Stranger Than Kindness

Nick Cave

Canongate, £35

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THERE it is, in all its sprawling, scribbled sublimity, stretching languorously across pages 182 and 183. The lyrics of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (denuded of its trinity of exclamation marks in Nick Cave’s first pencilled version) stand spare yet capable of casting a spell from the innocuous land of shiny, expensive paper.

It stands as my favourite Cave song, though it has strong competition from Into My Arms, Tupelo and the blood-soaked 14 minutes 28 seconds of O’Malley’s Bar. In truth, it does not matter what Cave song one chooses; they are all propelled by the same obsessions. He sings of death and God with the same facility that a cruise ship crooner warbles about love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage.

The song Lazarus, however, entranced me into its dark, sardonic embrace both by its pulsating beat – a seduction technique Cave rarely eschews – but also by its invocation of one of the most spectacular characters in that mesmerising narrative called the New Testament. The recovery powers of Cave, however, make Lazarus seem like a malingerer.

The friend of Jesus, after all, overcame death just the once, twice if one believes in an afterlife. There is a case to be made that Cave has overcome death three times and he is still living, breathing, writing, painting and surviving at 62 years of age. The first crisis was the death of his father when the artist was 21. The second was when he danced dreamily with mortality in the arms of heroin addiction. The third was the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell from a cliff near the family home in Brighton in 2015.

All this is in the past. All this informs the present. Cave has careered through different forms, with varied accomplices: the Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. But he has maintained a consistency of subject matter while expressing his personal growth and, indeed, debilitating pain, through everything. Ghosteen, his latest album, is distilled experience. It is intoxicating but then numbing.

So this is the man: songwriter, poet, author, and scriptwriter. But what is Stranger than Kindness? First, of course, it is the title of Cave’s favourite song from his canon. This is typically generous, given that the lyrics were written by Anita Lane. Unsurprisingly, given his preoccupation with death, Cave describes the song as the “autopsy” of a relationship.

Stranger than Kindness, the book, is the material evidence of Cave’s creative life. It consists of an excellent introduction from Darcey Steinke, the American writer who is the daughter of a Lutheran minister. This is no trick of chance. This is an introduction that reads like the witness statement from a spiritual investigation There is a brief coda from Cave and he seems to have contributed to the informative notes that are pinned on to lush pages of lyrics, notebooks, scraps of saints, photographs of love and loss, and splendid peculiarities.

Who can resist a double-page colour shot of a bag emblazoned with the name Kylie Minogue which has accompanied Cave on several worldwide tours? It was not given to him by his fellow Australian singer, with whom he collaborated on a track on Murder Ballads, but was the result of a strange trip into the Manchester side streets and the generosity of a stranger.

Who cannot be intrigued by a porcelain bust of Jesus that sits beside Cave’s bed every night? This was given to him by Victoria Clarke, wife of Shane MacGowan. Cave testifies that it serves as “protection’. It is not to be confused with the bust of Jesus, redeemed from a Buenos Aires flea market, which Cave carries under his arm on foreign trips.

In a book of beauty and understated style, there are more scraps of religious pictures, icons, and objects than one could reasonably expect to find after an explosion in a Lourdes gift shop.

So what does it all add up to, what is its purpose? First, the book has been curated by Cave, in collaboration with Christina Black, from the images from Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. It is, then, on one level an expensive programme.

Its publishers also state that “this highly collectible book invites the reader into the innermost core of the creative process and paves the way for an entirely new and intimate meeting with the artist”. That is quite a claim. As Kenny Dalglish, that most perceptive of cultural commentators, might attest: “mibbes aye, mibbes naw.”

It will be seen as a book for the true believers in the Church of Cave. There is a pity in this. Yes, those who love his music and writing will be fascinated, even moved, by many of the exhibits in the book. The linear progression of his career is carefully chronicled but with enterprise and insight.

But it is also an alluring introduction for those who know little of Cave beyond the superficial, whether it be his presence on a TV soundtrack or his appearance in the press as a victim of tragedy. The man in the black suit, the incarnation of the hipster undertaker, has his story of death and God and it is fluid, never hectoring, always generous and occasionally breath-taking.

Stranger than Kindness, in its solid binding and expensive photograph plates, merely gives hints, perhaps nudges, to the life and work of a great artist. Arthur, for example, is largely absent in the text, though the beautiful cover painting surely nods to father and son. Heroin is often mentioned but its capacity to relieve and then diminish is visible on many of the earlier pages. Cave, after all, is an artist who sometimes drew in his own blood. With a candid casualness, he once remarked: “When you are an intravenous drug user, blood plays a big part of your life.”

The book serves best as an invitation to explore Cave’s work further, whether one is a novice or a committed celebrant. It is worth the effort. Cave has a lesson, or more, for all.

He searches for the light but has been informed, brutally, by darkness. A stunning poem in the book obviously references the grief felt by his wife, Susie. It speaks of her being haunted by “beasts” and “a black witch” in her sleep. A fragment reads:

And in time I leave her there and go

To the world clawing against the window

Hey, I’m not saying there isn’t any hope

For I can see a moment in between

The waking horror and the sleeping dream

Where the world and she are breathless beautiful

Where the world and she are breathless beautiful

The repetition of the last line forms a hymn to that human ability to search and find the divine in moments of transcendence. It is also a statement of Cave’s faith that we are not separate entities but part of something larger, certainly ultimately beyond our intellectual comprehension but able to be experienced if not fully explained. His message is not that of the happy-clappy preacher though he is an evangelist for something more real, more substantial.

Cave in his murder ballads has always posited that evil is as human as goodness. His life has proclaimed that grief is as natural as joy, that comfort is elusive and pain unavoidable. He – and we – meet it all with hope, perhaps even faith. His lesson is that life is hard. Damned hard. But he endures. And so can we.

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