Only up to your knees : Nick Cave, Ghosteen and Palestine

Something is amiss when such a deep-thinker as Nick Cave becomes inured to the inherent and violent racisms that non-white people of the world are born into.

Julian Sayarer
3 December 2019, 10.24am
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds perform at Victoria Park, London in June, 2018.
David Jensen/Empics Entertainment. PA.All rights reserved.

Throughout his Red Hand Files, in which Nick Cave writes back and forth in answer to questions from fans around the world, he has returned to the idea that the song, or any work of art, ceases to be the possession of the artist once it is released. Outside in the world, Cave reasons with typical thoughtfulness, that the song belongs no more to the musician, and becomes the property of the listener to do with and interpret as they please.

The declaration seemed to first coincide with Cave and his Bad Seeds choosing in 2017 to play two shows in Tel Aviv, Israel. The band will return there again next year. Already a controversial decision, Cave provoked the chagrin of Palestinians and Palestine activists, but also the quieter dismay of many fans, when his early, Birthday Party punk spirit rose-up in defiance of the criticism and proclaimed antagonistically that he would not be silenced, and nor should art ever be silenced.

[Cave] proclaimed antagonistically that he would not be silenced, and nor should art ever be silenced.

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Releasing his own letter in response to Brian Eno’s request that he reconsider playing Tel Aviv, Cave cautioned against “scaring-off artists” and insisted he was taking a “principled stand against those who wish to bully, shame and silence musicians”. The same letter referred to Israel as a “vibrant, functioning democracy” and reduced human rights abuses against Palestinians (and Israeli non-Jews and, increasingly, Arab Jews) to only footnotes in “disputed territories”. Cave omitted that the dispute remains centred around Israel’s insistence on keeping recognised Palestinian territory, and the Palestinians in it, under military rule.

Cave, many reasoned in response, failed to correctly place his opinion into the context of an Israeli policy and on the ground reality that ritually silences and suppresses Palestinians, Palestinian artists, Palestinian musicians. The call for the boycott, also supported inside Israel, is intended primarily as being with Palestinians and Israelis showing solidarity, rather than against anything but apartheid conditions. Feelings of consternation, perhaps of fans having been let down, are referenced as a theme early in the Red Hand Files, which Cave began in September 2018, and reaction to the Israel concerts clearly prompted soul-searching from both Cave and his fans. Cave has since returned frequently to ideas of propriety in song writing, in what songs mean to others and what they meant to him; a dichotomy that squares the mismatch between how such a chronicler of the soul could have seemingly so abandoned the vulnerable in reconciling himself with the Israeli government line of Benjamin Netanyahu. Cave’s resolution on who even owns a song anyway seems to have been the internal settlement that the man himself arrived at.

The call for the boycott, also supported inside Israel, is intended primarily as being with Palestinians and Israelis showing solidarity, rather than against anything but apartheid conditions.

And so to Ghosteen, released on November 8, the seventeenth Bad Seeds album and the first written, made and recorded entirely since the death of Arthur Cave, Nick’s fifteen year old son who fell in 2015 from a cliff near the Cave family home in Sussex. If it seems indiscreet to note the death, it is also impossible not to. Two albums and a film have been made, or retrospectively devoted – quite understandably – to the subject of the grief. Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, created a sometimes awkward but always large-hearted and generous portrait of bereavement that tried to offer something in how such extremes of death, life, love and loss could ever be soothed inside a human heart.

The themes all persist into Ghosteen, which has an album cover of horses and lambs in a Narnia-like setting. Lyrics describe horses with manes of fire, pulsing fireflies and a broad fantasy of creatures in which Cave – who became a vegetarian since the death – explores grief through a landscape of animals and fairytales. To describe in any great detail the specific songs of the album is hard; it is a wide but sparse canvas of sound crafted largely by Warren Ellis, Cave’s violinist, collaborator in chief, and arch soundsmith. Tracks shift in and out of one another, and a number of the songs are more akin to poems or spoken word set to spectral hoops of sound, operatic highs and haunted vocals. Cave describes Ghosteen – set across two records of vinyl – theatrically, as if in three acts: “The songs on the first album are the children, the songs on the second album are their parents, Ghosteen is a migrating spirit.”

Enforced by the spirit of Cave’s giving-up custody of his music and songs, people can and of course will make up their own minds about the album. Given the subject it is perhaps apt that the collection seems occasionally lost, directionless, and if the music falls at all short, there is – rare in Cave –  a certain indulgence of histrionics. If Cave’s music was often a navigation of great emotion or political thought with a light-hearted refusal to take himself too seriously, this is its opposite; a parading of great emotion that asks and possibly needs to be taken seriously in order to make its mark. Cave has wandered deeper into the sound design of Ellis, and the minimalism that first began in Dig Lazarus, Dig (2008) and Push The Sky Away (2013). Skeleton Tree (2016) and the death of Arthur added more weight to Cave’s pre-existing journey in this sonic wilderness, where songs like “I need you” and “Distant Sky” are a repeated, aching, quiet howl of grief, a heartrending curse at a world too cruel: “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied”.

For a few albums, it sounded like Cave needed this journey in sound to take a turn, to find a new lease of life, and although the Bad Seeds were always brilliant re-inventors, Ghosteen is not yet it. Cave’s song-writing genius, always his primary gift, falters. “We hide in our wounds” is a line from the final song, “Hollywood” probably offering some insight on Cave’s current state in life, before going to the next line, a basic road trip lyric of “And I’m nearly all the way to Malibu”. Perhaps it is the case that Cave’s genius, his creative aura, has now taken an epistolary turn towards his often magnificent letter writing, but where Cave once reeled-off great lyrical accomplishment, line after line and verse upon verse, one of the finest songwriters of the English language now struggles, line and a word at a time and supported (perhaps some metaphor for their wider friendship) by the sound of Ellis, and by an unspoken, shared understanding with his listener that Arthur’s loss is in each of Cave’s words, imbuing them with their meaning. Cave is clearly, deeply, spiritually tired, and the album closes-out “And I’m just waiting now for my time to come / and I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”

Cave is clearly, deeply, spiritually tired, and the album closes-out “And I’m just waiting now for my time to come / and I’m just waiting now for peace to come.”

Nick Cave at Victoria Park, London, June, 2018.
Nick Cave at Victoria Park, London, June, 2018.
NurPhoto/PA. All rights reserved.

All of which brings us, circuitously, back to the subject of Palestine. Cave will return again to Israel in a few months’ time, taking again to a stage in Tel Aviv and avoiding the West Bank as other artists – including Lana Del Rey – have suggested as a workable compromise when cancelling appearances in Israel. Cave is of course entitled to take his songs and his Bad Seeds to Israel, and doing so negates none of the genius in his music over the years, but it does dent the appeal to universalism in Cave’s music, and his recent pronouncements specifically around the subject of loss and grief. If Cave’s music is a borderless effort, it feels amiss to take it to so proudly to what is perhaps the ultimate land of borders.

The decision is perplexing, too, when placed alongside Cave’s new vocation as a shepherd to the human spirit. Cave noted that the loss of his son gave him “a deep feeling toward other people and an absolute understanding of their suffering”, but to claim such a high mantle, Cave must do better with all those who have suffered, more extensively and avoidably than he has, and might reasonably consider distancing himself from regimes that institutionalise such suffering. There is a danger in assuming a universality of knowing on the back of life experience so Western-rooted, especially if Cave is then willing to wield this subjective understanding to the disadvantage of non-white populations facing the might of western militarism.

In my own internal back-and-forth concerning Cave’s position on Palestine, often I found myself at the thought of Abdullah Ghaith. Ghaith was a sixteen year old Palestinian boy from Hebron, one year older than Arthur when he was fatally shot in the back on his way through Israel’s fence, trying to reach the Al Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers in May 2019. The boy’s father, Louai Ghaith, said of the killing,  “He was going to fulfil his religious duty, he was going to worship. They killed him... with a bullet to his heart, like a game, and 16 years I've been raising him.” Israeli media covered the killing alongside unrelated reports of a stabbing elsewhere on the same day, so obfuscating the circumstances of his death and posthumously tainting Ghaith’s memory.

The great strength of Cave’s work has always been its fearlessness. Cave explored morals without moralising, scoured existentialism in all its anxiety and unknowing while somehow never getting too introspective. A plumber of the soul, he has gone diving in the mud of the human condition to frequently come back up clutching gemstones.  For these very reasons, his stubbornness in playing to Israel seems to throw up a dividing line, and indeed quite a high one, between his unifying morality and the parameters of its application. The problem becomes all the more acute where his recent music is so rooted in his own personal experience and personal pain. The strength of that music is predominantly – if not exclusively – in affordances the listener is willing to make for the biography of suffering behind it, our willingness to try and walk a mile in Cave’s shoes. Middle-aged western men, many of them presumably fathers, have become stalwart to Cave’s canonisation.

The great strength of Cave’s work has always been its fearlessness.

It is an onerous feat to take this journey, not that Cave has explicitly asked anyone to do so, while not extending the same empathy to Palestinian parents who frequently see their children killed. When invited into such a reverie for loss, it is hard not to have your mind wander to the right of Palestinians to live free from injustices far greater than only the drug-laced misadventure and cruelty of fate to which Cave lost a son. The affordance of visionary status to Cave, chronicler of the soul, is troubling where that soul can be said to stop at the walls of Gaza and the West Bank. Our world has a ready willingness to rhapsodise the suffering and emotion of white people, celebrating their philosophical resilience while not acknowledging that most of world’s population – particularly Palestinians and others enduring military occupation – are asked to produce similar resilience as a basic part of daily life.

In 2004’s The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave wrote the line, possibly of his own past loss of religious faith, “You leapt into the abyss, but find it only goes up to your knees”. Where placed alongside the question of Palestine, there is an element of this sentiment to Ghosteen. There can be no disappointment with Cave personally, for the taking of heroes is always a risky pastime, but in the album comes a realisation that a career of music which sounded like it was charting the universe, has eventually proven unable to lift outside the moral universe of the suburb. Cave it feels, in his loss of a child, is documenting the limits of a moral universe, but it is a white universe – a sort of existential grief for the global propertied classes. In many ways he is perhaps only a victim of his own success and high standards; Cave always seemed like he was describing the human condition perfectly, and – in retrospect – he did it remarkably well given that his frame of reference is clearly so Western.

Against this, it is telling that Cave, while full of praise for the music of Brian Eno, gently ridicules the idea that going to Israel you end up with him and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, critically, on the other end of the phone. Cave, tongue in cheek, put Roger Waters along with nuclear explosions, jihadis, leftists and Vladimir Putin as the monsters that might haunt him from under his bed. In his solidarity with Israel, however, Cave has identified a version of freedom in which the freedom is to have stopped caring about the vulnerable, to have disencumbered one’s heart from the cliché trappings of twentieth century human rights concerns. Cave is on a mission to craft a sort of solace, a spiritual perfection of death-like peace for the living, but has turned painfully shy in the face of the actual and steeper hardships that prevent most of the world’s population ascending to such – to paraphrase Pink Floyd – comfortable numbness. In his worldview, the materially, politically comfortable Cave seems content to let the promise of transcendentalism do the heavy lifting for a better world, and though such transformations are possible in life, and are indeed crucial, it is a laziness that leaves to them alone while refusing to engage with unjust structures on the ground, or even endorsing such structures. As Waters brutally labelled the perspective, Cave showed “arrogant unconcern”.

Cave is on a mission to craft a sort of solace, a spiritual perfection of death-like peace for the living, but has turned painfully shy in the face of the actual...

In some respect, Cave is only walking the well-trodden path of the celebrated musician with a faulty political compass. A recent Red Hand File posited our turbulent times as a surplus of existential conflict in which white supremacists and anti-fascists are two sides of the same coin, equally complicit and mutually needing of one another. To Cave, Antifa and the hard-right are engaged in a “weirdly erotic, violent and mutually self-sustaining marriage, propped up entirely by the blind, inflexible convictions of each other’s belief systems. It is good for nothing, except inflaming their own self-righteousness.”

Whatever the finer points of his argument, the asymmetric polarisation between the two groups, or their radically conflicting goals, it is amiss that such a deep-thinker as Cave has come up so inured to the inherent and violent racisms that non-white people of the world are born into. Cave misses the basic point that when a group has privilege equality comes to feel like a loss – with this same distinction at the core of understanding or not understanding the Israeli position on Palestine.

If his political views leave these stones unturned it is one thing, but where his music has come to rest on the stones of empathy being turned for him, the asymmetry rears-up and is found, waiting among hoops of sound that once sounded so full, but now ring slightly hollow.

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