MADNESS AS A TENANT
By: Maria Alessandra Scalise and Andrea Cangioli
ROMA, MAY 23RD, 1992
A conversation before a gig, the occasion is the release of Henry’s Dream and the Italian translation of King Ink.
M.A. I’ve read somewhere, that, speaking about And The Ass Saw The Angel, you said “Read it and forget who I am” or something like that. But in the book there are many things that appear in your lyrics as well, especially characters are obviously really yours…
A. Even their names, like Crow Jane and Jane Crow
M.A. Did you decide to write the novel because you needed more space to develop your characters? Did you feel that a song was no longer sufficient to express what you wanted to express?
N. It’s very difficult to say something in three verses. When you write a song you get three verses, four verses to say what you want. When you write a novel, you can really grab something by the throat and take it down, and descend with that, and go, and take it to its furthermost extreme, in a way… I mean… the book was conceived a long long time before a lot of these lyrics we are talking about ever were in my head, so what really happened was that I created in my head this mythical landscape in which Euchrid and the story operated and, because I was writing the book continuously, and I was quite obsessed with the book, many of the songs also came from the same mythical landscape.
Interview continues under page cut…
M.A. This is very interesting, because many people who write songs or poems, find it difficult to face such a far-reaching work as a novel. I must admit I was rather skeptical before reading the book I thought “Let’s see how he finds his way out of this” but I was…
N. Pleasantly surprised. [laughter]
N. Well, for me… I’ve always written stories. Most of my good songs, I would say, most of my great songs are stories basically, and I think that’s what I have a certain gift for: the narrative form of song writing or writing a book…and…so I think it was just…for me it was the logical step.
A. You always say that your characters live in another world and that you know your characters long before you write your stories. In Henry’s Dream, for instance, some songs are linked.
N. Well …why this happens is …I guess there are two sorts of songwriters. There is a sort of songwriter like, maybe, Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello or whatever, who just writes songs every day …they wake up, pick up the guitar and they write a song… I don’t work that way, you know, I don’t write anything for months and months and months, nothing, and then, suddenly, I think “OK it’s time to write a record or whatever”, I give myself three months, let’s say, and I, say, book the studio for September and start to write three months earlier and I write the songs at the same time. It’s not like I write one song, two songs… they all just kind of build together and so there is a character coming into one song and then moving off into another song. All the songs become linked together and there are lines you hear in one song and then you hear again in another one or the same image or whatever…even the same character sometimes… and that’s the reason why: I try to create a world with each record, a world.
M.A. …Again they’re all part of a story…
N. Basically, I’m trying to tell you my story. These characters are not just imaginative characters, they are characters that are part of my world… I mean… John Finn is not someone who I know personally obviously, I’ve made up that character, but metaphorically and symbolically they are all characters within my world.
A. You always speak of people living at the edge of society. You often depict the obscure side of life… not that you are a ‘gothic singer’, but most often you don’t describe the brighter sides of human existence.
N. I feel personally, that that’s what I’m an authority on, in a way, because I do live outside society. Physically I live in countries I don’t belong. I’m living in Brazil at the moment. I’m a complete outsider in Brazil, I just go in and ay “One of…” [he points to his beer]. And it’s the same in Berlin, I lived there and I didn’t speak the language and I feel, to a certain degree, living on the edge and never really involved… never really involved in the physical… er… countries that I’m living in. So for that reason there’s always a certain alienation that all my characters have and I would say that’s autobiographical, in a way.
A. But you also often speak about small communities, quite an opposite situation. Euchrid, for instance, is part of a small community, as well as other characters of yours… your creatures seem to oscillate between a suffocating small community and a nomadic sort of life, like yours…
N. Let’s not romanticise it too much, I travel because I’m an Australian, and I’ve left Australia, and I don’t consider any other place my home but Australia. I feel I’m an Australian, I’ve an Australian sense of humour, I’m a very Australian sort of person, in a way… mm… so one of the reasons why I travel is because I don’t have a home, you know, when I come to London I don’t feel it’s my home, or when I’m in Brazil I don’t feel that’s my home. That’s the reason why… that’s one of the reasons why I feel I can just travel. It’s not that romantic, really, it may appear to be romantic but in fact is not, I just have the luxury of being able to move around, that’s all.
M.A. Talking about people living on the edge, you often speak about madness… also in the book…
N. Not many sane characters in that book, are there… [laughter] They’re all mad!
M.A. …Are you interested in what we may call the social meaning of madness or only in the individual, personal aspects of it?
N. I’m more interested…I don’t know what you mean, actually. What I’ve tried to do with the book and what I’ve tried to do with a lot of my songs, in say, ‘Jack the Ripper’ or ‘Henry’s Dream’ is somebody telling their story and what interests me is the secrets or the lies, even the lies or the ‘untruths’ that these people are telling you about themselves. Euchrid, for instance, you feel sorry for Euchrid, he seems like a sad character for much of the book and as the book continues you realise more and more that Euchrid is insane, criminally insane and he is a bad person, he’s actually an evil person, in a way, and what I’ve tried to do with that was to create an evil person that you could feel sympathy towards, right up to the end, and I hope that worked, if you still love Euchrid even though, in the end, he’s murdered his father, he’s tried to murder the little girl, he’s done those disgusting things to all of his animals… And, in regard to madness, when you say madness you refer to criminal insanity and there is some sympathy towards these characters, in a way!
A. There is a song in Henry’s Dream, called ‘When I First Came To Town’, the first time I heard it I suddenly thought about ‘Nick the Stripper’ and I thought that you might have felt ‘used’ by other people when you first come to London, you might have done things you did not intend to do…
N. Yes, it’s actually an autobiographical song, it’s not necessarily about London, though, it’s about Brazil as well.
A. London was just an example.
N. It’s as much about Brazil as it was about anywhere else, when I first came to Brazil, I couldn’t walk down the street without people going “…Ah, Nick…could you give me your autograph…” and every day I was in the newspapers, they said “Oh, Nick Cave is here, he’s living with us” there were photographs of me in the daily newspapers every day, and they said “Oh, isn’t this exciting”…Then I lived there, and now, now I read things in the newspapers about me living there and they say “Nick Cave is…who cares”. They are disappointed in me, they are..I have demystified myself and I feel a little bit bitter about that, in a way. And that’s what happens when you go into a town, they way I go into a town. It often happens in London as well, it’s “Oh, he is very interesting” and then it suddenly turns around and people grow bored or whatever…I don’t now.
A. What about Berlin?
N. I don’t know about Berlin, I didn’t stay long enough… I don’t know… but it is an autobiographical song.
A. May I ask you something about the way you compos your songs… At the beginning of this interview you mentioned bob Dylan and the differences between you and him, but what about the similarities? I mean, lyrics are very important for both of you, and you both make use of visions…
N. Well, I love Bob Dylan, he’s my hero. I love everything he does, everything about him… Bob Dylan has a big influence over me. I think he is, without exception, the best lyric writer in rock music. That’s what I feel for Bob Dylan. And I love his attitude, you know, as a fan I love his attitude towards life, the way he’s so angry, so bitter, so… He doesn’t give a fuck about anybody, he doesn’t give a fuck about anything and he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t give a fuck whether it’s fashionable or whether anybody understands him. I have seen lots of Bob Dylan’s concerts: he goes on stage and he plays the worst concert you’ve ever heard from anybody, but at the same time he’s the best as well… He just sings, you know, like “Fuqua off, good bye, give me the money” . Some other times he wants to play and he’s been doing it for 30 years… It’s incredible and I love this about him, I love his attitude.
A. Your music is influenced by the blues, as well. Some songs remind me of Robert Johnson, you even mention Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters…
N. John Lee Hooker
A. In my opinion this influence has become heavier around Your Funeral My Trial…
N. Yes I just got interested in that sort of things around that time. Well, I had been listening to that sort of records for a long time. So I wanted to make some kind of tribute to the blues, but Your Funeral My Trial is not a blues record.
A. I had no intention to say it was, but only that around that period the influence of blues became more evident in your music.
N. Kicking Against The Pricks may appear a blues record, but it’s supposed to be, in some way, a tribute to some blues heroes and so on… yes, there is this element to it, but I can’t remember that stuff now… I mean… I still listen to blues music, I still listen to John Lee Hooker, a lot.
A. In Anglo-American culture, and perhaps in Australian culture, too, exists what we can call ‘the myth of the border’: there is always the possibility to go one step further.
M.A. There are always new territories to be conquered, either in physical or in a metaphorical sense.
N. I mean, I travel for different reasons, there are probably three reasons: one is to escape the place I’ve already been in, for example, one of the reasons why I left England was to get out of England, ‘cause I couldn’t stand living there anymore. The second reason is more a pilgrimage, in some way, like Brazil. I always wanted to go to Brazil, for years before I went to Brazil I had in mind Brazil would be such a great place to live, so eventually I went to Brazil almost as a pilgrimage to Brazil.
There’s the third reason, which I can’t remember right now.
A. In my question I meant travel as a metaphor of evolution and continuous changes… Your records, for instance, are all different…
N. Yea, well… perhaps… I don’t know how to explain that, really… I mean… The “physicalness” of changing cities changes the way you think about things, obviously… hem… I don’t know!
A. OK, let’s go back to literature a bit!
M.A. I’d like to ask you something about the language you use in your book: it’s a peculiar mixture of rather vulgar words and biblical vocabulary..
N. Which nobody understands <laughter>
M.A. No, it’s not incomprehensible, but it’s unusual. How much does your being Australian influence your wording? I asked you this question because the bible is generally thought to have influenced Anglo-American and Australian written language very much.
N. In Australia the Bible is a secondary book, I would say <laughter> I don’t know many people in Australia who regularly read the Bible.
M.A. I was especially thinking about childhood and education…
N. Well, I grew up in a country town, the first years of my life were in a small country town and I was very involved in the church there since I was 8 to 13 or something. I sang in the choir, the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir. So I went to church 3 times a week, or something like that, singing in the choir, consequently I had Bible classes all the time, this kind of stuff. I’ve always found it interesting, although everyone else was like “Ugh… I have to go to the Bible Classes”… and because these Bible classes were for children, they were based mostly upon the Old Testament, because the stories were so wonderful. But for me, actually it’s the new Testament that I find the more interesting, simply for the figure of Christ. The character of Christ, the way it’s described in the New Testament is unbelievable. The things that Christ did, the things that Christ said, and his philosophy on life, I find unbelievable. I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe in resurrection. Up until the resurrection I think that the life of Christ is incomparable to any other figure in history. His ideas about the world, at the time when he had them, were incredible, really. I mean, this guy with these ideas like “Love your enemy!”… and this sort of stuff. So for me the New Testament is very important and I’m very interested in the other figures around Christ as well: St. Peter crucified upside down, the lives of the Saints.
M.A. And now for something completely different! <laughter> There’s a question I always wanted to ask you: what’s your idea of women? In the book there are two opposite characters, Cosey Mo and Beth, the prostitute and the infant, and they are both positive characters.
N. Yes, sympathetic characters. They are good people in the book, really, but the worst things happen to them. So the question was: what’s my attitude toward women. Well, I’m obsessed with them, I love women… It’s what I tried to talk about earlier, when I was talking about the subject of love. I find their gestures or the way they look or whatever very inspiring, but at the same time I’m writing about the other side of love a lot.
I know, it always sounds terrible if I say this, but it excites me, in a way, to write about violence towards the things that I love. It’s a very exciting sort o thing to write about: it’s dangerous, it’s not morally correct. It’s always exciting to write about things that are not morally correct, I find, rather than writing about things that are morally correct, which I find quite boring. So many of the women in my work are treated very badly. But so are men, as well.
A. Yes, but women are mostly victims, just think of Six Inch Gold Blade.
N. <laughs> Well, you know, that was a song written about a girlfriend of mine who.. hem.. slept with another guy, and I sat down and wrote a song about what I’d like to do to her. I didn’t go and bet a butcher knife and kill her, I sat down very safely at my desk and wrote about it <laughs>. I don’t think that song is an important song, anyway, I think that song is bullshit basically, it’s just a stupid song. Women are victims sometimes, just because is that energy that makes me write, and it’s usually an energy fueled by hate, and disgust, and jealousy, and sadness, and so on. I don’t try to write morally correct or socially correct. Who needs it? Everyone knows you should treat women with respect. I wouldn’t be here if I was writing about that.
A. And what do you think about children? They are very important in your lyrics.
N. Yes, absolutely, because I love children completely. I have a child of my own. I’ve always loved children. I love to watch children and I have a kind of understanding, an aesthetic understanding of the sexuality of children, without any desire to molest children or whatever . Please don’t write that the wrong way or I’d be in trouble… But I do have an understanding of the eroticism of children in a way, because of their freedom, and I’ve always found that very interesting. I just love children, anyway, I’d love to have a thousand children everywhere.
A. Did you choose the cover for the English edition of your book?
A. It’s perfect.
N. Julia Margaret Cameron, who photographed children, basically, a lot of children. She photographed Tennyson and many writers and stuff, as ell, but she was one of the first female English photographers of any worth, and she created these ‘biblical pictures’. An amazing woman.
A. You took part, both as author and as an actor, in the film Ghosts Of The Civil Dead: it’s a film about prison…
N. It’s a prison film.
A. Two of the most beautiful songs you’ve ever written are about prisoners, you seem to be quite interested in the subject.
N. I think that was probably around the time I was writing the film. Actually I was educated very much by that film, because I was helping writing int. There were two authors of the script and then there were some other people helping, and I was helping, but the basic concept of the film was made by the director and the producer. I helped develop some of the characters: there’s a scene where a guy has a cunt tattooed on his forehead, by another prisoner, that was my idea. I’ve put my ideas into it but a lot of ideas were actually thrown out of the film, because I had a romantic notion of what prison is like: the old black guy playing guitar and so on, you know. That film is not about that sort of prison, it’s about the new types of prisons, that are being built in America and Australia and they are planning to build them in England, now, that is supermarket-type prisons. There’s soft music in these prisons, the colour red is not allowed inside because it’s psychologically wrong, all the walls are pink and pastel colours like hotel rooms, and they don’t work, creating one of the most violently frightening situations, that’s what the film is about. I didn’t know anything about this sort of things until I became involved with these people and researched this sort of stuff. These type of prisons are just stuck in the middle of the desert, in American, they have a little bit of fence around them and prisoners can’t even run away, or better, they can , if they want to, but it just revolts against themselves.
A. And they’re invisible to other people.
N. yes, it’s incredible. And Ghosts of the Civil Dead is an incredible film, really violent. 75 per cent of characters are played either by ex-prisoners, guards or non actors, this is really great. In the songs there is a certain romance. Knockin’ On Joe is a kind of… like.. is about a woman who goes to prison, this is an old romantic notion that men have, like Fifties B-prison-movie-type. This is a much more serious film about prisons, about how prisons work. It’s political, a very political sort of film.
A. Do you often draw sketches like this? <points to a picture from King Ink>
N. That was an idea for a video for the song Your Funeral, My Trial. It’s good, isn’t it. It could have been a good video: walking through cages and naked women. It never got made, of course.
A. You were an artist before starting your career in music.
N. I was a failed artist, shall we say. Most of the time I just draw without thinking, like when you’re on the phone and you’re talking…
A. We’ve heard of some Italian journalists who recently interviewed you in London…
N. I had trouble with the Italian interviewers… We went out drinking first, we started about 11 o’clock in the morning, and there were a couple of friends, we got there two hours late, very drunk, and there were lots of Italian journalists waiting to do their interviews. I think I said something about the Pope <laughter> I think I actually said I was going to kill the Pope, when I came to Italy, or something like that.
A. Drunk on The Pope’s Blood…
N. No, just drunk on English beer! <laughter>… He’s got some very nice pictures in his house, the Pope.
A. You seem to be changing your opinion about religion, through the years…
N. Well, yes, it has changed considerably. These days I don’t have the same ideas. I used to have vague spiritual kind of concepts, but I can’t remember what they were.
A. Maybe people don’t understand you have a sense of humour. I think there’s irony all through your lyrics.
N. Just a healthy sense of humour, I guess. Some of the songs are just funny.
Nick Cave was talking to Maria Alessandra Scalise and Andrea Cangioli
“Madness as Tenant” interview by Maria Alessandra Scalise and Andrea Cangioli
Publication: NICK CAVE – THE STORY
Text transcript by Rebecca (from her personal collection)
Edits & Layout: Morgan Wolfe