35. There She Goes, My Beautiful World – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
There are days when nothing comes. Days that stretch into weeks that unwind into months and before you realise it, years have passed. It always starts with a blank page, or a page almost blank save for a half formed jotting of an idea: something that felt alive in your mind but that you manage to kill as soon as you set it down in words. That’s how it has been for me these past twenty odd years, my twenty years of pretending to be a writer.
Before I did my degree I was a different kind of writer, one who actually wrote stuff. You may be thinking that’s an altogether better kind of writer for a writer to be. You’d be right. Write ? Right. I’m not going to pretend that the various false endings for one of Joyce’s Dubliners’ stories that I submitted just-for-the-hell-of-it on top of my English A level homework were necessarily particularly good but the point was that I wrote them. Neither will the self deprecating poems that I used to write holed up in a house in Cornwall, sharing my temporary bedroom with a washing machine, during my O levels (GCSEs for strict historical accuracy) be troubling any anthologies anytime soon but, again, the point was they actually made it on to the page. As did thousands and thousands of words, scribbled away like a West Country Adrian Mole, in various editions of my epic teenage diaries. Epic in the sense of there being a lot of it rather than the Homerian sense. Helen of Troy did not feature. Caroline of the number 20 bus did. You probably wouldn’t go to war for her. To be fair she wouldn’t even go to see “Top Gun” with me.
Then something changed. I started talking about writing a lot but didn’t actually write anything. All through University, three years, sitting around talking about the idea of publishing a novel. Picking up my first few jobs in and around Nottingham and thinking how temporary they would all be because I was going to be a writer. And then twenty years went by and I hadn’t written a word.
Which brings us to “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”, Nick Cave’s helter skelter, chaotic rallying cry for inspiration; a plea for help to a lost muse, his personal puzzling out of the creative process.The temptation in writing about a Nick Cave record is, frankly, to just reproduce his lyrics and let them speak for themselves: he is, for my money, the finest lyricist working today. Working seems to be the right word too: Cave famously sets about his craft as if it were a job, taking himself off to his office every day and grinding out the hours. Therein may lie a clue as to why I went twenty years without writing a word…
Cave captures perfectly the vagaries of artists’ approaches to creativity and the fact that various ailments and disadvantages were no impediment to their work:
John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox
Nabokov wrote on index cards, at a lectern, in his socks
St John Of The Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks
We even get a little creative license wrapped up this section of the song. Johnny Thunders didn’t actually write “Chinese Rocks” (it was mostly Dee Dee Ramone) and it would be slightly surprising if Cave didn’t know this but you trying scanning Dee Dee Ramone instead of Johnny Thunders in that line. The next verse runs with the same idea:
Karl Marx squeezed his carbunlces whilst writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off man, and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St Vincent’s Hospital
I’m not sure there’s anyone else working in what you might loosely term “rock” music today – or indeed in the past – that takes you from Karl Marx and his carbuncles (true) to Paul Gauguin’s adventures in Tahiti. There isn’t anyone else quite as smart, funny, and razor sharp (in words as well as tailoring) as Cave.
Other sections of the song are concerned with trying to recapture the muse, our narrator lying here with nothing in my ears, just lying here with nothing in my head. His pleading for inspiration becomes ever more desperate, ever more imploring, starting out with – I will kneel at your feet, I will lie at your door – and ending up with – I will be your slave, I will peel you grapes, up on your pedestal.
In truth I don’t really know where it comes from. Of late my subconscious has been playing havoc, merrily provoking anxious physical responses to threats that only it sees, but occasionally it also spits out something positive. I was struck by it again at my writing group last night (which I will write up separately) as an exercise that started with a random set of nouns, an imagined landscape, and a character you’ve never met span out into a set of stories in the room that, twenty minutes earlier, hadn’t existed. The people in the room, I suspect, wouldn’t even have known how to reach for those stories and yet, with a bizarre set of prompts, there they were.
I wonder how Cave really works. He can’t, I imagine, sit in his office for eight hours and solidly produce line after line after line. There must be time gazing in agony at a blank page ? A quick browse round the internet ? Doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that checks his Facebook page very often. Or ever. Maybe it isn’t like that. Maybe he genuinely produces vast reams of stuff and then judiciously mines it down to the gold.
I still struggle with the process. It’s still hard work committing the words to page and not hating every single one of them. But sometimes, out of the work, comes a sense of extraordinary satisfaction that I just don’t get with anything else. It happened last night in the writing group – not even necessarily because my output was that great but I just got lost in it at a time when I needed to get lost in something – and it happens in fits and starts when I write this blog. Courage and persistence and work: I think if the last seven or eight months have taught me anything they’ve taught me that those are the key. The difference between being a writer who doesn’t write, and consequently who can always hide behind a sense of might have been, and one who does, even if it means producing a whole lot of rubbish for the sake of the odd moment of inspiration.
Cave should have the final words. He is a master of them:
So if you got a trumpet, get up on your feet, brother, and blow it
And if you got a field, that don’t yield, get up now and hoe it
I look at you, you look at me, and deep in our hearts babe we know it
That you weren’t much of a muse but I weren’t much of a poet