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Bibliomancer: Gerard Elson Decodes the ‘Aggressively Literary’ Nick Cave

Read Monday, 8 Sep 2014

In this extract from the cover story of the latest Island magazine, Gerard Elson goes in search of Nick Cave’s inner word nerd, and unearths his various literary influences.

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(Gk ‘divination by book’): the practice of opening the Bible or a comparable work at random and interpreting the first verse or verses as a form of prophecy or precognition.

In 2003 the Wall Street Journal published a story about Chris Johnson, a Minnesotan schoolteacher with a roving appetite for culture and an efficacious memory. While reading the English-language translation of Confessions of a Yakuza (1991) – the Japanese physician Junichi Saga’s document of his guileless bedside conversations with a dying gangland killer – Johnson felt the peculiar stirrings of déjà vu. Several turns of phrase were familiar to him; some he could even cite verbatim before his eyes had scanned them on the page. He had never read them before – he had heard them, drawled. He knew them as lyrics. He had heard them sung by Bob Dylan. They were lyrics from the songwriter’s album Love and Theft (2001), whose title’s puckish aspect was suddenly thrown into relief.

Nick Cave – songwriter, composer, novelist, screenwriter – has never been oblique about his own tendency to crib, quote and rework his influences. By his own admission, not all of these borrowings are conscious. Early in the filmmakers’ commentary track for the DVD release of The Proposition (2005) – the searing ‘Outback Western’ Cave scripted in a reported three-week sprint of inspiration for his friend and lasting collaborator, the Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat – Cave addresses a line of dialogue. ‘Australia. What fresh hell is this?’ grouses Ray Winstone’s gruff civiliser, the English expat Captain Morris Stanley, as he surveys the singeing redness out his window. ‘I totally blame the script editor for not getting that out – if we had one,’ Cave deadpans. ‘When I wrote that, it felt familiar.’

The line ‘What fresh hell is this?’ is how Dorothy Parker – poet, short story writer, critic, withering wit – used to answer her front door.

While it has long been a cliché to call a popular songwriter ‘literary’, Cave may be unique in how aggressively literary he can be. Dylan, Bowie, Patti Smith, Kate Bush and John Darnielle are all songwriters whose lyrics are strewn with references to – and quotations from – literary sources both canonical and obscure. Yet their erudition rarely, if ever, comes off as combative. Cave’s can. Like many of the young demagogues among the initial postpunk movement that had fertile nodes in Britain, the US and Australia in the late 1970s, the young Cave waved his wit as both signal fire and piked head. An unspecified wrath worked in his early lyrics with a scathing humour to court the cool and comprehending and disaffect most everyone else.

In ‘Wild World’, a Birthday Party standard first released in 1983 and now found on the 1989 compilation, Mutiny/The Bad Seed, we encounter the following lyric:

Strophe and antistrophe

Strophe and antistrophe

Hey! Antistrophe, antistrophe!

It is replicated here just as Cave sings it on the studio recording. The printed lyric omits that insistent final line that so hammers home its two-fingered precocity – a precocity owing to the recondite knowledge required to decrypt the verse.

In classical Greek drama, a ‘strophe’ is the initial part of an ode that the chorus chants while traversing the stage. Metrically identical to the strophe, the ‘antistrophe’ is chanted by the chorus when performing the movement in reverse, returning whence they came. Cave’s lyric is therefore parodic, but esoterically so. It is this latter quality that makes it not a parry, but a flèche. It is the 25-year-old Cave – head aswirl with the sundry random data that is the autodidact’s harvest – promenading his impressive intellect, stag-like, to issue an ultimatum to the listener: you either get the gag, or else you piss off and listen to Foreigner.

The lyric’s meta-joke – substituting the implementation of a lyrical device with its own critical term; demanding, in effect, a niche sophistication of its audience – is by far a more aggressively alienating gambit than the sonic dissonance, four-letter words, and sanguine subject matter that typified both the woozy-thorny post-punk of The Birthday Party and the feral early output of the band that emerged from its collapse: Cave’s improbably robust abettors, The Bad Seeds. But in this, the young songwriter was perhaps too clever by half: the provocation would have been lost on anyone who lacked the specialist knowledge to distinguish it. A liberal littering of ten-dollar words is often the only impediment a reader will need meet before deeming a book too difficult, too wilfully opaque to persist with. It follows that any work that chooses to adopt a sprawling vocabulary as part of its aesthetic – or indeed, has made peace with it – risks daunting or repulsing less persistent readers. In his lyrics and novels, Cave long ago established himself as an unrepentant word nerd. Who but an artist with Cave’s long history of logophilia could conceivably sermonise amid the rock ’n’ roll maelstrom of ‘We Call Upon the Author’ from 2008’s DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!! – like a slam poet Jesus atop a mount of crumpled drafts – ‘Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!’ without seeming insufferable? Were it not for the lyric’s self-effacing yet earnest edge – one gets the sense that Cave himself might cling to it like a mantra – it might have landed with a plangent thud.

One secret to Nick Cave’s success: his willingness to risk failure, ridicule or censure in following his most preposterous-seeming instincts all the way down that uncertain road to fruition.

Gerard Elson is a bookseller, writer and interviews editor at Kill Your Darlings.

This is an extract of an essay published in full in the current edition of Island, published this week.

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