16 Jan 2019

REVIEW: Nick Cave in Conversation at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre

From RNZ Music, 9:30 am on 16 January 2019

Nick Cave has often been a mythical character, a dark horse singing songs of depravity and desperate acts. And last night fans got the chance to ask him anything, in person. How would that go?

Nick Cave

Nick Cave Photo: Gosha Rubchinskiy

I’ve heard first-hand anecdotes of eager fans approaching Nick Cave at pubs, only to be sneered at and told to “piss off”.

Back in his junkie days, he kicked a journalist in the groin for asking questions. He distrusted media, and even wrote a song about ex-NME writers, called ‘Scum’.

These days he doesn’t assault journalists, but in 2017 he admitted to The Guardian his reasons for being a reticent interviewee: the things he says never come out the way he’d like.

So why is Cave on a tour where the audience can ask him anything they’ve ever wanted to know?

The answer is neatly inserted into the tops of our seats. On one side of the card is a picture of Cave, his hand mid temple scratch, and on the other is an explanation: “I am acting on an intuition that something of value can be gained from an open and honest dialogue with my audience. I want to bring the whole thing back to something raw and naked and essential.”

And so there he is, at 7pm on the dot, just Cave on stage in his three-piece suit and slicked back hair, looking taller, thinner, and more Grim Reaper-ish than I remember. His surreal and witty poem about actor Steve McQueen opens the show, then he sits down at the grand piano and launches into ‘Ship Song’ and ‘West Country Girl’.  

It’s nearly two years to the day since I last saw Nick Cave, in the cavernous TSB Arena, playing songs from Skeleton Tree, which was recorded in the aftermath of his son Arthur’s death in 2015.

That album was accompanied by a film, One More Time With Feeling, which documented the Cave family as they grieved. It was Cave’s way of avoiding talking about it with anyone other than old friend and director Andrew Dominik, and it was sensitive, poignant and emotional.

When your audience has seen you in that near catatonic state, dealing with the unfathomable loss of a child, what is there left to hold back?

An older woman bravely stands up and asks how he got through the trauma of losing a child, then the making of that film and album. Cave is obviously used to this being the first question. No small talk around here, we’re straight into death, grief, love and religion. He keeps his answer focussed on the film: during shooting, he had no idea really, what was going on.

Nick Cave

Nick Cave Photo: Gosha Rubchinskiy

He addresses Arthur’s death more directly later in the show, saying that “the terrible secret of grief is the beauty of it”. He talks about his wife, Susie Bick, and how he’s watched her process the grief. He describes seeing her three years ago unable to move, lying on her bed in a darkened room, then later, emerging as a happy woman with strength and connectedness she’d never had before. I feel a sting in my eye.

He reckons everyone has a trauma in their lives that shatters everything. There was his life before, and his second life now, in which he’s trying to feel that connectedness, with his family, friends, and fans.

“It’s probably why I’m here right now.”

There are lighter parts to the show, too. He wants to get a few gags in, and he’s counting on the audience to give him the material he needs.

There’s a long-haired guy who stands up and describes the last Nick Cave concert he went to with his girlfriend. He says they were the first to dance, in full ballroom attire, and that Cave hugged him and held his hand, taking his requests for the entire show. He says he cried through the whole thing. “I love you Nick, so much.” Cave smiles, and gently reminds him that, as lovely as this exchange is, “If you stand up, it might be good if there is a question mark at the end.” At this point, the audience erupts into laughter. His question, as it turns out, is “Do you remember me?” “Yes, oh that was you!” Cave replies.

Nick Cave live 2017

Nick Cave live 2017 Photo: Nikolitsa Boutieros

A flirtatious blonde leaning over the railing asks what he’d eat if he “you know, just couldn’t be bothered”. Rather than answer, he plays her ‘Sad Waters’ which seems perfectly (and cheekily) picked: “Hair of gold and lips like cherries / We go down to the river where the willows weep / Take a naked root for a lovers seat.”

People ask about his songwriting process; about his notions of God and Evil; the new morality versus his depraved characters; his stance on playing in Israel despite Brian Eno and co’s artist boycott. Ghosts of late bandmates are exhumed, and he explains how it’s helpful to him to believe in an afterlife, even if it’s not true.

There’s life advice, including his mother Dawn’s wisdom: “Head high, and fuck ‘em all.” To aspiring musicians: “Just be yourself and avoid the industry,” and to parents of musicians: “Get out of their way, there’s nothing you can do.” To (possibly) the youngest audience member, at 18: “Even though we’ve lost credibility by f**king the world up, old people can be wise. Listen to them every so often.”

Though he says he’s “always felt like a rock star” he rejects a reference to his ‘genius’, crediting his life-long nine-to-five working habits. “I show up, and I put in the work.”

Writing and making music is the most invigorating, empowering thing he has in his life, and when it’s going well, extends out to everything else. This communion with fans is giving him energy as well, he says. We feel ya, Nick.

While most musicians now are conscious of the need to connect with fans through social media, this baby boomer is doing it in a much more tangible way: face to face. It’s courageous being this accessible and honest. In September he started The Red Hand Files which is the online version of this tour, but one in which he’s able to more carefully consider what he says.

His voice is the booming baritone it always was, that American accent in his singing, when we’ve just been hearing his Australian one, makes the act just a touch less authentic.

He’s rehearsed up a greatest hits set, but has to admit to many in the audience that he can’t play the song they’ve requested. None of the songs sound like they’re being sung out of obligation - he’s here for us.

‘The Mercy Seat’ sounds closer to the Johnny Cash version than I’ve heard it before, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is as confounding as always, and ‘Mermaids’ elicits giggles from my concert buddy. Close to the end, I start to miss his band The Bad Seeds, and the kinetic, chaotic energy they bring to the stage.

We won’t be waiting long to see them again - Cave mentions they’ll head back here next year, I’m guessing with a new album. After this worldwide group therapy session, he’ll certainly have a huge amount of material to write about.

Nick Cave plays the Auckland Town Hall tomorrow.

  • The Sampler: Lovely Creatures by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
  • Nick Cave: mortality, love and faith
  • The Sampler: Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave
  • Cave's son took LSD before fatal fall