Friday, June 9, 2017

Nick the Revelator

I first heard Nick Cave in the summer of 1988, a little late given his career up to that point. Like a lot of the music I was discovering at that time it came from my roommate Steve’s record collection. I had left my grad school apartment in May but was going back frequently to visit my friends. While there Steve played Kicking Against the Pricks, a collection of cover songs. I remember liking the sound of it, but it was background music to the weekend and didn’t sink in. I left there with a cassette with Your Funeral, My Trial on one side and Tender Prey on the other. The Mercy Seat was the first Nick Cave song I really listened to. By the time Up Jumped the Devil, the second track on the album, was over I was a confirmed fan. Since that time Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have remained in the uppermost echelon of musicians I’m into.

I saw him on Thursday night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. While I admit that I’m riding high on the adrenaline I want to say that this was simply one of the single best concert experiences I have ever had... and I’ve been to a lot of shows. This is not the first time I’ve seen Nick, but the fifth, including his only other appearance in the Pittsburgh area with Lollapalooza in 1993. I want to talk a little bit about the specifics of this show, and then tie it in with a broader context of Nick and his work.

First just let me get my complete fanboy moment out of the way. I had paid what for me is a pretty high price for this ticket. I was down close to the stage, but off to one side. It would have been a great seat, except that speaker stacks blocked my view of about 80% of the stage.

I was feeling pretty pissy about the whole thing when the concert began. Nick came out and sat in a chair at the front of the stage and performed Anthrocene. His presence was great, but I really wanted to be able to see the Bad Seeds as well. At the beginning of the second song he stalked along the front of the stage, motioning for everyone to move closer. My seat was kind of crap, so along with a lot of other people I moved.

Much better.

There were crates of some sort along the floor in front of the stage, allowing Nick to come even closer by standing on them. During the second song he moved to a crate right in front of me and began singing to our segment of the crowd. Next thing I knew he had leaned onto my shoulder and stretched himself out over the crowd. I stood there, one hand on his chest directly over his heart, and the other bracing his side, supporting his weight while he sang. So, while I still can’t say I’ve met Nick Cave, I can say I’ve held him.

I was not alone. Nick spent a lot of time in the crowd. I mean really in the crowd. He walked into the seats, and over them, held in place with the hands of many of us who were down front. It was the most intimate show of his I’ve ever seen.

Nick is not a stranger to mingling with the audience. Early videos of him with his band The Birthday Party, show him completely engulfed by the small crowds, with seemingly no concern for his personal bodily boundaries or safety. This was very much in the spirit of Punk Rock confrontational theatrics. His performance style for much of his career has had the element of the confrontational to it. If not directly in people’s faces like in the early days, then certainly in terms of subject matter and intensity of performance.

This fit his image as a fire and brimstone preacher of Apocalyptic visions. His image, and this was a big part of what appealed to me way back when, was that of a larger than life, mythic wandering doomsayer. He was the offspring of a world created by Johnny Cash, William Faulkner, and Manly Wade Wellman. The world he created through his lyrics and music (and his poetry and novels), was one where God and the devil were engaged in daily warfare, one populated by angels and demons, both made manifest in the actions of people and their own virtues and vices. It was dark and thunderous and dangerous, yet redemption and salvation were both possible down in the mud of our dark desires. His concerts often had the ambiance of a tent revival or a faith healing. For his fans they were both.

The new show still is, but there is a difference. His interactions with the crowd were more of an embrace than an attack. He was calling people in instead of pushing them away. His approach was more confessional than confrontational. This change is not completely new. In a spoken word piece entitled The Flesh Made Word he described his own journey using the Bible as a metaphor. The early Nick was the Old Testament, frightening and judgmental wrath of God Nick, while he saw himself moving into the New Testament love and compassion of Christ Nick. Both sides are still definitely present, but the tent revival I saw this week was far more about building a community of love and support than it was about fear.

There are reasons for this. Nick has been wandering in a wilderness of loss and grief recently. In 2015 his fifteen year old son Arthur fell from a cliff and died. The documentary, One More Time With Feeling, deals overtly and honestly with the aftermath of this. Nick went back to work in the studio, and Skeleton Treethe new album, is now marinated with loss and sadness. We see Nick, his wife Susie, and Arthur’s twin brother Earl throughout, trying to move on with life in the midst of grief. I have seen and read a lot of interviews with Nick throughout the years. He has always been someone who was powerful and larger than life. He was self assured, and fiercely intelligent, and a master wordsmith. In the film he appears lost and broken, a man of words who simply can’t find any to express his new world. We see the process of recording, where Nick seems more vulnerable than ever before. His voice breaks with emotion many times, but these takes were kept for the final release. While it is a difficult film to watch it is ultimately uplifting. Nick and his family make a conscious decision to live their life, honoring Arthur and not forgetting him.

Everything is not OK, but that's OK, right? If things go on, you know, if anyone is interested, the records go on and we still do what we do, um, and the work goes on. And in that respect, things continue. A belief in the good in things, in the world, in ourselves evaporated. But you know, after a while, after a time, Susie and I decided to be happy. As happiness seemed to be an act of revenge. An act of defiance. To care about each other. And everyone else. And be careful. To be careful with each other and the ones around us.”

The concert was this idea made flesh. He seemed happy on stage. He interacted with the crowd more than I have ever seen him do before. He bantered with people, touched them. He didn’t just come out into the crowd, he invited people into his space, allowing himself to be held by the audience, to be buoyed up by them and their love, and in return, gathered in the community he had created, he shouted his defiance to the heavens.

The show itself was a mix of the new and the old, with a noticeable gap of anything from the mid 90s until the last two albums. As a long time fan, if Nick had asked me personally which of the old songs I wanted to hear, he pretty much did everything that would have been on my list. He has always been able to transition seamlessly between the furious and the funereal and this was no exception. After four of his newer, more atmospheric, but no less powerful, songs he said ‟I wanna tell you about a girl,” and launched into From Her to Eternity, and this driving song about obsession and stalking and murder brought down the house. This was followed immediately by the sound of distant thunder from the stage and I knew that we were in Tupelo.

The decision to perform this song was one of the most surprising for me. It’s one of his classics and a regular feature of his concerts. But the recent details of his life has given it new context. While a lot of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death many of the lyrics seem prescient given what happened. It is impossible to listen to the album without this event infusing your interpretation of it. What is more fascinating to me is how this can now color our perceptions of his previous work as well. The lyrics of Tupelo play with the idea of how we mythologize real people, particularly modern rock stars. The song conflates Elvis with Christ, the King who will rise again. For years some people did not believe that Elvis was dead, and he was treated with a religious fervor. Elvis was a twin. His minutes-older sibling died in childbirth. The imagery of the dead twin runs throughout the song, now conveying the extra resonance of Cave’s own twin sons, one of whom is gone. In the raging elemental fury of the performance I found myself emotionally gut-punched by the new meanings of these lyrics, of which Nick has to be very aware.

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals,
And a child is born on his brothers heels,
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead,
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red.

The final repeated refrain, changed slightly from the recorded version, of, ‟Oh mama rock your lil’ one slow, Oh mama hold your baby,” was being sung with full, lived knowledge of how easy it is to lose that child.

He followed Tupelo with Jubilee Street, from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away. This song in particular felt like Nick shouting his defiance. Interspersed with the repeated refrain, ‟Look at me now,” he seemed to be addressing Death directly, speaking of his transformation, the alchemy of his loss producing gold.

I am alone now.
I am beyond recriminations.
The curtains are shut.
The furniture has gone.
I am transforming.
I am vibrating.
I am glowing.
I am flying.
Look at me now!”

The Weeping Song is a favorite of mine from his album The Good Son. It has always spoken to the idea of true sadness and grief in this world. Twenty-five years ago Nick knew that, ‟True weeping is yet to come.”

Former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld is the other man in this video.
He has not been with the band for many years.

Into My Arms is perhaps my favorite love song. It is a paean of romance sung by a skeptic, acknowledging the one thing he can truly believe in. It echoes a lot of what lives in my head and heart and has long held a special place for me and one other. You know who you are.

I can’t stress enough that although there was a lot of sad, grief-filled content to this show, it was not a dirge. It was a celebration, not just of Arthur, but of life, and love, and perhaps above all else, the idea of community and all of us taking care of each other and supporting our friends. I said earlier that it seemed that Nick was inviting us into his space, breaking the barrier of the stage and audience dichotomy by joining us on the floor. This was taken to it’s logical conclusion during the final number, Push the Sky Away. Once again Nick began to gesture for the crowd to come closer, even though we were already as close to the stage as we could be. When he took a woman’s hand and helped her onto the stage, then kept gesturing, his intentions became clear. He was inviting us to join him, physically onstage. About a hundred of us did so. I stood in this crowd with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an impromptu chorus, singing along with him as he closed the show with what became a hymn for everyone there.

And some people say its just rock and roll,
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul.
Youve gotta just keep on pushing and keep on pushing and
Push the sky away.”

Set List:
Jesus Alone
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
Jubilee Street
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl in Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Distant Sky
Skeleton Tree
The Weeping Song
Jack the Ripper
Stagger Lee

Push the Sky Away

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Girls Who Be Kings*

This past Friday I was pleasantly reminded of a lot of my listening habits of the 90s. It can be difficult to remember where your head was at any given moment in your life, or why the music that spoke to you did so. I came into the 90s riding a wave of alternative music, listening to The Pixies, and The Replacements, and Nick Cave, and bunch of other stuff I had discovered in the late 80s. For the most part I ignored the Grunge movement. I could hear their influences in the stuff I had already been listening to and while I didn’t exactly hate Grunge none it spoke to me very much either. I liked Nirvana, but didn’t own their albums until many years later, partly due to everyone I knew already having a copy. I didn’t have to work very hard to be able to hear it.

I did discover a lot of music though. I went through a brief Alt-Country phase, though my tastes there tended toward the weird extremes of the genre. Most of these have long fallen by the wayside for me since then. I continued to follow the careers of many of the 80s artists I was into. Lloyd Cole and the Jazz Butcher continued to release new material though it seemed less and less people cared (not that many did in the first place, I guess). I tried out a lot of bands that I first saw on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I went to a few big festivals and saw a lot of bands I would never have gone to see if they played solo.

One of these festivals I went to, twice, was Lilith Fair. There seemed to be an explosion of new female vocalists/singer-songwriters at the time and I was drawn to a lot of them. I saw Dar Williams live several times. I picked up albums by Tori Amos and Bjork. I did a phone interview with Jewel when she was eighteen years old, about six months before she broke huge. Listening to women rock stars was nothing completely new for me. I owned a lot of Fleetwood Mac, and Blondie, and The Runaways, and The Eurythmics, and Missing Persons, among others. But in the 90s, like what I said about Alt-Country, my tastes in women vocalists tended toward the weird end of things.

One of them was Christina Martinez and her band, Boss Hog. Christina is married to Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Jon plays guitar and shares vocals with Christina in Boss Hog, but it is definitely her band. I wrote about them twice for local newsweeklies in the 90s and saw them once at the now-defunct Grafitti (Cibo Mato was the opening act). They only released two very short full albums and a handful of EPs, so their output was pretty small. Whatever, I listened to them a lot.

This features Jon Spencer more than most of their songs.

After almost two decades of nothing, this spring Boss Hog released a new album and went on tour. I went to see them at Cattivo, a small local venue here in Pittsburgh last Friday. The lineup includes both Martinez and Spencer, as well as Hollis Queens and Jens Jurgenson, their original drummer and bassist. Mickey Finn, who was not with them originally, rounded out the band on keyboards. It was a much more intimate show than when I saw them before. Spencer himself was working the merchandise table and was very accessible. The other band members hung out in the crowd watching the opening acts (including my friends in The Homisides from down Charleroi way).

Their performance was remarkable. First of all, it was obvious that they were really having fun up there. The love and enthusiasm for what they were doing brought everyone into the show. Christina left the stage to sing from the midst of the crowd. At one point she leaned on my shoulder and sang directly into my face, about six inches away. Queens and Jurgenson were tight and powerful, a thundering rhythm section. I don’t play drums, and as much as I listen to music I admit it is the piece of bands I notice least, at least overtly. Drums underlie all of the parts I’m paying more attention to. I recognize this as a lack on my part, but other than a great drum solo I find myself not paying much attention to drummers. Hollis Queens was the exception. She was simply fierce on drums and it was difficult to take my eyes off of her. She also adds vocals to one of my favorite Boss Hog songs, Whiteout. The show ended with the song Texas, possibly my favorite Boss Hog track.

A little naughty...

Boss Hog never really completely fell out of my listening rotation, like a lot of artists have. But, since Friday I’ve listened to all of their albums (the new one is great!) and EPs, and watched a lot of YouTube videos, reclaiming my fandom. This has reminded me of a few other women vocalists/performers I was into at the same time, all but one of which are relatively unknown. While I can’t describe exactly what it is, I can hear some kind of similarity among them, a reason I got into all of them. In every case their vocals feel earthier to me, more grounded. Many of the women singers of that era tended toward the more ethereal in their vocalizations. It’s not that I don’t like that, but it seems I’m drawn to something more visceral. In every case the music veers away from mostly traditional rock songs or ballads as well, though there are exceptions. Slower, but driving, if that’s a thing. Spaces in the music for the ear to rest, but underpinned with heavy bass and drums. More than a little distortion. There is a sparseness, but lots of emotion.

In my novel This Creature Fair I write about a rock star named Morrigan Blue. She and the band I create for her are the archetype for this type of sound. I can hear it in my head even if I can never completely describe it.

I’m not summing it up very well. Let me give you my examples.

I saw the video for Dragon Lady by the Geraldine Fibbers on 120 Minutes and was immediately a fan. I bought the album without having heard another song and it was a desert island album for me for years (it might still be). They fell into the weirder end of the Alt-Country thing I mentioned. In the first article I wrote about them for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly I described them as the offspring of Hank Williams and Sonic Youth. I still think that’s a pretty good descriptor. Carla Bozelich has a deep, raspy voice that just oozes emotion for me. I did a phone interview with her that formed the basis of a major article I had published in No Depression Magazine, the national music mag for Alt-Country (there was some editing of what I wrote that Carla wasn’t happy about, but we talked it through). I saw them once in Pittsburgh and twice in Washington DC. By that time guitarist Nels Cline, who is currently in Wilco, had joined the band.

As much as I love this I understand how they're an acquired taste. My friend Lee nearly jumped out of our car into the desert at 90 miles an hour when I put this on.

Before the Geraldine Fibbers, Carla had been with Ethyl Meatplow, who you might know about from the song Devil’s Johnson which was featured in an episode of Beavis and Butthead. Since then she has been involved in a number of projects, both solo and as part of other bands, including a song-for-song cover of Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger album, which Willie gave his blessing to by joining her on a couple of tracks. While I still love her voice she has moved into realms of experimental music that has left me behind.

At that same time I discovered Congo Norvell. Kid Congo Powers is a guitarist who has one of the best alternative resumes in music, having played with the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Kid is a very idiosyncratic guitarist who, by his own admission, never really learned to play guitar the ‟right” way. He uses lots of alternative tunings and is much more interested in finding interesting sounds to make with his guitar than in traditional playing. To my ears his instincts are good. Vocalist Sally Norvell has a voice that simply makes me melt. I called it a ‟mix of honey and sand” when I wrote about them.

I had been given the go-ahead to write an article or do an interview by my editor at Kulture Deluxe magazine, a short-lived and long defunct national music mag I wrote for a long time ago. I had tracked down their agent to ask for an interview, but in the meantime I went to see them in DC and was lucky enough to meet them after the show. When I inquired about setting something up Sally wrote her home number on a napkin and told me to call anytime. I did and they were fantastic. They sent me an advance copy of their new album, The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline, which was never officially released. I’m among a very small population of people who own a copy of this. This ended up being the biggest feature article I ever had published.

I can’t really say that Sally and I are friends in any way other than the Facebook kind, but we stayed in touch over the years. When she released her solo album Choking Victim I was probably one of the few music journalists lining up to review it.

The last of these 90s female performers I want to talk about is the most well-known. PJ Harvey is well into her third decade as a respected musician. 120 Minutes was my first introduction to her through the video for Dry. I heard her first three albums through a friend of mine who was much more into her at the time than I was. But then she released To Bring You My Love and I fell in love. This still ranks as one of my all time favorite albums, just hitting me in the sweet spot of right time, right place in my life. After that I become a completist for her music, tracking down obscure b-sides and unreleased tracks and bootleg live shows... there are a lot of them. Part of what I have loved about PJ is that she has continued to grow and change as an artist, every album moving in a new direction. I fully admit that I have not been as into her recent work as I once was. I think she’s still doing important work and following her specific muse, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. Still, she is an artist that I will always be interested to see where she goes next.

Unlike the others, I’ve never met PJ, though I have seen her live many times. Two of those shows stand out. In December of 2000 she was breaking in a new band in anticipation of being the opening act for U2. She played a small number of unannounced secret shows that I was lucky enough to hear about and get tickets to. I saw her at the Black Cat in DC, the same venue where I had seen the Geraldine Fibbers and Congo Norvell. The Black Cat is essentially a small bar and I stood about three feet from her during the performance. Even then she was a big enough star that this kind of intimate show was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The next fall, after the U2 tour, I saw her headlining again with the same band at the 9:30 Club. This show stands out because of the date. It was 9/10/2001. The next morning, while I was driving out of DC, the World Trade Centers fell and the Pentagon was hit by a plane.

Unfortunately I didn't see the To Bring You My Love tour in 1995.
This is what passed for PJ's Glam period.

I can hear the similarities in these performers, at least in my world of aural pleasure. I can understand why they all appealed to me in some of the same ways. I’m sure there are others who fall in this category but I haven’t discovered a lot of them that speak to me in the same way. I’m sure some of that is simply where I am in life as well. Not too many years ago I got into The Kills, fully aware that they were hitting me in the same place as the bands I’ve just talked about. There is an overall sound to the band I like and vocalist Alison Mossheart fits squarely in the realm I’ve been discussing. I really like the work she has done with Jack White in The Dead Weather as well.

I’m not sure of the purpose of this, other than finally gathering all of these together in one place. Hopefully some of you will explore these artists and discover something you love. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a nostalgic indulgence.

*The title is taken from a Congo Norvell song.