Art / Books / Music

Man or Myth?: “Stranger Than Kindness” Is a Portrait of Nick Cave through His Many Obsessions and Influences

Installation view of Nick Cave’s office, created in collaboration with Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, from Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition (all photos by moi)

In the nebulous period of 1983 and 1984 between the drug-fueled dissolution of the trash can-driving, six-inch-gold-blade-slicing, zoo-music-girl-lusting, junkyard royalty The Birthday Party and the official designation of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave played a smattering of clubs under a few different titles. There was Nick Cave and the Cavemen, which is funny but not very imaginative. The other banner under which he performed was Nick Cave, Man or Myth?, a name that feels wholly appropriate for a musician, writer, and recent devil ceramicist that has always precariously balanced between these two poles.

This question—man or myth?—began early with the local St Kilda popularity of The Boys Next Door, but this mythology would only grow as the band shuffled out of Oz to bleak London, changing their name to The Birthday Party. The Birthday Party was billed as “the most violent band in the world,” an unwanted moniker that would become its own self-fulfilling prophecy as audience members came ready to bash each other and the band—or just piss on cowboy hat-adorned bassist Tracy Pew. Whether The Birthday Party or The Bad Seeds, Nick wasn’t exactly ever a non-participant in self-mythology, from “Nick the Stripper” to “Junkyard King” to “Black Crow King” to taking on murderous characters like “Stagger Lee” or the tall, thin, and handsome in a certain angle and a certain light mass shooter in “O’Malley’s Bar.” Of course, it’s not all myth-making. There’s a continual push and pull in Nick’s creative output between revealing himself and escaping into fiction or myth. Think of the transition between the roots-inspired homicidal camp of Murder Ballads to the real romance and heartbreak of The Boatman’s Call.

Though decades have passed since these prior references, Nick still seems to be tangling with that man or myth dilemma. This is seen most vividly in a trinity of documentaries focused on Nick released in the past decade. The first—2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard—is a half-fictionalized half-documentary that traces a pseudo-day in Nick’s life, from visiting a psychiatrist to driving around with his beloved and possibly imagined Kylie Minogue. Inherent in the film’s central artifice is an interrogation of becoming myth and being unable to take off the mask that has been precisely constructed. Nick opens the film with the narration: “At the end of the 20th century, I ceased to be a human being.”

A peek into one of Nick’s West Berlin bedrooms

Yet this self-constructed mythology reveals itself as temporary in the face of a shattering and unimaginable loss. “What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that we just change from one day to the next?” Nick narrates in a subsequent 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling, directed by Andrew Dominik. Filmed around the recording of the album Skeleton Tree, One More Time With Feeling inadvertently captured Nick and the band in the immediate crushing wake of his 15-year-old son Arthur’s accidental death in 2015. In the film, which is sensitive, beautiful, and something I don’t know if I could ever watch again, Nick talks, haltingly, about having no idea of his own identity or decision-making anymore (even the choice to be on camera at that moment). He says, “We change from the known person to an unknown person…”

After Arthur’s death, as well as One More Time With Feeling and Skeleton Tree, there was a marked shift in Nick’s relationship to creation, as well as his ties to his collaborators, family, and his fans—a kind of generosity and prioritizing of connection. This is evidenced in his Conversations with… events and Red Hand Files newsletter. This open exchange with fans, which he has described as “terrifying,” is shown in the most recent documentary, 2022’s This Much I Know To Be True, another Andrew Dominik-directed half-concert film, half-documentary that focuses mainly on his ongoing partnership with Warren Ellis yet also explores life after grief (sadly, I saw the film a day after the news broke about the death of another of Nick’s sons, Jethro). In particular, the film illuminates a shift in Nick’s self-definition. Whereas he previously would have described himself as a musician and a writer, he now purposefully tries to see himself as a father, a husband, a friend, and a citizen who writes and makes music.

…The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, The Literature of the American South, Barry Gifford’s Wild At Heart

Installation view of “Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition”

I start with this (prolonged, exhausting) discussion of these three films because the expansive exhibition Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition in its current iteration at Montreal’s Galerie de la Maison du Festival traces a parallel journey in its staggering and surprisingly emotional installation. First, there are the decades of single-minded, sometimes substance-fueled, furiously manic creation, most dynamically portrayed by several immersive and interactive period rooms recreating Nick’s humble and unhinged Gothic painting, books, and human hair-strewn bedrooms in West Berlin and his (semi-)fictional cluttered office from 20,000 Days on Earth. Next, the rupture, as represented by a chapel-like room hidden behind a door (which is placed next to a large photo of Nick and his sons Earl and Arthur), marked “I married my wife on the day of the eclipse” from No More Shall We Part‘s “The Sorrowful Wife.” Inside, on display is solely a wedding photo of Nick and his wife Susie. Finally, the exhibition ends with an exploration of newfound gratitude and openness, perhaps most profoundly in a final spoken word video that features Nick reading a text written specifically for the show, entitled “Shattered History,” that details…well…this precise trajectory: the presumed identity, the shattering, the realization of communal suffering and some sort of grace. “Together,” Nick concludes, “we are reborn.”

Of course, this is its own mythology.

Exhibitions of this type often set out to either reveal the person behind the myth or conversely, further perpetuate it. Stranger Than Kindness, however, does something notably different. The show doesn’t just feature the creative detritus left after hundreds of songs, two novels, an epic poem, and several films—the handwritten lyric sheets, poems on airplane sick bags, the plethora of journals, the notes, the “Mutiny in Heaven” blood drawing, the Weather diaries, the photos, the sketches of videos, films, and album covers—all of which are, naturally, included and begging to be stolen (a (second) list of my most coveted items is forthcoming, mainly so I don’t just fixate on them here). But even more affectingly, it’s a portrait of Nick through his collaborators, influences, inspirations, and obsessions.

…Butler’s Lives of Saints, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Freud’s On Sexuality…

Lyrics to “Stranger Than Kindness”

Noticeably, other than a few live performances of The Birthday Party, the exhibition doesn’t include much of what we’ve come to expect from these kinds of shows about a singular music figure such as David Bowie Is or Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars: a look back at major moments through music videos, extensive live footage, canonical photographs, or listening stations of key songs. The songs are mainly heard as ghostly snippets of “Jubilee Street” or “Red Right Hand” weaving their way through soundscapes created by Cave and Warren Ellis specifically for the show. This alternative curatorial approach may have to do with Nick’s reticence to do the show entirely, explaining: “‘When the Royal Danish Library contacted me with the idea of a ‘Nick Cave Exhibition’ I was reluctant to get involved. I am not nostalgic by nature and I had no time for a trip down memory lane.”

Perhaps because of this discomfort, Stranger Than Kindness spends a striking amount of space on other people. This becomes immediately clear upon encountering the first object in the show, from which the exhibition gets its title: a typed lyric sheet for the song “Stranger Than Kindness,” which appears on The Bad Seeds’ 1986 album, Your Funeral…My Trial. Though Nick is known as a compulsive songwriter, this song was not written by Nick himself, but enigmatic vacant-eyed yet unendingly subversive Victorian doll, Anita Lane. In fact, it likely is a quite unflattering portrait of the deterioration of their romantic relationship. Even still, “of all his songs, ‘Stranger Than Kindness’ remains Cave’s favourite,” details a booklet provided with the exhibition.

This isn’t just a quick perfunctory nod to Lane, though. Lane holds a prominent place in the exhibition, a curatorial decision by Royal Danish Library’s Christina Back, Arts Centre Melbourne’s Janine Barrand, and Cave himself, who is listed as a curator, that meant a whole lot to me as someone who adored the late Anita. Even though her regular stint in Nick’s creative life ended towards the mid-1980s (though her breathy voice would reappear on Murder Ballads), Lane is rightfully recognized in the show as a driving force for The Birthday Party and the early years of The Bad Seeds.

One of the many Anita Lane-related vitrines

Take, for instance, The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party-centered room, which feels like a descent into hell decked out in the carnivalesque red-and-white striped tent from the “Nick the Stripper” video with a soundscape of Nick hollering “Insect!”; “I am the king”; or just that initial ear-piercing, blood-curdling shriek from the beginning of “Mutiny in Heaven.” Here copious squat black vitrines contain letters between Nick and Anita (“I miss Anita at an Indian curry house”), their collaborative lyrics for songs like The Birthday Party’s deranged “Dead Joe,” Polaroids of the couple, and perhaps most interestingly, drawings by Anita of not only Nick, but Einstürzende Neubauten and former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and The Birthday Party’s Tracy Pew, who is given his own set of vitrines that feature his cowboy hat and pocket knife. Anita’s art also appears in other rooms, such as her monumental portrait of Boys Next Door-era Nick, entitled Horn of Plenty. This large artwork is hung in the corner of Nick’s hoarder office installation, bringing Anita’s continued influence into the more recent past.

…Beckett’s Trilogy, Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories, George Bataille’s Story of the Eye…

It should be said that Anita is not the only artist in the show. There are drawings from notorious art school failure Nick too: sketches of band members like his Schiele-esque depiction of The Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard and his own red-haired tribute to Anita. All of these drawings, often quickly scrawled on crumpled paper, give the sense that these young musicians and artists were completely enamored and inspired by one another, even if The Birthday Party would soon collapse with some enmity, particularly between Rowland and Nick.

Nick’s portrait of Rowland S. Howard

Interaction between band members also drives one of the most transfixing parts of the exhibition—a central multi-monitor video installation by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard that traces the history of The Bad Seeds as told by its members, sans Nick. And I mean all the band members, both current and former, from perhaps the loudest departure, founding member Mick Harvey who left in 2009, to the late Conway Savage who died in 2018 and whose presence onstage is much missed. Detailing the progression of the band from its formation in 1984 to presumably around 2020, every band member appears on their own monitor that flickers on and off as their time with the band begins and ends (and sometimes, like for Barry Adamson begins again). With multiple bandmates on monitors at the same time, viewers can witness each reacting to the others’ stories. Only Anita emerges alone at the very beginning of the installation with the rest of the monitors turned off and her wrecked baby voice echoing over a screen full of white noise to giggle over her and Nick’s boundless creative energy together. Towards the end of the film, Kid Congo Powers, who left the band around 1990, describes being a part of The Bad Seeds, even as a former member, as operating as a kind of “family.” This is reflected quite clearly by the film as bygones seem to be (pretty much) bygones as members age in front of the camera.

…The Complete Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Jung’s Aspects of the Feminine…

The holy text

Band members and other collaborators, such as Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey (who appears in several love-drunk overtures), are not the only ones getting prime real estate in Stranger Than Kindness. Nick’s copious influences take up even more space. This cavalcade of influences begins almost immediately in an almost satirically somber spot-lit installation that centers on Nick’s childhood and teenage years. Interspersed with photos of his parents, cranky letters from a headmaster about his “lack of proper respect for their authority and a disinclination to accept instructions,” and a postcard from his church choir’s Christmas concert are framed flatscreens playing clips of Leonard Cohen crooning “Avalanche” and the intro from The Johnny Cash Show, as well as a prized copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, which Nick’s English instructor father famously read to him as a child, proselytizing the heights of literature.

Idol worshipping is not merely shelved away as immature boyhood growing pains. Thank Christ. Take, for example, the show’s final room of objects—the Cave-deemed “Hall of Gratitude.” Among a photo of Nick and Susie, a slideshow of family photos, and a hilariously schmaltzy flower-filled animation of Nick and his (red) right-hand man Warren Ellis that reminded me of the now defunct Blingees, there is a bust of preeminent influence Elvis, John Berryman reading “Dream Song 14” (“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so…”), Philip Larkin’s “The Mower” (“…we should be kind/While there is still time), and *gasp* Nina Simone’s hardened chewing gum plunked reverentially on a marble plinth. This blessed gum, which Simone unceremoniously jabbed on a piano before her transcendent performance at the Cave-curated 1999 Meltdown Festival was rescued and treasured for decades by Warren Ellis. (For more on the saga of the gum, read Ellis’s ode Nina Simone’s Gum). Certain inspirations even come full circle. The Hall of Gratitude presents a simple yet heart-wrenching email sent by Nick’s filth elder Leonard Cohen (who is one reason the exhibition is in Montreal) after Arthur’s death, which just reads simply: “I am with you, brother.”

The Holy Gum

…JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon…

But even more than these framed hallowed objects, much of Nick’s influences appear in the form of hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of books, all from his own library. There are at least seven floor-to-ceiling-sized bookshelves. For the books that could not fit on the shelves, they stand in great towering stacks next to a piano and a drum kit, sometimes topped with a silly animal mask and other times backed with paintings of saints ripped from art historical texts.

That’s not all. Books are strewn across the entire exhibition. They are flung on the unmade bed in the recreation of Nick’s Kreuzberg hovel where he would spiral out in monomaniacal fixation when penning his first novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. Books are plopped on numerous display cases, on desks, on musical instruments, below side tables, on a tiny refrigerator that contains nothing but a spent lemon, and on the floor. In short, they are everywhere and make me feel better about my own apartment, which frankly doesn’t look that different.

Stacks and stacks of books in Nick’s office

Of course, a library can say a lot about a person. One of my favorite pastimes when I’m in someone’s home is staring at (and perhaps judging) their book collection. This was no different. Nick’s library in itself could be a portrait of the man. On one hand, the library exposes his career-long fixations—religion and spirituality, poetry, the blues, Southern Gothic, literary classics, and sex, including one of my favorite finds, The Happy Hooker’s Xaviera Hollander’s Xaviera’s Supersex, which shares “her personal techniques for total lovemaking.” Do tell! On the other hand, the library widens at least my understanding of Nick’s fascinations with certain surprise inclusions like the plethora of psychoanalytical texts from Freud and Jung, a splash of comedy history with Lenny Bruce’s How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, and even transcendental meditation (which I do know he practices) from David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. And there are also even bigger shocks. I mean…Garbage Pail Kids?

…The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, Robert Reisner’s Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker…

Taken together, the library lays bare a ravenous, insatiable curiosity and passion for the written word that has spanned his entire life and sustained him, no matter his current state. It also portrays someone comfortable with divulging his obsessions. As Nick is quoted in a wall text, “You never stray far from your obsessions.” True to his word, the chaotic hoard of books is joined by squirreled away photos of Nina Simone and Elvis, Louis Wain’s cat illustrations, ceramic Jesus and Virgin Mary statues, prayer cards, a Polly Borland photograph of Monica Lewinsky, and a box of human hair from a flea market in Berlin. Not only are these objects notable as Nick’s preoccupations, but they also sometimes provide humble sparks of inspiration. As he explains in a text related to the coveted flea market hair discovery in 1985: “Small, seemingly insignificant pieces of information become the driving motivation for the final work. An insect trapped within a paperweight becomes the impetus for ‘Girl in Amber”; a misreading of the old jazz standard ‘Basin Street Blues’ triggers ‘Higgs Boson Blues’; a Catholic prayer card suggests the voyeuristic ‘Watching Alice’; a hedge full of sparrows becomes the motivating force behind ‘And No More Shall We Part.’ So it was with the box of hair I found in a flea market in berlin…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.”

Clean your room!

Nick and the curatorial team take this revelatory impulse one step farther, however. Viewers are not merely required to gaze at the books from a respectable distance like most museums. Instead, they are encouraged to paw through them. Not only did this set my brain aflame as a fellow literary fetishist, but it also spoke to a unique curatorial commitment to bringing the audience into the experience itself, something mostly unheard of in a largely archival exhibition. This, of course, marks just one of the differences between curating an exhibition of this sort with the collaboration of the artist. Nick had the authority to say: Fuck it–let them touch it.

…Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, E.O. James’s Sacrifice and Sacrament…

The library wasn’t the only part of the exhibition meant for viewers’ greasy mits either. Beds and desk chairs were to be sat on. Ladders climbed to Nick’s 1980s bedroom squalor. Musical instruments played, including, annoyingly, a drum kit, which one intrepid soul was bashing on while I was at the show. A handful of typewriters were on offer for anyone to type out a message. Drawers primed to be rifled through. In particular, one chest of drawers revealed a number of secret items, such as a framed sketch of Nick’s delightfully perverse doodles The Hyatt Girls, which appear elsewhere in the show as wallpaper in a small room with a Grinderman take on Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés. Also squirreled away in the drawers were an early rendition of Ghosteen’s epic concluding track “Hollywood” written all the way back in 2013 and a copy of Johnny Cash’s obituary paired with one of Nick’s journals, which contained a pasted page of Leviticus alongside a reflection on Cash’s legacy in Nick’s recognizable chicken-scratch handwriting that I may or may not have caressed.

Johnny Cash journal with my greasy paw prints (apologies for my dumb head shadow)

I’ll admit I’m a huge sap when it comes to Nick Cave (pretty much one of the only times in life I’m a huge sap), but even still, the cumulative four hours I spent across two visits at Stranger Than Kindness was an incredibly moving experience. So much so that I was tearing up while sitting on the toilet in the gallery’s public bathroom after my second visit to the exhibition. Yes, really.

Part of the reason is that I kept reflecting on Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s frequent reference to h/er own filth elder Brion Gysin’s assertion: “true wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands.” A motivating thought that drove Breyer P-Orridge to cast h/er hand for viewers to touch even posthumously. In some ways, the interactive elements of Stranger Than Kindness derive from a similar impulse that is inextricably tied with the more recent communal strain that runs through Nick’s work. Stranger Than Kindness isn’t some distanced academic consideration of an impressive creative life lived, but it’s a deeply personal and touching, quite literally, sharing between an artist and his audience of his trajectory, the people around him, and most of all his copious influences and enduring inspirations, one that felt imbued with generosity and love.

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