Music / Role Models

You Said The World’s A Girl And I’m Taking Her Apart: A Tribute To Anita Lane

Anita in the sleeve of “From Her To Eternity” (photo: Jessamy Calkin)

I wanna tell you about a girl…

Ok, I had to. How else to start a tribute to Anita Lane, the enigmatic singer and songwriter with the otherworldly energy of a haunted Victorian doll and a quaalude-soaked childlike voice to match, other than a reference to the opening line of the song “From Her To Eternity,” the whirlwind apex of her occasional collaboration with her then-partner Nick Cave? I can’t think of one.

While both of them may have softened and matured in later years (though not all that much), Anita Lane and Nick Cave, as collaborators and as a couple, were for a period in the early to mid 1980s a sizzling, frazzled, speed-addled vortex of untamed chaotic creative fervor. Like a spider-limbed scarecrow and a baby doll tossed into a dumpster, Nick and Anita cut a strikingly outlaw vision. There’s a reason Lane’s cooingly criminal take on Brigitte Bardot’s sultry Bonnie in fellow Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey’s cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie & Clyde” feels so authentic. Anita and Nick always seemed like if this rock and roll thing didn’t work out, their faces might be plastered on Wanted posters.

Anita Lane and Nick Cave, The Venue, St Kilda (mid-1980s) (Photograph by Peter Milne)

And this maniacal dynamism reached its climax with “From Her To Eternity,” the title track of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ debut 1984 album (also notable as the only one in which she appears as a part of the band lineup). Even nearly forty years and hundreds of songs later, this song remains a psychotic Bad Seeds mainstay and one that hasn’t lost any of its ability to alarm. Because it’s such a standard, guaranteed to be performed at any and every Bad Seeds show, the truly deranged imagery presented in the song can sometimes go overlooked.

But taking a step back, “From Her To Eternity” may be one of the Bad Seeds’ strangest, most fetishistic songs, a deluge of one lonesome night’s tear-soaked infatuated sexual pathos. Bleddyn Butcher may explain it best in his essay “From Doubt to Certainty: The Making of ‘From Her To Eternity’”: “The song is another dramatic monologue, voiced on this occasion by an acrobatic voyeur obsessed with the girl upstairs–so obsessed, it turns out, that he positions himself on his bed to catch her tears in his mouth as they seep through the floor boards.”

With the staccato shout of “Walk and cry! Kneel and cry!” mimicking the similar jolting cacophonous drive of the song, the narrator catches a flood of tears in his mouth before shimmying up to her apartment to “read her diary on her sheets, scrutinizing every little piece of dirt” and then fleeing “outta her nightmare and back into mine.” Unrealized desire turns destructive as the ceiling shakes and the “fixtures turn to serpents and snakes,” transforming desire into something absolutely monstrous, as well as an affliction. Nick sings, “The desire to possess her is a wound,” only to conclude: “But I know that to possess her is, therefore, not to desire her.”

“From Her To Eternity” is certainly one of the most unsettlingly psycho–and I mean PSYCHO–sexual songs in the Bad Seeds’ canon. And I’d argue this has to do with the influence of Anita on the song’s writing. Though Nick Cave’s lyrics throughout his career, fixate on the sometimes violent clash between lust and love, as well as voyeurism (Listen to “Watching Alice” on 1988’s Tender Prey), “From Her To Eternity” aligns much more with Anita’s lyrical interests of abject male desire and sometimes willful submissive female objecthood as heard on her solo albums Dirty Pearl and Sex O’Clock. Let’s face it, Nick is often much more sentimental.

Nick has never hid Anita’s influence on the song–or on his songwriting in general. As he observes in a quote from Butcher’s essay: “I wrote ‘From Her To Eternity’ sitting up in bed with Anita in our flat in Brixton. I don’t know how much of this particular song she actually wrote, but there wasn’t a line that wasn’t run past her and that she didn’t reinterpret or embellish. As far as I can remember Anita was the only person I collaborated with lyrically and she had a different sort of brain–a female brain–and her ideas were subtler, more mysterious, more light-footed, and more nuanced. These lessons I learned about lyric writing–the strange, abstracted atmospherics–were all from Anita.”

Yet despite Nick becoming more and more critically lauded, especially recently with the last trilogy of Bad Seeds albums–Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree, and Ghosteen, as well as his Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ surprise road trip Carnage, all of which have pushed the boundaries of “the strange, abstracted atmospherics” that Lane taught him long ago, her work and influence on not only Nick’s bands The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, but those in their Melbourne to London to Berlin circle have largely gone under-appreciated. Until now, of course, as publications have sought to fast-track their understanding of this bizarre ethereal yet sneering chanteuse after her death on April 28 at 61.

Sadly, I had planned on writing Anita into our canon of role models before now, after rekindling my love of her music thanks to Eleanor Philpot’s essay “Unearthing A Pearl: Praising The Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane” in The Quietus. The essay is an extended dive into Anita’s music, in particular her depiction of, as Philpot describes, “how female fragility plays out in romantic relationships…” Though there are a few glaring factual errors that rabid stans have to attempt to ignore (I mean, “Dead John”? Does The Quietus have editors?!), the essay places Anita within a lineage of contemporary artists who also portray female fragility such as our own blessed mother Lana Del Rey.

Cover of Anita Lane’s Dirty Sings

And goddamn, she’s right. In many ways, Anita’s music is proto-Lana (I demand a Lana cover of “The World’s A Girl”!). Take Anita’s own recollection of her conception of her first EP Dirty Sings, released in 1988: “I kind of wanted to glorify insecurity rather than being confident and successful. I wanted some kind of equality between the emotions that are raised up for people to look at, to show other emotions that are equally as valid as confidence and control. I felt that I was going to die and I wanted to leave something behind, as a suicide note I guess.” Glorifying insecurity? Other emotions equally as valid as confidence and control? That surely sounds like our girl’s recent question for the culture!

Though Philpot’s essay was responsible for my return to Anita, I do disagree on a couple points she makes in the essay, namely that Anita’s niche appeal is due to her being ahead of her time. Philpot does thoughtfully show how Lane’s particular brand of feminine fragility was out of step in the girl power 90s. She writes, “Like Morissette, Madonna and Apple her music was a middle finger to the patriarchy, but unlike them, Lane refused to deny her stereotypical feminine qualities in doing so, instead exploring how her capacity to experience sex and love from a female viewpoint led to richer experiences.” However, are we really all that much more ready today to embrace that kind of vulnerability either? Surely the constant backlash Lana gets about glamorizing abuse shows that we probably still wouldn’t be ready for Anita. Maybe Anita’s time hasn’t quite come. Lana’s either.

So why is it that Anita is still relatively unknown, except for a few of us? It might be easiest to shout about misogyny and say that Nick eclipsed her, but that doesn’t quite give Anita the agency or power she wielded. She seemed to want to exist on the margins, floating wraith-like through other people’s songs and only leaving two albums behind. As Nick Cave wrote in his Red Hand Files tribute to Anita, “She thought the best ideas were the ones that never saw the light of day.”

With as much as she appeared in others’ music with her unmistakable slurred and lisping voice, she’s earned the unwanted title of muse. Much of her posthumous tributes have tangled with whether she was a muse, not a muse, or more than a muse. And even the tributes to Anita that say she was more than a muse don’t necessarily delve into, you know, why, preferring to provide a surface-level overview naming different tracks she was on by other artists like Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Haut, Gudrun Gut, Barry Adamson, and Mick Harvey’s Serge Gainsbourg tribute albums Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants. Though her features are key in understanding just how much influence she had, of course, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, we want to do more than that for our role model since, as Nick writes, “She was the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far.”

Born in Melbourne, much of Anita’s early years are only knowable through when she met certain key figures. She was a classmate and friend of future Boy Next Door and The Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard at Prahan College of Advanced Education. It was Rowland that would introduce Anita and Nick in 1977 at a party when she was 17 and he was 19. Apparently at this party, according to Ian Johnston’s Nick Cave biography Bad Seed, “she leaned over and said she loved him.” Get it, Anita! As she told Johnston, “That was the springboard: Rebelliousness. You just jump into the arms of whatever comes along and so we did.”

School days-Rowland S Howard, Nick Cave, Ollie Olsen, Megan Bannister, Anita Lane, Bronwyn Adams, Nauru House, Melbourne, 1977 (Photo: Peter Milne/Courtesy: Peter Milne and M. 33)

Like Nick, Anita was enrolled in art school for a very brief period of time. The only catch was, according to Johnston, “She was actually too young to attend the course and had lied about her age to gain admission. She would be thrown off the course three months after meeting Cave, because of her virtually nonexistent record.” Whoops. Nick probably describes it best in his Red Hand Files tribute: “Walked into the most prestigious art college in Australia–on a whim–and talked her way into being given a place there. Bought an easel, some butcher’s paper, some crayons, put on a dress, did her hair and never went back in.”

Hero.

What did she drop out for? Of course, it was punk rock. She told Johnston, “I guess everyone came to life out of punk rock, all that feeling that was going around at that time. It was funny for us because we weren’t poor, working class or very upset. What were we? I don’t know. I never cared what anyone was doing or what the fashion was. The tastes I had then happened to be in fashion and that’s probably the case with Nick too. We were accidentally in time.”

Though Anita shows up in pictures through the early Boys Next Door years (and like the Boys Next Door, she would also record a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” with Bad Seeds member Barry Adamson later in her career), her presence doesn’t become preserved on a record until her and Nick’s collaboration on The Birthday Party’s “A Dead Song” on their 1981 album Prayers on Fire. Nick recalled, “Her lyrics lie around our room on pieces of paper accumulating coffee rings until they become grubby and get thrown away…but “A Dead Song”–that has been immortalized.” Beginning with “This is true!” “A Dead Song,” like many Birthday Party songs, is a baffling flurry of cut-up imagery “with words like blood and soldier and mother” that is punctuated by Nick’s call “Hit it! And make it a dead one!” The song concludes with the repetition of a nihilistic mantra: “This is the end. This, this really is the living end. This really is the living end. Like really, this is the end and it’s still living.”

In addition to “A Dead Song,” Anita also co-wrote Junkyard’s “Kiss Me Black” and “Dead Joe,” the only nearly unlistenable song that both heralds “Welcome to the car smash” and Christmas (“It’s Christmas time Joe!”). For the best understanding of “Dead Joe,” watch Nick’s dry and punishing reading of the lyrics–yes, including all the oh-oh-oh-oh’s:

Interestingly, Nick recently referred to Anita as “the brains behind The Birthday Party.” With a reputation for violence and concerts spiraling completely out of control, the understanding of The Birthday Party’s wild world being conceived of by a woman is a disruption. And one that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Mark Fisher has analyzed The Birthday Party, in particular songs like “Zoo Music Girl” and “Release The Bats,” in terms of “what it is like to be the afflicted subject of male sexuality,” but this abject and ridiculous portrayal of male sexuality was pushed forward because of the presence of a woman, Anita.

And that’s made clear on the only song Anita recorded with The Birthday Party “The Fullness of His Coming,” which was released on her EP Dirty Sings and again on 1993’s Dirty Pearl. A plodding sludge of a song that starts with Anita’s giggle, I shouldn’t need to explain why “The Fullness of His Coming” fits into a portrayal of abject sexuality. The song narrates the earth-shattering sounds of “His boots are snapping twigs. He’s got big boots on” while also veering off into pure demented hallucinations (“I lifted up God’s dress. Punched him and got in.”). With Anita’s deadpan delivery juxtaposed with Nick’s appearance repeating the song’s title, “It’s as if,” as Philpot writes in “Unearthing A Pearl,” “while she might be getting off on the idea of the things her partner might do to her later, she doesn’t see the carelessness and destructiveness typical of a certain aggressive male sexuality impressive at all, finding the need to conquer and destroy so needless that it is laughable.”

It’s hard not to hear Anita’s heralding call to big boots and not think of Nick, perpetually in pointed leather boots in that era. Anita’s redheaded presence too flits through The Birthday Party and early Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds songs. There’s “The Captain’s forearm like bunched-up rope with ANITA wriggling free on a skull n’ dagger” in “Cabin Fever,” “Well, I had a gal she was so sweet. Red dress and long red hair hanging down. And heaven just ain’t heaven without that little girl hanging around” in “A Box For Black Paul,” and perhaps most disturbingly “I stuck a six-inch gold blade in the head of a girl. Sharks fin slices, sugar-bed slices that pretty redhead” on “6” Gold Blade.” As Anita reflects on “6” Gold Blade,” “To other people it may have been really shocking, but I liked the idea of how shocking it was.”

Now, look. I’m not going to pretend that this creative relationship between Nick and Anita was perfect. As Jessamy Calkin says in Bad Seed, “I will always think of Nick and Anita as soulmates…they had a real understanding that I’d never really seen in other relationships of people that age. She also wrote a lot of lyrics but creatively there was a bit of friction between them too.” Neither was their personal relationship. You can still faintly see the scar on Nick’s face where Anita jabbed a vegetable knife and there is reference in Bad Seed to Anita crashing through a glass coffee table during a row. There is usually some sort of toll in these highly charged, highly drug fueled relationships.

Though Nick and Anita broke up somewhere in the 1980s (it’s complicated), they remained in each other’s orbit for a number of years in the 1990s. Anita would return to collaborate with the Bad Seeds several times–the latest being their 1996 album Murder Ballads for the group singalong of “Death Is Not The End” and my favorite moralizing end of “The Kindness of Strangers” after Mary Bellows was found cuffed to the bed with a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head (“So mothers keep your girls at home. Don’t let them journey out alone. Tell them this world is full of danger. And to shun the company of strangers”). Nick also contributed to Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey’s Serge Gainsbourg tribute albums with an apt rendition of “I Love You…Nor Do I” with Anita, as well as recorded a version of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “Bedazzled” with Anita as the detached, apathetic object of affection.

However, the most notable might be the song “Stranger Than Kindness” on 1986’s Your Funeral…My Trial, which she co-wrote with Blixa Bargeld. Unnervingly off-kilter, “Stranger Than Kindness” describes a nightmarish loveless and careless affair that ends with the pleading refrain “I’m a stranger. I’m a stranger to kindness.” Like “The Fullness of His Coming,” “Stranger Than Kindness” portrays in vicious detail the dual absurdity and tragedy of a pathetic sexual encounter:

“You caress yourself
And grind my soft cold bones below
Your map of desire
Burned in your flesh
Even a fool can come”

Ouch.

Again like Anita’s driving force in The Birthday Party’s masculine aggression, “Stranger Than Kindness” confuses gendered dynamics. While Anita (and Blixa) wrote the song, Nick sings it. And at least to my ears, it seems as if the narrator is a woman or at the very least, a passive partner (not frequently the role of protagonists in Nick Cave songs of that era who typically take on the roles of aggressor, dominator, or antagonist. For instance, the song “Hard On For Love” on the same album).

This becomes even more complicated once the subject of the song becomes clearer. In Rob Sheffield’s tribute to Anita in Rolling Stone, he quotes Nick’s observation about the song before its performance at a 2018 Q&A: “Anita Lane wrote these lyrics about a sexual encounter that’s not going so well. I have this terrible feeling they were written about me.” Yikes. Sheffield continues, “That’s the power of Anita Lane–the Nick Cave collaborator that even Nick Cave was afraid of.” Despite this, like “From Her To Eternity,” “Stranger Than Kindness” is frequently found on Bad Seeds’ setlists and is also the title of the current exhibition on Nick’s career in Copenhagen’s The Black Diamond.

Anita’s psychosexual interests really came into their own on her 1993 solo album Dirty Pearl. The album opens with a bleary-eyed, hair of the dog “Jesus Almost Got Me,” which includes perhaps the best description of a hangover I’ve ever heard (“And my hangover’s becoming a thorny crown”) and also comes with an correspondingly decadent music video. With an appropriate level of Jesus for a Nick Cave collaborator, “Jesus Almost Got Me” is a blasé gesture to the savior after a failed relationship:

“Love is cruel
Love is truly absurd
Jesus almost got me
I don’t know how many prayers he overheard”

After “Jesus Almost Got Me,” the album takes listeners back in time, from an ode to a Charles Manson-like “Groovy Guru” all the way to the aforementioned “The Fullness of His Coming.” Organized in reverse chronological order, the album collects a variety of Anita’s one-off songs and features such as Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Blume” and Die Haut’s “Subterranean World (How Long…)”, a cute but unstable duet in which she and Neubauten and the Bad Seeds’ Blixa Bargeld try to figure out how long they’ve known each other before deciding they don’t, in fact, know each other at all. There are also bits and pieces of collaborations with the Bad Seeds cohort, including the haunting “A Prison In the Desert” from Ghosts… of the Civil Dead soundtrack.

While a hodgepodge of songs and collaborations, Dirty Pearl retains a singular thematic vision: the emotionally fraught highs and mostly lows of a woman who has chosen the passive role in romantic relationships and sex, from the yearning “If I Should Die” to Neubauten’s delicate and siren-like “Blume” in which Anita takes on the names of different flowers: “For you, I am a chrysanthemum. Supernova, urgent star…”Even her whispering and disturbingly needy cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” contributes with her brittle call: “Whenever blue tear drops are falling. And my emotional stability is leaving me. There is something I can do. I can get on the telephone and call you up baby.”

The song that perhaps best showcases Anita’s ongoing fixation with women’s submissive role is “The World’s A Girl” in which Anita’ addresses a lover who she thought was “inspired but you were just possessed.” Describing her subjecthood being dismantled through a relationship, Anita purrs:

“You said the world’s a girl
And I’m taking her apart
And when I cried you said
Beggar girl, laugh
When my protests went wild
You brushed me aside
Like the finger of a child”

The song concludes with Anita moving on, but not fully. As she sings, “Your face is nearly gone. But your words hold me still. Silence to my will.” While she is out of this relationship, she’s still, in some ways, captive.  

It’s worth pointing out that Anita’s depiction of female sexuality is, in many ways, the bizarro world Lydia Lunch, who moved in similar post-punk circles for a time. Whereas Lydia is all dominant female rage and desire, coupled with a dash of misandry, Anita was female passivity that is no less dripping with disdain and contempt. Counter to Lydia Lunch’s chainsmoking growl, Anita’s intoxicating and intoxicated baby voice presents a jolt with the darkness of her lyrics, innocence coupled with a misanthropic snarl. Yet both women articulate with frightening accuracy the failures of men and women’s unfortunate lot in having to endure them.

With Mick Harvey as producer, Anita’s second and final album–2001’s Sex O’Clock–traded Dirty Pearl’s narcotic post-punk masochism for a funkier and sleazier disco sound. Yet rather than 1970s disco’s coke-fueled confidence, Anita’s disco includes songs like “I Hate Myself” (“I can’t look in the mirror because I hate what I see. It’s still the same face. But I, I know it ain’t me”). Admittedly, I didn’t appreciate Sex O’ Clock, when I first heard it. In fact, it took me until just recently to appreciate its place within her creative output. Some of this has to do with certain songs like “Do That Thing” that are, I have to say it, objectively bad. Others like “Do The Karmasutra” are clearly meant as intentional cheeky jokes with lyrics like “I want to unlock my inner child. And say grace with Linda Lovelace. I want to dive for pearls in my underwear in the underworld.”

Yet other songs like “I Love You, I Am No More” transgressively depict the self-shattering of a complete surrender to sex as she ignores the rest of the world. So much so that she hilariously muses throughout the song: “And I don’t know if the kids have eaten.” Let’s be honest, just a mother singing this (and Anita had kids) is a blatant and delicious subversion of societal expectations of motherhood and sexuality. But as the song goes on, she even ignores apocalyptic destruction: “I wouldn’t know if the stars were bleeding. If the trees were weeping. If the moon was sleeping. If it was peace time or nuclear war.”

After Sex O’Clock, Anita disappeared. At least from creating music. According to various obits, she raised her family, moving back to Australia after living in Sicily and Morocco. I don’t know much more than that, even though I recall quite a number of discussions with other fanatics at various Bad Seeds shows about her whereabouts that came to little or no conclusion.

Throughout her career, Anita was a bit of a mysterious creature, impossible to pin down in a recording studio or elsewhere. Her ability to remain just out of our grasp was one of her greatest gifts, leaving us with questions like Nick asked in Red Hand Files: “How could something so luminous carry so much darkness?” This drives us to return the rare gems she left in her wake for answers such as her final recorded track on Sex O’Clock, her mournful version of the Italian anti-fascist protest song “Bella Ciao.”

Ciao bella Anita.

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