Why you should care
Because there’s an art to saying the wrong thing at the exact right time.
The sky blue 1965 Ford Econoline Supervan cruised into the inky murk of a 1983 Montana night as we, the band I was in, made our way across America. The mission? To play hardcore for huddled masses, specifically, the few hundred people nationwide tuned into the loud, fast mechanics of music that sounded just as pissed off as we were.
The music we played and the music we listened to often exploded from a 1-2-3-4 drum-stick click into two-to-three minute paeans to all kinds of Reagan-era anomie. We wore boots, were tattooed, would fight at the drop of a hat (win or lose) and in general earned the sobriquet: punks. In short, no one could tell us shit. About music and just about anything else.
Until: “Hands UP! Who wants to die?!?!”
It came from the speakers we had mounted on the floor and it sounded like it came from hell, the screamed imprecation, followed by a twisted military drum beat and the rest of the “song.”
“Who the hell is this?”
Who the hell it was, was The Birthday Party, via a cassette our drummer’s sister had sent him from Germany. The record, Mutiny/The Bad Seed, was a compilation and it was one of their last ones. The Australian band formed in 1976 as The Boys Next Door had become The Birthday Party and by 1983 they were dead. Their lead singer, Nick Cave, moved on to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and a career that now has branched out into movies, books and even more music.
But there was something else not spoken and something only shared between singers/frontmen … I’m going to kill you out there.
You see, Cave was one of Kerouac’s fabulous roman candles and his incandescence, while not always on, was way more on than off, and when my musical tastes moved beyond hardcore he was there. So much so that our next band, Oxbow, named our fourth record, An Evil Heat, from the same song, “Sonny’s Burning,” that asked us the ever-trenchant query, “Who wants to die?!?!”
With half a dozen friends in common, Cave and I had never met until an email. The sender? Barry Adamson, sometime bass player for The Bad Seeds, former bass player for Magazine and David Lynch soundtrack god. The message? A feeler to see if I’d be interested in playing with him and Cave at the 2007 London Jazz Festival at the Royal Albert Hall. All expenses paid. Plus a fee.
In a burst of near-cartoon dust I answered “yes” by showing up almost before the ink dried on the contract. The show would feature almost a full orchestra, tons of great players and two other singers other than me and Cave. His song? “Next,” a Scott Walker cover of a Jacques Brel tune. My song? “Romeo Is Bleeding,” a Tom Waits killer.
It was the mad genius of Adamson, himself a lodestar of heavy who’s had my ear for decades, that envisioned this playing out like an old-style revue. While he task mastered the band into shape, I loitered at the hotel in full reflection of how strange it all was. And then the call and off to the Hall.
This was the first time I met Adamson, even if I had been seeing him on stage for years, and in the green room, we chatted easily. Cave would be here soon, he said, but first I’d do a run-through of my song. He headed off to the stage, and as I stood by the buffet table Cave came in. Shorter than I had imagined after years of seeing him on the stage while I stood on the floor, we shook hands and I babbled about how excited I was. Cave was friendly enough in sort of a diplomatic way, despite me doing my Dennis Hopper to his Dean Stockwell (A Blue Velvet reference, thank you).
He went and picked his way through the tune, a high piece of drama concerning being forced into an Army whorehouse. I watched from the wings and felt it in my chest. I felt his rendition of the song and something else: a desire to show him … well, something. So when Adamson called me up, I was primed. Rather than imitate Waits’ jazzbo stylings, I decided to make the song — a tribute to a cholo, chopped and channeled by a kind of toxic masculinity — a serious cry for divine intervention.
And I did it like I was going to die if I didn’t do it.
Getting back to the wings afterward I could see that Cave stuck around, watching. He nodded and shook my hand again and told me what I knew, “very nice.” But there was something else not spoken and something only shared between singers/frontmen, even if only in my mind: I’m going to kill you out there. It was a friendly competition, but we’d never have been here without it. In other words, we live for shit like this.
That night, sold out and filled to the rafters, Cave came out and just DESTROYED the world with his version. People were standing and screaming. I was standing and screaming. A bit later I followed and did my best to both call and raise. No idea if I succeeded, but I was happy enough to have pulled it off.
Back in the green room again, standing around feeling somewhat accomplished, we started to talk. I told him his take was phenomenal but then an idea shoulders its way to my mouth: “Wouldn’t it have been cool to actually do it in the original French? Fuck. That would have been cool too!”
Cave silently eyed me, followed by a sharp nasal exhalation, and an almost imperceptible shake of the head. I could see I’d offended him somehow, but before I could fix it, he spun on his heels and was gone, to never be seen again by me from anything other than a seat, or floor space, in the audience.
Which is really too bad. We made beautiful music together.