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Nick Cave - Mercy On Me

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Reinhard Kleist


Page 45 Review by Matt Green

'Hammering the Anvil'

I labour day and night, I behold the soft affections
Condense beneath my hammer into forms of cruelty
But still I labour in hope, tho' still my tears flow down.
That he who will not defend Truth may be compelld to defend
A Lie: that he may be snared and caught and snared and taken
That Enthusiasm and Life may not cease: arise Spectre arise!

- William Blake, Jerusalem, pl. 9.

"Oh please, don't sell me out",
Said the man with the hammer,
Hammering the anvil
"I've been walking on the road of rocks,
And I keep on hammering,
Keep on hammering,
Keep on hammering,
Hammering the anvil."

Shovelling the ashes
Chiseling the surface
Firing the furnace
Hammering the anvil.
Keep it on, keep it on, keep it on!
Hammering the anvil.

- The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 'Hammer Song'

Those listeners old and brave enough to have attended a bona fide Birthday Party gig might have been surprised when, in a 1996 Radio 3 Religious Services lecture, Nick Cave described the band's violent interventions in the post-punk landscape by comparing himself to William Blake. But not, perhaps, if they were familiar with Blake's darker side.

It is to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Cave turns: "to loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest". Blake's Marriage, a verbal and visual rebellion against economic and intellectual oppression, certainly enjoyed considerable currency in Cave's own counter-cultural inheritance: Jim Morrison and W.H. Auden, to name but two, both seized upon that text's celebration of sexual energy and imagination. But if The Marriage identifies the creative artist as a conduit for divine vision and voice, it is in prophecies such as Jerusalem where Blake explores the darker implications of linking the psycho-sexual outpourings of the artist to the creative destruction of biblical prophecy. Los - whose name is an anagram of 'Sol' - is for Blake the archetype of the fallen poet: a blacksmith charged with redeeming a fallen world whose guilt he shares. Los with his phallic hammer and fiery workshop becomes a metaphor for the artist who must first subdue his demons before seeking to liberate the world.

"EXPRESS YOURSELF!!! / EXPRESS YOURSELF!!!" Reinhard Kleist's post-pubescent Cave screams early in this visionary biography, beating a mic stand against the skulls of his anointed "DONK / DONK / DONK". This first chapter takes its title from 'The Hammer Song', released on The Good Son (1990) and, like the other four chapters - 'Where the Wild Roses Grow', 'And the Ass Saw the Angel', 'The Mercy Seat' and 'Higgs Boson blues' - deploys the fictional world of its namesake as a narrative frame for Kleist's astute retelling of iconic moments from Cave's career. Those familiar with Ian Johnston's Bad Seed (1996) and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 20,000 Days on Earth (2014) will already be acquainted with the events depicted, while those coming at this material for the first time would do well to equip themselves for the journey by packing these works along with Cave's extensive musical and literary back-catalogue. A word of warning: you will need a strong back.

Kleist's choice of 'The Hammer Song' for chapter one unfolds into the sort of doubling effect that Blake associates with the two-fold vision of spiritual awakening. You see, Cave's oeuvre includes not one, but two Hammer Songs. The Good Son version is narrated by a young man who flees his paternal homestead under the cover of darkness, then from the murderous citizens of a nameless city and finally arrives in a river where he drowns amidst visions of an angel who carries handfuls of snakes. Here the hammer is a gavel beating out the shape of the speaker's doom. But four years earlier, Cave's audience was treated to a very different 'Hammer Song' on Kicking Against the Pricks (1986). Kicking is an album of cover songs, many of which stood at loggerheads with Cave's public persona and it tells us something about the paradoxical nature of covering - these are covers that uncover Cave's own sources- as well as the nature of creative reception. Whereas Harvey's song establishes a metaphorical link between the songwriter and the blacksmith, the Bad Seed's covers evoke the image of a balladeer looking back on his - or her - forefathers with an admixture of self-consciousness and rage. The artist seeks to cover the dead, to show them due respect but also to keep them buried, a task bound to failure because the poet in this day and age is not only a thief but a grave-robber.

Kleist's rendition of Cave's life and works is a cover in this sense. His Cave is the self-fashioned rock god that we see tramping through 20,000 Days, the man-god fashioned from the dreams of a boy who watches his father transformed by the recitations of Nabokov and Shakespeare. His energetic line whirls us from Cave's boyhood memories all the way up to Push the Sky Away (2013). On the few occasions where Kleist's visuals do allow the eye to pause - on a cob-webbed piano or a waiting electric chair - we are offered nothing less than the uncanny respite at the heart of a biblical whirlwind. If Kleist takes from Forsyth and Pollard a certain mythologising approach to biography and if certain panels reproduce iconic scenes from their film (note how the image of Cave at work on 'Higgs Boson' draws on the still used for the movie poster), his work foregrounds the extent to which their use of fiction to convey truth effectively replicates Cave's own artistic practice as he describes it in the final scene of 20,000 Days:

"What performance and song is to me is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface. To create a space where the creature can break through what is real and what is known to us.

"This shimmering space, where imagination and reality intersect, this is where all love and tears and joy exist.

"This is the place. This is where we live."

Kleist builds upon the mythologising aspect of Cave's self-presentations, developing the motif of Cave as a malign demiurge out of Cave's own reflections concerning his relationship to the beings he creates: "And the more I write," he tells us early in 20,000 Days, "the more detailed and elaborate the world becomes and all the characters that live and die or just fade away, they're just crooked versions of myself". One suspects that there might be something a little masochistic in the portrait of divine madness Kleist paints, though it manifests itself in homicidal compulsion. "For the record, I never killed Elisa Day", Cave declares in the resounding endorsement of Mercy on Me featured on the back cover; but, this says nothing of the other bodies Kleist lays at his feet: the nameless speakers in 'The Hammer Song' and 'The Mercy Seat', as well as Euchrid Eucrow and Elisa Day.

The front cover, meanwhile, gets the carnival up and running, announcing Kleist's willingness to launch himself into the danse macabre of Cave-world. The cover image is itself an adaptation of Cave's public persona, another example of a fictional mask that lays bare the heart of its artificer: Kleist so loves his subject that he cannot help disfiguring him with his own brand of sacralising violence. The image depicts Cave dressed in the dark suit and white shirt characteristic of his stage performances, lurching sightlessly toward the reader. His absent eyes bind him to a romantic trope associating blindness with inner vision that stretches back to Oedipus, Tiresias and Milton, the poet who first deployed the phrase "red right hand" as a satanic metonym for Christ.

While this sense of artistic guilt is one part of Cave's post-Romantic inheritance, so too is the hope that the material world can be transformed by the artist's imagination into something that, if not perfect, is at least better. And this overlap between the fictional and the real is an effect well-suited to the comics medium, whose practitioners must delineate their worlds both visually and verbally. The comics artist who strives to depict historical truths in a literal manner, must forever take pains to separate the kernels of the real from the layers of cultural chaff that grow up around them. For those of a more literary bent, however, history's tendency to bleed into story demonstrates the dialogic relationship between the worlds inside a book's covers and those beyond them.

Visually - and also in its obsession with a present haunted by the past and vice versa - Mercy on Me bears an affinity to Warren Ellis and Marek Oleksicki's Frankenstein's Womb (2009) and to Jeff Lemire's Essex County (2009). In its rumination on the performative dimension of art, however, as well as in its warren of meta-textual tunnels, Kleist's Gothic wonderland closely recalls Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland. The first Cave biography in comics, a collaboration between Talbot and Cave that featured in Spin magazine's, 'Real Life Rock Tales' (January 2003), was something of a gothic comedy-romance, complete with cake, a corpse dressed as a Christmas tree and teenage love by the river's edge. Kleist's own narrative, with its temporal disjunctions, doppelgängers and spiritual visitations, wears its gothic aesthetics with a straight face, more or less. But there is a dark - and dare I say cheeky - humour lurking in the interstice between Kleist's work and its broader contexts; see, for example, the depiction of Cave in the grip of addiction coming upon a sheet of paper in his typewriter filled by the incessant repetition of a sentence straight out of the Stanley Hotel: "All work and no play makes Nick a dull boy".

The appearance of Margaret Thatcher in the story world of 'Jangling Jack', gig posters and a Berlin wall decorated with graffiti, together with allusions to Franz Kafka and a shipwreck motif reminiscent of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, draw the reader into an imaginative engagement with wider political and cultural contexts. Kleist here asserts implicitly the bardic power and curse laid down for those contemporary artists bold enough to lay their necks on the line. For first and foremost, Kleist reminds us, these worlds he inks into existence were sung. We see this in the way he interweaves scenes from the recording studio and the stage into the unfolding of the song-stories and legends told by and about Cave; we see it too in the rhythmic tapping of Cave on his typewriter, forty-eight tiny hammers beating Euchrid Eucrow and all others of his kind into existence: "Tac / Tac / Tac". And we see it in the velocity of Kleist's own lines, no more so than when their razor-sharp edges give way to smudges and smears. Indeed, there are pages without dialogue or sound effects where the scrape of pen and the swish of brush harmonise with the sound of imaginary whirlpools, pelting rain and the screams of a rock god dancing with a Charybdis. Spend too much time looking at any one panel and you may get sucked into a vortex that is also a rabbit hole, in which characters dream their creators and no one is in Kansas anymore.

Kleist's work, like Cave's, transforms and transports us, removing us to a world in which creativity itself is as addictive and dangerous as heroine: observe the panels in which Cave injects ink into the obsidian network of his veins and arboresces over his Seiko Silverette, hands morphing into roots that draw sustenance from the leaves of typescript strewn across the floor of his Berlin bedroom. The repeated emphasis on the materiality, the fecundity, of novels, of comics, of music and of speech draws us back to the truth that words and pictures are things that have a reciprocal relationship with the world into which they are spawned.

Kleist does well to direct our gaze toward the significant others - the lovers, friends and bandmates who collaborate in Cave's visionary madness. And that adorns the back cover, which depicts Cave grasping one outstretched palm in a field of upraised hands, evokes something of the tactility with which his audience receives him in concert. Nevertheless, the final page of Kleist's narrative presents Cave alone, retreating from the stage, while the endpaper treats us to a gorgeous and atmospheric portrait of Cave traversing an empty street in the snow. These images humanise Cave - for who hasn't dabbled in the iconography of the lone prophet crying in the wilderness: "I alone, even I". And yet, what these portraits mask is the way that the universalising aspect of Cave's work - that bit of it that bites into the heart-flesh of his fans - depends on his attempts to both lose and find himself in the midst of some larger organism: a band, an audience.

The stories of the boy racing toward the thunder of an oncoming locomotive or dancing alone behind a locked door - stories Cave himself has a predilection for recounting - give only part of the picture. What we don't see in such portraits is the singer who doesn't simply clasp the hands of a chosen one, but dives into the crowd. What the figure of the blind prophet precludes is the moment of mutual recognition when you are standing in the front row and your eyes meet his, when you see Cave seeing you. Elsewhere in the text, Kleist shows us just enough of the collaborative dimension of Cave's world-building to suggest that when our demiurge walks offstage alone, this is but one stroke of the pendulum.

The Christian concept of mercy is orientated around the startling idea that God might willingly trade places with human beings - Christ suffers and dies so that we have a shot at immortality. Deification is a collaborative and consensual process; it depends on communion. Kleist has given us a beautiful grotesquery of poetic truths. This is a delightful book that richly complements existing iterations of the Cave mythos. But if you actually want to feel the beat of the hammer in your blood, to partake in the apocalyptic act of god-making that Kleist delineates so masterfully, well, that will require some concert-going.

Ecce homo.

Dr. Matt Green
Associate Professor of Modern English Literature,
Nottingham University