Nick Cave’s songs and the city

In 2009 Rowland S Howard previewed songs from his Pop Crimes album in late afternoon sunshine in front of a crumbling brick wall, part of a series of colonial era barracks buildings on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. He was part of an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds within the Sydney Festival. The setting reminded me of the fading grandeur of the Seaview Hotel in Melbourne, its massive mirrors set within elaborately carved dark wooden frames, the sweeping staircase leading to the Crystal Ballroom where Rowland played in Boys Next Door, the band that would lead to the Bad Seeds. The hotel had been a grand seaside resort in the Victorian era but it was then a flophouse, home to those who were part of St Kilda’s dark economy, gangsters, drug dealers, prostitutes.

Many of the other musicians at the festival had also played in that room during the punk rock era, Robert Forster with his band the Go Betweens and Ed Kuepper and the Laughing Clowns. If the punk rock community registered at all in Australian cities during the 1980s it was as a nuisance. Audiences were small, a couple of hundred people at most, and most of these were also in bands. These bands achieved fame internationally first and by placing All Tomorrow’s Parties on Cockatoo Island Sydney Festival Director Fergus Linehan was showing the bands within the world that formed them, a perspective not widely available at the time. Another of his Sydney Festivals contained an ensemble show augmenting the remaining Triffids with musicians from the wider artistic community of the era, celebrating the songs of the late David McComb, another perspective hidden at the time.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were on the cusp of the mainstream fame that sees them now filling stadiums. But it was still surprising then to see Nick’s face on bus shelters around Sydney’s CBD. In 2007 I had a conversation with him that led me to concentrate on his songs as part of the cityscape. I was writing a chapter for an academic study of his lyrics and I’d identified the mythological symbols he used in his songs, and had a list, to fact check. I now know this was a futile exercise. The metaphors that bring myths to life in a particular time change over time, they aren’t absolute, and a more interesting line of enquiry than working out what a particular symbol might mean to Nick, personally, is how the songs take on lives of their own. I tore up the list and went with Nick while a driver drove him around Sydney’s CBD, the North Shore, back across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the inner Eastern suburbs and back to the CBD. Nick was listening to the master of the DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!! album that was soon to be released.

It was the last of the narrative albums. Laid upon the myth of Odysseus trying to return home were two layers of dazed, deluded spiritualism. Induced by the rapid technological and scientific discoveries of the Victorian era, that made people of the time crazy in new ways, according to William Gibson. Harry Houdini was invoked. He was both a skeptic, debunking spiritualists and desperately wanted to believe, in trying to contact his mother after her death. And  the biblical Lazarus raised from the dead and becoming a kind of Charles Manson type figure, in 1970s New York, at that time a decrepit and dangerous city with the manufacturing moving out of the city and leaving their abandoned factory buildings downtown for artists and musicians to claim. Many city references in the songs were vague enough to attach them to the Sydney cityscape we were driving through. The sound of smashing glass could come from the glass curtain walls of North Shore glass box skyscrapers.

I was thinking about that album on Cockatoo Island while having a conversation with Robert Forster in the Turbine Room, as the Velvet Underground’s song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” jangled anthemically, the sound bouncing off the phenomenally large machines … Lou Reed in that 70s Manhattan … And how quickly we lose the ability to relate to a previous era. I’m an engineering nerd and in principle I comprehend the Victorian city, but nothing prepared me for the scale of those turbines. I could mostly relate them to art projects: large curls of rusting iron to Richard Serra sculptures, a winch-type device to an Alexander Calder stablile, a metal box housing transformers to a Donald Judd cupboard. I hadn’t perceived a gradual progression from this analogue era to the current digital eras. One minute everything’s bulky and clunky, rotary phones in boxes on street corners and the next it’s all collapsed into the smartphone, like the one I was holding in my hand.

I suddenly became very interested in trying to observe epochal changes in the city, Sydney in my case, alongside music. Not so much by using Nick’s songs, for instance, as a kind of Google maps. Sometimes the references to a specific city matter … Geneva in “Higgs Boson Blues”, for example. But to read Nick’s American tour memoir The Sick Bag song is to see how the cities run together, and strange, random things become totems because that’s all he’s there for long enough to see. At the end of the tour, in Canada, Nick thinks back over where he’s been and all of the cities run together.

“We have passed through regenerated inner cities, through inner cities in the process of regeneration, and dying inner cities.

We have communed in masonic temples, public parks, 700-acre farms, destination theatres, Spanish Baroque style theatres, French and Italian Baroque style theatres, Italian Renaissance style theatres and theatres in the Spanish Gothic style. We have communed in Neoclassical style theatres made out of Alabama limestone, theatres in Renaissance Revival style, vaudeville theatres, movie palaces renovated into multiplexes, performing arts, culture and community facilities, Unification churches, concert halls in the Moorish Revival style and vast open-air auditoriums.

We have sat in domed lobbies, designed after the Pantheon in Rome and built from 700 tons of pink marble. We have sat backstage in rank and desolate dressing rooms.”

William Gibson’s musician heroine in Zero History describes the composite city of the touring musician. “Her Melbourne was a collage, a mash-up, like a Canadianized Los Angeles, Anglo-Colonial Victorian amid a terraformed sprawl of suburbs.”

In 2011 when Nick’s “Ship Song” became the theme song for the Sydney Opera House I found a focus for writing about music and the city. The song had broken free of Nick, he didn’t appear in the video directed by Paul Goldman, other, mostly Australian rock musicians appeared, and all of the Australian arts companies resident at the Opera House. It was a turning point for the Opera House, a switch from analogue to digital that would occur along the timeline of the Arup engineered underground loading dock beginning construction then. And a turning point for cities, into the Anthropocene.

The Opera House has long been used to symbolise the global dimension of destruction in science fiction movies, but another crucial music related event in 2011 showed the role of music in reconstructing cities, when New Orleans musicians Allen Toussaint, Jon Cleary and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed together. Their individual sets related to the city … Jon Cleary the intimate bars … Allen Toussaint’s songs are so familiar through their recordings by other artists, that it was easy to imagine his studio, reconstructed after it had been destroyed after the storm. By all usual measures the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s performance could have been considered a failure, they set out to recreate the Second Line that winds away from the graveyard after a funeral, joyously back into life. Hard to do with the theatre lights up and the audience lifting their feet up and down as they stood in front of their seats in the Concert Hall, but conceptually it was a success.

Part of the Opera House becoming an iconic rock venue has been the starstruck wonder musicians express when performing in one of the most famous buildings on the planet … Neko Case said she felt as if her face was on the $10 bill for the day. But even more so it’s the wide view of the programmers, using the spaces, the whole building and not just the theatres, often in contrary ways comparable to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. First Fergus Linehan brought in the context around rock’n’roll shows that characterised the Sydney Festival shows he’d programmed. And now Ben Marshall, with an intersecting portfolio of Contemporary Music, Vivid Live and Graphic, takes over the whole building. In 2015, his first Vivid Live, he connected his use of the whole building to ideas about the city through the installation of Universal Everything’s homage to Archigram’s Walking City (a mobile, robotic city).

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