Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave
by Mark Mordue
Published November 2020
A friend and I are fans of Nick Cave’s iconoclastic band of the early 1980s The Birthday Party. Part of our enjoyment is that we find Cave’s vocal and lyrical posturing hilarious at times. In songs like ‘Release The Bats’ and ‘Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)’ his shrieks are both terrifying and absurd. At such moments, my friend will occasionally address the stereo with something like, ‘you’re not fooling anyone Nick, we know you’re a good private schoolboy!’
The idea of Cave as a pretentious and hollow self-creation is pervasive, and has reached a peak in recent years. James Valentine wrote in 2009 that Cave is ‘a one trick pony… as eager a self-promoter as Paris Hilton …famous for being Nick Cave.’ Responding to 20,000 Days on Earth, the 2014 documentary on Cave, Mark Phillips sees him as ‘pretentious, self-absorbed and of moderate talent… derivative and bombastic, drawing on hackneyed gothic imagery.’ Reviewing Cave’s 2015 book of non-fiction The Sick Bag Song, veteran music critic Barney Hoskyns gives Cave his due as a live performer, and even finds points of interest in the candid admissions in the book. Ultimately though, Cave is ‘at his worst… not just a woefully poor singer, but a faintly embarrassing writer.’ One of the things that Mark Mordue’s compelling biography asserts is that Cave’s self-mythology is a product of both genuine artistic obsessions, and of the networks of friends and family uniquely equipped to guide and nurture them.
The book is devoted to Cave’s life until the age of 22 when, on 29 February 1980, he boards a plane for the UK with his bandmates. During the flight, they change their name from The Boys Next Door to The Birthday Party, and upon their arrival in London, Cave’s international infamy begins to bloom. The structure of the book attempts to balance what may be considered an over-zealous focus on Cave’s childhood. Boy On Fire begins with chapters on the author’s relationship with his subject and a snapshot of Cave in 2007, both of which serve to give the necessary context of his career for what will follow.
These chapters also set the tone of the book, in which Mordue’s high-regard for Cave’s achievements and the unavoidable complicity of the relationship that develops between biographer and subject are acknowledged. Mordue first interviewed Cave in 1985 by phone and first met him in person in 1989, by which time he already considered him ‘the pre-eminent rock ’n’ roll artist of his day’. He floats the idea of a biography to Cave in 2010 and in the following years is welcomed into Cave’s home (in Brighton, England) and confidence. Mordue interviews Cave’s mother Dawn and sister Julie often and at length, and discreetly recounts Dawn’s hospitality in Melbourne. He also interviewed as many of Cave’s childhood friends and fellow travellers in the late 1970s Melbourne punk and post-punk scenes as he was able to over a ten-year period of intermittent research. The result is a history that is multi-textured, and at times contradictory, as the memories of various participants of events forty or fifty years in the past do not always agree.
With the release of Carnage in February, a duo album with Bad Seed Warren Ellis, Cave continues to add to an already huge body of work. He has been a prolific recording artist and songwriter, screenwriter and novelist, sometime essayist, and shamanic presence in concert. After the awful 2015 death of his son Arthur at age fifteen, Cave began the Red Hand Files, providing online answers to questions from fans in responses that range from emoji to essay. In these responses there seems to be a new, or at least renewed sense of generosity.
It’s impossible to divorce a new biography of Cave from an assessment of his ongoing contribution to culture. A reader’s reception of this book is necessarily related to preconceptions of Nick Cave’s body of work and, by inference, the intent behind it. In the 1980s I was a huge fan, and kept up with Cave’s work through to the mid-2000s, enjoying much of it; so I come to the book with a sense of investment. If Mordue’s immersion in Cave’s work is apparent, his estimation of it as culturally important is implicit for the most part. Despite the act of devotion that is the writing of a book on the early life of an artist, the tone is not that of a fan-boy, but rather of a cultural historian. Boy On Fire is worth reading as an account of certain cultural and artistic currents of the 1970s, regardless of its prime focus.
Nick Cave was born in the regional Victorian town of Warracknabeal in 1957. The Cave family had followed the teaching career of his father Colin there. In 1960, they moved again to Wangaratta, where Cave spent his childhood until being sent to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of thirteen. Boy on Fire manages to capture not just each major chapter of Cave’s young life—growing up in the country town of ‘Wang’ in the 1960s, Caulfield Grammar School in the early 1970s, St Kilda in the late 1970s—but the flavour of these places more broadly.
The book details the family precedents for Cave’s cultural exploits. His maternal grandmother played the piano; Cave’s sister reckons Nick’s piano style is based on Grandma Treadwell’s. His paternal grandfather Frank, whom he remembers affectionately as ‘a real old cunt’, was a prominent Melbourne radio host in the 1940s and documentary maker for the Shell petrol company; part of his radio schtick was to tell ghost stories.
Cave’s father Colin, best known as an innovative educator and a prime mover in establishing Victoria’s CAE (College of Advanced Education), was a driven theatre director and actor, and sometime poet and short story writer. He also organised an influential national symposium on Ned Kelly in 1967, which resulted in the book Ned Kelly: Man or Myth. The legend of Kelly, the idea of a somewhat idyllic but also unforgiving country locale like Wang (fifteen kilometres from Glenrowan, site of Kelly’s siege and capture), and father Colin himself merge into a kind of primal swamp of the imagination for Cave. They are the coordinates for major projects such as the novel And the Ass Saw the Angel (1988), the film script The Proposition (2005), and numerous gothic and outlaw narratives in Cave’s songs.
Multiple friends and acquaintances voice variations of the theme that Nick and Colin clashed so dramatically because they were so alike. Each was passionate about artistic expression. For the father it was literature, drama and classical music, and for the son modern art and various flavours of rock. They did share tastes in literature, which they would analyse and debate in detail, but Colin was thoroughly dismissive of Nick’s popular music heroes. Colin introduced his son to Nabokov’s Lolita at a young age. This may help to explain the sexual obsession at the heart of many of his songs and particularly the novel The Death of Bunny Munro (2009), which is borderline-unreadable in its gratuitous depiction of a middle-aged sex-addicted salesman.
What’s remarkable about Cave’s teenage years is how immersed in various elements of culture he was. It’s not surprising that he was poleaxed by Leonard Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate at a tender age (though it is perhaps surprising that he had a neighbourhood friend, Anne Baumgarten, savvy enough to own it in Wang). Nor is it surprising that the young Cave modelled himself on David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Iggy Pop at various times; indeed, the influences of Bowie and Roxy are easily heard on The Boys Next Door’s Door Door album from 1979.
More interesting, more profound in terms of defining his expressionist aesthetic, and less likely it seems to me, are Cave’s teenage obsessions with painters Edvard Munch and Brett Whiteley, and later Egon Schiele and playwright Alfred Jarry. Aspects of his later work also reflect his precocious immersion in the fictional worlds of Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps all of this exposure to artistic influence is the basis of Cave’s alleged pretentiousness; certainly the boy Cave was driven by his interest in certain demimondes and a desire to create his own artistic universe. We can say that he succeeded, though whether this is a universe one has any interest stepping into is another matter.
Mordue gives us a sense of certain flashpoints of alternative culture of the late 1970s, and how these were shared. Bruce Milne, schoolfriend of future Boys Next Door/Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard and founder of Au Go Go records, mentions a rare screening of John Waters’ bad taste classic Pink Flamingos in 1976 as a meeting of various tribes: ‘other people who didn’t have long hair, who were wearing ill-fitting suits and skinny ties.’ Mordue reminds us of the difficulty of hearing anything beyond the mainstream in the 1970s – reading about records in magazines and ordering them, unheard, by mail. He also acknowledges the Gough Whitlam era of 1972-75 as one where ‘the combination of free tertiary education and generous, as well as easily accessed, unemployment benefits … allowed a hedonistic and bohemian youth culture to flourish.’
The portrait of Cave that emerges through the testimony of various members of the St Kilda scene is of an individual of extraordinary charisma and daring, if something of a brat indulged by the scene. It’s worth noting that he moved in social circles with photographer Polly Borland, artists Tony Clark and Jenny Watson, and actor Gina Riley – it was a fertile scene. By 1979 The Boys Next Door commanded a huge following in Melbourne and were making trips interstate to perform. If Cave was the aesthetic and artistic conduit, it was a group where each member was vital. Drummer Phill Calvert had the firmest musicianship, and along with bassist Tracy Pew and guitarist/keyboardist Mick Harvey provided a solid, if eclectic musical foundation for the flights of fancy of Cave and Howard, the group’s two main songwriters. Pew was also Cave’s partner in crime – literally, stealing cars and smashing windows to steal things like bass amps. Harvey had a particular ear for musical arrangement and a practical head regarding the band’s progression. Howard was already thinking about the guitar in terms of abrasive and unlikely sonic gestures rather than notes and chords, and his songwriting was a challenge to Cave to lift his game. Mordue notes, however, the bullying of Calvert by Howard and Cave:
It is interesting to consider how much this low-level propensity for schoolboy bullying within The Boys Next Door would animate the sadomasochistic heart of The Birthday Party, driving its violent aesthetic and finally destroying that band from within.
1979 was the year that Colin Cave was killed in a car accident, and was also the year that Cave and Howard started taking heroin. Cave tells Mordue that the two were not connected, that heroin was always going to be the next thing for him. However, Dolores San Miguel, booker of the Crystal Ballroom, the venue where the Boys Next Door reigned, says that ‘Nick was always an angry young man, but after his father died … he became ten times worse’. For some, heroin bred a new exclusivity in the St Kilda scene. As film-maker Anne Tsoulis relates, ‘Too many drugs were going down and, really, Nick was at the centre of it all, because if you didn’t take heroin you weren’t cool like Nick.’
Boy On Fire is a beautiful book, evocative and sensual, yet with an even-handed and at times critical treatment of its subject. Mordue has indicated that further volumes may eventuate; the next would present a particular challenge in terms of engaging with Cave’s body of work. As this book ends its narrative so early in Cave’s career, only the material recorded by The Boys Next Door is covered in detail. I think Mordue’s assessments of Door Door and Hee Haw are harsh – to my ears they are records full of fun and spirit. Cave and the rest of the band quickly regarded Door Door an embarrassment and even the chaotic artistic breakthrough of Hee Haw is dismissed by Cave as juvenilia.
Mordue does an excellent job of drawing threads between Cave’s early life and later songs. However, his critical stance towards Cave’s ‘mature’ work—work that Cave himself is not so eager to dismiss—remains to be seen. A part of this challenge will be to reckon with the high female body count in Cave’s work from 1982 onwards, not present in the so-called juvenilia, and the focus of Anwen Crawford’s memorable essay ‘The Monarch of Middlebrow’. Though it should be noted that recent releases Skeleton Tree (2016) and Ghosteen (2019) emphasise themes of transcendence and spirituality, I got to a point somewhere in the 2000s where I felt like buying more of Cave’s records was redundant; Crawford’s essay highlighted my unease with, as she puts it, ‘Cave’s most enduring lyrical obsession: lustmord, sex murder.’ Boy On Fire has somehow reaffirmed in me a deep connection to aspects of Cave’s work, bound up in a post-punk moment where the rules of rock music were being rewritten by people just half a generation older than myself.
Mordue’s book may be criticised for the assumption it makes of Cave’s greatness – for example, at one point he matter-of-factly describes Paul Kelly as ‘Nick Cave’s greatest competitor for the crown of Australia’s rock ’n’ roll poet laureate.’ Regardless, the book constructs a compelling portrait of a developing artistic temperament. Cave is the first to admit that his determination outweighed his talent. In a Red Hand Files reply he writes
I had, without any supporting evidence, a shameless and pathological belief in my own awesomeness. Whilst many other musicians’ dreams seem to stretch to getting a gig at the local pub on a Saturday night, my dream was always, always, world domination … As a young person I harnessed the unredeemed aspects of my personality—rage, vengeance, power, self-absorption, rampant ambition—to provide the energy to move beyond my lack of aptitude.
More self-mythologising? Of course. A not-so-humble brag? That too. But it is undeniable that Cave is a cultural institution, one of Australia’s most visible cultural exports of the last forty years – for better or worse. Mordue’s book reminds us that there is a human being behind the Black Crow King, the flaming scarecrow, the rampant misogynist, the empty undertaker’s suit, the private schoolboy, or whatever else we might want to project onto Nick Cave.