I am the KING!
Slicing through a grotesque staccato sludge of clashing drums, atonal piercing guitars, and obscene throbbing bass, that’s the howl that kicked off one of the most berserk televised performances, at least that I’ve ever witnessed. Clashing against a Bauhaus (the design not the band)-inspired stage set for more respectable New Wave groups on the 1982 German television show Götterdämmerung, short-lived yet resolutely notorious band The Birthday Party appears, both sonically and aesthetically, as if they slid out of the gutter, shook off the rats, and staggered in front of the cameras. Drummer Phill Calvert can be pointed to as the most presentable with a cigarette dangling from his lips while banging on the drums, sometimes with the palm of his hand. The usual eye of the hurricane, guitarist (and soon-to-be drummer) Mick Harvey looks pale and wan, with a perpetual eyebrow arched, casting a glance at the chaos around him. Resembling the most romantically moribund of Egon Schiele’s figures, singular guitarist Rowland Howard herks-and-jerks forward at random, twitching and tumbling over the instrument strapped to his chest. Rowland’s manipulation of his instrument has nothing on bassist Tracy Pew’s outright molestation of his. Dressed in an alarming combination of leather pants, a ruffled pirate shirt, and a black cowboy hat, Tracy thrusts, gyrates, and twists his hips lewdly, all while making direct eye contact with the lens of the camera and by proxy, the viewers at home. At points, Tracy bends backward, falling prone onto the drum riser while continuing to hump the air. And then there’s Nick Cave who lurches around the set like a reanimated corpse, all Black Crow King hair, fingers full of rings, and tight trousers. Nick is a vision of decadence, downing a drink, expelling great plumes of smoke, and rolling his eyes back as emphasis while spitting out the gnarled vocals.
SCRATCH SCRAPE SCRATCH SCRAPE…
Taken as one, the band seems as if they’ve been possessed by a particularly horny demonic entity. The Birthday Party are monstrous, both beautiful and hideous to the eye. By intention, of course. As Rowland Howard says in an interview included in the new documentary on the band, Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party, “It was just great to have that feeling that you were capable of upsetting people so much.” A worthy goal, and one continually achieved, particularly in their volatile live shows as seen in this performance of “Junkyard.” Notably, “Junkyard” led the German viewing public to revolt with such vehemence that the show never aired the second song “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can.” What a loss for humanity!
I begin with an extended description of this Birthday Party performance because I can vividly remember watching it for the first time on YouTube while getting deep into Nick Cave’s discography in college. Even now, seeing it on the big screen at last week’s DCTV Firehouse cinema screening of Mutiny in Heaven, I still feel the same way: such overwhelming awe that I sense part of my brain chemistry changing (I experience the same deep brain stimulation while watching Pink Flamingos). Why? It’s partially the band’s winning combination of abjection and unrestrained confrontation wielded as weapons, along with a hefty dash of absurdity (slightly) brightening up all that misanthropy (At one point in this performance, Nick sidles up to Tracy and you see his mask slip—a small grin before he continues to fling himself around the stage.) The Birthday Party is also, I’d argue, the pinnacle of the trash aesthetic in music. Sure, The Cramps nail gleeful “Garbageman” John Waters-esque rockabilly B-movie sleaze, but their sound was still tolerable and even, catchy. They were nowhere near as aurally slimy and repulsive as The Birthday Party, who are the sonic equivalent of a dumpster projecting its innards onto a dirty sidewalk. Straight out the garbage dump, indeed.
What this means is Mutiny in Heaven director Ian White had his work cut out for him trying to shove all this wild, unfettered energy, all this punishing charm, all this sadistic audience interaction, whether launching themselves like projectiles or a further terroristic act—refusing the rabid demands for chaos by turning their backs and playing the dirge-ier side of their catalogue, into a neat 90-something minute documentary. Did he succeed? Well, sort of, with a massive flaw that I found myself stewing about after blinking back into criticality the morning after the fanatical dopamine surge of the screening. Because I’m not exactly unbiased here. Plop me in front of a screen playing footage of Nick Cave telling an audience to stop grabbing at him with their “sticky fingers” or warning that the front row is not for the faint of heart (it still isn’t 40-some years later) and I’m content. I’m not alone in this, a fact that clearly White knows and is banking on for the film’s success. Mutiny in Heaven is unquestionably a documentary for the already initiated. Not that the uninitiated would be all that interested. You can’t flick on the Hieronymus Bosch-like “Nick the Stripper” music video on a casual Netflix and chill night.
As an obsession-satiating film, Mutiny in Heaven delivers a treasure trove of Birthday Party goodies: photographs, artwork, copious amounts of live footage, and a plethora of interviews with the band. Rather than dredging up the same ole talking heads (only Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch, and a few others share their memories in voiceover), the documentary uses these primary materials to trace the band’s trajectory, from the art school days of early pimple-faced Boys Next Door, along with Young Charlatan Rowland Howard, to the band’s rise in Melbourne’s St Kilda punk scene (an era that is rushed through in the film but can be discovered in exhausting detail in Mark Mordue’s book Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave) to their flight to London in 1980 where somewhere over international waters The Boys Next Door became The Birthday Party and never looked back. Well, until 1983 in Berlin when it all fell apart in a swampland of speedballs and personal animosity, a period captured in its own short documentary Mutiny! The Last Birthday Party, some of which also appears in White’s doc.
As thrilled as I was to watch live performances on the big screen rather than squinting at grainy videos on YouTube or sadly looking at my DVD copy of Pleasure Heads Must Burn with nothing to play it on, the glue that tenuously holds all these disparate parts together is the interviews. Not to say that the interviews, culled from an expansive chronology of recordings and previous documentaries, don’t also present a baffling mixed-up timeline with sudden appearances of band members at different ages and with different looks like Nick Cave’s Grinderman/Dig Lazarus Dig!!!-era mustache. Some of these interviews seem to be tapes preserved from the era of The Birthday Party or shortly thereafter, including the band’s sardonic description of their unintentional Goth anthem “Release the Bats” as a “pop song.” Through these interviews, a larger narrative emerges about the band: how the utter wretchedness of the music they produced derived directly from the utter wretchedness of their lives after they left the relative comfort of Australia, albeit with rampant heroin use, for, what they thought would be, the land of possibility in London. What they found, however, was a scene that had diminished and a grim country with the Iron Lady at the helm (whose influence on downtrodden London isn’t mentioned but probably should be). “Rowland took London personally,” Nick remembers. For a good reason as he got malnutrition after just a few months in the country. The other band members didn’t fare much better, living in cramped apartments and squats with little food or money. That seething disappointment and anger seeped from the songs like an infected wound. You can’t listen to the Kafkaesque “King Ink” without feeling like the “sand and soot and dust and dirt” comes from a place of experience in the grey-skied grime of Thatcher’s London. Yet, it would be unfair to chalk up all The Birthday Party’s romantic nihilism to contempt: there is also a concurrent daring and uninhibited drive to push their (prison of) sound as far as it would go. It’s exactly this rule-breaking creative freedom, which a few band members remark on in the film, that still makes The Birthday Party a heroic touchstone of relentless experimentation decades on.
The interviews also provide juicy little details, from memories of the late great Tracy Pew (who died in 1986) and his library full of trash detective novels, porn, and The Odyssey, to unlabeled drug-fueled flights that ended with Nick passing out on a metal luggage search table. Mick Harvey and Rowland Howard, in particular, stand out as witty storytellers. Both got a laugh from the audience during my screening, including Rowland’s account of his initial initiation…I mean…meeting with Cave post-Nick tearing a sink out of a bathroom at a party like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Shoving the skeletal guitarist against a wall, Nick snarled, “Are you a poof or a punk?” On a later night, Nick was quite apologetic, buying Rowland a drink and inviting him to another party where, Rowland dryly quips while chuckling, he proceeded to do the same thing yet again. This shambolic scenario, along with many others, was brought to life with lanky animation by Reinhard Kleist, taken from his graphic novel Nick Cave: Mercy On Me, a flourish I could have done without but seems to be the standard doc formula these days.
As with the animation, Mutiny in Heaven, despite its subjects, is a fairly routine documentary. It’s a bit of a mess, sure (though I’d argue no documentary about The Birthday Party couldn’t be), but it certainly does not shatter any cinematic molds. Granted, when the film attempts to get more experimental is also when it becomes the most annoying, namely a few indulgent psychedelic interludes that thankfully did not expand to the entire film like the trying Moonage Daydream. Beyond the structure of the film itself, its content also isn’t exactly out of the ordinary for most music documentaries: drugs, youthful hijinks, deterioration of friendships, etc. The film doesn’t exactly tread new territory in terms of the band either: segments about Nick’s obsession with the Bible, his father preaching literature, details from a double-header of disastrous concerts in New York, and a photographic series of singular beauty with an arc of piss from an audience member perfectly hitting Tracy Pew that also plays a role in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days on Earth. And here lies the risk of playing to an audience of notoriously fixated fans: we’ve already seen, read, and heard everything out there, which means there is added pressure to come up with something fresh or add a new contemporary context.
Or give credit where credit is due. Fans also know what is missing, which leads me to my main problem with the film: Where the fuck were Anita Lane or Genevieve McGuckin?! Sure, these two women technically appear in the film and I mean, appear in the most basic sense. They exist merely in two briefly shown black-and-white photographs of the unnamed “girlfriends” that followed the band to London. Additionally, Anita’s uncredited portrait of Tracy Pew flashes among a slideshow of Cave’s portraits of Rowland and himself in a montage about the band’s creativity. All of these drawings were on display in the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party section of Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition. Thankfully properly credited might I add, which is how I was able to sift through my own photos to confirm that, yes, the jaundiced rendering of Tracy was, in fact, by Anita.
Before a defensive dude comments that the documentary was about the band, not Nick and Rowland’s girlfriends, both Anita and Genevieve co-wrote Birthday Party songs! “Ho-Ho” and “Capers” for Genevieve; “Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black,” and “A Dead Song” for Anita. Co-writing songs isn’t exactly a minor detail. Given this, what is the reason for this blatant and, at least for me, enraging glossing over of two women who are not only artists and musicians in their own right but direct influences and collaborators with the band? If I want to give Ian White some grace, there is a possibility that neither wanted to participate in the documentary. Even still, that doesn’t mean you breeze over them entirely! Especially since both Anita and Genevieve play critical roles in a range of projects after the dissolution of the band from The Bad Seeds to These Immortal Souls to Anita’s collaborations with Mick Harvey (whose executive producer credit in Mutiny in Heaven makes her absence that much odder).
No matter what White’s intention—or lack thereof—it’s a strange gaping absence given the work many are trying to do to give attention to not only underappreciated women musicians but Anita in particular—ok, at least a few of us with Anita—after her death in 2021. In addition to seeing the documentary this past week, as well as a string of Nick Cave solo shows with Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, I also attended a book signing with Nick and his Faith, Hope and Carnage co-author Sean O’Hagan at The Strand. Shakily, I thanked them both for writing quite a bit about Anita in the book and what the enigmatic artist and singer had been doing after going silent post-Sex O’Clock. “Are you a fan?” Nick asked. “Yes,” I said, “I don’t think she gets enough recognition.” “She didn’t get ANY recognition,” he quickly responded, subsequently answering my prying questions about her doll art and her distaste for being photographed or getting any attention whatsoever. He’s right, of course, which makes Mutiny in Heaven all the more of a missed opportunity. While giving Anita and Genevieve their due might require some extra legwork, it’s worth it in order to make a film that features the proper story, as well as, even better, one that is mercifully not dripping with the tired rock bro misogyny that has plagued music for decades. The last thing anyone needs is another documentary—or book, or article, or whatever—that heaps praise upon those male genius rebels while relegating women to unremarkable decoration sitting at the side of a stage, in a rundown flat in Earls Court, or otherwise orbiting the men’s endless talent.