So, this is what I want to know: A question for Nick Cave
by Rodney Sharkey
It is early June in 2018. As the lights go down to signal the beginning of “So what do you want to know? An evening with Nick Cave” held at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the audience are treated to a prerecorded recitation of “Steve McQueen,” Cave’s spoken word piece that appears in the recent documentary about his work One More Time with Feeling. It begins:
Here I am the Moonlight Man with a six-barrel shooter
In my brief case, I have a dream
Sometimes I get the elevator to the top of the Burj Al Arab
And shoot my guns across Dubai
Bang, bang, bang, I’m that kinda guy
But mostly I curl up inside my typewriter
Curl up inside my typewriter and wish that I could die.
And a little later in the poem (and again in relation to Dubai)
And everyone out here does mean
And everyone out here does pain
But someone’s gotta sing the stars
And someone’s gotta sing the rain
And a little later still, a religious motif appears
God is great, chances are
God is good, well I wouldn’t go that far
And in the mix, as always, there is unbridled desire for a sensuous woman who has the narrator in heat:
Call me a cab, I’ll drive to the top of the Burj Al Arab and fire my guns across your stomach
Perhaps under different circumstances I’d be luxuriating in pleasure trying to accurately interpret this piece. As it stands, in the dark of The Abbey Theatre auditorium, I’m conflicted and feel ambivalent about what I am hearing. And this is a first for me with Nick Cave, whom I have listened to in rapt attention for over thirty years now. Specifically, Cave’s decision to play Tel Aviv in November 2017 had made me uneasy and whereas I have traditionally credited Nick Cave’s allusive and often illusive art with a lightness of touch, with a transformative metaphoric capacity (this is the author of “The Flesh made Word” after all), tonight it’s not unreasonable to infer that Nick Cave might have a stake in the so called “clash of civilizations.”
As someone who has spent 40-odd years interpreting poetry and literature of various shapes and hues, from various centuries and traditions, I am painfully aware that the danger is often in the neatness of identifications (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett). But just as sometimes a pipe is simply a pipe, so too Nick Cave may be saying that Dubai is a certain form of mean corruption that needs to be shot down. In fact, where exactly does he mean by the phrase “out here?” In choosing the Burj Al Arab is he suggesting Arab culture in general is in need of this military remediation? This is hardly the case, surely? For example, it’s clear that the poem is also suggesting that this six shooting fantasy is precisely that: a fantasy. Instead of distributing such vigilante justice, our poetic voice would rather curl up and die in pain, or, perhaps, in grief; perhaps the type of grief that must surely have consumed Cave himself in the recent past? The reference “God is Great” clearly alludes to the Takbir, the Arab prayer now familiar to everyone the world over, for different reasons. But what of “God is good, well I wouldn’t go that far?” Does this reference the old testament God of punishment, the Torah deity who is often vengeful and unforgiving? Is Nick Cave here identifying with a God defined not by his capacity for munificence, but by his penchant for inflicting pain on people whom he may also choose not to save? And speculating further on this, is Nick Cave’s recent decision to play Israel based, at least in part, on his identification with scripture (after all, he likes an old testament allusion, though it must be said he likes a new testament metaphor too). Or is all of this content-prompted conjecture on my part to simply miss the point of this song, which is the Cave-old preoccupation with sexual desire and longing for the archetypal, sensual woman who can provide succor, comfort and salvation? In this regard, the allusions to guns, in conjunction with the emphasis on sexual longing, may well also be a smart comment on the displaced libidinal investment that unconsciously drives ISIS towards eroticized violence, its actual desires condensed into religious dogma. Indeed, with so many potentially different interpretations swirling in my mind the simple truth is I don’t know what to think. Nick Cave, song man of the dispossessed, the criminally insane, the rain, the dark, the pain and the redeeming powers of love, has left me confused, and at sea. All I know for certain as his silhouette makes its way to the piano in the dark of The Abbey is that I’m itching to ask him a question that can put the monkey on my back to bed. And as the show is called “So, what do you want to Know?” there’s every chance I’ll get an answer.
As soon as the lights go up, Nick Cave takes to the floor of The Abbey stage and begins to bounce back on his heels, offering his mic to potential addressors. I am very close to him. No more than two heads from the space he nominally inhabits. There is a Dave Allen high stool set up for sitting but it is rarely used throughout what follows as he prefers, like a street walking cheetah, to pace the Black Lodge tiles of the Irish theatre seeking questions and offering answers. Whereas questions in the early, Socratic tradition of investigation became known as “philosophical interventions,” the first such intervention of this evening turns out to be less Derrida and more pure devotion. From front row centre a young Mum presents a gift from a lad named Ian Curtis Cave whose life, and the life of his parents, Nick Cave has immeasurably enriched by being, well …..Nick Cave (the gift for Ian Curtis is, presumably, still in the post). As Cave graciously receives the gift he requests of the general audience that the next intervention be a question, or at least a sentence that rises in intonation towards its conclusion. The audience laughs. Cave is comfortable; he’s done this kind of thing before. He’s a showman. In fact, it must be quite something to be the object of such devotion; quite something to keep it all in perspective. For example, if this show had taken place two years ago my question would have been about the Fagles translation of The Odyssey which tells us that swineherd Eumaeus goes occasionally to town to hear “the news from nowhere.” I would have asked Cave did he mean to suggest, in his song of the same name, that Odysseus, like Eumaeus, chose finally to live at a distance from his home after all? It would have been a self-serving question: ‘oh look! We’ve both read the Classics. Aren’t we grand?’ Things are different now.
At this point, Cave gets asked a question about his aesthetic approach to narrative songwriting by a chap with a thick German accent. The interlocutor proposes Cave’s songs are becoming less narrative; that the narratives of his contemporary output are fragmentary, and that his approach is therefore fragmenting. He frames his question thus: “how far can narrative fragment before it breaks?” Nick Cave says that this is a good question and that he does not know the answer. I think I do. I think I know the answer. I think the answer is that language is not quantifiable materiality so it does not fragment, it does not break, rather it flows. This is why Joyce created Finnegans Wake out of a metaphor for rivers. James Joyce is the answer to why narrative doesn’t fragment; when it is pushed to its limit, it continues to envelop us in its semantic possibilities, perhaps even renewing our own creative juices. It is a revivifying liquid, like spring water, rather than a broken record, like Bono. I sit forward in my chair with something else to say. I still have my question, but I can also make a positive contribution to the dialogue now. I’m not just going to be the party pooper.
I should point out that the question I wish to ask does not document the travails of Palestinian life. It is well known that the international community considers the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories illegal under international law, and chances are if you are reading this, especially this far into it, you know of the situation already, and of the dire conditions in which the people of Gaza are expected to subsist (and, if you don’t, I recommend Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, in keeping with the idea that popular culture can play an important role in exposing injustice). The thrust of my question precludes the necessity of historical context anyway. I don’t mean by this that my question obviates history. My question is not even, necessarily, an endorsement of the BDS movement. Although I am uncomfortable about the fact that Nick Cave chose to play Tel Aviv when artists such as Lorde and Lana Del Rey chose otherwise, I don’t intend to harangue him about past decisions. My question points towards a positive philosophical intervention in the future.
Interestingly, as I await my opportunity to ask my question, Irish literary resonances continue to grow. Someone asks Cave about his favourite authors and he’s quick to mention Beckett whose novels he read when he first moved to London while traipsing its wet streets in an old raincoat. This is also great news, and gratifying. Many years ago, perhaps fifteen, I wrote a chapter for a book entitled Meditations in Cultural Spaces: Structure, Sign, Body in which I proposed that there is much in common between Nick Cave’s vagabond outsiders, losers and crazy men and what Anthony Cronin called “the Beckett man,” the disenfranchised tramp in Beckett’s work who exists at the margins of the social and whose presence calls the very rules of the social into question. In fact, an echo of “my brother the fly, the common housefly” from Beckett’s poem “Serena I” can be heard in the line “my best friend the housefly” from “Steve McQueen,” suggesting the Australian may even have recently revisited Beckett’s poetry, and done a bit of quarrying therein.
So at the point when Nick Cave also name checks W. B. Yeats as an artist whom he “loves,” I suddenly feel galvanized by historical necessity. Here, in this building, while Sean O’Casey’s dramatic work was attempting to articulate seismic shifts in Dublin’s social and political habitus, and the Dublin audience didn’t like what they saw, Yeats strode onto this very stage in O’Casey’s defence and told the audience that the moment was a turning point in Irish history, a moment when an Irish artist was speaking on behalf of a serially oppressed people who previously had no voice. He argued that O’Casey was giving them that voice and they should hear it. Nick Cave is looking for a question. I have a question about a serially oppressed people with no voice. I lean forward to ask it and reach out for his mic. He is touching-distance away. He moves to hand the mic to me and then, alerted to a sign, a flicker of recognition on the edge of vision, he backs away across the floor and says “I’m not allowed talk about that.” He then turns his back and moves towards the audience on the other side, seeking a question there. My partner says ‘told you so’ under her breath and I feel foolish. For Nick Cave has spied the t-shirt I am wearing, one adorned with the Palestinian flag in a Jasper Johns state of spectral diffusion, and it has scared him off. I now realize I shouldn’t have worn it, but didn’t T.S. Eliot say that is the greatest capitulation, to do the right thing for the wrong reason? I wore the t-shirt to show solidarity with Palestinians at the show, especially if the evening turned out to be less Q&A and more Greatest Hits, or if the questions were to be screened rather than freely asked. And even if the questions were to be freely asked I had no interest in ambushing Cave with a question he didn’t expect, or being accused of same. But it seems now because of my choice of t-shirt that the moment is gone. Nick Cave has certainly gone, over to the other side of the room.
However, shortly afterwards someone else who, arguably, has noticed what has taken place, asks a question that goes something like this. “Nick, in the spirit of inclusivity you have fostered tonight and with the greatest respect, given what has happened in Gaza since you played in Israel in November, I would like to ask you would you play there again next November?”
A noticeable tension floods the auditorium. It is somewhat reassuring. It means the issue is not far from peoples’ minds. Then a voice rings out, forcefully, and says “Don’t answer that.” I believe, but I am not certain, that this person is Nick Cave’s manager. Cave, sat on the edge of his Dave Allen stool, says “why not answer it?” laconically, which is a bit rich given that 1) that wasn’t your position when I was about to ask you a question three minutes ago; and 2) you are not now in a position to cut this new question off, now that it has been asked.
My recollection of Nick Cave’s answer is as follows. I have indented it rather than placed it in quotation marks because it is not verbatim, but it is close enough, from memory, for me to feel it is an accurate reflection of what he said, and, more importantly, what he meant. It is important to state that I have no desire to misrepresent what Cave said. My objective is to communicate his thinking on the subject as accurately as possible. If I cannot repeat what he said word for word, nonetheless what follows is the spirit of his response:
This question addresses many things. It addresses playing in Israel, the BDS movement and also the Artists for Palestine boycott of playing Israel. To the first part, would I play again……. yes. As to the recent trouble, you can’t watch what’s gone on with the relocating of the US embassy to Jerusalem without shame. For what the Israeli government has done and for what Hamas has done. But on the day after the worst of the fighting many Israelis took to the street in protest at what was happening and, for this reason I think BDS against Israel are not the answer. I’ve taken part in plenty of pro- Palestinian causes down the years and raised money; I don’t blow my trumpet on this but I do this work so I think it’s now OK to say that I don’t agree with the options of BDS and boycotting the performance of music in Israel. To the first one, the BDS movement, sanctions are not the answer and they hit the very people who came out to protest against the government’s actions. There are other ways to address the issue other than punishing the people. And as to Eno and Artists Against Palestine I just think it’s not the right way, its weaponizing music. When I was asked to sign the Artists against Palestine manifesto, I just felt that it was wrong because it silences musicians, and the reality is music knows no boundaries, in fact it transcends boundaries and for these reasons should never be silenced.
And as he stands from his stool, the house erupts in applause. It’s an eloquent response but it begs so many questions that it’s hard to know where to start if one was given the right to reply. But no ‘right to reply’ is afforded the inquisitor or anyone else on the issue. The audience member clearly wants to talk more about Thurston Moore’s belief that rather than silencing musicians, Artists Against Palestine gives them a voice, but he is gently shut down, both by Cave but also by the mood in the room. The applause speaks volumes. Given Cave’s assertion that music knows no boundaries and that artists should not be silenced I really want to ask my question, or at least have my question heard. I consider shouting it out and to hell with the consequences. Like Yeats, I want to shout down the opposition and make my point, but I also don’t want to be the belligerent protestor, the voice that takes no account of the others in the room, the aggressor. And unlike Yeats, I’m not The Abbey Theatre! Or perhaps the truth is that I don’t have the courage? Either way, I keep my peace. Shortly thereafter Nick Cave is asked a very direct question about the death of his son and the conversation takes a personal and introspective turn. There is no going back now. The mood has changed completely, and I sit and feel very inept, useless in fact.
It is June 2019 and the UK awaits the first instalments of “So, What is it you want to Know?” which begins in Cardiff on the 15th. The show is also destined for North America this autumn. Given that the ethics of staging the Eurovision in Tel Aviv in May was the source of debate in international news circles, perhaps there will be questions, even from loyal Nick Cave fans, about how playing Israel might be perceived as endorsing the Israeli state’s attitude towards Palestinians? For example, since Cave played in Tel Aviv in November 2017 over one thousand Palestinians have been shot with live ammunition, with over seventy fatalities, as a result of border protest reprisals and air strikes. It would be good if in London or Liverpool, audience members were to ask would he play Tel Aviv again, given what has happened. And if his answer is ‘yes’ because he believes that “music knows no borders” as he argued in Dublin, then someone might well ask my question:
Nick, as you believe that music transcends borders and boundaries please consider playing in the Palestinian territories. Brief appearances at benefit concerts held for Palestinians in the comfort of London are all well and good, but if you can make it to Tel Aviv you can make it to Gaza. However, if you feel that a large public engagement is somehow problematic, how about a live broadcast from the studios of Radio Ramallah or utilsing countless ways in which the digital universe can be harnessed for this purpose? When you justified playing Tel Aviv you said “I love Israel.” That is unequivocal. Show your love for Palestine too. The important thing is to find a way to get your music across those borders. If you truly believe music is a force for unity then use it equally. How about an intimate show in the Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre in Gaza** or perhaps a new song dedicated to Palestine with proceeds openly going to Palestinian cultural enrichment? For I believe you can be the modern poet of transcendence and inclusivity, that you can be the poet of universal grief and healing, that you now have an inkling you are destined to be. But you’ve got to prove it. Have you the courage?
That was my question, and I’m still waiting for an answer.
Arguably, one of the greatest 20th Century ballads to grace the airways and the turntables of many a young (and old) Goth is Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song.” Its recurring refrain—“We make a little history, Baby, every time you come around”—has continued to thrill new listeners, and make devotees maudlin, since it first appeared in 1990. So Nick, if you are feeling what James Joyce called “the agenbite of inwit,” the bite of conscience, then the mercy seat is waiting, with open arms. It’s time to make a little history, Baby.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of Berfrois.
*The Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre was demolished by an Israeli airstrike on August 9th, 2018.