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Kaya OakesMay 19, 2022
Nick Cave performs at the Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark, in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)Nick Cave performs at the Roskilde Festival in Roskilde, Denmark, in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

The preacher wears black and sits at a grand piano. Nick Cave is lithe and elegant in motion, reaching skyward often in performance, as if trying to grasp air. But Cave, whose music has long followed in the tradition of God-haunted songwriters like Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, has recently turned from a performer who resembles a preacher into something else. For hundreds of thousands who follow his music and his newsletter, The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave has become their pastor.

Over the course of his 40-year career, Cave went to hell via heroin addiction, sobered up and got married, only to be sent back to hell again in 2015 when his teenage son, Arthur, half of a set of twins, fell off a cliff to his death. Soon after, Cave told a journalist that grief had transformed him and the world he lived in. “I have turned a corner,” he said, “and wandered onto a landscape that is open and vast.”

For hundreds of thousands who follow his music and his newsletter, The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave has become a pastor of sorts.

Cave’s lyrics have long used imagery from the Bible. He has returned again and again to the story of Jesus as a central source. But Cave has also long insisted he is not a practicing Christian. Born in 1957 and raised in the Anglican Church in Australia, Cave grew up singing in the church choir in his boyhood home of Wangaratta, an isolated rural town. He later described the Anglican church of his youth as “the decaf of worship.” Teenage rebellion and the death of his father when Cave was 19 led him to put a greater distance between himself and the Anglican religion of his childhood, whose God he once described as “remote, alien, and uncertain.”

Art school, a move to London and a stint in an artsy punk band called The Birthday Party carried Cave into the mid 1980s, when he co-founded The Bad Seeds, the band he still plays with today. Particularly crucial to his music is his 30-year songwriting and film scoring partnership with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, a dynamic presence onstage but by all accounts a grounding and stable one in the studio.

Before he found security with his wife of more than 20 years, Susie, Cave’s addiction made him so angry and paranoid he once attacked a journalist sent to interview him. A curdled romance with the songwriter PJ Harvey exacerbated his addiction, which he eventually kicked through Narcotics Anonymous. He had a reputation as a terror, and this was one of the reasons his fans loved him. In a brief scene from Wim Wenders’s 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire,” Cave plays a tormented rock star, a piece of typecasting done to the extreme.

Nick Cave’s music has long followed in the tradition of God-haunted songwriters like Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

But the worse the addiction got, the better the songs got, too. Cave was long called a goth, not just because of his black wardrobe and slicked-back crown of black hair, or because his music was thematically creepy, violent and bleak. But like the original goths of Romantic literature, the Shelleys, Lord Byron and Keats, Cave was creating compelling art. Cave’s father taught English, and he was raised in a home that valued literature. Yet even in the era when he wrote an entire album called “Murder Ballads,” the book Cave was most drawn to for inspiration, over and over, was the Bible.

A surprised journalist sent to interview Cave described his copy of the Bible as covered in detailed marginal notes and scrawled with questions. Cave’s knowledge of the Bible is so deep he was asked to write the introduction for an edition of the Gospel of Mark in 1988. It’s still available online, and is a remarkable document. Cave begins by explaining that his early infatuation with the vengeful God of the Hebrew Bible gave way to an attraction to the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel because he had matured and was ready for something different. But Cave’s Jesus was no less tame than Cave himself.

“Mark’s Gospel,” Cave writes, “is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence.” Mark’s telling of Christ’s story appealed to Cave because of its visceral nature. That Gospel also revealed for Cave the hypocrisy of those in his own upbringing who depicted Jesus as a kind of milquetoast cipher, stripping him of his rage and humanity. “Christ, it seemed to me,” Cave writes, “was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.”

Mark’s Gospel restored Jesus to Cave, but it did not make him a believer in the traditional sense.

Mark’s Gospel restored Jesus to Nick Cave, but it did not make him a believer in the traditional sense: a person who attends church, follows a creed, tithes and looks to the church for community. In 2010 he told the musician Jarvis Cocker that he believes in God “in spite of religion, not because of it.” None of the tragedies Cave experienced returned him to religion: not his father’s death, not his addiction, not even the death of his son Arthur.

In the 2016 documentary “One More Time With Feeling,” Cave sleepwalks through the composition and recording of his first album after Arthur’s death,“The Skeleton Tree.” Christian statuary and art is scattered around his house, but there is little talk of religion in the mumbling and confused dialogue. Religion would come a few years later, when the world knocked again and Cave was finally ready to answer.

Begun in 2018, The Red Hand Files was Cave’s attempt to wrestle publicly with some of the questions about grief and creativity fans had privately been writing to him about since Arthur’s death. Particularly, Cave and his wife had received letter after letter from bereaved parents who had also lost a child, and Cave wanted to give something in return.

The Red Hand Files was Cave’s attempt to wrestle publicly with some of the questions about grief and creativity.

In the very first edition, in response to a question about how his writing had changed since Arthur’s death, Cave wrote that returning to performing, he felt “very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.” When a fan wrote a few months later about losing several of her own family members and asked if Cave felt Arthur was still present to him, Cave replied that Arthur often appeared in Susie’s dreams and in his own imagination, which helped him to feel “our stunned imaginations awakening after the calamity,” and that understanding their son’s presence was still with them enabled them to feel “ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which they were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.” Sometimes The Red Hand Files is profound, at other times it showcases Cave’s wicked sense of humor, but it is always very human.

One of the last times I went to hear live music before Covid-19 shut down the world was late in 2019, when Cave did a Red Hand Files tour that swung through San Francisco. Davies Symphony Hall, a cavernous spiral of light, was sold out, but the crowds of Cave fans were not the usual vanishing class of old San Francisco money that haunts the symphony, the ghosts of capitalism past. Instead, people like me who had grown up with Cave, no longer young punks or goths but still clinging to cool in our thick-rimmed eyeglasses and customary suits of solemn black, wove our way into the symphony hall.

For nearly three hours, Cave sat alone, playing the piano and singing, and in between songs, he answered questions from the audience—everything from questions about life and art and belief to whether or not he was a vegetarian (he’s not). One young woman asked about his Christian faith, and Cave replied that while he is dependent on Christ as an idea and as inspiration, he is emphatically not a Christian, primarily because the institutions of Christianity have historically been so wasteful and so corrupt.

Like a good pastor, Cave’s purpose as an artist and in his newsletter is to accompany people, to listen to their longings and grief.

I left buoyed by the knowledge that we can, in fact, grow up along with artists we admire as long as they manage to stay alive, but also thinking there was something all of this reminded me of, from the letters to the way Cave interacted with his fans onstage, a cross between the old-timey preacher he resembled in his perfectly tailored black suit and the erudite, thoughtful person he reveals himself to be when he is speaking. So I sent some of the newsletters to a Jesuit friend with a question: “Is this a new kind of spiritual direction?”

Spiritual direction, in which the director listens to the longings and doubts and sufferings and joys of the seeker and attempts to help them find a way to direct those thoughts and feelings toward their relationship with God, is something Nick Cave himself might not have experienced in his Anglican childhood, but it did feel like something he was cultivating, even in a secular setting. The show, even in an upper-crust concert hall, felt like entering into an act of communion.

My Jesuit friend confirmed this interpretation, and to this day, we often swap Red Hand Files newsletters, inspiration for preaching and teaching and writing and a way to keep us in communion with one another. But I have also shared Cave’s words with my nonreligious musician spouse, with friends who would never darken a church door, with people who find institutional religion just as hypocritical and problematic as it can often be. And each of them has found some value in his advice, jokes or reflections on creativity.

It is because Cave does not push doctrine or even always sound sure about the truth of the answers he is giving. Like a good pastor, his purpose as an artist and in his newsletter is to accompany people, to listen to their longings and griefs and to do his best to respond. The thirst for that, in our world today, is deep.

Our secular age still needs preachers, but even more, it needs pastors. A choirboy from Wangaratta who stuck needles in his arms in the search for God and finally found himself alive in the wake of unimaginable loss, still able to say his life “is dominated by the notion of God, whether it is in His presence or His absence,” may be the only kind of preacher who can cut through the noise of our burning and crumbling world.

Rock stars do not always age gracefully. Maybe God’s grace, in whatever form it takes, can allow them to minister to us if they do survive. For Cave, as for so many of us, “God is a work in progress,” and as we emerge stumbling and wounded from the pandemic and all that it has done to us, we might even be lucky, along with Cave, to meet a God who allows us to grow old together.

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