Musician Nick Cave’s Fans and Music Carry Him Through the Tragedy of His Son’s Passing
Nick Cave is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumental artist, author, husband, and father whose memoir is dog-eared, highlighted, and underlined with brutal hardship and invincible hope.
At 19 years old, Cave’s father died suddenly in a car crash. Both of Cave’s parents were educators, and Cave’s father, Colin, was a significant literary influence in his formative years, introducing him to the potent works of Nabokov and Dostoevsky.
One out-loud reading of the first chapter of Lolita would come to be a memory Cave recounts as “the most intimate moment” he ever spent with his father.
Despite his precocious fascination with literature, Cave was expelled from high school at the young age of 13. Growing up in rural Australia, Nick illustrates his formative years, as ones mastered by crime and drugs.
Cave would learn of his father’s unwelcome death in a police station while his mother, Dawn, posted Cave’s bail. Cave was held in jail overnight on account of burglary charges.
The anti-establishment, gospel-citing, self-proclaimed “conservative”, punk musician, who is an enigma of contradictions– did not initially set out for a career in music. Instead, he started out as a visual artist, aspiring to be a painter. These early creative leanings are showcased throughout Cave’s oeuvre. His evocative music is painted distinct and cool; tattooed with intelligent, haunting, and often religious imagery. However, before his musical ambitions could become fully realized, in divine synchronicity, Cave was kicked out of art school just as his first band, “The Birthday Party” was forming in all its embryonic glory.
Turning his full attention to music, a young Nick Cave was an uncapped hot wire, electricity coursing through him, just waiting to shock whoever dared get close.
Sparked by the promise of the UK music scene as illustrated in the glossy pages of famed ‘rock inkie’ magazine NME, Cave and “The Birthday Party” fled home and followed hope, riding the post-punk train to London at the top of the 1980’s, with Cave riding it to underground infamy
The Rise of Nick Cave
Nick Cave became the revered, iconoclastic leader of a band earmarked by their bleak soundscapes, theatrical stage antics, and histrionic aggression. “The Birthday Party” trafficked in dissonance and discord. Their distinct punk aura was picked up by their fans. They became notorious as a band adept at playfully warring their audience who in retaliation, celebrated their acrimony.
Yet, despite the onstage brawls and offstage debauchery, Cave’s truthful lyricism cut through the bravado and noise. While “The Birthday Party’s” act suggested an environment of unruly chaos, through his eccentric anthems, Cave expertly created a community for misfits.
His bitter music matched the rage inside his fans, and his shows allowed the audience a space to play-act their rage out. Despite his oddball altruism, the candles eventually burnt out and “The Birthday Party” ended in ’83 but Cave’s career was only just beginning and thus The Bad Seeds were planted — literally.
“Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds,” the group Cave is most notably defined for, only upped the ante and Cave’s visibility.
It was in this atmosphere of chaos and post-punk-gothic-rock Cave was crushed in a trash compactor of cult celebrities and hardcore drug abuse. Despite maintaining a sincere devotion to “The Bad Seeds,” Cave’s enslavement to heroin was punishing. Opiates and anarchy ruled his reputation for the next decade.
“[I was] bashed up in police stations, dehumanized in rehabs, near-death experiences, suicidal thoughts, routine overdoses, reduced motivation, broken bones, being ripped off, liking Charles Bukowski, social and physical anhedonia, herd mentality, dead friends, f**ked up relationships, abscesses, car accidents, psychosis, reading The Hobbit, malnutrition, creative impotence, epic time-wasting, singing flat (still working on that), talking sh*t (still working on that too), life-threatening diseases, and not ringing my mother on her birthday.”– Nick Cave on his early life and narcotics abuse.
From Fiend to Father
After a string of tumultuous romantic affairs, resulting in the birth of his two sons Jethro Lazenby and Luke Cave (born just 10 days apart to different mothers)–Cave found love in 1999 when he married British fashion designer, Susie Bick.
With Susie’s support and the help of Narcotics Anonymous, Cave found the courage to break free from the chains of grim addiction.
He continued to generate music and quietly outgrow his libertine reputation. In 2000, Cave became a father to his twin boys Arthur and Earl, who he raised away from the noise of a world forever banging on his door, in the quaint seaside town of Brighton, England.
As a father, Cave stayed the course.
He continued to record his haunting, rebel heart anthems, which resonated with his dedicated fan base “The Bad Seeds” accrued over decades of tireless touring: “It’s pure happiness but there is also a level of intensity to the shows that is exhausting,” he said.
In his most recently published book, “Faith, Hope and Carnage,” from a matured point of view, Cave chronicles and synthesizes a lifetime of a “Young Nick”. He paints the portrait of a rebel bushranger who made a living off finding the audacity.
“The Young Nick Cave [who] could afford to hold the world in some form of disdain because he had no idea what was coming down the line”– Nick Cave, Faith, Hope and Carnage.
At 64 years old, Cave peers 40 years back into the looking glass. In a series of intimate dictated telephone conversations with journalist and long-time friend, Sean O’Hagan, in “Faith, Hope and Carnage,” Nick pries open the oyster shell that safeguards his life’s most agonizing tragedy; a devastating accident that forever altered his perspective on the gravity of art and the fragility of life.
A Father Buries His Son
At only 15 years old, during an LSD-induced psychosis, Cave’s son Arthur fell from a 60-foot cliff in Ovingdean Gap, Brighton suffering a fatal brain injury, killing him instantly.
Arthur was the twin brother of Earl Cave; Nick’s surviving son with Susie Bick.
Arthur’s sudden passing caused an excruciating and irreparable shift in Cave’s personal and professional life. The musician is transparent that the singular, harrowing event shattered the illusions of his worldview.
“‘You sitting at the kitchen table listening to the radio.’ This line, is of course, unremarkable as an image. But to me it is anything but ordinary, because it is the last memory I have of Susie before the phone rang with news that our son had died. It is a commonplace image, but for me it’s transcendent because it is the last unbroken memory of my wife.”– Nick Cave on ‘Spinning Song’, in Faith, Hope and Carnage
Cave maintains there is no real return to the world before. Cave had always taken refuge in music but in the wake of Arthur’s death, he struggled to find his voice amidst the pain and powerlessness.
Finding A New Direction
In Andrew Dominik’s masterful documentary, One More Time With Feeling (2016) Dominik pulls back the curtain, delicately archiving a spellbinding and vulnerable Cave, his fans seldom glimpse.
The film takes place in medias res, with Cave struggling to finish his album “Skeleton Tree,” amidst grieving the death of his son.
Dominik holds tight to Cave, capturing deep blue eyes, holding back whirlpools of pain. The camera tells simultaneous tales: of a father at the precipice of collapse and an artist at the threshold of a transcendent masterpiece.
Framed off-kilter, shot in black-and-white, Cave (perhaps most powerfully) spends fragments of the film, suspended in the back of a London taxi cab, with a voice off camera prompting Cave to account Arthur, for the first time in detail.
For the duration of the film we watch Cave straddle the phantasmic line between melancholic restraint and cacophonous wit–daring his audience to laugh, provoking them to cry. All in a balance beam act that has become his calling card. The handheld camera shakes us, we brace ourselves for the fall.
Cave addresses the voice behind the camera. “Well I don’t just want to write songs like a diary of my life,” he articulates. “I want to write songs that radiate out and connect with people, that don’t alienate people. But trauma, in the way that this happened,” Cave pauses, finding the right words, avoiding the wrong words, “in the way the events happened was extremely damaging to the creative process.”
He circles that conviction that certain tragedy is too grave for art. He means it. Cave return his gaze to the window finding momentary reprieve on the other side, transfixed on some darkling plain there, another world out of reach. The taxi cab clunks over speed bumps, breaks slam still at red lights, and the black car rocks him in a metropolitan world that spins by like a zoetrope, all the while with Cave holding at the center.
One More Time With Feeling, follows Cave through the atrocious unknown, navigating the ugly, the brutal, and the beautiful new; as he heroes to create his first record in the wake of Arthur’s death with long-time collaborator and composer Warren Ellis.
The album is aptly titled, “Skeleton Tree.” Cave and Ellis patchwork together, a bewitching narrative. In their avant-garde studio sessions, Cave tames pages of loose-leaf poetry at the piano.
He waters his range and stretches his choked baritone skyward, branching poetry into lyrics while Ellis whips up winds of music so arresting, its resounding song emanates from somewhere deep within the earth’s vermilion core. In a truly holy process, three decades of friendship, collaboration, and soul are dextrously passed between them. Together they breathe song into sorrow.
A predominant portion of “Skeleton Tree” was written but unassembled before Arthur’s passing, and yet, for a record largely written before his son’s death, “Skeleton Tree’s” lyricisms are eerily relevant, if not downright prophetic of Cave’s loss.
The album’s tracks possess foreboding lyrics that hint at some impending premonition, a thought that Cave remarks in retrospect he himself, is still mystified by.
“”Cause nothing really matters/On the night we wrecked like a train“, Cave bellows out in heartbreak on his track ‘I Need You’, “Purring cars and pouring rain/Never felt right about it, never again“
Yet, Cave’s life seems dogged by ghostly coincidences. In similar happenstance, Cave’s wife Susie, uncovered a child’s hand-drawn artwork, hidden in storage, after Arthur’s death.
The artist was their son Arthur at 7 years old, and his harrowing drawing depicts the peaky cliffs, in Ovingdean Gap, Brighton. The same place, where Arthur would meet death, eight years later.
On camera, Susie uncomfortably notes her superstition around the artifact, never quite pinning down the supernatural. Susie meditates on her fixation with the piece which presented itself to her as a peculiar omen. In opposition to her usual white matte framing, Susie notes that for some ominous reason, Arthur’s drawing was framed and matted in black.
Returning To His Fans
It is here, in this space, in the vigil of mourning, Nick Cave empties his oeuvre of all lingering falsehood.
He sets out towards something more mythic and elusive than entirely comprehensible. There is trust in this foreign space. Intuition holds his hand and he follows. In the midst of his mourning, a creative tempest brewed.
Cave, unable to go back to his old world, could only hope his fans would welcome this shift and voyage the new world with him.
“There is a deep nostalgia for the old songs…some people feel very attached to our past or more precisely, their own past. [The] idea we would make a different kind of music seems like a betrayal almost. Thankfully there are so many people eager to journey with us, to experience the lovely discomfort and danger that comes from attempting something new”– Nick Cave, Faith, Hope and Carnage.
During this time of cathartic artistic rebirth, after the release of “Skeleton Tree,” (a far departure from anything Cave had released until then), Cave’s desire to deepen his presence with his fans, became fully realized with “The Red Hand Files.“
The website, created and operated by solely Cave, is structured around the simple premise of fans writing letters to him.
In an intimate, controlled arena, Cave handpicks letters to respond to, then publishes the exchange on his blog. Correspondences range from famously mocking Chat GPT’s inability to ‘write a Nick Cave song’ to instructing a 13-year-old fan on “how to live life to the fullest“.
In the case of his 13-year-old fan Reuben, only two years younger than the age when Arthur passed, one can’t help but feel heartbreak in Cave’s emphatic encouragement, that somewhere written in the white space between, Cave pens a letter to the afterlife.
“Absorb into yourself the world’s full richness and goodness and fun and genius, so that when someone tells you it’s not worth fighting for, you will stick up for it, protect it, run to its defence, because it is your world they’re talking about, then watch that world continue to pour itself into you in gratitude.”– Nick Cave in response to 13-year-old fan Reuben, The Red Hand Files.
Amidst Cave’s unparalleled panache for language coupled with an earnest spirit that seeks to inspire; within the RHF community, there is an undercurrent of fans reaching out to Cave with real, open, trauma, and more perhaps remarkable still, there is an undeniable need Cave has, an earnest mania he himself is convinced he may never shake, to reach back out, even if just to voice he understands he may never understand.
In spite of the weight of tragedy, Cave notes even now he still feels “a duty towards the fans who have invested so much in the band”, even when his fans may feel betrayed by his shifting image.
At the top of the New Year, a fan criticized Cave for what he called his Hallmark Card Hippie attitude, inciting Cave to return to the “rage” and “anger” distinct of his early work. Cave met his fan’s review with delicate, funny, heartbreaking compassion, all at once.
Things changed after my first son died. I changed. For better or for worse, the rage you speak of lost its allure and, yes, perhaps I became a Hallmark card hippie. Hatred stopped being interesting. Those feelings were like old dead skins that I shed. They were their own kind of puke. Sitting around in my own mess, pissed off at the world, disdainful of the people in it, and thinking my contempt for things somehow amounted to something, had some kind of nobility, hating this thing here, and that thing there, and that other thing over there, and making sure that everybody around me knew it, not just knew, but felt it too, contemptuous of beauty, contemptuous of joy, contemptuous of happiness in others, well, this whole attitude just felt, I don’t know, in the end, sort of dumb.
When my son died, I was faced with an actual devastation, and with no real effort of my own that posture of disgust toward the world began to wobble and collapse underneath me. I started to understand the precarious and vulnerable position of the world. I started to fret for it. Worry about it. I felt a sudden, urgent need to, at the very least, extend a hand in some way to assist it – this terrible, beautiful world – instead of merely vilifying it, and sitting in judgement of it.
Perhaps, Ermine, you are right, and I did, for good or ill, turn from a living sh*t-post into a walking Hallmark card. But, well, here we are, you and me, sending smoke signals to each other across a yawning ideological divide. Hello Ermine, I drone, hello.
The Way Forward
In the wake of tragedy, through trial by fire, Cave masterfully moves alongside grief. Rather than bulldozing adversity, Cave lives in it, with it, an extraordinary feat. Whether he knows it or not (though I suspect he does) Cave’s transformation, both as an artist and a man is his crowning contribution to his fans.
From a spikey-haired, out of place, punk kid, kicking cans down dead-end roads and scoring dope from dawn to dusk — Cave emerges from his tribulations weathered, tender, and yet more resilient than ever.
Hand in hand with his devout followers, there is a spiritual movement Cave has assigned himself to. It is a sacred and empowering undertaking, that requires dogmatic dedication.
Nearly seven decades of character-building have gone into the powerhouse that is Nick Cave. In his quieter wisdom, he bonds to catastrophe in synergy.
After a career spanning decades, when questioned on whether or not writing songs and performing has lost its meaning for Cave, he answers the poignant question this way:
“I think it is more that you arrive to a point where the reason for making art, making music, changes. You find it can serve another purpose entirely. You come to understand this wayward energy you’ve always had, directed in the right way, can actually help people. That music can draw people out of their suffering, even if it’s just temporary respite”.
In the aftermath of death, it is clear Nick Cave’s music and poetry are but the catalyst for his primary purpose.
Cave is determined to mend a broken world–to uncross the lines of communication. At the crux of his music, a desire for fellowship has always burned.
In fact, creating these niche clubs for society’s dejected, no matter how motley its members may be, is an avocation Cave has had a knack for, since his early days with “The Birthday Party.”
In the days where Young Nick traipsed the early world, with his band of bohemians, wailing poetry in the din of seedy clubs, on sticky stages, calling out to his beatnik comrades, who recognized their same song in his and decades later, still do.
Of course, we all are Young Nick for a time. Staring fearless down the train tunnel of an unknown future, no idea what is coming for us down the line.
Yet, Nick Cave has walked that line. Through grief and through fire, and despite the scorched road, he has walked the line like a tightrope, and he waves us over to join him on the other side. Nick Cave won’t let nihilism win out. In spite of death, he dares us to dream a thousand feet in the air.
Collective grief can bring extraordinary change, a kind of conversation of the spirit, and with it great opportunity. We can seize this opportunity, or we can squander it and let it pass us by.– Nick Cave, Faith Hope and Carnage.
Though decades of kicking, screaming, punk have mellowed to ethereal chants, like siren songs calling us home, in his softness– Nick Cave is adamant, Nick Cave is ignited, Nick Cave is more hell-bent than ever on seizing the opportunity.
On The Other Side of the Line
In 2019 Nick Cave released “Ghosteen“, his seventeenth studio album.
“Whereas, Skeleton Tree made little sense to me. It was too close to the time of my son’s death for me to feel anything or reason to clearly…[Ghosteen] became an imagined world where Arthur could be..where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven, or rest”.– Nick Cave, Faith, Hope and Carnage.
In a remarkable herald to the tempered beauty of life, “Ghosteen’s” standout track ‘Bright Horses‘ is, in my quiet opinion, Nick Cave’s magnum opus. It is pure poetic light hailing from a realm entirely divine, staring death right down the line:
Shortly after “Faith, Hope and Carnage” went into print, Nick’s eldest son Jethro Lazenby passed away in May of last year. At the request of Beau Lazenby, Jethro’s mother, Nick declined to speak on the incident.
Yet now more than ever, Nick Cave cements himself deep in the foundation he has laid with his fans. In September of 2023, Cave will be embarking on his solo North American Tour.
In stadiums across the country, Cave will gather thousands. For an evening, they will share the arena together. Fans pouring in with their lifetime of love lost and hope regained.
Cave’s music is part of the unique soundtrack to which each and every one of their lives is set: He has consoled single mothers driving home from double shifts, through CD players in old car stereos. He has blasted in AirPods while teenagers filled with faith and fury daydream at their desks. He has been spun on vinyl, out of a thrifted record player — while two people sit on a living room floor in the San Gabriel Valley, silently falling in love.
Cave has been there for it all; the grand, the small, the beautiful.
And through addiction, through sobriety, through the birth of his children, through the death of his children, nearly seven decades later, his fans have been there too.
In the most promising season of his life, he goes to them.