“As I walk these narrow streets where a million passin’ feet have trod before me, with my guitar in my hand, suddenly I realize nobody knows me,” dryly sings Nick Cave in the beginning of “The Singer,” his take on Johnny Cash’s “The Folk Singer” on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 1986 cover album Kicking Against The Pricks. In Cave’s hands, Cash’s outlaw country loner classic becomes a bitter evocation of the tension and alienation between Cave and his audience, as well as his critics. But even with its sardonic edge, which is infused in that repeated three-chord strum, the song is also an expression of utmost adoration for a musical hero, a filth elder, if you will.
This Monday, I attended one of Nick Cave’s “Conversations with Nick Cave” events at Town Hall, which pairs a solo performance with questions from audience members, which range from deeply felt musings on grief to queries about creativity to awkward attempts at soliciting Nick’s opinions on Vegemite. It’s both moving, particularly watching a performer create an odd form of intimacy with his audience, one that both the audience and Nick seem to be seeking, and uniquely uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, a question that was nagging at me gets raised, including: With his recent performances of covers of songs like T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” and Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town,” would The Bad Seeds ever release another cover album like Kicking Against The Pricks?
Cave answered no, explaining (in so many words) that at the time of that album’s release in the 1980s, the band was trying to define themselves against what some music critic mouthbreathers attributed as their influences. Rather than reaching back through musical history, these pen pushers were lazily contextualizing the band in terms of some lame Goth contemporaries. But now, with their over thirty year career, Nick doesn’t quite see a reason to record another cover-centric album. There’s no need to align with their role models, when you’ve become role models yourselves.
A criminally underrated album, as are most cover albums (*ahem* Bowie’s Pin Ups), Kicking Against the Pricks is a headfirst dive into fanatical idol worship–one that is sincerely expressed, a sincerity that wasn’t then, or even now, easily digestible in post-punk music. Nobody expected Nick Cave, that wild-eyed, black-haired singer from The Birthday Party, known for snarling about sticking six-inch gold blades in the heads of red-headed girls, to cover, with utmost seriousness and reverence, Tom Jones. But, with their third album, he did.
And you might be wondering, dear Filthy Dreams readers, why I might be resurrecting an over thirty-year-old album to obsess over. Well, this dive into Kicking Against The Pricks has been a long time coming. Frenzied and fascinated by its schmaltzy qualities that set it jarringly apart from Cave’s prior musical output, Kicking Against The Pricks closely aligns with Filthy Dreams’ own belief in role models as an integral survival strategy for outsiders and well, the deranged.
Opening with a narcotic version of the folk ballad “Muddy Water,” which mirrors the band’s prior biblical flood epic “Tupelo,” from their previous album The Firstborn Is Dead, the album is a roller coaster of influences. There’s blues (John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Going To Kill That Woman”), country (“Long Black Veil” and “The Singer”), gospel (“Jesus Met The Woman At The Well”), and most shockingly, more than a little cheesy 1960s ballads (“Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart,” “Sleeping Annaleah” (A version of Tom Jones’s “Weeping Annaleah”), “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “The Carnival Is Over”). Perhaps the most predictable song on the album, besides Cave’s obvious Johnny Cash stanning, is a cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico. However, rather than covering one of Lou Reed’s junk classics, which would have been much more appropriate, they, instead, chose Nico’s frigid and delightfully monotone “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” transforming the depressive party anthem into a drunken male group sing-a-long.
Titled after a quote from Act of the Apostles (“I am Jesus whom thou persecutes: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”), as well as Beckett’s turn on the phrase More Pricks Than Kicks, Cave made no secret that his intention with the album was to fuck with the pricks, meaning music critics. Never a fan of how his music was interpreted by journalists, even going so far as to write maybe the pettiest song put on record “Scum,” naming and tearing apart specific critics he hated, the impulse behind the cover album was to solicit terrible reviews. “I thought it would really irritate them,” Cave said, as quoted in Bad Seed, “It was basically a fuck you to all the people who thought they could tell us what we should and shouldn’t be doing.” His former Bad Seeds bandmate Mick Harvey confirmed, “He was relishing in the thought of a really bad critical response.” Relatable.
However, it backfired. The critics liked it–or at least, liked it more than the first two Bad Seeds albums. Many critics, both at the time and today, seem to understand the album as an attempt to place the band into a certain historical and even, mythological context. It also lays down a thematic blueprint for the Bad Seeds’ ongoing obsessions: murder, failed romance, longing, love, hedonism, more murder…
But more than that, critics finally understood where Cave was coming from. His mishmash of unexpected influences became readily apparent on a covers record rather than buried into his songs. As Nick states, “It’s a very revealing record…far more revealing in a way than my own records because it tells a great deal about me, a lot more than my writings. A lot of what I am is not presented on my other records but is on Kicking Against the Pricks.”
This isn’t to say Cave was ever quiet about his many inspirations–a role model-worshipper that rivals our own unhinged devotion to aspirational figures: Elvis, Cohen, Dylan, Beckett, Kafka, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Milton, etc. Like Lana, Cave peppers his lyrics with references to other songs. For example, “Sad Waters” begins with a line from “Green, Green Grass of Home,” famously performed by late stage Elvis. And cover songs were nothing new to The Bad Seeds either. The first song on their first album was an absolutely terrifying cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” followed by a subsequent exhausting version of Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man” on The Firstborn Is Dead.
But, to me, Kicking Against the Pricks has a different effect than these few cover songs wedged between original material. For one, the choice in songs is shocking, and not just because Cave, a white Australian then living in Berlin, is doing cover versions of blues standards by John Lee Hooker, which would surely have the Interwebz crowing about cultural appropriation if released in 2019. Kicking Against The Pricks is startling in the face of Cave’s past creative output. Before The Bad Seeds, Cave’s prior band The Birthday Party was a speed-riddled sonic assault, spewing forth grotesqueries at the audience in nearly unlistenable post-punk. And the first two Bad Seeds albums were perhaps more restrained, but no less worrisome, witnessing Nick become fixated on swampy blues and heralding the birth of Elvis, despite never having visited the American South. Nowhere, though, in this oeuvre did there seem as if there was room for a cover of Gene Pitney’s sickeningly sweet “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart,” drenched in earnestness and sing-songy vocals.
In some ways, this switch could have been anticipated. In his Conversations on Monday night, Nick also spoke about defiance as one of the biggest driving forces in his career (same, Nick, same). And nothing is more defiant than belting sentimentality like “The Carnival Is Over” in the face of way-too-serious post-punkers. Though I doubt anyone has ever made this comparison before (and may never again), the cheese in some of the tracks on Kicking Against The Pricks reminds me, on some level, of John Sex’s Vegas-style Tom Jones-inspired act. Neither Cave nor Sex, the former a performer then known for his surly and antagonistic performances and the latter a peroxide-haired go-go dancer, quite fit the role of torch singer.
Though seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, both Cave and Sex imbue their renditions with a sense of camp. While certainly Sex more than Cave, the camp is also there with Kicking Against The Pricks. Just listen to the extended drawl of the opening line of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” most famously sung by Glen Campbell, which Frank Sinatra called “the greatest torch song ever written.” While Nick himself might recoil at this assertion, camp and certainly a black humor run all through his songs. I mean, you don’t stand in front of a TV audience and howl, “I’m the junkyard king” or run around in a diaper screaming about “Nick the Stripper” without a sense of camp. Perhaps because Cave cuts such an imposing figure, this has largely went under-analyzed. I mean, Murder Ballads itself is a study in camp, but I digress…
Beyond the mawkishness of many of the songs on the record, even the cover art is camp. With a smoke ring hovering above his head, a young Nick looks to the side in a tuxedo, sporting a bow tie. His back-combed hair is just barely slicked back as he stands in front of a Lynchian red curtain. He looks like a sleazy and decadent nicotine-stained lounge singer from hell.
The camp in these cover versions can possibly be best witnessed during live performances. While his later performance of “Hey Joe” is technically a great performance, I’ve always preferred an earlier televised performance of “The Singer.” In contrast to “Hey Joe,” in which he seems (relatively) sober and sure of himself, his performance of “The Singer” is deliciously shambolic as he lip-synchs poorly to his own song, an effect which is further called attention to by his constant gum-chewing, while pretending to play the guitar. Glaring menacingly into the camera with pinned pupils, there’s no mistaking that he resents every second of being there, channeling that energy into creating an over-the-top, off-putting, and ultimately camp performance.
However, despite the humor inherent in some of the song choices and performances within Kicking Against The Pricks, that doesn’t mean it’s not ultimately sincere. One of the biggest misunderstandings of camp is that it’s somehow akin to irony. However, camp can be something that is so sincerely felt, so deeply expressed, that it becomes overblown. As Christopher Isherwood writes in The World in the Evening, “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”
This is the case with Kicking Against The Pricks. These unlikely songs are not being covered with cynicism. As Cave’s former Birthday Party bandmate Rowland Howard, who also appears on the album, observed, “The record wasn’t done out of a willful sense of perversity. All the strength it has is through its sincerity.” And he’s right. What Kicking Against The Pricks exudes is what Ann Pellegrini calls “camp sincerity.” While camp is known to be overblown theatricality, sincerity too requires a theatrical performance, which Ivan Raykoff articulates in “The Camp Sincerity of Christmas Carols” in Music & Camp as “a sincerity that recognizes itself as a deliberate act–a performance–even if its motivations might be true and real.” Camp sincerity is, as Pellegrini says, “the performance of sincere belief.”
With the word belief, Pellegrini lends a religious bent to camp sincerity. And in that vein, Kicking Against the Pricks is–dare I say–a religious album. Not because of its one gospel song “Jesus Met The Woman At the Well,” but in its sincere performance of idol worship. These songs are revered. Sanctified. Deified. Now, this too isn’t a shock as religiosity in general has always been a source of lyrical inspiration for Cave, particularly the act reaching toward God or some transcendent deity. But here, on Kicking Against the Pricks, that deity is the song and its maker. And how does he pay tribute? By giving them, song after song after song…