Friday, 11 September 2009

the gospel according to Nick Cave

Few musicians could write an opening verse like the following and get away with it:

I don't believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

Into My Arms is a beautifully haunting love song and I was intrigued to discover that Nick Cave wrote it after visiting a church in Surrey. What the song highlights is the influence of faith and scripture on Cave’s writing. Simon Mayo interviewed Cave for Radio 5 Live this week and I was pleasantly surprised when he askenick caved a question which I had submitted via Twitter: ‘Does the Bible continue to have a big influence on your writing and which parts in particular?’ The answer was interesting because Cave began by saying that he didn’t read the Bible much anymore, but then went on to talk about Mark’s Gospel at some length.

Nick Cave wrote the introduction to Marks’ Gospel for Canongate Books’ ‘Pocket Canon’ series published in 1998. This is an extract from the Introduction:

When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness.

I had a burgeoning interest in voilent literature, coupled with an unnamed sense of the divinity in things and, in my early twenties, the Old Testament spoke to that part of me that railed and hissed and spat at the world. I believed in God, but I also believed that God was malign and if the Old Testament was testament to anything, it was testament to that. Evil seemed to live close to the surface of existence within it, you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl from its many pages, hear the blood-curdling moans of despair. It was a wonderful, terrible book, and it was sacred scripture.

But you grow up. You do. You mellow out. Buds of compassion push through the cracks in the black and bitter soil. Your rage ceases to need a name. You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.

Then, one day, I met an Anglican vicar and he suggested that I give the Old Testament a rest and read Mark instead. I hadn't read the New Testament at that stage because the New Testament was about Jesus Christ and the Christ I remembered from my choirboy days was that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised. I spent my pre-teen years singing in the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church: it was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.

"Why Mark?", I asked. "Because it's short", he replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took the vicar's advice and read it and the Gospel of Mark just swept me up.

Here, I am reminded of that picture of Christ, painted by Holman Hunt, where He appears, robed and handsome, a lantern in His hand, knocking on a door: the door to our hearts, presumably. The light is dim and buttery in the engulfing darkness. Christ came to me in this way, lumen Christi, with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough. Out of all the New Testament writings - from the Gospels, through the Acts and the complex, driven letters of Paul to the chilling, sickening Revelation - it is Mark's Gospel that has truly held me.

Later in the essay Cave goes on to write:

The Gospel According to Mark has continued to inform my life as the root source of my spirituality, my religiousness. The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid 'Saviour' - the man smiling benignly at a group of children or serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow or His boiling anger that confronts us so forcibly in Mark. Thus the Church denies Christ His humanity, offering up a figure that we can perhaps 'praise' but never relate to. The essential humanness of Mark's Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives so that we have something we can aspire to rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.

Merely to praise Christ in His Perfectness keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Clearly, this is not what Christ had in mind. Christ came as a liberator. Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity - our ordinariness, our mediocrity - and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.

Although Cave was quite ambiguous about his faith in the interview with Mayo, his song writing continues to be infused with symbols and imagery drawn from scripture. Commenting on his band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ last album Dig Lazarus Dig!!! Cave says:

Ever since I can remember hearing the Lazarus story, when I was a kid, you know, back in church, I was disturbed and worried by it. Traumatised, actually. We are all, of course, in awe of the greatest of Christ's miracles—raising a man from the dead—but I couldn't help but wonder how Lazarus felt about it. As a child it gave me the creeps, to be honest. I've taken Lazarus and stuck him in New York City, in order to give the song, a hip, contemporary feel.

In 1999 Nick Cave gave a lecture on The Love Song in Vienna and the text is littered with references to God and the Bible. Reflecting on the impact of the Old Testament Cave observes:

Around the age of twenty, I stared reading the Bible and I found in the brutal prose of the Old Testament, in the feel of its words and its imagery, an endless source of inspiration. The Song of Solomon, perhaps the greatest love song ever written, had a massive impact upon me. Its openly erotic nature, the metaphoric journey taken around the lovers bodies – breasts compared to bunches of grapes and young deer, hair and teeth compared to flocks of goats and sheep, legs like pillars of marble, the navel- a round goblet, the belly- a heap of wheat – its staggering imagery rockets us into the world of pure imagination. Although the two lovers are physically separate – Solomon is excluded from the garden where his beloved sings – it is the wild, obsessive projections of one lover onto another that dissolve them into a single being, constructed from a series of rapturous love-metaphors.

The Song of Solomon is an extraordinary love song but it was the remarkable series of love song/poems known as the Psalms that truly held me. I found the Psalms, which deal directly with relationship between man and God, teeming with all the clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for. The Psalms are soaked in suadade, drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence. In many ways these songs became the blue-print for much of my more sadistic love songs. Psalm 137, a particular favourite of mine and which was turned into a chart hit by the fab little band Boney M. is a perfect example of all I have been talking about.

These comments about the darker aspects of the scriptures reflected in the Psalms point to other themes which are constants in Cave’s writing alongside the spiritual; sex and violence. This darker side is perhaps best expressed through projects like Grinderman, Cave’s film script for The Proposition and his latest book, which was the focus of Simon Mayo’s interview, The Death of Bunny Munro. There are plenty of other influences on Cave’s writing, reflecting a wide range of interests and a depth of cultural appreciation, making Cave one of the most interesting and challenging contemporary musicians and writers.

Here’s a taste of Nick Cave in action performing Into My Arms back in 1999.

The Simon Mayo interview can be found here and my question comes at about 1hr 27mins 40secs.


Johanna said...

We used this version of Into My Arms with candle lighting for the intercessions at our wedding. Not evryone there was Christian. I love the tension between unbelief and faith.

Cosmo said...

You might like to check out CAVEspers for a full worship set featuring Nick Cave.

Philip Ritchie said...

Johanna, what an interesting choice of song to use for intercessions at a wedding!

Cosmo, thanks for the link to CAVEspers which I've now posted as a new blog at .

Johanna said...

I'd forgotten I'd commented here. We stripped all the bits that we didn't believe in out of our wedding service (frocks, flowers, bridesmaids, walking down aisles, speeches, formal photos etc etc) and centered it on a Eucharist. In that context it seemed OK to admit not everyone believed what we did