Thursday April 7th was the vernissage of Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition. Originally created in Copenhagen, this was the North American Premiere and only the second city where it has been presented. The exposition lasts until August 7 at the Galerie de la Maison du Festival in Montreal.
Nick Cave is a musician, novelist, award winning film score composer, screenwriter and Renaissance Man. He rose to notoriety in the late 1970’s with the post-punk bands The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party. In 1983 he formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and had chart success in the late 1990’s with his murderous duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue. In recent years he returned to his punk noise roots with the glorious shambolic chaos of Grinderman. His most popular song Red Right Hand has been featured in many films and is the theme song for the TV series Peaky Blinders.
If unfamiliar with his work, imagine if Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen had a baby. The child was reared in Australia on a steady diet of murder ballads, John Milton, Baudelaire, Elvis and the Bible. He then came of age during the punk rock era in a haze of amphetamines and heroin. His lyrics resonate with dark poetic beauty. A tortured soul’s yearning for connection is gracefully weaved through sordid tales of murderers and misfits.
According to the press release the exhibit is :
“An unprecedented look into the creative world of musician, storyteller and cultural icon Nick Cave. With more than 300 objects collected or created by Nick Cave through six decades of his life. Created for The Black Diamond of The Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, and with Cave as a co-curator and co-designer, the exhibition is an unorthodox fusion of biography, autobiography and fiction, asking what shapes our lives and makes us who we are.“
“The exhibition was developed and designed by Christina Back of the Royal Danish Library and Janine Barrand of Arts Centre Melbourne. It was curated and produced in collaboration with the Australian Music Vault and Nick Cave Productions. The exhibition was made possible with support from Gucci and The Beckett Foundation. The Montreal exhibition is presented and produced by Victor Shiffman & Workers of Art in partnership with Nick Cave Productions as a co-production with Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal and Evenko.”
The evening began with cocktails and speeches, first by the Montreal Jazz Fest’s Laurent Saulnier. Followed by local impresario Victor Schiffman who was the catalyst in bringing this project to Montreal. Finally the co-creator of the exhibit Christina Back of the Royal Danish Library shared some words about her experiences. We were treated to two musical performances of Nick Cave songs lovingly covered by Basia Bulat and by Patrick Watson featuring Charlotte Oleena.
Sadly, Nick Cave had caught a nasty flu and was too ill to attend. He even cancelled a concert in NYC the previous evening as a result of his illness. He did however write an eloquent letter addressed to those in attendance which was read by his manager Brian Message of Courtyard Management. As you would expect, it was the kind of writing his fans adore. A mix of sardonic humour, visceral imagery and heartfelt gratitude delivered in his effortlessly elegant prose. As a nice gesture to the Montreal audience, he included anecdotes from letters he had received from Leonard Cohen.
The exhibit was now officially open and I eagerly dived right in. It did not disappoint! It is no mere collection of memorabilia, it is a cohesive art installation. The best way to describe it is to use the artist’s own words :
The key word being OBSESSIONS. The main area felt like a fevered junk sick dream where we were crawling into Nick’s head during the Berlin years to see the world through his eyes. Like suddenly waking up in his bedroom where they filmed the 1987 documentary “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Surrounded by overflowing bookshelves, crammed with typewriters, lyrics written in blood. Stacks of notebooks filled with drawings and art collages he made of religious iconography & pornography.
Everywhere you look you are surrounded by words. Books by Milton, Pound, Nabokov and Dostoyevsky. Handwritten & typewritten sheets of screenplays, songs, novels, love letters and poems. Which paints a picture of a man with a rich inner world that he is obsessed with manifesting in reality. Consumed with demons & angels that must be exorcised.
All these objects and imagery that influenced him are brought to life by the music score & sound design created by Nick with his Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis. Throughout the 8,600 square feet of the exhibit the soundtrack shifts and evolves. It has a pulse, a heartbeat, a sense that it is breathing. Which makes the environment tactile, a living Muse surrounding him. The soundtrack would lull you into a calm reverie before startling you with a sudden blast of Nick’s snarling nihilistic shrieks from The Birthday Party.
Throughout the exhibit were TV monitors with headphones where you could watch and listen to live performances. The first half of the collection focuses more on his early years, from his childhood in rural Australia, high school in Melbourne, his first band The Boys Next Door, his next band The Birthday Party and the first 10 years of The Bad Seeds. Posters from concerts in dive bars across Europe, album artwork and candid photos of his band mates. Interspersed with pianos, writing desks and the records & photos of his influences like Elvis, Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone.
Photo by Anders Sune Berg
I was profoundly moved by the area that showcased the original lyric sheets to many of his iconic songs. It was so intimate to see drafts of these seminal songs when they were still works in progress. The first one that caught my eye was the sheet for 1983’s “From Her To Eternity” which was co-written by Anita Lane. The title track of the first Bad Seeds record, it has been a menacing dissonant centrepiece of his concerts ever since. The lyric sheet is crammed with scribbles, doodles, stains, crossed out text and notes on the arrangement. You can feel the manic energy of his creative process, the compulsive re-writing. You can almost hear the pacing of the woman upstairs in Room 29. You can almost taste rancid steam being belched out by a dilapidated Cold War radiator. You can almost feel skin itching from amphetamine & heroin withdrawals in this squalid squat lurking beneath the looming shadows of the Berlin Wall.
Yes I know that song was written in Brixton but reading it in this environment I can’t help but imagine it being in Berlin! Another lyric sheet that was captivating was “The Mercy Seat”. One of his most riveting songs, the tale of a man on death row. Sitting on the electric chair narrating his final thoughts as his life flashes before his eyes. It is fascinating to see the creative process Nick used. He employed the experimental cut and paste technique pioneered by William S Burroughs. He typed up the dozens of verses then cut them out with scissors, using tape to re-arrange the verses in different orders. Experimenting with the song’s structure. He has said that his proudest achievement was when the iconic Johnny Cash recorded a cover of this song.
In the section about his first novel “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, there is a massive drawing he made on a blackboard. It is a map of the town he invented where the story takes place. It is full of notes on who lives where, notes on where specific scenes would take place. Which shows his focused attention to detail, the depths of his commitment to exhaustively explore every nook and cranny of his creations. I had started reading the book in the 1990’s around the same time as I saw the premiere of the film “Gummo” by Harmony Korine. Ever since these two projects are forever intertwined in my head : bizarre disturbing stories taking place in the impoverished south of the USA. Towns full of inbred families, birth defects and great cruelty.
It is truly someting to see the environments where Nick created such an impressive & disturbing body of work. You get a sense of his claustrophobic frenzied energy. The clashing imagery of lascivious pornography juxtaposed with Christian iconography. Serene angels in Heaven juxtaposed with saints being tortured and martyred on earth. Locks of human hair displayed as relics. In a way it evoked those creepy moments in horror films where you finally enter the mad scientist’s laboratory or the serial killer’s lair: an artist’s equivalent of John Doe’s apartment in Seven or the Yellow King’s Carcossa lair in True Detective.
But this morbid energy was nicely contrasted by silly illustrated love notes to & from Anita Lane and a hoard of letters he lovingly wrote back home to his Mother in Australia. Likewise, the exhibit contains some comic relief that showcases his devastating wit and disdain for the commercial aspects of the music biz. Case in point, his reply to The Gap about how much it would cost for him to do an advertisement for Gap jeans.
Nearby was a copy of the caustic letter he wrote to MTV where he mischievously committed career suicide. Due to the success of his album “Murder Ballads” and his duets with Kylie Minogue & PJ Harvey, he was nominated for Best Male Artist at the 1996 MTV Awards. So he wrote them a letter entitled “My Muse in Not A Horse” requesting to be withdrawn from all nominations, now and in perpetuity. See him recite the letter in the video below.
The next stage of the exhibit was an experimental film, an interlude to cleanse the palate before viewing the later phases of his life & career. A series of couches were encircled by a row of a dozen vertical video screens showing interviews with current and former members of The Bad Seeds. Each member was displayed on their own screen. They discussed who was in the band at what time, how they were impacted by the shifting dynamics of the creative process, how each member joined the group and why they left. It was illuminating to hear the reminiscing of past members like Barry Adamson, Kid Congo Powers and Mick Harvey. As well as to give a chance to Warren Ellis to answer the critics who unfairly blame him as the direct cause of the departure of Mick & Blixa.
Fan favourite Blixa Bargeld did not disappoint, pulling no punches as he spills the beans on internal band conflicts with his direct, no-nonsense German honesty. As well as sharing his unusual creative process & experimental techniques for playing the guitar and for recording. His work with Nick and with Einstürzende Neubaten is that of a true pioneer of sound exploration. He is one of the most innovative anti-musicians of the last 100 years, up there with John Cage, Pierre Henry & Karlheinz Stockhausen.
About 30 minutes into the film, security informed us that the exhibit was closing in 10 minutes and there were still three more rooms to see. We rushed off to try and absorb as much as we could. My date & I mostly spent the last 10 minutes scouring the labyrinth of bookshelves for suggestions of books neither of us have read yet. Given the rush, I no doubt missed tons of interesting elements in the final areas. Perhaps this is why it felt to me like his years living in Brazil were not present in the exhibit. It also felt like there wasn’t very much content from the late 1990s onwards when he was living in England once again.
The décor of his office spaces for this later stage of his life seems to show a more mature and cohesive spirit. Less cluttered & less chaotic. Perhaps due to him overcoming addiction and finding stability by marrying the love of his life Susie Bick (model, fashion designer, creator of the The Vampire’s Wife). There are some stunning photos of the happy couple & their young children taken a decade or so before the tragic death of their son Arthur.
Ultimately the exhibit is a visceral journey into the blood, guts and fevered imagination of one of the world’s most prolific artists. It is a must see for his fans. Even if you are unfamiliar with his work, I think you will find it fascinating to see a glimpse into his frenzied artistic process.
I last wrote about Nick Cave when he brought his solo “In Conversation” tour to Pop Montreal. He would play a song and then take questions from the audience. It was a deeply intimate experience with just Nick and a piano in a magnificent cathedral. If interested, you can read the review here.
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