrote it down as I saw it.” After a panic attack on all fours on the barbershop floor he calls his wife, who doesn’t even recognize his voice, thinking she is receiving a prank call, and tells him to go away. The song highlights the ridiculousness of his situation while making light of his suffering, the perfect balance for the holy sinner as fool. There is a suggestion that the song shows Cave racked under the pain of addiction: sneaking out, becoming someone else under the night, estranged from his home life – a different man – seeing himself through a glass darkly. It is a powerful touch of humour that is used by Cave touching

upon greater depths beneath the surface.

In his foreword to the new 2022 edition of Nick Cave’s Complete Lyrics, the author Will Self sees a consistent sharp satire at play across the songs, by turns a scalpel or a blunt instrument, Cave’s verbal arsenal is used to prick at the pomposity of arrested attitudes and explode constipated moral preoccupations. The overtly hostile transgressive act becomes the enervating force of (benign) cultural shakeup, but often falls short of calls for revolutionary social change. Cave’s mirthful vitriol would find its peak in the 2001 song ‘God Is in the House’. After his marriage to Susie Bick in 1999, Cave and his new wife would visit America on their honeymoon, driving through several states along the way. After so many years of writing about the country as a distant subject viewed through the tour bus window, dank alleyways and across the dark mass of an audience, Cave would finally come face-to-face with the country’s crushingly conformist rebels and everyday naysayers’ civic pride inflated into hyperbolic dictatorship, that in Cave’s hands ballooned into a domineering grotesque. Finding a new source of “the evil within,” ‘God Is in the House’ sees the closeted hellfire behind the gated community as the new homesteaders – immured by wealth to wider social ills – bristling with fear of the outside. An alternative musician born of rock and blues musical traditions, Cave would now find himself dancing across the political fence, giving full vent to a series of minor annoyances; the little things that get up your nose until they become a brain haemorrhage of major grievances. Cave would admit that some of these frustrations were his own, others purely invented, though he refused to state which was which. In the song they rise up as jagged vignettes born from his American travels as a double alien: a deeply Anglophone Australian with his own very personal conception of Christian faith and traditional conservative values. The song speaks from an objective position to witness headless chickens driven to insanity by tokenized notions of equality in suburban towns with names so forgettable they merged into the meta-mythic zip code of ‘Anywhere, USA.’

The song begins as a laconic examination of the peaceful little town taken a Lynchian hard turn – and coming full circle – exposing the hypocrisy of its (neo)liberal facade. Cave takes a stab at the political correctness of the homegrown-made-perfect, the American experiment tamed, enclosed by self-righteousness. He cites a woman mayor who keeps drugs on the wrong side of the tracks; compared to her home turf of brightly-lit monuments and kittens painted white, a place where there is nowhere for the guilty to hide from the mob, except as the bearer of the light. Cave lifts the lid on the repressed need for social controls met with double standards of local government – clashing with the extreme challenges of Cave’s own pagan poetry.

The song subverts the idea of God as the foundation of a home (perhaps in his own beliefs). From the perspective of church as a communion of belief and spiritual imagination beyond walls and old stone, Cave takes a sideways slant, skewering the “utopiate” of liberalism delivered

by “teetotalitarian” autocrats. Certainly the song confirms his more recent views delivered twenty years after the song was written – arguing against the postmodern religion of the (elite) masses that sees factional group rights tread on the individual: how the freedoms of democratic culture lean upon equality but create a new straitjacket around freedom of speech and creative self-expression.

Cave’s lyric delights in setting loose the mice into a bag of cats, just to see what would happen:

squaring-off the rival tribes of gays, homophobes, and lesbians in open warfare, not a clash of perspectives, reaching the fallout of an intolerable situation where nothing is right and everyone is wrong. The song’s power stems from Cave’s exacting tone of mockery, exhausted by the monotony of monolithic thinking. In the song’s closing bridge Cave gives a torturously exhausted, whispery-whined vocal, teasing out the clipped vowels of listed moral demands, inviting the congregation to “quietly shout” for deliverance with one throttled voice.

At the song’s close Cave repeats his call for God to “come out,” daring him to magically appear and embrace the town’s brave new world, or as an invitation to confession and to invoke his judgement – scaring the townsfolk into quitting the hollow vampire’s castle of narrowed-down secularisation – just as Cave rejects the singular Christianity of self-righteous judgement. If Jesus was the example that would set us free from tyranny, here God is co-opted as the false figurehead of muscular Christianity turned inward; against the truth of humanity’s conflicted natures. The Conservative Christian soldier is the new bigheaded bigot, and the fiercely self-loathing liberal their shadow opposite; both reaching around from behind to stick their fingers and noses further into muddy waters. The house of the song’s title has its walls cast so high it becomes a prison of forced conformity camouflaged as modern neoliberal tolerance, as if predicting Cave’s fears of the culture wars of embattled censorship and political polarisation that would begin in the short decades following the song’s release in April 2001.

Across his songwriting craft, Cave has always worked to inflame and subvert the melancholy pessimism of his public image, away from misanthropy, much of his lyrics always start with the beginnings of a smirk edging into shadow. His deft and determined approach is to shock us out of normality and one-way feeling, deconstructing the singular purpose of a song to embrace jarring dynamics: we are soothed until we are slapped across the face, kissed then bitten – lifting us up only to cast us down again.

For every well-meaning ballad of humanist lament and broken hearts, The Bad Seeds’ songs also jump forward to shock the listener, rubbing them the wrong way in true contrarian fashion. The journalist Andrew Collins would note that “it is plausible to [simultaneously] revere and mock Cave.” The ability to hold this seeming contradiction shows us Cave constantly reaching within the ridiculous highs, and lows, of the sublime, perhaps at the same time, the tragically dark and the hilariously surreal. Perhaps against our better judgement, we embrace the cognitive dissonance of the holy fool; dancing along the wire of high and low taste. He gives us permission to get down and dirty, to share in the sick joke and feel happily vulgarised along with it.

In 2006 Cave would make a conscious break from the assumed seriousness of his earlier music under the guise of Grinderman. The bratty garage rock of 1994’s ‘Jangling Jack’ set the scene for the now wiser, and older, man grown disgracefully immature by the day. Though Grinderman manifested more as a tangential psychedelic freakout from The Bad Seeds’ music, Cave would mine familiar lyrical preoccupations. As if realising the unfiltered freedom of self-expression as art promised by The Birthday Party, an uncalculated post-rock project, the two bands from opposite ends of Cave’s career offered a more direct form of music. Cave spoke about the writing of Grinderman’s ‘No Pussy Blues’ delivered as free-range ad-lib, giving him the spur to shake loose his subconscious: “At some point in my career, I’ve managed to flip this little switch in my head which says ‘It doesn’t fucking matter’ and go in with a certain sense of humour about it all.” An easy, unpracticed surrealism comes to life through Cave’s libidinous tongue that never stutters or trips over graphic depictions of the body as lustful object, to be both seen and used. On ‘Mermaids; “the match that would fire up her snatch” moves beyond embarrassment and shame toward pure outspoken joy, singing the body electric. Cave would seem to expose something of himself in his characters’ flaws, holding them up as kind of a mirror to mankind, equally flawed and broken and seeing the humour in it.

Since his earliest music Cave has maintained a purposefully transgressive drive. The Birthday Party was not just a project of contempt against the world, but an act of resistance to the narrowing of culture that the idealised society naturally errs towards. After this, The Bad Seeds Cave continued to play with language, controversial concepts, and ugly imagery. Cave songs continued as self-contained works unto themselves – resistant to overanalysis. In much the same tone, Vladimir Nabokov declared that everything he wished to say about his books was there in the work, and the rest would be propaganda. Cave declares himself a conservative person with a small “c”. In this, he again enjoys the position of an arch-contrarian. He explains that he now finds himself drawn toward traditional values but is economically liberal. As many ageing artists hold more firmly to their convictions, Cave praises the strength of the family, the unity of faith where the congregation of a church, in the broadest sense, is a way of bringing people together, but not under a banner of sameness. Elsewhere he talks about children needing free-range childhoods, reflecting on his own experiences of growing up in the countryside with less rules and more opportunity of adventure.

Cave would argue for the sovereignty of the individual as an embodiment of free speech, which includes the freedom to be wrong, and to admit to our mistakes. As stated in Faith, Hope and Carnage, Cave is keen for rhetorical exercise, to talk through concepts and beliefs rather than to have a conversation prematurely closed down. Not without some humour, Cave would cite Jesus as being cancelled upon the cross; a controversial figure and corrupter of the youth like Socrates, he willingly drank the hemlock, just as Jesus walked the stations of the cross toward the hill at Calvary – dying to make a point. Cave states that like his purposeful agitation, a heretic to social conformity, these once-dangerous ideas might yet save the world. The need to speak loudly, born from a desire to be heard, noticed, read, or understood, is a freedom worth saving. For Cave in particular this feels like a hard-won journey of self-discovery: “My sole intention all along has been to access my voice about things and not to dilute it. From all that a unique voice has emerged . . . but it’s taken a very long time.”

Listening back to a 1981 live version of The Birthday Party’s ‘King Ink’ we hear Cave rolling and roiling on the floor, yielding to the song’s midway maelstrom. He continues to yell, “Say something, express yourself, express yourself!” squared against Tracy Pew’s hip-thrusting bass to Rowland S. Howard’s tight angular riffs. This is performance overriding common sense, the duke of confrontation fighting to get a reaction and short circuit the numbed everyday – the enervating power of art as autodestruction of the voice.

For all Cave’s argument on the sanctity of artistic free speech – including the right to transgress and break boundaries of good taste – he longs for a return to the joyful play of language where words can be made new, to realise art unbound by tradition. Where the audience can decide what makes something good art purely by the emotional reaction it evokes in them – becoming an invitation to share in the crooked smile – the last laugh is ours, and the joke is on us.

Darker With The Dawn — Nick Cave’s Songs Of Love And Death by Adam Steiner is published by Rowman & Littlefield

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