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Sunday 11 February 2024

Forty Minutes Of Nick Cave

Some time ago C (of Sun Dried Sparrows blog) left a comment in response to one of my posts about Isaac’s death saying that when she suffered a loss there were times when the grief felt so personal and so awful, that it feels like this can only be happening to you, that no one else can possibly be feeling this way. She said she found comfort in the realisation that anyone you see in the street could be going through exactly the same thing, that grief and loss are universal and not something that you are going through on you own. The horrors of the death of a person close to you, especially one who dies young, are so traumatic and so terrible that it can feel like it has only happened to you but the truth is that we are not alone, no matter how much it might feel like that at times.  


Since Isaac’s death some people close to us have gone through similar experiences, the loss of a young person. I subscribe to Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files. Nick has opened his email address up to anyone to ask him a question and he operates it unfiltered, there no assistant reading through the inbox first and selecting them for him. Nick reads all the questions and letters sent to him and decides which to respond to. I don’t know how many he receives a week or a month- thousands I’m guessing. It’s a big undertaking and he freely admits he’s got no especial skill or training in terms of offering advice to people, many of whom are going through the worst situations imaginable, other than his own experience and a seemingly unlimited capacity for compassion. Many of the replies he posts are on the subject of loss and grief. In recent weeks he’s posted two which have struck chords with me. One is from a man, Mark from Scotland, who has suffered the death of his young son in truly awful circumstances. It's here. Nick's reply to Mark's letter contains these lines...

Your letter will be difficult for anyone to read, but it will also take many of us back, with a shudder of recognition, to our own times of sadness and loss.

We grievers know, Mark. We recognise in your letter the bottomless sorrow, the outrage, the desperation, the helplessness, the feelings of cosmic betrayal. We understand the sense of having nowhere to rest our minds that is not full of the darkest treachery. We know what its like to be confronted with the impossibility of a future life and the feeling that things will never be bearable again. Many of us also know the ghastly mechanics of planning the funeral of a child midst the zombied chaos of new grief. We know, Mark, and we are so very sorry.

But I want to say something, and even though it will doubtless mean little to you at this moment, I hope in time you will look back and know I spoke a kind of truth. Some years have now passed since the loss of my own sons, and though gone from this world, I have come to understand that they still travel with me – they are with me now – but more than that, they have become the active participants in a slow but certain awakening of the spirit. It saddens me deeply that they never lived their own full lives, but though I would give anything to have them back, these departed souls ultimately served as a kind of saving force that revealed the world to Susie and me as a thing of outrageous beauty. I have found my relationship to the world enriched in a way that I never dreamed possible. I know this to be true, but I also know it is a truth beyond understanding in your time of fresh grief, and so I say these things with extreme caution and pray it doesn’t come across as a kind of glibness uttered into your despair.

These are the saddest and most hopeless days you will experience, but I want you and your family to know this – if you can just hold together, I believe that life will get better for you, in ways you cannot yet comprehend. One day you will find Murray travelling with you, not just as a grief or a memory, but as an animating and guiding principle, allowing you to experience joy in a way you have never experienced it before. Be kind and patient and gentle and merciful with one another. Stay close. Hold firm. Forgive. Grief prepares the way. Joy will in time find you. It is searching for you, in the impossible darkness, even now.

I don't have anything particular to add to this. I'm not at the point Nick describes, I haven't had the world revealed to me as a thing of outrageous beauty (although I can see glimpses of it at times) but I'm also no longer at the point Mark, the letter writer, is either, where only a few weeks in everything is raw and brutal. For weeks after Isaac died waking up each morning was a wrench, a punch to the gut, every morning he died again when the realisation that I was awake and he was still dead hit me.

Nick is open and direct in his writingOne of the issues surrounding death is the language that people employ (or don't). People regularly use words like traumatic, horrific and devastating to describe commonplace situations- their football team conceding and losing in the last minute or having to take a day off work because their kid's school was closed due to snow. As a result, those words sometimes seem inadequate when talking about death, they have lost their true meaning. Another issue is the use of euphemisms. I always try to avoid euphemisms for death. Isaac didn’t pass away or pass on- he died. I think sometimes people flinch a little when I use that language of death in conversation but I can't sugarcoat it or hide it (and have felt guilty on the occasions that I have done so). Nick doesn’t use euphemisms or dress death up into  something palatable, he confronts it head on. He has traversed a way through the deaths of his sons (Arthur in 2015 and Jethro in 2022) and with his wife Suzie they have found a way to live with it. And this is the truth about it- you can and do find a way to live with the loss. It doesn't go away. It sits inside me in my chest like a ball of pain, sometimes big, present and engulfing and sometimes smaller and pushed down a little by life. It's always there and I know it always will be but you can get used to living with it. Nick responded to another Red Hand Files question since the one above, a letter writer asking how he deals with receiving these emails and whether it is a kind of catharsis. That letter and Nick's reply are here.

I have been listening to Nick Cave's music for many years, since the late 80s. In the 90s I dropped in and out, sometimes tuning in and sometimes missing albums. I really connected with his music with Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre Of Orpheus in 2004, then Dig Lazarus Dig!!! in 2007 (which has two of my favourite Cave songs, We Call Upon The Author and More News From Nowhere) and then the first Grinderman album (also 2007). Nick's run of albums since 2013- Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen and then 2021's Carnage (with Warren Ellis)- have been big albums for me. Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen are both in different ways connected to the death of Nick's son Arthur, Skeleton Tree written before Arthur's death but recorded after, and Ghosteen written as a way to deal with and live with the grief and the loss. Nick has described how while writing and recording Ghosteen he could feel Arthur as part of the process. There are times when they are difficult listens and there are times when they are absolutely what I need to hear, a mirror to my own bereavement.

Today's mix is a Nick Cave mix drawn solely from albums since Push The Sky Away and with a definite emphasis on the songs that have Nick dealing with Arthur and his death. I know some people find these songs difficult, a tough listen in places- but it does find hope and uplift as well. I did try versions of this mix with some other songs in there too to lighten or change the mood but in the end it didn't work and I took them out.

Forty Minutes Of Nick Cave

  • Push The Sky Away
  • Lavender Fields
  • I Need You
  • We Are Not Alone
  • Into My Arms (Idiot Prayer Version)
  • White Elephant
  • Leviathan

Push The Sky Away is the title track and closing song from the Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds album of 2013. It is a minimal and stately, synths and rumbling percussion, a much subtler record than previous ones.

Lavender Fields starts out with the line, 'I'm travelling appallingly alone'. The song groans and sways, synths and organ swelling. Nick says the song is about change, moving from one state to another. A choir comes in singing, 'there is a kingdom in the sky', and the song becomes about rebirth or renewal (the pale bird represents that I think). The chords rise, the singing rises, everything moves upwards. Lavender Fields is from Carnage, the album he made with Warren Ellis in 2021, a record that deals with the chaos of the modern world as well as Nick's interior life. White Elephant is a change of mood, a riotous, ridiculous and profound song that takes in Black Lives Matter, protestors, statues, Botticelli's Venus and (again) the kingdom in the sky.

I Need You is heavy. Heavy as fuck. It is the bottom of the pit, absolute hopelessness, the horror of loss and a world that has become meaningless. The woman, presumably Susie, is in the supermarket with her red dress on, they're holding hands, and nothing really matters. It's from Skeleton Tree, from 2016, the electronics, loops, atmospherics and synths now central to the Bad Seeds sound. The songs don't conform, they exist. Nick sings from a place of numbness and of grief.

We Are Not Alone is from a soundtrack recorded by Nick and Warren Ellis. The film is a documentary about snow leopards, La Panthere Des Neiges, from 2021. It is ten minutes long, a slow moving and layered piece of music with synths, strings, a choir, acoustic guitar and Warren's violin and eventually Nick singing about being observed and unaware and how, ultimately, we are not along. It seems to me like a counterpoint to the song that precedes it here.

Into My Arms is one of Nick Cave's most loved songs, a love song and a ballad, from the 1997 album The Boatman's Call. Famously, Nick wrote the song at a battered old piano while in rehab. Nick performed it at the funeral of Michael Hutchence. The version here is from Idiot Prayer, a live recording from Alexander Palace on 23rd July 2020. Nick was the only person present at the concert, a solo concert, just Nick and a piano and a vast empty space, deep into the world of Covid and lockdown.

Leviathan is from Ghosteen, the 2019 double album that is some kind of Cave masterpiece. It's a song about love and loss, about Nick and Susie and about Nick and Arthur. The second verse hits me hard- 'We talked it round and round again/ Then we drove down to the sea/ We sat in the car park for an hour or two/ I love my baby and my baby loves me'- the visuals it conjures up, the prosaic nature of a couple talking and driving round. I think they're talking about the death of their son and what the fuck they're going to do, how on earth they're going to manage to move forward, to do anything. Meanwhile the piano and the atonal synth sounds lurch and swim around, choral harmonies taking over as the song crawls towards its conclusion, a slow motion sonic rendition of grief. It's utterly beautiful, an immense and emotive expression of the human condition. Ghosteen is bleak and beautiful and ultimately it's about survival.


Rol said...

I hope you can get to the place Nick describes one day, Adam... or your own equivalent of it.

C said...

That's incredibly powerful and moving stuff. Beautiful writing - from you and Nick - and I echo Rol's words.

Rickyotter said...

It never ceases to amaze me whenever I delve into the Red Hand files, the sheer breadth of human emotion, suffering and desperation we have, but also how Nick responds with genuine care and kindness. He talks an awful lot of truth about the things we dare not think about, let alone say. You do the same Adam, I hope time gives you the opportunity to find your joy with Isaac

Swiss Adam said...

The latest Red Hand Files. went live yesterday opens with a question asking 'why are you such a massive wanker?' and gets better from there on in. Nick Cave knows how to deal with a variety of questions it seems.


Martin said...

A beautifully written post, Adam. I hope the glimpses become more frequent.