Nick Cave & Memento mori

Drop the needle and pray.

Nick Cave & Memento mori
Beacon Theater, June 17, 2017

I ignored Nick Cave after the Birthday Party. I thought he was an asshole and I was tired of junkie chic. It wasn’t chic! It took too many people and I didn’t have it in me to deal with it. Then I moved somewhere where he was ENORMOUSLY popular and on the radio all the time, so when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came to perform at the Haifa Blues Festival in 1992, I boarded the “jazz train1” to go up north and see him for myself. It was June and already very hot.   

I watched Buddy Guy and found my friends somehow, magically, the way that you somehow always did back when no one had a cell phone or the internet. Everyone was super hyped for Nick Cave so everyone went up into the crowd. I was standing in the back of this ancient warehouse which, being an ancient warehouse (okay not literally ancient, I mean like the 20s or 30s) was stiflingly hot with zero air circulation. And then the Bad Seeds began their set and it didn’t take long before I needed to admit that I had been very wrong and I needed to be closer to the stage. It was STUNNING. Stunning! It was brutal, sharp, dark, delicious. I got down front just in time for the brain trust running things to turn a fire hose on the crowd because of the heat and it was a momentary distraction at best because everyone was riveted. I can still see what that stage looked like. It felt like I was at the edge of the world.

When it was over, I dragged my drenched ass back to the jazz train or found a ride, I don’t remember which, but I got home at like 3 in the morning and the next day I called my cohort at the local label that had the deal with Mute and asked them to send me the catalog, please. What they didn’t have I picked up at the record store called The Third Ear, not at all caring that I looked like a typical girl who just saw a concert and then needed everything although I’m still not sure why that was a behavior that was or is ridicule-worthy. We come to things when we come to them! Or as a dear friend often said to me, “It’s not my fault your parents had sex before mine did.”

No one could have told you 20 or 10 years ago that Nick Cave would embrace technology and the internet and the ability to connect directly with his fans and/or anyone interested in what he might have to say, and create The Red Hand Files. He couldn’t have predicted it, either. He also didn’t know that his son was going to fall off a cliff after taking LSD. I will never know what it is like to lose a child, but I do know that modern society does a shitty fucking job dealing with death and dying and grief and pain. There is no room for it. When my mother died I sat shiva and then came back to work because everything was falling apart at work and it was only going to be bad for me if I did not come back. I went to see U2 in Montreal not long after because I had tickets and I didn’t feel like I could say I didn’t want to go, but I also didn’t want to miss out on a thing I had planned and was looking forward to. I can’t say that I didn’t think about how I needed time to process grief and mourn and feel things, because I did, but there was no possible way I could do that. I went back to therapy. I don’t know what not being able to just stop for five minutes and mourn a tremendous loss cost me emotionally but I know some kind of price was exacted from the vibrating mass of cells that is me, both physically and metaphysically.

I had tickets to see Nick Cave in 2019 on the tour where he took questions and played some songs and it was right after my father died and then my cat died and I was in the middle of packing up to leave the city I loved because I could not afford to get old alone there. I was three days away from getting in my car and driving 600 miles but I sat there both numb and overwhelmed at the same time — it was like I had shorted out — in the darkened theater and wished I knew what I wanted to ask. That line from “Mary’s Place,” “How do you live brokenhearted?” played in my head over and over and over. I knew the only answer to the question in my head was that you just had to keep going, somehow, that you had to find a way, put one foot in front of the other. I also knew that the other reason I wanted to ask a question was so the world knew that I had lost things, and maybe I would connect to a vibration that would help keep me going. I had good friends and support, but there is a reason we had mourning rituals in ancient times. Death has not become less devastating because it is 2023, despite what a lot of people/capitalism would like to insist.

There was a piece in the New Yorker recently where Amanda Petrusich, who has recently also experienced a heart-shattering loss, spoke with Nick Cave. This conversation Upset People, probably because it was in the New Yorker and there are a lot of angry men everywhere who think they should be writing for the New Yorker, and who want Nick Cave to be angry and fed up and pissed off because when he is it justifies their own anger. They are not looking to him to write and record a record like Ghosteen, a record so heartrending and exquisitely painful that I own but cannot listen to even though I wish it gave me the comfort it offered Nick and offered Amanda. I read the article and briefly thought, I am doing this wrong, again, and then I told myself to stop. My cat complained about something, and I looked at him and said, “You know, I don’t have a mom to take care of me” and then realized that I literally actually do not. I went to bed and couldn’t sleep and so I am writing this.

In 2018 I gave a paper at the Pop Music Studies Conference entitled, “Growing Up In Public: Musicians Processing Loss In Modern Times.” about musicians mourning in public. The point of the paper was that we are now at a place where bands have to make the choice to continue without their friends and bandmates after they pass, or not, and how they process it themselves and how they share that with the fans. I wasn’t examining the idea of how musicians process losses outside of their public life, because that would be a different frame, and these papers are finite containers. But I think about how even within that particular context, there is still no room to grieve and mourn. The Who had to either find a replacement bassist or cancel an entire tour, which would have put people out of work and caused great expense because their insurance wouldn’t have indemnified them due to the causes of Entwistle’s death. (I think I’m even angrier about it now than I was when it happened.) Maybe it really was the right thing for Daltrey and Townshend to do, but I do know you probably don’t sufficiently grapple with everything/figure that out in what seemed like the handful of days it took them to hire Pino Palladino and get back on the road.

When Springsteen went on tour in 2012 after we lost Clarence Clemons in 2011, there was a large portion of the show that paid tribute to him. It was ritual, it was public mourning, it was honestly such a beautiful and organic thing that happened at every show. With that, there were so many dumbass fans who complained about it: how much longer is he going to do this? Like, what was the point? More than one person kept asking: how much longer will the show borrow two songs to pay tribute to one of Bruce’s most formidable heart brothers? There was no room for grief. There was no room for mourning. Get over it. Get on with it. Move along. Some dudes brought one of those giant heads of Clarence, the kind that you see at college sporting events, and were so angry when they were asked to please not do that, that it was upsetting to the people onstage. “WE ARE JUST PAYING TRIBUTE,” they insisted.

A recent version of the Red Hand Files featured a letter from a woman who was writing from palliative care, and another from a fan who wanted to know what the point was of the whole Red Hand operation, the undertone being “this is dumb” or “i don’t like it” WHICH YOU KNOW, YOU DON’T HAVE TO READ IT IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT.

Nick’s answer to both letters contained this quote: “I feel your love for me too and, well, that means something and I return that love with my whole heart.” The italics are his. Yes, it means something. The point of what musicians do, and their relationship with the fans and their fans’ relationship with the music, even the parasocial relationships in most forms (the nasty vindictive types are not good and have never been good). All of this matters because this is art and this is not just a pair of sunglasses or a soft drink or an automobile.It is not a consumable, no matter how hard the music industry tries to depersonalize and commodify it. That is what all of this is about. If there is a relationship and emotion and meaning then you cannot squeeze it into a box and duplicate it. The people who are mad are the people who do not get that. The people who are mad want life to be simple and defined and black and white. The people who are mad don’t want to make room for grief and mourning. Pick yourself up. Get over it. Move along. Give me more CONTENT. Give me a Serious Interview. Be who you were when I was 18. Those are the people who need the room to breathe and mourn and grow the most. I know what it is like to not be able to find that space. But we have to as a society or there will be nothing left.

This is also why I am still discomfited at the current Springsteen tour. It is “fun” because a Bruce Springsteen show is always fun, and it is “good” because these are outstanding musicians onstage. But it is also curiously devoid of all things I used to be able to count on being able to get from a Bruce show. It is smoothed out to the point that terrible people go to the show and are not only unoffended, but think that they understand him and that they belong. They do not. Or maybe they do, and I am the one who no longer belongs there, the one place I felt like I could always consistently count on as feeling like home.

I am going to see Nick Cave when he comes through the Midwest in the fall, and I am also going to see Depeche Mode, whose most recent album and tour is dubbed “Memento Mori,” a reference to the recent passing of keyboardist Andrew Fletcher. I admire how Dave Gahan and Martin Gore have very much been talking about how his passing has impacted them personally and professionally, which has translated to a poignantly joyful onstage catharsis, from what I have been able to see on the internet. We need more of these spaces, we need to normalize discussing grief and loss, we need to let art commemorate and buoy us. But we need to feel things. There is no way of getting around it.

completely unrelated but delightful: Pete Townshend yells at Live Nation for having a shitty venue

  1. the people in Tel Aviv that the promoters needed to come to the jazz festival did not own cars, so they wanted to make it easy for people to get there. it ended up being a lot like the first time NJ Transit ran the train after U2 at Met Life. I am not telling that story again, do a Google.