Nick Cave?s Utopiate

In 1977, when everyone else was poring over Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Nick Cave started reading the Bible – In this excerpt from his new book ‘Hey! Nietzsche! Leave them kids alone’, author and triple j broadcaster CRAIG SCHUFTAN finds the Romantic in Australia’s reigning Prince of Darkness.

?The time will come,? wrote Voltaire’s colleague the Marquis de Condorcet in 1793, ?when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master than their reason.? De Condorcet was a firm believer in progress. His Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind demonstrated that science and mathematics would improve every aspect of life in post-Revolutionary France, and eventually, the whole world. Population control, sexual equality, religion, law, language and love would all benefit from the application of mathematics to their specific problems, and given time, poverty, civil strife and war would become things of the past.

As a utopian, de Condorcet firmly supported the republic, but as a liberal humanist he could not condone the execution of the king. This automatically made him a Royalist in the eyes of the Committee of Public Safety. So, even as he set down his vision of a mathematically perfectible utopia, Robespierre’s police were coming for him. He spent most of 1793 in hiding, and then tried to flee France the following year. He was caught, thrown in prison, and found dead in his cell the next morning, having taken poison. The Terror ensured that there would never be another period of sustained optimism like the Enlightenment. But the Philosophes? vision of a society that works remained a powerfully attractive one for many years to come.

Long after the romantic movement parted company with universal reason, works such as de Condorcet’s had become the basis for the 19th century’s belief in progress, which survived virtually unchallenged in the world of industry and science right up until the mid-20th century. Even in artistic circles, romantic gloom would occasionally give way to bursts of utopian optimism over the next two centuries. Strong traces of Enlightenment thought can be detected in the arts and crafts movement, the Vienna Secession, at the Dessau Bauhaus, among the Russian constructivists and ?curiously – in London’s post-punk scene of the late ?70s.

Like the Enlightenment itself, punk is often understood as a reaction to what came before – in this case, the grandiose mysticism of mid ?70s prog-rock. ?We tend to keep away from the present,? said Genesis? Steve Hackett in 1974, ?we’re very hesitant to make any commitment to how we feel about what’s happening now.? Punk, on the other hand, would admit no other subject matter than ?what’s happening now?.

The lyrical abstractions of prog-rock, like the introverted navel gazing of the West Coast groups, seemed to create music with no social purpose beyond pure escapism – and the punks were adamant that music should be about more than that. In theory, if not always in practice, punk bands wrote songs about what it was really like to live on a council estate or what was in the papers or what their record company did last week. Heroic quests, mystical allegories and song cycles were banished, never to return. Having cleared away the useless clutter and mystical obscurantism of prog, it was now left to the groups who emerged in the wake of punk’s first wave to build a new songwriting ideal. Now, all bets were off, everything could be
questioned. Gang of Four applied the Philosophes? favourite question: ?is it rational?? to that oldest of rock institutions, the love song, and found that it was not. Guitarist Andy Gill muses on ?Love like Anthrax?:

*? most groups make most of their songs about
falling in love or how happy they are to be in
love – these groups go along with the belief that love
is deep in everyone’s personality. I don’t think we’re
saying there’s anything wrong with love; we just
don’t think what goes on between two people should
be shrouded in mystery.*

Like Newton, Gill has no time for mystery; mysteries keep people stupid, and the mysteries of love are no exception. When Gang of Four did write about love, they stripped off the ornament and reduced love to a social agreement or a coupling of bodies; there were no hearts and flowers, no burning fire or pure desire in these songs. Love was presented as difficult but never mysterious. In the post-punk love song, as music critic Simon Reynolds writes in Blissed Out, ?the acknowledgement of the dark side was always grounded in progressive humanism, the belief that what was twisted could be straightened out – shadows could be banished by the spotlight of analysis.? According to Reynolds, punk had established the idea that ?demystification was the road to enlightenment.?

If punk re-enacted the Enlightenment, then it was left to a ?moody, miserable? kid from rural Victoria to play the part of the entire Romantic movement. As early as 1977, punk’s year zero, when everyone else was poring over Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Nick Cave started reading the Bible.

?If punk re-enacted the Enlightenment, then it was left to a ?moody, miserable? kid from rural Victoria to play the part of the entire Romantic movement.?

The brutal, bitter tales of the Old Testament confirmed Cave’s suspicion that human beings are not infinitely perfectible, but born in sin and bound for hell. Cave knew at an early age he was either destined or damned – or maybe, like Napoleon, a little bit of both. As he grew older, he found that this basic fact of his personality remained unchanged, and nothing he saw after that could convince him that we come into the world as ?lumps of dough that are later moulded by our parents and so forth?.

Cave’s first band, The Boys Next Door, had a hit in 1978 with a song called ?Shivers? – a song that the producers of Countdown refused to allow the band to perform because the lyrics mentioned suicide. ?Shivers?, written by guitarist Roland S Howard, is a confessional in the early Byronic mould. The hero is detached and strangely static. He’s been thinking about suicide, but he’ll only do it if you’re watching, and if you think it’s fashionable. In the end, he remains paralysed by ennui. Howard takes up the theme with a long, plaintive guitar solo, which sounds like a lethargic replay of Pete Shelley’s famous two-note refrain in the Buzzcocks? ?Boredom?.

On the day Bon Scott was buried, The Boys Next Door left Melbourne for London, changing their name on arrival to The Birthday Party. Post-punk was in full swing, and superficially, The Birthday Party fitted right in – the lopsided Magic Band guitar parts, the tribal thump of their rhythm section, their singer’s anguished, alienated squawk. At a moment when Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica* represented the musical ideal, and PiL’s *Metal Box the cutting edge, The Birthday Party had every reason to think their success was assured.

But even as England learned to love The Birthday Party, The Birthday Party were learning to despise England – English bands especially. Cave quickly realised that he hated all the post-punk/new wave groups that were so heavily feted at the time. His old-fashioned sense of sin and retribution chafed badly against then-fashionable topics such as ?personal politics?. For Cave, love was not, and could never be ?a contract in our mutual interest? as one Gang of Four song put it; love was madness, sorrow, despair, violence, a deeply mysterious and irrational force.

?Zoo Music Girl?, the first song on the Birthday Party’s debut album is a blood-soaked ballad. ?Oh God,? cries Cave ?let me die beneath her fists!? In ?Wild World? the lovers are crucified, in ?Six Inch Gold Blade? the singer sticks a knife in his girl’s head. We are already a long way from the world of personal politics.

In ?Hamlet Pow! Pow! Pow!? Cave re-casts Shakespeare’s tragic hero as a gun-toting gangster. ?Wherefore art thou baby face?? he sneers (having ended up, not only in the wrong century, but in the wrong play). It makes perfect sense for Cave to turn Hamlet into a killer with a gun, because for the singer, the tragic Dane and the murderer are burdened with the same heavy load’passion that can find no outlet in society. They stand side by side in the Nick Cave pantheon with Saint Sebastian, Iggy Pop, Count Dracula, Beethoven, Dostoyevsky, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Captain Ahab, Robert Mitchum (in Night of the Hunter) and Jesus Christ.

Cave will always side with geniuses, freaks, monsters and outcasts’as opposed to the society that could not accommodate them – because to him society is not only hateful, it’s a bad bet; doomed to fail, no matter what the positivists, empiricists and neo-Marxists try to tell you. ?To see yourself as part of some greater humanist scheme,? he said to Reynolds in 1988, ?I can’t really abide by that myself. I’m someone who has very little concern with any kind of social problems, someone who’s very much concerned with their own plight.?

Two years, and two extraordinary albums later, The Birthday Party self-destructed – and you can hear it happen on their swansong, ?Mutiny in Heaven?. The lyrics of ?Mutiny? run on from an earlier song called ?Dumb Europe?, written with Die Haut in 1983. ?Dumb Europe? describes a night out in Berlin where ?the cafes and bars still stink?. An early draft of the song features a coda, ?Hey! Dumb Europe! Utopiate! European Utopiate!?

Here, Cave stands up in his ?bleak Teutonic hole? and calls time on the Philosophes? dream of a heaven on earth. The perfectibility Jacques Turgot promised his 18-century audience at the Sorbonne, the mathematical utopia de Condorcet was still dreaming about as Robespierre’s police hunted him down, the hope of Universal Reason Wordsworth clutched at during his crisis of 1795, where are they now? Utopia, Cave puns, is a Utopiate – a drug which has enslaved the European mind as surely as any of the crackpot dogmas it was supposed to destroy. And the positivist is a junky, on the nod in a corner while the Continent falls apart around his ears. In ?Mutiny in Heaven? Cave invites us to look around at dumb Europe and admit that utopia has long since turned into a slum. The place is overrun with trash and rats – and now even the rats are leaving, crawling up his arm in search of higher ground. This is never a good sign. If this is heaven, he says, ?Ah’m bailing out!? But how do you get out of the modern world? Over The Birthday Party’s terrifying rumble, accompanied by a guitar that sounds like the peals of a church bell, Cave talks us through it:

*Well, ah tied on – percht on mah bed ah was
Sticken a needle in mah arm
Ah tied off! Fucken wings burst out mah back!*

The positivists would have you choose life. Cave – as Mark Renton puts it in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – has chosen something else.


Hey! Nietzsche! Leave them kids alone is out now through ABC Books.