The man has been dubbed the Godfather of Goth, but Goth music isn’t his style. It’s kind of ironic considering his look – a tall, dark, intense figure whose presence would make you believe that he exists in another realm of gloomy darkness. But his hellish image and lyrics aren’t entirely unjustified. Over the decades, Cave has absorbed a lot of pain, both self-inflicted and unforeseen.
The Australian singer, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer, and occasional actor, who’s best known for being the frontman of hit band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, has not just one but several storm clouds over his head. Discovering some of the darkest ones can help give us a better understanding of who Nick Cave really is.
Not every musician has a blog. In fact, most don’t. Nick Cave, however, does, and he uses The Red Hand Files to open up about all kinds of things about his personal life. It’s become an outlet for him – a place to share his political views and favorite love songs and interact directly with his fans. Most of his fans probably aren’t reading his posts, but those who do get to know him on a much deeper level.
For instance, in one particular post, he offered a better picture of his inner world, both in the love and music departments. For those who don’t know, Cave used to date a musician named PJ Harvey in the mid – ‘90s.
Anyone who saw the video for their duet, Henry Lee, saw their obvious chemistry. Harvey happened to have a radical effect on Cave. Well, the way she dumped him did. After getting multiple requests from people to hear about his split from Harvey, he wrote about it in his blog. Cave and Harvey were in a short-lived relationship in the mid – ‘90s when he was working on his album, The Boatman’s Call.
He recalled sitting on the floor of his Notting Hill apartment when he received a call from “Polly.” Her message was simple and clear: “It’s just over.” Cave also recalled that he was “so surprised I almost dropped my syringe,” wrote Cave. The split resulted from a number of factors, including his drug use and what he described as his “understanding of the concept of monogamy.”
Sure, he was hurt, but the breakup proved to be a powerful songwriting inspiration, and it actually helped him finish the album he was working on. “The breakup filled me with a lunatic energy that gave me the courage to write songs about commonplace human experiences (like broken hearts) openly, boldly, and with meaning.”
Up until that phone call, he “steered clear of” stuff like that. He felt the need to conceal his personal life in character stories. How and when Harvey left him instilled in him a “growth spurt,” as he calls it. And it pushed him in a direction and style of songwriting that he’s hung on to ever since.
Nick Cave – the man who said, “I have to spend hours talking to f***ing idiots like you” – is the musician journalists hate to interview. He also happens to be the kind of artist that people absolutely love, at least partly because of his shameless language. Whatever side you’re on, it might make you switch sides after reading about his life.
At the beginning of 2017, Nick Cave was talking about grief and how there’s “nothing good about it whatsoever.” He also said that it’s like a “f***ing disease… a contagion that not only affects you but everybody around you.” To be even more descriptive, he said it “comes up and sort of punches you in the back of the head.”
For Cave, grief, illness, and fatigue “feed off each other in a kind of feeding frenzy.” So, what’s all this grief about? Well, 18 months before that interview, his 15-year-old son Arthur fell off a cliff on the south coast of England.
It was where the Cave family had been living since 2002, with his wife Susie and his twin sons, Arthur and Earl. (His two other sons, Jethro and Luke, who are in their mid-20s, are from previous relationships and live elsewhere). After the tragic incident, Cave buried himself – his grief – in his work, partly due to “some sort of bizarre responsibility” to those around him.
Cave also admitted that he really didn’t have any other option. All he knew was work, and he kept on keeping on. “I think I knew, fundamentally, that if I lay down, I would never get up again.” And so, in those post-death months, he and his band, the Bad Seeds, completed a new and melancholy album called Skeleton Tree.
As they embarked on a tour, Cave didn’t know what to expect. And what happened took him aback. As he explained, the audience was “hugely helpful.” Cave always had a “one-way kind of experience” as a performer, with a “sort of combativeness.”
Cave came from the school of frontmen, where the lead singer is in attack mode. Now, on his first tour since the death of his son, he said something different was happening with the audience – a “dynamic, emotional exchange” that he called beautifully. “Maybe this is what it’s like to be in Coldplay.”
He thought he would return home from the tour and get sick. But the opposite happened – he said it was the best thing he could do. And then he added, with dry humor, “That’s my advice if anything terrible ever happens to you: Form a band and go on tour.”
This current, dark yet enlightened Nick Cave story replaced an earlier version – one that started out in a small Australian town. Cave was born in 1957 in Warracknabeal in the Australian state of Victoria. His mother was a librarian, and his father was an English literature teacher.
His father read him the first chapter of Lolita when Cave was young because he wanted to show him how wonderful the words were. The family moved to a small town called Wangaratta – a place Cave “hated” for its small-town attitude. He started rebelling and “getting into trouble.”
The 12-year-old’s parents felt the need to send him to a boarding school in Melbourne, and it was there that Cave’s artsy nature and disinterest in competitive sports turned him into an outcast. But he wasn’t completely alone.
He met a few like-minded kids who formed the group Boys Next Door. Cave and his friends were dubbed “the school poofters,” as he recalls, and there were rumors swirling around that they were homosexuals. According to one story, the group of boys once walked the school hallways carrying bags filled with bricks. Their makeshift weapons were a threat to anyone who insulted them.
Then again, that might just be a rumor. Cave doesn’t care what people think. Once, a journalist asked him directly if the “handbag boys” story is true, and Cave replied dryly: “Oh, you’re only interested in the truth rather than a good, entertaining article.”
The teenaged Cave was always in competition with his father. That is until his father, Colin, died suddenly in a car accident when Cave was 21. Colin Cave was said to have been a serious person who appreciated culture and beauty, which came to be at odds with his son’s perception that all beauty is “corrupted and destructive.”
Their aggressive relationship was never resolved. But Cave did what he knew best: He put his angst into his music. But Cave admits that he’s still profoundly upset by the incident. He’s been known to ask journalists not to ask about the subject at all – to “just Google it” instead.
This might have something to do with where Cave was at the time of his father’s accident. The truth is that Cave was in jail at the time, thanks to a burglary charge. His mother came to bail him out at the police station. After his father’s death, Cave’s life went through a series of major changes.
His art school studies came to an end, for one. And his school group transformed into The Birthday Party. By 1980, they were in London, making part punk, part Stooges, part weirdness. During their 1980-1983 stretch in London, The Birthday Party’s violent style of music made them a divisive act.
They were both embraced and rejected. The rejection wasn’t so far-fetched, considering that the band took to insulting the audience. This, in combination with Cave’s fondness of illegal substances, was clearly not the best way to make friends in British art-rock circles.
The Birthday Party broke up in 1983, and expectations were low for Cave. It’s hard to imagine that a man who did a duet with Kylie Minogue, who wrote the theme song for Peaky Blinders, and who’s been covered by artists like Johnny Cash and Snoop Dogg has ever been seen as anything but talented.
The truth is that there was once a time when no one thought Nick Cave would amount to anything. When The Birthday Party broke up, none of his peers expected the singer to continue. His reputation was as low as it could go.
According to one reporter, the consensus at the time was that he was “a vaguely psychotic drunken f****d-up drug addict, deceiving himself with vain delusions of glory.” That’s gotta hurt to hear. Those were the days when Cave earned himself a terrible reputation, especially for journalists.
Cave is famously suspicious of journalists. He once told five journalists in Greece that rock criticism is “a dog’s job.” The way Cave responded to journalists was as if they were a necessary evil. One of his worst experiences came in 1988 when a journalist named Jack Barron conducted an interview with him.
Barron’s interview happened to cut deeper than Cave intended. The Guardian reported that at the time of the interview, the Bad Seeds frontman was exhausted by a crazy year that involved editing his debut novel, “And the Ass Saw an Angel.”
He had also just released his King Ink literary collection, got involved in two different movies, and worked his day job during the Tender Prey album cycle. Oh, and he also had his heroin habit to maintain. Put it all together, and you have a recipe for disaster just waiting to happen.
Barron had followed the Bad Seeds around to document their day-to-day life for a period of time. He conducted his first interview with Cave in a hotel room at 3 a.m. Despite Cave being a “journalist’s nightmare,” Barron managed to get him to talk about his drug habit.
At that point, Cave’s addiction was an open but practically unreported secret at the time. Cave soon regretted opening up to Barron. He tried to force a deal where he would give a second, more calculated interview about the subject. But on one condition…
Cave wanted to conduct his second interview on the condition that Barron would keep the sensitive material from the first, careless interview under wraps. Barron agreed, and the interview that followed turned out to be an extremely aggressive affair.
It ended with an enraged and clearly fatigued Cave trying to physically beat Barron up and destroy the tapes. It comes as no surprise that Barron went ahead and reported on the hostile interview. His unflattering article about Cave started with the title: “Nick Cave: ‘I have to spend hours talking to f***ing idiots like you.'”
GQ’s Chris Heath is another journalist who knows the wrath of Nick Cave. He knows that Cave happens to hate those like him and considers them to be a “ridiculous distraction to be tolerated,” as he put it. After all, he interviewed Cave twice, 25 years apart.
When Heath first interviewed Cave in Greece in the ‘90s, Cave was irritated by all of Heath’s notetaking, and he eventually started dictating to him what to write down: “…and I looked into his face and saw a world of true sadness that, being a mere journalist, I don’t have the power to express.” After a whole rant, he said coldly, “There you go, mate. Wrote the f***ing thing for you. Go home now.”
Cave’s closest and longest musical collaborator is Warren Ellis. The two have worked together for many years and on many projects, including the score of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The director of the film, Andrew Dominik, asked Cave if they could shoot a film of the Bad Seeds making an album – the one that was made following his son’s death.
The film was called One More Time With Feeling, and while it does document the album’s creation, it’s also an intimate portrayal of grief and how tragedy changes everything. When Cave saw the film for the first time, he was horrified and pissed off.
He doesn’t like to reveal his vulnerable side, chalking it up to “an old-school Australian thing, you know, a queasiness around public displays of emotion.” He was also concerned that it “would do a terrible disservice” to his son. “That it would appear exploitative.”
In the end, he came to see how beautiful the film was and how it actually gave his absent son a voice. What’s interesting with the songs on Skeleton Tree is that the songs that everyone thought were written after the death of his son were, in fact, created before Arthur’s death.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of too spooky to think about it, really,” Warren Ellis said. “You think about stuff like that, I’m not sure it does you any good.” Cave doesn’t like to read into that kind of stuff, but he does acknowledge it. One song, I Need You, which sounds like a lonely howl of anguish, was actually the final song he and Ellis recorded before Arthur’s death.
One More Time With Feeling never directly addresses what happened with Arthur, though. If someone is watching without knowing about the tragic incident, it seems as those on-screen are reeling in the wake of some unspecified trauma. In fact, 77 minutes pass before Arthur’s name is spoken.
There’s a reason for that. Critics who saw the film and know the truth feel as though the obvious connection between Cave’s life and his son’s death has been buried or sidestepped. The New York Times wrote…
“Even after the son’s name is mentioned, the drug-related circumstances of his death are not. Nor is the fact that Mr. Cave was once addicted to heroin.” Variety was a little more explicit in their review of the movie: “We never learn how Arthur died: High on an overly hefty dose of LSD… he reportedly ‘freaked out’ before falling off a cliff…”
Cave reacted to those reviews, saying, “Most of the time, Susie and I try to stay clear-eyed about the whole thing, that it was a terrible, senseless, tragic accident that could happen to any high-spirited, curious young man.” And a curious young man was he.
On the very afternoon that Arthur died, he and a friend met at a windmill to take LSD for the first time. After debating whether or not to go through with it, they did, and the trip was bad. The two separated, and, at one point, Arthur texted another friend: “Where am I?” He was later seen walking alone along the coastline in nearby traffic. People witnessed him staggering close to the edge of the cliff, only to disappear from sight.
Cave is one of the most unusual stage performers you’ll ever see (and maybe you already have). Those who have will know that he tends to perform for the 50 or so fans closest to him – the ones who reach at him with their arms.
Cave admitted that the reason he does so is a lot duller than you might think. The truth is his eyesight isn’t so good. Any detail beyond the first few rows is a bit blurry. Still, there’s “an energy I’m getting out of the people up front,” he explained.
Believe it or not, Nick Cave was into religious art. He once gave a British radio lecture in the mid-‘90s called “The Flesh Made Word,” where he explained his interest in religious art at art school. What started out as a way to irritate his teachers became something deeper.
He delved into the Old Testament and its stories and characters, which provided Cave with what he called “a nasty, new energy” to the songs he started writing: “Floods, fire and frogs leapt out of my throat.” There came the point in his life when his faith was the strongest. And that was when he was trying to ditch his heroin addiction.
He summarized the situation in a 2013 interview: “I was f***ing crazy. Towards the end, I was waking up cold turkey and going to church, sick as a f***ing dog. I’m sitting there sweating and listening to everything, and then trotting down… and scoring and getting back home and shooting up and going, ‘I’m living a well-rounded existence.’”
One of Cave’s first successful songs was The Mercy Seat, a song he wrote in 1987 about a man on death row who considers the electric chair to be like the throne of God on the Ark. Cave wasn’t a fan of his own song. But Johnny Cash was. He even covered the song on one of his late-period albums.
Nick Cave has fathered four sons: Arthur and Earl with his current wife, Susie Bick, and his older sons, Luke and Jethro, from two other women. In fact, the two were born just 10 days apart. Luke was born in Brazil as Cave was living there at the time with Viviane Carneiro.
As for Jethro, he was born in Australia. Cave confessed that to his “eternal regret,” he chose to keep out of Jethro’s life during the boy’s early years. These days, however, he “has a great relationship with him.” As to whether there’s any “domestic strife” over the situation, Cave admitted that things were awkward for a while.
One of Nick Cave’s most famous songs is Deanna, which is actually about a real person. And, yes, it was about an old girlfriend named Deanna. Cave recalled that they shared “a borderline criminal kind of relationship.” After their inevitable split, Cave released the song.
It features some rather vulgar lyrics that seem to suggest that the couple went on a murder spree together. Ironically, Deanna became the girlfriend of director Andrew Dominik – his future friend and collaborator who directed One More Time With Feeling.
Cave has kept himself busy over the years in other ways, aside from the songs, performances, film music, novels and lectures. He also does some screenwriting. His first real attempt was an Australian Western called The Proposition. He did it for his film-director friend John Hillcoat.
The last film he wrote was a Prohibition drama starring Tom Hardy. It’s called Lawless, and it was also for Hillcoat. Unlike The Proposition, Lawless was the kind of script that led him to say: “That was it for me, really… I think I can pretty much say I’m not writing another script.”
One of the most unlikely of all Nick Cave stories came from within his on-and-off scriptwriting career. For The Proposition, there was one point where Russell Crowe was hoping to be the star, so he and Cave got to know each other a bit.
One day, Crowe called him up out of the blue. He told Cave, “It’s Russell here. How’s the scriptwriting going?’” Cave replied, “I never want to write another fucking script in my life.” (At the time, he was having issues with the film). Despite Cave’s frank statement, Crowe asked him to write Gladiator II.
Cave was caught off guard, and it wasn’t because of the obvious question (at least to those who saw the first movie). Cave asked him, “Didn’t you die in Gladiator I?” That’s when Crowe said, “Sort it out.” According to Cave, Crowe wanted something with mythological creatures, probably set in another world.
“He hadn’t quite worked that part out,” Cave recalled. Regardless, Cave took a swing at it. At first, he tried to follow Crowe’s instructions, with “Russell confronting ogres and all this sort of s**t, right?” But once Ridley Scott saw the script, he sent it back to Cave with big, red crosses all over it.
Cave also mentioned that Scott left notes saying that he didn’t want to make a movie like that. Scott asked Cave to watch a bunch of Bergman movies. Re-inspired, Cave sat down and wrote the first draft. The working title was actually called Gladiator II.
Cave later said that even as he was writing it, he knew it was never going to get made. And that’s why he let himself enjoy the process. What was his script about? Well, he came up with a theological story in which the gods blackmail the gladiator Maximus. The movie was supposed to begin in purgatory.
The conversations Cave had with Crowe sound like a comedy script of their own. But Crowe was serious. Cave’s commitment was a little less clear. Either way, in the script he wrote, he made a point to honor one of Crowe’s very specific requests. He told Cave about an unused scene that had been written for the first movie.
It was a scene where the gladiator is attacked by a rhinoceros. Russell said, “Just f***ing imagine f***ng two tons of rhino charging at me! What do I do? What do I do?? So, Cave asked him, “I don’t know, what do you do?”
Crowe said, “We still have the software for the rhino. Put a f***ing rhino in there.” (Ah, the magic of Hollywood.) The end of his script saw Maximus caught in an endless battle during the Crusades, the World Wars, Vietnam – things Cave thought Ridley Scott would like.
But, as he expected, the script went nowhere. “Russell didn’t like it. He wanted a full-on mythological action movie, slaying dragons and sea monsters and all that sort of stuff, kind of Jason and the Argonauts and stuff like that. Ridley said that he liked it but that it would never get made.” But thanks to the occasional leak on the Internet, Cave’s script made its way around the web.
In 2010, Cave ended up in the center of a strange plagiarism accusation. NME reported that a 29-year-old Scottish musician named Frankie Duffy accused Cave of having “borrowed” one of his songs for Palaces of Montezuma, a song Cave penned for his Grinderman side project.
Duffy says his song Grey Man, by his old band Rising Signs, is simply a little too similar to the Grinderman tune for it to be just a coincidence. Cave flatly dismissed all notions of plagiarism and almost mockingly addressed it to his audience during a Grinderman show, saying: “You may have read that some 17-year-old kid in Dundee is trying to sue me and is claiming to have written this song. That’s funny because I wrote it for my wife.”
Cave has always been a disciplined man, and for years he got up each morning, put on a suit, left his home in Brighton, and went to his office that was surrounded by books and art. He once said, “I used to go six days a week, till I couldn’t stand it anymore. Now I go Sundays as well.”
After Arthur’s death, he tried to keep up the same routine. But he couldn’t go in there, “Not even a step.” Eventually, he started working from home. According to Cave, people have always misunderstood his attitude to his work.
He figured it might be that people confused his dark taste for nihilism. Or maybe it was just the way he looked on stage. But Cave thinks that maybe it’s simply the way his face is – that he emits a mood that isn’t actually his.
He was never a depressed person, though, he explained. He says he’s actually always been an optimist. “I get all kind of shaky and stuff like that. It’s an immensely positive act, nothing to do with sadness or depression or any of these sorts of things, no matter what you’re writing about.”
A long time ago, Cave a wild idea. He wanted to erect a large bronze statue of himself in his hometown of Warracknabeal. Why? He said it was a combination of an art prank, an odd film project, and deliberate silliness.
“There was a kind of perverse allure to the whole thing… of having a statue in a town where everyone was, ‘Who the f**k is this guy?’” The man has a point. His idea was to make the statue, expect its rejection by the town, and then dump it in the desert. It would become a “Planet of the Apes type of scenario, the desert eventually swallowing it up.”
Ironically, much more recently, of course, the town has started getting in touch with Cave. They were apparently interested in reviving his asinine idea. Cave felt a little awkward. “The more I deserve the statue,” he explained, “the less interesting it is for me.” Again, the man has a point.
Cave actually has a prototype of the bronze sculpture. It shows Cave, with his long hair, wearing nothing but a loincloth. He’s standing in the typically heroic pose on a stallion. His left arm holding what Cave describes as “this sort of eternal flame.”
Nick Cave, now in his early 60s, wrote an essay when he was in his early 40s. It’s called “The Secret Life of the Love Song.” In it, he quoted poet W. H. Auden: “The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting.”
In his own words, he wrote: “A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father… The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write.” When Cave revisited his early essay, he reconsidered what he originally wrote. He said, “I always thought the traumatic incident was the death of my father, but actually, I don’t think the traumatic experience had actually happened. It was waiting.”