Tag Archives: Nick Cave

When I grow up

I’m three years in to this blog now and have sporadically produced an end-of-year round up of my favourite records at year end. Okay, I’ve done it once. This will make it twice. Two out of three ain’t bad as Meatloaf wisely attests.

There’s no getting past the fact that it’s been a dreadful year. The world has gotten uglier, more stupid, and less tolerant. Irrespective of your personal perspective on, say, Brexit or Trump it’s been a  year characterised by a dearth of reasoned, fact based, rational discourse. We are all a little poorer and democracy is ill served by a toxic environment where lies stand as truth and dissenting voices are shouted down as traitors.

In “normal” circumstances the dumbing down and drift (lurch) right of our politics would have been enough to tip this year into the debit column. And, sure, we lost some fine people too. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. How’d I get through the 42 records thing without room for any of them ? All of that marked 2016 as rotten. But all of that, personally, ended up being nothing.

I lost my mum this year. I’m old enough at 44 to have known her a long time. In brighter moments I take some comfort in that but it’s only been three and a half months and there haven’t been many brighter moments. I’ve written about loss and grief elsewhere in these pages and it has seemed an easier thing for me to access or articulate in the abstract. I have exhausted metaphors involving the sea or the weather but it’s interesting that they were the props I reached for. There is something vast and overwhelming about the loss of a parent, even as an adult, that means you reach for things equally vast. I’ve written about depression a lot on these pages as well and there’s some equivalence in the feelings but they’re not the same. I guess the symptoms present in the same way but the root cause is different. Mum used to read my words and I suspect they were a route in to her hearing from me, understanding me. I’ve never been a great talker. I don’t regret. I can’t change the way I’m wired but I hope (I think) that she knew me a bit better as an adult by reading my ramblings about records and my sporadic, random stories. I miss her as my best reader but most of all I miss her as my mum. She was the best one anyone could have.

So my three stand out records of the year (the year being when I experienced them and not necessarily when they came out) entirely reflect all of the above. First up, Marillion’s FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run) deals in an angry, anxious reaction to the banking crisis, to changes in global politics, to a world in which divisions between rich and poor deepen and grow. It’s breathtakingly good. Broad in scope but personal and relatable, musically rich, technical but emotional. It won’t get much credit in the end-of-year lists because Marillion have long been abandoned by the mainstream music press but it’s a remarkable statement and a career high for a band that have already scaled a few anyway.

Second is Nick Cave’s “Skeleton Tree”. It was released after the death of his son (and partially written after that event, though not entirely) and is devastating. I’m not sure in any other year whether I’d have had the appetite to listen to Skeleton Tree very much. It’s too raw and too painful but I found it a conduit for my own feelings. A lot of stuff felt very trite this year in comparison to “real life” and this record was anything but.

And finally there’s Tim Minchin’s “Matilda” soundtrack/score and, in particular, the song “When I Grow Up”. The musical is an utter delight and I think I found its overtly clever lyrics a tonic in this post-truth year of all years. I’m well aware that the musical particularly speaks to me as a father of a smart, sensitive daughter and that I have become overly sentimental in my middle-ish age. However, “When I Grow Up” kinda sums up the year for me. On the face of it it’s a singalong call to be older, to get to “eat sweets every day” and do what you like – the imagined liberation of being an adult from a child’s perspective. Inevitably it’s more complex than that and I can’t listen to the song without feeling an extraordinary sense of sadness and pathos in the lines about being old enough to carry all the things you have to carry as a grown up, about being able to fight off the monsters under the bed when you’re a grown up. There are lots of markers of being a “grown up”. Formal ones like turning 18 or 21. Or informal ones like buying your first home or getting married or having children. Or losing your mum. I wish, I really wish, that you did get to easily fight off the monsters under the bed when you grow up and I really, really wish you learned to carry all of things you have carry but it’s not as straightforward as that. This year they all got a lot heavier. This year I got to be a grown up and I’d give anything to be able to be a child again.
Go listen if you’re so minded. They’re all great records although none will make the playlists at many Christmas parties. But it hasn’t been that kind of year.
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Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit

“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”

“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”

“How to what now ?”

“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.

“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”

“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”

Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”

“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”

“That’s not quite how I remember it.”

“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”

“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.

“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”

“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”

“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”

“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.

“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”

“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”

“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”

“What are the fries in this analogy ?”

“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”

“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”

“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”

“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.

“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”

“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”

“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.

“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”

“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”

“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”

“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”

“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.

“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.

“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”

“Her own cheese ?”

“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”

“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”

“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.

“You asked him to calm down ?”

“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.

“What were the chances ?”

“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”

“So he started doing irony ?”

“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”

“No fucking way.”

“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”

There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”

“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”

“Keep going Chomsky.”

“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”

“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.

“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”

“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”

“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”

“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…

“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”

“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.

“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”

“Why’d we want to do that ?”

“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

……

This is story 40 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is a direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.

Send that stuff on down to me

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