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Nick Cave’s Lessons in Grief

The singer’s new book awakened me to a paradoxical fact: tragedy can sometimes remind us of what makes life worth living.

· 7 min read
Nick Cave’s Lessons in Grief
Flickr photo of Nick Cave rehearsing onstage in Hove, England, in 2013.

In 2020, Matt Berninger, lead singer of the American indie rock band The National, described Nick Cave as “the best songwriter alive,” before adding, “and I’m aware that Bob Dylan is alive.” Yet unlike many aging musical artists who’ve attained such legendary status, Cave hasn’t become a recluse or a parody of his former self. Nor has he succumbed to drugs, alcohol, fringe politics, obscure spiritual movements, or his own ego. Rather, he’s made a late-middle-age detour into radical, unguarded openness, on display for all to see in a new book based on conversations with music journalist and friend Sean O’Hagan. It’s an unexpected development from someone whose songbook is filled with disturbing tales of death, lust, heartbreak, and villainy.

Nicholas Edward Cave was born and raised in a rural area of south-eastern Australia, the child of a teacher and a librarian. In 1977, he formed a post-punk noise rock band called The Boys Next Door while attending school in Melbourne. When Australia felt too small for the band’s ambitions, they moved to London and changed their name to The Birthday Party. When the UK, too, proved unsatisfactory, they decamped to Berlin, this at a time when the Iron Curtain hadn’t yet been lifted. The band’s gothic art-house style fit in well with the city’s nascent underground music scene. But interpersonal chaos ultimately caused The Birthday Party to disband in 1983 following the release of its second album (under that name), the visceral Junkyard.

Shortly thereafter, band members reconvened to form Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, which found success thanks to Cave’s literary lyrical experiments and mesmerizing live performances. During the alternative rock boom of the 1990s, several of the band’s videos were featured on MTV, leading to a famous incident in which Cave requested that his MTV award nomination for “best male artist” be pulled on the basis that he was “in competition with no one.” Forty years after its inception, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds remain active, notwithstanding Cave’s many musical side projects and forays into fiction, screenwriting, and poetry.

But Cave’s creatively charmed life was shattered in 2015 when one of his four children, 15-year-old Arthur, fell to his death from a cliff after experimenting with LSD. The singer’s grief was captured in the 2016 documentary film One More Time With Feeling, which depicts Cave recording with The Bad Seeds shortly after the tragedy. Cave’s mood was reflected in the resulting album, Skeleton Tree—a desolate, often stream-of-consciousness meditation on the human condition.

His new book, Faith, Hope, and Carnage exhibits a wider emotional range. The conversations between Cave and O’Hagan don’t reflect the classic Q-and-A form one expects from a journalist and artist, but rather play out like two close friends discussing the mysteries and tragedies of life as they march toward old age. It’s an extension of an “In Conversation” tour that Cave had previously undertaken, in which he would solicit questions from audiences and attempt to answer them as honestly as possible.

O’Hagan discusses how losing his brother had shattered his life in fundamental ways, forever changing his perspective. These are experiences we will all eventually suffer, Cave grimly notes. And often enough, they utterly drown people in grief, leaving them diminished as a result. But the Skeleton Tree tour, he says, helped him imagine the possibility that grief could actually be redemptive.

The next Bad Seeds album, Ghosteen (2019), was an elegy to Cave’s lost son, and really, to those we have all lost. Absent is Cave’s traditional narrative lyrical form. Instead, the songs have a more abstract quality. Cave describes them as being not so much directly about Arthur, but rather as channelling a kind of alternate world in which Arthur might still reside, and through which Cave could remain connected to him. It was “an attempt to not just articulate the loss but to make contact in some kind of way, maybe in the same way as we pray, really.”

In a recent interview with the BBC, Cave said that Arthur’s death caused—or perhaps allowed—him to become “an actual person.” “[It] literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything,” he said, “I had a very narrow view of the world, a much more strident view of the world. There seemed to be some correlation between my stridency about things and my lack of understanding about things. In fact, the less I knew, the more opinionated and certain I would become.” Losing Arthur “smashed all that to bits,” as he realized that “we are each of us imperilled, insofar as anything can turn catastrophic at any time.”

When the pandemic hit, and touring plans for Ghosteen were cancelled, Cave and his chief musical collaborator, Warren Ellis, recorded Carnage, an artistic statement about the polarization playing out amidst the pandemic. Carnage lacks the ambition of Ghosteen’s mythic universe, but it does feel like an extrapolation of the same intellectual tendencies—though this time focused on pain that’s experienced collectively, as a society, instead of just personally.

Nine months into the pandemic, between the release of Ghosteen and Carnage, I lost a dear friend of over 20 years to a short but brutal battle with cancer. She was still relatively young, but had seen indications of what was coming, as the cancer originated with an underlying genetic condition she’d known about since childhood. My life was in transition at the time, and I had difficulty dealing with the absence of someone who’d helped me cope with my own troubles more than once. On top of the isolation and fear surrounding the ongoing COVID crisis, her death destabilized me. We hadn’t spoken in her final months, and hospital visits were impossible.

In January 2020, just before COVID hit, I’d been able to spend several weeks with her while she recovered from a major surgery that predated the onset of her terminal illness. It was winter in Alberta, and I was living through a decidedly downmarket period, with the collapse of my living arrangements pushing me into months of uncertain nomadism. I wasn’t doing much other than watching bad Bruce Willis movies and spinning records like Cave’s No More Shall We Part on my friend’s defective turntable. It might sound depressing, but I now think about those days fondly—the last time I heard her laugh, or heard her chastise me for some misstep (as was her way), or even just the background sounds and smells of being in the home of someone you’ve known for decades.

When I was informed of her death nearly a year later, I felt a deep, dark absence. Not just of my friend, but of any sense that life amounts to something real and valuable in the end. I remember looking out at a lifeless strip mall under a typically grey Toronto winter sky on the day the news arrived, the world appearing as a sad and empty place, like the void that follows it. Because of the pandemic, there was never any kind of funeral service.

And so Cave’s book came along at a crucial time for me. Reading it, I’ve found myself able to think about my friend without becoming overcome by the blackness of grief. It turns out that her departure didn’t leave me with nothing. There remains a presence—whether or not it’s an artifact of my own psyche—which I’d previously shut out. Faith, Hope, and Carnage awakened me to the paradoxical fact that tragedy can sometimes remind us of the things that make life worth living. I began to notice there was more goodness present than I’d previously been willing to acknowledge. But summoning it required an act of will, the kind Cave had undertaken, to shake off the numbness that naturally follows grief—a process that demands a personal investment in the work of transformation.

All of these insights have brought Cave to a place that he describes (though not without reservations and caveats) as religious. The faith he espouses, however, is one that embraces the reality of doubt, not the dogma of traditional sects. There is no born-again evangelising to be found in Faith, Hope, and Carnage. Cave remains critical of institutionalized religion, while also frequently pointing to two tenets of Christianity: boundless love in the face of suffering and, perhaps most importantly, mercy. These qualities, he points out, can help us all evade the inhuman tendencies that go along with prosecuting the culture war, whose dogmatism and vehemence reflect everyone’s (including Cave’s own) “unconscious desire to return to a non-secular society.” Cave doesn’t give any hard and fast prescriptions for how his readers and listeners should navigate the world, other than telling us that our time here is precious, though we may not always realize it, and that we should contribute in some way toward the world’s betterment. Redemption is possible, he tells us, and forgiveness too, when we fail.

Cave’s own search for meaning is conducted in part through music (“one of the last great spiritual gifts we have”) and his various other art and media projects. And his words hit me with special force because of my own background as a creator, and a musician in particular. He channels the anxiety of anyone who’s ever written a song, played an instrument, or otherwise confronted the terror of a blank page or a live audience. Cave describes this tension as being an inseparable part of the creative struggle, which is, for many of us, a necessary component of truth-seeking. Engaging in this kind of inner truth-seeking, Cave suggests, is a far better use of time than the pitched ideological battles that take place in the digital sphere—Twitter spectacles often dominated by angry, bad-faith actors blinded by their own partisanship.

Life is beautiful, fragile, and extremely tragic. There is always much more for us to do for both ourselves and others, and many special things we could be bringing into existence in our own lives and in the world. Given this, why do we waste so much time engaging with anger, cynicism, and the blown-out landscape of contemporary political and cultural discourse?

Grief isn’t the only emotion that can render humans insensible to the goodness in the world. Rage serves just as well. The lessons in Faith, Hope, and Carnage are helping me rise above both.  

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