I called out, I called out
Right across the sea
But the echo comes back empty
And nothing is for free…
And it’s alright now
-Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree”
Music is my drug of choice. It’s been that way since I was 12 years old when I first began to discover the music that would shape my life. I was fortunate to have access to a great radio station, an alternative record store, and a 30 to 45 minute drive to Hollywood to get a regular fix. Through music I was transported to other worlds and exposed to other visions of reality away from my day-to-day suburban life where I felt I never fit in and never belonged. To this day, no drug or drink can compare to how a song can make me feel.
It would take another 12 years to work my way up to the biggest addiction of them all: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. My best friend was already a fan, and he brought me to a live show in 1989 as my introduction. I can’t remember any real details except that I had my arms around a girl I didn’t know and was jumping up and down and dancing and holding on to her for dear life. It’s now 28 years later; that’s almost three decades packed with love, break-ups, loss, sadness, joy, stupid mistakes, smart decisions, and more questions than I have answers for. And Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have accompanied me through all of it. They’ve guided me, consoled me, and given me an outlet to vent my sadness, anger, longing, and love. I’ve never looked back since that night in 1989 and today my addiction is just as intense and present as it ever has been. Perhaps more so.
The Bad Seeds latest album, the 2016 release Skeleton Tree, is a record forever caught up in the tragedy that struck the singer’s family when their teenage son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff to his death. Most of the songs were written before this tragic event, yet it’s impossible to listen to the record and not feel like every single song is about this most heart-rending of losses. Writing about loss and death is not a new topic for Cave, but this record, while feeling like a continuation of the musical direction of Push the Sky Away, feels so much more personal than his previous, more narrative work. A documentary was released to introduce the album — presumably about the making of the record — but in reality it served as a device for Cave to acknowledge his son’s death in one fell swoop while avoiding the need to answer prying questions from journalists.
One More Time with Feeling, directed by Andrew Dominik, invited viewers to witness a highly intimate reflection on grief by Cave, including difficult but beautifully poignant moments with his wife Susie, and Arthur’s twin brother Earl. The film was shot in somber black and white, and through a 3D camera lens we observe a man whose life has been turned on its head, no longer making sense, and a family searching for how to honor their son while moving forward for those that are still living. We see a man, who has always presented himself as an intimidating, larger than life force, barely able to find his voice while recording; a fragile man, who questions on camera why he agreed to make the film and talk about that which is unspeakable; and by the end of the film a man who defiantly states that his family is making a conscious choice to be happy, because that happiness is the greatest act of revenge imaginable.
Surrounding the release of the film and the record there were fevered discussions about whether the band would ever tour again, and if they would, or even should, play these very personal songs. Whether they really are about the loss of a son or are simply written in a way that we can project that on to them, could Cave actually walk onstage and sing of such heartache in a public setting after what happened? Conversely, after such a loss, could he inhabit the characters he has always projected onstage: the preacher, the outlaw, the lover, and the murderer? Perhaps wearing those personas now would only serve as a façade and not ring true.
The debate ended soon after when a tour was announced to promote Skeleton Tree. It began earlier this year in Australia and New Zealand, perhaps serving as a much-needed homecoming for the Australian-born singer. From all accounts, the shows were emotional, life-affirming experiences for both the band and for the audience. There was new energy and new engagement – a rebirth of sorts. We would soon witness how the North American tour would take this to the next level.
There was only a matter of days from the announcement of the North American tour to when tickets would go on sale, so I had to plan fast. My first thought was another West Coast tour like in 2014. The routing was doable but a little convoluted; plus, I would have to include Los Angeles, and it was at the last Nick Cave concert in LA that I vowed to never go back again. Craig reminded me that if we had to get on airplanes we didn’t have to limit ourselves to the West Coast, so I broadened my horizons and considered where we could get in the most shows with the fewest moves. There was a show in Montreal followed by two dates in Toronto. Both were cities we had never been to but had talked about visiting in the past, and it was over a holiday (bonus day off) so it quickly became a no-brainer. The band wasn’t coming to Seattle on this tour, so we included the show in Portland for good measure. The Canadian shows were close to the start of the tour, and I had something additional to look forward to when they were over.
Montreal was a general admission show and I wanted to get as close to the stage as I could. If you’ve ever been to a Bad Seeds show, you understand why. I was planning to get in line early but ultimately relented to my husband’s more rational thinking as the weather was a horrible crash of thunder and lightning storms, and even though it was late May it was freezing cold. We still managed to get there early enough before the doors opened to stand in line in the rain for an hour, where already there were brave fans lined up for a couple of blocks. On top of that, VIP ticket holders got to go in even earlier (note to self: they were allowed to wait in the warm, dry lobby). Still, I got close enough to see the sweat on Nick’s face so I really have nothing to complain about.
The show opened with three songs from Skeleton Tree that provided a slow, intense build-up to the evening’s performance. As with all of the Bad Seeds’ songs, what might be a good-to-great song on record becomes brilliant when performed live. There are tweaks to the arrangements, and a passion and intensity that can only come with a live performance. After “Anthrocene,” “Jesus Alone,” and “Magneto,” the band went into the epic and already classic “Higgs Boson Blues.” “Can you feel my heartbeat? Boom! Boom! Boom!” Then we were back into more familiar Nick Cave territory as he screamed out “I’m going to tell you about a girl!” and broke into “From Her to Eternity,” followed by “Tupelo,” and then what I consider the band’s other new classic, “Jubilee Street” – a song that takes its time building to a rapturous frenzy that you never see coming no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
As fans have come to expect at a Bad Seeds show, there is usually an interlude of quieter songs with Nick at the piano. On this night, he played “The Ship Song,” followed by “Into My Arms,” where Nick encouraged the audience to sing the chorus; but, he warned, only the chorus. The lighting on this tour was absolutely gorgeous, with dramatic jewel-toned colors and a judicious use of simple, powerful black and white images that heighten the intensity of the songs they accompany. “Girl in Amber” features a black and white video of Cave’s wife, Susie, walking along the beach in Brighton where they live. We only see her from behind, and I want to think she’s providing a protective presence for her husband but it feels like we’re losing her as she walks away towards the sea, never looking back.
And now in turn, you turn
You kneel, lace up his shoes, your little blue-eyed boy
Take him by his hand, go move and spin him down the hall
I get lucky, I get lucky ‘cause I tried again
I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone
I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world
In a slumber ‘til your crumble were absorbed into the earth
Well, I don’t think that any more, the phone it rings no more
The song, the song it spins now since 1984
-Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds, “Girl in Amber”
The show ebbs and flows between the quiet, emotional outpourings and the ecstatic rock and roll performances. And it works really well. The lovely “I Need You” is a vulnerable admission, followed immediately by the distinct organ notes opening the sinister “Red Right Hand,” based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with the stage bathed in a harsh red light. Cave shows no signs of being in a difficult place in his life. He is a true professional and he seems to be reveling in the performance, the energy, and the love that the audience is projecting on to him. In the past, you never knew if it was a one-way street, with the audience taking whatever the singer would give. This time, it seems different.
After the epic “The Mercy Seat,” I hear the opening notes of “Distant Sky.” There isn’t a song on Skeleton Tree that can’t bring tears to my eyes, but for me “Distant Sky” is the epitome of heartbreak and loss, and the live performance, with an altered lyric organization and musical arrangement that includes a larger than life video of soprano Else Torp, floored me. When she sings the words, “Let us go now, my only companion / Set out for the distant skies / Soon the children will be rising, will be rising / This is not for our eyes,” I imagine a starry sky-filled place where dead children gather, float above, and watch us. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking. And then Nick picks the mic back up and sings: “They told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied.” I can’t think of any words more crushing. The song continues with a beautiful, expanded instrumental ending with Warren Ellis on violin sounding like he’s teasing out the tears of angels. Then, with perfect sequencing, the set ends with the sad, but ultimately hopeful “Skeleton Tree.”
The show is a perfect balance of poignant sadness and beauty, and fiery rock and roll filled with dark humor and mayhem. Maybe the most remarkable highlight of the evening was Nick’s disposition when he wasn’t singing. I have never seen him more talkative or engaged with an audience. He smiled a lot and looked like he was having fun. If some of the songs were difficult to sing, if they brought tears to the eyes of those in the audience, it appeared to be a sort of catharsis for Nick; an exorcising of demons that maybe was more powerful than the most demonic of the Bad Seeds songs.
When the band returned for their encore, Nick right away assured the audience that there was no need to panic: they were going to play several songs. The band started with “Rings of Saturn,” and when Nick flubbed up the lyrics, he yelled “fuck!” commenting that he didn’t know how rappers did it while a beautiful smile crossed his face. And then the band started over and it was brilliant. “Mermaids” followed, which always makes me blush, and then the band let loose with the nasty, over-the-top “Stagger Lee,” with Nick falling into the audience and trusting his faithful followers to catch and support him. The show concluded with “Push the Sky Away,” another song of hope which seemed to sum up the evening perfectly: “And some people say it’s just rock and roll / Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul / You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, and keep on pushing / Push the sky away.”
I really couldn’t have asked for a better night.
Two nights later we entered Massey Hall in Toronto. This was a seated venue and our tickets were in the first balcony, smack-dab in the center – so there was no need to line up early. I noticed how much more relaxed I was. My first choice will always be to get as close as I can to the stage, and from the balcony I looked enviously at those up front, but I do have an appreciation for sitting back and getting the larger overview. The seats were great. We had a perfect unobstructed view of the stage and could watch the whole band, and without the pressure of trying to get closer and hoping for that coveted look or touch, it was easier to focus on the performance and allow the music to envelope me.
The main set was very similar to the Montreal show, but this night’s version of “Jubilee Street” was one for the books. The band absolutely killed it and they got a proper standing ovation from the entire theater, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen at a rock concert. We knew instinctively that this was a once-in-a-lifetime performance; Nick did too when he said how awesome it was and reminded us that it wasn’t like that every night.
We got an extra encore song with “The Weeping Song,” where Nick tried out a new clapping technique with the audience that he seemed pleased with, even as we made mistakes trying to follow his cues. This was also different from previous shows. I can’t remember Nick instigating audience participation in the past, either with singing or clapping. Before the next song began, Nick mentioned his missing “piano player,” longtime Bad Seed Conway Savage, who has been ill and was not present on this tour. Cave said the next song was Savage’s favorite and that Warren Ellis would attempt to “muddle through” as the familiar notes of “Stagger Lee” filled the theater.
Nick was notably less talkative this night, and I wondered if Savage’s absence was the reason behind it. He hadn’t mentioned him the night before, and I don’t know if he mentioned him at any other subsequent shows. Still, the performance was stellar as he continued to joke with the audience. When a fan yelled out that they loved Warren, Nick retorted that he loved Warren, too. In fact, I noticed at every show we saw there was always some really sweet, visible connection between Nick and Warren. Sometimes it was a look, sometimes it was a touch. We would see Nick lovingly caress Warren’s beard on our final night in Portland after fixing his friend’s jacket collar. These two men not only have a wonderful collaborative, artistic partnership, but also a beautiful friendship that was palpable at each and every show.
Nick ended the evening by walking into the audience for “Push the Sky Away,” like we saw him do in 2014. Because of the angle of our seats we couldn’t see him at all, but we knew he was out there- reaching out to his audience and taking in as much as he was giving out.
As a true disciple, it brings me great satisfaction to introduce friends to the music of Nick Cave and, especially, to bring them to a live performance, just like my first introduction to his music. On our second night in Toronto we were in the first balcony again, but in the front row, stage right.
Nick seemed to be more talkative and in higher spirits during the second performance. On this night he brought “The Weeping Song” into the main set and, by request, attempted to play “God Is in the House” while at the piano. As with “Rings of Saturn” in Montreal, he had trouble remembering the lyrics and eventually – with plenty of smiles and laughter – gave up. “Into My Arms” became an encore for the evening, and they added a phenomenal version of “Jack the Ripper,” where Nick jumped on the piano bench screaming his lungs out. Between the furniture jumping and his extremely long mic cord, I was constantly worried he would trip and fall, but he is like a cat: light on his feet and very aware of all obstacles. Given his past, I’m sure he has nine lives. For the evening’s finale, he once again ventured out into the audience during “Push the Sky Away,” and this time we watched with awe as the fans he gathered around him looked up in rapture.
It was a beautiful end to another beautiful evening. Seeing the band three times in four days left me feeling exhilarated but also pining for more after such an intense but abrupt run, so I was thankful that I had another show ahead of me. I was also glad it was a few weeks away. It would give me time to absorb what I’d already experienced, while leaving me something to look forward to because, like a true addict, I hadn’t had enough yet.
Three weeks later, we were in Portland for what would be our last show on this tour. I knew the night would be special because we had front row, center pit seats through a friend of ours who was able to reserve seats early. Aside from the name, our friend wasn’t familiar with Nick Cave, so once again we got to bring along her and her husband as two new acolytes. Not only that, they would get a front row experience on top of it. I’ve been going to Bad Seeds shows for almost three decades. I’ve been close to the stage – very close – but I’ve never been close enough to get that coveted look or touch that every fan is clamoring for. This is why I said the seated shows are more relaxing: your expectations are higher when you’re at the front. You’re expecting something more personal and will likely leave disappointed if you don’t get it, no matter how good the show was.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some special encounters with Nick. In the past I was on a flight with the band, meeting him again after one of the shows on the same tour. But I’ve not had my “moment” in the audience – until this night. We got to the theater early. From experience we know that sometimes front row fans go straight up to the stage, and sometimes they wait to be beckoned up. Thankfully, there were no worries on this night. The pit had a very casual vibe — we made friends with the two women we were seated next to, and the other seats filled up slowly over the course of the hour.
As the band came out, several people walked up to the stage. Suddenly, as Nick appeared, everyone scurried back to their seats. I followed suit but I can’t really recall what happened. I thought maybe it was because Nick sits for the first song, so perhaps everyone thought they should sit as well. Someone told me after the fact that Nick gestured to people to sit down, which I can’t recall seeing at any other show where he typically beckons them up right away. Regardless of what really happened, he suddenly appeared to be motioning for me to come back up. Me! Me? Was it me? Maybe it was the woman next to me? Maybe it was all of us? It felt like it was me. He seemed to be looking at me. So up I went all by myself to that big stage — because who am I to disobey the master — and then Nick began to sing:
All the fine winds gone
And this sweet world is so much older
Animals pull the night around their shoulders
Flowers fall to their naked knees
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
The dark force that shifts at the edge of the tree
It’s alright, it’s alright
When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe
That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene
-Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds, “Anthrocene”
I was positive everyone else would come up with me, that it was just a mistake that we sat down to begin with. But as I looked to my right and my left, it was still just me. It was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I could hardly concentrate. I kept thinking I should sit; that the security guards were going to come over and tell me I couldn’t be up at the stage. But he did wave me up, didn’t he? I wasn’t sure anymore. I was so completely self-conscious thinking that everyone in the theater was wondering why that crazy lady thinks she can stand at the stage when no one else was. About halfway through I turned to my two new friends sitting next to me and motioned for them to join me – I simply couldn’t handle being up there by myself anymore, emotionally or physically. One of them came up just in time to elbow me and gasp as Nick looked straight into my eyes and continued to sing.
It turns out that my husband, having caught Nick’s attention, pointed to me after we all sat down and that’s when Nick motioned me up. So, not for the first time, I have to thank Craig for helping me acquire amazing Nick Cave experiences.
After that song, everyone in the first several rows rushed up from their seats, with Nick encouraging even more of the audience to join us. What I really noticed this night was how he prowls back and forth like a caged tiger. I have certainly seen before how much he moves onstage, but when you are right at its edge, you need to crane your neck to look up and physically move your body in order to follow his movements, as everything about Nick’s performance is so physical and visceral. Because my special experience was the very first song, it was almost easy to forget about it as I saw other fans getting to hold hands or dance with Nick. Even our first-time-at-a-Bad-Seeds-show friends got a one-on-one dance!
The big change from the Canadian shows was the further blurring of lines between performer and audience. We’ve seen it with his interaction with the front rows for years, we’ve seen it more recently as he ventures out into the audience, we’ve seen it when he dives into the audience with the utmost trust that his fans will catch and support him, and we’ve seen it as he more and more acknowledges the fans in the balconies, specifically waving to and thanking them. And then, starting at the New York City shows, he started bringing people onstage while the band played on. Where in NYC he brought up just a few people, in Portland it escalated to the point that, upon pulling up a single fan (which happened to be one of our new friends who said before the show that she was deathly scared of the prospect of having to go onstage and dance), it became the cue for everyone else to come up as well. The stage was completely full and then some.
I have mixed feelings about this. It didn’t stop me from going up myself to take advantage of a unique opportunity. And while some people had an amazing experience, I’m not sure I felt the same way. For one thing, there are so many people onstage that you can barely see anything if you’re not right in front, and at the Portland show Nick went into the audience for “Stagger Lee,” so we weren’t really onstage with him. I’m not even sure I heard the song, although I do recall yelling out “that bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee!” with my stage-mates. I did get to stand fairly close to Warren Ellis, who is just amazing to watch, and it inspired a fellow fan to give me a spontaneous hug. When it came time for “Push the Sky Away,” the final song of the evening, Nick had everyone onstage sit down, which immediately made everything feel more intimate. From the stage floor, we all looked upwards towards Nick and towards the sky, pushing it away with our hands.
And then, it was over. Nick left the stage while several of us gathered around Warren as he closed out the song.
It was an amazing tour all around, and it seems the experience was a catharsis for Nick and the entire band, who have gone through these recent tragic events together. What has changed over the years – and this has been in process, but it’s never been more apparent than this tour – is that he actually needs us as much as we need him. It’s truly a two-way street, and that makes it all the more special. Our devotion is actually desired. He needs and craves our energy and love. It appears from the live performances and in recent interviews that the tours are helping him heal. Cave says, “[O]ne thing I don’t want is people to come along and involve themselves in someone else’s drama. I don’t want the shows to be like that. I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk away feeling like shit. I don’t want that. Because I’m not feeling that way.” If that’s the measure of success, then the band has succeeded. I don’t think a single person walked away from any of those shows less than inspired and in a state of awe.
No one can ever get over the loss of a child, but the will to live, to create, and to love was palpable every night on this tour. I think Nick and his Bad Seeds will be back for more before we know it.