By Grant Nicol
‘20,000 Days On Earth’ directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, written by Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being”, says Nick Cave at the beginning of the movie. To be honest, I never really thought of him as one anyway.
You are a little mystery to me
The secret to song writing according to our narrator is counterpoint and through the years that is what his songs have all been about. His first album with The Bad Seeds was 1984s ‘From Her To Eternity’, his latest one with them ‘Push The Sky Away’ is the band’s fifteenth studio album. It is not just the volume of work he has produced that is impressive though, it is the sheer quality of these recordings that he will be remembered for long after he has left us behind for a deserved place beyond the stars. His first will was drafted in 1987, a year he spent in an attic in Berlin and remembers remarkably little of.
As he drives his friends including Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone around Brighton where he now lives, “You’ve got to drop anchor somewhere”, they discuss their lives and fears. Kylie’s is worried about being forgotten or winding up lonely. Either seems highly improbable, while in another scene Nick tells his psychiatrist that his greatest fear is losing his memory. He hints that without those tiny building blocks of our past in our heads we will lose our identity. He feels that everything that defines us is hidden away in the things we have done and said or heard or otherwise experienced over the years, and he’s right.
Come sail your ships around me
His writing is undeniably beautiful, it is often angry. It is enlightening and uplifting and often as dark as the wrong end of a mine-shaft. There is always a feeling of destiny, an unfolding of fates happening before us as we listen. They are not just songs, they are stories designed to fill us with joy as well as dread. “All things move towards their end. On that you can be sure”.
There is a sense of imminent destination about his work as if the characters that inhabit what he refers to as his other world can’t leave it quickly enough. They hurry through the folly of their torrid lives, hungry for an end to the unsatisfactory roles they have been bequeathed. It is a world, he tells us, where everything is inflated, distorted and monstrous. “A place where people rage away and God actually exists”.
Everything, it comes tumbling down
God inhabits this other world of his the same way his father did his real world. Often present but not seen until such time as he chose to reveal himself. Colin Cave was an English teacher in Victoria, Australia and used to read to Nick from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita to expose him to the beauty of the written word. When Nick started performing with The Boys Next Door, Colin would secretly go to see his son perform and then casually bring the show up in conversation at a later date when he felt the time was right. He once described him as being “like an angel” on stage. A fairly dark angel one would imagine.
Colin was killed in a car accident when Nick was nineteen, creating a vacuum in an already troubled young man’s life. He was told of his father’s passing as his mother bailed him out of the St. Kilda police station in Melbourne. Nick believes in the idea of a greater being watching us all from above and keeping score. Who that is looking down on him is a matter of opinion but there is definitely a divine being of some description judging all those below him in Nick’s other world. One who stands back and waits for the right time, certainly not an interventionist God.
On top of his musical achievements Nick has published two novels as well as two screenplays for Australian director John Hillcoat. The most remarkable of his works is undoubtedly 1989s ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’. A southern gothic tale of abuse and revenge which one strongly suspects was dropped from the final edit of the Bible only to land in a Florida swamp up to its neck in quicksand in the same fashion as its deaf-mute protagonist, Euchrid Eucrow. Nick wrote it along with the first draft of his last will and testament in what he describes as a crawlspace in Berlin which he filled with soft-porn and religious icons that were purchased from a local flea market. These images fill the novel as Euchrid struggles to escape his tortured existence after the death of his baby twin brother.
We define our moral ground
“The only time I believed in anything like that was when I was using drugs”, he says as he explains how he visited church and listened to a sermon before going out to score heroin in his younger days. His logic being that if he did a little bit of good as well as a little bit of bad then everything would even itself out. It’s hard to argue with his logic considering the way things have turned out. That balance is a big part of Nick’s success. None of his work is beautiful without being scary. None of it is romantic without being lonely and desperate for an end to that solitude. He has written some of the most beautiful songs ever crafted but they could just as easily be the soundtrack to a lover’s suicide. And all inside 20,000 days.