“Sowing New Seeds” – an interview with Nick Cave by Mark Dapin
Gothfather Nick Cave, the corpse-cranking murder minstrel, has written a very funny book: not squirming grunge funny, or sick splatter funny, but quietly witty – droll and sharp and cunningly observed, with a few choke, cry and slap-the-thigh moments. I laughed 19 times. There’s no shortage of rock stars who’ve written funny books, but in Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro, the humour is intentional.
Bunny Munro is his second novel. His first, And the Ass Saw the Angel, gets mixed responses – not least from Cave himself – but was named London Time Out’s 1990 book of the year, an award that sits on his metaphorical mantelpiece beside Australian Record Industry Awards (ARIAs) for best song, single, pop release, original soundtrack and male artist of various years.
Cave has been recording since 1984. With his bands the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, he moulded a noise like mental illness, and massaged it into necrotic tribal hymns streaked with filthy threatening blues. In 2007, he and three core band-members released an album as Grinderman, a B-movie Bad Seeds that tours and records like a garage band gorging on novelty-hit notoriety. In January this year, Cave and the Bad Seeds triumphantly curated the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Sydney, Brisbane and Mount Buller.
Nick Cave, the writer, artist and musician, is routinely praised, but Cave the comedian is rather lesser known. He insists he has always been a funny guy. “I’m one of the few singers who actually sit down and write comic songs,” says Cave. His 2004 ballad The Lyre of Orpheus is “a retelling of the Orpheus myth in a comic way. It’s got a funny end and a punch-line. It rhymes Orpheus with ‘orifice’ and all sorts of stuff.”
Life doesn’t offer much that’s funnier than orifices, and there are lots of them in The Death of Bunny Munro, including that cultural landmark known as “Kylie’s bum”, which he describes as “an important character” in the book.
Cave has been credited with changing the shape of Kylie’s bum. For more than a decade, it was considered a G-rated, pert and cheeky, baby-cute, family bottom. In 1995, Minogue collaborated with Cave on the snuff-rock duet Where the Wild Roses Grow, and her audience began to wonder if her bum wasn’t deeper and darker than they had ever imagined.
Cave implies he wasn’t intimately acquainted with the bum or its owner.
“I never went out with her,” says Cave. “I made a record with Kylie. It was a professional relationship.”
How does he think she will view his public examination of her bum?
“I hope she sees it with a sense of humour,” she says.
In Cave’s novel, the last libidinous, drunken and increasingly demented days in the life of beauty products salesman Bunny Munro are brightened by Minogue’s 2000 single, Spinning Around. Munro can’t believe the song is legal, because he thinks it is about anal sex.
“Check the video out, man,” says Cave, “It’s the one with the gold hot pants. That video gripped the British imagination for a year. It was hugely important in the scheme of things. As of course are the hot pants themselves, which, as an Australian, I’m proud to say, reside in a temperature controlled vault at the Performing Arts Centre in Melbourne. They are our very own religious relic. Our own Turin Shroud.”
He pauses. “As for the rather dubious interpretation of Spinning Around, that is the central character’s twisted, pornographic interpretation of it … But that is the mysterious beauty of the pop lyric, right? You can make anything mean anything if you want it bad enough. I’ve always had a huge respect for Kylie and her work. I believe her songs work on a significant and deeply spiritual level and I have always taken time to look behind the plastic veneer in which they are often presented. She is a national treasure.”
Cave and I are reading the menu at Bluestone restaurant in Melbourne. He says he has never done this before. “In rock’n’roll, you don’t have lunch with the journalist.” He is enjoying playing the artless author, a Telecaster-tough rocker negotiating the unfamiliar protocols of the mild-mannered literary world, even though he says he finds interviews “very disappointing, generally”.
“It’s just the same thing every time. No matter how much I try to steer it in a different way, it ends up being the same collection of not particularly true incidents that are supposed to make up my rather ridiculous life. If you read the stuff that is written about yourself, you hate yourself in the end.”
Cave is tall, dark and older. There are regular gaps across the width of his hairline, like matches pulled from a book, but his shrewd eyes and certain bearing, high cheekbones and easy wit, still lend him the delicate tools of the seducer. His tailored suit gives him gravitas, now that it hangs on more than bone. Then there’s the voice: a soul man’s flattering rasp, at first relaxed and detached, later warm and engaged.
Somewhere between the photo shoot and our interview, the vampire Sinatra has taken off his moustache, which used to resemble two supernumerary eyebrows expelled through his nose onto his upper lip. Without it, Cave looks even more like Vincent Price played by Kevin Bacon, or Christopher Lee channelled by David Bowie.
Does he feel he lost some of his strength when he shaved his facial hair?
“I did,” he admits. “It’s okay now, though. I’ve got my mojo back, as they say, but for a week I felt kind of… newborn.”
Does he own any moustache-care products – a snood, for instance?
It’s a web you wear on your moustache at night.
“No, mine wasn’t long enough for that,” says
Cave. “It was just kind of … functional.” What function did it serve?
“To do a thing with my eyebrows, like a black cross through my face.”
I’m surprised that Cave doesn’t know the word “snood” as it relates to a moustache, because he knows a great many others. Among the words I had never seen before in Bunny Munro – and there are 16 in all, including leporello, bombination and furuncal – are syzygy, abecedary, ruckles, runkled, flenching and jinked.
“A syzygy is when the moon, the sun and the earth align,” explains Cave. “Abecedary? That is something. I don’t know what it is. It’s a language. An alphabeticised something. It’s like … I wouldn’t worry about that one too much. Ruckles and runkled I think means pretty much the same thing. Flenching is stripping of the flesh. Annulus is, er … an annulus. Oh man. I’ll tell you about that one in a minute. ‘Jinked’: I think I made up that one.
“That’s not a lot of words. You should have read my first book. That’s f…ing unreadable.”
Cave used to collect words. When he was writing And the Ass Saw the Angel, he made his own dictionaries. “In the back of my screwed-up mind,” he says, “there was the idea of singlehandedly saving the English language by putting as many difficult words in as I could.”
Bunny Munro is set in Sussex, England, and Cave savours the sonorous home county place names. His characters include a “pussy hound from Portslade” and a “landscape gardener from Walderswick”. The narrative passes through Rottingdean, Moulsecombe and Bognor Regis, and you can hear Cave rolling the addresses around his tongue, like a schoolteacher reading the register in a class full of Saxon kings.
“The English small town names are beautiful,” says Cave. “Australia’s got them, as well. I was born in Warracknabeal and raised in Wangaratta, but never went to Wagga Wagga.”
His father was an English literature teacher. “It would be great to not have me talk about him,” says Cave, before going on to talk about him. “When I was quite young, he introduced me to the written word. He read me the opening chapters of Lolita when I was 12 years old, and explained why he loved that so much.”
And so begins the series of “not particularly true incidents” that are supposed make up Cave’s “rather ridiculous life”. He rebelled, was expelled from school and sent, at first as a boarder, to Caulfield Grammar, Melbourne. “But up until secondary school, from what I can remember of it, I had a kind of idyllic childhood in the country.
“I didn’t show any particular talent,” he says. “I did well at English and art – B, B-minus – and at the rest I was real average.”
A shallow pit of schoolboy skirmishes has been mined energetically for dissident credentials and rock’n’roll cred. But something did go wrong. Famously, when he heard his father had died, Cave was in St Kilda police station, being charged with either burglary or vandalism or whatever suits the story at the time. And how he must tire of hearing that incident regurgitated, his tragedy turned to entertainment.
Cave studied Fine Art at the Caulfield Institute of Technology and failed his second year, but it didn’t matter because he had his band, the Boys Next Door. The Boys became the Birthday Party, and moved to London in 1980, where the kids at school who’d missed out on punk, but shunned the new romantic haircut bands, embraced their demanding, confronting din, the racket in the heads of teenagers who lived in their bedrooms planning suicide by school shooting, or searching for a vein.
Cave, tall and thin and beautiful, played the junkie-poet, the wasted rake, the renaissance Count Dracula, only ever one step out of his coffin, his performance informed by Iggy Pop’s heroin howl and Johnny Rotten’s vaudevillian smirk. The band fell apart in 1984, with Cave and guitarist Mick Harvey diminished by heroin and alcohol.
A great deal has been said about Cave’s drug taking, much of it by Cave. His was a public addiction, with regular court appearances and repeated attempts at rehab. Like a former lover, mindful of the feelings of his ex, he has been careful not to disavow the part heroin played in his life. But there’s only one story about junkies, whether they’re songwriters or housebreakers. You use drugs to kill a pain, and for a while the pain goes away – but the drugs haven’t dissolved it, they’ve only captured it. They keep it safe and nurture it, tend to it and grow it, and then they throw it back at you, with all the desperate decoration of withdrawal. You take drugs to escape your demon, then drugs become the demon.
The birthday party was succeeded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, whose sound was sometimes smoother and often sadder.
And the ridiculous parade continued: within one week in 1991, Cave had sons by two different women. Luke was born to Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro, and Jethro to model Beau Lazenby. Jethro is now a model himself, while Luke is an actor.
Cave married another model, Susie Bick, in 1999. “She’s Susie Cave now,” he says. “She took my name rather than I take hers, because I didn’t want to be ‘Nick Bick’. ” They have twin sons, Earl and Arthur, and Cave is living through “one of those beautiful times in a father-son relationship where I can’t do anything wrong”.
About children, he says, “I think everybody – parents, the state, the health and safety advocates, the education system, everybody should take a step back and let them be.”
Cave is 51, and his thoughts have turned to his artistic legacy. There are two canons jostling for prominence: the body of work and the accumulation of incidents. He despairs that he might be remembered for shooting up smack in a squat in Maida Vale, or kicking bouncers into the crowd at a gig in Athens.
“I guess what I’ve been trying to do over the last decade is to remove my ‘persona’ from the picture,” he says, “to lead a life that is of no particular interest to anyone, a kind of non-life, a life of ritual and routine, so that my perceived persona does not interfere as much in the work itself. I find that the more incident-free my personal life is, the more volatile, violent and explosive my imaginative life is.”
There was a time when the persona worked – when it inspired excitement in the band, made events out of the concerts, drew attention to the talent – but now, to Cave, it seems to trivialise the achievements, to claim an importance greater than the songs. In the end, there’s probably only one story about rock’n’roll survivors too, and this is it.
Cave is more than a rock star, with two novels, one skilfully realised film script (the 2005 outback western, The Proposition) and even a forward to an edition of the Gospel According To Mark to his credit. (“I’m not religious,” he says. “ ‘Religious’ seems to suggest that I’m connected to some religion, which is in no way the case.”) But he is still seen primarily as a musician – except when he is mistaken for the actor Nick Cage – and the life of a recording artist “does hugely limit your options”, he says.
“You’re constantly travelling, but at the same time you’re not seeing anything. Apart from hotel rooms. And there’s a lot of things you don’t do because it’s just too much of a hassle. Like meet people. But it’s great in other ways. If you ring someone up, they’ll f…ing ring you back. Which they don’t do to the ordinary guy.” Cave pauses briefly to consider the enormity of this privilege. “It has huge benefits,” he decides.
The Caves live in Hove, a satellite town that Cave describes as “more beautiful, a little more dignified” than the English seaside resort of Brighton. They moved from London, he says, “Because my wife liked Brighton, I have friends in Brighton, and I figured if I got an office in Brighton I’d be able to work more effectively there than in London, which has turned out to be true. Plus, you’ve got the sea, which brings out all the best people – studs in micro-shorts, old orange-coloured ladies in leopard-skin bikinis …”
He seems bored by questions about the places he has lived – which include West Berlin and São Paulo, Brazil – and sometimes politely suggests I should Google the answers. “That’s why we’ve got these machines,” he says.
And would what I found on Google be correct? “I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t looked it up myself, because I actually don’t have to do that.”
Cave says he found working on a long piece of writing “incredibly liberating”.
“I feel the job I am engaged in, songwriting, lacks a certain dignity,” he says. “I’m essentially doing woman’s work. And not to take anything away from the very real agonies of childbirth, writing a song feels like I am trying to push a f…ing watermelon through the tiniest of apertures and I scream and I curse and there is a whole lot of blood. You’d think after you had given birth to, like, 300 songs or something, like I have, the aperture would lose some of its elasticity and the watermelons would just drop out as a matter of course. Sadly this is not the case, and the shrieking mess continues.”
With a screenplay or a novel, he says, “I can just rocket forward with the whole thing, because there’s just this one idea, this one story to tell.”
I remind him that he said earlier that his first novel was unreadable.
“That’s a little harsh,” he decides, then And the Ass Saw the Angel suddenly undergoes a long-awaited auto-critical re-evaluation. “Penguin, with my blessing, have edited it,” says Cave, “and are republishing it at much the same time as the Bunny Munro book comes out, so it’s now a delight. Two thumbs-up!”
Traditionally, junkie rockers are doomed, but Cave is obstinately not dead. Nor is he a junkie. He’s not even a regular smoker – although he admits he just had a cigarette outside the restaurant. The fact that he has sidestepped death has left him with the gloomy indignity of ageing.
“You start to reach a crescendo of sexual thought. Maybe it’s the last gasps of true manhood as it says goodbye, but there’s a blizzard of carnal imaginings, where everything, it doesn’t matter who or what – young, old, big, small, black, white, animate, inanimate, whatever – you just see in a sexual light. Lampposts, cathedral spires, clouds, great danes, grandma: everything boils around in a mental sexual frenzy. We males forget, for a time, all the things we’ve learned that allow us to negotiate life effectively – intimacy, taste, discretion, good manners – and we revert to our true reptilian selves. It lasts for a couple of years, then gradually dissipates and we return to the leash. It sounds like fun, but it’s very disturbing actually.
“There’s not a thing about old age I recommend,” he says. “You go bald, your flesh slides off your bones, your memory goes. Those glorious cardinal sins are taken away from you, one by one, till you’re left with nothing but envy … and wrath, I guess, but that’s not really a sin. I’ve always been pissed-off. I was born into it. But the older you get, your anger becomes keener, sharper and you rise to it quicker. You can use it more effectively. You work harder.”
It took him three years to write And the Ass Saw the Angel and only three months to finish two drafts of The Death of Bunny Munro.
“I’m able to do things a lot quicker,” he says. “Not writing songs – that’s still as difficult: but the other things I can do relatively painlessly.”
It’s fine to grow old as a writer, but it’s harder for a performer and impossible for an enfant terrible. There’s no such thing as an homme terrible, just a few horrible, dribbling, brawling joke-men. Cave has managed the transition with care, but still looks back to the early days of his career with an alarming nostalgia for torturing journalists.
“Thirty years ago, when you did an interview with a journalist, it was combative,” he says. “That was the very nature of the thing. If it was going to make interesting reading, that’s the way it went down. You could do things. You could throw their recorders in the toilet, or hold them out of windows by their ankles or sodomise them – that sort of stuff. It was all par for the course and grist to the mill. Nowadays, it’s a whole different thing. You have to kind of hold their hand the whole way through the interview, speak gently, not make any sudden movements, help them across the road.
“We’ve been in fist fights with journalists and stuff and they loved it. Maybe it’s the whole political-correctness thing: a kind of respect for each others’ professions that’s somehow developed, you know, on the quiet. I am still trying to get my head around that.”
Mutual respect among human beings?
“Yes. It must have reared its head while I was working away in the office or something.”
We’re in a street-level dining room, so I’m not too worried about being dangled out of the window, but I’m uncomfortable with the thought of being sodomised by a very tall man in a pinstriped suit, even if he has shaved off his moustache. But Cave is joking – kind of – in a dry, sly, acerbic way. I know he can’t be serious because Nick Cave, the sex god of death songs, is a pretty funny guy.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 2009