The Black Crow King: reflections on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, part 2

After the disintegration of The Birthday Party in 1983, Cave assembled a new band that allowed him to get closer to his ever-expanding musical vision. Whether through design or accident, the Bad Seeds soon evolved into a frequently-changing roster of musicians tethered by two pillars. The first of these was Mick Harvey, a multi-instrumentalist (moving between guitar, bass, keyboard and drums between albums as the band changed and grew). Like Cave himself, Harvey had been a founding member of both The Birthday Party and Boys Next Door. Harvey’s role in the Bad Seeds cannot, I think, ever be understated. Whilst he took a distinctly secondary role (or at least, didn’t have the top billing that Cave had), Harvey’s musical style and gifts subtly guided the band’s development for decades – something that becomes apparent if you ever hear his soundtrack works, or indeed his own solo work.

The second pillar of the Bad Seeds was Blixa Bargeld, much-admired front-man for Germany’s Einsturzende Neubauten. An avant garde musician and gifted songwriter in his own right, Bargeld took up guitar duties for the Bad Seeds despite apparently hating the instrument. Bargeld’s more industrial sensibilities provided a curious counterpoint for Cave, particularly in those early, formative years of the Bad Seeds.  Cave’s ties with the Continent would only grow during the mid-80s, as he and other members of the band moved from to West Berlin for several years. Later, during a particularly disastrous tour, the Bad Seeds would pick up two members of Germany’s Die Haut when other band members were sick or unavailable. One left shortly thereafter, whilst the other – Thomas Wyldler, drummer – stayed on for decades.

The early years of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are the sound of sloughing off old identities and discovering new ones. From Her to Eternity (1984) and The Firstborn is Dead (1985) are both dark, dirty albums that initially don’t seem too far removed from The Birthday Party’s later output. Yet, the themes here are different, more refined. The sound has also changed, with Rowland Howard’s guitar traded for Bargeld’s more stripped back sound. Firstborn, in particular, is heavily influenced by early blues and spirituals; its swampy vibe is the soundtrack to a macabrely imagined American South. The opening track, ‘Tupelo’, is a tale of Elvis Presley’s birth warped and twisted by a relentless messianic fervour.

This obsession was at least partially due (or reflected in) to Cave’s literary pursuits; his first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, had a similarly fetid sheen. The book’s shadow lay over much of his output in the ‘80s; its roots go back as far as ‘Swampland’, a track from The Birthday Party’s final album, with tropes from And The Ass… eventually infecting the lyrics of several albums. The novel, for those that are interested, was eventually released until 1988. I am halfway tempted to name drop authors like Faulkner to find a point of comparison, but to be honest I’ve never read Faulkner and I’d just be copying references from the back cover blurb. So, I’ll just say it’s a powerfully intoxicating if somewhat challenging read, and absolutely recommended.

I don’t have much connection to the Bad Seeds’ first two albums. I’ve re-listened to both of them recently and the songs I’ve always liked – ‘Tupelo’, ‘Black Crow King’, ‘Saint Huck’ and the title track from From Her to Eternity – remain standouts. Large portions of these albums, though, are a little too raw for me, the reference points unclear or the music a little ragged. It is the Bad Seeds, but not yet, perhaps, ‘my’ Bad Seeds. I know some who think Cave peaked here but this feels like, to me, more of a transitory stage than an entry point. Not that it would take too long for the ever-changing Bad Seeds to turn into something different.

I think it was 1986, with the twin releases of Kicking Against The Pricks (an album of covers) and Your Funeral, My Trial, the Bad Seeds had developed into their own beast. Pricks wasn’t the Bad Seeds’ first go at doing someone else’s songs. Both From Her to Eternity and The Firstborn is Dead feature covers; ‘Avalanche’, from Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate opened the former, while a much-expanded version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Wanted Man’ is on the latter. Pricks may not be the best album that the Bad Seeds had ever done, but it shows the promise of the band and the depth of their influences with songs originally recorded by Johnny Cash and Leadbelly cheek-to-jowl with Tom Jones and The Velvet Underground.

Your Funeral… though, was something else entirely. It was the first ‘old’ Bad Seeds album I ever heard, and it’s stayed with me through the years. Put in context of his earlier work, Cave’s grasp of evoking moods and crafting compelling narratives had hit new heights. The first two tracks of the album are among my favourite songs to this day. ‘Sad Waters’ is a classic, simple, sad love song – the sort of duende-filled ballad that would crop up again and again in later years, but was done here early and amazingly well. It also reminds of 1996, and a particularly melancholic summer.

The follow-up track couldn’t be different; where ‘Sad Waters’ glides along like a dark shadow on the heart, ‘The Carny’ is a lurching monster, a gloomy freakshow straight from the carnival. But oh, what a freakshow!

And no-one saw the Carny go, and the weeks flew by, until they moved on the show leaving his caravan behind.

 It was parked out on the south-east ridge, and as the company crossed the bridge, with the first rain filling the
bone-dry
river bed, it shone – just so – upon the edge.

Dog-Boy, Atlas, Half-man, the geeks, the hired hands – there was not one among them that did not cast an eye behind in the hope that the Carny would return to his own kind.

And the Carny had a horse, all skin and bone… a bow-backed nag, that he named Sorrow.

Now it is buried in a shallow grave in the then parched meadow.

And the dwarves were given the task of digging the ditch and laying the nag’s carcass in the ground. And Boss Bellini, waving his smoking pistol around saying “the nag is dead meat, we caint afford to carry dead weight.”

The whole company standing about, not making a sound.  And turning to dwarves perched on the enclosure gate,
the boss says “bury this lump of crow
bait!”

And then the rain came.

Everybody running for their wagons, tying all the canvas flaps down.

The mangy cats growling in their cages, the bird-girl flapping and squawking around. The whole valley reeking of wet beast, wet beast and rotten hay. Freak and brute creation, packed up and on their way.

The three dwarves peering from their wagon’s hind; Moses says to Noah, “We shoulda dugga deepa one,” their grizzled faces like dying moons, still dirty from the digging done.

And as the company passed from the valley into higher ground, the rain beat on the ridge and on the meadow and on the mound.

Until nothing was left, nothing at all, except the body of Sorrow that rose in time to float upon the surface of the eaten soil.

And a murder of crows did circle round – first one, then the others flapping blackly down.

And the carny’s van still sat upon the edge, tilting slowly as the firm ground turned to sludge.

And the rain, it hammered down.

And no-one saw the Carny go – I say it’s funny how things go.

Listening to it, I’m transported to – of all places – a small-town community centre. At age 18, around the same time I was finishing up high school, I took a semester-long writing course at a local college. Barring a couple of friends who took the class with me, the vast majority of participants were sixty-somethings keen to spend their newfound retirement writing memoirs for grandchildren. The teacher was nice enough but was very structure-oriented. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was my first exposure to sonnets, rondels, iambic pentameter and the like. (Most of it which I’ve forgotten since, but – ahem – it’s funny how things go.)

I don’t really recall what they thought of me, long-haired and trenchcoated, but the teacher must have been sufficiently entertained by my burgeoning teen angst that she asked me to do a half-hour presentation to a broader group on a certain topic. I chose – surprise, surprise – storytelling in song, with ‘The Carny’ as the central piece.

(A postscript; curiously enough, that was the day I was first exposed to Tom Waits. One of the fellow attendees was a big fan of Wait’s mid-80s output, and thought there was something in there I might like. Unfortunately, that era isn’t Waits’ most compelling – not to my tin ear, at any rate- and it would be years before I’d try him again. Perhaps there’s another series of articles in that.)

Next week: Nick Cave gets a Brazilian.

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