When this unique event went on sale tickets sold very swiftly indeed. An evening of music and conversation, with the man, the myth, the legend Nick Cave, answering questions from the audience on anything they wished to enquire about. In the austere surrounds of the Adelaide Town Hall, it’s impressive pipe organ as a backdrop, the full house included a bunch of lucky punters seated on the stage with Nick. In some ways that made it feel more…homely maybe, like a bunch of friends sitting around their (very large) lounge room having a chat about stuff.
The idea and format of the show has sprung from Mr Cave’s endlessly interesting website The Red Hand Files (link below) website. The structure of which is that if you want to ask Nick Cave a question, you go to The Red Hand Files and ask it. Nick will answer your questions directly. There are no moderators sifting out ‘the good ones’. ‘This is between you and me.’ Nick says on the link to the site. When asked on the site why he wanted to talk to his fans his answer explains much about the nature of the show.
As I take these events around the country, I am meeting audiences who are asking thoughtful, fearless and challenging questions, many of which have resonated deeply with me. So it is with The Red Hand Files. When I started the Files I had a small idea that people were in need of more thoughtful discourse. I felt a similar need. I felt that social media was by its nature undermining both nuance and connectivity. I thought that, for my fans at least, The Red Hand Files could go some way to remedy that. The number and breadth of questions I have received over the last three months has been staggering, indeed, many are not questions at all, but people using the Files to tell their own stories. It is a privilege to read these pieces of writing and it is both a pleasure and an honour to stand on stage before you all.
So we understand that tonight is not going to be a regular ‘gig’. It is a rare and generous opportunity to interact with this incredibly talented, articulate writer, poet, singer, performer, and indeed icon for many (although he would probably not care for such a grandiose moniker) on a level most would never get the opportunity to embrace otherwise.
The lights dim to pitch black and Steve McQueen from Once More With Feeling plays with the refrain
Because someone’s gotta sing the stars
And someone’s gotta sing the rain
And someone’s gotta sing the blood
And someone’s gotta sing the pain
Cave appears from the darkness to rapturous applause and he sits at the grand piano to sing a excellent stark version of The Ship Song, from The Good Son. It is a song which means so very much to me personally, but it also serves as a prime example of a song so perfect that it will live forever. It has all the sad glory of a hymn, with lyrics that a sheer poetry.
We talk about it all night long
We define our moral ground
But when I crawl into your arms
Everything comes tumbling down
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history
Every time you come around
Nick does a little house keeping, explaining this is a safe space and nothing is being filmed or recorded. Partially to take pressure off him, but also the people asking the questions who may not be used to speaking in front a large group of people and on a microphone. ‘So please put your phones away, let’s just have an experience together’. It’s a request that goes mostly adhered to, save for the occasional iPhone snapping a photo (guilty). Soon after the Q and A starts I realise how hard it is going to be to write this review. Encapsulating the nights questions and responses would be, at best a disservice to the evening as a whole, because it was a conversation of highs and lows. Confronted with the opportunity to ask a question of their hero, people react very differently.
Earnest questions about very specific lyrics, attempts to show the high level of one’s own fandom, stabs at humour. Often the questions show more about the person asking the question than they do about the actual question. Early in the evening there is a questioner who essentially just wanted to say ‘Hey Nick you’re awesome’. Nick was quick to thank them, but added ‘but that would have been better if it had a question attached to the end of it‘, explaining the structure of a Question and Answer show works much better if there are questions. Likewise when people ask questions that have a strong resonance for themselves personally, there is one about how to stop school bullying for instance, he responds with a swift and firm ‘I don’t know’. Quick to deflate any question that addresses him like some sort of messianic figure who might make the blind see with his God-like genius. A question about how he interacts with his fans compared to how other artists do with theirs, receives a blunt ‘I don’t know how other people interact with their fans’. He is firm but not dismissive or mean. He is here to be available for our inquiries and while he is very open he doesn’t wish to waste his time and that of the audience with stuff that is wildly off topic.
However he is remarkably candid when asked about his process, songwriting, drug addiction, dealing with the grief and loss of losing his son two and a half years ago and so forth. Generally the questions are respectful, informed and sincere. Cave’s answers are returned in kind. Answered with honesty, dry wit, and great insight. He makes sure that questioners from all parts of the venue are getting their chance. He recognises peoples names from the website. He gives a person struggling with cancer, a heartfelt hug.
So rather than try and tell you what everybody asked and all his answers (it ran just under three hours so it would be impossible). I’ll give you an overview and if the quotes are not 100% verbatim they are the essence (it was dark and hard to take notes).
There must be some questions he gets most night or has been asked often enough that he has what appears to be tried and true responses. When somebody asks him about his favourite poets for instance, he has already written out a list of his favourites and invites the person to come and collect it. Other questions seem to catch him genuinely off guard. He talks about his love of poetry that he in inherited from his father.
Poetry was the very pinnacle of everything to him. The purest art form. Everything else was far below it. With rock’n’roll the farthest thing from it way way down below.’. He reads poetry every day, good poets and bad, and it’s often the bad poets he likes most.
When asked if it was harder to write songs, books or screen plays. Songs were the hardest by far. Explaining that both a book and a screenplay have a longer arch and he is free to do what he pleases, but..
With a song, there is a weight, a cloud of, not only my own catalogue of material, but of every song ever written looming behind me. So I dare not look behind me. If you start doing that you’d never write again.
When asked about a Doctors theory that addicts will often swap one addiction to a different one, Nick swifts says
Well I don’t know where you are getting your information from young man, but that…is utter bullshit.
And explains he didn’t take heroin because had had an addictive personality, but he became a heroin addict because he took heroin and became addicted to it. He tells us that his work is better clean, sharper more focused. And later talks about his Bad Seed cohort Warren Ellis getting clean after twenty years of addiction to drugs and alcohol.
‘It’s unbelievable how much better his work and playing are now. He was incredible before but now it’s like a door has been opened and light shines from him.’.
On playing Into Your Arms at the funeral of friend Michael Hutchence.
I think they asked and I said yes. But I didn’t want to be part of the ‘show’ it was becoming so when it was time for me to sing they switched off the cameras. I was singing for Michael not anybody else. Our friendship was strange. We didn’t have that much in common, we came from very different places. We didn’t talk about music that much. I loved him ad he loved me, but there was an unspoken element in that I really envied his fame and he envied my…credibility. Have I played that yet? Would you like to hear it?
Throughout the night he would break from the questions and head to the piano. Sometimes to illustrate an answer, sometimes to break things up. Throughout the evening he gave us God Is In The House, The Mercy Seat (which morphed into Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche), The Weeping Song, The Higgs Bosom Blues, Breathless, Nobody’s Baby Now, Stranger Than Kindness and a clutch of others. Thirteen songs all together.
Early in the night he is asked about the controversy about playing in Israel and he explained that he wasn’t about to be bullied into not playing for his fans in Israel, because of the ruling government there. There had been a war of words with various rock stars and musician boycotting playing Israel, which Nick felt added up to bullying from Brian Eno who he described as ‘An endlessly talent and fascinating artist who makes great art.’ and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, ‘..who is not’. He mentions that people send stuff on Israel to him via social media. And that phrase derailed me for part of the night. Nick Cave is on social media? I mean I knew about Red Hand, but I suddenly had a imagined flash of Nick updating his Insta account, saying ‘I just want to check Facebook’ or playing Candy Crush on his way to the airport. Popping photos of his meals up on Snapchat #princeofdarkness LOL.
Sure there were a few dud questions in there ‘What colour socks do you have on?’ springs to mind. But another question about a dress code for The Bad Seeds resulted in Nick conceding there were dress standards for The Bad Seeds and he would imagine if Martyn Casey turned up in ‘stubbies and thongs’ that would not go down too well.
He talked about his family, about grief and the devastating grief at the loss of one of his sons Arthur in 2015. He fielded questions about Blixa Bargeld, new Bad Seeds material (‘Its done’ he said ‘but I don’t want to talk about it too much just yet’). There were questions about his faith and belief in God. With perhaps my favourite question of the night going like this.
‘Hi Nick I didn’t really like your music at first, but it’s grown on me. In your music there is a lot of stuff about your religious and spiritual beliefs. You talk about God and Jesus and faith..’ said the questioner ‘..so I was just wondering if you’d ever considered putting out a Christmas Album?’ The entire room howled with laughter, Mr Cave himself almost fell over. It was an immaculately timed switcheroo and great punch line. When he had recovered Nick pointed at the guy and gave a solid ‘SURE!’.
After just under three hours of our Audience with Saint Nick (there’s your Xmas album title), the evening comes to an end. He wound things up with a sublime Skeleton Tree. the title track from the most recent Bad Seeds album in 2016.
All in all this was an incredible and unusual evening with a remarkable artist.
Live Review by Ian Bell
You can ask Nick cave any question over at The Red Hand Files.