Conversations with Nick Cave: An Evening of Talk & Music
Tuesday, January 15
It was almost to the day two years ago that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds played in Wellington as part of the Skeleton Tree tour. It’s always a different show when you see Cave, he’s played in Wellington with truncated versions of the Bad Seeds and any time they’re here the focus is the new album. This time he was on stage with a piano and a microphone. To the left of the piano another microphone on a stand. He’d use this one for the majority of the show. For this was an evening of conversations and songs; a Q&A essentially. With Cave as the star and the moderator. That meant a lot of gushing and not much self-editing from the audience.
We were treated, straight away, to The Ship Song. Resplendent. Always. And to deep cuts too – The Mercy Seat, a staple, here slightly transformed, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche…but then to the audience for questions…Cave in fact used the songs as a way of resetting, of, as he said himself at one point, “recalibrating”.
These questions, Wellington, were fucking awful.
“What would you do if you had another hour in the day?”
“What do you eat when you’re hungry but just can’t be bothered, you know?” Cave didn’t know. And many that squandered the opportunity to ask him to explore why, as a born collaborator he was here taking the spotlight solo, or how the form was chosen from soundtrack to screenplay to poem to song to novel or tour diary and now website agony aunt, didn’t seem to know either.
Instead one lame duck who clearly loved David Byrne’s show from last year so much figured Nick Cave probably did too. Wrong. Cave didn’t see it. And someone younger than my latest fingernail wanted to point out how their heart was broken by Rowland S. Howard’s death. Wellington’s question-askers seemed to miss the point of the moment. It was already about connection. Just by virtue of happening. The fact that a blue-chip guy like Nick Cave wanted to bask in the adoration and have questions asked of him – and look, he was funny and wise and off-beat, he was frank and gruff too, he was a brilliant conundrum and he put across more proof of his authenticity than he ever has at one of the band shows where he’s in Full Actor Mode for the most part – this was the connection. That this happened, and has been happening, that’s all the proof that there’s connection and that the whole point was to enforce that, to bask in it, to dance to it. But instead, question after question from embarrassed, nervous, under-prepared, over-hyped squee-ing, braying do-good types.
We really showcase the cultural cringe here. We really flick all the way back to the 1950s and the whole ordeal around A Famous Person Parking Their Horse At The Watering Station In Our Town.
Well, we did declare!
Several told Cave he was a genius. And he would acknowledge this by playing more and more of his songs. There were shining moments. A glorious Brompton Oratory. A hypnotic and baffling Higgs Boson Blues, Papa Won’t Leave You Henry was stripped of its gallop but lost none of its giddy-up. But too often the songs blurred, God Is In The House and The Ship Song and Into My Arms are always played. And God Is In The House is always all shades of dreadful anyway.
The magic – and Cave winked to this more than once – is often in what the Bad Seeds deliver, where they and the ghosts of past members take the songs. Just Cave at the piano was sometimes nearly boring. Occasionally pedestrian. He paraded some of the songs as clever diversions too. Into My Arms served up after he dodged the Israel question by claiming it his right to play to his fans anywhere in the world. Sure. Fine. But: Recalibrate. Recalibrate!
A pause. And then he’d be back and people would talk all the way through their questions, standing at bus-stops and missing three possible rides.
Elsewhere in the world – and you can read the reviews as proof – Cave gets to work towards well-earned anecdotes. But our question-askers would have gobbled fish from the chum-bucket. This was, after all, a trip to C-World. Seal of approval stuff. “Hi Nick. Hello! HELLO NICK! Hello…HI? Hi…?”
There were tender moments. Sometimes from tender, erm, prey. The woman that meandered through a backstory of living with junkies but definitely not being one (Cave deliciously butted in, “I was”) told us she’d walked a thousand miles to Henry’s Dream and that the music had saved her; two of her crew lost to suicide. Cave smiled. Nodded. Winced. All of the above. He felt the pain. He felt – and made – the connection. He knew something had happened there. And he made a moment. And not for any sort of opportunity.
Same with the 18-year-old that pointed out he was most likely the youngest in the room. He asked for advice and Cave told him he liked to stay out of the way, saying also that his generation and the one before it had been dishonest about the state of the planet, hadn’t helped, hadn’t told the truth, had left a huge fucking mess to be cleaned up. He suggested that the boomers and the older Gen-Xers might indeed have wisdom to impart but that didn’t mean it didn’t need to be listened to. It also didn’t mean it wasn’t worth a go sometimes…
When he left the line dangling it was every bit as hypnotic as his finest recorded material.
When he was left to scratch what is left of the raven’s wing – due, always, to an inept question – it was sometimes funny, often awkward, occasionally interesting. But it amounted to a lot of missed opportunities over two and three-quarter hours. We got the songs. Some of them great, some of them not so. We got some insight. Into the making of art, the healing that comes after and through grieving. We got heart. And maybe even, if you really looked, some soul. But we didn’t ever get the very best of Nick Cave in Wellington. We only got the Nick Cave that we deserved.
It was a weird night out. And it was worth the trip. I came away with more respect for Cave. I applauded the concept, and what almost passed for bravery. But the people that asked the questions were brutally awkward, sometimes downright fucking stupid. Woefully under-prepared and never generous enough, thinking always the answer was just for them, when it always had to be for everyone. (Whether we wanted it or not).
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