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The scene: a Detroit club called Traxx, 1982. Australian rock deconstructionists the Birthday Party—Nick Cave, the late Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, Phill Calvert, and the late Tracy Pew—stride through the crowd rather than commandeering the stage in the usual manner. With most bands, this would be a "we're just regular guys" move. With the Birthday Party, it is intimidating.
These blokes hail from Down Under, but they appear to belong to an alien subterranean race. Cave is tall and cadaverous, his hair a wild nest of black spikes. As he walks by, I resist the urge to pat him on the back, out of fear that I may get electrocuted. The Birthday Party proceed to lay waste to the crowd with a grip of cuts from their Prayers on Fire and Junkyard LPs. It's an artful noise-rock bloodbath. A year later, the Party ended. Such violent volatility and nasty nihilism could not last.
It's peculiar that one of the music world's biggest hams—that would be Nick Cave—began his solo career with a cover of a song by one of its least hammy characters. But Cave did indeed kick off his 1984 debut with the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, with a seething rendition of Leonard Cohen's übersomber "Avalanche," which he blew up to apocalyptic dimensions. It was an auspicious, Sturm und Drang–y start to a band that went on to provide its leader with a fertile foundation from which to flex his literary and carnal muscles.
But to get a surer grasp on Cave's expansive canon, let's return to the Birthday Party (formerly the Boys Next Door, till they moved from Melbourne to London in 1980). If ever a band were fit to cover the Stooges' sonic hate fuck "Loose," which the Birthday Party did on the Drunk on the Pope's Blood EP, it was Cave's posse of Aussie badasses. Like the Pop Group's, the Birthday Party's name served as a Trojan horse, hiding damaging sounds behind an innocuous handle. They were a musical Tasmanian devil, sowing chaos and scorching brain cells and ear hairs with impunity.
Cave could not possibly hope to sustain such creative savagery. The human voice cannot maintain that level of hysteria forever. So over 14 albums with the Bad Seeds, Cave settled into something resembling normality as a vocalist. He channeled—in his outlandish Oz manner—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop, and several sightless bluesmen. (Cave definitely possesses the common Aussie tendency to romanticize American music with an outlaw aura.) Libidinous machinations frequently clashed with biblical strictures in Cave's compositions, creating severe tension between the sacred and the profane. With Cave, love and desire always carry a trembling sense of instability, a sensation that can often explode into emotional and physical violence. But after 15 years of Bad Seediness, perhaps Cave had gotten into a rut.
Cave's newest project, Grinderman, finds him regaining his zest for full-frontal rock assaults, albeit in a more refined context than he executed with the Birthday Party. It may be overly glib to say that Grinderman serve as the id to the Bad Seeds' superego, but there's a degree of truth to that observation. The accusation that Grinderman are making middle-age-crisis rock is harder to validate.
On 2007's Grinderman and 2010's Grinderman 2, Cave sounds liberated, like he's having way too much fun for a salty dog who's been in the game for 35 years. Despite Grinderman's "No Pussy Blues," a blasting rocker about blue balls (a literal sad-sack story), it's hard to imagine Saint Nick going without action for very long, even now. Dude's a bit pudgier than he was in the '80s, but he still looks dangerously sexy and seductively sleazy.
Grinderman—which includes Warren Ellis (violin, flute, Mandocaster, etc.), bassist Martyn Casey, and drummer Jim Sclavunos (who has performed with Sonic Youth and various Lydia Lunch outfits)—combine ballistic bluster with a kind of simmering machismo. A vicious review by the Wire's Nina Power charged Grinderman with lyrical misogyny, unseemliness, and musical banality, but if you recall the Birthday Party's loin-inflamer "Zoo-Music Girl" (an ultimate expression of primal subservience to lust in which Cave pleads, "Oh! God! Please let me die beneath her fists!"), you know that Cave's never been about subtlety.
Sure, it may be somewhat creepy to hear a 53-year-old man using sexual metaphors about food and kitchen implements ("Kitchenette") and accusing a woman of being evil, even as he elevates her to a pedestal (the tumultuous, pile-driving "Evil"), but Cave's always dealt in extremes. It's hard to imagine him muting the melodrama now. And with music as combustibly exciting as the careening, Comets On Fire–esque "Honey Bee (Let's Fly to Mars)," the Stooges stealthy "Depth Charge Ethel," and the languorously psychedelic finale "Bellringer Blues," one can excuse such so-called boorishness. When you hear Cave bequeathing to his beloved "the spinal cord of JFK wrapped in Marilyn Monroe's negligee" in the bubblegum throwback "Palaces of Montezuma," it's hard to stay too mad at him. Give thanks that the "Zoo-Music Girl" didn't pummel him to death.