At around the one-hour mark of “Conversations With Nick Cave,” a long evening of songs and Q&A with audience members at New York’s Town Hall, someone asked The Question — the one that he’s probably answered many times but still hovers over every date of this unusual tour. Why is he doing this?
After all, Cave is one of the most intimidating musical figures to arise in the last 40 years — a toweringly tall, deep-voiced singer-songwriter-poet-novelist whose work is rife with ominous characters and dark journeys into the soul; whose history is rife with substance abuse (now behind him) and a famously menacing demeanor; and whose life was struck by unimaginable tragedy in 2015 when his 15-year-old son Arthur died after a fall during a hike.
In recent years a different Nick Cave has emerged — one whose work remains just as challenging and soul-probing, but who has become downright giving to an audience he’d formerly kept at arms’ length. He invites audience members onstage with him, he responds weekly to their questions on his Red Right Hand online newsletter — including a deeply moving passage late last year about mourning his son — and its latest incarnation is this “Conversation” tour, which he describes as an “exercise in connectivity.” It finds him answering unfiltered audience questions and playing songs from all across his solo career; he launched it on a short U.S. jaunt last year and has taken it to his native Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Europe, and now a 15-date U.S. tour before he takes it back to Europe next year.
The answer to The Question was simple: “My son died,” Cave said. “It changed everything for me. Coming out of punk rock, I had an adversarial, conflicted relationship with my audience, especially in the early days. But after my son died I got an incredible amount of mail from people writing to me with similar experiences. I felt connected to them,” he concluded. “I felt like we were suffering together.”
It’s a natural and almost primal reaction to grief — to surround oneself with people and human interaction — and although Cave didn’t even mention it until he was well into his show, the entire audience, which included people from all over the world (as well as Elvis Costello, who may have been checking out the Q&A format for his own future reference), was well aware and respectful of it.
Thus, “Nick Cave in Conversation” is an extraordinary show that doesn’t really have a precedent: It’s equal parts Q&A, solo performance, career retrospective and an oddly Oprah-style form of group therapy that, over the course of nearly three hours, found Cave pointing to audience members who raised their hands — several ushers with microphones and illuminated batons were in the audience — and answering their unscreened and often unfiltered questions, many of which were about his art and his career, and several of which were about coping with grief.
The show, which featured Cave accompanying himself on piano, obviously lacked the physicality of his full-band concerts, but there was no loss of intensity or intimacy (there were even six tables set up toward the back of the stage, with three audience members each seated at them). It’s an unusually open format that, as any person of the cloth will tell you, is also a Pandora’s Box: As Cave himself said in the middle of one audience member’s uncomfortably long commentary, “That’s the thing with these ‘Conversation’ shows — you never know what you’re gonna get.”
And although Cave began the night by asking the audience to “suspend judgement” of people’s questions — noting that it takes nerve to stand up and speak in front of 1,500-odd people — he occasionally winced at or moved on quickly from some of the more off-the-wall questions; like many popular artists, his expression frequently glossed over when audience members gave long prefaces about the extent of their fandom. And when faced with an odd question toward the end of the long show — if he were the leader of a cult, what three things would members be required to do? — he said he couldn’t answer, and took it as a cue to tell the audience he’d be playing a couple more songs and then calling it a night.
But what a night it had been. He began by taking the stage at almost exactly 8 p.m. and performing his lovely 1990 ballad “The Ship Song,” and then explained the show’s format. He said he’d first tried it in New York last year “and it seemed to kinda work, in some f—ed-up way” and then spoke of his interaction with fans on his Red Right Hand newsletter. “It’s been really important for my own self-survival mechanism, and it’s an incredibly moving thing for me. I feel like I have access to the needs of my audience, and it’s terrifying — but beautiful too.” Throughout the night, he’d often conclude his answer to a question about a song by saying, “Would you like me to play it?” Although he declined to air any songs from his just-announced new album, “Ghosteen,” due next week, he did play “God Is in the House,” “Into My Arms,” “Jubilee,” “Girl in Amber,” “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,” “Stagger Lee” and many others solo favorites. He even reached far back into his history with a tribute to his late former Birthday Party/Boys Next Door bandmate Roland S. Howard, who he said “changed everything” for the band when he joined, and then he played Howard’s song “Shivers.”
He played two other covers as well. When an audience member asked if Cave was a fan of the influential singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, who passed away last week after many years of struggles with mental illness, the singer said yes and sang some of Johnston’s “Devil Town” a capella. And he spoke of the vast influence of artists like John Lee Hooker, Leonard Cohen (whose “Avalanche” he performed) and Johnny Cash, who covered Cave’s harrowing song “The Mercy Seat,” which is told from the perspective of a man about to be executed.
“There are a few things that nobody can ever take away from me, and that’s one of them,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what people say about me, I can say, ‘F— you. Johnny Cash did one of my songs!’”
He also told the story of his “Bryan Ferry meltdown,” which involved him and his wife visiting the legendary Roxy Music founder’s palatial home. Ferry, of whom Cave admitted being a gobsmacked fan, was not present when they arrived, so Cave dozed beside the pool while his wife visited with the singer’s family. Cave then awoke to see Ferry standing motionless in the pool in his swimming trunks. He said hello and Ferry replied, seemingly apropos of nothing, “I haven’t written a song in six years.” He gestured around at his lovely mansion and said, “There’s just nothing to write about.” Cave said he found that to be an “extraordinary lesson in remaining alert” as an artist.
He was also very funny at times. He said his song “Girl in Amber” was “written in failed rehab number three”; when asked where his inspiration for songs comes from, he said he was troubled by songwriters’ frequent comment that a song “came from God” — “I find it problematic that God is responsible for all the crap songs in the world.”
He told a story about how he’d worked on the script for the film “Proposition” and initially enjoyed it, but became so beaten down by the Hollywood process that he called it “the worst job on earth” — and then spoke about Russell Crowe’s offer for him to write “Gladiator 2.” He accepted, after initially declining, and, long story short, the script he submitted was called “Gladiator 2: The Christ Killer.” Needless to say, Crowe’s reaction was, “Nah, mate.” But Cave also spoke of how much he enjoys writing film scores, which are “pure pleasure” because lyrics are the difficult part of songwriting for him.
He spoke often of grief but didn’t dwell on it, and once apologized because he kept “going back” to the topic of his son’s death, even as several audience members spoke of their own losses and grief. When one asked Cave if he believes in heaven or an afterlife, he replied, “I just don’t know. I have intuitions, as someone driven half mad by grief does. But as grief dissipates, that attachment [to an intuition of an afterlife] becomes very important — truth isn’t the only game in town, there are other things behind it, and if I can get that from things that aren’t true, I’m gonna grab it.” Another audience member choked up when speaking of his mother’s terminal illness. “You have an opportunity to say goodbye,” Cave said. “That’s a special, sacred thing.”
He was also asked by a songwriter who’d suffered a tragic loss how he’d found his way back into writing. “I found it very difficult to begin with,” he replied, “because there was just no oxygen to write songs. I had to learn by traversing the trauma, in a way. Grief allows you to become terribly honest. But you also need to move on while also not betraying the memory of that person. You need to be able to find a way to reach across the trauma.
“Things get better,” he concluded. “But there’s a terrible beauty in grief, an expanding of the heart. We are changed, and we put the pieces back together in a different way.”
Early in the show, Cave spoke about how the “Conversations” format has changed his approach to performing, and how it actually levels the playing field with his audience. “I thought I’d dispensed with the terror of performing long ago, until I started doing these,” he said, “It’s something else for the terror to return at this stage [of his career]. But —“ he concluded, referencing the difficulty of speaking in front of hundreds of people, “the thing I like is that you get to be terrified as well!”