Essay: Mark Mordueon Nick Cave

Down by the River: Nick Cave’s boyhood in Wangaratta (1959-70)

‘They’re whispering his name across this disappearing land’ – ‘Red Right Hand’, Nick Cave.

‘One of the many things I regret about writing And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) was that I didn’t set it in Australia. It could just as easily be set in Wangaratta rather than an imaginary part of the American South. I don’t know why I didn’t do that. I wish I had. For sure that book comes from growing up in the country, from living a life in country Australia. It’s not from listening to murder ballads. The river was the sacred place of my childhood and everything happened down there.

‘On the edge of the river there’s willow trees, just like it says in “Sad Waters”. The plaiting of the willow vines – that happened. So a song like “Sad Waters” is a remembrance of that childhood scenario. The tree roots all torn out of the ground. The river was fucking muddy too, not one of these glistening, glacial waters people imagine. You never knew what terrible things you might be swimming towards. We used to jump off the railway bridge into the river – there was only one place where you could jump off safely, between these two pylons where we knew it was deep enough; pretty exhilarating stuff as the trains were coming.

‘People look at these things as academic exercises, like I am just sitting around listening to country and blues songs. As if there’s no life experience behind them. And it’s just not true. I’m not sure, though, about the line in “Sad Waters” about the carp darting about. I always thought carp were little fish. But when I was shown one recently it turns out they are these great big, ugly motherfuckers,’ Nick Cave says, holding out his hands in horror to indicate their size.

Then he shrugs his shoulders and laughs. ‘Anyway, the thing is, I always have a very strong visual idea of where the songs that I write are set. And invariably it is in a small town and that town is Wangaratta. But it’s a mythical version, not an actual version.’

And the Ass Saw the Angel,  Black Spring Press, 1989.

When the Cave family arrived in Wangaratta towards the end of 1959, the population hovered at close to 14,000 people. Compared to Warracknabeal, where Nick was born, it was a veritable metropolis, almost five times larger and experiencing what regional historians would describe as ‘a cultural flowering’ driven by an influx of European migrants labouring in the increasingly successful vineyards and the recently opened Bruck Textiles factory.

The flour mill and its pale silos towered over a railway line that made Wang, as the locals called it, an important rural link between Melbourne and Sydney. Wool prices were good and sheep farms were numerous in the valley. Cattle were still being herded through Phillipson Street towards the salesyards well into the late 1960s. Wang’s abattoir was an economic mainstay, its presence marked by a stench that wafted over the new suburbs across the railway tracks on the western side of town. A smell of blood-and-bone would ooze out like clockwork towards the end of each working day.

It was a pretty town, nonetheless, poised at the junction of the Ovens and King rivers, which flow down from the Victorian Alps, their cold waters gathering farm soil from the banks and darkening on their journey. The rivers, the railway tracks and the French Gothic architecture of the Holy Trinity Cathedral dominated the town’s heart, vaguely conjuring the postcard atmosphere of an inviting French village transplanted into the broad-brimmed, knockabout Australian outback. Built out of granite taken from the nearby Warby Ranges, the Anglican cathedral would take on a warm, almost pinkish glow in the afternoon sunlight.

Wangaratta’s name reputedly stemmed from a local Aboriginal word that meant ‘nesting place for cormorants’. Appropriate then that ‘birds of passage’, as the Vicar of Warracknabeal had so disparagingly described the Caves, should find it an ideal place to settle. They’d already moved from Melbourne to the far western Victorian towns of Hamilton and then Warracknabeal to advance Colin Cave’s teaching career. But they had never felt much sense of welcome in those tight little communities. Wang was different from the start.

The town’s population had doubled in the fifteen years since the end of the Second World War. A bursting Wangaratta High School was relocated on to a freshly built site, energising efforts to establish what would become the Centre for Continuing Education in the old school buildings just off the main street. Colin was in his element here as both an English teacher at the newly expanded school and a community dynamo behind the founding of the Centre.

Dawn Cave was much happier too, far less isolated socially and culturally than she had felt in Warracknabeal. When her children grew to school age she was able to recommence work as a librarian at Wangaratta High in 1968. Colin continued to teach part-time while running the Centre, in between producing and directing seasons of amateur theatre for The Wangaratta Players. In private Colin pursued his literary interests, unsuccessfully submitting short stories to journals such as the Reader’s Digest and publishing satirical verse in the local paper, notably an anonymous piece entitled ‘Ode to the evening air’, his attack on the foul smells of the abattoir: ‘My only wish is those who / This nauseation every eve perpetrate/ at eight / Should have themselves / immersed within sewers / Buried neck-high with various manures.’

The Cave family lived on the western side of town at 31 Mepunga Avenue. ‘When we lived there,’ says Nick, ‘there were constantly new houses being built, the foundations of which I loved climbing on and falling off. The local swimming pool was nearby, where many an hour was passed lying on the hot concrete. I was always practically black as child and we never wore shoes. Next to the swimming pool there was a [sports] field we had to cross, where magpies would dive bomb us and the grinderman would park his van to sharpen the neighbourhood knives.’

If you were to ‘Take a little walk to the edge of town’ and ‘Go across the tracks / Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom’ – as the song ‘Red Right Hand’ would later have it – ‘Past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks’ – then you might find yourself stumbling westwards and even down Mepunga Avenue itself. ‘So, yes,’ Cave admits, ‘“Red Right Hand” is set in a reconstructed version of Wangaratta.’ Not the real place, as he invariably emphasises, but still somewhere real enough for those lyrics to serve as a map that could guide you from one point to another with an eerie familiarity.

Childhood friend Bryan Wellington refers to himself as ‘Nick’s first boy next door’. ‘I lived at number 27 Mepunga Street,’ he says proudly. ‘The street name actually has two different spellings at either end written on the signposts: “Mepunga” and “Mupenga”. It’s only a hundred metres long! The different spellings were a constant amusement to us as kids.’ The feel of the surrounding area was – and still is – lower middle class, the lawns mown, the gardens well tended, a sedate, even bland oasis penetrated by the sounds of passing trains running every second hour. At the western end of Mepunga Avenue, where it intersects with Phillipson Street, the suburb starts to give way to warehouses, factories and the nearby racecourse and cattle salesyards. In the 1960s this was ‘the edge of town’. Bryan Wellington recalls the verandah of the Robinson brothers’ house down the road where he and Nick would compete against them in lengthy table tennis tournaments; the ‘necessary season tickets’ for the swimming pool; and climbing the massive pine trees in Wareena Park, where he, Nick and Eddie Baumgarten forged a childhood gang that would ‘climb higher and higher to test ourselves.’

Wellington’s view of Nick’s father Colin, however, is less enchanted. ‘I don’t have fond memories of him personally. Nick’s mother was fantastic. Nick’s father may have been a great man, but he liked things to go his way. I thought he was an authoritarian in his own home. I dunno what Nick thinks of this, but I have often got the feeling his song “Red Right Hand” is about his dad, that it comes from being bent over and disciplined. Nick was scared of his dad, no doubt about that. Nick’s two older brothers, Tim and Pete, they toed the line where Nick didn’t. Nick was like … like a branch of Colin’s anger; they clashed,’ Wellington says. ‘Colin was an enigma to me, when I look back. He could produce plays, he could teach and inspire people, but he could be a bully too.

‘I should say that my own father was not an educationalist, let’s put it that way. I had to leave home in order to finish high school at age sixteen. So, my father always tried to keep me away from Nick – because of the fact Nick’s parents were a teacher and a librarian and they had degrees. My dad found all that threatening, and he had great difficulty communicating with them. Alcohol was a big part of my family life, and it was a big part of Eddie Baumgarten’s family life too. That made it easy for my dad to talk to Eddie’s dad. Nick’s dad didn’t drink! But Eddie wasn’t brought up with the fear that I was; or the fear that I believe Nick was brought up with too. That thing of wanting to please, and not knowing how to …’ Wellington pauses at what seems like an inadequate summary. ‘It’s a very intricate situation to explain.’

Nick Cave riding Bryan Wellington’s horse in Wangaratta, c. 1968.  Reproduced with kind permission of Bryan Wellington.

Eddie Baumgarten lived just a block away from the Mepunga Avenue boys. Nick freely refers to him as his best friend when he was young. The Baumgarten family are writ so large in Nick’s tales of growing up in Wang they emerge like some childhood reminiscence out of a novel by Cormac McCarthy or Harper Lee. Dawn Cave remembers the family well: ‘Mrs Baumgarten had her own hairdressing salon. She was a very religious woman and played the piano for all the church ladies, but she used to like singing “Popeye the Sailor Man” around her own home. Mr Baumgarten was nice too but there was something strange about him.’

‘Eddie’s dad was a wonderful, shambling man,’ Nick says fondly. Mr Baumgarten would take Nick and Eddie out on trips hunting rabbits. ‘He just drove us up to the Warby Ranges, gave us a shotgun each, some cartridges and a sixpack of beer, then went off somewhere and came back later on and picked us up,’ says Nick. ‘I was twelve or thirteen. Eddie and I would sit up there and talk about stuff, walk on the great hot boulders, shoot the myxo rabbits, which you could actually walk right up to and blow away, executioner-style, or just clap your hands and watch them run blind and bash themselves on the trees. Awful, really …’ The sound of his clapping hand as Nick tells the story is as sharp as a rifle shot into the memory. ‘On the rare occasions Eddie and I would actually shoot a rabbit that was not diseased, Mrs Baumgarten, a tough, kind and generous woman, would skin it, remove the pellets and cook it. I would like to add that my mother knew nothing of these activities and would have been appalled if she did.

‘Eddie had a homemade sterno still in the backyard, where he boiled sugar and potato skins. It had a coiled clear plastic hose, the works … I can’t, in truth, remember ever drinking any of this, or whether the still he made was actually successful at all. It’s the thought that counts! Have I told you about the Triple A Club? It stood for Anti Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a Gentleman’s Club of two – just me and Eddie,’ Nick says proudly. ‘We’d pay taxi drivers to go buy us a bottle of Stone’s Green Ginger Wine or Marsala or some other godawful thing. We would meet in a shed somewhere between his place and mine that we had set up – I can’t recall where; it was almost falling down even then – and we’d play music there [on a radio] and drink ourselves sick. I remember throwing up green Grenadine all over Mrs B’s carpet. She took it in her stride.’

Anne, Eddie’s older sister, looks back at their friendship with Nick and is still surprised at how strong the connections proved to be. ‘My family were not nearly as high status as his family. But Nick seemed to like being around. My brother Eddie was a very charismatic kid, I guess, he was one of those people able to get away with things and make people laugh. He and Nick were alike in that way.

‘Nick was a pixie-looking little kid till he shot up tall when he was older. He was a great friend to have. Everyone else in town was so boring. Nick was just out there, bizarre, and very intuitive. He could go off on any crazy tangent you liked. We’d play that card game Strip Jack Naked a lot, except we didn’t take our clothes off. We were only kids. Nick used to have a lisp too when was young, it made him even cuter.

‘He used to be really affectionate with my mum. Nick’d put his arm around her and call her Mrs B. She loved that. She was a really eccentric woman, not everyone understood her: she’d grown up on Mount Buffalo and never saw another child till she was ten. But she’d met all these artists who used to go up there and paint like Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts.’

‘Dad had suffered a breakdown after his farm was burnt out by bushfire in the early 1950s. The fire was started by a spark off an old tractor at a neighbouring farm. He and Mum had only been married six months. He never adjusted to life away from the land. He became an alcoholic. He was a lovely, gentle man. Nick was always very respectful to Dad.’

Anne describes how she, Eddie and Nick set up a special listening room out the back of the Baumgarten home after her mother decided her teenage daughter needed a space of her own. ‘We painted the ceiling black, and stapled netting to it. Then we got newspaper and stuck it to the wall with flour and water, and painted that all blue,’ says Anne. ‘We had an old secondhand record player and lounges and we’d sit around with the lights off and have candles and incense burning and turn up the music. My favourites were Bridge Over Troubled Waters and The Beatles’ Let It Be and lots of Dylan, I was really into the lyrics of songs. Nick and I used to talk about Leonard Cohen. Just how there were so many different levels to his voice. I’d read that he said he wasn’t a very good singer, but we thought he was like Dylan, just the feeling he could get into a single word was amazing. I think Nick’s the same now as a singer when I listen to him. He can really get that feeling into one word. I think he’s a really great singer just like they are.’

Nick says, ‘I spent a lot of time in the back room at Eddie’s wonderfully ramshackle house with his sister Anne, listening to music. This is where I first heard Leonard Cohen. Again, I must have been around twelve or thirteen. Songs of Love and Hate, still Leonard Cohen’s greatest record, in my opinion. Staring for hours at that most uncompromising of covers and listening to all the dark, violent and very beautiful songs. Anybody who tries to tell you Leonard Cohen is not depressing obviously hasn’t listened to Songs of Love and Hate. Anne Baumgarten was only a few years older than Eddie and me. What a gal! Owning that record in Wangaratta! The first track, “Avalanche”, was the most extraordinary lyric I’d ever heard – still is, really. For me, doing it as the first song on From Her to Eternity [Nick debut as a solo artist] was as much a calling forth of my childhood years in Wang as a tribute to the master poet–songwriter. Eddie died some years ago of cancer.’ Nick received the news in 2003 after Anne had called Dawn Cave in Melbourne to pass the news on.  As it happened, Nick was home visiting his mother for Christmas.

‘Oh yes,’ Dawn Cave says, whenever the Baumgartens come up in conversation, ‘Anne and Eddie had quite an influence on Nick.’

Below the railway bridge where Nick and his friends used to leap into the Ovens River, there is some graffiti scrawled on a viaduct archway: ‘You’ll Always Live and Rock in Our Hearts.’ It’s not meant for Nick Cave, and could be no more than a decade old, but he might sympathise with the tone of nostalgia and grief it announces as you walk by it and on down to the river of his past. There, the sheared-off tree trunks still jut out from the water. The sun still glitters on the green–brown surface, its depths and currents varying and deceptive. A constant hum of locusts gives the air a fullness of space. Birds clicking and whistling add to the atmosphere. The periodic sound of town traffic just a few blocks away, coming in gusts with the breeze, is the only thing to intrude on this secret world – though even that sound adds to a sense of this world being hidden away and separate.

Directly above on Faithfull Street a boy rides his pushbike, hands free, his arms held lazily behind his head. You can cut down to the river here at the end of Faithfull Street, or walk up the gravel siding on to the railway line and over the bridge itself. The height of the bridge, once you are on it, is a shock. It is not just a big jump into the Ovens – it is a daunting one, some 20 metres perhaps. It is hard to believe anyone would take the plunge. Standing on the tracks you can see quite a distance, the perspective dissolving into a smoky blue haze. Judging the spot where the depth of the river was deep enough to absorb your fall, and avoiding the tree trunks that open up below like savage mouths, must have been quite an art. So must the timing of the jump as a train approached.

Chris Morris, a high-school friend of Nick’s brother Tim, remembers how ‘jumping off the bridge was the “tough” thing to do. Just hearing that sound of the train before it came into view and feeling that rumble on the tracks beneath your bare feet’. He says, ‘Nick back then was a little brat. We’d always be hearing about his exploits secondhand. Both his parents worked at the school, and they knew Nick was really bright. He’d get bored shitless after doing the work in five minutes, so he’d cause trouble. I think it’s harder for offspring when their parents are teachers at a school. The parents are harder on you, too – to make the point that you are being treated equally. Tim and I used to nick off for a few cigarettes; other than that, our behaviour was pretty tame. Their other brother Peter was into motorbikes and things. Nick was always more anti-authoritarian and out there than his brothers. Several times he got suspended at school. He had that very strong will of his father. Later on when we heard about Nick in The Birthday Party, being off his head and falling over on stage, everyone in Wang thought, what a dickhead. But little by little the story started to change. A bit of awe crept into the way people started to speak about what Nick was up to.’

Schoolteacher Adrian Twitt concurs with Chris Morris. ‘You teach so many children, it gets hard to recall what members of any family you did or didn’t have in your classroom. But I can say with confidence that Nick was so bright he was almost unteachable!’

As for Nick’s bad reputation, Adrian Twitt relates it to a broader family scenario. ‘Nick was probably too much like his father, and I’m guessing they didn’t get on too well,’ he says. ‘I remember how there used be all these announcements over the school PA system by the principal’s secretary in this high-pitched, piercing voice. They’d come every five minutes sometimes. I taught in the classroom next to Colin. Apparently he had been in the middle of a soliloquy from Shakespeare when one of these announcements came over the PA yet again. We all watched from the classrooms as Colin stormed down to the principal’s office and ripped out all the leads in a fury. I think most of the staff were very glad he had done it. But Colin could be bombastic and put people offside without meaning to, particularly women. The way he would stride into the staff room and start making announcements. But there was an enthusiasm too, almost like a little boy sometimes, the way he would get so excited about things. Personally I never found Colin overpowering in his energy, maybe because we shared a lot of interests, like chess and amateur theatre. When I first came to town as a single man, he and Dawn made me feel very welcome in their home. I saw Dawn as a fairly sensitive person by comparison. She was the centrepiece of the family. Only a sensitive person can fulfil that role, I think. She was always calm, collected, some say quiet. The only two members of the household being openly extroverted were Colin and Nick.’

‘My father believed to his core in the power of education to elevate lives, and thought it was nearly a divine calling to be a teacher,’ Nick says. ‘There is a letter my father wrote to a friend – my mother has it – where he is talking about a theatrical production he is involved in. It goes on for three pages with incredible enthusiasm about the actors and the production. By the end, you realise that he is describing a student play he is putting on at the high school. It’s about love, really. And whether you’re writing a song or choosing curtains, it’s the same thing if that’s what you put into it.

‘Anything my father involved himself in he did obsessively. Except, possibly, child-rearing. Huge energy.’ The memories of his father tumble out as Nick looks not so much back to the events as inwards to something he can see: ‘He was a teetotaller who took ‘the pledge’ when he was in the army. Never found out why. For a treat, we used to stop at the pub and he would drink a cold glass of Solo lemonade at the bar. Hard thing to do in an Australian country town in the 60s. He was gutsy like that, and very much his own man.’

Despite any authoritarian shadows that encroach over such admiring family impressions, it is important to remember Colin Cave was a product of the post-war 1950s. The stern patriarch and passionate arts lover, the domineering yet inspiring teacher, the ambitious bureaucrat and eccentric theatre lover are more a paradox than a contradiction. In a very black-and-white time these character traits hint at a man who was difficult to categorise, and perhaps difficult to know. Daughter Julie remembers her father teaching her how to read which way the wind was coming by watching the surface of the water as they sailed on Lake Yarrawonga; and learning how to spell the word ‘biscuit’ by writing it on his back with her finger. Even Bryan Wellington acknowledges an innate poetry to the man that flowed into his children. Wellington tells a story about Nick arriving at his home one afternoon with a handful of photos of the Milky Way. Colin had given Nick a camera passed on from Frank ‘Poppa’ Cave. Father and son spent ages in the backyard one evening as Colin taught Nick how to photograph the night sky on a slow shutter speed.

Awoken by his insomnia after a performance by Grinderman in 2011, Nick ends up sending me an email that wrestles with his complicated sense of who his father was. It may be that certain questions aren’t ever answered. ‘Fell asleep for two hours. Five o’clock in the morning now,’ he writes. ‘Bummer. I woke up with Grinderman’s “Man In The Moon” in my head. Don’t know what you make of this song, but to me it’s important (one of my better songs) and crystallises something that I have written about a lot. The relationship I have as an artist towards my father, in particular, and the potential to both paralyse and energise that the effect the ghosts of the dead can have. It is one of my themes, man! I mean that also in the collective effect of the dead on our world, their ghosts – I’m thinking of Ned Kelly here again – if you are writing about Wang, not just as a literary artifice but a very real thing that was passed down in the Cave family. A presence. A story. Anyway, it often feels to me like the dead are everywhere sometimes, showing the way. “Sitting here and scratching in this rented room,” refers obliquely to heroin use, but it is also “scratching” out songs, “scratching and tapping” (writing on paper and on the typewriter) “to the man in the moon”. Grinderman now play a mammoth version of this song, on the organ, followed by a superb, super-long and super-heavy mandocaster solo by Warren [Ellis]. It is seriously epic in a punked-up prog sort of a way! It’s Warren’s solo that wakes me in the middle of the night.’

Nick’s musical education began at age eight when he joined the choir at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Anne Baumgarten says that ‘you have to understand what an important social and intellectual hub the cathedral was for everyone in Wang. We’re talking High Anglicanism, and life in a country town. It probably sounds silly these days, especially if you live in the city, but we’d go to church just to listen to the sermons and get ideas to talk about. It was never just about being religious. It was for culture.’

The choirmaster there was Father Paul James Harvey, one of many unrelated Harveys who would pop up and play a crucial role in Nick Cave’s life. Years later when The Boatman’s Call was released, the Bishop of Wangaratta would read a news article mentioning the influence of a PJ Harvey on the album’s songs, and would proudly mention the enduring impact of Nick’s old choirmaster to an appreciative congregation.

Father Harvey was by all accounts a strict taskmaster, a sharp-tongued perfectionist whose rigorous approach would preserve the foundations of what was then – and remains – the last regional cathedral boys’ choir left in existence in Australia outside the capital cities. Their repertoire included masses by Mozart and Haydn, with an emphasis on the grand liturgical performances at Christmas and Easter. Hymns such as ‘Jerusalem’, based on William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, were given a rousing treatment, summoning up an Anglican vision of England that was righteous and blissful.

Nick slyly describes Father Harvey as ‘having a feyness about him’ and being ‘a little like an irritated Stephen Fry, though perhaps I shouldn’t say that’. He recalls being put at the back of the choir, where for three years he would ‘grow taller and taller’ in his lowly black cassock, while other boys would arrive and be promoted forward where they would then wear purple and be allowed to sing solos – an honour he never received. Nick refers to this experience as ‘scarring’ to his confidence, the first of many encounters that would ingrain a feeling that he could not really sing. Somewhere in the vaults, nonetheless, there is a 1971 live recording of ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that marks Nick Cave’s debut as a professional performer.

To some extent what mattered most in Nick’s time with the choir was the physical involvement with the Holy Trinity Cathedral itself. Rehearsals, and the need to attend mass at least twice a week to sing, would make him deeply familiar with both the rituals of the Church and the artistic architecture of the Anglican faith surrounding him. It is easy to imagine a young boy staring – if only in the throes of boredom – from the rear of the choir, where he would have been afforded a view of an elaborate stained-glass work that wove together images of early settlement, land clearing and modern life in Wangaratta.

Choirmasters were renowned over the decades for exhorting the boys to sing to the back of church, where this historical diorama dominated their gaze. It is topped by a scene of a vested priest and his altar boy, their backs turned at an altar, offering up the Eucharist in praise. A liturgical text blossoms forth in capitals below them: ‘HERE WE OFFER AND PRESENT UNTO THEE O LORD OUR SOULS AND BODIES.’ The images and the moral are unmistakably theological and social: the life of the town offered up to God as an ongoing story of sacrifice to ensure His good graces. Nick would subvert this theme with grimly humorous irony in songs like ‘God Is in the House’, the tale of a fundamentalist community possessed by devilishly claustrophobic moral certainties.

Elsewhere within the Holy Trinity Cathedral there is more artwork that influenced Nick’s later passions for religious icons, Gothic painters and Biblically inclined lyrics A small set of stained-glass windows in the antechamber of the Lady Chapel, which depicts the four evangelists of the gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is especially noticeable. Set beside the main altar, the chapel is a shadowy place where errant choirboys would retreat in whispers, less out of prayerful reverence than childish conspiracy. There is a distinct side-of-stage feeling to it. Of the four evangelists depicted, only Saint Mark is blessed with a luminous blue robe of the most striking lustre as the sunlight penetrates it from the outside. Nick would later write an introduction to the Gospel According to Mark for the Pocket Canon series of books from the Bible, emphasising how ‘Christ came to me’ through Mark’s Gospel ‘with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough’.

Looming over the main altar of the church is a figurine, Christos Rex, by a mid twentieth-century Austrian-Italian wood carver called Leopoldine Mimovich. Directly below it is where the choirboys performed, beside a huge and highly resonant church organ. Rather unusually, the carving that hung above the boys depicts Christ in priestly robes and not in any way bloodied or pained by the crucifixion. Instead, the carving is serene and powerfully monumental, exuding an intense dignity. It is a portrait of a king unbowed by death: his palms open as if in the middle of a sermon, his teachings continuing.

Christos Rex by Leopold Mimovich, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta.

‘Nick always enjoyed sitting at the piano when he was young,’ says Dawn Cave. After enrolling him in the choir, she decided to have him taught piano from around the age of nine by ‘the lovely Amy Whittaker’. Nick remembers the lessons well, but not so much for musical reasons. ‘I did piano lessons for two years; it was just across the road from The Centre where Dad worked. Next to the piano teacher’s house was a place where the town paedophile used to waylay us young boys when we walked past, suggesting we go into his house and play on his “organ”. I went in once and never again!

‘This was back in the good old days when being molested was simply a rite of passage. Back when you had cigarette ads on the telly and seatbelts were just being fitted but people were too suspicious of them to wear them. Ah, there is so much to miss! But let’s not make too much of the local tamperer – he never molested me, but he did wait for me after my piano lessons and would always ask me if I wanted to go into his house. He explained to me, one time, that masturbation was very good for you and that if you did it in the right way, it was the equivalent to a five-mile run. Helpfully, he offered to show me how.

‘Anyway, one day he talked me into going inside the house to play the organ and, indeed, he had a little Farfisa set up. He sat next to me on the stool. I tapped at the notes. Suddenly I felt really creeped out and got the hell out of there. I was about ten years old. This is back before the media hysteria about these things, when the local paedophile was just a part of the social network, along with the lollipop lady and the policeman and the guy at the fish-and-chip shop and whoever else makes the town go around – a bent little cog in the communal machine – but one of God’s creatures, just the same. So, no, I wasn’t fondled and damaged, I’m afraid.’

For his fourteenth birthday, Nick invited Bryan and Eddie to a screening of Planet of the Apes (1968) at the local movie house. Colin Cave came to the screening, treating Nick, Eddie and Bryan for the evening out. Nick was gripped by the sci-fi fable from the opening moments when George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his two fellow astronauts crash-landed into a lake on a strange planet, after which the three men stumbled across backward human beings living under the yoke of simian rule. Rod Serling, best known for The Twilight Zone, had dreamed up the Darwinian inversions on which the final script was based – a satire of racism and social stratification, and any notion Man might be the superior species. Serling also came up with some startling scenes, including an iconic closing image of the Statue of Liberty, its snapped torso emerging from the shoreline of a deserted beach. It was an apocalyptic revelation to Heston’s character – and to the audience as well – that this was no alien world, but our future Earth. For the astronaut George Taylor there would be no escape ‘home’.

Planet of the Apes’ surprisingly avant-garde soundtrack would meanwhile earn composer Jerry Goldsmith an Academy Award nomination. Atonal and percussive, with aggressively orchestrated strings and instrumental moans, it immersed the viewer in primitivism and terror. Colin Cave thought he heard elements of Stravinsky in the music the boys excitedly described as ‘weird’. And didn’t the actors dressed as monkeys look real? Dining over hamburgers and Cokes afterwards, he and the three boys had plenty to discuss. They all pictured themselves as the stranded astronauts, though each boy imagined he was the one playing the part of George Taylor. In January 2012, Nick Cave would recall his first viewing of Planet of the Apes and ‘that fucking bitch-slap of an ending.’ He’d been reminded of it while watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2010) on DVD at home with his wife Susie. ‘We loved it. It has always been a theme of mine, more and more, actually, of the ordinary human trauma reverberating apocalyptically.’

If Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate was Nick’s ultimate musical bonding experience with Anne and Eddie Baumgarten, then the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album would prove similarly significant in his friendship with Bryan Wellington.

The Wellingtons had moved out of Mepunga Avenue by 1970, to a small property on the eastern edge of town. Nick and Bryan would play in the shed, learning how to set off all the hunting traps without ever using them. The idea of hunting repulsed Bryan, and the .22 rifle his father had bought him for his 12th birthday sat in the corner of the shed unused but for target practice. Nick says: ‘Bryan had a couple of old horses we would ride, past the “Pop. 18 000” sign, across the bridge over the Ovens River, where we used to swim, into town. I remember listening to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono album there at his place over and over again – the one with “Mother” and “Working Class Hero” on it and poring over those lyrics. That brutal vocal and the pounding piano of “Mother” used to blow me away. All of us trying to be transported elsewhere, out and away from this town, to where we thought the world thrummed with excitement!’

It was a dream Bryan Wellingston shared. ‘I do remember this one day very, very well,’ he says. ‘Nick and I both would have been about twelve or thirteen years old. I was at the Rovers Football Ground. Not that I cared much for football. It was just another of my dad’s ways of trying to keep me away from Nick. I’d hang at the front gate mostly, wishing I could leave. Anyway, Nick came looking for me at all our usual meeting places; eventually he came riding up on his bike to the football ground where he knew I’d probably be, standing there at the gate like I did. And he had this black armband on. When he got close and stopped I said, “What are you wearing that for?” He said, “Don’t you know?! Jimi Hendrix died today.”’

By then Tim Cave was becoming an influence too. Everything from Hendrix to English progressive-rock recordings by Yes and King Crimson were entering the family home, as well as pioneering Australian music acts such as The Loved Ones and The Master’s Apprentices. Tim was also being politicised by the Vietnam War. Anne Baumgarten says ‘Tim was like the Brad Pitt of the town. He led a protest from Wangaratta High where he got all the students to march with him to the football ground and stage a sit-in right there on the middle of the football field.’ At home, Tim and Nick loved watching the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show on television in June of 1969. A poised and sober-looking Bob Dylan would make a great impact on them, singing ‘I Threw It All Away’ in the show’s debut. Tim would seek out a copy of the countrified Dylan album, Nashville Skyline, and it would become one of the sweetest albums in Nick Cave’s memory – and still one of his favourite records today despite the critical drubbing it has always received. As a solo artist in his own right, Nick would reflect on ‘I Threw It All Away’ in the most laudatory terms some forty years after first hearing it. ‘There was always something about that song that was so simple,’ he said. ‘And an audacity to the simplicity of that song. But it was so, so powerful at the same time – for me at least. I was always ragingly jealous of that song.’

The impact of Johnny Cash was even more profound. Nick has spoken of ‘seeing something he was putting forward that I hadn’t seen before. Up until then, I was just listening to children’s music. I saw and thought that rock ‘n’ roll could be about something else… I got that rock ‘n’ roll could be evil, it could be a bad thing; he seemed like a real bad man. Dressed in black. At the start of the show he stood there with his back to the camera, then he swung around and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” I think some people thought he was selling out, but I don’t think that’s true. I think it was a brave thing for him to do. Generous.’

Something akin to Cash’s romantic, if threatening, stoicism was native to the local character of many Australian country towns. Wangaratta took great pride in having been the home base where the 2/24th Battalion of the 26th Brigade of the Australian Army were billeted during World War Two. Many local young men had signed up with them, earning the battalion the informal soubriquet ‘Wangaratta’s own’. It was this 2/24th Battalion that became better known as the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, fighting against overwhelming odds to frustrate the progress of Rommel’s undefeated Afrika Korps and change the course of the war. Along with the vagaries of flood and drought, this set-piece of Australian military history almost rivalled that of Gallipoli, wedding itself to the Ned Kelly myth and an ongoing Wangaratta fable of male resistance and strength under pressure. This same stoicism and bravery could take on a mangled, thuggish form when there was nothing to genuinely fight for and boredom took a hold in the town. People could draw on it as an excuse for anything.

Nick watched as Tim and Peter grew older and began to run foul of the Wangaratta law. It was not uncommon for inexperienced police, or what Dawn Cave calls ‘hard cases’ with a bad reputation, to be posted away from the city to rural towns, where local youth could be on the receiving end of rough justice. As teenagers Tim and Peter started to stand out, their long hair marking them out from most clean-cut country boys. In 1969 when Tim was 17 years old, he left for Swinburne College of Technology in Melbourne. Peter stayed in Wang and weathered the difficulties, by all accounts a loner who preferred riding about on motorbikes in the bush and tinkering with their engines at home.

‘I saw my brothers badly treated by the police, Tim especially,’ says Nick. ‘I was too young to suffer any of that.’ On the cusp of becoming a teenager himself, Nick was nonetheless poised for serious trouble in Wang. ‘It was your typical country town,’ he says, ‘in that everyone headed down to the main street on Saturday night and hung around and got into fights. I saw my first real fist fight outside the Greek fish-and-chip shop. This little guy was just about to start eating a hamburger when it happened. He was a nasty little fucker. I saw him stuff the whole hamburger into his mouth and start swinging. That really impressed me. Very exciting.’

Later, Nick would eulogise his brother Tim in the Grinderman song ‘Fire Boy’ (2010). ‘“Fire Boy” is about the loss of ideals and its effect and is a ramped-up version of my brother’s escapades, for sure,’ Nick says, ‘with a bit of Baader Meinhof thrown in!’

Dawn Cave says that ‘it’s a myth’ that Nick Cave was expelled from Wangaratta High School. Given she was a librarian there, and Colin Cave was still teaching English part-time, it would be truer to say they could see the writing on the wall. Polite hints that it might be better for Nick to leave came to a head when he was involved in an incident with two older boys who pulled down the underwear of a fifteen-year-old girl in the school playground. Nick raises an eyebrow when discussing the incident now. ‘The parents of the girl tried to have me charged with rape. But I was only twelve years old, so the charge didn’t stick. The other boys weren’t much older than me. It was just a silly prank that got out of hand.’

Nick was in second form. Dawn says, ‘He was made to go round with a conduct card in his pocket all the time. Every class the teacher had to sign it to say he was good. And he had to wait outside at the end of each class to have it signed. I’d go to the staffroom and teachers would always be saying, “I’ve just had your son.” Eventually one night one of the teachers I was friends with, Joy Star, was driving me home. I must have sat with her in the car outside our house for two hours while she persuaded me to get Nick to leave Wangaratta. She felt he had much more to offer, that he was too bright. “But he loves the reputation he is getting,” she said, “and he is going from bad to worse. For heaven’s sake, get him out!”’ Something about this story coats Dawn’s eyes with tears that don’t fall. ‘I can still see us sitting there in the car as it got darker and darker,’ she says, ‘till there was no daylight at all. She really cared.’

‘I do remember Joy Star,’ Nick says, though he never knew she played such a crucial hand in changing his life. ‘She passed me on my Tea Making  Badge at Cub Scouts even though the cup I made her was cold and horrible. I didn’t boil the kettle long enough. You make someone a cup of tea and if they think you have done it successfully you get the badge. I just remember doing a botched job of it and Joy saying, “Don’t worry, Nicky-boy, you’ll get your badge.’

Something else was beginning to make its appeal felt to Nick: a mix of music, landscape and literature stirring up a new sense of language within him. ‘The first book that I read where I felt a real quickening of the heart in regard to language was when I was ten years old when I was reading a Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs – and it described a lion resting in the jungle and “spasmodically” moving its tail. I remember very clearly getting a physical charge from that word – loving it but not knowing what it meant,’ he says.

Nick had a makeshift bedroom arrangement, sleeping in what was effectively a sunroom. ‘It was the room you went through on the way to the toilet. Where I lay, I had my head right beside this old boiler.’ An adjoining room functioned as Julie’s bedroom. She’d cry out, ‘Nick, tell me a story.’ And he would relish the opportunity almost every night. The deal they brokered was that Julie would make him a hot chocolate each morning in exchange for a tale. Julie recalls Nick had to ‘almost shout the stories out to me. Or speak quite loudly, anyway’. They both refer to what Nick calls ‘a favourite one’ about a deep-sea diver ‘going down deep into the water looking for gold’. At various moments during the dive, sharks and other forms of danger approach. Nick would provoke shrieks of fear in Julie. Eventually the diver finds the bar of gold he is seeking and comes to the surface. ‘And it turns out it is just a little kid in the bath with a block of soap, imagining it all.’ Nick looks a little sheepish when he retells the story now. ‘I was only twelve!’ he adds defensively. In fact, Julie is not sure Nick actually came up with the story on his own, or if he absorbed it from somewhere and forgot its origins. Not that it mattered. He developed a litany of horror stories and scary tales, delighting in Julie’s terror. ‘Yeah, I cut my teeth on her,’ he says, smiling.

‘One of my favourite contemporary authors is the crime writer James Lee Burke,’ says Nick Cave, ‘who writes the most beautiful descriptive prose about the town of New Iberia in Louisiana, Spanish Moss, the Bayou Teche, antebellum houses, purple mists, rattling lightning, etcetera, etcetera … I loved the way he wrote about it so much I went there on my honeymoon with Susie. We drove around Arizona, Colorado, through Texas and down South – saw New Iberia on the map and headed there, all the way me telling Susie how beautiful this place would be because of what I had read in his twenty or so novels. When we arrived, it was actually full of Burger Kings and McDonald’s and all the rest of the shit that American small towns consist of these days, but beneath it, deep down you could sense Burke’s ghosted vision of his home town rising up – it was a deeply selective representation and all about memory and its spirits; and so it is with me and Wangaratta.

‘James Lee Burke says, “I have come to learn that memory and presence are inextricably connected and should never be seen as separate entities.” This is so true. The past is always there, calling to us, whether it be Ned Kelly rising from the fog or my father crunching down the garden path late at night or the spirits of our absent friends reminding us that there is still much to know and much to learn.

‘In my memory Wangaratta is a magical place, where only good things ever happened. The swinging rope, the willow trees, the railway bridge, the pylons, the roots of half-submerged trees rising out of the muddy water – all that stuff – it’s there in “Bluebird”, “Carry Me”, “Sad Waters”, “Your Funeral … My Trial”, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” … if a song has a river in it, it’s that spot in Wangaratta just under the train tracks where we used to go as kids,’ he says. ‘It’s an idyllic substructure that sorrowful tales of corrupted innocence can rest upon. I wouldn’t trade all that for anything.

‘I was both terrified and excited when I left, but I remember feeling deep down that I was being sent away. I was always under the impression that I was asked to leave Wangaratta High School, but now I wonder if that’s true. Mum says she sent me to Melbourne to “save me from Wang”, but I remember it as being kicked out of high school. Whatever the reason, I certainly felt at the time that I was being sent to Melbourne because I was in too much trouble. That’s not to say I felt like my mum and dad didn’t love me. I always felt that, I always felt supported by them and that they had a special place in their hearts for me. The “trouble” thing was supported by the fact that at the first class I was in at Caulfield Grammar School the teacher came into the classroom, pointed straight at me and said, “Sit down, Cave. We’ve heard all about you!” I felt this comment very deeply because it supported the notion that I had left Wangaratta under a cloud of strife – and as I knew no-one there, I felt very isolated. So I felt ashamed and lonely, but also I remember feeling angry, like, “Who the fuck are you? You don’t know anything about me.”

‘So, like I say, Wang represents a childhood ideal – the river, the ghost gums, magpies, the ranges, the swimming pool, the paper run, my bike, the mighty trees we would climb, the footpaths that would fry our bare feet hard, storm drains, yabbie dams, the high bridges we jumped off, swim holes, vast star-filled skies, the living moon, the smell of a storm coming in the dust, the stench of the abattoir as you came into town from the Glenrowan end, the nests of red-backs [spiders] out in the compost, snakes, the wool mills – they’re all symbols of my childhood that come up repeatedly in my songwriting and that connect to a sense of childish wonder that was lost or at least changed when I left to go to boarding school in Melbourne at age thirteen. I caught the train to Melbourne and the world changed into something different, complicated and ultimately adversarial for me. It would never be the same again.’

Nick Cave by the railway bridge over the Ovens River in Wangaratta, January 2019. Photo: Caitlin Markby.

This story is extracted from a work-in-progress, Tender Prey: The Life and Times of Nick Cave. The author would like to dedicate it to the memory of Bryan Wellington (1957- 2013), whose assistance was invaluable. 

Railway Bridge across the Ovens River, January 2019. Photograph by Peter Mooney, republished with permission from his blog Two Bad Days.