“Always in a black suit”

by Tino Hanekamp

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


Nick Cave. Photographer: Steve Schofield/ Contour by Getty Images

Everyone has to cope with getting older, living with less energy, the decay of the body and a new tiredness to the eyes that have already seen so much - and that's only if the grim reaper doesn't get to you first. This is especially difficult for rock stars, as they pedal youthfulness, stamina, sexuality, beauty and the seemingly endless possibilities of the future. And they are idolised for it, often for decades. But what happens when all this is over? What if what they were famed for is not there anymore, but people are still big fans? How can a rock star age with dignity? The answer is simple and doesn't just apply to rock stars: you need to keep reinventing yourself, keep changing - both in your work and as a person. In short: you need to act like Nick Cave.

Strictly speaking, Nick Cave has never been a rock star, he's only just becoming one at the age of 62. In the four decades of his career, he was always well known, more of a "cult star", a sort of musical institution that moved further into the ranks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash with every album, but he was not a man who wrote hits and filled stadiums. Only the tour to his new, worldwide acclaimed album "Ghosteen" now takes him to the big arenas. Cave still does not write hits, on the contrary. "Ghosteen" is a refrain-free and a totally rock music-free sound surface, over which he sings with almost painful vulnerability about how to overcome grief and find your way back into life: It is the last of a series of stylistic shifts that Cave has carried out seemingly effortlessly since his youth.

When you heard his music and then saw a photo of him, you always wondered why he was such a young, boyish looking man

In any case, old age has never really hurt Nick Cave, maybe because his art is not derived from his youth. He has never been admired for the things that a Mick Jagger has to keep alive, so that nobody notices that there is a 76-year-old singing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". On the contrary: Cave already sounded like an old man in his late twenties, because he told stories, often with Old Testament imagery and in his deep, theatrical voice. He sung about guilt and atonement, about love, pain and the longing for redemption - dark, at the beginning and wild and brutal, later he turned to more romantic songs full of drama and cleverly dosed pathos, performed on stage in preacher pose, always in a dark suit.

When you heard his music and then saw a photo of him, you always wondered why he was such a young, boyish looking man. But sometimes ageing can also be a process of catching up – with life tracking the furrows that the songs have already set. That's how it is with Nick Cave. And much more too.

If there is one constant in Cave's work, it is that there is no constant. The broken post-punk riots of his band The Birthday Party were followed by the massive, often voluptuous songs of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and each album went one step further, from rock to blues, to lushly instrumented, black-humoured Murder ballads. Then in 1997, Cave sat alone at the piano and recorded "The Boatman's Call", an intimate measurement of a broken heart - and hit on another turning point.

After that he found the love of his life, got away from the heroin that had miraculously not killed him until then, and lived a bourgeois life. He went to the office every morning to work - and with what results! He wrote a splendid second novel, three and a half screenplays, composed film music with his congenial companion Warren Ellis, lived out his midlife crisis with a moustache and the snotty Bad Seeds side project Grinderman, and released new albums with the Bad Seeds. It went well and he could have just kept going. But in 2013 he switched his formula again.

Back in 2017, Cave told Vice magazine that he had to change constantly to remain relevant as a songwriter, saying that most bands only make two, or maybe three good albums, and then they die, trying to repeat their successes.

The typical rock star must always push the limits, as soon as they slow down, they are overshadowed by their own mortality

In 2013 "Push the Sky Away" was released, and again, it was quite different. Cave didn't tell stories anymore, his songs had become more abstract, more fragmentary, the prosaic theatricality had given way to a poetry that traced the mysteries of existence. Cave lost some old fans and found many new ones, a pseudo-documentary film called "20,000 Days on Earth" cemented his myth - he had long since shrugged off the cultural cliché of the "aging rock star".

The typical rock star must always push the limits, as soon as they slow down, they are overshadowed by their own mortality. But Nick Cave’s work was long a dance with death – the grim reaper always peered over his shoulder while Cave explored the darker sides of life and love.

But then death caught up with him: In July 2015 his son Arthur, aged just 15, fell off a cliff outside Brighton during a LSD trip and died. In his attempt to regain his grip on life, Cave acted against all his instincts and fears and reversed his strategies in dealing with fame and publicity – and he reinvented himself again, this time more radically than ever before. During the recording sessions for the album "Skeleton Tree" he had a film made which documents the creation of these songs, showing how he was overwhelmed by pain, without hiding behind any mask or myth. He went on tour even though he was dreading it, and found healing by being close to his fans, whom he had always kept at arm’s length, retaining his classic pose of aloofness.

And he went even further, sitting down on stage in smaller venues, and letting people ask him questions. Of course, there were many about the death of his son and about mourning, but also about his socks. Then Cave, who had always hated interviews, started a blog called "The Red Hand Files", where he answered the questions of the fans with unprecedented openness, as if he found redemption in opening up to other people. He writes there that it is the capacity for wonder that keeps us alive, reassures a fan that his sex drive does not diminish, even in old age, and in one of his most recent posts reveals the secret of his survival as a musician and as a human being: "As a songwriter I have made a commitment to uncertainty and to embrace that which I do not know, because I feel this is where true meaning exists.“ 

So life mirrors art: Only those who remain open to change will make ageing what it ultimately is: the unstoppable decay of our cells. It is mostly the spirit that can stay young until the end of our days – and our approach to the world and life itself.

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