RHC 2018: Nick Cave: Mercy on Me by Reinhart Kleist

overshare, Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image.

Alternate: A comic written and drawn by the same person.

This post got a little out of control in terms of length and amount of navel gazing. It also has very little do to do with the comic. So buckle up.

Reinhart Kleist’s graphic biography Nick Cave: Mercy on Me was the comics equivalent of a pint of Cherry Garcia for me. And I enjoyed a large portion of it during my daughter’s nap with a literal pint of Cherry Garcia (it was a wonderful afternoon).

This is a treat if, and possibly only if, you’re enough of a Nick Cave fan to immediately recognize his lyrics after being translated into German and then back again into English, grin every time Kleist’s art perfectly renders Cave’s constant vampire pout, or enjoy seeing characters from his songs loose and mouthy on the page (though I was disappointed that Kylie Minogue’s blandly virginal Wild Rose made an appearance instead of PJ Harvey’s infinitely more interesting murderess).

I am this target audience.

Most of the book’s material is straight from the Cave gospel, and a lot seemed to be lifted directly from the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (which I highly recommend). It ends at about the same point as 20,000 Days on Earth, too, with an older Cave onstage howling “Higgs Bosun Blues” while clutching the hands of his adoring fans. It’s a great ending for a Nick Cave story, with the aging prophet at the height of his power, all that narcissism and vulnerability and raw creative talent shrieking defiantly into the void while the crowd goes wild.

I haven’t seen the other Nick Cave documentary One More Time With Feeling, which covered the making of his most recent album Skeleton Tree. Skeleton Tree remains a very difficult album for me to listen to, though I do think its last three tracks are some of the most beautiful he’s ever written. One of his sons died in an accident in 2015, and that loss is written in The Skeleton Tree’s DNA. It feels like a giant missing piece of any Cave biography, even though I realize Mercy on Me was probably completed before it happened. I truly wish that the Mercy on Me ending was the coda that Nick Cave got, instead of the horrible and very real thing that happened to his family.

I want to talk about who Nick Cave is in terms of Anne Gresham. But first, a point of clarification: Nick Cave is an actual human man, who I don’t know personally. When I talk about Nick Cave, I’m rarely talking about that flesh and blood person who walks around and requires food, sleep, and toileting like all the rest of us. I’m usually talking about his music and the complicated place it occupies in my own personal cosmos. Maybe that’s why Skeleton Tree was such an upsetting listen for me – I wasn’t ready to hear Cave sounding that desperately honest.

Here’s how Nick Cave came into my life. It was summer, 1999, and I was at Arkansas Governor’s School, a six week program for academically gifted youngsters. I was in Area III, which was the “touchy feely” portion of the program (“personal and social development”), which I mostly spent trying not to get caught staring at the lanky teenage boy that I would marry almost exactly ten years later.

That day we’d been tasked to bring in a song which we felt represented our truest selves. We had quite a few drama kids in our group, and Rent made more than one appearance. I can’t remember what I brought in, but it wasn’t anything that rocked the boat or drew unwanted attention. I don’t remember what Chris brought either.

Here’s what I do remember. A tall redheaded girl, who frankly looked like she could take on the entire room in a fight and win without breaking a sweat, played “The Curse of Millhaven” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The entire room was stunned. I remember a perky aspiring thespian struggling for words after the track ended and finally choking out, “this… this is… offensive. Offensive.

After class, I shyly approached the redheaded badass and asked her about the song. She let me borrow Murder Ballads and I was instantly ON BOARD. “Curse of Millhaven” remains one of my favorite Bad Seeds songs, but “Song of Joy” with all its Milton references, “Henry Lee” with PJ Harvey, and “Crow Jane” (and I may be the only one who would put this on a top Nick Cave songs list, but I love its kicking-rocks-down-a-dusty-road laziness) all worked for me too.

This was post-Napster but squarely in the middle of the Audio Galaxy/Nucleus/KaZaA etc. era, and so it was a while before I got into Nick Cave’s full albums. Instead, I’d start a song download and hope it would be finished by the time I woke up the next morning. This is how I first heard “Deanna,” “Tupelo,” his cover of “Let It Be,” and half of the track “There Is a Light” (oddly, featured on the Batman Forever soundtrack, of all things).

Then my mom gave me his greatest hits and what was then his most recent album No More Shall We Part as a Christmas present, and that was it. My long time muse Trent Reznor was officially supplanted.

Fast forward to the spring of my freshman year of college. The Bad Seeds were playing a show in Minneapolis. I bought two tickets, genuinely believing that they would be tickets to a lasting love affair with someone who truly understood me. I posted a message on the student discussion board–“Hey, I’ve got two tickets to see Nick Cave, anyone want to go?” There were only two takers, and it turned out one of them thought I’d meant Nick Drake and wasn’t interested once that misunderstanding was cleared up.

So I met up with a very nice stranger to drive up to Minneapolis. I showed up in full Hot Topic regalia, vinyl pants, black eyeliner, barbed wire necklace, the whole nine yards. He showed up in a white tee shirt and jeans, and I’m pretty sure was entirely mortified by me. We didn’t fall in love, or really talk again after that, though he was in my creative writing classes a couple of years later and wrote absolutely beautiful fiction.

That show though. Nick Cave was everything I wanted him to be–terrifying, ridiculous, sexy, repulsive, Southern Gothic by way of Australia. He prowled around the stage in a lime green suit like some kind of Chocolate Factory-inspired demon, while Warren Ellis lurched around the stage like the Phantom of the Opera if the Phantom played the electric violin. I got to hear “Stagger Lee” live, and it was every nasty, unspeakable thing I could have hoped for.

I had a hard time adjusting to college at first. A small liberal arts school somehow had seemed ideal for a shy kid like me, but those first few semesters felt like I had a spotlight shining directly on me at all times and I got a little desperate for a crowd to disappear into. I spent a lot of time those first few semesters driving around two-lane Minnesota highways in my little black Neon, where I got really good at snarling, growling, yelping, and belting Nick Cave songs. To this day I can’t hear the album Tender Prey without seeing the intersection of Highway 19 where you take a left for Red Wing and decide whether you need to get back to finish that Political Philosophy paper or whether you’ve got time to drive a little further and see what’s going on across the Mississippi River in great state of Wisconsin.

Will I allow my own progeny unfettered access to my gas station credit card? My gut reaction is “oh hell no.” But on the other hand, while I likely owe my parents thousands of dollars in aimless ramble miles and the environment a substantial carbon offset check, those drives were hugely mentally stabilizing for me. And having a car on campus was easy leverage for making friends, which I eventually, awkwardly, painfully did. So I don’t know. Maybe I will let her have a gas card after all. Hopefully that’s not how our cars will work by then, though, and hopefully she’ll be more comfortable in her own skin than I was.

So, here I am. I’m 35 years old, and I still listen to a lot of Nick Cave by myself. I love The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds as much as the calmer, more “literary” later stuff. “Mutiny in Heaven,” “Release the Bats,” “City of Refuge,” and his cover of “Black Betty” are some of my favorite running songs. I’m pretty sure that the idea of a 35-year-old librarian mom working out to his music would absolutely gall the wild-eyed postpunk evangelist Nick Cave of the 1980s, but at least now I get the black comedy horror of his later lines like: “I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed / I woke up this morning with a frappucino in my hand” in a way teenage me really couldn’t. Or this entire song.

My writing playlist is basically the Nick Cave discography.

I will hear no ill spoken of “Straight to You.” It is the most perfect love song ever written and I will not hear otherwise.

Here’s a final Nick Cave Anne story. I was driving to visit my parents when I got a call from the birth center with the results of our cell-free DNA test and I heard about our child’s double x chromosomes. Right after I got off the phone and got done happy-crying in the parking lot of a rural Seven Day Adventist church, “There She Goes My Beautiful World” came up on my playlist. Toward the end of the song, he changes the title line to “there she goes, my beautiful girl.” Cheesy, sure. The song still makes me cry every time I hear it.

But my feelings about Nick Cave are complicated. One of my favorite, most closed-eyes-swaying beloved love ballads is “The Ship Song.” The lyrics “We talk about it all night long / We define our moral ground / But when I crawl into your arms / Everything, it comes tumbling down,” is one of my all time favorite sweeping romantic declarations, and it gets me all misty-eyed and fist-pumpy every time. But the same song contains the most patronizing lines I have ever heard: “Your face has fallen sad now / For you know the time is nigh / When I must remove your wings / And you… you must try to fly.”

That’s harder for me to deal with than all of the sexualized violence in his lyrics. By the way, of the nine killers on Murder Ballads, six are male and three are female. The male killers’ body count stands at 23, while the women have the blood of at least 43 souls on their hands (it’s ambiguous exactly how many deaths Lottie caused beyond the Bailey kid, the handyman, old Mrs. Colgate, and the children who broke through the ice on Lake Tahoo). I started to analyze victims by gender, but I worry that I’m already treading on your patience with this post and don’t want to push my luck.

There are some great, explosive non-murdery Nick Cave songs that aren’t chivalrously chauvinistic. “Babe I’m On Fire,” and “Lay Me Low” are very different songs, but invite the woman they’re addressed to into the singer’s headspace as equals, if that makes sense.

But it’s hard to imagine gender flipped versions of, say, “Watching Alice,” “Sugar Sugar Sugar,” “From Her to Eternity,” etc. There’s a running motif of fragile, idealized, infantile women in Cave’s work that I can’t pretend I don’t see.

So what do I do with that? I did a Google search for <<Nick Cave misogyny>> and then really wished I hadn’t. The internet’s answer was a resounding “um, obviously.” There was even a really cringy interview with Vulture that truly did not help his case.

Here’s an essay about Nick Cave and the special problems he presents for his feminist female fandom, and here’s the part I really, really wish I’d written:

Nick-Cave-the-Jaded-but-Mostly-Benevolent-God is not the figure I closet in an obscure but fixed recess of my tenement heart. The man who lives there is Nick Cave, 1984, feral, the rawboned lycanthropic swamp-Elvis hiding out from daylight in a squalid motel room spying through peepholes like the anonymous creep of Barbusse’s Hell, the sexually obsessive psychotic criminal animal Nick Cave. I should be immune to the romance of this image. I am not.

Ans so we come to the part where I fumble for excuses for liking this stuff and come up empty handed.

Except.

Nick Cave didn’t show up in my life because a boyfriend had me listen to him (to be clear, in this manner a lot of good music made its way into my life), or because I heard it in my older brother’s car (ditto). Nick Cave was a rare example of something I started liking just because I liked it, not because anyone told me it was a cool thing to like. I’ve never been closely involved with anyone that’s as into Nick Cave as I am. It’s something that’s always felt very personal to me, and I’ve always been protective of it.

And yeah, when I find out that there’s a well-reviewed chunky comic book biography out there, I snap it up, buy some ice cream, and spend some time curled up on the couch grinning from ear to ear while paging through a story I already know but will sing along with every time.

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