At 63, the singer-songwriter Nick Cave cuts an urbane, almost sanctified figure. Currently based in Brighton, this erudite career artist’s recurring preoccupation, since the 2015 death of Arthur, one of his teenage sons, has been transmuting profound grief into beauty.
For many decades, though, Cave fronted a series of bands whose confrontational performances dealt in threat, derangement and deeply corporeal concerns. In his 20s, he was a goth poster boy, a heroin addict whose musings on toxic masculinity and God, outlaws and perdition fuelled a succession of swaggering bands and a lasting myth.
This engrossing book ends where Cave’s fame – or infamy – really begins: when an Australian band called the Boys Next Door stepped on to a plane bound for London in 1980. By the time they landed, they’d changed their name to the Birthday Party, and would go on to make a lasting, sulphuric mark on the post-punk music scene internationally. The Birthday Party begat the Bad Seeds, the band Nick Cave most often still fronts to this day, although Cave’s most recent album, Carnage, was made in lockdown with just one current Seed, Warren Ellis. There have been many casualties in 40 years, literally and figuratively. As beloved as this musician, author and film-maker is, he has, like Byron, been rather dangerous to know.
Other biographies and documentaries have covered this ground previously. What is different about Australian Mark Mordue’s portrait of the young Cave and his formative influences is the narrowness of the author’s scope, and its vast breadth, within that focus. This was, initially, a much larger book that had to be rethought when Arthur Cave’s death and a crisis in the author’s own life made continuing along its previous trajectory difficult.
Forensically researched, Mordue’s book riffs hard on Cave’s profound Australianness, on the rivers and scrub and incipient violence that Cave’s writing later mixed with the gothic atmospheres of the American south. It begins with a prologue in 2007, with Cave ambivalently accepting an Aria award after a lifetime away from Australia, whose record industry never knew what to do with him.
What follows is a social history of two decades of artistic and intellectual life down under: Cave and many of his friends were often art students. He and his fellow travellers were well-read and borderline pretentious, as well as dark and unruly. There are atmospheric depictions here of life in Cave’s childhood town of Wangaratta (“the idyllic substructure that sorrowful tales of corrupted innocence can rest upon”, writes Mordue) and the Melbourne alternative music scene. Within lies a nuanced, even-handed and knowing portrait of “a Sinatra of darkness” who had the right mixture of drive, narcissism, chutzpah, kismet, support and artistic curiosity to make a long-term living from his fevered imagination.
Mordue is particularly good on the younger Nick, an intellectually gifted but unruly youth who devoured ideas and perfected poses. Fans will recognise the seismic moments in Cave’s life: the unhappy move to boarding school, where he met the core of his future band, and the premature death of his father, the larger-than-life Colin Cave, with whom the young Nick had long sparred.
That helix of love, competition and teenage resentment came to an abrupt end when the senior Cave died in a car crash; he’d taken a detour for reasons no one could quite understand. Days before, his son had been arrested for stealing an ornate chair in a drunken and drug-fuelled prank, the fine detail of which remains unclear to this day – the implication is Nick Cave took the rap for a friend and his father never knew how noble his errant son had been. Later, the Bad Seeds would frequently tour Australia in summer, to be with Cave’s mother, Dawn, on the anniversary of Colin’s death. (She died last year, aged 93.)
Mordue talks to huge numbers of witnesses over a decade, fleshing out the familiar punk rock story with a rich art historical perspective, and deep dives into Cave’s obsessions with works such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. One key witness eludes him: Anita Lane, Cave’s most important female foil of the time, is quoted only indirectly.
Mordue’s great strength is that he is not a professional biographer, detached and omniscient; he is a writer with his own stylistic flourishes who intimately understands the milieu he is writing about. If he is a touch prone to waxing eloquent, it’s excusable; he is terrier-like in his efforts to understand how the child became the father of the man.