Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds – Part 1 (Higgs Boson Blues)

Can you feel my heartbeat?
Can you feel my heartbeat?

-Nick Cave, “Higgs Boson Blues.”

Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA

Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA

A little over a year ago, I tried to put my long-running love affair with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds into words while suffering through withdrawals after two glorious live shows in Seattle and Vancouver on their Push the Sky Away tour. It was a cathartic process that had been building up over the past twenty-five years. At that time, I had no idea when I would have the opportunity to see them perform again. It had been five years since their previous tour for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and it would not have been surprising if another five years were to go by before their next tour. Don’t let the time lag fool you. Nick Cave is a prolific artist so the time in-between tours is not because he’s idle but rather because he’s working on so many other artistic endeavors aside from his music with the Bad Seeds: film scores with collaborator Warren Ellis, screenplays, novels, an opera. But then one random day I was caught unawares and heard a rumor of another U.S. tour planned for 2014. Time – along with my heart – stopped for a moment.

It all happened so fast. An announcement was made about the tour in mid-November, the weekend before I was leaving to travel half-way around the world to Southeast Asia. The tour dates were announced that following Monday and tickets were to go on sale for the whole tour that Friday – the day I would be on a fourteen hour international flight 30,000 feet in the air. Luckily, pre-sale opportunities were announced for Wednesday and Thursday. I was still hoping to fulfill a long-standing promise to myself to follow the band on the West Coast portion of their next tour, and with no time to think things through, I quickly consulted with Craig and my good friend Todd – also a long-time fan who lives in LA – to see who wanted to go to what shows. With dates sorted out and our ticket-purchasing duties divvied up, as I was flying out of the U.S. I had secured tickets for four shows, including Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

July 2nd – Seattle

I had a massive deadline at work that day and there couldn’t be a better way to celebrate than to kick-off my Nick Cave tour. Mark Lanegan opened the show with an incredible acoustic set. I hadn’t seen Lanegan perform in about ten years and was looking forward to seeing him open for three consecutive shows. He started off with “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a 15th century Christmas carol that would make you pine for holiday music if it all could sound like this. That was immediately followed by two of my favorites: “One Way Street” and “Don’t Forget about Me.” Mark barely moved an inch during his performances and spoke even less, but his whiskey-soaked baritone oozes into your veins like an I.V. drip. His fantastic restrained version of “Mack the Knife” from his latest cover album, Imitations, seemed out of character, but he made it sound so damn good. Assuming that Mark was probably invited by the headliners to open, I wondered if Nick would bring Mark up on stage and meld their two beautiful voices together – the stuff music dreams are made of.

At 9pm on the dot the pulsating opening bass lines of “We Real Cool” started to rumble from the speakers. The riff lengthened well beyond what you hear on record, rhythmically building up the excitement of the crowd until the band finally appeared on stage in a dramatic haze of blue light. In typical Bad Seeds fashion, what is a fine song on the album suddenly came to life in a passionate, intense rendition that made me question if I’d ever truly heard the song before.

The tour this time around wasn’t in support of a new record but for the captivating new film about, and starring, Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth. Similar to their 2013 shows, the band performed a handful of songs from the luscious Push the Sky Away album, including “Jubilee Street,” “Mermaids,” and the epic masterpiece “Higgs Boson Blues,” which I dare say might be the bands 21st century “The Mercy Seat.” The personal and ultimately hopeful “Push the Sky Away” was a perfect choice to close the show. Intermixed were songs from throughout the band’s fifteen-album catalog, ranging from “From Her to Eternity,” from their 1984 debut album of the same name, to encore song “The Lyre of Orpheus” from 2004, and all points in-between. But the fact that the band’s setlist was similar to last year did not in any way lessen the delight, the excitement, or the thrill of seeing NC&TBS.

Before leaving on my tour some friends were wondering if there would be a point when I would have enough. I felt confident that time wouldn’t come but was curious to see if that proved true. It did. I could have easily followed the band on the entire tour right on through to the end and beyond if time and money permitted. The Bad Seeds exemplify the live rock and roll experience and Nick Cave is a true performer, giving as much as he’s taking from his audience. In 20,000 Days on Earth actor Ray Winstone asks Nick if he still loves to perform and Nick says, “I live for it.” Anyone who has seen him perform knows this to be true; in fact, it seems to be more true today than ever before.

Bad Seeds music gear

Bad Seeds music gear

The two songs that were an unexpected but very welcome surprise were both from the 1986 release, Your Funeral, My Trial. Nick laughed as he told the audience that he really didn’t know what the lyrics meant to “Stranger Than Kindness,” written by his former partner and collaborator Anita Lane, but the beautiful, haunting words envelope you into a vivid, film noir scene. Soon after Nick sat at his piano and played the achingly gorgeous “Sad Waters,” sandwiched between “Into My Arms” and “God is in the House.” Then – just as I was hoping for – Nick brought Mark Lanegan on stage to sing “The Weeping Song” with him. These two men couldn’t be more opposite in their stage presence, but I felt like I would drown in the deep, dark depths of their commingled voices. Nick greeted Mark with a hug, which was awkwardly reciprocated. It reminded me that while Nick can come across as intimidating and unapproachable, especially as portrayed in the media, if you pay attention you’ll see the warm, personable guy beneath the surface. On a couple of occasions during the show there would be some small mistake made by either Nick or another band member, and Nick would get a big smile on his face; a reminder that he is human and of this earth. The band, the persona, and the lyrics are so other-worldly and larger than life that it’s easy to forget that – and I would soon get a big dose of that reality.

July 5th – Portland

Three nights later, I was in Portland for the next show on the tour. The Portland show was at a seated venue – not that anybody actually sat – and I can’t say why, but the energy was even higher than in Seattle; maybe because the band skipped Portland on their 2013 tour so local fans had waited six long years for this. The show followed a set list similar to Seattle, but included “West Country Girl” – Nick Cave’s ode to PJ Harvey – and we were treated to not one but three encore songs, including the rollicking “Deanna,” and “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” from one of my favorite NC&TBS albums, Henry’s Dream. Nick also brought Mark Lanegan out on stage again, but the real surprise of the night was when Nick – not once, but twice – seemed to disappear for a second from the stage and then suddenly reappeared, literally walking on the backs of the chairs into the audience like Jesus walking on water, while his disciples helped to support him. Nick admits that he plays to the front row, feeding off that immediate energy and intimacy, and this was a highly appreciated way to reach out to his audience and give them some love which they eagerly reciprocated.

July 6th – Portland International Airport

The night after the Portland show, I barely slept a wink. I don’t know if it was all the excitement, the unusual Pacific Northwest heatwave, or the late-night post-show cocktails – maybe all of the above – but after Craig dropped me off at the airport to head to San Francisco and I arrived at my boarding gate tired and dehydrated, I decided to walk around the terminal to try to exercise the butterflies in my stomach. I had no idea at that point that the butterflies were about to increase a hundred-fold.

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR

I aimlessly walked to the end of the terminal and then decided to head back to the gate. Suddenly, a tall, lanky, black-haired rock star crossed my path. You know how sometimes when you see someone out of context, especially someone you don’t actually know personally, you hesitate? You think to yourself, “Oh that kind of looks like so-and-so.” Not this time. In my head I was thinking, “Oh, Nick Cave just walked by. OH MY GOD, NICK CAVE JUST WALKED BY!” On one hand, it was a calm thought, because I was sure of what I saw, but inside my heart was pounding and threatening to punch through my chest and flop down in front of Nick Cave’s feet as an offering. “Can you feel my heartbeat?” I wondered what I was supposed to do next, because obviously I had to do something. He popped into a shop in the terminal and I immediately sat down on the closest bench I could find. He came out rather quickly and walked right by me. I sat there stupidly grinning at him and said hello, knowing I looked like I was an over-eager star-struck groupie. It was an epic fail on my part, but I was too stunned to do anything else. This was definitely not something I had prepared for.

He then walked towards the men’s room and knowing better than to follow him in there, I decided to proceed to my gate. At this point, it hadn’t dawned on me that we were in the Alaska Airlines terminal and so only one airline flew out of this area. It hadn’t dawned on me that I was heading to the same city as the band because I was following the band. It hadn’t dawned on me that we might be on the same flight. It hadn’t dawned on me until I got to the gate and saw Barry Adamson and touring guitarist George Vjestica sitting on a bench waiting for their flight; my flight. I took a deep breath and sat in a seat nearby where I would have a good view, but was not within their personal space. I was thinking “Now what do I do?” because didn’t I have to do something…again? And suddenly, just like that, Nick strolled across the terminal and sat down across from Barry and George directly within my view.

I tried not to stare, I really did, but how could I not? My favorite band, my favorite performer, my favorite songwriter, and yes, my “celebrity rock star” fantasy for over twenty-five years was within spitting distance. I immediately texted Craig and Todd asking for advice. I knew I had to go over and introduce myself, but I can be shy around people I know well let alone someone I’ve admired for so many years; someone who has been known for his intimidating and impatient persona, be it real or contrived. And I had already made a fool of myself in front of him just moments before. He probably wouldn’t even believe this was actually my gate.

After a while, with encouragement via text, I finally walked over and introduced myself – I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. And while I will always wish I could have a do-over and do it much, much better, I am still proud of myself that I didn’t blow this unique opportunity. I went up and apologized for disturbing him. I told him I was going to San Francisco to see him perform; then I admitted I was following the band down the West Coast. “You are a big fan!” he replied. We chatted for another minute and he asked me my name and shook my hand. Then it was done and I went back to my seat, no doubt visibly shaking. In an effort to stop staring, I took out my Kindle and opened it up trying to act like this was all no big thing, but it was way too late for that and not surprising, I didn’t read a word. I had my phone out wanting to take some candid photos, but I didn’t. I knew that would be wrong. They were just some band mates waiting for a flight. Nick was flipping through a magazine, occasionally yawning, chatting and laughing with his friends. As the gate became more and more crowded, I wondered how so many people could be oblivious to the fact that there were rock stars in their midst. A couple of fans came up, but mostly they were able to just wait for their flight like the rest of us mere mortals.

The boarding announcements began. They welcomed first class passengers to board but to my surprise, the guys didn’t move. Then they called for people who had checked luggage and didn’t require use of the overhead bins. We all stood up. I was one of the first people in line to board in coach and Nick was just two passengers behind me; a fan was chatting with him. I took my seat: 15C on the aisle. Nick took his seat one row in front of me across the aisle and at the window. The plane was still relatively empty and he looked back at me and said something along the lines of, “It’s just the two of us.” Swoon.

Of course, the plane quickly filled up. I saw Barry Adamson take a seat about five rows ahead of me. Then suddenly I had to get up to let George Vjestica into my row at the window seat. Nick looked back again and said to him, “Watch out, she’s a fan.” I’m giddy with the attention, but feel like a ridiculous twelve year old fan girl of a teenage heartthrob. Before the middle seat becomes occupied, George and I spend a few minutes in conversation. I stumble and giggle my way through it. It’s embarrassing because I know I can do better than this. Except that apparently I can’t.

More and more people were boarding and soon Jim Sclavunos was in the seat across the aisle from me; Conway Savage in the seat directly in front. I hadn’t seen Warren Ellis yet and that lovely, bearded madman is one hard cat to miss. But rest assured, he was on the plane which I realized when he got up and walked past me to use the bathroom – twice, but who’s counting. I only mention it because it was just so surreal to sit on a plane, in coach, surrounded by the Bad Seeds and watching them eat their pretzels, drink their beverages, and yes, get up to use the loo, like everyone else.

As I was looking around the plane, I noticed that despite the sold-out flight there was an empty seat between Nick and someone that must have been their tour manager, providing him a level of protection from having to sit directly next to fans like me. I made a mental note to myself that if, and only if, the plane started going down, I was going to make my way into that empty seat. If I was going to die in a plane crash it was going to be clinging to Nick Cave and not the oblivious frat boy sitting next to me. Fortunately for everyone, we had a smooth flight and a safe landing – but I still had another test ahead of me that I was trying to prepare for during the entire flight.

July 6th – San Francisco International Airport

I didn’t know for sure if the band would be heading to baggage claim or if they had people to do that for them, but it seemed to be a distinct possibility from what I’d observed so far. We soon all found ourselves waiting at Carousel 13 – lucky 13 for me – and while Nick and George were chatting I once again screwed up my courage and walked up to Nick to ask him if could I get a photo together now that we’d shared a plane ride. Nick’s disciplined work ethic is well-documented, and apparently that extends to his non-work days as well because he said he doesn’t take photos on his days off. I didn’t want to argue even though I did see him take a photo with a fan in the terminal earlier in the day. But the man has his rules and I respect that, and I was probably coming across like a desperate fan from pure nervousness despite trying to act as normal as I could. He did offer to sign something for me but I didn’t have anything for him to sign, although in hindsight I should have had him sign my boarding pass. Really, I could have had him sign anything, but I just wasn’t capable of rational thinking. I told him I’d try to catch him the next day at the show. He said he doesn’t take photos before the show, but he would after the show. Okay, that was good to know and with that, it was clearly time to move away – but I had one last thing to say.

Posing with Nick Cave at lucky carousel 13, San Francisco Airport

Posing with Nick Cave at lucky carousel 13, San Francisco Airport

Using Craig as an excuse, I said, “My husband said I should tell you…” and proceeded to show Nick my “Breathless” tattoo, telling him I walked down the aisle to that song. A big smile came over his face and he asked if I hopped down the aisle, which makes perfect sense if you’ve seen the video. While earlier I saw him roll his eyes when another fan showed him her NC&TBS-related tattoo while proclaiming she wasn’t obsessed, he seemed genuinely touched and interested in my story. He said the tattoo was beautiful and showed it to George. He also appeared relieved to know I was married. Well, if I’m honest, “appeared” is not the right word; he pretty much said so. And then he broke his no-photo rule for me and offered to take a few together under the glow of the fluorescent baggage claim lights.

I felt giddy and foolish and ridiculous. I’m a professional, married woman not so much younger than he is, but I reverted to a silly teenager in front of him. Maybe being star struck is the Fountain of Youth. We continued to chat a bit more, discovering we both have the same favorite Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, but when the bags started coming out I moved away to retrieve mine and walked off without looking back. On one hand, I wish I could re-do my fumbling, mumbling, grinning-like-an-idiot meeting, but in the end it really was perfect because it’s all mine and I own it.

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