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[whitespace] Dog Is in The House

Nick Cave bears complex fruit from the Bad Seeds

By Gina Arnold

I RECENTLY HEARD on one of those 10-second radio info-flashes that are supposed to pass for "news" that the number of youth smokers in California has dropped considerably, down to 7 percent. At Nick Cave's recent performance in San Francisco last week, that number was more like 99 percent, or so it seemed upon the show's completion, when I emerged from the arena into a huge gray cloud of smoke.

The corollary is obvious: Nick Cave fans all possess a little bit of a death wish. Certainly Cave himself does: the 42-year-old singer and leader of the bands the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds is as famous for his former junkie status as he is for his frightening songs about murder and mayhem.

Of course some of his walking-cadaver image must be an act. I know a journalist who claims that Cave insisted she drive him to Tijuana for their interview and then shot up in her car on the way, and although I recall similar incidents of exhibitionistic self-destructive behavior in the bad old days of heroin addiction, that one kind of takes the cake.

As that incident indicates, though, Cave's much-vaunted seediness is both legendary and a big part of his appeal. He has traded on it for decades, and it is part of what makes his music, which is as dark and as twisted as any ever written, compelling.

But is the pose really necessary? Nowadays, I wonder. His stance certainly affects adolescents the same way it always has, which is to say, it imbues his act with a kind of glamour.

Back in the mid-'80s, I worked briefly at college radio station KFJC in Los Altos Hills, and when I heard Cave's first band, the Birthday Party, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about punk. Prior to that moment, I thought my record collection, which was full of LPs by Elvis Costello, Blondie, the Ramones, the Clash and the Pretenders, was really edgy.

After I heard the Birthday Party, I knew I was missing a lot. Frankly, the Birthday Party scared the crap out of me. I didn't get it--and I was just sufficiently sophisticated enough to know that "not getting it" didn't mean that the band was bad.

Just saying "Help! This music is ugly and scary and noisy and rude" was certainly not going to earn me any brownie points at KFJC; it would have been the equivalent of saying, in 1955, that Elvis Presley sucked because he mumbled or that "Tutti Frutti" had dumb lyrics.

Luckily for me, because I faintly recognized that Cave's work was art, in the months that I worked at KFJC, I played his music--along with that of equally "hard" records by bands like Fugazi and Throbbing Gristle--until I did finally get it.

I realized, eventually, that although his songs are dark and disturbing, they are also incredibly literate, beautiful and often rather witty--Thomas Hardy meets Robert Johnson, with some Jim Thompson thrown in for good measure.

YEARS PASSED, and Cave's oeuvre progressed through that band to his next, the even scarier Berlin-based Bad Seeds. But although it still might have been hard for more mainstream ears to recognize the brains and the beauty in the Bad Seeds, even the squarest of listeners would have "gotten" the genius of Cave at his performance last week, during which he sat somberly at a grand piano, alternately sucking on a cigarette and giving the instrument what my mom used to call "a pounding."

He was accompanied, at times, by violinist Warren Ellis, drummer Jim White and bassist Susan Stenger, who helped him create the strangely folksy new sound that permeates his upcoming LP, No More Shall We Part (WEA/Warner Bros.).

Because he is revered by his fans and hardly ever shows up in this area, the Cave performance was a bit of an occasion, like the Oscars of the hipoisie. The audience was dressed in its very best. All the girls wore absolutely gorgeous frocks of silk and satin, vintage black cocktail dresses, patterned tights and lovely and dangerous-looking high heels. The men wore suits or some other form of male finery.

Cave himself wore a black frock coat and blue tie, and violinist Ellis (of the amazing Australian band the Dirty Three) was equally snazzy. Despite his finery, however, Ellis sat crouched like a cannonball during the parts he didn't play on, hugging his knees and rocking back and forth.

He was kind of fascinating, but for the most part, all eyes (and ears) were on Cave, who sang incredibly compelling folksy versions of old songs like "The Mercy Seat," "Into Your Arms," "Henry Lee," "Stagger Lee" and even a bit of the old Birthday Party song "Wild World."

The only unfortunate thing was the audience. His fans exhibited that weird state of holy reverence crossed with self-conscious braggadoccio that's very difficult to endure. They couldn't stop yelling things out at Cave, from the egregious "Marry me!" to the even more egregious "Free Bird."

Cave took it in good part, answering all their dumb questions with good humor and even, at the end of the show, responding positively to a bellowed-out request for the new song "Love Letter" by unexpectedly calling the band back onstage.

He came off as one of the more gracious and witty performers of the latter half of the century, a man who is no longer just a cadaverous follower of the cult of thanatopsis, attempting to beat his fundamentalist background and shock us with his antireligious stance, but a storyteller and songwriter whose work can stand on its own, minus the violent trappings of blood, guts and lung cancer.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

SO. I'VE BEEN INFORMED by careful readers that "Blame Canada," the theme from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, didn't win the Oscar for best song last year. The theme from Tarzan did. Oops! I did think I checked that one, but I guess I read it wrong.

I hate to make mistakes, but even more galling to me is the fact that my prediction of Sting as the eventual Oscar winner didn't come true. Luckily, I didn't put any money on it, but I'm still slightly surprised by his defeat at the hands of Bob Dylan. Dylan's song was better, and so was the movie (Wonder Boys) it came from. But it's not the type of song the Academy usually goes for.

I guess Dylan was surprised as well, judging by his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech. After dutifully thanking Columbia Records, he thanked the academy for what he characterized as their incredible daring in recognizing "a song that doesn't pussyfoot around, or turn a blind eye to human nature." Well, jeez, it's not like it was "Masters of War" or something.

Also, frankly, I found it poignant that Dylan seemed to want the Oscar so badly. It made him appear so little--and so human. I thought he looked terrible, too, as if he were going on 100. He and Arthur C. Clarke were by far the most 20th-century parts of the broadcast: relics of a bygone era, as outdated in their way as the Roman world depicted in Gladiator.

Add to Dylan's Oscar Cameron Crowe's screenwriting win for Almost Famous, a movie that sentimentalizes late-20th-century rock in a way that practically fossilizes it, and the 73rd year of the Oscars seemed to be sending a subliminal message that rock is entirely dead.

It's not, of course. I found that out last week while attending Ultra Fest, a rave in the city of Miami that attracts every known DJ in the universe plus some 45,000 or so attendees. But that's a tale for another day.

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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