On His New Australian Tour, Nick Cave Is Confronting The Uncomfortable
"I’ve experienced things since my son died that I never experienced before, on a deeper level, and also on a more beautiful level."
There’s a moment at Nick Cave’s first Sydney show that sucks the air out of the room. Less than twenty minutes into proceedings, a woman stands up from the audience and asks the question Cave was always going to be met with tonight: “How do you find beauty when you’re in the context of a tragic situation?”
Cave hesitates briefly, then answers. “I think you’re referring to the death of my son, and something grew out of that that was extraordinarily beautiful for me and my family. The terrible truth of this question is that great beauty can actually come out of the most tragic of circumstances.”
Despite taking place on Australia’s most famous stage and starring arguably our greatest living musician, Tuesday night’s event wasn’t a concert but one of the first stops in a nationwide tour promising ‘Conversations With Nick Cave’.
There are a dozen or so songs over two hours — classics ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘The Mercy Seat’, rarities like ‘Shoot Me Down’, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ — but it is, for the most part, a Q&A. Audience members raise their hand, wait for a microphone, and Cave answers their burning questions.
A card placed on each of the seats described the events as a “work in progress” and a “reckless experiment” built around the artist’s desire to have an honest dialogue with his fans. There was no moderator or vetting process; the audience were asked to be “forthright and bold” in their questions. It’s a concept that Cave admits strikes a little bit of “terror” in him.
These events might be an experiment but they’re also seemingly an extension of the Red Hand Files, the email newsletter where Cave responds to fans’ questions about his work and life. A recent edition of the newsletter in which he wrote openly about the death of his teenage son Arthur went viral, Cave’s candour about the “inseparable pact” of grief and love rippling across the internet.
So it’s no surprise, then, that one of the first questions tonight is about that seismic loss. “There is something that exists beyond the trauma and it’s a kind of understanding about connection to other people,” he continues. “I’ve experienced things since my son died that I never experienced before, on a deeper level, and also on a more beautiful level. It’s a very difficult thing to say and it’s very difficult realisation to come to, but that is the truth of it in some way.”
“I’ve experienced things since my son died that I never experienced before, on a deeper level, and also on a more beautiful level.”
Not every moment of tonight’s show is this sombre — rather, Cave is frequently funny and always charming, joking with audience members and dedicating songs to them. At various points he fields questions about his desired funeral soundtrack, speaks about the abandoned Gladiator sequel he wrote a script for (Russell Crowe didn’t like it) and obliges a request from a fan to please sign his foot.
He’s asked a lot about his creative process and back catalogue, something which — between the Boys Next Door, Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, Grinderman, two novels, a few screenplays, countless scores — there is an impossibly large amount of ground to cover.
But as when he spoke about his son, the most satisfying moments of the night come when Cave is forthright and thoughtful about the highs and lows of his life. Early in the night one young man stood up to ask what advice Cave, himself a recovered drug addict, would give a 25-year-old trying to kick his heroin habit. Cave engages with the man thoughtfully and explains that while he found Narcotics Anonymous meetings difficult to attend, they ultimately helped him get clean.
Later, he’s asked to reflect on his relationship with Rowland S. Howard, his Birthday Party collaborator before the band split acrimoniously in 1983, who died in 2009 after a battle with hepatitis brought on by his own struggle with addiction.
“Creative lives become so intense that they eclipse all things, including friendship, and I think that happened with me and Rowland,” Cave offered. “We forgot, for a while, to be friends. I think that was how the Birthday Party collapsed. We all just forgot that we were first of all friends.”
The most satisfying moments of the night come when Cave is forthright and thoughtful about the highs and lows of his life.
He also explains that many of the questions sent to him in the Red Hand Files — like that viral letter about the death of his son — come from people struggling through traumas of their own. He tells us that reading those letters has been “extremely helpful for me in my own situation” and cites them as an inspiration for putting on these shows.
“The thing that has really brought me here is the idea that we are all connected through our mutual suffering, and that we all have extraordinary capacity to transcend that,” he says. “The exercise of life is really about community and about connection. I hope I can filter that back out into the world.”
The only uncomfortable moment of the event came with a question about grappling with the #MeToo movement, one Nick wasn’t satisfyingly able to answer. He suggests that the music industry is one that “respects women”, before turning to the audience to ask if that’s correct — receiving a few scattered protestations of “no” in return.
For any other artist, these kinds of conversations might be something to avoid. But for Nick Cave, confronting the uncomfortable has always been part of the pact.
Katie Cunningham is the former Features Editor of Junkee and has contributed to outlets like the ABC, Rolling Stone Australia and The Big Issue. She is on Twitter.