It occurs to me that I have been somewhat neglectful in this blog series, which I admit I first started with the intention of focusing on horror movie scenes that had made an impact on me and influenced my own work in some way. As readers may have noticed, however, the series sort of got away from that narrow focus pretty quickly, as I delved into literature as well, and after a while I figured that my horror influences were far too broad to confine to just film. Matter of fact, I feel as though books and other things have ultimately had more impact on my writing than movies have. And in my desire to keep to a theme, I feel like I’ve been giving short shrift to what is probably my main influence in this area: namely, music.
As befits a horror writer, I delved into the gothic subculture at a fairly young age, when it was still something of an underground phenomenon in the early to mid 1980s. So well did its musical and aesthetic parameters fit my personality that I stayed with it far past the point when many abandoned it, and even now, at the ripe old age of 42, I find myself still continually entranced with the scene, and very active in my little central Florida pocket of it. I’m not going to lie and say that the fashion wasn’t a large draw for me, because it always has been, but then as now, my primary love is for the music, which has been a constant and steadfast companion of mine for more than three decades.
I’m an admirer of many dark sounds, from the bleakness of post-punk to the syncopated angst of synthpop, but I’d like to expound at length, if I may, about a singular figure in music who has had more influence on my work than probably anyone else, whose music and words have filtered so far into my psyche that they now seem an integral component of my very cells. He speaks to me and for me, and has conjured more extreme emotions in me than almost anyone else in my life, even though I have never met him. This near-mythical figure is none other than Nick Cave.
I have briefly mentioned him on this blog before (when I insisted that someone adapt his insane novel And the Ass Saw the Angel to film), but so intense is my admiration, so insidious is his influence, and so steeped in horror is much of his work, that I felt he deserved his own blog entry. I was inspired to write it now because this past weekend, I was finally able to view the outstanding quasi-documentary about the legendary artist, 20,000 Days On Earth. I watched that spectacular thing twice straight through, fascinated anew by the man’s keen insight into his own creative process and aghast at his staggering, prolific genius. At one point in the documentary, he says that everyone has an innate desire to be someone else, to be transported and transformed into something greater than oneself. He achieves this through performance, his father achieved it through his intense love of literature, and in turn, I achieve it through listening to his music. Nick Cave is not simply a singer, songwriter, novelist, screenwriter, and actor; he is a goddamn force of nature, one that is terrible and beautiful and all-encompassing.
I first stumbled across Cave’s work in 1987 or thereabouts, after seeing the video for “The Mercy Seat” on MTV’s sadly defunct alternative music show, “120 Minutes.” The song, an epic, terrifying slab of gorgeous noise told from the point of view of a convicted murderer contemplating God’s judgment as he waits to die in the electric chair, made an instant impression, as did Cave himself: a tall, gaunt, crowlike figure with a shock of black hair and an intensity that blazed out through the television screen like a demon supernova. Who the fuck WAS this? I had sort of heard of him, I suppose, though at the time I was wrapped up more in the glam/deathrock end of the musical spectrum (Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend) and had largely neglected the more noisy/no wave/experimental corners of the alt landscape. Nick changed all that in seven minutes of enthralling hell.
Over the next couple of years, I used whatever money I could scrape together and purchased his entire back catalog, including all the albums by his previous band, The Birthday Party, whose feral lunacy served as a seductive counterpoint to the more introspective direction of his later work. As I burrowed further into the world Nick had created — lurid, profane, and ugly, yet strangely transcendental for all of that — his vision began to spill over into my own. My first published short story, a runner-up in my local newspaper’s Halloween story contest, was based on his 1986 song “Jack’s Shadow,” and the first novella I ever completed, Bully Bones, was named after the Birthday Party song, and contained a few strategic Cave name-checks.
As the years went on, my relationship to his music grew ever more complex. While I was initially disappointed by the more subdued Cave who emerged on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, as I aged and matured I began to realize that the intensity of his early days was still very much present; only the method of attack had changed. Whereas before he wore his passion and ferocity on his sleeve, shrieking to the heavens like a possessed madman, he had now found a quieter outlet to exorcise his devils, and the resulting songs were indescribably beautiful, as every nuance of his extraordinary voice conveyed oceans of sadness, anger, loss, and yes, even redemption.
And his words. Oh god, his beautiful words. His phrases are like a form of magic, by turns profound and ridiculous, lofty and vulgar, sly and forthright, astonishingly heartfelt and blackly comic. He is a poet in the very truest sense of the word, a master not only on par with musical stalwarts like Dylan, Cohen, and Reed, but also with literary giants like Faulkner, Joyce, and Yeats. His words are passion and perfection.
I feel as though Nick Cave occupies a unique place in musical history, a true “rock star” in an industry that doesn’t really produce them anymore. He somehow manages to bare his soul for everyone to see, but still maintains a sort of godlike mystique, as though the truth of him can be better approached through the construction of his own artifice. His arrogant, too-cool swagger is delightfully undercut by his arch self-mockery, making him nearly immune to accusations of excessive self-regard. His universally recognized brilliance allows him to get away with things that no other musician I can imagine would get away with, and he does it with a characteristic, unerring aura of giving-no-fucks. Yet he clearly gives ALL the fucks, about his work, about his legacy, about how he is perceived. It’s a tremendous balancing act, and Cave accomplishes it with seemingly no effort at all, with a suave flick of his be-ringed hand and an unflappable smooth-down of his sharp black suit. He is like an alchemist of old, a hellfire preacher and a broken supplicant, a silver-tongued angel and a gutter-mouthed devil, all in one chimerical package.
I’ve written so many words here to try to convey my feelings about the man and his music (“Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!”), but I fear that I have still fallen far short, and for that I apologize, not only to him, but to the entire universe that conspired to create him. In sum, if there can be such a thing as a creative muse, suffice it to say that I consider him mine, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you, Nick, and long may you wave. Goddess out.