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Saints, sinners & CERN: "Nick Cave: Mercy on Me" opens portals in your mind and soul - and that's a good thing

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BOOK REVIEW: Nick Cave: Mercy on Me a graphic novel by Reinhard Kleist (Self Made Hero) 2017

On October 23, 2018 I drove down to Dallas, alone, to finally see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds live at the Bomb Factory. I had dug Cave’s music since the mid-90’s when “Red Right Hand” was used in an unforgettable episode of The X-Files, “Ascension,” one involving the subject of alien abduction.

My interest and following of his music ebbed and flowed over the subsequent years. But this Australian native was always there, waiting to share his deepest, darkest thoughts with anyone willing to take the time to listen – and learn.

The murderous mayhem of 1996’s Murder Ballads is a favorite, with “Stagger Lee,” “The Curse of Millhaven” and “Death is Not The End” as standout tracks. And what can I say about 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead? That it is one of the best albums of the 1980’s!

So, in advance of the show I splurged a bit – I picked up Lovely Creatures: The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1984-2014) and a pretty thick black-and-white graphic novel by German comic book artist Reinhard Kleist – an exceedingly talented guy whose previous book, Johnny Cash – I See A Darkness is a fantastic illustrated biography of the Man in Black, a man who means a lot to me and whom I believe was reaching out to me prior to a Sun Studio tour I took in Memphis a few years ago. (I wrote about that here).

So, what stunned me about it is that I only got around to reading Nick Cave: Mercy on Me just this past week, long after I had seen Cave’s incredible Dallas show, which was part of this final leg of his U.S. and Latin American tour in support of his 2016 album Skeleton Tree (my review of that album is here). I was stunned by what I saw and read on those pages of what is closer to magical realism than straightforward biography.

And the show was a spectacle – in a way that is counter to the current, popular notion of “spectacle.” Cave engages the audience. He even brings them on stage, as he did during “Stagger Lee.” You felt a certain sadness from the stage, as the band had recently lost longtime multi-instrumentalist Conway Savage to a brain tumor.

And yet Nick Cave gives the audience every fiber of his being, even humorously chiding an audience member more concerned with filming the experience on his smartphone rather than living and enjoying the moment.

And so let’s come to the content of Kleist’s book. He clearly admires his subject, who is angular and handsome and dark – in a Johnny Cash sort of way. We watch a young Nick in his hometown of Warracknabeal (“a name like a bad joke”) his town in the Australian state of Victoria, who is sort of an eclectic loner with a love of thrills and girls and glam and punk rock that is hitting the popular culture in the1970's, when Cave is in his teens and early twenties.

This leads the poetic, existential-minded Cave to find likeminded blokes to join him in forming a band called the Boys Next Door, which Kleist highlights, and the band members' different opinions on getting heard. Do they go the route of Little River Band-style pop and accessibility, or stay true to their grittier, punkier selves?

Eventually Cave is singing for a new band, The Birthday Party, which morphed from the remains of The Boys Next Door. This is the post-punk band that put Nick Cave on the map in the early 1980's, as Goth was becoming a thing. And while Cave was the vocalist, hard-drinking, cowboy-hat-wearing bassist Tracy Pew (who would die in 1986) was more of the "face" of The Birthday Party. 

But Kleist illustrates to the reader that Cave was not entirely satisfied, taking The Birthday Party as far as it could go, with Cave shown thinking: "But there's that fear of standing still. The unbridled compulsion to travel new paths. To tear the old into pieces. To kill that which clings. And plant the seeds of something new it's ashes." Yes, seeds ... 

And it is with Chapter Two, "Where The Wild Roses Grow," that a new, umm, chapter, begins for Nick Cave, with the formation of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and all of the ups and downs of the life of that band, which has become known and loved the world round. Why? Because Nick Cave is able to use a music style that taps into something deeper, more ancient, in the collective unconscious. I find Cave's music to be very Jungian. Kleist's portion about the song "Tupelo" (from The Firstborn Is Dead), about the birth of Elvis Presley and the stillborn death of his twin brother Jaron, is like some apocalyptic blues tale that is perfectly illustrated on these pages. 

But what I really want to get to here is the section highlighting the story of the "Red Right Hand." You have the trip across the (railroad) tracks. The viaduct. The "humming wires" and a sense you are "never coming back." This is sort of the Robert Johnson "crossroads" story in a sense. You are struggling, creatively, or in life. You come upon someone or something that can change your fortunes. You make a deal, right? This is what I was thinking about in my "Last train to Clarksdale" piece after looking for signs of the true crossroads - and I think I found it, or it found me. 

The notion of the "crossroads." It keeps coming up, my friends. I randomly chose to review Ben Fountain's Beautiful Country Burn Again and the author not only references America being at a crossroads, he quotes Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues." And then, I read Kleist's book and he highlights Nick Cave's interest in the "God particle" search at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland in "Higgs Boson Blues," a song featured on Cave's 2013 album Push the Sky Away.

As Cave drives to Geneva (as he notes in "Higgs Boson Blues") he comes upon a man at the crossroads. It's Robert Johnson and he gives him a lift. Johnson tells Cave he is at a personal crossroads, not sure if he should play it straight in the Mississippi juke joints, or should he "achieve immorality" and make a deal with the Devil? All the while, Cave is dwelling on the "characters" of his songs - the doomed ones - and whether or not it is real? Is his world real or the the world's he created through his craft? And that bit in the song about being at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago? The death of the heroes. The revolutionaries. The rise of Miley Cyrus and vacuous, meaningless pap. Cave captures it all in "Higgs Boson Blues." 

And this, as the portal-opening, apocalyptic hellmouth of CERN has caused the world to catch on fire and Cave and Johnson are anxiosuly trying to reach Geneva (CERN). It's all in the song. Needless to say, I was shocked as I read these pages and saw these images. These are the very things I think about pretty much every day. Life, death, man, woman, infinity, the blues, the crossroads, the deals made and the opportunities missed. Nick Cave understands it all to the core. His William Burroughs-level struggle with heroin addiction and the deaths of those he loved. It's all on these pages. Nick Cave, is, a character in his own songs. He's both the singer and the character, as Kleist highlights at the end as the CERN portal swallows everyone and everything ... 

And so a few hours prior to the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds show? Yes, I was in Dallas, in search of the 508 Park Avenue building where Robert Johnson recorded half of his songs on the third floor for Brunswick Records. Yes! I only realize it now that I was bringing Nick Cave and Robert Johnson together - unwittingly - in this short span of time shortly after revisiting Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

So, there you have King and Kennedy references. Dallas. Geneva. CERN. Pop culture. The blues. Love and death. Holy shit, this is the stuff I live for and think about and write about. It was all happening on October 23rd and I am only realizing it now, after reading this amazing book. This book is helping me on my journey. I did not expect it when I picked it up, but then here we are. Here we are in late 2018, as new chapters are being written. Things have happened in the future that we, in the present, know nothing about - yet. But we will. Nick Cave understands that. He was born with that knowledge. And thank God he is willing to share it with all of us sinners, struggling to make sense of the absurdity and madness of daily life.


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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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