My friend Mark gets these amazing hook-ups. He makes guitar pedals and they’re pretty good. Apparently. Popular. And so he fronts up all over the place, backstage at gigs, around and about. He’s always got a story – or two – about meeting this amazing person, or seeing this legend. And now we have two different versions of meeting someone really famous: Nick Cave. You see Mark knew I was a really big fan and so he shuffled me in with him, backstage, to meet Nick. It was all very surreal. I guess it’s time now to talk about it. It was a couple of years ago. And I’ve done my best to not say anything much. Alright, here goes.
I get this call from Mark and it’s lunchtime on a Wednesday. And he knows I’m off to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds later that night, but he tells me he’s off to meet him – one of his pedals is being adapted, used on the piano. And he has to install it. He’s allowed in before and during the soundcheck and do I want to come. Of course I do.
We get to the venue and I’m nervous. Sheepish. Cotton-mouthed and confused. Suddenly I don’t want to be there. I mean, of course I do. But also, you know, I really don’t.
Mark’s chest is puffed out as he shows off his tag and struts his peacock-self past the various members of the road crew.
Next thing we’re outside the main dressing room, or green room, or whatever you call it. I call it backstage, cos it is. That’s where it is. And now where we’re at. And I figure I’ll just stick with calling it backstage…
In my mind I’m already developing a stutter that’s never been there.
We walk in after hearing a booming voice say, “Enter”, as a quick-reply to Mark’s ratatat on the door.
I’m almost hiding behind my friend. And Mr. Cave – I will try calling him that once, he’ll laugh in my face, almost absurdly, like demented comic-book styles, before saying, apparently seriously, “please, if anything, Saint Nick, please! – bounds up from the backstage piano to pump Mark’s hand before patting him down frantically as he asks for the pedal.
Mark wires it up and talks through a few things with Saint Nick, a few pointers. Next thing the owner of the Raven’s Wing hairdo is perched at the stool and hunched down as he’s hunkering over the piano and his new toy. “Grab yourselves a drink” he says over his shoulder, his accent almost too Australian for right now. Or right then. Well, you know what I mean…
“Who’s the friend?” he calls out – way too loud – as after-thought.
“Oh, this is Glen”, Mark tells him.
“Glen! Do you play any instruments?” Nick shouts out over his own tinkering, not even looking in our direction.
I’m stammering now. I feel a hot trickle about my neck. And I lunge forward toward the piano, and around to the side to be seen.
“Um, me?” is about all I manage.
“No, the other ‘Glen’”, Cave announces proudly. And then laughs heartily. He plays two soft notes.
I look around as he stabs a finger toward my chest.
“Yes! You!” he says.
“Uh, um, well..” I start…but also not really…
“Spit it, boy!” Cave is now affecting some weird Southern vibe and accent. And he looks as pleased with himself as I feel terrified.
“Well, I…ah, I ya-used to pa-play drums a bit” I say. And then, because it’s just hanging there, “and pah-pah-percussion…ah, too…”
“PERCUSSION!” Cave screams, and he runs his fingers across nearly all of the keys in a punctuating trounce.
“You should have said earlier Glen!” And Saint Nick is still chuckling. Possibly because he knows what is coming next. Just as likely because he doesn’t.
He points to a door directly across from him, an internal connector to another backstage room. “Go in there Glen. Mark”, and he tilts his head to look over at Mark, almost completely out of the loop now, “thanks for the pedal. See ya later mate”.
Mark looks at the floor, then directly at me, then shakes his head as he turns, defeated-somewhat, and heads back out toward a real world.
I am two steps toward the internal door when I feel a hand on my shoulder as Nick Cave has whisked himself over, opening the door for me, he guides me through with a strong hand on my back.
In this other room there are all sorts of instruments, and musicians. I recognise a couple of members of The Bad Seeds, tampering with pedals and leads and guitars. But in a semi-circle of chairs sits a mini-orchestra of awaiting musicians. There are three backing singers sitting almost perfect still, hands clasped on their laps. It’s as if their Bible School instructor has just arrived.
Cave claps his hands above his head. Just once. And everyone stops what they are doing. I still feel red-hot, like the air-temperature is completely different. And I look at my feet as Cave, arm back around my shoulder, proudly calls out, “This is Glen. He is a percussionist!”
The backing singers go from clasp to clapping, and Warren Ellis seems to appear next to me without really walking anywhere. “G’dday cunt”, he whispers in my ear. He slaps my bum and sits down on a chair, grabbing his violin from underneath it.
Cave raises his hand and lets out a loud finger-click. Just the one. And everyone else in that room scurries into position. We’re talking 25-30 people. Musicians. And the singers.
Next thing, Saint Nick produces a wood-block from the pocket of his jacket. And what looks like a tiny piece of drift-wood. He softly starts tapping at the wood-block. Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta ta-ta, ta-ta-tah!
“That’s what you play Glen. That’s what YOU play”, and he hands me the two pieces of wood.
Cave moves to a new piano and Warren Ellis shouts out, “alright cunts – we all ready!” and Cave’s piano starts. The violin joins. There’s some brushed drums going on under and a wee nod of bass. The singers start cooing and then Cave lifts his hand up dramatically at the end of a particular piano line and he curls it into a snake-like shape, then issues the pointer-finger right at me.
“Glen!” he shouts.
Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, tah-tah-tah! I try.
Silence. They all stop. Cave stands up from the stool and darts over.
“No Glen, no, it’s this” – and he wrenches the woodblock and stick from me and repeats Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta ta-ta, ta-ta-tah! And I can hear his tongue clicking against the roof of his mouth as if he’s spelling out the vaguely-samba sway of the beat while performing it.
“Get it right Glen! Get it right” Cave says as he pushes the woodblock into my gut. And there’s a jarring feeling as the empty pit of my stomach responds, not so well, to being prodded at. A loud gurgle of embarrassment unfurls from somewhere inside me. One of the backing singers buries her face in her hand.
We try again – as Cave’s piano and Ellis’ fiddle drown out my attempts to apologise. This time no cues, just music to replace my mumbled “sah-sorry, so sa-sorry”.
The sweep of the music is profound, intoxicating. The sweat on my neck is now in bullet-form. And my chest is tightening. And my arms and legs feel prickly.
The music repeats itself twice, Cave is hitting down at the keys harder than I’ve ever heard him, outside of The Mercy Seat. And Ellis is flailing away, and I am just concentrating on the broken string of his bow which dances about in the air and entwines at various points with the straggly bits of his beard. I’m happy here, drifting off for a moment as no one seems to be looking at me, and just as I’m figuring that I’m now in a listening-role only, which is all that I deserve of course, Cave barks loudly “Glen!” And right on that cue they all stop. And I snap into rigidity and try again, Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, tah-tah-tah!
“No Glen, no-no-no-no”, Cave says loudly, and then louder again, “No! No! NO!” And as he’s walking towards me with his arms already out and I’m standing with the woodblock and stick at full-thrust away from my body – a near-pantomime as Cave comes calling for his percussion equipment and I’m there with it out already as if bearing a gift.
“Derek, cut the tape” Cave announces. And this is the first I’m aware of an intricate recording arrangement down the back. I squint and see three guys rushing about, one gives a slightly dejected thumbs-up and a nod-and-shake of the head.
“Amber, tell him” Cave says next. And one of the backing singers, the one sitting in the middle, stands up and speaks softly.
“Glen, it’s okay, it’s a really hard thing to get right…”
“Amber, tell him how long we’ve been working on this…”
“The thing is Glen”, Amber says very softly but not all that sweetly, “we’ve been working on this piece for eight weeks, most days between shows, and almost all day on any of the times when we don’t have a show. We’ve had nine different drummers try that part. And we’ve tried it a bunch of times without the woodblock”. She stops to let that sink in. Then adds, even if she didn’t need to, “We’ve gotta have the woodblock Glen”.
I turn, arms extended, and offer Amber the woodblock.
She takes it, and repeats the musical mantra that Cave had stated: Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta ta-ta, ta-ta-tah!
I clear my throat, feel no words the first time I try, then with another clear the words pass, “I-I-I will give it another ga-go, I-I-I tha-think I’ve ga-got it na-now…”
“He thinks he’s ga-got it na-now” Nick Cave yelps. And now most of the musicians are buckled over or buried deep, head in hands.
I can feel the prickles in my leg and now a trickle mingling. I look down to confirm what I really thought couldn’t be happening. There is a puddle at my feet. I have just pissed myself in front of Nick Cave. His Bad Seeds. And the mini-orchestra and choir, also Derek and his co-engineers.
“Goodbye Glen”, calls Nick Cave. “Don’t ‘slip up’ again buddy”. And he laughs loudly at what I figure is his own joke.
And I leave.
I run back through the door, and then out the main “Green Room” entrance/exit. And I’ve got one hand over the wet-spot and one over my mouth as if I dare not let my breath out properly in case it turns to a scream. My eyes are stinging. I stink of sweat and piss and all of the fears I never knew I had, they’re all negative pheromones now as I wonder about social media. Who took a photo of me? Which members of that band have Twitter accounts? Was there anyone else in that room there, like actual media? What the fuck even happened. Why didn’t I just say no? Who says “And Percussion” after saying drums? Who says ‘I play drums’ when meeting Nick Cave? And then, Who fucking pisses themselves in front of Nick Cave? And The Bad Seeds? And Amber? And Derek?
I’m running down the longest corridor in the world, fumbling with my phone to check…something…anything…already worried about how long it is going to take to check everything…
And then a door opens in my face. I stop just in time. And Mark comes out grinning. He’s wearing his back-stage tag. And a big security guard slaps him on the shoulder and says something about, “Alright Mark, catch ya later…”
And Mark grabs me by the shoulders. And says “so, dude, how was it?” And he’s grinning with a knowing smirk that lets me know he had set this all up, but as he is speaking he looks down at me with my hand over my crotch and the wetted area sprawling out around where my hand is throttling.
“Get me out of here” I scream.
“Dude, did you fucking piss yourself in front of Nick Cave?”
“Get me out of here!” I repeat.
And then I stop. And I can hear my heart beating. And around it I can hear another noise. Like my heart has splintered off somehow. Some ventricle, whether left or right, has left. Gone out on its own. I can hear it now, over the main heartbeat. And it’s got it. It’s got it. It’s got something deep inside it going Ta-ta, ta-ta-ta ta-ta, ta-ta-tah!