Nick Cave - Biography
By Adam McKibbin
Nick Cave is an enduring indie-rock icon, with a career spanning over three decades with his bands The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. Originally famous for his riotous stage antics and equally wild off-stage behavior, Cave later proved himself as a balladeer as well, and also established himself as an author, screenwriter and film scorer. Cave was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2007, and his latest albums have earned some of the best reviews of his career.
Cave was born on September 22, 1957. His later reputation as a musician was in some ways foretold in his childhood. Now renowned as one of rock’s most literary frontmen – prone to referencing or name-dropping Homer, the Bible, or Charles Bukowski in the blink of an eye – Cave had his love of letters cultivated at an early age, thanks to a librarian mother and English teacher father. But Cave is hardly the typical bookworm; aside from his own history of hard living, his songs are populated with troublemakers, and he has an entire album dedicated – with no shortage of relish – to psychopaths and murderers (Murder Ballads, 1996 Mute/Elektra). In his real life, Cave doesn’t quite have those sorts of skeletons in his closet, but he did acquire a reputation as a minor hoodlum, causing him to be shipped off to boarding school in Melbourne.
At school, Cave met a young man who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator: Mick Harvey. Cave and Harvey had both logged time in their respective church choirs, and shared a fondness for Lou Reed and David Bowie. Alongside bassist Tracy Pew and drummer Phill Cavert, they began playing shows together at school functions, treating their classmates to raw versions of Reed, Bowie and other pioneers of the day.
Upon graduation, Cave set off for an ill-fated enrollment in art school, and his band, now calling themselves The Boys Next Door, became regulars in the Melbourne music scene. In 1978, they recorded their first song, a cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” with producer Greg Macainsh, who later said that he thought the band hated him. That same year, Cave’s mother was bailing the troubled youngster out at a police station (on charges of attempted burglary) when word came that Cave’s father had been killed in a car accident. Cave later would say that the tragedy “created in my life a vacuum,” and wound up leading him toward a sense of purpose as a songwriter.
As record labels desperately sought punk bands who could capitalize on the success of The Clash and Sex Pistols, Cave and his Boys Next Door released “Door, Door” (1979 Mushroom). Their debut fused together two separate recording sessions and left the band somewhat disillusioned, although new guitarist Rowland S. Howard’s suicide-contemplating “Shivers” helped cement the band’s local reputation.
Australia, though, could be isolating for a band, especially one that looked to other shores for formative influences. In 1980, they rechristened themselves as The Birthday Party and set off for London. Cave was accompanied not just by his bandmates but by then-girlfriend Anita Lane, who would go on to co-write several songs with his band (“Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black” and “A Dead Song”).
Upon their arrival in the UK, The Birthday Party quickly acquired a reputation as one of the loosest cannons in town, with critics especially drawn to Cave’s near-possessed intensity as a singer and performer. The Australian imports were credited as influencing the emergence of gothic rock, even though Cave was hesitant about the tag, and drew from more far-flung genres including American rockabilly. Regardless of the genre to which they belonged, legendary British DJ John Peel became an early and active supporter, and such diverse bands as Shellac and Cocteau Twins would later cite the band’s anarchic, independent spirit and sound as an influence. The trendsetting and critical admiration did not, however, translate into commercial success.
The Birthday Party released a self-titled LP (1980 Missing Link) that encompassed their final songs as The Boys Next Door. They then returned to Melbourne to record Prayers on Fire (1981 4AD), which served as their introduction to much of the international market. The band descended on America, which wasn’t exactly waiting with open arms; two of their first New York shows were cancelled due to lack of interest. At another concert, Cave bloodied himself on a snare drum and had to put a premature close to the evening. Bassist Tracy Pew fought with audience members as the band ransacked their way across Europe, even knocking one drunken German unconscious with his guitar. By the time they returned to London, they’d won the reputation of “Most Violent Band In Britain.” As if to celebrate, Harvey punched Cave on stage during a return show in London; Cave had apparently forgotten the lyrics to one of their songs – hardly a surprise given the band’s penchant for chemical abuse.
Amidst all the chaos, Cave led the band back into the studio and recorded Junkyard (1982 4AD), working with acclaimed producers Tony Cohen and Richard Mazda. As the band’s profile grew, so did their rap sheet; Pew was forced to miss some of the Junkyard sessions while serving a prison sentence for drunk driving. The silver lining of Pew’s unexpected unavailability was that it brought Magazine bassist Barry Adamson into the fold; Adamson would go on to become a founding member of The Bad Seeds.
Cave had picked up a heroin habit at the age of 19, and his drug use continued throughout his twenties – failing to dampen his creative output, but straining his relationships with Lane and some of his bandmates. The group relocated to Berlin, but the change of scenery wasn’t enough to keep Mick Harvey on board, and he quit the band. The Birthday Party was clearly in its final hours. Sans Harvey, they released a final EP, Mutiny! (1983 4AD), and then returned to their native Australia for farewell shows.
Left to his own devices, Cave spent some time in Los Angeles, co-writing the script for John Hillcoat’s film Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988) – and thereby beginning a casual relationship with cinema that would continue throughout his career. He didn’t stay away from music long, nor did he and Harvey stay away from each other long. The two old school friends founded Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1984 alongside guitarist Hugo Race, Einsturzende Neubaten guitarist Blixa Bargeld, and Adamson and Lane.
Cave continued to develop his craft, taking vocal cues from Leonard Cohen, Elvis Presley and Scott Walker, among others, and using his unhinged baritone to explore Bible-sized tales of love and death and betrayal. He tipped his hat directly to a few of his predecessors on the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her To Eternity (1984 Mute), featuring covers of Cohen and Presley.
America – or, more precisely, the myths of America – began to seep deeply into Cave's songwriting, leading to The Firstborn Is Dead (1985 Mute) and its usage of John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash songs as launching pads. He put his interpretive skills on full display on the covers album Kicking Against The Pricks (1986 Mute), returning to Lou Reed (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and scoring a U.K. hit with his take on Johnny Cash’s “The Folk Singer” (which Cave shortened to “The Singer”).
Cave’s drug abuse continued during this artistically fruitful period, and his romance with Lane eventually reached its dead end – but not before she would allegedly leave him a permanent reminder of their time together. According to the oft-repeated and possibly apocryphal story, Cave’s facial scar is the result of a run-in with Lane’s kitchen knife during a particularly heated argument. In another unrelated story from the time, Cave was reported to be seen riding on the London Underground, calmly writing a letter in his own blood.
While he enjoyed the mythmaking that grew up around him – he’d say that it was much more entertaining than the truth, and didn’t much care for separating the two – Cave did not appreciate it when the journalists turned against him with negative reviews and unflattering profiles. Your Funeral…My Trial (1986 Mute) included a caustic rocker called “Scum,” in which he singled out a few journalists; one of them, NME’s Mat Snow, used the story to impress his future wife on their first date. Like Lou Reed, one of his early idols, Cave retained his reputation as an antagonistic persona in the press – although this was tempered by numerous thoughtful and civil interactions.
As the tumultuous Eighties neared their conclusion, the Bad Seeds released Tender Prey (1988 Mute), centered on its thunderous Death Row drama “The Mercy Seat,” an enduring Cave powerhouse that, years later, would be covered by none other than Johnny Cash. But even more importantly to the band’s career, their frontman fell afoul of the law, and was given two choices after an arrest for heroin possession: clean up or go to jail. Cave chose rehab. Five days after he left the clinic, he was back on the road with the Bad Seeds. Despite all the warnings and dire predictions, he stayed clean. Staying busy surely helped; on top of his ongoing work with the Bad Seeds, he published his debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, as well as a collection of poems, lyrics and plays (King Ink).
The Good Son (1990 Mute) found Cave mellowing his sound, anticipating later albums and shaking up fans accustomed to his righteous sound and fury. In 1991, he became a father to two sons (born of two different mothers). Henry’s Dream (1992 Mute) continued to develop the band’s versatile sound, as well as deepen Cave’s lyrical world of miscreants and victims. But the band thought that producer David Briggs (Neil Young) had overly polished the album, and responded with a live album, the appropriately titled Live Seeds (1993-Mute/Elektra) to showcase a rawer side of the material.
Let Love In (1994 Mute) continued the band’s ascent into the mainstream ranks – in America in particular. Let Love In was an electrified romp about sex and death that marked the band’s best chart performance to date – and won them a slot on the then-enormously influential Lollapalooza tour alongside the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys and Green Day. They sometimes struggled to attract big audiences, as they didn’t fit neatly (or at all) into the grunge and pop-punk genres that dominated the market at the time, but Cave continued to cement his reputation as a compelling frontman with an innate understanding of theatrics.
The stage was set for a true breakout, and Cave delivered with Murder Ballads (1996 Mute), an album of sinister originals and reworked traditionals with a body count higher than the typical slasher film. Murder Ballads jumped into the Top 10 in the United Kingdom, and also neared the top of the charts in Australia and Germany. “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a duet with pop diva and unlikely Cave ally Kylie Minogue, gave Cave his first-ever #1 hit, and landed in regular rotation on MTV. The music network was so smitten by the brooding Australian that they nominated him for Best Male Artist, an honor that Cave promptly rejected, repeatedly stressing his gratitude but memorably writing, “My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel – this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.” He asked to be withdrawn from that year’s nominations, as well as any considerations in years to come.
Murder Ballads also stoked an ill-fated but passionate romance between Cave and P.J. Harvey, who appeared as a guest vocalist on the old murderous chestnut “Henry Lee.” The two future lovers shot a captivating, intimate video for the track that received considerable airplay. In the song, Harvey seduces and then kills Cave and dumps his body in a well. In their real-life romance, it was again Harvey who did the dumping, leaving Cave to reflect on his revealing tenth record, The Boatman’s Call (1997 Mute). Somber and stripped down, The Boatman’s Call stands as one of his most delicate and straightforwardly personal albums. Later that same year, he sang one of its signature tracks, “Into My Arms,” at the funeral of INXS singer Michael Hutchence – with the condition that cameras not be allowed to record the performance.
His drug habits resurfaced in the ‘90s, and came to a head again toward the end of the decade, contributing to a lengthier than usual gap between albums. He met and then married (in 1999) Susie Bick, and credits her for helping him stay clean after he had again battled back his demons. In the meantime, Mick Harvey helped curate The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1998 Mute), and Cave played occasionally with violinist Warren Ellis and his instrumental group Dirty Three. Cave and Ellis also provided the score to the Cave-written, Hillcoat-directed film The Proposition (2005). Ellis became a more prominent player in the Bad Seeds, evident in the elaborate orchestrations of No More Shall We Part (2001 Mute) and Nocturama (2003 Mute UK/Anti-). Following Nocturama, longtime member Blixa Bargeld left the Bad Seeds, leaving only Cave and Harvey as holdovers from the early era.
Bick gave birth to twins in 2001, and Cave let some of his familial contentment seep into his songs. He himself likened his earlier work to the Old Testament – full of betrayal and bloodshed and morality plays – and his later-era work to the New Testament and its teachings of love and forgiveness. Redemption and forgiveness played a heavy role in the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004 Mute UK/Anti-), which spawned a major tour.
Looking to leave mythology, Americana and the Bible behind for a moment, Cave announced the formation of a new band, Grinderman. While composed of members of the Bad Seeds, Grinderman’s mission was decidedly less cerebral. Their libidinous and garage-rocking self-titled album (2007 Mute UK/Anti-), featuring self-explanatory tracks like “No Pussy Blues,” won rave reviews. Cave even figured out how to play electric guitar on the fly, and some remarked that he hadn’t sounded so full of piss and vinegar since his days with The Birthday Party.
Grinderman’s primal tendencies shook up Cave’s writing even when he returned to the Bad Seeds. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008 Mute UK/Anti-) again won rave reviews for the group, as well as the best sales and chart debuts of their career. At the age of 50, Cave showed no signs of mellowing or fading in relevance.