“The Red Hand Files literally saved my life”.
Confessions this bold are difficult to translate outside of the ‘intimate’ 1700 seat arena they are revealed. A cynic might even throw shade at a show that is more of a Q&A than a performance, but there was nothing pretentious about A Conversation with Nick Cave as it hit the Dome in the last leg of its world tour. Despite crowning his experiment in crowd connection as an “art project”, the Brighton based artist was never less than open, honest and humble in his homecoming gig.
Those ‘Red Hand Files’ he refers to, are born of the 100+ letters Nick receives online every day. Letters of honest heart-felt accounts from fans that have suffered from loss, addiction and deep hardship, as well as stories with uplifting tales to tell. “Ask me anything” is the invite, and the result is an enlightening celebration of life and the importance of creativity as a philosophical salvation. If that all sounds too earnest, give them a read. All 49 of those he has published on the site are worth the time. They are life affirming and kind. Something rare in journalism, particularly in these polarised times. And they have been home to Nick Cave’s connection to the world – and himself – since the tragedy that occurred in just outside Brighton in July 2015.
A typical example of the files is a ‘butch dyke’ living in Somerville USA, who talks to Nick about how his work has helped Mary/‘Mickey’ with their “unformed yearning to feel right in their body.” Nick’s look back on growing up around the Australian culture of masculinity is a typically engrossing response. But his candidly deep conclusion is a genuine grasp for the profound: “…for most of my life I felt a strange gravitational pull toward an undisclosed traumatic event, that could only be described as a dreadful yearning, and I found it eventually in my son’s death – something that both destroyed me and ultimately defined me. …I mention this, because it could be that the unformed yearning that you speak of may turn out to be something that eventually obliterates you, but also brings you back to life, transforming you into something beyond yourself.”
It is this sincere effort to connect through laying-open his personal loss which is at the heart of this existential journey. As raw and painful as the death of his son may be, he seeks solace in finding meaning in it. Musicians often sound imposing with earnest philosophy, and most are too preoccupied with a pursuit of cool to risk a feigned and hollow conviction. But Nick Cave is a writer with a demand of authenticity. He lands truth with a wondrous majesty that befits his ‘reach for God’ that “probably doesn’t exist”. It is the core of him.
Whilst he captivated the room with equally honest responses to the audience’s questions, the elephant in the room proved not to be the death of his son, but the clumsy ego-fueled ignorance of the Brighton audience. Of course, he is used to it. Whilst the quality control on the Red Hand Files cherry picks the best of the tsunami he receives every day, there is no such way to avoid the problem of every Q&A – three quarters of the questions were hand in face embarrassing. There were a few great questions, but most were awful.
One particular humdinger was a meandering self-obsessed ‘me-now’ ode to disappearing up one’s own rectum; after launching at the host with the callous statement your-son-died-on-psychedelics, she then went on to actually attempt a question in the form of “I’m-now-experimenting-with-psychedelics-(aren’t-they-great)-they-are-helping-me-to-save-the-world-against-climate-change-so-why-dont-you-try-to-save-the-world-too?”. This is paraphrased for expediency. As with all of ‘questions’ Cave found something useful to lament; having been a heroin addict for twenty years, he’s not one to judge drug use – but sees it’s illegality as the source of most of the problems. But this did not stop the audience member with the microphone from insisting that he personally should do something about climate change. A typically calm response from Cave pointed the finger at his generation’s failure to do enough and how impressed he is with the younger generation in their efforts, adding that he wasn’t sure at this time he had anything specific to add to the worthy cause. “You’re not dead yet!” was the aggressive response from the audience member.
As a demonstration of why the Red Hand Files work so well when filtered down, this stood out in its polluted insensitivity. – The artist as a commodity for their audience. The idea that those in the public eye are justifiable targets for criticism and derision. That’s the deal.
Cave didn’t always take criticism on the chin like this. In August 1988, Jack Barron’s NME interview crowned him “a journalist’s nightmare. An artist, who through… emotional blackmail tactics, expects a writer to snip off the barbs of their questions and place their tamed tongues in his rectum. He wants respect but doesn’t seem to respect a journalist’s freedom to inquire. Cave has even written a song about two ex-NME writers called Scum.”
As amusing as the piece is, it paints a picture of a man very different to the one reborn through tragedy. One who invites questions… Jack Barron wrote three decades ago about Cave, that: “he can’t trust journalists, especially English ones, who nod in agreement to his halting answers and then ridicule him in print… ‘I only trust somebody when I feel that they are genuinely on my side,’ he mentions pointedly.”
The difference between a musician and an artist can be found in this journey. The difference between craft and meaning is at the forefront of his work now. In issue 47 of the Red Hand Files in June he got two conflicting questions: Michael from Austin wrote: “You are the only musical artist that comes readily to mind whose work has improved, by an order of magnitude, after having given up drugs and alcohol. If this statement resonates with you, what are your thoughts?”, whilst Peti, from Zurich asked; “The greatest songs, I think, you wrote under influence of drugs. How is it these days?”
The response from Cave was measured: “Clearly you people have a difference of opinion. Maybe many an hour is spent amongst Bad Seeds fans squaring the merits of a song like The Mercy Seat, that was written during a period of serious and prolonged heroin and amphetamine use, against Jubilee Street, which was written by two drug-free vegetarians, or comparing a ballad like Love Letter (very stoned) with its tragic counterpart, I Need You (very straight). What makes me happy is that there is actually a conversation to be had. In rock ‘n’ roll there almost never is. Sometimes, but mostly never.”
Back at Brighton Dome, some funny moments shone a light on the difficulty of asking a good question, like the resident in Hove living in Nick Cave’s old flat asking: “Do you know where the stop-cock is?”, and there were plenty of requests like the articulate 10 year old winning a polite argument to hear the X-rated version of Stagger Lee with his parent’s permission.
During the three hour set, he mixed his genuine answers to mostly puerile questions with impassioned solos on piano from his vast catalogue. He played his heart, and the room felt it. The event was a triumph in generosity – an artist connecting with an audience that arguably did not deserve it. In an act of casual intimacy, Cave somehow flipped the consumption of a gig on its head; this was for him more than it was for us. As generous as he was with the process of respectfully responding to all questions – and he really was quite charitable in some cases – it was clear that it was not just a benevolence which drove his calm and thoughtful conversation, but an understanding that fame makes a commodity of the individual. And that spectacle can create a distance in which veracity dies. He claimed the fear of not knowing what will happen had given him something vital back.
And in that Cave delivered a wholly memorable night.
A request for lyrics in issue 43 of the Red Hand Files was matched with another question: “How do you forgive yourself for the horrible things you did to someone else in the throes of addiction?”
Nick gives Ray from Hawaii a great Lyric which includes;
“I love women, but I always loved drugs more. Even when I was in ‘em, I was halfway out the door to score”
He goes on to annotate: “This is in no way a glorification of drug taking, rather these words are heavy with a very real regret for the utter havoc my heroin addiction caused in my relationships with women. Every addict, male or female, will identify with these two lines.”
He bemoans in more detail something that echoed throughout the closing night of A Conversation with Nick Cave: “The real difficulty that arises around self-forgiveness is when you come to realise that you still do horrible things even when you are clean.”
His advice to be kind to yourselves and others, is as on the sleeve as he has perhaps always been. The earnestness that used to get him mocked. Perhaps the majority of the press and questions he gets are kinder to him these days, in light of his journey? Or perhaps he has found a way to not flip tables at inflammatory questions.
Back in 1988 and Cave has lost his cool – accusing Jack Barron of pointing the finger at him for kids that die who “had become addicts in part because they dumbly wanted to ape the kind of lifestyle Cave exudes”.
He is angry at Barron: “I talked to you the other night about heroin. I told you everything there was to know about it in relation to me. And I really regret ever having opened my mouth about it.”
“I’m sure you do,” Barron replied, opening the hotel bedroom door. “Because I didn’t realise what a fucking scumhill and what a filthy little prick you were,” Cave says, shoving the NME journalist out into the corridor and slamming the door. Barron concludes; “A couple of seconds later a glass comes hurtling past my skull and smashes against the wall. Nick, meanwhile, is getting a psychotic head of steam up. Only this time he isn’t play-acting.”
Three decades later and such reactions seem lost to time as he advises Matt from Montreal that: “A small, bright act of kindness towards another human being is not only a gesture of existential hope, it also reconciles us with the world, and ultimately becomes the path to self-forgiveness. Love Nick.”