Nick Cave opens up in an evening of freewheeling conversation with Adelaide fans that’s a little awkward, a little funny and occasionally profound.
At the beginning of the night Nick Cave walks to the front of the stage and plucks a microphone from a stand, as if some kind of gothic stand up comedian. The house lights are on, one of many signs that this is no regular audience with Nick Cave as he begins to take questions from the crowd.
The conversation roams widely, from his history of addiction (“It seemed like a good idea at the time, until it didn’t seem like a good idea. But then I couldn’t stop because I was addicted.”), to a public dispute with Brian Eno and Roger Waters over the BDS movement (“Brian Eno is an endlessly interesting, compassionate, fair-minded individual and Roger Waters is… not.”). Cave even dishes out poetry reading lists and recommendations for free meditation apps (“It’ll change your life!” he insists).
Tonight the Adelaide Town Hall sits somewhere between a packed Adelaide Writers’ Week tent, the queue at an instore signing and an episode of Q&A, albeit one where every audience member is a lifelong Tony Jones fan with some deep personal connections to an obscure 1999 episode of Lateline. Some questions are comments, others dig so deep into Cave’s life and work in such depth they are near inscrutable to all but the most well-read superfans. And many, of course, are just dedicated fans attempting to finally share a moment with their idol – as the rest of us wait for a question to emerge. But while Jones can only take things as a comment and move on, Cave retreats to the piano at any awkward or pointed moments.
Timeless songs like The Ship Song, Love Letter, Higgs Boson Blues and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche are performed at a grand piano as onstage audience members sit either side. It’s a rare sight of late to see Cave truly solo, with recent ‘solo’ tours usually featuring the Bad Seeds in some form or another. To hear songs like The Weeping Song or Higgs Boson Blues stripped of the roar or sleazy groove of the Bad Seeds is a fascinating experience.
These lone excursions into his songbook are thrown into sharper focus when Cave answers questions about the songwriting method. It is, he explains, a torturous and agonising vocation, staring at the blank page as the “great dark mass” of every other song he has written sits writhing over his shoulder. Victories are briefly celebrated, he says, before you’re back at the page again.
This experience, of Cave opening himself up in an unprecedented way, is part of a process that began after the death of Cave’s son Arthur in 2015. The change can be readily observed in documentaries released just two years apart, on either side of that unthinkable upheaval. 2014’s 20,000 Days On Earth offered a meticulously curated, artfully presented reflection on his career to date, while One More Time With Feeling let it all fall away as a camera crew captured the Bad Seeds’ recording process at its most unvarnished, and the grief of Cave and his family at its most raw. It’s in reflecting on this turning point, and the transformative power of grief that Cave offers poignant insight.
“We try to be these individual people, we plant our flag and say this is who I am, this is what I do, this is what I am,” he says. “And then something comes and smashes the whole thing to pieces. Your life is ruptured and you begin a different life, a second life.
“The first life is one of the individual, and the second one is about the collective, of reaching out to other people,” he says. Later in the evening, he’ll tell us how his international community of fans saved both him and his wife, not by offering sympathy or condolences, but by sharing their own stories with them.
“The secret that people in their first life don’t know – it’s coming for you, this rupture, and there’s something extraordinary. That’s the terrible beauty of grief.”
It is clear that in the room that many had already passed that point, with Cave’s music and writing acting not only as a guide, but an entry point to this vast international collective, a small fraction of which was assembled tonight.
And for those that haven’t? At least they’ve already found the right soundtrack.
Nick Cave appeared at the Adelaide Town Hall on Tuesday, January 23