He’s dressed in black, of course. Sipping beer and chain-smoking in the bustling barroom of the Groucho Club, a members-only watering hole frequented by London’s literary crowd, the Australian singer, songwriter and first-time novelist Nick Cave looks every inch the stylish career nihilist: coal black three-piece suit, dark silk tie, smart blue dress shirt with white collar. His ink black hair is combed back in a chaotic arc that droops just so whenever he leans over to stub out a cigarette.
The conversation is predictably grim. Mostly it’s about the rapacious lust, religious dementia, gruesome fetishism and graphic violence that figure prominently in Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel. The chatter gets really strange, though, when Cave starts talking about how much he identifies with the book’s main narrator, a misanthropic, deformed backwoods mute named Euchrid Eucrow. “The room in Berlin where I wrote this was very much like some place that he would have,” Cave says in a low, studious voice, “and it had a lot of visual information around, things that he would be fetishistic about to a dangerous level and I am to a less dangerous level. Hair, for example. I had a lot of hair hanging around. “I visited a flea market one day, and I found this box, a little chocolate box full of hair. Three different girls had had their hair chopped off for some reason, and it had all been sewn up and kept in these long pieces. What actually happened to these three girls and why these three pieces of hair were in the same chocolate box became quite an obsession for me for a while. There was something about writing the book that promoted this kind of fetishism.” And where is this box of hair now? Cave grins a bit sheepishly. “I still have it, actually.”
The extent to which Euchrid and the book’s supporting cast of murderous hooligans, crazed Christian fundamentalists and vulgar booze-hound poets mirror Nick Cave’s own macabre obsessions is no big surprise. The thirty-three-year-old Cave has been conjuring fiends and chasing demons in his songs for more than a decade. In the early Eighties, with the legendary Aussie band the Birthday Party, Cave plunged headfirst into his anxiety closet and broadcast his discoveries in a lupine howl and belligerent, Captain Beefheart-like splatter verse. The result – on albums like Prayers on Fire and Junkyard and the fearsome single “Release the Bats” – was some of the most disturbing and brutally compelling music of the postpunk era. With his own combo the Bad Seeds, which he formed in 1984 after the breakup of the Birthday Party, Cave has been no less compromising. But he has broadened his musical palette dramatically, creating his own gnarly variations on Delta blues, lachrymose country & western and the art-song stylings of Leonard Cohen and Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison.
On The Good Son, his latest album, Cave tempers his tortured basso profundo and the Bad Seeds’ feral sound with a striking orchestral sobriety that heightens the fear, longing and vengeful rage coursing through the songs, several of which are variations on the biblical story of the prodigal son, in which the good son is consumed by his own dark, long-suppressed impulses. But with And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave’s fascination with the bleak and grisly, and the salvation that always seems just beyond reach, hits a new peak. Abounding with echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Jim Thompson and Herman Melville, the book is a sprawling, turbulent fable of frontier madness, homicidal paranoia and bloody biblical retribution. “You would think that the burdens of mutehood would weigh heavily enough upon the head of a child,” Euchrid says at one point in his narration. “O no! Whoever was dealing out the bum breaks, whoever was spooning out the woe, must’ve seen me and up-ended the whole fucken can because ah was dripping in the stuff – hard luck and ill fortune.”He curses his whoring, alcoholic mother as “black spit,” “the monsterpiece of some hellish cosmetician” and, in one memorable flash of spite, “a great whopping whale of a hog’s cunt with a dry black maggot for a brain.”
“I don’t look at these characters from a moral point of view,” Cave says with a disarmingly casual air. “I find them charming and likable. You really don’t have to be sympathetic with the way they behave. You can just understand the way they behave and where the evil comes from. You can almost put yourself in their place and think, ‘You know, I would be doing the same thing.'”
“I’m giving breathing space to certain aspects of my own character,” he continues, “certain things that as a human being I’m not really willing to carry out, certain acts of vengeance. As an artist, I’m able to take a reasonably safe position and allow my characters to go out and do my dirty work.”
In the case of And the Ass Saw the Angel – which sold out its initial 1989 hardback printing in the U.K. and has just been published in the U.S. by HarperCollins – that was not as easy as it sounds. The book actually started out several years ago as a failed film script called ‘Swampland.’ But the story line and “rambling mess of notes” came in handy in 1985, when Cave was commissioned to write a book by a young British publisher, Simon Pettifar, who had just started his own imprint, Black Spring Press, and who had been a fan of Cave’s lyrics.
“In my mind, I had the first half of the book written,” says Cave, who already had Euchrid in the works and a skeletal plot outline involving a young orphan girl who becomes an obsessive figure for both Euchrid and the religious zealots who adopt her. “Then there was this great expanse where I knew at the end I wanted the main character to kill the girl.” Cave’s original draft came in overlong and three years late. But Pettifar says the book was worth both the wait and the long hours of subsequent editing during which the manuscript was pared by almost half. “It’s a book that asks an awful lot of the reader,” Pettifar says. “Partly, that’s the consequence of the author not having written before and just realizing what fun it can be to go off on tangents and detours, to inspect every avenue and see where it leads. But you can look at Dickens and say that is overwritten, that he’s verbose and eccentric. This book relentlessly demands that you accept it on its own terms. And as long as you do, then it’s great.”
“The biggest challenge was to keep the reader sympathetic to this insane, very bad person,” says Cave pointedly. “I wanted to actually stretch the reader’s morals as far as possible, in what you’re willing to accept from him.” That has been a long-standing challenge in all of Cave’s work. Born in 1957 in Warracknabeal, a “one pup” town in Victoria, Australia, Nicholas Edward Cave – the son of a mathematics and literature teacher and a librarian – was already a veteran schoolboy rocker, doing Alice Cooper and Alex Harvey covers with a boarding-school band in Melbourne, when he cofounded the Boys Next Door in the mid-Seventies with a classmate, guitarist Mick Harvey. Frustrated with their recording experiences and lack of success in Australia, Cave, Harvey, guitarist Rowland Howard, bassist Tracy Pew and drummer Phil Calvert immigrated to England in 1980, changed the band’s name to the Birthday Party en route and galvanized the stagnating British scene with their pugnacious brand of literate art-punk terror.
“I can honestly say that the whole Birthday Party scene came out of a genuine disgust for our own situation and that we had the opportunity to lay it on all the people we thought deserved it,” says Cave. “We had no interest in shocking people with the Birthday Party. We wanted to go out and really abuse people and assault them and hurt them. And I think our integrity shines through in that as soon as we got to a point where everyone was coming along to have all this happen to ’em, we folded up the group and went on to other things.” The Birthday Party also suffered the consequences of its banzai ways, breaking up in 1983 amid worsening substance abuse and intense personal rancor, mostly between Cave and Rowland Howard. “One of the reasons the group broke up was that Nick wanted more control over the group,” says Mick Harvey, who became a founding member of the Bad Seeds as well as Cave’s de facto manager. (Harvey also plays with his own highly regarded group, Crime and the City Solution.) “Nick wanted to sing his own songs because he was being held responsible for what we were doing and the reactions it caused. It was obvious Nick needed to go his own way.” (Howard eventually started his own band, These Immortal Souls; Tracy Pew died in 1986 of complications arising from epilepsy.)
Cave’s initial studio outings with the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity (1984), The Firstborn Is Dead (1985), Your Funeral…My Trial and the all-covers classic Kicking Against the Pricks (both from 1986) – found him transforming his lyrics, and those of Johnny Cash and Leadbelly, into gripping song noir narratives invigorated by the deviant impressionist twang of German guitarist Blixa Bargeld. The Good Son, which was written and recorded in the fall of 1989 in São Paulo, Brazil, shows Cave in a more somber, reflective mood, which is not entirely surprising; shortly before a U.S. tour in early 1989, Cave finally kicked an addiction to heroin that dated back to his Birthday Party days. Yet Cave argues that his work is not pessimistic. “That someone has taken the energy to do this thing is a testament of a kind of celebration,” he says.
German director Wim Wenders hit on the undercurrent of fragile but indomitable hope in Cave’s oeuvre when he used the song “From Her to Eternity,” a locomotive expression of lust and longing, the musical backdrop for the romantic climax of his 1988 film Wings of Desire. On The Good Son, Cave himself juxtaposes love-in-ruins with the eternal promise of salvation in “Foi Na Cruz,” a liberal adaptation of a Portuguese Protestant hymn (“On the cross, on the cross, one day, Jesus was castigated for our sins…”). There is even a kind of perverse nobility to Euchrid Eucrow’s lurid exploits in And the Ass Saw the Angel, as he mounts his own misguided spiritual rebellion against the grim destiny that robbed him of the one kindred soul in his life: his twin brother, who dies at birth. “I wanted him to have one friend in the world,” explains Cave. “One relationship in the womb with somebody that meant a real lot to him, so that he had some taste of what it’s like to have encouragement and comfort from somebody. And then at the moment he is brought into the world, it’s all gone. “I have an incredibly romantic view of life,” Cave says. “I see a lot of beauty in it. But I see a lot of sadness in it, too. And the two things can’t be separated.”