I hold my four years old son close and sing his favourite lullaby, the not entirely age-appropriate Henry Lee, by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. It’s too dark, I think to myself as my son’s eyelids flutter, but it’s too late and it has become our little ritual. Tonight I’m going to The Phoenix, a vintage cinema in our North London neighbourhood, to see One More Time With Feeling, a musical documentary featuring Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, the album Cave recorded in the aftermath of his teenage son Arthur’s death. Many say this album is a comforting piece of art, especially for the grieving.
Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I see the faint shadow of this familiar old friend. His dark mane, the half-smoked cigarette between his lips – but as soon as I try to focus, he is gone.
When I was a teenager, I was always armed with music. In those days, instead of Iphones and Ryanair we had Walkman cassette players and long-ass bus journeys. Sometimes I would catch Alternative Nation on MTV and sit with pen and paper in case I would discover some new and exciting band. I developed a fairly platonic crush on this one rock star who was like a character from a film written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tim Burton. His name was Nick Cave and he had the growl of punk and the poetic soul of TS Eliot. What spellbound me was that almost every song contained an intricately structured little story.
Then I turned 16 and we found out that my father had cancer. The bad kind. The kind that kills you. So I welcomed The Bad Seeds’ darkness and sadness more than ever before. High-school was a time when friendships burned, People Just Ain’t No Good echoed in my headphones as I got my heart broken on all fronts, Cave’s words found their way through crappy styrofoam headphones and massive dusty cd-players into my very being. There was always a kind of soothing anger in The Bad Seeds’ music, hidden even in their ballads.
On the fifth floor of my Swedish high-school I found my safe haven. You could normally catch me there, trying to get a spot in the VHS editing room, or lounging about the art room. My very first film – shot on VHS – was painfully pretentious but had a fantastic soundtrack, featuring The Mercy Seat (Tender Prey) amongst others. As a sort of meditative exercise, I kept drawing Nick Cave’s portrait, copying the cover of Boatman’s Call in coal pencil while listening to the album, over and over again. In the periphery, his shadow watched over me – this dark guardian angel I had summoned.
At 18 I went to university in Poland. Nick followed me of course, he was the cool dude at my side, always with that half a cigarette in his mouth, as I navigated my new independent life in a new country. Together we renovated my late grandmother’s flat in Lodz, we painted one room red, the other one green, the bathroom orange and the kitchen yellow. I cried real tears when I accidentally threw away my Boatman’s Call drawing of Nick and as if to repent, I kept trying to read And the Ass Saw The Angel in Polish – which was a quite a challenge. But it was like his comforting dark shadow had begun to slowly shift away – I started wearing skirts and bright colours again, I discovered vodka and screenwriting, met some amazing new friends. Hell, I even went to therapy.
I almost forgot about Nick.
Nowadays Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds are like estranged friends, whom I miss, but can’t find the time to see anymore. During the final minutes before the film starts I start to panic. What if I discover that Nick is no artistic higher being, but just a human like you and me?
The big black and white screen cannot hide that we have aged, Nick and I, and I’m sure I know what he means when he says he doesn’t know who he is anymore as I, too, have lost my certainty in the fabric holding the world together. When you lose someone you love, you lose one of the strings which keep you attached to life. Sometimes, the remaining strings aren’t strong enough to hold you and you float away. I’m not sure if I would be able to stay anchored if I lost my son, like Nick did.
I would either kill myself, or I would write with all my might.
Nick Cave has chosen to continue creating, but the tragedy has left his narrative fragmented, as if his intricately structured stories had been shattered to pieces. But like broken glass, they still retain their beauty. The piano is sentimental and hits me in just the right spot, Warren Ellis adds the dread and anger to the score. In the film, Ellis and Cave look like conquered shamans performing for the enemy while trying to turn back time.
I’ve been listening to Skeleton Tree a lot lately. Nick’s shadow is back at my side. He is still chain-smoking, even though his real-life counterpart stopped decades ago. Is he a representative of my own darkness, a darkness which can only be fought using stories? Nowadays, it’s not enough for me to consume stories. So tonight, while my son will be safe in his sleep, my guardian angel and I will write. We will fuel our laptop with anger, sadness and laughter. Because that’s our chosen weapon, our remedy, and our addiction.
“Given the phenomenal response to the limited 8th September release of One More Time With Feeling, the Andrew Dominik film featuring Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds will play again in a number of cinemas across the world from 1st December.”
Check it out here: http://www.nickcave.com/films/one-more-time-with-feeling/