Nick Cave sits in a back corner of a posh New York hotel bar, sipping English breakfast tea in a coal-black suit and purple shirt – a long, tall drink of evil. The white-haired old ladies brunching nearby try not to stare. They fail. Most people do around Nick Cave. He’s used to that. “The more attention you absorb, the more monstrous you become,” Cave says. “It’s almost exclusively a rock-star thing. Actors can duck and dive a bit – they constantly re-create themselves. All they can do is play the role of a monster.” He laughs grandly. “But nobody does monster like a rock star.”
He should know. The goth-punk bard, who turns 57 this month, is enjoying a monstrous creative surge. On the heels of 2013’s Push the Sky Away – one of his strongest albums – he has an extraordinary new documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth. “It’s not like playing a character,” Cave says. “That’s a thread through the film – any idea that there is a character and a real person no longer applies. After years of performing, the mask calcifies under the face.”
Cave exploded out of the 1980s Australian punk scene with the Birthday Party, leaving a trail of chemical and sonic wreckage. With his band the Bad Seeds, he became the decadent sex-and-death poet of classics like From Her to Eternity. Then he kicked drugs, became a family man and began his most creatively intense years. Onstage, he prowls like a demon lounge singer, a nightmare version of his idol Elvis.
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20,000 Days is definitely not your typical rock-star documentary – in Cave’s words, it’s “both fact and fiction.” It purports to document a day in Cave’s life – his 20,000th – in playfully contrived scenes. Kylie Minogue magically appears in his car, discussing Michael Hutchence, the late INXS frontman. And in one moving scene, Cave talks about old times with his long-estranged guitarist Blixa Bargeld – it’s a goth version of Sonny and Cher reuniting on Letterman. To nobody’s surprise, Cave spends most of the movie talking about sex. In one of the funniest scenes, he recalls getting dressed in drag by a teen girlfriend: “It felt weirdly comfortable. I might take it up again.” Lust has always been the driving force of his work. “Writing about sex honestly adds a perverse nature to the performance, and it makes some people uncomfortable,” he says. “But fuck them.”
Yet even Cave seems surprised he’s lasted so long. “I never exercise, except onstage. It’s a heart attack waiting to happen. And the last place I want to fucking die is onstage.” But isn’t there something primal and mythic about a rock star dying onstage? Cave winces at that idea. “Please, please. Have a little dignity.”