The Firstborn is Alive and Well, Thank You Very Much

Photos by Daniel Boud

The idea of paying a hundred dollars to see Nick Cave answer the inane questions of an Opera House audience and bash out a few songs unaccompanied by the glorious Bad Seeds is not one that held any appeal for me.

This is until Nick-fucking-Cave himself was seated at the piano, facing me and pounding out ‘West Country Girl’ like his life depended upon it. There’s a book about The Triffids called Vagabond Holes that includes writing by Nick Cave and Robert Forster. Both discuss their awe of David McComb’s ability to summon forth a song with just a few chords, a decent singing voice and some borrowed confidence. Well, this same ability has never been on better display than on Tuesday night. Nick Cave played wrong notes, fucked with the timing, lost the beat. He stretched his voice beyond what it should be able to pull off. And pulled it off.

The show was a triumph. Nick Cave displayed a simultaneous modesty and vanity that neither dismissed nor basked in the self-possession crucial to his artistic success. At one point, an audience member asked a question originally posed to Bob Dylan by Brett Whiteley: ‘How much of the music comes from the subconscious and how much are you a medium for God?’ While he quipped that if God was sending him his songs, he’s doing an average fucking job, Cave admitted he did feel that in being possessed by his songs he was indeed acting as a conduit for a broader cultural zeitgeist, rather than just writing about his own experience.

It’s a relief to see this vast intelligence and self-awareness on display. The ability to mitigate the disparities between one’s art and one’s ego is satisfying to see in our heroes, especially when you have beloved figures like Morrissey falling forever deeper into bitterness (easy, Bruno–Ed). Compared to this, the reason Nick Cave’s show worked is because it didn’t feel like a victory lap. He began by explaining ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing. This is essentially an experiment that’s intended to create an honest dialogue with my audience. And I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. So, thank you–every one of you–for taking part in it.’ And yet he was still able to deliver sarcastic self-aggrandisement, jibing of the B-Sides-&-Rarities cut ‘Shoot Me Down’: ‘This is a beautiful song. How didn’t this make it onto a record?’

Out of this respect for himself as a performer, inherent respect for his audience was revealed. Even when asked banal questions like what inspired him to write songs, Cave still engaged with them sincerely and without condescension. ‘Look, I don’t really write songs because I’m inspired. I have to treat it as a job; I get up in the morning, sit at the typewriter and hope two lines somehow speak to each other. Inspiration has the opportunity to come along while I’m doing this, but it can’t be the impetus for it.’

Only at one point was this atmosphere of respect shattered. Some fuckwit asked (out of obligation more than interest) how Cave dealt with his heroes turning out to be monsters. Cave asked, ‘I don’t understand what you mean–who are you talking about?’

Sir Cockalot stammered, ‘Louis C.K.?’ and Cave answered, ‘I have to admit, I have never cared for Louis C.K. or found him particularly funny, so that has not had any real impact on me. I operate in the music industry, and I do not see these same monsters that you do. Compared to other entertainment industries, I think we treat women fairly well, relatively speaking at least.’

A shocked silence descended, before Nick asked, ‘Next? You, the lady in red.’ And the show, having ground to a halt, launched back into action. But the atmosphere was tense now. Any audience member might be the enemy; any single person could be a misogynist or, God forbid, capable of seeing a woman as a sexual object… This atmosphere slowly recalibrated back into one of inebriated and ebullient camaraderie.

The moment of discomfort revealed the risk Cave was taking, hinting at how horribly wrong it could all go. The first night was so incredible because it was spontaneous, and at times ridiculous to the point it caught Cave off guard. Like when he answered a seven-year-old’s question about what the hardest thing about being a songwriter was. ‘It’s the terror. It’s standing in front of people and having no idea what’s going to happen. For example, right now I’m explaining myself to a child!’ And when that guy asked him to sign his foot! What the fuck was that about?

I’ll tell you. It was about what being a performer is. It’s about being asked, ‘do you have a pen?’ and replying, ‘you’re fucking awesome.’ It is about declaring that the firstborn is dead, then being told that it is Elvis Presley’s birthday and asking, ‘Oh, is it?’ Yes, it is. Long live the king.

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