“Once there was a song. The song yearned to be sung”
–Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “The Spinning Song”
What makes art relevant, particularly during a global pandemic as complex as COVID-19? What does it look like to speak to a moment when creating seems useless and inadequate? How can culture have an impact in the face of watching hundreds of thousands die or become chronically ill, being cooped up in our homes unable to see loved ones, or being–or living in fear of being–forced to work without proper protections against the virus? Or maybe you’re one of the people grinding on a Mister Softee truck in a hoard of other maskless revelers. If so, good for you–you’re much braver than I am.
But for those of us still largely sequestered at home, at least from my vantage point, art has almost entirely failed to rise to the occasion. In the visual art world, for example, the responses to COVID-19 are near universally marked by a navel-gazing obsession with the remoteness of self-isolation and quarantine, preferring portraits taken over Zoom and numerous press release-ready “I made this work while in quarantine” artist statements to any sort of emotionally resonant engagement with the overwhelming sense of loss that marks this moment. Not only do I find this type of work boring, I deeply resent it. Oh, you were lonely? *sad face* Boo hoo! I thought I was going to die! And I still feel horrible much of the time!
In fact, the art world has done such a piss poor job of addressing the copious crises in which we’re living that I’ve pretty much given up on it all together, preferring the escapism of witnessing mom jeans-sporting housewives hurling themselves down the cheese aisle in old episodes of Supermarket Sweep. But that’s a Filthy Dreams essay for another day.
However, it’s important to remember that the failure of most doesn’t mean the failure of all. An artist can confront this moment with devastating empathy and graceful simplicity as seen in the recently screened film Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace. I know, I know–I’m a mega-stan so nobody will take my word for it. But, Nick’s filmed performance, alone at the piano without the backing of The Bad Seeds, was one of the only performances or artworks that I’ve seen in 2020 that seemed as if it came close to engaging with the emotional weight of living during–and with–COVID-19.
Streamed for one-night only this past Thursday, with three separate screenings in different time zones, including one hilariously bungled, continually buffering Australian version which I’m sure struck fear into the hearts of all involved, the film attempted to reproduce a communal experience without an audience of concert- or theater-goers. Unlike Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ most recent concert film Distant Sky, which showcased the cathartic Skeleton Tree tour, though, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace stripped away everything from a typical Nick Cave performance. No band (not even Warren Ellis, Nick’s (red) right-hand man, soulmate, and buddy). No fifteen-minute long rendition of the brutally homicidal “Stagger Lee” with intoxicated fan stage invasions. No off-beat clapping straight through “The Weeping Song.” No jabbing at people with long-fingered hands. No choking roadies with microphone cords. No kicking audience members in the face with pointed shoes. No standing on audience members’ shoulders. No audience members at all.
Instead, Idiot Prayer features a performer laid bare: Nick at the piano surrounded by papers, notebooks, and journals. This would be a vulnerable position for any performer, I assume, but especially for Nick whose performances, at least in recent years, feature a significant amount of interaction with the audience. This sense of extreme and exaggerated solitude is only heightened by the cavernous space of the empty Alexandra Palace in London. Without the hoards of concertgoers, the Alexandra Palace, otherwise known as the People’s Palace, feels both haunting and haunted. This can be seen in the opening of the film, which follows Nick as he wanders through the Palace with a voiceover of a poetic recitation of Ghosteen’s “The Spinning Song.” As Nick passes grand murals of peacocks and golden staircases, the Alexandra Palace becomes this otherworldly space, heightened by the spoken woven narrative of the mythology of Elvis. Finally reaching the piano, he starts in with the first song, the eponymous “Idiot Prayer,” one of my favorites and an underrated track from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.
And it’s basically that for the next 90-minutes. From “Stranger Than Kindness” and “Sad Waters” off of 1986’s Your Funeral…My Trial to a new and cheerily titled song “Euthanasia,” Nick makes his way through a set list culled from over thirty years of his career. Naturally, there are the Nick Cave standards such as “The Mercy Seat,” “Into My Arms,” and “The Ship Song,” but he also performs some lesser played songs such as “Brompton Oratory,” “He Wants You,” and “Nobody’s Baby Now,” a song which I could swear I heard him say he never wanted to play again, but here we are. Unsurprisingly given the timing of its release during COVID-19 and after Ghosteen, as well as the sheer amount of songs taken from the ultimate breakup album, The Boatman’s Call, Idiot Prayer is about as melancholy as it gets. However, there are lighter moments such as the psychedelic invocations of Grinderman’s love song “Palaces of Montezuma,” the hallucinatory event horizon of “Higgs Boson Blues,” and the transformatively ecstatic “Jubilee Street.”
While unwaveringly stark, the film isn’t boring, which frankly it really could have been. Someone tinkering at a piano for 90-minutes on film, only interrupted by title cards for every song, isn’t exactly the most riveting visual imaginable and yet, it wasn’t excruciatingly repetitive. Part of this is due to the mesmerizingly gorgeous cinematography by Robbie Ryan, who also worked on hysterical camp lesbian love triangle classic, The Favourite, who encircles Nick’s piano with his camera, providing close-ups of Nick’s ornate rings and the mounting piles of songs beneath his feet. Lending a church-like atmosphere to the West Room of the Alexandra Palace, Ryan surrounds Nick with an alternating golden and deep purple and blue lights, only darkening during certain songs like Grinderman’s “Man in the Moon.”
Many of the arrangements for piano will be familiar for anyone–like me–who has attended Nick’s Conversations with… Q&A events, including his unsettling rendition of “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry,” which converts the normally raucous song into the apocalyptic lullaby that it was originally intended to be. Yet Idiot Prayer presents a juxtaposition with those performances too, which begin and end with conversations with the audience, unsolicited song requests, drunkenly shouted “I LOVE YOU NICK!” or awkward way-too-personal anecdotes. Here, Nick never speaks. He only chuckles sweetly after he fucks up a chord at the end of “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” and when getting a little too into the end of “He Wants You.” Significantly, the only noise other than the performance itself is the shuffling of paper Nick tosses a spent song down below his feet or flips through an old journal.
Reflecting on the source of these piano arrangements on his website, Nick observes, “I loved playing deconstructed versions of my songs at these shows, distilling them to their essential forms—with an emphasis on the delivery of the words. I felt I was rediscovering the songs all over again…” Me too, Nick! With everything else taken away, the only thing left in this performance is an unwavering focus on, as Nick describes in “Night Raid,” his “little songs.” Previously, Nick has explained that after his son Arthur’s death, certain songs have taken on different meaning for both him and his wife Susie such as “Into My Arms.” In a similar way, though unquestionably less personally tragic (at least for me), watching Nick perform within the context of COVID-19 allowed certain lyrics to stand out in new ways. Take, for example, the end of “Brompton Oratory”: “Outside I sit on the stone steps/With nothing much to do/Forlorn and exhausted baby/ By the absence of you.” A song that was written decades earlier can finally finds its perfect place and time now.
As with “Brompton Oratory,” Idiot Prayer’s simplicity made me realize just how much of Nick’s catalogue is about longing–for a lost loved, one, for a lover, for God (whatever that means to Nick at the moment), for transcendence. From “Idiot Prayer”’s continual refrain, “We will meet again,” to songs “Waiting for You” and “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” to “Euthanasia”’s epic wandering (“I look for you underneath the damp earth/I look to you in the night sky/ I look to you underneath the thorn bush/ I look for you in the old city/ And in looking for you I lost myself…”), Nick’s music was made for periods of alienation.
In the last few albums, particularly Ghosteen, there is a reaching toward transcendence, belief, wonder, and beauty both against reason and in the face of inconceivable loss. While grounded in its austerity, Idiot Prayer also features this kind of seeking for momentary transport. Whether from a son to a late father (“Man in the Moon”), father to a late son (“the little blue eyed boy” in “Girl in Amber” or the “little one” in “Galleon Ship”), or a man to a lost lover (name any song off The Boatman’s Call), Idiot Prayer is an otherworldly call into the abyss during one of our darkest times, or as Nick has described “a prayer into the void.”
And I know, some of you committed atheists will recoil at the thought of prayer, but for Nick, according to his answer to a fan in his Red Hand Files, prayer doesn’t actually have anything to do with God: “The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return — it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of pretence and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.” Of course, in this case, the prayer is that of an “idiot.” He’s aware of its futility.
But not only is this all we can do in a moment of such flux and danger, but perhaps creation and the catharsis and community that it can bring is all we have (if done right, of course). When speaking about performance, Nick often references it as a moment of near spiritual transformation (perhaps most powerfully when addressing Elvis’ late Vegas stations of the cross or his beloved Nina Simone’s howling rage to the heavens). Answering a fan’s question about Elvis, Nick explains, “Through the boundless power of music, a performer transcends his or her own wretchedness by performing a kind of public exorcism…” This exorcism is what Nick achieved with Idiot Prayer.
Watching Idiot Prayer alone in my pajamas (yes, I know some people got dressed up as if going to a show, but that’s not me) was a profound experience that both heightened my awareness of our collective isolation and what remains. On one hand, the film exposes exactly what we’ve lost, namely the collective experience of concerts. I had planned on seeing Nick three times this fall, all of which have been canceled, so now I’m left on my couch wholly aware of my aloneness rather than being crushed up in between a bunch of other rabid fanatics.
And yet, there was a sense of Nick voicing all of our experiences of loss, isolation, and grief. As he sings during the final song “Galleon Ship,” “For we are not alone it seems/ So many riders in the sky/The winds of longing in their sails/ Searching for the other side.” The most recent years of Nick Cave’s career have been marked by what I’ve previously called generosity, a realization in his own grief of the universality of grief. And this has amounted to a newfound openness both in his work and with his fans (the latter sometimes to my dismay). Idiot Prayer is no exception–he’s trying to still find ways to connect, to empathize, to articulate these shared experiences. And in so doing, he brought those of us watching with him.
In “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” Nick sings: “Out of sorrow entire worlds have been built/Out of longing great wonders have been willed.” And it seems that through Idiot Prayer, he–for a short-lived moment, one in which he left as quickly as he came–built a world out of sorrow and longing that we, for 90-minutes, could inhabit alone, together.