Nick Cave at the Abbey: A funny, strange and beautiful evening
The audience asks the questions in this raw, intimate and revealing show
Australian musician and writer Nick Cave. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/GettyImages
The stage is laid out to look like a bar, with an artificial counter and a high stool and some people sitting around tables. The rest of the audience observes from either side.
The song finished, Cave hops up and explains that recently he’s been experiencing something “intimate” and “communal” at his concerts. Doing a show in which audience members ask questions felt like the next step. He frowns. “It seemed like a great idea a few months ago but now seems really terrifying.”
The risks are evidenced by the first questioner who launches into a sweetly heartfelt expression of love for Cave. “A question mark at the end would be good,” Cave says, when it’s time for the next question. “Even an upward inflection at the end of the sentence would be helpful.”
And then, with his answer to the next question, Cave goes straight to the heart of the matter and talks about how, since the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015, performing has “literally been lifesaving.”
He discusses Andrew Dominik’s incredibly raw documentary film One More Time with Feeling, made in the aftermath of Arthur’s death, and how at the time he had “no idea of the effect that film had on other people. [There were] so many people in a similar situation… We are all connected in some way by our sense of suffering.”
This is the subtext of the night and several audience members preface their contributions by telling Cave how his work has helped them process grief. Not that the evening isn’t also riddled with joyful silliness. An early discussion of his song-writing relationship with Warren Ellis comes to an abrupt end when Cave points into the audience and says, “Hey, it’s the guy from Peaky Blinders!” Cillian Murphy, who probably just wants a quiet night out, looks quite embarrassed.
Stripped-down Cave songs emerge organically from the blizzard of questions. One comes out of a query about Cave’s ideal musical collaborator. The answer is the late folk musician Karen Dalton, but then he declares that he’ll sing a song about someone else he collaborated with. “It didn’t end well,” he says, before playing a pleasantly aggressive, staccato version of West Country Girl, a song written about onetime girlfriend PJ Harvey.
The roving mics come out again and Cave is back on his feet. “Come here to me,” says a bearded Dub, who’s curious if Cave has any stories about Shane MacGowan in the old days. “It didn’t matter how disgraceful he was, people just love him,” says Cave of his friend.
“How does it feel to know there have been a lot of children conceived to your music?” another man asks.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Cave. “What song was it?”
“How many minutes did you make it through the song?”
“Let’s just say we had it on repeat,” he says, a little boastfully. “And it’s a long song.”
“Respect,” says Cave.
A more highbrow type asks about the importance of his increasingly more abstract lyrics. Abstraction, says Cave, allows the listener “to add their own imagination to the cauldron of the whole thing.”
Someone asks what his favourite song on No More Shall We Part is. “I’ll play it,” he says, and renders a lovely version of the title track. “You like that one?” he asks Cillian Murphy when he finishes.
A woman asks about religion and whether “God is in the house?”. “It’s increasingly difficult to talk about,” he says, before referencing religious conflict and the women forced into Magdalene laundries. But he goes on to say that while God and spirituality might be “happy delusions” they are nonetheless necessary concepts for him when he’s writing.
“They’ve been leaking out of the cracks and into my normal life. Spirits and ghost and magic and absurdity seem to be having more of an impact on me than I’d like to admit.”
Then he plays God is in the House, lifting his arms in Pentecostal style for some briefly piano-less acclamations towards the end.
The subject of grief is never far away. A bereaved man asks how long it took before Cave wasn’t too numb to write. “I never found [grief] numb,” says Cave. “It was too much to feel. A deeply physical situation. I was unable to do anything. I was so full of this thing.”
More recently, he says, “I’ve been able to leap across this nagging absence in my life to something really beautiful and transcendental… I’ve discovered a way to write about other things without turning my back on what happened… I hope you get to that place.”
Cave rejects the idea of a cultural boycott of Israel, because that would mean punishing dissident Israelis
A man asks if rumours he might be leaving Brighton for LA are true. Cave talks about how much he loves Brighton, but he adds that being there means regularly having to pass where Arthur died (he fell from a cliff after experimenting with LSD). “It’s very difficult to live there. I have an urge to leave but an urge to stay as well.”
Such deep moments are leavened by good-humoured daftness. A man gives him a tea towel. Someone asks what’s in Cave’s cup (“Throat tea, if you must know”).
A man presents him with Stuart Bailie’s book Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland. A woman asks for marriage advice. Someone in the front row keeps shouting up questions randomly without an assigned microphone. “You must be terrible to watch TV with,” says Cave. He sits at the piano and plays a softened version of Papa Won’t Leave You Henry.
The lights come up and a woman asks if the politics of Berlin had an influence on his music when he lived there in the late eighties. “I wish I could answer this question better. The truth is my time in Berlin is kind of foggy. I was immersed in my own sordid little world.”
He recalls how when recording The Good Son his bandmate Blixa Bargeld interrupted a vocal take to say, “The wall is coming down.” Cave responded with, “Fuck off, I’m trying to sing.”
A brave soul asks about Cave’s decision to play Israel last year and whether he’d do so again given recent atrocities. “Don’t answer him, Nick!” says an angry voice, but Cave answers everything. He would play Israel again, he says. He talks about the “grotesque” behaviour of Israel but also the “grotesque” behaviour of Hamas.
He talks about the Israelis who are protesting their own government and he coolly rejects the idea of a cultural boycott as advocated by Brian Eno, because that would mean punishing those Israelis. It’s the most uncomfortable moment of the night.
The woman in the front row says. “I’ve finally got a microphone” “Oh,” says Nick. “You.”
She asks about his first novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. He affectionately disparages his youthful writing before taking to the piano to play a mournful version of The Mercy Seat, a song he wrote contemporaneously with that novel.
A man asks him about addiction. “I haven’t taken drugs or a drink for twenty odd years,” he says. “It’s not something I need to work on on a daily basis … It’s pretty easy really.” Though he adds, “It took me a long time to work that out.”
A young woman tells him her favourite song is The Ship Song. “What’s yours?” she asks.
“It’s The Ship Song,” says Cave. “I’ll play it for you if you like?” He plays it for her and its beautiful.
Someone asks if Cave’s always dapper Bad Seeds have a dress code. Not officially, says Cave, but they slowly adapt nonetheless. Cave recalls that when the nowadays besuited Warren Ellis first played with them he was wearing a cropped ACDC T-shirt and a pair of shorts made from a flour sack. “Not only ugly but obscene,” he says of the shorts.
He plays Love Letter, the song to which an audience member’s child was conceived. A woman asks how he feels about the piano as an instrument.
“It provides a song-writing service,” he says. He differentiates himself from his bandmates who, he says, are obsessed with their instruments. “They can talk about [guitar pedals] for fucking hours… It’s mass pedal-philia on the bus. There’s your headline.”
Towards the end of the night, the man who gave him the book about Northern Ireland puts his hand up again, not to ask a question, but because he’s realised he left his tickets to the following night’s gig tucked into the book. He retrieves the tickets and gets a hug from Cave.
After two and a half hours, Cave plays the ominously comic Weeping Song and the beautifully forlorn Skeleton Tree. Then he says “Thank you” to a standing ovation and leaves the stage, the distance between the mythic performer and audience having collapsed completely. The best myths, after all, are deeply human. It’s been a funny, strange and beautiful evening.