Books / Music

That Filthy Five! They Did Nothing To Challenge Or Resist: The Items I Would Steal from “Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition”

Stranger Than Kindness catalogue

I am a crooked (wo)man and I’ve walked a crooked mile…what’s that? Oh, I’m just practicing for my inevitable prison crooning after getting pinched for petty larceny aka having some sticky fingers, the same ones that tattooed E.V.I.L. on his brother’s fist (that filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist). I mean, that square foot of sky will be mine to I die (knocking on joooee!).

That’s right. I’m preparing myself for a frenzied and fanatical bout of unavoidable, unstoppable kleptomania after receiving and wild-eyed paging through the catalogue of Nick Cave’s now delayed exhibition Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition, which was set to open on March 23 at Copenhagen’s The Black Diamond. And luckily, Nick has just enough ballads related to incarceration, much like his hero Johnny Cash, for me to arrange a whole post-sentencing playlist.

But Miss Rona had other plans for the exhibition, postponing its opening and leaving us to fantasize about art heists in the privacy of our own apartments. To be frank, I very likely wouldn’t have been able to make it to Denmark in 2020 anyway. I’ve never had the talent for sucking up to PR firms enough to be invited to international press junkets like some of my more savvy colleagues. Is it because I don’t answer emails? Or because I’m blatantly insulting when I do? I take it all back! I’d review any hocked lame influencer boutique hotel if it got me close enough to anything Nick Cave-related.

Now, nobody can go! At least in the present. However, just because we’re stuck inside staring at exhibition catalogues rather than wandering through galleries and museums doesn’t mean we can’t psychotically covet. Why not treat an exhibition catalogue like an ACTUAL catalogue and pick out the items we most want to lift? I mean, there’s nothing like starting early!

It’s no secret that when it comes to my stalkerish obsessions that Nick Cave sits perched at the very top like a spider, all be-suited limbs and raven hair, singing about love, murder, blues, death, transcendence, God, the sacred and the profane. So it’s no surprise that a sprawling exhibition featuring 300-plus objects spanning fifty years of his life and career would trigger a hankering to possess some of these sacred objects, just like one of the last shows filled with items I just had to have: David Bowie Is. However as similar the conceptual underpinnings of these shows are by delving into two singular creative geniuses, Stranger Than Kindness seems to feature much less costumes than David Bowie Is (though I would love to see–ok, swipe–one of Nick’s early Bad Seeds decadent floral shirts so I could dream about sniffing…I mean, wearing…it) and much more manically scrawled notebooks covered in a myriad of stains.

More than just a simple chronology in the development of a career, Stranger Than Kindness, both the catalogue and presumably the exhibition itself, offers a glimpse at someone who has devoted himself thoroughly and almost masochistically to the creative process. Case in point: the notebooks upon notebooks of obsessively worked-over lyrics. Even if you’re not a fan, anyone who creates has to respond in some way to this relentless dedication. As his ex-girlfriend and wide lovely eyed whispering singer Anita Lane quipped, “If Nick was hit by a bus, he would be compelled to write about it in his own blood before he died.” Who wouldn’t?!

All of which makes my red right hand tingle. And look–Nick told me thievery was okay! In a recent Red Hand Files newsletter, Nick answered a question from a fan about stealing songs. Like Kathy Acker before him, Nick sung the praises of being a thief:

“Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary — even admirable — tendency, and that is to steal. Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.”

He said so! Ok, I know this engine of progress didn’t mean literal burglary, but why let that stop us?! I mean, up jumped the devil and he staked his claim on all these items I wanted from the exhibition. I can’t help it! If I have no free will, how can I be morally culpable? (I wondered). I’m a bad motherfucker don’t you know and I’d crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s…ahem…never mind. I’d crawl over museum security to get to these precious pilfered treasures:

Wallet owned by Nick Cave c. 1985 (all photos, unless noted, by author)

Wallet owned by Nick Cave c. 1985

If we’re talking about stealing, why not start with pickpocketing? The first thing I’d want to sneak away with from Stranger Than Kindness would be Nick’s 1985 wallet, which was also partially the inspiration for this entire article as I started to spiral merely imagining riffling through something as intimate as a wallet. This black wallet includes a set of photobooth pictures of Nick and Anita Lane at their most grungy and wild-haired, as well as an outtake from the photoshoot for the cover of The Firstborn Is Dead with Nick staring straight into the camera smoking a cigarette. But, what we can see is somehow less enticing than what is hidden. The catalogue also both reveals and conceals layered bits and pieces of paper such as a list of names with “Mick” visible. But most curiously, there is a segment of paper filled entirely with eye-strainingly small scrawl, which seems to read “But one lives one’s life, not thinks it + I find there comes a time that if you turn the other cheek, you may as well dig your own grave + lie in the ditch.” …What?! Disturbing! I want to read the whole thing and also dig through the rest of this worn leather treasure trove to see what other goodies are inside.

Photograph of Chris Coyne, John Cocivera, Howard, Phill Calvert and Nick Cave performing at Korowa Anglican Girls’ School, c. 1975 (Photographer Unknown)

Photograph of Chris Coyne, John Cocivera, Howard, Phill Calvert and Nick Cave performing at Korowa Anglican Girls’ School, c. 1975 (Photographer Unknown)

Look–David Bowie sure did a number on us all. Who hasn’t wanted to emulate Bowie’s most glam years at least for a moment? And well, not everyone can pull off Aladdin Sane–some just look, well, insane. Case in point: these young strivers from Caulfield Grammar. And frankly, Glam Rock Nick Cave is an absolute adorable fright, resembling, with his striped tights and pancake makeup, more of a harlequin than Lady Stardust. Just think that a couple years later he’d be back-combed, crow-haired, blank-eyed, Nick the Stripper (hideous to the eye) launching himself at the audience, strangling them with microphone cords in The Birthday Party with two of the members of this band: Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert (for a bit). I desperately need this photograph in my collection to assure me that even the best of us have awkward teenage years, some with more tambourine than others!

Letter from Caulfield Grammar School to Colin Cave, 1975

Letter from Caulfield Grammar School to Colin Cave, 1975

Speaking of adolescence, I love juvenile delinquency, don’t you? If you didn’t get in trouble at school at least a bit, you’re probably not worth knowing. I’m not saying I was a complete bad seed, but I certainly had my number of teachers and librarians getting in my face after some sass. Nothing’s changed. And apparently, not much has changed for Nick Cave either. In this letter full of finger-wagging–a much-needed testament to “acting bad,” Nick’s Headmaster wrote his father Colin Cave to let him know that teachers have discovered difficulties in “gaining Nicholas’ full co-operation” and a “lack of proper respect for their authority and disinclination to accept instructions.” Wait, you’re telling me that the same mind who penned sonic screeds like “Swampland” only a couple years later, detailing running from “my executioners” and “bounty hunters” through the seedy swamps of the imagined American South would have some trouble with authority? Who would have imagined!

List by Nick Cave c. 1978

List by Nick Cave c. 1978

One of my favorite things about Nick is that, like another one of his idols Lou Reed, he’s been fairly consistently touchy throughout his career. Or at least, was before the last couple years have softened him considerably after his son Arthur’s tragic death and the realization of some sort of community of grief with his fans. Even still, there’s moments in his Q&A events in which you can watch his patience get tested to its limits with question after question of incoherently personal blather or worse, queries about his views on blueberry pancakes. It’s why I attend. But before this, Nick had a pretty antagonistic relationship with the audience, as well as others circling around the music industry. He did throw punches at journalists about whom he also wrote the pettiest song imaginable “Scum,” naming them directly (My favorite part? The tidbit about how Matt Snow’s house was “roasting hot. In fact, it was a fucking slum.” Such a distinctive detail. I hate hot apartments too). Even band members didn’t escape his ire as seen in this hysterical list made while in his early band The Boys Next Door, rattling off everything “I am not happy with, within The Boys Next Door.” From “Mick’s guitar/synth playing” to just “the synth as an instrument” and my favorite, “50% of our material,” Nick was, well, not happy, not happy at all. Plucking this from its frame or display case, I would spend my days wondering what the hell Nick intended to include as #10? For me, I’d include the mortifyingly mawkish choice of broken heart-strewn set in The Boys Next Door’s video for “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”

Song lyrics for ‘Wild World’ by Nick Cave, 1982-83. Released on The Bad Seed by The Birthday Party

Song lyrics for ‘Wild World’ by Nick Cave, 1982-83. Released on The Bad Seed by The Birthday Party

Some songs are thoroughly of their specific time and place; others take years for the world to catch up to the landscape contained within the songs. And yet others take nearly 40 years like The Birthday Party’s “Wild World.” Can you hear Nick’s narcotic sing-song, “Hey! It’s a wild world La-la-la-la la-la-la-la! It’s a wild world” without thinking of the current crumbling of our society as we go “forward and forever backward/forever backward forever forward alright.” Nick paints a picture of two against a world on fire with his wild girl holding up his “dishrag body tall.” It’s an image that seems to resonate in a time of pandemics and murder hornets, and is also one to which Nick returns throughout his career, most recently in the smoldering embers of the apocalyptic song” Hollywood” off of Ghosteen. Plus, what song can you think of that includes the line: “strophe and antistrophe”? In addition to my adoration of the lyrics, plus the plodding ominousness of the music itself, I covet this wee stained scrap of paper from which this song came. Can anyone guess what those stains are?

“Mutiny! The Birthday Party” Drawing in blood by Nick Cave, c. 1983

“Mutiny! The Birthday Party” Drawing in blood by Nick Cave, c. 1983

Can you really have a complete collection if it doesn’t include your role model’s blood? I don’t think so.

Box of cassettes owned by Nick Cave, 1982-1985

Box of cassettes. Owned by Nick Cave, 1982-1985

I don’t have a cassette player, but I sure as shit would locate one on eBay or wherever you purchase defunct technology so I could peruse this box of cassettes Nick apparently dragged around on his travels from London to Berlin. The box seems to consist mostly of his own work: The Birthday Party albums, live recordings of both The Bad Seeds and The Birthday Party, something called Nick Cave: The Poet. But also I spy a copy of Elvis’s His Hand in Mine! Elvis’s foray into gospel is my favorite Elvis too, Nick! Imagine listening while dreaming of Nick at his most batshit bluesy in the early to mid-80s traversing down that “Milky White Way”? Lead me, guide me! Even more than the prospect of listening to a copy of Elvis owned by Nick, my curiosity is piqued by some of these other cassette tape inclusions. What could be preserved on “prison”? The possibilities are endless!

Handwritten dictionary of words by Nick Cave, 1984-85

Handwritten dictionary of words by Nick Cave, 1984-85

As with the aforementioned “strophe/antistrophe” line in “Wild World,” Nick has certainly included some more peculiar phrases in his lyrics, revealing his monomaniacal obsession with words. The shouted line, “Prolix! Prolix! There’s nothing that a pair of scissors can’t fix,” in “We Call Upon The Author” off of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! immediately comes to mind. And to be honest, I’ll admit I have some trouble with word retrieval after COVID-19, which is really perfect for a writer. I can just feel the gears trying to crank out a word that never comes. Look, I’m used to frustrated hangover writing, but post-viral brain fog is another thing all together. Luckily, Nick Cave could cover me with this handwritten dictionary, picking out some of the most treasured terms such as “anabaptist” (“advocate for adult baptism”), autogamy (“self-fertilization”), and autochthon (“primitive or original inhabitant”). Some of these words are more useful to our current era than others, namely: anchorite (“recluse”), autarchy (“despotism”) and of course, amuck (“run about in murderous frenzy”). Avaunt!

Barbary Ape, Souvenir of Gibraltar, date unknown, Given to Nick Cave by Martyn Casey

Barbary Ape, Souvenir of Gibraltar, date unknown, Given to Nick Cave by Martyn Casey

Initially, I considered pinching Nick’s Christ statue, which has sat on his beside table for years. Who wouldn’t want to make a ceremonial shrine out of your idol’s devotional object? The absolute apex of unhinged fan worship! Then I caught a glimpse of this gaudy knick-knack and forgot all about homoerotic Jesus, his six-pack, and his coyly drooping loin cloth. Being from Gibraltar, this little barbary ape statuette with its judgmental gaze could sit in as a kitschy gewgaw physical representation of The Bad Seeds’ objectively worst song “Rock of Gibraltar,” which was described by a fan at one of Nick’s Q&A’s as a “dark day for Gibraltar.” Don’t believe me? Beyond its sing-song-y rhyme, which would be perfect for singing while smashed at a pub, witness Nick attempting to rhyme “altar” with “Malta,” which comes out more like Malta-R! Cringe city! Some people might immediately hit skip when this stinker comes up in shuffle, but not me. I love this song, purely because it’s bad. And I covet this tchotchke for precisely the same reason.

Handmade book by Nick Cave, 1987

Handmade book by Nick Cave, 1987

Stranger Than Kindness’ exhibition catalogue is filled primarily with images from Cave’s handmade books and notebooks full of lyrics. I’ll be honest, I’d pilfer them all if I could. But if I absolutely had to pick one under pressure, I’d go with his 1987 handmade book, which has to be the most disturbing of them all. Made around the time of the recording of Your Funeral, My Trial, this handmade book contains the sacred and the profane in equal measure, somehow heightening the perversity through this juxtaposition. The first page features a worn card of Jesus with what appears to be blood splatter on the adjoining page (this was at the height of Nick’s 80s intravenous drug use, as, well, you can tell). This provides a pretty fitting introduction for the whole book of lunacy. Pages upon pages of art historical imagery of Mary and Jesus by Raffael and Bellini transform into pasted cut-out porn with the caption “Your funeral, my trial.” Crude hand-drawn representations of the crucifixion preempt similarly crude drawn pin-ups.

My most cherished pages, though, stand out from this conflation of holy bodies. On one page, in what appears to be crayon, Nick scrawls the notes to “Long Time Man” opposite drawings of roses, which read “Roses are red, violence is too.” Yikes! And if you think that’s scary, check out the subsequent pasted-in curl of hair. I mean, what more could you need in a fetish object!

Three pieces of women’s hair stored in a Sarotti A-G Berlin box, 1985

Three pieces of women’s hair stored in a Sarotti A-G Berlin box, 1985

Speaking of hair of unknown origin, I’d also take this box full of hair for shock value alone. Found in a flea market in Berlin, Nick describes, “The secret story of the three locks of hair became infinitely important and propelled a cascade of ideas that wove their way through my novel And the Ass Saw the Angel and various songs. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.” Just think what inspiration it could provide ME!

‘Kylie’ bag owned by Nick Cave, c. 1992

‘Kylie’ bag owned by Nick Cave, c. 1992

It’s no secret that Nick adores Kylie Minogue, an unlikely bound between country(wo)men, as seen, of course, in their Murder Ballads collaboration “Where The Wild Roses Grow” (nothing like a duet about murdering someone to really hit home your admiration!) and their appearances together both onstage and off, namely in Nick’s pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. However, Nick’s fanatical love for Kylie clearly started before the mid-1990s as seen with this bag, which Nick “rescued” from some stranger’s house after wandering through the streets of Manchester on “this drug that made me like people.” Well, I want to “rescue” it too! I just can’t get it out of my head!

Notebook containing song lyrics for “O’Malley’s Bar” by Nick Cave, 1991-96. Released on Murder Ballads by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, 1996

Notebook containing song lyrics for “O’Malley’s Bar” by Nick Cave, 1991-96. Released on Murder Ballads by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, 1996

Of all the pages upon pages of worked-over lyrics, including some of the most beautiful songs Nick has written, from “Far From Me” to “Mermaids” to “The Spinning Song,” the one that I would nab right up for my collection would be, well, not those. It would be “O’Malley’s Bar” (you’ve seen my collection. It would fit right in). Haven’t you ever fantasized when at your wit’s end, like I dunno, sitting in the sun with a hangover, about killing everyone around you? No? Well, apparently it’s not just me as Nick proves with his relentlessly vicious song “O’Malley’s Bar.” Penned during, what must have been, the hangover from hell (notice the word daiquiri scrawled on some of the pages), “O’Malley’s Bar” is fourteen-and-a-half minutes of dark-humored brutality as a “tall and thin” man of “enviable height” who has “been known to be quite handsome in a certain angle and a certain light” goes into a bar and massacres everyone inside. I mean, some of the death scenes are quite poetic: “And I turned my gun on the bird-like Mr. Brookes, I thought of Saint Francis and his sparrows. And as I shot down the youthful Richardson, it was Sebastian I thought of, and his arrows.” Some are…mmm…not: “Well Jerry Bellows, he hugged his stool, closed his eyes and shrugged and laughed. And with an ashtray big as a fucking really big brick, I split his skull in half.” It’s memorable though! And just think, the original recording of this song was an exhausting seventeen minutes. Here, you can witness some of the lyrics that, for better or for worse, didn’t make it, as well as his idea for the music: “really hard, thin, cheap electric guitar.” I was born to be cheap!

Doodles by Nick Cave, Four Seasons Hotel, 5 and 6 December 2019

Doodles by Nick Cave, Four Seasons Hotel, 5 and 6 December 2019

“Well, Queen Victoria doodled horses, Mark Twain doodled whales, Claude Monet doodled paintbrushes, I doodle naked women. Mostly, I draw them sitting at a desk in hotel rooms on hotel stationary. They are a compulsive habit I have had since my school days and I have thousands of them floating around. They have no artistic merit: rather they are evidence of a kind of ritualistic and habitual thinking, not dissimilar to the act of writing itself,” explains Nick when asked about these deranged doodles. While the catalogue includes some of these depraved drawings themselves, I’d rather have these Polaroids, which give the impression of some sort of crime scene.

Original sick bags from The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave, 2014, published 2015

Original sick bags from The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave, 2014, published 2015

As the title indicates, Nick Cave’s epic poem The Sick Bag Song, which traces inspiration and what he calls, “creative vampirism,” was initially written while on tour on airplane sick bags, an object that somehow feels quaint in our newly agoraphobic existence. I’ve always had a particular love for the New York chapter of The Sick Bag Song, which is why I’d shatter any and every Plexiglas vitrine to take the barf bag (The Barf Bag Song would have a different ring to it, wouldn’t it?). I don’t have my heart set on this sick bag just because it’s where I’ve lived for almost seventeen years. It’s all about his description of several influences from Nina Simone to Roy Orbison to Karen Carpenter and Hank Williams that ends with a vision: “Lou Reed’s face appears on a napkin in a bar in Lower Manhattan.” Who hasn’t seen Lou’s apparition somewhere floating around Downtown? It’s always made me get choked-up, as it did when read just a few years after Lou’s death. And though we can’t yet commit any art-related felonies, we can enjoy it here:

 

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