A night of conversation with Nick Cave went exactly like you’d expect with a 62 year-old self-proclaimed rock and roll legend. But it also went not at all as you might expect.
The abrupt shift from his usual raucous tours with The Bad Seeds stemmed from two things.
First, there’s the quality connections he’s established directly with his fans through the Red Hand Files, a minimal site where he invites his fans to ask him questions and where he provides long-form answers. By his count, he’d reached about 13,657 questions and has notched “around 65” posts with answers, so there’s no shortage of material.
His other motivation for the new format stemmed from the sudden death of his 15-year-old son in July 2015. He said that in the time following the tragedy the only thing he could do was keep his head down and charge on with the business. He needed to keep busy, but he found when he returned to the stage to play shows that the experience had changed. It felt alien, but he also felt more deeply connected with the crowds, and he wanted to explore that connectivity.
He’s learned so much more than he expected or bargained for about the lives and inner workings of his fans. That’s energized him and pushed him back on the road for Conversations tours in the UK, Australia, and now North America. So what did Minnesota come up with for Nick?
One of my favorites came early on from Mary, a woman in the back corner who’d started asking questions well before the Q & A portion actually started. She flagged down one of the mic-wielding assistants, who got the host’s attention for her. Mary sounded rushed and shaky, like she was very nervous. Maybe that’s why her words came out rushed and possibly in a different order than she’d intended, and sounded like a stream of consciousness/free association exercise. The gist, as I understood it, was,
“HI. Hi Nick, my name is- I’m Mary. In three words, or less, can you tell me- us, can you tell us…are you a vampire?” The theater erupted in laughter and the question elicited a hearty chuckle from our host. He paused to look himself over before answering.
Are you a vampire?
“Yes, I am a vampire.” He acknowledged before somebody up front reminded him of the stipulations. “Oh, right.” He paused briefly, counting words on his fingers, “I am vampire.” He responded, grinning ear to ear. Nick Cave has always been a gaunt, slender, and pale figure who dresses almost exclusively in black suits. Coupled with the fact that he exists mostly at night time, it felt like a perfectly reasonable question.
The rhythm he seemed to work towards was answering a handful of questions before landing on one that had a song attached to it, then he’d play that song, or in some cases, a related one that he remembered better. The few times he achieved this goal, the night flowed beautifully with a gradual, natural-feeling rhythm. But this was an open game with few rules, so it naturally ran off the rails from time to time.
One of the other night’s best questions came from Miguel, who was one of a small number of non-white members of the audience. Miguel described his first encounter with Nick Cave’s music when he worked installing and fixing car stereos. After he replaced the speakers in a car, he turned it on to test them out and the sinister, heavy bass line of “Stagger Lee” came on at full volume. He said he wondered out loud, “Yo, what the fuck is this?” Up until that point, Miguel’s musical taste centered squarely in gangster rap and little else. He said when the lyrics came on, he knew he had to have it, and he went out and bought Murder Ballads that week.
Miguel’s back story segued eloquently into his question, “As I’m sure you know, Snoop Dogg loves your music so much that he covered his favorite Nick Cave song. So, Nick Cave, what is your favorite Snoop Dogg song?” The audience roared in laughter and clapped in appreciation while Nick Cave scratched his chin and looked at his feet.
What is your favorite Snoop Dogg song?
“I, uh, I’m sorry to say, but I don’t know any Snoop Dogg songs,” he confessed as the crowd collectively aww’d in disappointment. Many of the questions from the crowd that night could have easily been answered with a ‘no’ and briskly moved on. But he was too polite for that, and provided something for his fans, even if it wasn’t what they were looking for. He went on to say that back in the day, one of the guys in the Bad Seeds put a CD from the Geto Boys in heavy rotation on the tour bus, which impressed Miguel, until Nick admitted that was the extent of his foray into gangster rap.
He clearly felt bad for not having more to give to Miguel, so he sat down at the piano to play “Stagger Lee” for him. It didn’t have the bass line of the original, but it was still a treat to hear such a stripped down version, and I knew it meant a lot that Miguel got to hear a song play specifically for him.
An unexpectedly awkward moment came when an audience member got on a mic and introduced himself, and then his girlfriend to Nick. He apologized, noting that he had a question for ‘someone else’ first, then asked his girlfriend to marry him. Nick was instantly unsettled by the transaction, though he was only speaking in body language. When the man proposing couldn’t find the ring to put on her finger, Nick shifted from foot to foot, raising his mic up as if to speak, then dropping it back down to his side. It was a nervous shuffle. After about 20 seconds, the ring appeared and the couple were formally engaged.
Will you marry me?
“Is everything okay?” Nick asked, and the guy responded yes, that she said yes, and handed the mic to his newly minted fiancee.
“Mumble-mumble NICK CAVE mumble-mumble-mumble LOVE YOU! I mumble mumble YOU!” She said to a flabbergasted man on stage.
“You know what? I’m just going to play you a song. How does that sound?” He asked and without waiting for an answer, about-faced and strode to the piano to play “Love Letter.”
That was by no means the extent of the night’s surprises. Chief among them, a doozy from Nick himself.
Asked about his creative process, he described his daily routine as waking up, putting on a suit, eating breakfast, and kissing his wife before stepping into his office to work. His office is usually just the next room, or wherever he can be alone when he’s on the road. Solitude is a must-have for his creative process.
Once he’s locked himself away, it sounds as if he sits and waits for words, phrases, and melodies to surface, to reveal themselves to him and he sets about stringing all of the disparate pieces together.
He gradually builds up a sizeable bulk of material before transitioning into the studio with his band. In the studio, he chops everything up, discarding most of it, and forms the remainders into songs.
When asked about his favorite or most meaningful lyrics, he shrugged and admitted that the words don’t mean much to him when he’s writing them and assembling them into songs. That they mean a lot more to his fans than they do to him and that their power only resonates in a live setting.
Wait, what? Asked about it again later, he said he feels a strange kind of disconnect with his lyrics. Something in that didn’t sit right with me and it felt like he might have been dodging a question. Or maybe an answer. But he hadn’t shied away from other more obviously difficult truths.
Cave admitted he had no friends to speak of, nobody he gets together with to just hang out for the sake of spending time together. Everything is a meeting, or in the studio to create, and has some kind of purpose. When he was asked about the last time he saw Henry Rollins, somebody he used to be good friends with, he couldn’t think of the last time they spoke.
He relayed a story instead, as he’d done with Miguel, about a time hanging out with a friend of his from an old band as well as Rollins. He described the setting as he and his band buddy shooting up in the corner while “Henry basically did push-ups the whole time. And we just sat there getting high, and skinnier, and sick, while Henry just got…bigger. Wider. But there was no judgement from him at all! It’s just what we did.”
Did you draw a penis on Peter Murphy?
“I heard you drew a penis on Peter Murphy,” one audience member quipped, before correcting herself, “Sorry, did you draw a penis on Peter Murphy?” She was referencing a tour in the early 80s when Nick Cave opened for Bauhaus and alleged shenanigans and fall out with the band’s singer. All he could say was that it was a rowdy time for him and his band, who he admitted were a “little out of control” whereas Bauhaus was a more serious project really making an effort to make it work. But he definitely didn’t deny that he drew a penis on Peter Murphy.
One question had all of us on the edge of our seats as we braced for what must be an epic story. “What was the last thing you said to Leonard Cohen?” I didn’t realize they had a relationship, but this person asked, so they must know something that I don’t.
What was the last thing you said to Leonard Cohen?
“I’m sorry to say I never met Leonard Cohen, which is a shame,” he said, as the air sucked out of the theater and we all slowly slumped back from the edge of our seats. “But he did email me once, after my son died.” We shifted back to the edge, eager for a glimpse into the exchange.
“He only ever emailed me once, and I recognized this as him just reaching his hand out through the darkness to somebody at a time where nothing was going to help, really, but it felt like he just wanted to check in. It was very simple, but I’ll never forget it.
“I am with you, brother.”
Cave went on to relay that the first major shift in his life came when he was 14 and helped start the transformation from a generally happy rural Australian into the rock and roll vampire figure he’d become. He heard Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and everything changed. “Suddenly there was a name for this feeling inside of me.”
He described Leonard Cohen as somebody simply presenting his music. Not mired in it, not driven by it, just placing it for everybody. Cave recognized a disconnect between Cohen and his music, which seems to inform Cave’s disconnected approach to his own music. At least until the next time he’s asked about it.
He returned to the piano to play his rendition of Cohen’s “Avalanche,” the song that changed his life 48 years ago. The air felt electric as the hairs on the back of my neck stood bolt upright and my eyes welled up with tears. I didn’t have to look around to know the feeling was overwhelmingly mutual. We were in the presence of greatness.
By the end of the show I realized that Nick Cave’s answers have a half life of varying lengths. Several questions referenced interviews with him that he did not remember or that he did not agree with. That’s pretty typical, though, considering we’re all in a constant state of flux. The only way we stop changing is when we die. We grow, we move on, we learn differences, we expand, and hopefully through it all, we improve.
Nick Cave has a new album titled Ghosteen due out tomorrow, October 4th, as announced on the Red Hand Files. Find it at all the usual retailers and streaming services.